For various reasons, many social, others masochistic, Defense of the Ancients (DOTA), the Warcraft 3 custom map, remains something I play frequently. All is not well in DOTA land, however, and I’m not talking about the fact that my friend Jimmy who I play with is a KSing coward. No, the bigger issue is that half of the DOTA managing community (functionally one guy) has split from the other half (another guy who does most of the programming) over a new game called League of Legends. I don’t really care about their breakup but it made for a catchy introduction to my League of Legends first thoughts.
League of Legends is the latest attempt by a stale gaming industry to build upon someone else’s idea, rather than come up with their own. Riot Games decided that they would go and create a stand-alone DOTA-esque game, because imitation is flattery, or something.
For several reasons, this is not a terrible idea. First, for all of the absolutely amazing and innovative uses of the WC3 engine, DOTA is still constrained by the game’s limits. And this is an old game that is barely supported by Blizzard anymore–not a ripe environment for innovative development.
Second, the community of DOTA is absolutely atrocious (a quality to which I merrily contribute every night with my racial slurs and custom kicking of people I deem annoying) and while somewhat mitigated by banlist, DOTA is still full of dickwads. Third… well, frankly, with those two reasons, who needs a third reason to make a stand-alone game based on a great idea?
Riot is aiming to create a game where you create a persistent “summoner” avatar who brings forth “champions” into battle. By creating a stand-alone game, they are fundamentally changing the dynamic of DOTA from being a one-off anonymous game to an accountably persistent experience. Beyond tracking your epeen stats, this will also enable community management functions–something sorely lacking in the asshat-filled DOTA world. Presumably, accounts will be tied to a subscription or account key, which means accountability. This could lead to better quality games, as trash talkers and leavers will be (in theory) better tracked–either through an Xbox Live comment system, or hard stats (such as number of times people drop out of games, go AFK and get kicked, etc).
Another future advantage is that conceivably there could be multiple maps–3v3 maps, 4v4 maps, 5v5, and so on. No longer will you be constrained to the same concept over and over again because the game architecture won’t be the WC3 custom list.
There are obvious advantages in the fact that the WC3 engine won’t be used: characters will be able to be coded for more skills, inventories could be larger or slot specific, which opens a host of gameplay opportunities that can increase the game’s depth. Less specifically, if the designers come up with a good idea they can implement it without worrying about whether it is compatible with the WC3 engine, which is a huge creative freedom.
A significant secondary advantage of this is that common hacks like maphack and custom kick won’t work–but with that comes the responsibility of creating a secure architecture that is not vulnerable to such software. But collectively, all of these potential advantages are wonderful things that promise a stellar game.
But the promise of a stellar game is not guarantee of a stellar game. There are a number of significant barriers that stand between a wonderful concept and reality. The first is: will customers pay? DOTA is a free game right now. The majority of people playing it are, for whatever reason, playing a free custom map on a game that is over seven years old.
Are they playing because they have friends who love DOTA? Or are they playing because they’re broke? How much will Riot charge? Will it be a box game, or a subscription? Or an initiation fee plus subscription? How do you convert people from playing a free game to a paid one? Will your game attract brand new people to it? As a for-profit enterprise, these are questions that must be answered for this game to become a reality.
The second concern I have is launch quality. Games these days have a significant problem at launch, which is called “Not being done but we’ll release it anyway and hope customers pay”-itis. It’s a horrible disease afflicting the gaming industry like AIDS is afflicting Africa, except not even condoms can prevent the spread. DOTA, even as freeware, is an incredibly deep and well balanced game. I was playing this game in 2003–it has come a LONG way. Despite being freeware, there is an extremely rigorous testing process and the DOTA has achieved a balanced that only games patched over years can aspire to. It did not get this way overnight. It took six years. League of Legends simply will not be this well balanced at launch–it’s not possible to get that way without the thousands of hours of testing from real players.
Finally, I am concerned as to Riot’s commitment to the game. This is because it is a game by a for-profit company–if it is unprofitable, they will bail. I don’t blame them for this, but I worry they won’t have the commitment necessary to see the game through to when it can be competitive.
In order to succeed, Riot has to pull off a few key feats to make sure these road blocks aren’t game killers. First, they need a strong launch. That means the features they DO have need to be polished. They need to immediately produce a game that is not only fun and competitive with DOTA, but also that shows the promise of what the game could become by being freed from the WC3 constraints. For example: they need balanced heroes to show they are serious and know how to make a game, at least two maps to show how cool it is to have multiple maps within the same game, an inventory system that surpasses what the WC3 engine can do, and a community management feature that shows League has better quality games (less leavers and asshats).
They also probably need a subscription based model with a free week for people to try it and see how it’s better than DOTA. If they can get some of the DOTA clans to move over, they may have a chance at a real community. There is a great deal of potential here: DOTA is a fantastic concept that could be transformed into a ridiculously successful “real” game. But if they make the mistake of launching too early, too incomplete, too expensive–I don’t think they have a chance in hell of carving out a real niche in the community.