I never really had a taste for competitive gaming mostly because my less than stellar Internet connection usually put me at a disadvantage for any game that I played. Even after I remedied that I still found shied away from them, fearing that I’d simply end up losing game after game, never to make any progress. Starcraft II changed that however and I found myself deeply engrossed in ladder play, feverishly battling my way through opponents in the hopes I could make it to the top. That faded over time as my interest turned towards DOTA2 and much to my surprise I’m still horribly addicted to it. This has then evolved into a love for all things about the game including the competitive scene, something which I’d never thought I’d find myself interested in. Of all the tournaments and events that happen over the year none compare to the spectacle that is The International, a DOTA2 tournament hosted by Valve themselves.
I was only tangentially aware of the first 2 Internationals having been a keen DOTA AllStars fan back in the day and one of the many wanting an invite to the beta but was yet to be in possession of one. They made headlines for their gigantic prize pools for a game that was still relatively unknown, a cool $1 million for the first place winner. For pro gamers that’s an incredible amount of money, more than many other tournaments in more established eSports scenes, and is enough to sustain an entire team for a long time. On the surface it appeared to be just another marketing tactic by Valve to get people interested in the game but since its introduction 3 years ago The International has taken on a life of its own, becoming the standard for eSports events across the world.
Last year however Valve did something curious, the released a compendium (an in game item) for $10, $2.50 of which would go directly into the prize pool that would be awarded to the players. The result was incredible, players and supporters of teams alike contributed over $1.2 million to the prize pool which saw The International retake its crown as the largest prize pool eSports tournament. Valve, looking to replicate the success of last year’s tournament, released another compendium for this year’s The International as well with the same price point and contribution levels.
The results speak for themselves: yesterday the prize pool exceeded $6 million and it’s not stopping there.
For fans and players a like this is a great thing as it means that teams that even place in 7th or 8th will likely have enough funds behind them to sustain them throughout the year. Being a pro gamer isn’t as flashy as it sounds and there are some costs that simply can’t be avoided (like flights, not to mention the basics of living). For fans this means a bigger, much more well produced event which judging by last year’s standards will make it nothing short of incredible.
I’m incredibly excited as what this year’s The International will bring as we get to see the top tier talent of DOTA2 duke it out for the biggest prize pool in eSports history. Every year Valve has stepped up their game and this year looks to be no exception with the live floor moving to a much larger arena and the production crew swelling their ranks considerably. As someone who never really understood sports growing up I now know what it feels like for sports fans when grand finals time approaches and I simply can’t wait for it.
Have you heard of the term “Ladder Anxiety“? If you’ve ever played in competitive 1 on 1 games you’ll the know the feeling intimately, that sense of dread you get before you hit the find match button that builds upon itself until you see that final score screen. When I played StarCraft 2 a lot I would get this all the time, to the point where if I was just a little bit cold my whole body would shudder violently until the nervous energy turned me into a raging furnace. I’ve eventually learned what I can do to tame that wild beast but by far the best thing for it was simply to not play 1 v 1 as I found my stress levels were far lower when I was playing in a team. For StarCraft 2 this kind of defeats the point since it’s balanced for 1 v 1 but for other games, like my current addiction in DOTA 2, it’s par for the course.
For all of these games the in built ranking system is usually very coarse, serving as an indication of where you fit in with the larger gaming populace and only giving solid rankings for the highest level players. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple as anything more granular than that leads to some rather undesirable behaviour within the greater community. The ELO ratings that were used back in the original WarCraft 3 DOTA map were a good example of this as players would often use it as an excuse to force people into certain roles (your ELO is too low, you’re playing support), criticize them for not playing the way they think you should be playing or just simply being jerks for the sake of it. You might be thinking that this is all par for the course for something that’s on the Internet but the simple fact is that you never want to give jerks tools that enable them to be better jerks, especially if you can avoid it.
You can then imagine my reaction when I heard about the upcoming release of the DotaBuff Rating system. I first came across it when they had a poll up to determine whether it should be a widely available stat or something you can only see for yourself and was hopeful that the community that struggled against the perils of the previous ELO system would make the right decision. Whilst the Reddit DOTA 2 players appeared to be on the right track the wider player base apparently voted, in 2 to 1 odds, to make it open to everyone. The backlash against that idea was strong enough for them to rethink their position on the matter with them saying that they’d move it into a “paid only” feature. Whilst its debatable as to whether or not that was their plan all along the furore generated by the potential implementation of DBR caught the eyes of Valve and they decided to go nuclear on the situation.
