The rise of the ARTS (Action Real-Time Strategy) genre has been meteoric indeed. Earlier this month, data provided by XFire showed that League of Legends had become the most played PC game in the world, with over 1.3 billion hours played and surpassing even the mighty World of Warcraft.
For many of us though, the ARTS genre remains a mystery. There is no doubt that it is popular, but many of us just haven’t had the chance to engage with it. Where did this phenomenon begin? What’s the hype all about? And, perhaps most importantly, why start playing now?
The Mod that Started a Genre
The first commonly-accepted example of a ARTS was Aeon of Strife, a custom map for StarCraft. In the map, each player controls a hero that levels up during the course of the battle.
This concept was further refined in the form of Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a custom mod for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. The objective was to destroy the other team’s ancient, located in their base. Still using an RTS-style interface, each player took on the powers of a particular hero. These were based on units from Warcraft III, but the player controlled no other units–just the hero. Automated NPCs called “creeps” travelled on predestined paths toward the enemy base, and there was no base management since these “creeps” spawned automatically at set intervals. Defeating enemy computer-controlled units as well as enemy players granted XP and gold, allowing heroes to level up and purchase powerful items. The unique composition of each team and the tactical decisions made during the course of the match would determine the outcome.
The mod was intensely popular and spawned several spin-offs. One of the hallmarks of the mod from the very beginning was the emphasis placed on game balance and on keeping the game competitive. This aspect of the mod’s design would carry over to its successors and is part of what made the genre so popular.
The Genre Emerges
Demigod was the first commercially-produced standalone title in the ARTS genre when it was released in 2009, but a troubled release including bugs and server problems meant that it received mixed reception from both critics and users. In addition, while it was definitely a member of the genre, it was evident that it was trying to appear aesthetically and thematically different from DotA. It also lacked some of the highlights of DotA, like a large and varied character selection.
The first standalone game that was both a title in the genre and a spiritual successor to DotA is undoubtedly League of Legends. While Riot Games, the developer and publisher of the game, tried to redefine the genre’s name (opting to call it a MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) to move it away from its DotA heritage, the experience was undoubtedly based in the original mod.
Riot Games also managed to make the game a resounding financial success by appealing to their players’ competitive nature. Some heroes were free to play, but others required that you purchase them from the store in order to play them. Some heroes would have limited free periods, so you could see the hero in action before you purchased it. Though you could technically play League of Legends and spend nothing to do so, not many people did. Riot showed the world that the model worked and that the genre held great profit-making potential.
On the other hand, Riot’s monetization of hero selection was criticized by some players. The dedication to balance and a competitive environment that began with DotA was harder to maintain, since a player would need to spend money to get additional hero choices. In addition, some players claimed that new heroes tended to initially be (or to seem) slightly more powerful than older ones. Some theorized this was an attempt to encourage players to purchase the new hero to gain a power advantage.
Still, you can’t argue with results. The impact of League of Legends’ emergence had been felt, and other companies would answer.
The Next Wave
The next major title to be released in the genre was Heroes of Newerth, from S2 Games. The game featured a steeper learning curve and was less forgiving than League of Legends, and in some ways this was more in line with the original DotA mod. Active abilities were used less on creeps and more for harassment. Mana conservation was more important. Like the original DotA, there was no way to recall to your base outside of specific items.
The game did gain significant converts and showed that multiple games in the genre could co-exist if they were mechanically different enough. Though both games were undoubtedly based on DotA, they each had a niche: HoN was trying to cater to the more competitive, original DotA audience while LoL had expanded the genre and pushed it to the forefront.
Heroes of Newerth did eventually convert to a free to play model, as well–however, unlike League of Legends, the purchasable items are now mostly cosmetic and S2 has announced that in the future no restrictions will be placed on hero selection (besides early access to the hero).
Dota 2 Arrives
Dota 2, produced by Valve Corporation in association with IceFrog (one of DotA’s creators), shows promise as the next entry in the ARTS genre. As with so many of their games (see: Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2, Portal), Valve hired the talent and worked with them to make sure they got the game that they wanted. They also went with Dota 2 as opposed to “DotA 2”, as they believe that Dota has become its own concept.
It is currently in beta, so while you can’t guarantee a free invite, you can guarantee yourself a paid one. Basically, if you buy an invite to the game via Steam, you’re paying for a bunch of cosmetic items for heroes in the game. The game is currently slated to be free to play, and hopefully will release this year, so if you wait until it is released generally you won’t have to pay anything to begin playing. You can sign up for a chance at beta access here.
And what a game it is!
Valve’s well-known talent for polish takes the ARTS experience to a whole new level. The spectating system is easy to use and allows you to learn the game by watching others play. There is a full in-game encyclopedia of all heroes and items available. It is clear to me that Valve has designed this game to be playable and user-friendly from the moment the floodgates are opened and it becomes publicly available. High-profile tournaments are held and advertised within the client itself, on the main page. The main page itself is beautiful and easy to navigate and the UI generally is just a thing of beauty. And, as a kicker, all the heroes are free.
That’s right, all of them. The purchasable items in the Store are cosmetic or fun items. Think of it much like the inventory system in TF2, except that the items have no additional effects. Valve has continued their crate metagame, wherein you can pay for a key in the Store to unbox a crate containing a random item that you may sometimes receive after a game. There are also extremely entertaining Announcer Packs, which change the default announcer’s voice to a different one. Again though, these are entirely optional.
I’ll get this out of the way right now: Dota 2, as a game, is less forgiving than League of Legends. The difficulty and technicality of the gameplay is much more in line with the original DotA than with LoL. There are critical moments in the game like during early-game gank attempts, or during mid- to late-game team fights that you’ll have trouble identifying at first. If this is your first ARTS, you will probably suck badly in your first few games.
I know I did, and I still do.
There is some learning to do if you’re new to the genre. Initially, you’ll probably struggle with some of the following: risk management, which items to purchase, how much punishment you can take, and what the other heroes around you are capable of.
That may sound like a lot, and it is, but these things come with experience, so you shouldn’t be discouraged if you aren’t an instant professional. What I recommend is finding a group of friendly people to help you along. Unfortunately, these types of games aren’t known for friendly, welcoming teammates when queuing for random games.
If you don’t have friends to play with, look for a regular group or just watch some games for a while. If you want to get used to a particular hero, you can play a practice game against bots. The bot AI in this game is actually pretty decent, too.
Having said that, if you can push past the initial frustration, there is incredibly deep gameplay waiting for you on the other side. Communication, coordination, and proper use of abilities are crucial to success. Again, I confess to be terrible at the game still, but I am starting to see the little strategies and tactics that can make a difference. The detail-oriented gamer in me squeals with glee when I see these in action.
I really think Valve’s model and their beautiful, user-friendly client are the future of this genre. World Cyber Games thinks so too, replacing League of Legends with Dota 2 in this year’s tournament. The game is amazing, and for all the reasons listed above, you should check it out. If the initial $30 for an invite and the aforementioned cosmetic items is too prohibitive, you can always wait until the floodgates open later this year.
How do you feel about ARTS games, or League of Legends or Dota 2 specifically? Let me know in the comments!