I’ve tried to make sense of Dota 2 before, honest. I’ve worked through the tutorials, spent half an hour browsing the different heroes, and played a handful of games against real people. After putting in an actual effort to figure out its appeal, though, I still find Valve’s take on Massively Online Battles Arenas (MOBAs) almost completely impenetrable. Some people feel the same way I do, but there are many others who click with Dota 2 (and other titles from its genre) to such an extent that they’re willing to invest untold amounts of time and mental energy into the game. MOBAs are a legitimate, honest to goodness Big Deal in videogames and, because of this, are pretty hard to dismiss out of hand for those of us interested in the medium.
I couldn’t let 2014 — henceforth referred to as Year of the Dota — kick off without talking to someone who gets this game. I’ve played Dota 2 with Forbes’/Pixels or Death‘s Ethan Gach when both of us were pretty new to it. Since then I’ve seen it embrace him in the spiderwebs of its meticulous design, changing him from average person to the kind of guy who can use the word “gank” without attaching a sarcastic “LOL” to its end. He seemed like the best person to talk to about the Dota 2 phenomenon.
Here’s our discussion:
Reid McCarter: What kept you coming back to the game after the first time you played it?
Ethan Gach: Well, I actually had tried the beta way back when after it first went live. I played a handful of games, didn’t understand what I was doing, and never really gave it a second thought. Then Adam [Harshberger, co-founder of Pixels or Death] put together the group session+. I think the game first got its claws in me for real when I started to see the possibility for teamwork and personality in a given match.
Obviously, you know in your head that Dota is a team-oriented strategy game, but until you start to see those moments unfold in the game itself — coordinating a successful gank with other people, creating stories in your head around the other players based on their style and hero, despite the fact that they’re faceless strangers — it creates a drama that I’ve come to find more gripping than most of the manufactured stuff in story-based games and popular movies.
Reid: The one thing that stops me from coming back to Dota, though, is that the same kind of appeal you mention — teamwork and pulling off strategies successfully — seems so rare. The game is like being thrown into a lion pit, and if you’re not good enough you get chewed up and spat out. Playing with people you know is actually a whole lot of fun because that pressure is alleviated, but that’s not always a possibility. How did you get past the first hurdles of actually learning the game in that kind of environment?
Ethan: A combination of studying, friendly advice and personal trial and error. DOTAFire is basically the Wikipedia for the game. It provides lots of test builds for heroes (what order to level up abilities and buy items) and sometimes you’ll run into someone in a match who is friendly and willing to coach you instead of just rip into you for being “Noob!”
Mostly though it was just lots and lots of practice. You play a match, things don’t go well, either personally or for the whole team, and there are usually enough small things — early feeding, bad items — that little by little you can Monday morning quarterback yourself to improvement. Most important though, and I probably would have stopped playing so much if this hadn’t been the case, but I convinced two of my close friends to start playing. Playing off each other, knowing there’s someone watching your back, and trading tips and game feedback on a casual basis after matches helps the whole thing feel less stressful and more fun.
Reid: That makes sense. Do you think that part of the reason that people get so sucked into the game is because of that kind of learning process? Because the incremental improvements you see in yourself each game provide an incentive to return to it again and again?
Ethan: Yes, very much so. It also helps if you have a competitive streak. There are some matches where things just go so terribly, that unless you have a desire deep down to prove yourself, you’re much more likely to flip the game off and go play something less stressful. Beyond that though, the game is superbly balanced (or maliciously manipulative, depending on your point of view) when it comes to dolling out rewards.
The jingle of last hit monies, the momentum build of taking a tower or killing an opposing player, and the steady gain of levels and items make you feel like you’re progressing even when you’re getting your ass kicked. If you just get one or two more levels, a bit more money, and complete that item recipe you’ve been building toward, you might be able to turn things around and help your team win the match. Even when things look dark, the game is very good at making you feel like you can dig in and maybe pull out a win — or at least some successful pushes that show the other players you aren’t completely useless.
Reid: That’s kind of interesting because, having only played a handful of matches, I thought of Dota as being more in line with purely skill based games like, say, Starcraft or even an old-school twitch shooter like Quake. But if it also has in-game rewards like a Call of Duty multiplayer mode then it’s a weird kind of blend of classic and modern competitive game design.
