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The Evolutionary Stagnation of Game Design
by Tejas Oza on 08/20/11 04:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In one of my previous articles, I had mentioned or rather, alluded to the notion of Darwinian Design Theory. At the time, I assumed that the term was self explanatory but currently feel the need to elaborate for the sake of this article and seeing as how it describes my outlook on game development, worth exploring.

Forging onwards, as the term suggests, Darwinian Design Theory is what I call the need of game design to evolve. Yeah, that’s it. Really. Think Darwinian Theory and replace the word ‘species’ with ‘Game Design’. The way I see it, Game Design ought to evolve and when it fails to, the mechanic in question will either die or eventually be forced to evolve by a legion of disgruntled fans that, in our case, takes on the role of Nature. A chill slides down my spine as that last sentence visualizes in my mind. Imagine the planet’s collective nerd rage, personified and prancing about calling developers ‘noobs’ while tea bagging them.

I might want to reiterate this Theory later on. For the moment, I’ll suffer the mental imagery and push on.

So, DotA 2, huh?

I’ve been a long standing fan of the MoBA genre. I’ve written about its influence on the Indian Gaming scene often and find myself following the genre’s progress.

Allow me to recap events till date before I continue.

To make this as brief as possible – Valve had bought the rights to make DotA 2 some time back. They’ve been working on the revamp for an uncertain amount of time and apart from clues and rumors regarding their acquisition of the elusive IceFrog, they finally announced the game late last year.

Skipping over the news starved interim, we arrive at the present day. The game is being premiered for the first time at GamesCon, Cologne, Germany. If you weren’t already salivating for news, the knowledge that a 1 million dollar prize pool was being offered in the tournament used to premiere the game would have surely garnered your attention.

Curiosity being my greatest flaw that I am proud of, I kept an eye out for any news I could find regarding the game. The trailer they released a few days ago was admittedly badass. Badassery aside, it was a preview of the disappointment I felt after a glance at the gameplay.

Honestly, the game is nothing more than DotA + Graphics. In fact, they could have just called it DotA Plus for all the difference it made. Aren’t sequels meant to carry forward a story or premise? True, DotA never had a story to begin with but maybe I hoped for something to be carried forward. Obviously, hoping was wrong. Maybe they’re going the Call of Duty way? But then, that’s harsh. At least each new installment/replica of Call of Duty has a new story and levels apart from just better graphics. Hey, they get to keep the ‘sequel’ status for carrying the story forward if nothing else.

Heroes of Newerth did the same. I could, were leniency an aspect of my persona, cut them some slack for having at least implemented a better interface and a matching making system but alas, no dice. DotA 2 is just another HoN.

This is where I have a problem.

Valve and IceFrog had an opportunity of doing what League of Legends and Blood Lines Champions are doing – evolving the game. Both are moving in different directions. Both are great games and have their merits and faults. The important thing here, however, is that both attempt to push the genre forward in terms of mechanics and game play. They evolve the gameplay.

DotA2 is design stagnation.

“Don’t fix it, if it ain’t broken,” you say? That’s true, but who’s to say that the game isn’t broken? It’s a bold claim, sure. DotA has a fan following to be reckoned with, it’s a game that has spawned spin offs based off the same idea and its survived years of play. A broken game couldn’t have lasted so long, right?

What if one adapted to difficulty? The Allegory of the Cave might be a little high brow for this discussion, but it’s the first thing to come to mind. The player base has played nothing else and therefore they know of no other possibilities. Presenting a new argument is met with the same resistance that any form of change is met with. That last statement seems to hold true for a lot of things, actually but that’s an entirely different article. The point being, gamers don’t always know what they want. Change may be resisted at first but it manages to win the best of us over if it is indeed good.

So, what do we currently have? We have a game that failed to evolve because of a fan base that could have been lost had the game changed.

Is it not the responsibility of the designers, the game makers to push gameplay forward? To constantly innovate in the hopes of creating that one perfect game? Or am I just being an idealist... or perhaps just getting worked up over nothing?

DotA 2 took the easy way out. In my eyes, it took the safest route to making a game while ensuring that profits could be had. Valve bought a name and revamped a classic and attempts to market it as a new release. It pains me that the developers for the game had been presented with an opportunity to make the game better than it already was but chose to forgo it. Perhaps the decision wasn’t entirely theirs… either way, someone in the chain of command chose a financial opportunity over a design based one. If this is what our industry is coming to, I fear for Game Design as a whole.

When a game isn’t allowed to evolve, it will eventually die. There will be no farewell party, no sweet goodbyes. Just a collective sigh as a disgruntled ‘Nature’ watches a failed mutation wither and die.

[You can find more opinion pieces that masquerade around as proper articles (and other random finds!) on my blog -]

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Alexei Andreev
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I feel exactly the same pain, and was just lamenting about this very game and this very issue a couple of days ago. However, Valve, I think, is simply trying to make money. From that standpoint, I think this wasn't a bad move on their part.

Tejas Oza
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Oh, in that sense, they've done nothing wrong. I'm acutely aware of the business considerations behind the move to make this. In fact, considering the niche market that the Mod had till date that had gone un-monetized for so long, I'm surprised it took so long. I guess they just needed to see how successful other games like League (and even HoN) before someone else jumped in.

Joey Gibbs
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"The Eulogy of the Cave might be a little high brow for this discussion, but it’s the first thing to come to mind."

