Defining the DotA genre

Chairraider @ 6th September 2011 15:59 (Read 10,304 times).
An explanation for why DotA-like games are variations of RTS games and an evaluation of popular terms for the genre

Defining the genre DotA established has caused a lot of confusion and disagreement among people. Some say it's more of a RPG (Role Playing Game) than a RTS (Real Time Strategy), others say it's a hybrid, another group says it's an AoS (Aeon of Strife, a Starcraft 1 map) and when the first commercial variations of DotA showed up they wanted a new term like MOBA to avoid reference to the original DotA and to make it sound fresh and exciting (this happens a lot in the music industry too) . This article explains why at the end of the day DotA-like games are variations of RTS games, using some comparisons to Starcraft as an example for a classic RTS game and it evaluates currently popular terms for the genre.

1. The core mechanic
2. Skill element
3. An example for better understanding: from short mode to easy mode
4. Defining the genre: evaluating popular terms

1. The core mechanic

In traditional RTS games there are a lot of things you can do: build your base, upgrade your army, reseach technology, increase the size of your army, create outposts/expansions, control the map, tech up to enable new and more powerful units or upgrades, harrass your opponent with hit & run and so on and so forth. But if you boil it down to the core mechanic, to the most basic level, the one thing which defines all further actions in the game, then RTS games are about ressource management and decision making, about gaining resources/creating income and about the decisions you make on what to do with this income.

Everything else is a direct result of your resource managment: the size of your army, your upgrades, your tech. For instance "expanding" in Starcraft in order to increase your income in the long run can be a risk (without scouting and proper information) because the enemy could decide to heavily invest his income into his army which naturally makes him stronger compared to the expanding player for the moment. The player with the more powerful army is forced by mechanics to either push his current army advantage potential and attack, trying to cause some damage, or he has to expand himself to avoid falling behind quickly once the expansion is set up and saturated.

That's why droning up as a Zerg in Starcraft is of vital importance, why worker harrass and killing workers can be significantly more effective and advantageous compared to simply defeating the enemies army which can be reassembled extremely quickly depending on your income and production capabilities, which again is a direct result of how you have spent income. It's about being most effective with your resources.

And at it's core all DotA-like games follow the same basic game mechanic of creating income and investing it. But what DotA changed and thus differentiates it from traditional RTS is the way you gain those resources. Instead of harvesting a resource with a worker you use your own unit(s) to kill creeps with last hits, farm neutral creeps, kill enemy heroes, push towers/structures. This is the fundamental difference.

However it is not necessarily the amount of income which will decide the outcome of an RTS game. Theorycraft (I am aware that this is not possible): assuming 2 AI players of identical skill had infinite resources in a perfectly balanced RTS game at their disposal, the game would never end because neither player or team could possibly create an advantage, could create a gap to the enemy. From this we can conclude that it's not the amount of resources which pushes the game into the favour of one or the other player/team. It is the discrepancy of income between the two sides which decides the outcome of an RTS game.

And everything in DotA-like games is about increasing this discrepancy:
- last hitting creeps in order to gain gold, sometimes there is denying to further create a gap to your opponent
- push towers/structures for reward and defend your own
- establish map control with wards and tower pushing to further exploit gold farming/neutral creeping while preventing enemies from doing the same safely
- gank and kill, sometimes you need to gank an important enemy hero to prevent him from gaining too much gold, failing a gank though results in a waste of time, effort and ultimately resources
- dominate your lane
- effectively invest your income in items which put you ahead of your opponents

The various differences of DotA-like games (RPG elements, tower defence elements, purchasing items like Shiva's for your hero instead of upgrades like Psi-Storm for units, team based 5vs5 vs primarily 1vs1 balance) result in a radically different gameplay compared to a classic RTS game but the fundamental, defining mechanic is the same.

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2. Skill element
3. An example for better understanding: from short mode to easy mode
4. Defining the genre: evaluating popular terms