I've spent the last two weeks doing one thing: trying to learn Dota 2.
I mean, sure, I did other stuff too -- eating, sleeping, working. Heck, there's even been some partying. But Steam tells me I've spent 63 (?!) hours playing this wretched game recently. My girlfriend has actually started joking about how she's become Dota widow. I'm not sure how this happened.
Listen. Don't get it twisted. Some of those hours are me leaving the game idly running, ok? But most of those hours were me trying to make heads or tails of one of gaming's most hostile genres.
For those of you that aren't familiar with Dota 2, the goal is simple: two teams of five players each try to push little gremlin-like "creeps" to the opposing team's base. First to destroy the huge structure located in the middle of the other team's base (known as the "ancient") wins. Like I said, simple -- most of us have played MOBAs or tower-defence games with similar principles. Still, it's not easy. Along the way, magic-spewing towers, random creature hordes, or blood-thirsty enemy heroes will do everything in their power to stop you. Your job is to try to figure out when to babysit your creeps, which can destroy both towers and ancients, and when to try to push an attack with them.
I didn't know any of this when I was starting out. I knew Dota 2 was a game (duh), and I knew that some of its players were infamously mean, but that was about it. I guess I'd heard that you'd often get matched up with people who couldn't speak your language, too. And of course I'd heard about how huge the game is -- it's perpetually one of Steam's most active games. But yeah aside from this, I can't say I was too knowledgeable about anything when it came to Dota.
Naturally, after deciding it was time to finally learn how to play Dota, I started out with the tutorial. I was surprised to find just how in-depth the tutorial was; most of my time with Dota 2 so far has been in the tutorial. It's the longest time I've spent trying to learn a game -- and I'm nowhere near done. There's still so much to learn.
The initial big hurdle was figuring out who to play as. The first time I had to select a character, I experienced full-on choice paralysis. There are so many characters available, each with their own playstyle and unique role. Nevermind that in training mode, I only had a limited selection of heroes, not the full cast. The descriptions would try to explain the characters and their moves to me, but most of its lingo came off as uncontextualized gibberish. I'd scroll back and forth between my options, unsure of who to pick:
What can you do, really, except go with a character you think looks cool? I started my first match as Juggernaut, a character that was often used on Dota 2's promotional materials. He looks like a badass, right? Look at that mask:
The first time I played a bot match, I got killed within 30 seconds. I got killed by bots that often seemed confused about what to do next -- bots that literally seemed to have trouble walking. So pro. It was a match that managed to enrage me, shame me, and also make me double-down on wanting to learn the damn thing.
I kept reloading the same match, over and over again, with different heroes -- just to see what I liked best. Here's most of what went on in my head as I tried to figure out how to play Dota 2:
- I don't know what the fuck I'm doing.
- Jesus, the towers can seriously hurt you. Lets...not go up against towers on our own. That's why the creeps are here, to distract the towers so that you can attack them. I need to shake out everything most games have conditioned me to be -- namely, be an unstoppable powerhouse -- and have some patience.
- Why do the people I'm playing against seem so much better? None of these people seem like newbies -- they're wearing full on armour sets that they either got from playing a lot, or from the store itself, which requires real-world money. And they use terms I don't know yet, like to bark orders to everyone else, and always go on about being commended for their behaviour. Are there seriously arseholes who just hang out in the newbie area? Do they just want to feel better about themselves because they can kill people who don't know what they're doing?
- What the fuck is a compendium? Why does it keep telling me to buy a compendium? Why is everyone buying a book?
Maybe I should buy a compendium too....
- Noooooo why do you fools keep giving me the responsibility of an entire lane?
- What gear do I buy and equip? Oh my god why is the most intimidating part of this game figuring out the game's shop (pictured on the left):
- Maybe I'll just stick to what the game recommends I purchase.
- OK, but now I don't know how to use any of this.
- Am I, like, eating a tree to heal in this game? Why do we destroy trees to heal?
- Oh my god I clicked on the courier -- the little creature that will bring items to you from the shop while you're in the thick of battle -- and now I don't know how to go back to my own character.
- I keep getting confused whenever I try to use the courier. Why is this happening to me? :( I just wanna buy some tangos (tangos are the basic healing item in Dota 2).
- How is the secret shop secret if its marked on the map. Wut.
- I don't know how to talk to anyone on my team.
- Walking to a tower takes foreverrrrr.
- I keep playing this garbage even though I can't stay alive.
- Actually, the garbage is me. I am the human garbage. I can already imagine people screaming at me in actual matches when it becomes clear I'm the dead weight -- especially since, the more I get killed, the more money and experience the other team gets. I am a massive liability. End me.
