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Dota 2 and you: Confronting the most daunting title in PC gaming

16 May 2013  by   Peter Parrish

Dota 2 is a scary, scary game. For new players, it has a reputation for being unapproachable and unkind. For games writers it presents a massive challenge. Even after playing for scores of dedicated hours, you’ll be far less knowledgeable than a sizeable chunk of the player-base.

But as I write this intro bit, at 11am on the west coast of the US, there are almost 300,000 people playing Dota 2. It blows everything else – Football Manager (50,000,) Team Fortress 2 (45,000,) – out of the water so hard that the water actually evaporates. You can only deny that kind of mega-popularity for so long.

This isn’t an article about how to play Dota 2, or even how to learn Dota 2. Those have been done before, and far better, elsewhere. Clearly it’s not a piece about Dota 2 tactics, as here at IncGamers we don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge to write such a thing.

Instead, it’s a look at the game from the perspective of two fresh, new players. How does it feel to get into such a daunting title? Why is it so problematic for the standard gaming press to write about? What have our experiences been like so far?

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Valve riding its money ogre to the top of Steam’s charts, yesterday.

Peter: Tim, it’s your fault that I’ve even touched Dota 2 to begin with so your penance is contributing to this article. Accept this challenge, or Roshan will eat you (see, it’s only been a few days and I’m already making lame Dota 2 references.)

I guess we’ll start with this: I’ve got five hours of Dota 2 experience logged on Steam. That is (figuratively) nothing. I’ve only played against bots so far, but already I know so much more than I did before. Prior to picking it up last week I knew it was a sequel to a Warcraft 3 spin-off mod, I knew it was absurdly popular, and, most of all, I knew it had its own impenetrable jargon.

Lanes! Jungling! Doing Rosh! Seeing all this stuff made me think it was less a game and more like an entry level position at a trendy start-up business. “Hey Charles? Yah, we need to blue-sky some carry builds.” What? What does that mean? This doesn’t sound fun at all.

It’s all second nature to the community of course, but I think the linguistic barrier is a pretty major one. There’s a mystique to it, like an ancient coven of cultists sharing secret coded messages. But once you can attribute an actual in-game function to each weird term, they seem a lot less intimidating.

After our first session I read one of those ‘Idiot’s Guide’ type articles, applied it back to the pair of bot matches we’d just played and went “Oohh” in recognition several times. That was the first hurdle cleared.

Anyway, Tim, when and why did you start playing this behemoth of a game? And why have you been forcing me to play it?

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Depressingly, the winged donkey is a courier used for transporting items back and forth rather than a playable hero.

Tim: I got into Dota 2 because a friend offered me a gift copy and, rather than doing something sensible like removing my eyes with a fork or running screaming, I said “okay.” I say a friend gave me a copy, but then I suppose friends don’t let friends play Dota 2. It’s sort of like offering your friends heroin, or World of Warcraft subscriptions, only not quite as evil as either of those.

Surprisingly, rather than playing it for about ten minutes and then putting it back in my digital pile of things that won’t be touched again for years, I’ve played it a lot. 46 hours, according to Steam, and barring one online match that’s all been against bots. It doesn’t feel that long, but I suspect that’s the nature of skirmish games versus campaigns – skirmishes are inevitably “quick” matches, so they add up a hell of a lot faster.

Anyway: I got into it because someone gifted it to me, and after playing a couple of botmatches with him and being thoroughly confused I went to Google and YouTube. Before long found I wound up watching replays from the International tournament, which made me feel a bit like an alien wandering into Anfield. I actually kept watching, though, and – despite my continued confusion – I started to enjoy it, and began to pick up on how it was working and what everyone was trying to do. After a few more hours of playing I hit what I’d charitably call a vague level of competence and comprehension, which is I guess the first stage on the road to actually becoming Not Terrible at Dota 2.

To answer your question, though, I’m forcing you to play this for two reasons. The first is that I really like it and want to do some video stuff with it, and as it’s 5v5 I need four other people for this. The second is that I irrationally hate you.

