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?
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:
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.