New Lands: Dota 2, performance, and play

As discussed on the PC Gamer podcast and described by Quintin Smith in his brilliant series of articles for Eurogamer, I've been playing a lot of Dota 2. I'm playing with a group of writers, some of whom I know fairly well - Rich and Owen, who I work with on PCG - and others that I'm meeting for the first time, or have only met briefly in real life. In one case I'm playing with someone who I actually have met in real life but I think they've forgotten and I'm hoping that they haven't put two and two together yet because I made an ass of myself and a fresh start sounds pretty good.

What surprises and fascinates me about the game is how social it is: not simply in terms of cooperation or coordination but personality and expression. It's almost intimate, which is a strange thing to say about an isometric RTS variant where the average team is made up of some combination of wizards, swordsmen, helicopters, tree-people, spiders, ghosts and bears. It's part of a notoriously unfriendly genre known for bringing out the worst in people, but its structure - longform group coordination wobbling uneasily on top of a convoluted, Calvinball-esque pile of characters, items, skills and rules - is also what gives it the capacity to be personal.

I performed improvised comedy for a few years at university, the Edinburgh Fringe and a few places in the USA. The group I was part of took improv seriously and experimented constantly, performing shortform Whose Line Is It Anyway-style gameshow stuff as well as longform comedy, improvised drama, and promenade/in situ public performance.

Learning to improvise was one of the hardest things I've done. I gradually transitioned into acting - including probably the world's shortest attempt at a career in the business - but never experienced the same anxiety, and the same deeply personal sense of failure, that I did as an improviser. Actors are protected by scripts, by the patterns of repetition and improvement inherent to the rehearsal process. Fucked it up? Do it again. Improvisers get no retreads: if you pushed yourself into a scene at the wrong time, or undermined a co-performer to get a rise out of the audience, that happened, you did it, and you can't fix it. You can learn to avoid the core error but you can't return to the scene of the crime and make it go away. The criticism that gets doled out within an improv group is personal, because becoming a better performer means facing down and dealing with ugly personal truths. Insecurity, impatience, ego: you can't fix them, and you probably wouldn't be funny without them, but you can't pretend you don't have them.

Dota 2 has an absurd learning curve, but it's the personal side that attracts me to it and that reminds me of improv. It's not a one-to-one match: the aftermath of a bad improv show looks like a soul-searching pint in an Edinburgh beer garden, while a catastrophic Dota 2 game ends in a collective withdrawl from the process. Silence over Skype, muttered deadpan truths about feeding and failure. But there's a common process of analysis and consolation that produces a technical solution by starting with each player's implicit flaws and tendencies. The crusty mechanical layer fractures and reveals human working parts. Sometimes, the human working parts swear at you in Russian and abandon the match.

We're mostly playing Single Draft, which limits each player's choice of character to a randomised set of three. It's this that completes the improv analogy: where All Pick gives us the freedom to plan (and often overplan) our game, Single Draft forces a rapid calibration of people, roles and skills in the minute before the game begins. It's fraught and ad-hoc and the resulting team structure barely holds together. The group performance is made up of dozens of continual little decisions and anxieties, and even when we've got an experienced guide there are moments of confusion and crisis where individuals often simply cope, but sometimes shine.

That's exactly what live performance is for. It's a way of getting inside each other's heads and turning out something that could only exist at that time at that place with those people. The more time I spend thinking about games the more I come back to the idea that they're uniquely able to fold ritual, sport, and theatre back into each other. People took conflict and called it play, span it out into kicking a ball, running fast, standing in front of an audience and talking about feelings. Playing Single Draft in the small hours, chatting about work and yelling about the game, pulls together bits and pieces of all of those ideas. Dota 2's overcomplexity - its visual and mechanical noise - makes it a fantastic stage, a deep and safe intermediary between people.

In the past I've used a similar argument to defend mechanically flabby MMOs, but Dota 2 compresses that same kind of breadth into hour-long tests of technical skill, self-control, authority and empathy. Its performance-style structure grants form and catharsis to the drama of dealing with chaos. It's a remarkable thing to learn to do with other people.


  1. Awesome and interesting write-up, I'll be looking forward for more :)

  2. It's interesting hearing from the UK games journo guys getting into Dota, and especially hearing the rationalizations for why the game is good.

    What many seem to forget/ignore though, is that the game wasn't always this difficult to get into. It wasn't easier by any means, but the difficulty in Dota comes from the expected skill level of players. If we look back 7+ years ago, unless you were in high-level rooms no one cared about denying/creep equilibrium/etc.

    So although many people say the appeal comes largely from it's difficulty and forced teamwork and how rewarding it is. That wasn't really the case 7+ years ago, and people still loved it.

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    2. You're right, and I can definitely appreciate that side of it. It's the depth that has grabbed me about Dota, though, and that allows for all the other things I'm interested in - the social things - to happen.

    3. Man, I remember playing way back in the day when there were multiple versions of DotA and crazy heroes (a hero named "God" even). It was almost like a party game back then. And yeah, it was crazy fun back then.

      The problem with "party" games though is that they grow old very quickly. The more "skillcap" you put into a game, the longer it will hold your attention. Just look at Chess or Go, games that have been played for hundreds and hundreds of years because of the immense complexity and strategy involved.

      Both "versions" of DotA were fun, but you don't see anyone really playing the old versions.

  3. Chris, how would you define this game? I had this conversation a lot of times with my friends, and we could never find a complete answer. This post got me again in this discussion.

    For example, Rocket said once in a interview that DayZ isn't focused on the players having fun, but on the authenticity of the emotions created by the game. And it makes sense, DayZ makes no sense at all if you only play to farm weapons, you need to dive on it and roleplay it.

    Following the same example, what is the most important thing about Dota, that, without it, it wouldn't be Dota anymore?

    1. For me it's the variety and what that variety supports. The game feels bottomless, even though it isn't - I'm 90 hours in and I've probably played with less than half of the heroes. I can count the ones I can play confidently on the fingers of one hand.

      This allows the game to be constantly surprising. The best thing about learning a new game is the moment when you encounter something new and think "oh my god, what is THAT?". That feeling has a half-life based on how complex the game is and how dynamic its systems are. Dota 2 lasts a long, long time in that regard.

      What's interesting is that its underlying systems aren't very dynamic: there are skills that can cause spectacular chain reactions, but they're not a factor in every fight or even every match. Dota 2 is complex because it's incredibly top heavy. It's a pile of rules as a result of being an act of communal rather than individual design. If Counter-Strike was a slick, single-minded vampire, then Dota 2 would be a gnawing, many-mouthed shoggoth: don't look directly at it or you'll lose your mind.

      The appeal for me, then, is basically that: shoggoth wrangling with friends. There's an authenticity (as Rocket puts it) to the way people act in the face of all that data that I find fascinating.

  4. The appeal of DOTA is the fact you can play with your mates and that you can essentially enjoy victories with very little knowledge of the mechanics of the game (picking a hero like Lina or Luna for example).

    Whereas Starcraft2/Warcraft3 you needed to know so much more to have even a tiny chance of victory (build orders, timing etc...) You can piss about with your friends in DOTA in allpick or if you're up for a challenge go Captains Mode and get all serious. The game is so shallow and yet so deep simultaneously depending on what mood you're in. So easy to enter yet so difficult to master. Games like these are the ones that have kept me writing about Esports all these years. Its a pity that SC2 had such a high skill barrier for novices. DOTA2 is a great social outing.

  5. Also its so international! Who can forgot the memorable moments with Russian Allies. Have you found HAttonGames' videos Chris? well worth watching if your in the mood for something amusing :)