You’re right, though, in that it is incredibly confusing to start with. Some of the jargon isn’t too bad – I mean, “lanes” refer to the huge, heavily marked roads that the creeps follow, and that sort of makes sense – but initially it does feel like you’re swimming in a sea of strange words and important decisions and oh god what’s going on. What skill do I level up? Where should I be right now? Who the hell am I fighting? Where’s this Rosh thing everyone’s talking about? What’s a ward? In what way am I pushing, or feeding, or whatever the hell else I’m doing wrong? There are how many items in the shop?

There’s a lot more I can say about this (and everything else) but I’m curious as to your thoughts. How are you finding it? Is it still scary and confusing? Have you found the learning process to be akin to beating your head against a brick wall made of people who hate you? Would you say it’s a really difficult game to learn?

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I actually had to check a wiki to figure out that the big guy was Treant Protector.

Peter: It’s mostly … kind of fascinating. I’d hesitate to say I’m enjoying it, but since I haven’t taken on any real people yet I’d also say I haven’t really played it properly either.

There’s something about the learning curve and the structure that feels like it’s set up to appeal to humanity’s aspirational side. It’s like the capitalist myth made real; if you put in the hours and the effort, you really will progress and reap rewards. Sure, those rewards will be virtual, and you won’t end up as the best ever, but you’ll be miles ahead of the ordinary plebs. I think that’s quite appealing, especially to hyper-competitive types (which I’m not one of, really.) The emotional payoffs that the structure promises, they’re real.

You can apply that model to quite a few competitive multiplayer games of course, but I think with Dota 2, because you really have to strive and sweat for your success, it probably feels that much more concrete. I may be spouting bollocks of course – this is from a guy who’s played five hours against bots, remember.

To veer dangerously close to semantics for a second, I don’t think it’s the game so much which is difficult to learn. If we’re defining a game purely by its rule-set and victory conditions, that is. You can boil that down pretty easily: 5vs5, non-persistent heroes who level up in an RPG-type fashion, destroy towers, destroy the base, win the match. Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that, but those extra concerns, the strategy, are where the difficulty really seems to come in.

Do you really know the hero you’re using, inside-out? What’s the role they’re best suited for? Can you play that role under pressure? Would you be able to switch up to another role in an emergency situation? Do you know the heroes you’re up against and what their weaknesses might be? This is where it gets complex and scary.

It’s a sort of heaven for people who love to play around with different ‘builds,’ isn’t it? So many heroes and items and potential combinations to experiment with; plus a game that will throw up emergent circumstances on a regular basis thanks to that very variety.

So yeah, fascinating. I kind of love how it completely sits outside the usual press/media cycle for a major videogame release. There’s a BBC documentary about Factory Records which has a little sequence where post-punk’s finest talking heads are opining on the design of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album. One of them says something like “it was a record that plainly didn’t care whether you listened to it or not.” That’s Dota 2.

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Rubick can steal spells from other heroes. He’s kind of a dick.

It doesn’t care whether you play it or not. It doesn’t need to care. Honestly, as someone who receives rather too many publicity emails with the stench of desperation hanging heavy upon them, that’s refreshing.

But it also means we have this game which is, let’s not understate this, massacring everything on Steam in the popularity stakes, yet doesn’t get a level of press coverage that kind of success would normally entail. Remember how many Minecraft articles were out there during its peak popularity? I just don’t see that for Dota 2.

Tim: The rewards will be virtual unless you actually end up being decent, anyway. There are a fair number of tournaments offering money – the International is taking place in August, and the prize money for that (which is only going to get higher) is a whopping $1.99 million USD at the time of writing. That’s not exactly scratch money, and the game’s technically still in beta. Of course, it’s also not money that any of us are likely to ever be in a position to win, but I’m going to be watching the matches anyway.

I’d actually agree with you that the game isn’t hard to learn, but everything else is. Ignoring personal builds for a second, there are over 100 heroes right now (with more on the way), each with at least four completely unique abilities, and you really need to know what every single one of them can do. Or at least, all the ones in your current match. And even if you do know what you’re up against, then you also need to have a pretty good idea of what items you’re going to need to bolster your own hero against them. I seem to recall you nearly had a heart attack when you saw how many items were in the shop. This is the variety I talked about earlier – there’s a huge amount of stuff in the game, and all the heroes and all the items synergise together in different ways, which pretty much guarantees that no two matches will play out the same way.

