Television sports coverage helped me get into Dota 2, but that's not the entire story. The increasingly complicated hassle of annual sequels and aggressive DLC is driving my friends away from big AAA multiplayer games and towards games that are easy to pick up, hard to master, and reward long-term study and practice. This fits Dota 2 perfectly.
I would not have played Dota 2 five years ago. I know this for a fact.
I gained beta access to League of Legends in 2009 and played maybe half a game before thinking it wasn't for me. It seemed too dependent on other people; I wanted to be able to play on my own schedule, without having my enjoyment so contingent on others.
Much has changed in the last five years. The MOBA/DOTA/"Lords Management" genre has exploded, first of all — there hasn't been a wave of would-be successors chasing after a next-big-thing like this since World of Warcraft launched in 2004. This week, in fact, Borderlands developer Gearbox announced their own new MOBA-influenced multiplayer shooter hybrid, Battleborn. In May, Bethesda announced Battlecry.
But before this year, my multiplayer interests have been defined by shooters, primarily. Games like Gears of War 3, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Battlefield 3 and Titanfall. The problem? Finding points of convergence with friends and peers on what to play.
It's harder and harder to find things my friends and I all want to play
It's not just the number of multiplayer shooters out there that wear us down and makes keeping up feel daunting, the steady flow of paid downloadable content undermines the community of many games.
We lose our group bit by bit after each game is released. Progressive DLC releases leave peers behind in the relentless upgrade cycle, and slowly but surely players fall away or move to other games. This has gotten more pronounced as game hype becomes more front-loaded, and where you begin a game can change depending on how much you pay for your specific edition, or where you buy the game for this or that exclusive weapon, item or ability.
EA, who uses a server browser model on Battlefield, increasingly locks off more and more servers to users who haven't bought all released DLC maps, leaving fewer servers and more potential queues for the rabble. Even having DLC purchased can be a pain in the ass, particularly managing what is or isn't installed, what has or hasn't released yet, which platform holder secured an exclusive for what and for how long. I have a headache just thinking about it, and I do this for a living.
Trying to keep track of this for every triple A multiplayer game that "deserves" attention is exhausting when it should be fun. You can only try to get people together to play a game so many times, only to be interrupted by multi-gig DLC update downloads and purchasing rigamarole before you lose your stomach for it entirely. Every publisher wants their game to be a service, but I just want games. Managing those services when they pile up becomes a burden.
What we look for
The paid games that resonate the longest with me at this point have a strong singleplayer campaign element — Titanfall only gets the lightest of passes here because it's so singularly different from every other shooter around in terms of mobility and versatility. A campaign is something I can play through, enjoy and be finished with. There's too much bullshit for most paid multiplayer titles for them to be the forever-games that publishers so desperately want them to be, whether it's cooperative, competitive, an MMO, or any other wrinkle that developers try to find to stand apart.
The (triple A) cycle leads to early burnout
The cycle of release, release DLC, subscriptions, season passes, post-release DLC, and expansions is creating an exhausting cycle that may be profitable for some, but it leads to early burnout. Bungie's Destiny isn't out for two months, but this week, there was an announcement of two major expansions to be sold after release, both of which also include platform exclusive content. Each new game begins the cycle again, and it becomes hard to stay with one game for an extended period of time. If I don't keep up, if I slip just a little, I'm less likely to continue playing.
Dota 2 is an exception to this. Dota 2 does not have an active players problem, and neither does it's older competition, League of Legends. League dwarfs Dota 2's monthly unique player-base by a considerable margin, in fact. Both games have found an audience and not only kept it year over year, they both appear to be growing. All the while. anecdotally at least, other multiplayer games, and shooters in particular, quickly burn off my friends, even as they are the most equipped to try and keep up with what the "big" studios are releasing.
Dota 2's guarantee of user parity makes me comfortable in investing hundreds of hours into it
None of us have to worry about keeping up with Dota 2's DLC schedule — there isn't one. Yes, there are patches, but first, everyone has to download them to play, and second, every multiplayer game has them anyway. Every piece of gameplay content is available to everyone at all times regardless of how much money they've spent. League of Legends' model involves rotating through a roster of free and paid heroes, whereas Dota 2 allows access to everyone all the time, monetizing cosmetic items instead. Either way, players who aren't paying aren't getting a subpar experience. No one is segregated based on spending.
I haven't seen people develop the sorts of relationships they're building with games like Dota 2 and LoL in years. There's a wide investment in both games' ecosystems, in their "meta," the kind of engagement triple A takes for granted but, in my experience, rarely actually achieves.
It's the kind of guarantee of user parity at all times that makes me comfortable in investing hundreds of hours in Dota 2. I don't ever have to worry about not having any part of the game to keep playing with friends. There's next to no friction in keeping that relationship going.
Except for some of the playerbase, that is. But we'll get to that later. In the meantime, triple A releases could learn a lot from the trust and consistency of experience that LoL and Dota 2 offer. The more AAA games try to sell us, the faster they're going to lose us.