Playing DOTA 2 as a Newbie: First Impressions of the Beta – Part 1.

Valve has a reputation for producing highly polished games that communicate themselves clearly to the player.  What can they bring to DOTA 2, a sequel to the grandfather of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre?  I was lucky enough to gain access to the beta.

As a relative novice who has some experience of League of Legends but not the first Defense of the Ancients, I’m probably a good gauge for what newcomers to MOBAs will make of DOTA 2.

The game shares the same fundamental framework as League of Legends, and I’m sure the first Defense of the Ancients before it: two teams have bases in opposed corners, and a river divides the map diagonally down the middle, providing each with a distinct territory.  There are three core ‘lanes’ that link the two bases, down which symmetrical AI minions stream at regularly timed intervals, meaning that it is the champions of each side who will shift the balance.  Each territory on either side of the river is filled with secondary paths, along which neutral monsters lurk.  These offer gold and other rewards for those able to kill them, while also presenting opportunities for the other side to ambush people already fighting Something Nasty.

The core idea is to fight alongside the AI minions, levelling up and gradually gaining the strength to destroy the turrets defending each of the core enemy lanes, while stopping the enemy from doing the same to you.

I know that DOTA 2 is in beta, so it’s unfinished.  As such, bearing in mind that there are currently core features missing, how clearly does it communicate itself to new players?

Getting Started

The first things DOTA 2 does when you start it up seem promising: you’re presented with a clearly written selection screen regarding how much experience you have at MOBAs.  There are explanations and examples of the three different levels, and reference to the fact that if you’re a newbie, you’ll be steered toward some Champions that are simpler to use.  Also, one of the tabs presented at the top of the menu screen is ‘Learn,’ which seems like a promising start.

However, the current build of the game doesn’t capitalise on this start.  The ‘learn’ tab is a good environment for reading up on the game’s different champions and items, and my impression is that it presents that information in a clearer and more convenient fashion than League of Legends does… but it’s not pitched for newbies.

It does a good job of folding information normally found and laid out in wikis within the game itself, but I guess I was expecting more of a basic series of info packets maybe with some tutorial levels that spelled out exactly how the game works at a mechanical and conceptual level.  If TF2 has those neat introductory videos about what the point of each map is, I expected something similar for DOTA 2.  Actually, you’ll see that TF2 comparison coming up again.

When you go to create a game, there are some really promising sections currently blacked out.  ‘Solo Practice’ is listed under the ‘Private Games,’ heading, and there’s an entire section called ‘Learn to Play’ that features ‘Tutorials,’ ‘Quests,’ and ‘Play with a Mentor.’  I am very encouraged that these exist, and look forward to seeing them implemented – even if doing so is outside the scope of the beta.  Their existence shows that Valve is paying attention to this component of building an audience for the game, and I trust them enough to assume that when they appear, they’re going to be good.

Running into the Wall of Education

The main issue is that the game seriously needs those tutorial sections that are currently unavailable.  Despite the promising option screen I mentioned earlier regarding how much MOBA experience you have, the game confronted me with eleventy-billion champions upon starting a custom game, and it wasn’t clear when I was suggesting champions for my team as opposed to trying to navigate the list of available champions.  Worse still, while trying to negotiate that list, the game is counting down.

There are some upsides: this is another occasion where information is arranged better than League of Legends does, since the tags associated with each character are presented as little icons on each champion’s ‘card,’ and are explained if you mouse-over each icon.  This means that if you have no idea what “Carry” means in context – that the champion is weak in early game and needs to be carried, but will carry the rest of the team to victory in late game – then the game will actually tell you without you needing to consult a wiki.

However, the emphasis on a countdown means that this doesn’t seem like a good time to learn.  There is also an issue where it’s possible to select a hero, but not realise you need to hit a second button confirming you’re ready to play.  I have the ignominious honour to have spent so long figuring that out, hearing the sounds of violence and gameplay in the background, that the rest of my team was Level 3 by the time I managed to actually enter the game.

After that, I’m afraid I just got more confused.

I might have understood the general idea of what the game expected of me reasonably quickly, but actually implementing it didn’t work out so well.  Some of this, weirdly enough, is down to the game’s graphics.  I like DOTA 2’s graphics, but in comparison to something like something cartoonier like League of Legends, it feels like some clarity has been sacrificed in existence for greater quality and depth.

Here’s a comparison:

League of Legends:


DOTA 2 is higher resolution/complexity, of this there is no doubt.  Look, actual water effects for the river!  But possibly because of my lack of familiarity with the game, the greater realism/depth managed to help confuse me: in LoL, the minions are tiny in comparison to Champions and there’s no way to get them confused with the actual enemy, but in DOTA 2 I repeatedly lost track of what was an enemy minion or hero.  This helped with the Dying Repeatedly quotient of my experience.

And some odd decisions have gone into DOTA 2 regarding death.  A line of text is generated that notes you’ve been ‘pwned’ by whoever killed you, and you’re presented with a snapshot of the champion that committed the deed along with an in-character piece of mockery, just for you.

…I didn’t expect that.

I mean, MOBAs are framed around a competitive gaming circuit. But I have to admit, I figured that Valve would be using such opportunities for providing information – like they do with the deathcam footage in TF2, which is indispensable for figuring out What The Hell Just Happened sometimes as you learn to play.  But rather than some form of replay or recap, you get poked for your shortcomings not by your opponents, but by the game itself.  Maybe it’s just me, but I expected to see more encouragement from Valve on this one, rather than a Nelsonian “Ha HA!”

