We all had our suspicions when Valve hired Icefrog, the designer and curator of the ridiculously popular Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients. And we had a pretty good idea what was coming when URL-registry-digging site SuperAnnuation pulled up a Valve trademark for a game called DOTA. But today, in a sizable online story over on Game Informer, we finally saw the confirmation: Valve Software, with the help of Icefrog, is making Dota 2, the sequel to Defense of the Ancients. Not a remake or a spiritual successor, but a "sequel" to the popular mod that Valve in no way owns. In fact, unlike DotA, it's unclear if Valve's Dota 2 is even an acronym at all, or if the game just uses the pronounced acronym as the name of its own totally identical but technically unrelated game.
(As I suggested before, it's like if Valve released a sci-fi RPG where players controlled a space knight with laser swords and spaceships that just happened to be called "Kotor.")
But if you’ve ever played Defense of the Ancients in Warcraft III, you are going to feel immediately at home inside Valve’s proper-retail version of the game; according to the Game Informer article, Dota 2’s gameplay will be identical to its modification predecessor. You’ll still choose from the list of over 100 heroes (and all of the over 100 original heroes from the DotA mod are being brought over into Dota 2). You’ll still control a single hero in an action-RTS battle where your team will escort waves of "creeps" from your base to your opponent’s base, all the while doing battle with the enemy team’s creeps and their heroes. You’ll still use the exact same items, skill upgrades, and abilities as you did in the DotA mod. It sounds like this is DotA-ass Dota, with Valve commenting in the article that there’s a reason good design and balance elements work, and that they’re not going to muck around the formula if they don’t have to… much like a certain other high profile PC RTS released this year.
Actually, the comparison to StarCraft II seems particularly apt; Valve seems to understand that, while DotA could be an excellent and exciting game, it was brutally difficult to get started playing the game, given a lack of competent matchmaking for the mod, few in-game resources that could teach players what they need to know to succeed, and a gameplay system where the death of a single player on a team could jeopardize the entire team (leading to a community that Game Informer charitably describes as “newbie-hostile”). As a result, Valve is putting the brunt of its development effort in Dota 2 into features that will help new or beginner players practice the game and reward knowledgeable players who impart their knowledge.
How is Valve going about trying to stem the tides of anger, frustration, and rampant homophobia that ruined many a DotA match? According to Game Informer, Valve’s key to making Dota 2 friendlier and more fun is a radical series of upgrades and enhancements to their Steamworks platform (Valve’s matchmaking back-end system) to create a Dota 2 community that rewards participation. Beyond offering skill-based matchmaking that will keep players matched with those of similar skill types, Dota 2’s Steamworks will be designed so that players can earn various unlocks to the game by participating in the community. Anything from presenting feedback about various elements of the game, to writing exhaustive game guides about various heroes, maps, and mechanics could help players earn points and unlock cosmetic and vanity unlocks to differentiate themselves and their profiles. According to the Game informer piece, the sky is the limit when it comes to rewarding players who contribute to the Dota 2 community.
Most exciting of all, however, is the introduction of a "Coaching" system, and it sounds like this will be exactly what you imagine it to be. Players will have the option of being matched up with Coaches (veteran DotA players in this case) who will watch the training player as they play--literally seeing the same screen as the in-game player--and provide insight and strategy to a player over the course of a match. The coach and trainer will have a private voice chat session as well as standard text-based chat options so the two can communicate and better optimize the trainee. Those trainees will then be able to rate the coaches on their effectiveness, and good coaches will be able to access their own line of unlockable rewards.
All of this comes to Valve’s Dota sequel, which (as you might have guessed) abandons the old Warcraft III engine for Valve’s going-strong-after-seven-years Source engine. As you can see from the character renders from the Game Informer article, the aesthetics of Dota 2 also seems to have been altered as a result of leaving the exaggerated features and bright colors of the Warcraft III engine (and popular DotA-inspired games like League of Legends), trading them in for a slightly darker, more realistic look.
You can read the Game Informer article for some more insight into the Dota design process (as well as see multiple members of the Valve team refer to Icefrog as “one of the smartest designers we’ve ever hired”). However, your enjoyment of Dota 2 will boil down to one question that you need to answer; do you already like Defense of The Ancients? If you said no, than Valve hopes it’s because of the game’s difficulty curve, and that better matchmaking and an active social community will ease you into the game (along with Valve’s reputation for releasing quality software). If you already like DotA, however, then Dota 2 looks to be exactly the kind of game you expect--even if it's not technically related to the original mod--when it’s released next year on the PC and Mac.
Images courtesy of Game Informer