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We talk to Greg Kasavin of Supergiant games, and Awesomenauts creators Ronimo games about the potential of Dota 2's custom games scene.

July 22, 2015

11 Min Read

Dota 2’s Reborn update is the largest change to the game since the initial beta launched back in 2011, shifting the engine from Source to Source 2 and adding a suite of quality-of-life changes. More significantly, the update brings custom games front and center. Valve has provided more comprehensive tools, given custom games their own tab on Dota2's client, and are striving to make custom modes more visible and discoverable for Dota 2’s 11 million strong player base.

In a lot of ways, this is Valve attempting to recreate the fertile environment of the Warcraft III modding scene that spawned Dota 2 in the first place. The original Dota had its own variants, most notably Dota Allstars, which was cultivated by a team of modders who called themselves Icefrog. (They now work on Dota 2 at Valve.) These variants emerged out of  several Warcraft mods that incorporated tower defense elements, RPG leveling and action-RPG sensibilities.

The creativity and experimentation of these Warcraft modders spawned the entire MOBA genre. Halfway between RTS and RPG, Dota, it's successor Dota 2 and competitor League of Legends pit teams of five players against each other to try and squeeze out more experience and money from the map than the other team. Dota 2 and LoL are some of the most popular games in the world at present.

Dota 2’s Reborn client--a beta for all of the new changes--is already stuffed with a variety of  modes that put an entirely new spin on gameplay by emphasizing or stripping away certain components of the base game.

For instance, one mode throws Dota 2 heroes onto a soccer field and strips out every ability that isn't a 'skill shot.' Instead of the complex strategy required to win in a normal game of Dota 2,  winning this soccer mode is about pure prediction and reflex. 

The original Dota didn't just spawn the highly popular Dota 2 and League of Legends. It also influenced countless other games, including Supergiant’s Bastion and Transistor. Ronimo's Awesomenauts is also deeply indebted to Dota, turning the action-RTS genre on its side and into a 2D side-scrolling version of its inspiration.

We approached several developers from Supergiant and Ronimo--many of whom were a part of the Warcraft mod scene in the heady era that birthed Dota--and we asked them for their take on Dota 2 Reborn's new modder-friendly features.

Could Dota 2’s custom games give birth to mods that become so robust and so popular that they come to be viewed as full-fledged games? Could someone create a Dota 2 mod that eventually became as monumental as DOTA itself?

“I love the full-circle aspect of custom games coming to Dota 2.” says Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games. He was the writer on both Bastion and Transistor, and also wrote the background lore for Magnus, one of Dota 2’s heroes. “It’s difficult to make predictions about the potential of this change in comparison to the editor in Warcraft III, but I think there’s good reason to believe that it could be huge.”

Dota 2 custom game mode 'Dota Strikers'

“A true full-circle would be if someone made a Warcraft III-like game in the Dota 2 editor, which would then be commercialized by Blizzard,” jokes Olivier Thijssen, an artist at studio Ronimo Games who works on Awesomenauts. “We played the Dota 2 custom map ‘Warchasers’ last week, and it definitely feels like things have come full-circle. The original version of ‘Warchasers’ was a custom map that was added to Warcraft III by Blizzard as a showcase of what the Warcraft III editor was capable of. Now that map is resurrected in an editor for Dota 2."

As it’s still early days, the custom maps that totally overhaul what Dota 2 is doing are few and far between, with the majority being more like minor tweaks than stand-alone works. But the potential is there, and Kasavin, Thijssen and fellow Ronimo artist Tim Scheel can see it.

“When a lot of users start using the editor, it may well spawn an unending stream of really good RTS-type games.” Scheel tells me. “There’s already an enormous amount of player-generated content in Dota 2 in the form of cosmetics, so it’s probably safe to say that the community will also be motivated to create a gazillion custom games.”

Kasavin agrees. “Dota 2’s community is so massive that it seems like the introduction of new mods and things will only make for positive changes over time. People naturally self-select into these kinds of experiences. Most players want to keep playing the base game and that’s great. Some players are more invested, or more bored, or more adventurous, or more ambitious and will want to dabble in new modes and mods or try making their own.’

’A small fraction of these mods that are sufficiently well crafted or interesting may start to gain some traction,” he adds. “I think that’s more or less how Defense of the Ancients started growing in the first place. One day, all of your friends are urging you to try some other game type. It’s inherently exciting because there’s no guessing what a community that large, that talented, and that invested is going to produce.”

The 'Warchasers' map, ported into Dota 2

All of which makes you wonder exactly how versatile and powerful the tools Valve are offering with Source 2 really are. Warcraft III’s editor was easy to us,e but limited. It's notable that several of Dota 2’s more recent balancing updates have added abilities to heroes that were previously impossible to achieve in Warcraft III.

