"Good artists copy; great artists steal."
near the end.
One of the most fascinating things about DotA is the history of its ascent from an unknown WC3 map, to spawning not just successors, but an entire genre
of DotA clones and spinoffs with more players across the globe than World of Warcraft. In terms of playerbase and international appeal, DotA is truly one of the most successful videogames ever made.
This success has been piggybacked on by games like Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends which promise Dota-style gameplay on modern platforms. The inspiration for these two games borrowed heavily from DotA, to the point where certain items, abilites, and even whole characters were carbon copies of those in DotA (This is, in my experience, more true of HoN than of LoL). Both games have blossomed into their own over time, but they bear unmistakeable marks of their beginning as seeds on the DotA tree.
This heavy borrowing of ideas to improve one's own situation is a very natural human behavior, and I am not criticizing it. In fact, I am suggesting that DotA 2 do the very same thing to HoN and LoL.
First let us briefly analyze the current state of DotA on WC3; second, let us see how LoL has tried to improve the player experience over DotA for the purpose of suggesting features or improvements to DotA 2, which is, as Icefrog said, the long-term future of DotA. (I am comparing it to LoL rather than HoN because I am not nearly as familiar with HoN.)
DotA on WC3 has generally two things to consider, which are:
A.) Issues regarding the platform.
B.) Issues regarding DotA itself.
Issues regarding DotA's platform
Warcraft 3 was originally released in 2002, and generally, it has aged gracefully. But nine (!) is a big number in video-game years, and WC3 and its counterpart incarnation of Battle.net are at this point not just long in the tooth, but practically cadavers, animated by DotA's massive and enthusiastic community and the occasional pity-patch from Blizzard.
In recent years as DotA became more popular, alternatives to WC3's built in Battle.net sprang up, such as Garena, Dotalicious (more recently), and others. These platforms are used primarily or exclusively to play DotA, which was not the design intent of WC3.
Some of these alternate platforms feature:
1.) Better organization of games and players (skill, matchmaking)
2.) Better social features
3.) Stats tracking
4.) Leaver/Cheating protection (in many different forms)
5.) Free DotA access (via WC3 piracy)
There are two purposes of the DotA platform: First, to grant easy and fast access to DotA itself. Second, to optimize the players game-experience. Each feature fits one of these purposes.
The last one greatly increases the pool of players available, which is more of a side-effect for the alternate platforms, but still very important and will be addressed later.
While generally there are improvements in each platform, these platforms usually require several extra steps to configure. In addition, the improvements vs. Battle.net are often relatively minor, and certain key improvements (e.g., reconnection, cheating protection, matchmaking) are sometimes non-existent. Also, the wealth of platform choices can be confusing to the new player who just wants to play DotA. Generally, there is a terrific fragmentation of the DotA experience, with no single, professional DotA platform to turn to.
Issues regarding DotA itself
1.) DotA is a difficult & frustrating game to learn to play well
This is probably the biggest problem facing the growth of DotA aside from the imitations of WC3. There are several reasons for this:
A.) Disorganization of items
B.) Large Disparity between new and experienced players
C.) Hero pool is huge, with little guidance for new players
D.) DotA is generally unforgiving of mistakes
E.) Mechanics/stats are arbitrarily complex (1 str = 19hp etc.)
(Each of these will be addressed below.)
2.) A good DotA game requires the absence of leavers or cheaters.
3.) A typical DotA game requires a (relatively) large time investment. (typically 45-50+ mins counting game set-up etc.)
4.) A good DotA game requires that all players be of comparable skill
These then are generally the issues which face DotA currently; they are not all necessarily problems (though some are) but things that should at least be taken into consideration for DotA 2.
Now let us look at the direction LoL has taken toward these issues, both in its platform and in the gameplay. I am not suggesting these are necessarily the proper measures.
The League of Legends platform:
As we said earlier, the platform's purpose is to grant access to the game and optimize the player's game experience. Let's see how LoL manages to do this.
1.) Game & Player organization
In LoL it is very easy and fast to get into a game: just hit the big play button on the home screen and select whether you'd like to invite teammates or not, and the game will automatically match you within 20 seconds or so. You may also create custom games if you want special rules. The matchmaking system will also attempt to match you with teammates of a comparable level automatically, though its judgment isn't always the best.
Relevance for DotA 2: DotA in the current form is cumbersome and time consuming to set up a game for online play, so having fast, simple access to games would be a big step forward for the player. In addition, player skill often varies wildly at random in public DotA games which can be intensely frustrating for all players involved. Getting a well-balanced pub game is more the exception than the rule in DotA currently. Thus, some sort of matchmaking system ought to be part of DotA 2.