In the latest patch to hit DOTA 2 an option was introduced into the game settings that allowed you to choose whether or not sites like DotaBuff would be allowed to view your match data. This option was disabled by default meaning that the vast majority of the data that DotaBuff had been collecting since its inception would no longer be available to it. Additionally it’s no longer possible to reconstruct the download link for the replay file meaning that the more in depth statistics are simply unavailable. People like me who are interested in their ongoing statistics would of course enable it again but as some of my recent games have shown I’m not in the majority of users. Whilst I might abhor the introduction of a rating that arguably made an elitist community worse it doesn’t bode well for the ancillary developer community that was trying to add value to one of Valve’s burgeoning ecosystems.
Now its easy to argue that its foolish to base your business around someone else’s business, especially in this web driven age where API changes like this can spell death for your nascent company. However it’s also hard to ignore the fact that if you don’t do it someone else will and there’s every chance that they’ll see some level of success for it. DotaBuff is, to me at least, a great resource for personal statistics tracking and being able to compare myself to the wider world (but no the other way around) was an invaluable resource. Valve I feel went too far in its reaction to the DBR situation and could have easily resolved the situation without resorting to nuclear level responses. Hopefully this is just an overcorrection and they can reach a happy middle ground as in its current form the API is a shadow of its former self.
To be truthful the DOTA community has grown a lot since I used to play it back in WarCraft 3 and whilst I wouldn’t want to poke the bear by giving everyone unfettered access to DBR I don’t believe it was particularly threaten by having it available privately. Sure it might be a bit more granular than Valve’s preferred system (searching the replays with your name and selecting the skill rating) but I’m sure that’s nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a few friendly emails rather than a whole of game API limitation. There’s probably more to this story than what I’m seeing however and time will tell if this change will spell the end for stats tracking sites like DotaBuff.
2012 was the year I decided to ramp up my game reviews significantly, aiming to get at least one done per week. I got pretty close to that goal managing to get through a grand total of 48 games last year, well over the double previous year’s tally. I have to say that I really enjoyed the whole experience as I often found myself going outside my comfort zone in order to find something to review and the number of indie games I’ve played this year is more than all the years prior put together. Now that 2012 is firmly in the rear view mirror it comes time for me to reflect on all the games that I’ve played and crown one of them Game of the Year 2012.
As always here’s a list in chronological order of the games I reviewed during 2012:
Now people who’ve been here a while (and have read my Guide to Game Reviews on The Refined Geek) will know that my review scores tend towards the infamous 7 to 10 scale rather than 0 to 10 but from time to time I’ll venture below that curve for games that really deserve it. Notable mentions that did this include Lone Survivor, I Am Alive and (drum roll please) this year’s winner of lowest score received: Dear Esther. My review of that game was probably one of the most controversial reviews I’ve ever written as I had people telling me I simply “didn’t get it” all the way up to saying that it wasn’t fair for me to judge it as a game because it wasn’t. Sadly nothing of what anyone sad to me could change the horrific experience I had with Dear Esther and it gives me an undue amount of pleasure to give it the Wooden Spoon as worst game of 2012.
Whilst 2011 saw me give a notable mention to Gemini Rue for being a stand out indie game of that year I can’t feel like I can do the same this year: there’s just so many deserving titles and unlike Gemini Rue nearly all of them got the praise they deserved. Indeed the reason I found out (and subsequently played) so many indie titles this year was because of the attention they were receiving in the larger video games press and if it wasn’t for a few kind words from some of my trusted sources many of these indie games might not have seen a review here. Whilst I’ll stop short of giving an award to the indie game scene (because that’s incredibly lame) I will say that I’m looking forward to what the indie scene brings forth in 2013 and beyond.
One game that I’d like to give an honourable mention to, since it is by far my most played game of 2012 by a long shot, is Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2). Whilst I starting playing it back towards the end of 2011 I really didn’t get that into it until just after I wrote my initial review of it but after then my play time in it snow balled considerably. This was helped a lot by the fact that a cadre of my competitive gaming friends joined along with me which fuelled my addiction to it to perilous heights. Today I’ve played over 600 games and ranked up well over the same amount of hours playing, watching and talking about DOTA 2 and Valve deserves an extraordinary amount of credit for making this game what it is today. It’s not my game of the year since it’s more like a meth addiction than anything else, but that doesn’t detract from its accomplishments.
