Auto Chess, in case you’ve been living under a rock (or don’t regularly tune in to Twitch), is the hottest new genre in gaming. What started as a mod for Dota 2 has now spawned two imitators from the industry’s biggest names; Dota Underlords from Valve and Teamfight Tactics from Riot.
Both games have arrived with lightning speed from small teams inside developers that are historically known for their plodding pace. Unsurprisingly, both games are a bit crap. They marry existing 3D assets from each company’s MOBA titles with a slapdash interface. The result is a pair of games that feel more like bootleg spin-offs than brand new titles from established companies.
Still, people love them, and with good reason. They’re weird, unique, and chaotic. Their success, like the success of other breakout hits over the last few years, proves players are willing to excuse a lot for the chance to play something fresh.
Your first game of Underlords or Tactics will undoubtedly go sideways in a hurry. Auto Chess best fits the strategy genre, but even that’s mashing a square peg into a round hole. The Auto Chess genre has nothing to do with the grand strategy and real-time titles that have ruled strategy for the past three decades.
It’s a mess by design. You select your heroes, their upgrades, their items, and their positions, but the actual battle is entirely out of your hands. That’s the “auto” in Auto Chess. You set things in motion but don’t have any influence once the battle starts.
Maybe your line of melee attackers clobbers the enemy’s weak defense and eviscerate their casters. Or maybe they don’t, and you watch three heroes go down with one blast of a strong enemy’s spell. The exact reason why you win or lose isn’t always clear – at least, not at first.
That chaos can be frustrating. It can also be liberating. Winning feels great, as you’d expect, but losing feels ok, too. The chaos provides an excuse. Did you get clobbered? That’s fine. How could you have guessed what would happen?
Games that give the player full control, like Starcraft 2 or classic multiplayer in Call of Duty, don’t give you that same excuse. Losing feels awful when you know the result can be entirely blamed on your lack of skill.
The fast rounds and quick matchmaking help. Underlords and Tactics are massively popular, so you’ll also find someone to play against. Lose a round in a game? The next starts in seconds. Got knocked out of the game entirely? You can hop into another match in less than a minute.
Auto Chess shares these traits with battle royale, the last new genre to turn gaming on its head. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, the game that started the genre, is a difficult and esoteric game. New players die quickly. But that’s ok. A new match is always ready, and besides – there’s only one winner in the end. Losing is to be expected.
Autochess is not a fad
It might seem like hyperbole to say Auto Chess is a mess, or chaotic, or bad. If you like Auto Chess, you’ll want to defend it. If you don’t like Auto Chess, then you might dismiss its problems as obvious. It’s a fad. Who cares?
You should. Not because Auto Chess is popular, but because it illustrates a deep, seismic shift in gaming. Players are starting to turn away from the slick, polished experiences that used to define gaming. Instead, they’re embracing quirky, chaotic, unpolished genres like Auto Chess and battle royale.
Fortnite is not an entirely shoddy game. The fact Epic has handled the game’s popularity with relatively little downtime is an unappreciated technical achievement. Still, the early access label feels warranted when you consider the game’s balance, which remains a total mess. New items and weapons add unexpected complications or bugs. The ever-shifting map keeps players interested, but it’s not always fair, so there’s often a “right” and “wrong” place to drop. At times, new game modes are simply unfair or highly random. The fun – but certainly not balanced – collaboration with Marvel is a great example.
These problems are serious enough to hold the battle royale genre back in esports. PUBG lost the faith of its community as bugs and glitches impacted the results of tournaments. Fortnite had a different problem at its 2018 Winter Royale tournament, where a new weapon (the Infinity Blade) suddenly shifted the meta. The upstart battle royale has proven too unpredictable to keep spectators interested.
Mature competitive games like Dota 2 and Overwatch have worked out these quirks. They’re better balanced and more reliable. Yet that doesn’t seem to matter to players. Gamers love to watch Dota 2, which remains very popular indeed, but growth is shifting to newer, looser genres that embrace a little chaos in trade for faster updates and new ideas.
The magnitude of this shift can’t be overstated. It represents a fundamental change in what’s considered “good” or “bad.” The last two decades of gaming were a story of polish, presentation, balance, and narrative. Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, The Witcher 3; games like these were the best gaming had to offer. They were the result of huge studios pouring years of work into laboriously detailed games.
Games like that can still succeed, as last year’s God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 proved. I’m not suggesting they’ll suddenly disappear. However, they must share the spotlight with games that don’t match their detail or technical excellence. Fortnite is still the biggest thing in gaming. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, despite its growing pains, is usually in the top three on Steam.
Now, the Auto Chess twins have arrived to dominate Twitch. How many people are still playing God of War?
Change is good
Change isn’t coming. It’s already here. And that’s not a bad thing.
A new genre, like Auto Chess, is a beautiful thing. Yes, the early games in the genre have problems. They don’t feel ‘tight’ or ‘clean.’ They suffer interface problems and connectivity bugs. They don’t look great or sound great.
What they do offer, though, is a new experience. That’s what gamers crave. It’s also what the industry needs to keep itself fresh. The new and strange are allies of art and elegance. PUBG brought us Fortnite, which lead to Call of Duty: Black Ops, which will likely lead to another fresh, even more polished take. The same will happen with Auto Chess. And I can’t wait to play those games.