Valve, Dota 2 and the new player experience: Are we on the right path?

Valve, Dota 2 and the new player experience: Are we on the right path?

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Valve and the new player experience

The New Player experience in Dota 2 has been a topic of discussion for a while. The current tutorial is incredibly poor, and smurfs abound in the very first games of new players. It’s difficult and incredibly unforgiving.

At TI7, Valve announced on their blog plans to improve the new player experience. You can only pick from a pool of 20 “easy” heroes for 25 games, and you will be matched against players with high behavior scores. This marks a new attempt by Valve to improve the new player experience. However, most players argue that this still isn’t enough and want an improved tutorial system -- and with how Valve has taken steps already, the hopes for a new tutorial system are high among the community. That, in addition to their continued support of the noob stream at TI, shows that Valve cares about growing the playerbase.

Player outflow

However, there’s something nobody is talking about -- retaining players in Dota, or rather the lack thereof.

Image from Steamcharts
Image from Steamcharts

Image from Steamcharts

Dota 2 has been losing players somewhat consistently, possibly due to the release of 7.00 after the Boston Major. You can see the standard TI loss and subsequent bump right after TI. However, the game is still down around 150,000 players. Where did they go?

Let me tell you a quick story for the purposes of introduction. I was first introduced to Dota 2 back in 2013 by my friends, none of whom currently play Dota and who have since moved on to other games like Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch. Why play those games instead of Dota?

Dota 2 has been losing players somewhat consistently.

These friends were not Dota 2 newbies. They were close to 3k MMR, peaking at 3.6k at one point. Granted, one could make the argument that they were bad at Dota considering those MMR numbers, but that’s not the point. The point is that they played enough to get past the initial learning cliff that Dota possesses. Between the three of them, they average 1,552 hours of Dota 2. Not enough for them to master the game, but more than enough for them to be over the major hurdle of giving up because “the game is too hard”.

These players were not hardcore fanatics but weren't what you'd call novices or newbs, yet they moved away from a game in which they spent more than full months of their lives. Why?

The thing about dedicated Dota 2 players

We, as hardcore Dota 2 players, have a different mentality than the rest of gamers. When a large patch is released, we fall to our knees and praise the mighty icefrog. One of the most powerful moments in Dota 2 I’ve witnessed was watching the 7.00 announcement at the Boston Major: people who have played the game for years stood and watched the patches tick by, reminiscing about the time they’ve spent. Patches are our lifeblood as hardcore Dota 2 fans. To us, patches are all we need to be happy. We don’t really need new heroes, we don’t need special events, and we don’t need fancy hats to drop. We just want to play the game because we love the game.

What’s not talked about is the non-dedicated Dota players, and they do exist. My friends from the previous paragraph above are great examples of this. When asked why they don’t play Dota, they all answer the same few things. Firstly, there’s very few special events (Siltbreaker doesn’t count as you have to buy a compendium). Diretide and Frostivus have been dead to rights for years now, and we do quite enjoy our custom game modes: I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the “Give Diretide” Fiasco.

The psychological effect of feeling like you’re playing to earn something is very real.

Secondly, there’s rarely new heroes. New heroes generate a lot of interest, and both HotS and Overwatch, as well as Dota 2’s major competitor League of Legends, release new characters on a regular basis. Thirdly, there’s no sense of progression in Dota, and items no longer drop. This is the most perplexing to me, because who needs a “sense of progression” when playing a game. It’s all about having fun, and I don’t play to get hat drops: I play to play Dota.

There’s a lot to be said about this though. The psychological effect of feeling like you’re playing to earn something -- say, a mythical item every five levels -- is very real. You may not be thinking about it, but these things influence your subconscious and change your decision making process. This is something Dota 2 used to actually have, a chest that you could open every level that would have an item inside, and if I recall correctly it would give rarer items on certain levels. What this does is create positive reinforcement for playing. It encourages you to play more because it gives you hats for playing, and who doesn’t like hats. Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm both have this mechanic. I would rather play and get hats than play and not get hats.

Image by: Blizzard
Image by: Blizzard

There’s a large echo chamber in Dota 2, and that’s that we believe that everyone is as dedicated to the game as we are. Jokes about being married to the game are common. However, these casual Dota 2 players do exist, and there’s rarely an incentive for them to actually play the game. When a patch releases, they don’t comb through all the patch notes then say “this looks fun I’ll go home and play Dota tonight” like I do. My world revolves around patches, but that doesn’t mean everyone else’s does. What makes casual players want to play more is, as a matter of fact, new heroes and custom game modes. I know for a fact my friends love playing Lucio Ball on Overwatch because it’s different and fun, and the rewards are applicable to the main game. When someone looks at Overwatch, they see all these fun things: Doomfist, Lucio Ball, etc. When they look at Dota, all they see is Dota: and they’re not the addicts that we are.

Do we actually care if these people play Dota?

Do we? I think Dota and Valve have a lot to learn from Blizzard in these aspects. While the hardcore playerbase will always exist, you only turn new players hardcore by getting them to play. This requires you to bait the casual players into the dungeon that is Dota 2 by laying out shiny things like hats and custom game modes, then knocking them unconscious once they get inside and drugging them until they become addicts like us. For the continued growth of the game we all love, we should absolutely care that new people continue to play, even if they are more casual, because maybe some day they start playing it seriously and become the next big pro or caster. We all started as casuals. It’s important to remember that.

What should Valve do?

As far as new heroes go, I’m not a fan. Dota is the most balanced esport in existence, and it only stays that way because Icefrog is a genius and doesn’t rush anything. New heroes should come out, but they should not be created at such a pace that compromises the competitive integrity of the game.

There’s a large echo chamber in Dota 2, and that’s that we believe that everyone is as dedicated to the game as we are

However, this still leaves the progression system and events. Of the two, the progression and items are easier to implement. Valve has all but killed the item drop system, and removed the level scaling chest. A overhaul of how items are classified is required, along with how they can be sold on the marketplace and how often items drop. Change the way leveling works and make it a bigger part of our profile. This is the most basic thing Valve can implement to keep people playing their game. Maybe Valve can even do smaller stuff, like offering double XP weekends for games, therefore enabling you to get item drops faster. These are all very small, easy to implement things that will tempt casual players to play more Dota.

Custom events are a more daunting task, but they absolutely bring players in. Reviving Diretide and Frostivus after such a long hiatus would undoubtedly boost the playerbase, bringing more long time players to the game we know and love.

Valve has taken the first step towards growing our playerbase, but will they take the next?

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