The thing is, this is all stuff that comes in time. After the first few hours, I couldn’t name more than about three heroes. After six or seven, I’d started to get to grips with most of the heroes the computers are currently able to play. At this point, I’ve mentally got builds set up for my most-played heroes, and I don’t need to think too hard when I try a new one out. Unless it’s Invoker.

I think this also makes it a game that becomes a lot more fun the more you play it. You sort of go through three stages (there are probably more, but these are the ones I’ve hit): first, you’re confused and overwhelmed. Then you start to get a feel for how the game works, and aren’t so confused by everything going on, and maybe get a few decent kills and make some clever moves. And then you start to get to grips with the heroes and items, and are a lot happier to experiment. As the fluff becomes automatic, in terms of not having to look through the shop for five minutes to work out what item you want, the game becomes a lot more entertaining because you can focus on the actual game. I’m sort of dreading any possible point where I’m actually used to all the heroes, though, because I’m thoroughly enjoying experimenting with them all right now.

So now I’ll actually address the point you made, which is that we’re not likely to see masses upon masses of articles about Dota 2, as opposed to Minecraft. And… well, you’re right. I know you’re using Minecraft as an example rather than a hard comparison, but let me run with it anyway.

Part of this is that Minecraft is something that focuses on what players do, and it’s all easy to understand – anyone can look at a Minecraft recreation of Westeros and go “Holy shit, that’s impressive”, regardless of whether they know anything about Minecraft or Game of Thrones. It’s reliant entirely on what you can see; you don’t really need to understand any underlying mechanics to get the hang of it. That, and the fact that the community keeps pumping out really cool and interesting stuff gives plenty of fluff for articles, while with Dota you’re basically stuck with patch notes.

Dota 2, on the other hand, is more like a sport. Scratch that: it’s more like Chess. You need to have a certain level of understanding before you can look at a video of a well-executed play and say anything other than “what the fuck just happened.” That’s not to say there are no decent Dota 2 reporters out there – there are a few games journos I know who do report on Dota 2, its tournaments, teams, and the whole tournament “scene”, as well as strategies and so on. It’s just that it’s Special Interest stuff, so it’s not going to turn up on the front page of GamezWhatever Dot Com. It’s also something that would likely require very specialist knowledge to report properly, and – with no offence intended to my sistren and brethren – I don’t think most of us are really equipped for it.

Remind me to register that domain name, by the way, and then possibly shoot myself if I don’t replace that “Z” with an “S”.

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OMFG GG NOOB LICH UNINSTALL DOTA KILL URSELF

Peter: Ha, you’re right, there are the realest of real rewards for being outstanding at this game. Can’t believe I overlooked that.

Ok, we’ve addressed how the game can be daunting with its breadth and its linguistics, so let’s talk about the sweary elephant in the room who wants us to quit Dota 2 forever and kill ourselves. Yes, the community!

I’m not actually in a great position to discuss the reality of matches with Real People™, having not played one yet, but I can definitely relate to the perception. Basically, (almost) everything you read about the Dota 2 community is negative. Except when the Dota 2 community is writing about itself, and who’s going to trust them?

That reputation is really, really offputting. I’m not looking forward to playing against actual humans when we get around to that, although I suspect I’ll be insulated from some of the worst abuse because I’ll actually know my team-mates. And you wouldn’t swear at me and try to hurt my feelings, would you Tim?

I understand why people are often total dicks to one another in this game though. Matches can last a pretty long time, it’s crazy competitive, and if you wind up with someone clueless on your team it could sink you. Hell, even one mistake at a particularly poor time seems like it could sink you. There’s no way, given those circumstances, that people are going to play nice all the time. It just can’t happen.

Valve has tried to keep a lid on the worst of it with the report/commendation system, at least. Assuming that actually works.

You’ve played against some real people, did they ask you to switch off Dota 2 then cut off your own balls and eat them?

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For what it’s worth, this is only the shop’s *upgrades* tab.

Tim: Go and stick your head up an elephant’s bottom, you toilet-juggling trouser-painter.

See? Dota 2′s vile community has had an effect on me already! I’m turning… mean! And to think I used to be so nice.

