Defence of the Ancients: A New Genre?

Have you played Defence of the Ancients? As the mod phenomenon for Blizzard’s classic strategy game Warcraft III continues to gain momentum, it’s clear that a huge, ever-growing number of people have. DotA provides a unique gaming experience, fusing real-time strategy with role-playing, and transplanting the resulting hybrid into the competitive, team-based multiplayer arena. It pits two teams of players against each other, tasking each team with the destruction of the opposition’s base structure. Players fight each other and AI “creep” units to accumulate the experience, cash and items needed to secure victory. Despite its mod origins, some of its fans regard DoTA as so innovative and distinctive that they refer to it not only as a game scenario, but as the vanguard and chief representative of a new gaming genre. This concept has been strengthened by the emergence of commercial games featuring very similar gameplay. But does DotA actually represent a new genre? The claim is so lofty that it deserves examination. After all, if it were true then the industry repercussions would be vast.

When Doom was released in 1993, it was not home to a new form of gameplay, but it was the consolidation of some high-tech developments that had been gestating for a few years, especially games also developed by id Software, such as 1992′s Wolfenstein 3D. Doom ended up being hugely successful, and in the following years, many action games featuring similar gameplay were released, trying to emulate Doom‘s success. The press and public referred to them as "Doom clones". As games like Duke Nukem 3D and Half-Life built upon and expanded Doom‘s model of gameplay, the term fell out of fashion and was gradually replaced with “first-person shooter”. Linguistically, a genre was born. An oddity made by a small team, Doom ultimately earned success which reshaped the way games were defined and conceptually organised. The first-person shooter became a reliable stable; games in the style have sold countless copies, making millions of dollars for developers and publishers, funding the development of ever more extravagant games.

DotA already has a legion of fans, but could it become something even bigger?

A single game, making innovations, hybridizations or consolidations in gameplay can change the way games are defined, and send shock-waves through the industry. Doom represents just one example of this process, which in its case forged the landscape of the modern FPS inhabiting every shelf and chart today. For DotA to be accepted as the flash point for a new genre would be a very big thing indeed. But before the crown is offered up to DotA or any other new thing, we need to ask a big question: what is a genre?

In truth, there’s no single answer. The concept is an amorphous one, far from universally accepted. What we can say with certainty is that the term means something largely very different in gaming circles than it does when used to categorise other forms of media. Whilst books, films and television programmes are divided into genres based on their style and tone, games arenormally categorised into genres based on their gameplay mechanics. It makes sense to us that if a model of a gun floats at the bottom of our screens, bobbing along as we fire it at enemies, we’re playing a “first-person shooter”. More obviously, if we’re racing, we’re playing a racer. As gamers, we’ve also become used to sometimes prefixing these genres with terms for genres borrowed from other media, creating more specific combinations like “science fiction real-time strategy”, for example. Maybe by looking at possible components of being a genre, andspeculating as to whether DotA could fulfil those requirements, we can both get closer to figuring out what a genre is and whether DotA is deserving of the title.

Firstly, any genre hopeful obviously needs distinctive gameplay and mechanics. It needs to stand out from the crowd to avoid getting lumped in with existing genres, or written off for convenience’s sake as simply being a hybrid – hardly as prestigious as being a genre in your own right. DotA’s chances look pretty good on this front; while much of its mechanics are undoubtedly borrowed from the RPG and RTS styles – DotA is a Warcraft III modification after all – there are a few genuinely distinctive elements. One example is the role of neutral creeps, fighting dumbly alongside players as they attempt to destroy the enemy base structure. As they are harvested by players for experience and financial rewards, creeps fulfil a role not unlike enemies in both single-player and online RPGs. And yet they have tactical, strategic value. Ensuring their survival in a certain fight can help a player overcome an adversary, or destroy a crucial enemy structure, a concept drawn from RTS games. This is a fusion of mechanics on a very deep level, something which really sets DotA out from the crowd. Distinctiveness doesn’t look like a stumbling block.

Secondly, as the Doom example shows, it takes more than one game to make a genre widely accepted. Even though games like Heretic and Rise of the Triad that released shortly after Doom were labelled as “clones”, they were still contributing to the development of the first-person shooter, even though that term wasn’t yet common parlance. DotA will need more followers, more adherents, to be able to set up its genre church. Luckily, it has at least three games that play this role; Gas Powered Games’ Demigod has already been released, S2 Games’ Heroes of Newerth is currently in beta. and the third, League of Legends: Clash of Feats, is under development by Riot Games (which includes former DotA developer Steve “Guinsoo” Feak). However, these other games present as much potential threat to DotA’s chances of becoming a genre as they do support.

 

 
Will the games following in DotA’s footsteps support it as the instigator of a genre?
 
Riot Games have coined a name for the genre they think their game League of Legends belong to: “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” (MOBA). Conceptually, MOBA represents a rival to any claim that DotA is a genre. If MOBA were to to take off, it could sink DotA altogether, as two such similar genre concepts probably can’t exist alongside one another. For simplicity, convention will choose one champion. Nevertheless, these three games do – all things considered – probably lean a little in favour of DotA being a genre. We’ll know more when Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends are actually released.

A third and final main constituent part of a genre is longevity. If any movement is to become part of the establishment, recognised by convention, it must stand the test of time. Distinctiveness and a following alone will not guarantee this; genres have waxed and waned, despite once having had a unique selling point and a circle of related games. Sometimes genres simply lose popularity. Sometimes technology renders them obselete, as with text adventures, which were once a bankable source of income for publishers but are now developed as free curiosities. One of the things that secures longevity, besides continued fan enthusiasm, is adaptability. If one game in the genre falls from popularity, can another rise up, innovative a little more, and take its place? A genre must have sufficient room for improvement. This, I would argue, is where DotA’s potential looks fragile. There’s a real danger that the formula is too regimented to be able to adapt, and that its appeal is too specific and set in stone. In Heroes of Newerth, all maps but the one which most resembles the map in DotA (itself a reproduction of a map in StarCraft) are virtually unplayed – players just don’t seem to want their alterations to the formula. With League of Legends, Riot Games plan to introduce mostly new characters for players to play as, with ones returning from DotA being “the exception to the rule”. Will the DotA faithful shun the game for this reason? If the fan-base proves too unwilling to accept innovation, the potential for a genre will stagnate.

As things stand at the moment, the DotA family of games look like just that: a family of related games stemming from the original DotA origin, rather than the true beginnings of a genre. The classification requires more room for growth than the DotA formula seems to allow for. So much depends on the whim of DotA’s loyal fans. Which, if any, of the new DotA-inspired games will they favour? A refusal to enthusiastically support any of them would make DotA look more like an isolated blip of gaming taxonomy than anything else. But the development of these sorts of games is at an early stage. Anything could happen from here, given the fickle nature of the gaming public and the tumultuous reputation of the industry’s short but eventful history. To think, we could still be witness to the birth of another gaming genre, but time will tell.

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