By Dave Bast
I didn’t come to this admission lightly.
I have no way of telling you how many games of Dota (Defense of the Ancients) I have played. I started playing in 2005 as a way of killing time in between World of Warcraft raids. Slowly I began to hope for longer and longer breaks to squeeze in more Dota. It didn’t take long for me to realize which game I was having more fun playing, and eventually I stopped playing WoW all together. Dota became the most fun I’ve ever had playing games, once I got past the ridiculously steep learning curve. For five years Dota became the game I played in between all my other games, it was my “go-to” game. This was my mindset as I approached my first game of League of Legends.
I didn’t really sit down to play League of Legends (LoL), willingly – well I did, but it was only to make fun of it. A bunch of my friends were playing and I was invited to join them. I immediately used the opportunity to mention my Dota record and how much of a pro I was. I remember calling it “Disney Dota,” complaining about how watered-down it felt;” they don’t even let me deny creeps in the lane, how dumb.” I think I spent the first five games just complaining about how slow the characters moved. The next ten about how you didn’t lose any gold when you died. Maybe another fifteen about how jungling worked. It was typical elitist crap. I disagreed feverishly about how the game was designed, but I kept playing anyways.
It went on like this for a while. I would play LoL with my friends while reminding them how everything in Dota was better. I didn’t even play Dota anymore, yet the hypocrisy continued. I would get ganked in the lane and tell everyone I was going to quit and start playing Heroes of Newerth, which is essentially a Dota remake with better matchmaking. I did for a while too, but it didn’t stick. I was clearly beginning to show a preference for LoL over Dota, which I didn’t want to admit.
Dota may be the OG, but Riot Games has done some very specific and smart things to make League of Legends more accessible for new players and returning elitists like myself. To someone who doesn’t play these games it seems as if there are no differences, to those who do the differences are night and day.
Dota requires a very specific skill-set; it takes a long time to learn and an even longer time to master. Admitting you played Dota was like bragging that you knew how to play it. LoL on the other hand was much easier to learn, especially with a Dota background. While it’s nice to take pride in my hard-earned Dota skill-set, the damn thing was old and archaic, filled with useless skills that weren’t particularly fun – micromanaging the courier or excessive amounts of last hitting come to mind. There were a lot of skills in Dota that felt like chores, things I had to do to get to the fun part of the gameplay. It doesn’t feel like that with League of Legends, they choose to focus on the more active components of the core gameplay like team fighting or ganking. I was willing, slowly, to readapt my skill-set, even though I was initially resistant to the idea.
As with any multiplayer game the ability to play with your friends is important. This was inappropriately difficult with Dota, and not because the original Blizzard matchmaking was horrible, but that didn’t help. While it is easy to blame better matchmaking for an increase in users, I’m pretty sure that isn’t the entire story. The extremely high difficultly cap and elitist attitude that kept me enamored with Dota was actually having the opposite effect on other people, it was keeping them away. Once Riot streamlined the core gameplay experience they lowered the learning curve, making it more accessible for new users. Many nights I tried to get my friends to play Dota, or Heroes of Newerth, only to hear the same complaint, “It’s much more effort with much less fun.” I agreed, begrudgingly.
The Disney-like art style that I had originally poked fun at began to grow on me, Riot even spent time and energy updating older character models and portraits in order to keep them all relevant, and they still do. In fact, all of the art in LoL is managed much in the same way the gameplay is; nothing unnecessary with a strong focus on gameplay. There is little use of frivolous explosions or particle effects; each piece of art gives me some piece of tangible in-game feedback. This was definitely something that was lacking in Dota, as it was made using the Warcraft 3 editor. It looked as if every character and object from the Warcraft universe was thrown into a box, shaken, and then dumped onto the screen. It’s not just about artistic continuity. In an intensely competitive game like this, visual feedback is critical. The more efficient the game is at sending me information, the better I’ll be at processing it. This is something that Riot has perfected.
Let’s be real though. With how stubborn and elitist I was about Dota, I was most likely not going to pay a dime for any game I thought was of lesser quality. I didn’t even really want to try LoL, my friends made me. But by making it free, Riot Games absorbed all of my monetary risk as a consumer. So even though it took a few dozen games, I was a loyal fan before I spent a dime on any special features. I was player first and a consumer second. Talk about a win-win. There will always been room in the market for a free game. Being free shields you from your competitors to an extent. Heroes of Newerth experimented with an upfront cost, at least for a while, but now they are free as well. I wonder if someone should tell Valve.
I received my Dota 2 beta key a few weeks ago and sat down to play a few games, I was excited to see what types of gameplay changes had been made, as had been done to LoL. Besides the obvious aesthetic changes, improvements to the in-game shop, and a few bells and whistles, Dota 2 is essentially Dota 1. There wasn’t really any noticeable improvements that I could see, the same chores were there, and the same “this is really difficult and not as rewarding” feeling was there too. And while diehard fans will most likely flock to the game, I think I might have to take a pass. Riot Games has pushed the genre forward. League of Legends feels like a next-gen Dota, while Dota 2 feels like a polished last-gen game. While I will always look back fondly at my time playing Dota, I have officially moved on. I eagerly await what’s next in a genre that is just getting started.