The Victim of Too Much Trust

Fundamentally, the current build of DOTA 2 isn’t intended with me in mind, because it assumes players know what they’re doing.  This is a game where you can try to buy a high-end item from the shop, and be told “Requires Secret Shop.”

…and that’s it.

It’s a secret, apparently!

There’s a donkey/courier-thing that apparently belongs to one of the players on a team’s side?  And I get the impression that it can be sent back to buy things for you from the store, though I don’t know how, and I kept miss-clicking when looking for options and sending it into the teeth of battle when I thought I was sending my champion there instead.

Pro Tip: The donkey courier thing can get killed.  The More You Know!

I mentioned these points to some friends, and they apologetically explained that the Secret Store is an in-joke from the first Defense of the Ancients, and that they were sure if I checked a wiki then the courier would be explained.  And that might be true, but if we imagine a hypothetical player who is new to MOBAs and checks out a cool new Free-To-Play game on Steam with the current setup… it’s going to be a bewildering mess without some changes.

Fortunately, the infrastructure for getting that key information to players is on display, and I trust Valve to do a good job of them.  The flipside is that a good job is really needed before this is going to make sense.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep digging into the beta and see what new information falls out of the game in an attempt to further my knowledge, and also to check in case Valve has explained any of the stuff bewildering me in a way I haven’t noticed.


  1. darmyster

    If I am correct, Dota2 was made in the hope that the regular DotA players would switch versions for a more aesthetic looking game with more features(In-built team chat, Option to re-join a game on disconnecting) . Not much thought was given to new adaptors, initially. (The ‘Learn’ feature was released with a later update.) More often than not, a sequel is made keeping in mind that people who have played the first will be playing the sequel (The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim however, remains an exception).
    But what Steam has done to address the newbies is it’s match-making algorithm. After playing a couple of games, the game recognises your level of game-play and in future games, will pit you against players of similar levels and not against some random imba player. This works both ways. The good players are matched with the good ones too for more competitive gameplay. Another feature for the newbies is the ‘Play against bots’ feature, where-in you, along with 4 other players will be pitted against 5 AI opponents whose levels of gameplay you decide. I have on numerous occasions used this feature, and when finding newbies, have helped them learn the game. The advantage of this is, you can play at your own pace as no data is recorded from these games. (In REGULAR match-making, every player’s stats, skills and level of gameplay is saved on Steam’s databases for future match-making.) Also, in regular match-making, everyone plays to win. If the seasoned players find a player actually trying to learn the game while in a regular game, the poor chap’s gonna be flamed and burned till he quits.
    One more feature I think helps the newcomers is the ‘Watch’ feature. You can follow a game that is under-progress to see what the players do, how strategies are formed, what items are bought, how certain items are used, how ganks are coordinated, warding etc. 
    And the last feature I would like to mention is that Shopping in Dota2 was clearly meant for newbies(Ask any seasoned player, he will agree). Where in DotA, a player had to literally know the recipe for an Item and make it step-by-step, in Dota2, all one has to do is right click the Item and BAM it’s there!(provided you have sufficient gold.) The search-bar for items too is a very newbie-centric concept. In DotA so much had to be remembered with respect to individual item locations.
    I have to agree with you on the fact that Dota2 is highly animated and maybe too animated. Spells are hard to notice, Heroes are hard to distinguish. I keep shifting between Dota2 and DotA regularly and everytime I play DotA, I am simply grateful for how everything is so clean and simple. 
    The best way to learn DotA or Dota2, is with someone who knows it guiding you along. Yes guides are good and provide the basic concept of what is to be done. You can read books on how to drive stick-shift, but you will only truly learn, when you get your hands on the wheel.
    In the words of Boromir, “One does not simply learn Dota2 on his own”

  2. KikiVeles

    I was one

  3. KikiVeles

    I was looking forward to DOTA 2, … until I tried it. I played WC3 and LOL, I did not play HoN, nor DOTA. I chose option “newbie” when Dota 2 asked, because I wanted to ensure game does give me extra popups and explanations, and hopefully tutorial, as i was not sure how similar it would be to what I am used to.
    My honest opinion is that DOTA2 is not friendly game. Community is very similar to LOL community, which is to say, dont expect questions answered. In my first 2 matches I asked simple questions such as “What is Secret Shop?” and “Is there way to recall, or do I have to walk back to base?” and I did get answers, but they had nothing to do with my questions. I still dont know what Secret Shop is (nor do I care at this point, as after 5 matches I have decided DOTA2 is inferior to LOL, and I dont really care to invest week of my time learning what should have been either self-explanatory, or explained before I began), and watching other players I am pretty certain there is no recall as such.
    DOTA2 Champions also seem to be just a mess. On some, I get to push 2 abilities and then Champion is out of mana for 30+ seconds. Most of time all I see other people do is purposefully not push but try to last hit for 20+ minutes. Towers seem to target Champions as primary target, unlike LOL where they only attack Champ if there are no minions, or if you attack their Champ at tower. There is also no real point trying to kill enemy Champions. You get same or more gold by killing 4-5 minions. It is SLOW game, it got very boring for me, as I found LOL kinda slow, but ok sometimes for 15-20 minute quick matches. In DOTA2  even if we WANT to LOSE, we CANT in under 30 minutes (there is no surrender option, and minions being nearly as strong as champions for half a match ensure it will be long match, every match). I dont know who they want playing their game, but I will be passing on it.