Defense of the Ancients: Seven Years and Counting

28 Apr 2010

"What is Defense of the Ancients, or in short, DotA?," you might ask. In case you did ask, I will take you on a little trip down memory lane. In 2003, a bright mapmaker by the alias "Eul" used the development tools Blizzard Entertainment included with Warcraft III to create a simple map that would go on to become one of the most played, discussed, and loved free game mods in the world.

"Whoa! Warcraft III? Isn't that an RTS?" Yes it is. But DotA brought a fistful of role-playing elements into this already great RTS world, and while that was something that had been attempted many times already, it had never reached such an extraordinary level of success.

As you might expect from an RTS-based mod, Defense of the Ancients pits two teams (made up of a maximum of 5 players each) against one another, each having to defend their base while trying to destroy the opponent's base. But then comes the part that made DotA the great success that millions of gamers play every day - instead of having to build and control armies and bases, the gameplay is focused on just one unit: your hero.

In the early days, the map had only a couple dozen heroes from which you could pick. Today, you can choose from almost a hundred powerful heroes, each with four unique abilities, a selection of skins, and funny snippy comments if you annoy them by over-clicking them. The gameplay is action-packed from the moment the horn sounds the start of a match. Players take their respective heroes to one of the three lanes connecting the two bases, and start by killing "creeps" - groups of NPCs spawned every minute by each base that automatically go forth to attack the enemy base. Aside from killing enemy heroes, killing creeps is each player's main source of gold and experience. With every level of experience you gain, up to a maximum of 25, you get one point that you can spend to upgrade one of your hero's skills, making it a bigger, meaner killing machine, or a more efficient healer, as the case might be. Gold is necessary to purchase items. The more gold you have, the more you can invest in recipes that transform your hero's basic items into powerful relics that augment his or her statistics considerably.

However, DotA is not just fun and games, leveling up, buying items and killing everything in your path. The more strategic opponents you come across will do everything to stop you from leveling up and making gold by "denying" your creeps (getting the last hit on their own creeps, so you cannot get the gold), by "ganging" you (two or more players attack you by surprise and kill you), or by "pushing" (entire team gathering on one lane to destroy your defense towers). It is this that gives DotA its shine: a level of strategy, teamwork, and competition that often surpasses many other games of the same ilk.

Defense of the Ancients started its rise to glory after its reins were handed to another modder going by the alias of "IceFrog". Among his contributions was the addition of most of the current content such as map layout, heroes, and skills. IceFrog's best work, however, resides in the near-perfect balance of the game. Even though each hero is unique, with its own strengths and weaknesses, the game really does not have a "best hero" or "best team". Victories are instead earned by the skill in which players control their heroes on the battlefield efficiently and their level of teamwork.

With DotA's rising popularity and its inclusion in many prestigious gaming championships (such as the World Cyber Games and the Electronic Sports World Cup), game developing companies took notice and started to create DotA-inspired games. The first big budget DotA clone was Gas Powered Games' Demigod. When Demigod was first announced, long-time players were psyched that the game would finally get its own platform. However, Demigod failed to provide exactly the things that made DotA a great game. Although fun and engaging at first, providing a much more powerful graphics engine (compared to a game developed 6 years before) and a more dynamic approach to gameplay, it quickly becomes a bore, lacking diversity (only eight heroes were available at launch, with two more added recently) and the more dynamic gameplay often becomes chaotic.

Even though it is DotA-inspired, Demigod has some very different features. First of all, it offers the possibility of playing single-player games and tournaments, which is a pretty good training tool for new players. It also has an achievement system, letting you keep count of your total kills, assists, deaths, etc., and giving you rewards from which you can choose to improve your hero in a specific match.

Demigod has a slightly different map layout. Instead of using the classic 3-lane map, connected by a center path and a maze-like forest, it uses a much simpler map, with lots of open ground to fight your epic battles on. One of its better features is checkpoint capturing, a feature that allows the player to capture certain strategic points of interest on the map, such as creep-spawning structures and shops with advanced items, giving his or her team a distinct advantage in the match.
After Demigod's launch, two more independent studios started developing their own Defense of the Ancients clones: Riot Games, with the help of former DotA designer Steve "Guinsoo" Feak launched League of Legends, and S2 Games developed Heroes of Newerth.