It's "allegory." A "eulogy" refers to the nice "he/she was such an awesome person" speech that you give at a funeral. Future reference, that's all =D

I agree with your theory completely, but I think you're overlooking one very important point: As long as the angry, tea-bag prone masses of nerds in the world continue to to pay for stale titles like DOTA2, there will be no evolution. Games like DOTA2 are like sharks - so perfect for their environment that they simply don't have to change. Until "nature" decides to put their collective, Vans-shod feet down there won't be any evolution. It's like reality TV - hideously awful to those few of us with IQs > 15, but the masses eat it for breakfast.

And so I personally intend to make the market as toxic as I can for DOTA2 by not purchasing it. Collectively we can force design evolution. Viva la revolucion!

Tejas Oza
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Hey thanks for finding that typo! I can't believe I actually wrote eulogy instead of allegory. It just goes to show that writing at 3 in the morning is fraught with danger... Anyways, I edited the text. :)

And you're right about a majority of fans supporting stale titles. In fact, that's why I mentioned that sometimes gamers might not know what they want. Designers need to show them something new just so that they know it exists to create a want for it. I meant it as a back up for when 'nature' gets complacent as well. Of course, this is a perfect situation for a vicious cycle for stagnation... one we're currently in anyways.

Still, I get what you mean and am glad that I'm not the only one not intending to buy it for this reason.

Krishna israney
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I agree with you however considering IceFrog has entire reigns to the project, it would only be possible for him to implement the initial vision of the game as well as release this year. Experimentation would take them another year or more in development. Considering what Valve was able to do with TF2 with player statistics, they could try something with DOTA2 if they have early adopters for the game. So I'm assuming it was experimentation vs early adoption. Its better to have people board the DOTA2 train before trying to change the tracks.

Zenas Prime
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I'm going to have to agree with your last sentiment. Also, the author doesn't consider that there are no doubt alot of potential players who may not have ever played DotA in it's original WC3 fashion, let along HoN or LoL to even adequately judge if the game has evolved. I've never played the original DotA myself and only a very little bit of HoN and from what I've seen of Valves DotA looks nice, almost as if the original was a prototype and now we are getting the actual production version (though over a long span of development years).

Tejas Oza
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Johnny - I agree to a certain extent that RTS's aren't perfect systems but I don't see them having as many defects as you point out. This, I'd chalk down to being a matter of opinion. That being said, if RTS's wouldn't be as famous or prolific today if they weren't doing something that players liked. Dawn of War 2 tried to move away from base building and it hasn't done too bad for itself. In Starcraft, players pay attention to their building phase because that's when layers can try and figure out what build their opponent is going for and build accordingly.

What I'm trying to say is that while the build phase may be inherently boring to you, it isn't to a lot of other people. Either way, there has to be a large number of people who feel the same way you do to get the developers behind Dawn of War 2 to consider cutting out that phase entirely.

Krishna - I've been considering what you've said and you have a point about experimentation vs early adoption; But, and yes, there's a 'but'.

But the thing is, Valve has been working on this for more than an year. Moreover, when they've laid down the gameplay already there's no scope for any gradual change unless they start to introduce new game modes like LoL and Bloodlines. That aside, they're using the same stats and map set up as before. Those are features that are hard coded in and cannot and will not be changed once the game is released. There really isn't any scope for change and what little there is, is too restrictive for my tastes. The choice to stick to the old gameplay was a marketing one. I highly doubt that any tracks will be changed down the line.

Zenas - You're right. I haven't considered the player base that hasn't played the game and I'll be sure to take them into account next time. Thanks for pointing that out.

Now, about what you had said, its the same as saying 'Lets make the new batman movies just like the old ones instead of trying to make then less over the top because there's a whole generation of people who never saw the old ones!'

Loathe as I am to use a film analogy for games, it works here. Just because you have a player base that can't judge the evolution, doesn't mean you wait for them to catch up and then attempt to affect an evolutionary step forward. Coming back to what you said about DotA looking like the prototype for DotA2, that has some credence if only DotA hadn't been around for 5+ years. Like I said before, DotA2 only affects a graphical overhaul and if that's all its providing then its belongs in the same category as Mods that upgrade the graphics/shaders of existing games.

It carries the title of '2' but none of the material associated with a sequel - that is progression. To me, graphical progression doesn't count.

David Paris
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I had a similar feeling of dissapointment upon seeing Dota2 as well. League of Legends has really taken this genre and run with it, with quite a few solid improvements. When I heard Dota2 was coming out, I asked "So what cool new ideas is Dota2 going to add to the genre?" Sadly, the answer seems to be.. none. No compelling new features, great ways of doing stuff that other games should consider, nifty variants that cause me to make a stylistic choice for a different type of game than what is currently available.

It is a missed opportunity, and probably just means that the fellows that went off to work on the other Moba titles were more of the creative drive behind Dota than given credit for. And honestly, to really stand out in the current market, I think Dota2 needed to deliver MORE. It may just be the last nail in HoN's coffin, but otherwise it doesn't feel like it is bringing much.

Neeraj Kumar
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I'd say trying looking from another perspective, the reason why DotA 2 is awesome b'coz of MatchMaking( you cant always win, ie the algorithm is quite good to give you a tough fight every game), Party system, Spectators (Evolution of eSports in the HISTORY of gaming! - check pennants annoucment), item system (makes it too addictive), regular patches( tweaks the game, bug fixes etc, New Characters, change of skills etc... So this is where it keeps it changing, Check the new Roshan patch), death audio taunts, deny taunts, etc etc etc...

i can keep going on, my point is see the things they have improved around on already existing ( but still changing ) gameplay of DotA.

To back everything up - top played game which is just in Beta.

See you sometime in battle ;)

Neeraj Kumar
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Omg! i jus check the date of this article..... Tell me one thing how can you possibly judge a game even before its out of beta? xD hilarious...