“The Source 2 editor--from what I’ve seen of it--is significantly more robust in some key ways than the Warcraft III editor,” Kasavin says. “This gives it a higher learning curve, but it means that it can potentially produce even more dramatic results. If I wanted to make a real-time strategy game or a 3D action RPG or anything in that vein these days, I would probably look to use these tools as a starting point, at least for prototyping.”

Thijssen has a slightly different perspective: “Clicking through the Dota 2 custom game tools, it all feels a lot more advanced than Warcraft III’s editor, which is not necessarily a good thing. The Warcraft III editor’s accessibility was probably a very large factor in its success. You could literally make something fun in 2 hours or maybe even less. The Dota 2 tools don’t give that impression, which could scare off a lot of Icefrog-to-be’s.”

With Dota 2’s community being over 10 million players strong, this raises the question of whether the developer of any sort of multiplayer RTS might want to prototype their idea within Dota 2’s framework, if not because of the versatility of the Source 2 engine then at least for the promise of exposure to that many players. It could prove to be a smart way to stealthily test the robustness of your idea.

Dota 2 custom game mode 'Pudge Wars', where players try to hook one another across a river.

“I absolutely think these tools are valuable for game developers to explore,” Kasavin tells me. “Maybe they’ll find that this is a good place to prototype and try ideas. Again if you’re thinking about making an action RPG or something in that vein, Dota 2 offers a massive breadth of content and a lot of essential interactions as a starting point for trying different stuff. It’s also good to look at it just to see the standards of the tools. We invest a lot in our own tools, so it’s always interesting to see the choices made by others studios.”

Scheel isn’t quite so sold on the idea. “It’s a possibility, but I think it’s more for development teams that are just starting out, say a student group, to use as a prototyping tool.”

What both of these camps can agree on is that Valve has made a smart business decision, not least because it’s harnessing the vast community in a way that allows them to have a voice.

"These tools let the community put their money where their mouth is. Someone who thinks they can balance the game better than Valve is welcome to try. - Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games"

“I think a lot of the great stuff that happens with these tools will be more modest in scope,” Kasavin says. “That will have an impact on the community, but won’t make ripples outside of it. The Dota  community loves to criticize relatively small aspects of the game, such as certain balance changes or certain hero abilities. These tools let the community put their money where their mouth is. Someone who thinks they can balance the game better than Valve is welcome to try.”

And try they have. There are already custom games on the Reborn client that revert Dota 2 back to previous patches that some players preferred, as well as others that alter the stats in small but ultimately significant ways.

As for exactly what we can expect from Dota 2's community, we can look towards what's been happening with Awesomenauts, as Ronimo have begun implementing their own custom game editor, and have already started seeing results. Some have given them unexpected insight into what the genre itself is constituted of.

“The core game design comes out of tons of features,” says Joost van Dongen, lead programmer at Ronimo games, and the developer behind the custom game editor for Awesomenauts. “By mixing those in different ways, players can make all kinds of things. For example, Awesomenauts already contains a lot of features that could make it an RPG, an action platformer, a puzzle platformer or a wave defense game. Users basically only need to turn off some features to end up in those genres. I think it is harder to make diverse mods in more limited games than in a tool that has tons of features already.’

Valve-created custom game mode 'Overthrow', where multiple teams fight in a circular arena

‘Our players have already made new bots and new game modes within Awesomenauts’ engine. The most extreme example I have seen is that a modder made a small bullet-hell arena where the player needs to dodge incoming projectiles and attacks. I hope players will come up with all kinds of new things. Two things I’m hoping for in particular are a bunch of diverse and balanced maps for the core Awesomenauts experience, and a really deep co-op wave-defense mode. The whole system around classes and leveling in a MOBA is excellent for such a co-op game mode.”

One thing all four developers we talked to kept bringing up is their excitement at the potential for what will happen next with Dota 2 now that custom games have been added in a fairly comprehensive capacity. While they might be hedging their optimism and not expecting the next mod-turned-global-phenomenon to emerge from the primordial ooze of Dota 2’s custom game scene, they are hopeful it will be a hotbed of interesting game design eperiments.

“I’ve played Dota 2 more than almost any other game in recent years, and keeping up with how it’s growing and evolving is almost as interesting as playing it.” Kasavin tells me at the close of our interview. “I also think modding has been a driving force in PC gaming for a very long time, and it’s absolutely worth paying attention to what’s happening there, when talented and dedicated people are motivated to create new or improved ways to play, often without the sorts of financial motivations or constraints that influence most games.’

‘Defense of the Ancients, Minecraft, DayZ, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress… none of these games could have happened in a traditional studio environment. While those are big dramatic one-in-a-billion success stories, there have been many others, and it seems to me that now there can be even more.”

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