Both games have shown significant potential. League of Legends takes the RPG elements to the next level by adding a leveling system outside of the game itself. Basically, the more you play (and win), you'll earn points to buy new heroes to summon on the battlefield, skills to help you within a match, and runes that enhance your heroes. Playable heroes in League of Legends are changed every week, giving you 10 new heroes to experiment with, from a total of 48. As your summoner (essentially the stat-tracking system of the game) gains more experience from winning games, you get "influence points" that you can use to buy the heroes that you like, so that they are always available to you. Another way you can acquire your favorite heroes is by purchasing "Riot Points" via a microtransaction.

LoL gives the player a single merchant building, with well organized items, making for a much more user-friendly experience. The number of items and item recipes is a lot larger that DotA, though, so you have many ways to experiment with your hero's progression.

The map in LoL brings some new mechanics to the table, such as tall brush that allows you to hide your hero from enemies and a bunch of neutral creeps in the forest that drop temporary enhancing runes when killed. But it also lacks some great features that the original map has, such as a dynamic terrain, with trees blocking your vision and pathing as well as map elevation (dis)advantages.

Unfortunately, the game is not balanced in its current state. There are heroes that can kill you with one spell, and others that, frankly, are pretty much useless. The parts that give DotA its highly competitive spirit are also sadly lacking, such as the ability to "deny" players and the lack of gold loss when you die. As far as art style goes, the graphics in League of Legends are a bit cartoonish for my taste, though fun to look at and practical in that they don't create the chaos that the more pronounced and exaggerated graphics in Demigod and Heroes of Newerth can sometimes inspire.

Moving on, you may or may not already know that Heroes of Newerth has just gone into open beta. I had the opportunity to get into the closed beta a few months ago, and from what I've seen, the game still has some way to go before becoming "all it can be". However, my first impression is that from the three DotA clones, this is the one that promises the most.

To start with the good, HoN gives the player from the start the same great perks that DotA offers: a wide variety of heroes (many of which are original DotA heroes, if slightly modified), a similar layout of the land, and nearly identical gameplay features. Plus, it offers a more user-friendly interface and more than sufficient graphics.

The most important new features that HoN brings to the table are tracking of individual statistics, in-game VOIP, and GUI-streamlined hero selection. The game also uses a client-server model, resolving many connectivity issues that DotA has (since the Warcraft III engine uses peer-to-peer).

The gameplay, as I said before, is pretty much the same as DotA. Heroes are more or less the same (although for the moment less in number) and the redesigned map uses the same basic three-lane layout. What is a bit different is the neutral creeps in the forest connecting the lanes. In DotA, the forest creeps give an advantage to heroes that are better early on in the game at killing creeps, but in HoN they are a lot harder to kill thus presenting only slight bonuses later in the game when you are able to kill them efficiently.

Where, in my opinion, HoN fails is in the same category that also makes it a bit better than DotA - graphics. Don't get me wrong, the graphics are nice, but the effects make the game, as I mentioned earlier, chaotic. I am a five year "veteran" of DotA and I still managed to get a bit lost and dizzy during big fights. There are just so many colors, waves, and explosions all around that it takes much of the focus off the actual combat itself. With time and experience a dedicated player could get used to it, but sometimes slower, more basic effects are better for a game that actually wants to get to competition level, like DotA has.

In conclusion, let me just say that Demigod, League of Legends, and Heroes of Newerth all make for fun experiences, but if you are a gamer looking for a challenging game that involves teamplay, strategy, and reflexes, DotA is still the best way to go. There have been some recent rumors that DotA's "IceFrog" has signed a deal with Valve Software, and will be leading a team "to help do more for the DotA world", but at the moment there hasn't been any sort of official confirmation. Here's to hoping!