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Dota 2 preview: How Valve is building its first RTS from the ground up

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Valve celebrated its latest video game, Dota 2, in a very big way at Gamescom 2011. The game maker awarded Team Na’Vi from Ukraine $1 million for winning the inaugural Dota 2 Invitational video game tournament, which took place at its booth over the course of five days in Cologne, Germany. Erik Johnson, product manager on Dota 2 at Valve, talks about the new game and why it’s a departure for the makers of hit franchises like Half-Life, Left 4 Dead and Portal.

Changing gears

“Dota 2 is a departure for Valve in that it’s our first game that’s not a first-person shooter,” explained Johnson. “We had to build a whole lot of technology that traditional real-time strategy (RTS) games require. It’s also our first fantasy game, which also required all-new technology.”

For those unfamiliar with the Dota franchise, the game originated as a Warcraft III mod, Defense of the Ancients. It passed through the the hands of several developers, but one by the name of IceFrog ultimately ended up refining the game into what it is today: a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game that currently has about 20 million registered users, approximately half of which come from China.

“The best way we think of describing it is an action RTS in which each player on a team of five controls a single hero,” said Johnson. “Within the game there’s a mini-RPG experience that starts with you as a level one hero with no real abilities or items. And as the game progresses, you end up really powerful with lots of different items and skills.”

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Dota 2, which hits shelves this fall, will introduce 105 different heroes to the game universe. Each of these characters has different skills and abilities, which are useful in different ways. This creates a real strategy for the team to choose the appropriate characters to match their objects and play to their strengths.

From humble origins

“For us, the whole project started because we were big fans of Dota – to the point where some of our team members were logging enough hours that it was hurting some marriages around the office,” said Johnson. “We watched as the developer went through a few cycles of updates to that product. In a lot of ways, he was doing things that were similar to us. He experimented with the game out in the open over time. We contacted him and brought him into the office and it was pretty clear to us immediately that it was somebody we wanted to work with. We discussed with him what a sequel would look like and we began developing the title.”

Dota 2 is a re-imagining of the original set in a new world. With the full support of Valve’s team and resources, the game has been improved on all levels. Valve also has taken the time to solve some of the problems that Dota players have complained about like getting into a game with their friends, or being a new player tossed into a complex game world filled with experienced players.

“First and foremost, the main [issue] we wanted to correct was making sure that light-skilled players can get into games,” said Johnson. “We brought in 16 of the best Dota teams in the world to Gamescom, and these guys shouldn’t be playing with people that pick up the game for the first time. It’s a team game, so you really want to have a similar skill set. People will be able to practice Dota 2 offline in a more casual environment. There will also be a new coaching feature, where an experienced player can teach a new player in-game the mechanics of the game. We think this fits real well with Dota, because everyone in this community wants their friends to play the game with them. Now we have a way for them to teach them the ins and outs of the gameplay.”

Spinning a story

Valve, which has plenty of experience telling interactive stories, is sculpting a very rich universe around this game franchise. Each character has a backstory, and the game world will expand into comic books and short online films so players can gather more information and explore the new mythology even deeper.

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“There’s this whole world that all takes place on a single map, and our trailer touches on where we wanted to start to tell that story,” said Johnson. “Right now we’re really focused on getting the multiplayer Dota 2 experience out in front of customers, but we’ve never had a game where we’ve created this many different characters at once. People are definitely chomping at the bit to see what other ways we can expand this world and create different kinds of experiences with it. We don’t have anything nailed down just yet, but there are definitely going to be a lot of things added on in the future.”

The next Valve blockbuster?

Since Dota 2 is a game that everybody always wants to find new ways to get better and use new strategies in, Valve has already announced a second Invitational with another $1 million prize for next year. Johnson said these competitions allow fans to gain insight into what works best for the professionals on the biggest stage in the world.

When it comes to the 105 heroes available in the game, Johnson does have a favorite – Earth Shaper.

“Earth Shaker is actually getting picked a lot for tournaments and it’s just cool to see those guys playing these very stable and a crowd-control type of heroes,” said Johnson. “He can initiate fights really well. He has the power to alter the Earth, creating barriers that no one can pass. It’s a really versatile to spell to trap opponents or tear the battlefield in half.”

Gamers will be able to get their hands on Dota 2 officially next year, but the title will be playable at PAX Prime this coming weekend. After making a memorable debut at Gamescom, it’s obvious this title is going to be another smash hit for Valve.