2.) Social Experience
LoL has a similar social configuration to StarCraft 2, including buddy list, chat rooms etc. However you cannot (at the moment) create 'clans' or browse a lists of other players at random. This focuses the social experience around the player and his friends, and draws attention away from the community, and as a result, the player feels less connected to the community as a whole.
LoL games typically take one of two paths: Random matchmaking where you don't know anyone else in the game, or queuing with friends against random opponents. There is no middle ground as for example in Garena if you play in the same room often, or if you play on a lower population platform you will start recognizing peoples names and get to know the other players and their playstyles. In LoL there is very little to none of this; it is just you and your friends versus a sea of random players, who may as well be named Bot 1 - Bot 5. In my experience, this can make the game feel somewhat alienating.
Relevance for DotA 2: Of course DotA 2 will have some sort of buddy system and game invites, but will there be a sense of a DotA community within the game, or will the game be mostly user-centric like LoL? On the one hand I feel that the IRC style chat rooms of Garena are hideous anachronisms and have no place in DotA 2, and most pub games on any client are played with players that might be as good as random anyway. However I know that I do enjoy running into the same players, who aren't necessarily on my friends list from time to time. Perhaps DotA 2 could add a 'occasionally match me with/against this person in the future' feature to the matchmaking system. This way, you could still have random, automatically balanced games, but end up playing with some of the same people again without having to add them to your friends list. Alternately, there could be an option for creating large group which you could queue with, so for example there could be a PlayDota group, and you could choose to queue with/against random people in the group, in addition to playing with/against complete strangers.
3.) Stats Tracking
This is one place where LoL fails pretty significantly in my opinion. It does keep running totals of you takedowns (kills + assists + towers), creep kills and wins, but almost all other stats are invisible outside the most recent 10 games. DotA 2 absolutely must have persistent, detailed stats tracking, maybe not completely publicly visible, but it needs to be there.
4.) Leaver/Cheating/Abuse protection
LoL has a fairly decent reporting system, where at the end of each game you may report any other player for an abuse, whether the problem is Language, Attitude, Leaving/AFK, etc. Leaving is automatically punished in addition, and goes on the players permanent record. In addition, players who queue and then leave matchmaking are temporarily (~5 minutes for first offense) banned from the matchmaker. Riot has also decided to have groups of randomly-selected experienced players judge the abuse-reports in 'tribunals' instead of hiring an army of mods chase down what must be thousands of reports a day.
I have not seen a single case of cheating in LoL, and I'm not even sure that its possible given that the game is hosted on Riot's servers. In addition, this makes the game more stable because there is no single player which the game depends on. It seems this is the only way to go for DotA 2.
5.) Free Access
Perhaps the greatest contribution to DotA's popularity is (ironically) the piracy of Warcraft 3. It would be foolish to pass up a free-to-play model for DotA 2, because while some of the diehard fans will plunk down whatever it costs for the full product, the reality is that the DotA community is much bigger and less inclined to spend large sums of money than your typical gaming demographic. Just check out the # of downloads WC3 has on your favorite torrent site.
...In the end you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If a players first experience of DotA 2 is having to crack open their wallet for $50, the 'good news' about DotA 2 won't spread anywhere near as easily as if that first experience were simply firing up the game. Often too, players will be feel more inclined to pay money for skins/premium accounts/etc. if they have received something else (core gameplay) for free, like in the recent Penny Arcade comic
There is a tremendous amount of potential for DotA 2 to be a worldwide gaming phenomenon which presents some truly unique opportunities. It would be a shame to waste it by trying to pigeonhole it into a traditional $50 retail strategy.
League of Legends Gameplay
There are several interesting things Riot has done which attempt to improve on the core DotA-style gameplay.
Accessibility / Gameplay Clarity
LoL has done away with or modified several practices which are part of DotA in an effort to streamline gameplay. Here are some examples:
Like in HoN, items are sold at a single shop, are organized according to the role the item fills (Attack, Defense, Consumables etc.), and have clearly displayed upgrade trees. Items in LoL also tend not to have active abilities, in contrast to DotA. In addition, a full set of recommended items tailored to your hero is displayed in the shop.
Each hero has its own information page within LoL which contains information about each ability (excluding each heroes passive for some reason), lore, and relative strength as a caster or damage dealer and difficulty of play. This information sheet also contains some basic tactical suggestions for playing as the hero, or fighting against them. The game also recommends some of the simpler heroes for new players.
Player Skill Disparity
This is solved mainly through the matchmaking system which places players with more or less equal skill together. However, there are a few other changes which lessen the the chasm between new and experienced players.