Yeah, the reputation is actually the primary reason it took me so long to play Dota 2, and it’s also why I’ve mostly played botmatches. I am woefully thin-skinned, and harsh words are like razor blades directly to my soft and fluffy heart, so I’m generally only willing to play if there’s at least one other person I know in the game. I’m not exactly in the best position to discuss this either, having only played one game, but The Guy Who Made Me Play Dota (Adam, who features in a few of our IncGamers Plays videos) has warned me about how most of his matches tend to have at least one complete cockbottle. You can spectate games online too (with a bit of a delay so that you can’t help anyone cheat) and that shows global chat, so yeah, I’ve seen some harsh remarks thrown back and forth there too.

The match I did play wasn’t too bad, though. A teammate’s mouse stopped working about five minutes in, so we were one man down until he managed to enable his trackpad ten minutes later, and – possibly because me and Adam were cool with it – none of our teammates really lashed out. The enemy team did try unpausing the game a few times while he was attempting to make his mouse function, though, and he eventually gave up and just left his hero standing stationary while he alt-tabbed out to set up the trackpad.

On the other hand, when we won… well, the other team didn’t take that so well. Accusations of YOU ONLY WON BECAUSE YOU PICKED NOOB HEROES and YOU NOOBS ARE AWFUL AT DOTA and various other sore loser bits and bobs. Possibly even a few death threats. But, y’know, we won. So stuff it. That’s the point where I stop taking it personally and start making them feel worse.

That said, even if you have the skin of a rhino, I wouldn’t recommend popping online for your first game. As you said, games take awhile and it doesn’t take much to mess it up (although, equally, it doesn’t take much to pull a match back) so things can be a bit highly-strung, and Dota does take awhile to get to grips with. Even the tutorial itself will teach you some really bad habits, and people will scream at you for them, justified or not.

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This screen, showing the entire enemy team dead and their Ancient under attack, is what you hope to see at the end of every game. Only perhaps with less bots.

What I’d suggest is that new players find someone (both patient and reasonably skilled) that can teach them how to play. There’s a forthcoming mentor system which should fit the bill, but that aside, try to hook up with someone you know who’s played it before. Play at least four or five botmatches, and get to grips with a few heroes. Have this person explain the jargon, and Last Hitting, and Denials, and all the other bits and bobs. Essentially: an environment in which you can learn, preferably from someone who knows what they’re doing, as well as experiment.

Equally, when you do hop into an online match, you might want to tell your team that you’re new. Yeah, okay, a few people might blow up at you and start complaining that WE’VE LOST ALREADY, but there’s an equally good chance that people will offer some advice and be a lot more forgiving of any horrendous fuckups you make. Because, hey, everyone was new once; if you actually tell people this before making horrendous fuckups, then they’ve got the opportunity to stop you making them (or at least, stop you repeating them). Not everyone online’s an assclown, after all.

And honestly, despite all the cautionary tales here, I’d actually suggest you play Dota 2. No, really. Even if you only play against bots it’s a wonderful and continually varied experience, with a huge amount of things to discover and learn and mess about with, and – if tournaments, spectating, and my One Game are any indication – going online increases all of this crap tenfold. It’s incredibly daunting and confusing, but it’s totally worth persevering, particularly if you can find someone to guide you.

Peter: It also achieves the incredible by being a non-intrusive, free-to-play game. You really can just play it for free. Other games say that, but it’s really a half-truth. In Dota 2, I didn’t even notice that it had a ‘Store’ for about three hours (mind you, part of that was me being stuck on the stupid tutorial map screen.)

Dota 2

Anyway, because Valve has no pressing need for money the game doesn’t waggle its microtransactions in your face every five minutes, and everything you can buy is 100% cosmetic or is a means to acquire some stuff that is 100% cosmetic. The game is like Unknown Pleasures again. Buy something if you want. Or don’t. Whatever man.

People will, though. Virtual hats are like gamer catnip.

But going back to what you said about persevering with the game: we’ll be doing just that, so expect a bit more about Dota 2 on IncGamers in the coming weeks. At the very least, we’ll be recording some matches and seeing if our fresh-faced team of rookies can actually win a game or two. It’ll be just like Rocky except with less incomprehensible Stallone mumbling.

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