I’ll be honest, choosing my game of the year (even with the beautiful hindsight granted by having a big list of games I’ve played right there to look over) was tough. Whilst there were a lot of good games there were no amazing stand outs like there was the year previous. Going by review scores the best game of last year for me was Journey and whilst I was very tempted to give it that honour, like IGN has done, I couldn’t shake this feeling in the back of my head that there was another game that was more deserving but I couldn’t figure out which one to pick. The answer came to me, funnily enough, in the middle of a New Years eve party in the early hours of the morning and I still agree with that decision today.
My Game of the Year for 2012 is To The Moon.
If for the simple fact that I’m fighting back tears right now isn’t proof enough that this game had a massive impact on me To The Moon is one of those games that eschewed game play in favour of telling a beautiful, gripping story. Sure the game play was flawed and the disjointed pacing was one of the reasons that it didn’t score better than Journey but if just thinking about it can cause that kind of reaction in me then I know it had an impact that few games have had. I could continue gushing about it for hours if I wanted to but you really need to experience it for yourself as it’s an incredibly personal experience, one that will stick with you for a long time.
I had debated whether or not to continue my 1 review per week deal this year as whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and opportunities it has granted me (2 games this year were sent to me for review, a 100% increase on last year!) it does take a fair bit of time to get through them. However considering the amount of DOTA 2 I’ve managed to fit in the past year I figure that cutting back on that in favour of more games will see more deadlines hit more frequently meaning more regular reviews for you, my readers. I won’t make any grandiose promises about reviewing more games this year than last but I’ll guarantee I’ll try my hardest to get one out a week and continue to pillage the vast reaches of all game genres and developers.
P.S. What was your game of the year? I’m really keen to know.
If you’ll allow me to get a little hipster for a second you’ll be pleased to find out that I’ve been into the whole Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) scene since it first found its roots way back in Warcraft 3. Back then it was just another custom map that I played along with all the other customs I enjoyed, mostly because I suffered from some extreme ladder anxiety. Since then I’ve played my way through all of the DOTA clones that came out (Heroes of Newerth, Leaggue of Legends and even that ill fated experiment from GPG, Demigod) but none of them captured me quite as much as the seemingly official successor, DOTA 2, has.
Defense of the Ancients 2 should be familiar to anyone who played the original DOTA or one of the many games that followed it. In a team of 5 you compete as single heros, choosing from a wide selection who all have unique abilities and uses, pushing up one of three lanes with a bunch of NPC creeps at your side. The ultimate goal is the enemies ancient, a very well defended building that will take the concerted effort of all team members to reach and finally, destroy. There are of course many nuances to what would, on the surface, seem to be a simple game and it’s these subtleties which make the game so engrossing.
When compared to its predecessor that was limited by the graphics engine of WarCraft 3 DOTA2 stands out as a definite improvement. It’s not a graphical marvel, much like many of the MOBA genre, instead favoring heavily stylized graphics much like Blizzard does for many of their games. The recent updates to DOTA2 have seen some significant improvements over the first few initial releases both in terms of in-game graphics and the surrounding UI elements. Valve appears to be heavily committed to ensuring DOTA2’s success and the graphical improvements are just the tip of the iceberg in this regard.
Back in the old days of the original DOTA the worst aspect of it was finding a game and then hoping that no one would drop out prematurely. There were many 3rd party solutions to this problem, most of which were semi-effective but were open to abuse and misuse, but none of them could solve the problem of playing a game with similarly skilled players. DOTA2, like nearly every other MOBA title, brings in a matchmaking system that will pair you up with other players and also brings with it the ability to rejoin a game should your client crash or your connection drop out.
Unfortunately since DOTA2 is still in beta the matchmaking system is not yet entirely working as I believe it’s intended to. It does make the process of finding, joining and completing a game much more streamlined but it is blissfully unaware of how skilled a potential player is. What this means is that the games have a tendency to swing wildly in one teams favour and unlike other games where this leads to a quick demise (thus freeing you up toplay again) DOTA instead is a drawn out process and should you decide to leave prematurely you’ll be hit with a dreaded “abandoned” mark next to your record. This is not an insurmountable probelm though and I’m sure that future revision of DOTA2 will address this issue.