For example, denying creeps/towers has been removed from the game, and creeps give significantly less gold in LoL than DotA. (i.e., Dota creep = approx. 1/5 of a hero kill, LoL creep = approx. 1/10 of a hero kill) Hero kills typically grant more gold, and the gold gained from killing a hero which is on a spree is also increased significantly. Further, most individual items in LoL are cheaper (1600 or less) than in DotA, allowing for easier build-up. Completed items are also cheaper.
The Str/Agi/Int stat system in DotA is one of the several mechanics borrowed from WC3. It is also functions in a very arbitrary, and therefore confusing fashion. This is presumably why LoL has ditched this stat system altogether to focus on more the fundamental values attached to each character, hp, damage, regen, mana etc. With the exception of ability power, each of these mechanics is present in DotA already, however they are obscured by the WC3 stat system.
So for example, Agility increases damage for agility heroes only, adds 1% attack speed per agility point, and increases armor by 1 for every 7 points. So, the 'Agility' stat is actually
an arbitrary and more complex way of modifying damage, armor and attack speed, and does not bring anything new to the table other than obfuscation of these fundamental stats.
A question the designers of DotA 2 might keep in mind is whether it is good game design to have gameplay mechanics whose sole purpose is to complicate other mechanics in this way. If not, I'd say LoL did the right thing by throwing out the WC3 Agi/Str/Int system.
A few other mechanics have been done away with, for example the orb effects (though Unique effects on an item do not stack if you get another of the same item), and most active skills on items in general. This focuses the gameplay away from items and their activatables (no purge, lightning shield, windwalk, creep domination, soul burn, hexing, image creation, magic immunity, dagon, etc.) and toward the heroes' own abilites. I would imagine this also makes the game significantly easier to balance.
DotA is generally an unforgiving game in several ways. To play competently, a hero generally requires certain items, many heroes will strong skills (enigma's ult) require precise positioning and timing, which usually requires a few special items (kelen's dagger + bkb) and the use of another couple skills (blink + avatar). And if you miss, or silencer is on the enemy team, have fun waiting 3mins for it to cooldown. This is a strong example, but illustrates generally the difficulty of executing the important abilities in DotA, a single slip up anywhere in this chain often completely ruins the entire execution.
DotA actively punishes you for dying (gold removal) in addition to preventing you from being in the lane, which itself denies gold and xp. Creep/tower denying also plays an important part in the game, where one team/player punishes the other by killing their own unit, denying the opponent xp and gold. In sort, mechanics which punish the player are fairly common and strong in DotA.
LoL on the other hand has removed most active abilites on items, which streamlines combo execution. It also does not remove gold from the player upon death, and does not allow the player to deny creeps or towers.
Of course many people in the DotA community will look at these changes as evidence that LoL is a dumbed-down, casual version of DotA. However, one must look at this in terms of player experience; are these fun mechanics? Do they add depth? Do they make the game more interesting to play and watch? In general, what type of gameplay is more enjoyable: One which actively punishes the player for making mistakes, or one which simply rewards the player for playing properly?
I would suggest the latter.
LoL features a generally quickened game pace compared with DotA, with most games lasting somewhere between 30-45 mins.
This is for a few reasons.
1. Cheaper items, as mentioned above.
2. Built-in town-portal skill for every hero means less running around.
3. Combat flow differences:
Because heroes give increased bounty, creep's bounty is reduced, and dying doesn't cost gold, there is a greatly increased incentive to gank. In addition, the damage values in LoL for individual hits (physical and magic) are generally slightly higher than in DotA, while hp pools remain similar, which makes combat faster, and feel more 'bursty'. This ensures that heroes are killing and being killed very often for high bounty, so the game is decided faster. This has big implications not only for the feel of the gameplay, but also for the quality of the game as a spectator event.
Generally, we have seen Icefrog attempt to quicken the speed of DotA in recent years, by increasing creep gold, gold per tick, and adding assist gold. However there are some hard questions which need to be asked about the fundamental DotA gameplay:
1. Is it as fun to play as it could be?
2. Is it as fun to watch as it could be?
3. How can it be made better?
The answers to these questions will affect the longevity of DotA 2 immensely, both as a casual and professional game.
and summary: I would suggest that LoL has taken steps in the right direction for the DotA genre, and that DotA 2 could benefit by implementing some of these changes in one form or another. In addition, LoL has made certain mistakes which I believe DotA 2 would benefit by avoiding.
I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you play LoL or other DotA-style games.
NB: This is not a complete list of problems or solutions which face DotA and the DotA genre, but it is an indication (as I see it) of the direction of changes which Riot has implemented in their version of DotA-style gameplay.