Ethan: Interesting. I actually feel like one of the things that’s really drawn me in about Dota, unlike Call of Duty for instance, is that I don’t feel like my reflexes matter as much as being able to see the field, read moment to moment plays, and position myself and my hero’s development accordingly. But, I agree that it really tries to meld the sensibility of a team deathmatch with the strategy of character development you see in RPGs — Call of Duty meets Diablo III.
Reid: When you see professional Starcraft players they’re still clicking around like crazy, but maybe Dota has gained so much traction because it knocks a lot of that reflexive play out of the game.
Ethan: There’s a bit of quickdraw to it at times, if you need to get an ultimate attack of quickly, or when you’re trying to get last hits and denies. But lacking those reflexes won’t make you a poor player by itself.
Reid: The one thing I think is interesting, too, is the game’s sound and visual design. Valve has made it immensely satisfying to perform basic actions. Getting a last hit and hearing the clink of the coins being added to your purse, the ridiculous Unreal Tournament style announcer calling out the kills — it’s all so carefully set up to make for a very intense kind of reward loop. I’ve thought about this with Diablo before. I wonder how much of playing the game becomes a way to trigger pleasure centres in your brain over and over again. Or if that sort of thing becomes overridden by the larger risk-reward going on with the overarching strategy of a given match.
Ethan: I think it helps cancel out the negative troughs, while the underlying core gameplay systems can then lead to momentary highs while keeping the potential for extreme displeasure to a minimum. And yet they didn’t do much to keep you playing, Reid, so clearly they’re something short of the sirens singing sailors toward shipwreck.
Reid: I wonder if it’s because I’m just not competitive enough. When I play board games with friends I usually get bored partway through because I just don’t care enough about winning. I’m an evolutionary nightmare. Do you watch or play a lot of sports?
Ethan: I don’t watch many sports, though I play soccer and will watch the World Cup and Champion’s League. But I have a lot of friends who do, and when it comes to high profile games, mostly playoffs or finals, I can get invested in just about any game as soon as I can find a team to root for.
Reid: See, I’m the same way with watching sports. I like watching high-stakes games, but I still have never been able to get invested enough to be really, truly upset or happy about a team winning or losing.
Ethan: Playing soccer in high school, the drama of it was actually one of the things I enjoyed. You can despise the other team, yell at the ref for being blind and giving you bad calls, and feel like everything important is riding on the final score and how hard you fought for it. Even though everyone is actually a good person, including the ref and other players, and the game doesn’t matter at all. There’s immense tension and (mostly) non-violent conflict born out of completely arbitrary circumstances and a set of rules meant to create interesting possibilities by creatively limiting them.
Reid: And that’s obviously what Dota is all about. Or maybe I should say it’s also what games in general are about, too. Sets of rules that are creatively limited by the designer during the course of play. Do you get really invested in game narrative? Or are you pulled into something more because of its mechanics? Basically, I’ll find enjoyment in a game with weak mechanics and a strong story. If it’s the other way around I have a hard time staying invested.
Ethan: I’m usually pulled in by a mood or overarching aesthetic, and then end up staying for whatever the core gameplay loops are. Final Fantasy Tactics is a good example. The first Mass Effect as well. Dota is actually odd, in my case at least, for being a game that gripped me despite a pretty forgettable presentation and the complete lack of any authored story. There’s flavor text and lore I suppose, but honestly, despite sinking in over 150 hours into the game, and reading up on a lot of it, including even watching tournament clips on YouTube, I’ve yet to actually read about what the narrative circumstances surrounding Dota are. If you asked me why we’re defending Ancients in each match, or even what an Ancient is, I’d have no idea what to tell you.
Reid: So, if I asked you to sum up the appeal of the game in just a handful of sentences, how would you pitch it?
Ethan: Dota 2 is an isometric rogue-like where the narrative, drama, and emotional resonance are generated by the players and how they compete and cooperate with one another rather than scripted events, cinematics, or dialogue. Any given match is only as “good,” “fun,” or “engaging” as the people you’re playing with, and as a result it has the advantage of being rife with felicitous moments of chance, error, and sublime ingenuity that only a cast of actual live humans can produce.
+ A bunch of videogame writers from Pixels or Death, including Ethan and I, tried to play Dota 2 once a week for a while. We haven’t managed to make the e-sports big time yet, but keep an eye out.
When he’s not trying to take the next tower, Ethan Gach writes about tech and pop culture at Forbes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @ethangach.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist, and C&G Magazine. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.