The core gameplay of DOTA2 is for the most part unchanged from back in the days of the original DOTA. You still get your pick from a very wide selection of heros (I believe most of the AllStars team are in there), the items have the same names and you still go through each of the main game phases (laneing, pushing, ganking) as the game progresses. There have been some improvements to take away some of the more esoteric aspects of DOTA2 and for the most part they’re quite welcome.
Gone are the days where crafting items required either in depth knowledge of what made what or squinting at the recipe text, instead you can click on the ultimate item you want to craft and see what items go in to make it. Additionally there’s a list of suggested items for you hero which, whilst not being entirely appropriate for every situation, will help to ease players into the game as they learn some of the more intricate aspects of iteming a character correctly. It’s still rather easy to draw the ire of players who think they know everything there is to know about certain characters (I’ll touch more on the community later) but at least you won’t be completely useless if you stick to the item choices the game presents for you.
Know which hero to pick is just as important as knowing how to item them and thankfully there are some improvements to the hero choosing system that should make do so a little easier for everyone. Whilst the hero picking has always made delineations between int/str/agi based heros you can now also filter for things like what kind of role the character fills like support, ganker or initiator. For public games though it seems everyone wants to play a carry (mostly because they’re the most fun) and there’s little heed paid to good group composition but this is not a fault of the game per se, but there is potential there for sexing up the lesser played types so that pub compositions don’t end up as carry on carry battles.
It’s probably due to the years of play testing that the original DOTA received but the heroes of DOTA2 are fairly well balanced with no outright broken or overpowered heroes dominating the metagame. There are of course heros that appear to be broken in certain situations (I had the pleasure of seeing Outworld Destroyer killing my entire team in the space of 10 seconds) but in reality it’s the player behind that character making them appear broken. This bodes well for the eSports scene that Valve is fostering around DOTA2 and they’re going to need to keep up this level of commitment if they want a chance of dethroning the current king, League of Legends.
The eSports focused improvements in DOTA2 are setting the bar for new game developers who have their eye on developing an eSports scene for their current and future products. The main login screen has a list of the top 3 spectated games and with a single click you can jump in and watch them with a 2 minute delay. This can be done while you’r waiting to join a game yourself and once your game is ready to play you’re just another click away from joining in on the action. It’s a fantastic way for both newcomers and veterans of the genre to get involved in the eSports scene, but that’s just he start of it.
Replays can be accessed directly from a player’s profile or downloaded from the Internet. Game casters can embed audio directly into the replay allowing users to watch the replay in game with the caster’s commentary.They can also watch the caster’s view of the game, use a free camera or using the built in smart camera that will automatically focus on the place where the most action is happening. It’s a vast improvement over how nearly all other games do their replays and Valve really has to be commended for the work they’ve done here.
For all the improvements however there’s one thing that DOTA2 can’t seem to get away from and that’s its elitist, almost poisonous community that is very hostile to new players. Whilst the scsreenshot above is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek example of the behavior that besots the DOTA2 community it still holds true that whilst many concessions have been made to make the game more palatable for newcomers the DOTA2 community still struggles with bringing in new players to the fold. League of Legends on the other hand crack this code very early on and the following success is a testament to how making the game more inviting for new users is the ultimate way to drive the game forward. I don’t have an answer as to how to fix this (and whilst I say LoL cracked the code I’m not 100% sure their solution is portable to DOTA2) and it will be very interesting to see how DOTA2 develops in the shaodw of the current MOBA king.
DOTA2 managed to engage me in a way that only one other game has managed to do recently and I belive there’s something to that. Maybe it’s a bit of nostalgia or possibly my inner eSports fan wanting to dive deep into another competitive scene but DOTA2 has really upped the MOBA experience that I first got hooked on all those years ago and failed to rekindle with all the other titles in this genre. I’d tell you to go out and buy it now but it’s still currently in beta so if you can get your hands on a key I’d definitely recommend doing so and if you’re new to this kind of game just ignore the haters, you won’t have to deal with them for long.
Defense of the Ancients 2 is currently in beta on PC. Approximately 60 hours of total game play were undertaken prior to this review with a record of 32 wins to 36 losses.