Defence of the Ancients
Blizzard drew the blueprints, their community laid the foundations, now several developers are hoping to build something lasting and unique on the back of the World's most popular mod.
Warcraft III was a bit different. Whilst the first two games in the series were very much fantasy re-imaginings of Dune II, the genre-defining RTS from Command & Conquer devs Westwood Studios, Warcraft 3 put Heroes (powerful units with special powers/skills) upfront and centre. The action-RTS genre was conceived, although nobody knew it just yet.
The game went on the become very popular in its own right, but the impact it made was to come from left-field, and not even Blizzard saw it coming.
Map Editors for RTS games were common place at the time, and Warcraft 3 was no different in this respect. Once again the community were able to put their own stamp on their experience via an array of customisation options, and from this creative freedom a mod was born; Defense of the Ancients.
The premise is simple (the best always are); a team of up to five players control one powerful character (the aforementioned heroes) and engage in keenly contested battles across a fairly standard, symmetrical map design. In opposite corners of the arena there are the titular Ancients; towers that provide the focal point for much of the action. The end goal is to destroy these towers.
Beyond that it starts to get incredibly complicated, but that's the underlying essence of the game; play as a hero, destroy the opposing team's base. Simple.
But it's not that simple, really.
Hard as nails
DotA is tough. Really tough. At first there's so much to take in. Too much in fact. It can be daunting to newcomers, because with so much happening, and with so many permutations, it can be easy to get confused, or even worse, make a mistake.
The community has a reputation for being unforgiving towards new players, because an inexperienced player can offer the opposing team a massive advantage.
Throughout combat heroes level up by killing Creeps, collecting gold and upgrading their character. Like a traditional RTS, there is an element of resource management, but in DotA this has been stripped back considerably. By killing enemy Creeps (and your own - to deny opposition kills/exp) players become more powerful as the game progresses.
A weak link in the chain allows savvy opponents to pick away lesser players, leveling themselves up more quickly, and handing an instant advantage to his or her team. As such, a poor player can be a massive inconvenience to a team, and attitudes towards them can be harsh and uncompromising.
In fact, this high barrier for entry might well be the reason that the genre has remained niche (albeit a very popular niche), rather than becoming the mainstream genre that it has the potential to be.
In the beginning, DotA was a community thing. Over the years a number of dedicated members guided the burgeoning genre, updating characters with new powers, and by tweaking gameplay mechanics to create evenly matched battles.
The first mod to appear was by a user known only as Eul, who used the Starcraft scenario "Aeon of Strife" as inspiration for the scenario. The idea was developed further by Guinsoo, who created the variant of the map that went on to become the dominant take on the concept.
Another notable name in the mod's history is IceFrog, a user who took the reigns and managed the community (then over 1 million strong), tweaking heroes and adding fixes as he went.
Under the stewardship of these community members, DotA grew and grew, becoming something more than just an adaptation of a game mode. It might have been born as a map variant, but it would grow up to be a game in its own right, in turn spawning numerous spinoffs and improvements.
Pretenders to the throne
There has been several games cast in mould of DotA. At the top of the list sits League of Legends. Created by Riot Games, and featuring several of the major players from the original DotA community, LoL captured the essence of the newly emerging genre, but put its own stamp on it.
Like the original before it, LoL has a reputation for being unfriendly to noobs. So much so that procedures have had to be implemented to govern the online community. Like DotA, this hostility towards novices stems from the fact that a weak link is likely to leave a team hamstrung once the action gets going. Given that games are long, drawn-out affairs (when compared to something more immediate, such as a first-person shooter), a poor player can turn a promising duel into an inevitable, lengthy defeat.
League of Legends is free-to-play in its most basic form, with additional heroes purchasable on top of an ever changing roster of characters available for experimentation.
You can add to the list of pretenders titles such as Demigod, Heroes of Newerth, Rise of the Immortals, Guardians of Middle-Earth and Monday Night Combat (although the latter twists the concept by placing you in the third-person). If DotA is your thing, there are plenty of decent titles to keep you entertained whilst you wait...
The return of the kings
In 2010 two titles were announced that made DotA players sit up and take notice.
First out of the gate was Dota 2, Valve's entry into the market place. Dubbed the "official sequel" by the studio, Valve carried on their tradition of hiring indie developers and integrating them into their projects. They hired former community guardian IceFrog to help develop the title, and in doing so felt justified in using the DotA name.
Blizzard and Riot were not so keen, and initiated legal proceedings against Valve with respect to their usage of the DotA name. Valve won the legal battle, and Dota 2 is set to be released later this year, and the beta is already underway.
The second title to be announced was Blizzard's take on the genre, which after the legal dispute with Valve, is to be called Blizzard All-Stars. It will feature heroes from a range of Blizzard games, including Diablo, Warcraft and Starcraft.
Opinion is divided as to which is the rightful heir to the throne, but it's likely that both games will be incredibly popular. League of Legends has aptly demonstrated that there is a space in the market for a dedicated DotA game, and both Dota 2 and Blizzard All-Stars are hoping to fill that space. They're pretty evenly matched, all told, so like a classic DotA battle, it's likely to be something minor that decides which set of heroes leave the field as victors.
But with Valve and Blizzard squaring off against each other, it might yet be League of Legends that emerges as victor from the inevitable carnage. Its user base is already well established, and the game has dared to cut its own path. It remains to be seen if DOTA 2 or Blizzard All-Stars are anything more than pretty graphical overhauls. Whilst they might look nice, we've yet to see concrete proof that they will bring anything really new to the table.
The DotA community is waiting patiently, hoping that both Valve and Blizzard can deliver something worthy of their collective time and effort. The pressure is on for both studios, because one misstep from either side, and League of Legends will likely make worm's meat of them.
The stage is set, the heroes are assembling and battle looms heavy on the horizon. A war of attrition is about to start, and soon, we'll all be able to pick a side.