- I'm not sure if I'm enjoying this at all, but why can't I stop playing it?
- Do I ever need to play a different game again?
- All the items the game rewards me with are never for characters I play. :|
- Wow, starting from the top of the map is scary. All the tutorials have you starting on the bottom! Why is such a small change so daunting?
- I keep getting matched up with folks that speak Spanish. This pisses my teammates off, but secretly I like being the only one that knows what's going on -- even though, yes, it would be cool if the entire team could communicate.
- OK, my problem seems to be with characters who have to be up close and personal with the action. Let's try ranged characters.
- Yes. Good. I can stay behind my creeps like a coward, and strike when the time is right. From a distance.
- OK but lets maybe not use Viper, who makes the most annoying sound on earth every time he attacks. Actually maybe his voice is just the worst:
- Maybe not Sniper either. There's always a Sniper in the match, because he's easy to learn -- he's one of the only characters the game specifically teaches you how to play in the tutorial.
- Am I seriously deciding against doing something that's easy when this game is otherwise so difficult to try to learn and master? What is this masochism? And why do I get pissed when I go up against a Sniper on the opposite team? Like I should care how easily the other person picked this character up? Get a grip, Patricia. Learn to play, noob.
- The game is paused. I'm playing in a live online battle against other human beings, but somehow the game is paused. What's happening?
- The portal scroll things teleport you straight to your towers! This item is the best. Always buy this item.
- If I right click on something, my character will auto-attack. I don't need to do anything else, unless I want to interrupt the attack or do something else. And yet tell me why I click madly for every attack, as if it will make a difference?
- My hands are starting to hurt. This is not so great for my carpal tunnel. I seriously need to stop mashing the attack button. WHY CAN'T I STOP IT??
- I am seriously forgetting the difference between left and right click whenever I get into a fight with someone, out of sheer anxiety. My brain just goes into panic mode and I forget how to move or do anything useful. Help me.
- OH MY GOD I'VE BECOME A RAGE QUITTER.
- Listen the matches are like an hour long and sticking around when its clear you're getting stomped feels so, so shitty. Ughhhhhh. Especially when it seems like the other team has stopped trying to go for the objective, and instead is just farming your team for kills.
- Just because someone attacks me doesn't mean the OH NO YOU DIDN'T alarm should start ringing in my head, cripes. I don't need to chase someone down deep into their territory all kamikaze-like. Calmate.
- Look at what your abilities and items are mapped to. Actually use these items and abilities when you need them. Breathe. Heck, pause the game if you need to, since apparently that's a thing.
- Holy cow! I'm staying alive! I'm even finishing these absurdly long 45-minute matches now, despite my instinct to cut and run whenever things go bad...but my kill/death ratio is abysmal.
- Why can't I kill anything? Why am I even focusing on how to kill things, when some of these characters aren't even meant for that role? Why does it matter if we're winning? Why am I thinking about this like Call of Duty, where the point is to rack up as many kills as you can?
- I'm doing no "denies" -- the move that lets you kill your own creeps, so that the enemy team won't get the extra money/experience off them. This is a critical part of the game. And yet this fault doesn't bother me nearly as much as only getting a few kills does.
- The start of every match feels like a giant game of chicken. I can see enemy heroes keeping their distance, watching me. Judging me. Testing out how far into their territory I'll go. Occasionally, they will interrupt their attacks against my creeps to send me a cautionary attack. If they think they can take me down, they will start chasing me.
- That should be me. I should be sending the warning shot that tells other players they should be scared of me, tell them that they shouldn't get too close. I should find ways to make other players be wary of making a move. It's fascinating how much is communicated even when nobody is attacking one another.
- I've learned how to keep multiple people at bay. I can defend an entire lane by myself. Woah.
- OK, I've gained enough skill and confidence to start playing melee and non-ranged characters. The game has gone from feeling terrifying to feeling empowering.
- Watching an ancient get blown up is amazing. All the time you put in, the long-as-fuck matches, suddenly become worth it for this ten second moment.
- Wow. Dragon Knight can seriously take a punch. After playing as a bunch of different glass cannons, this feels amazing -- all I can think of is, damn, what a thing it is, to be durable. To survive.
- I hear Tidehunter is goo -- wait does he seriously attack other players with a giant rotting fish?
- Lets...just stick with Dragon Knight.
- Oh no I'm playing as the most boring character possible. I can play as all sorts of cool creatures and mystical beings, and yet here I am, choosing to be a boring white dude in medieval armour.
- Maybe its time to accept this is who I am, Bland McGee. I like to play as the soldier/bro class in shooters, after all.
- It's happening. I want to buy things. I want to buy all the costumes. I want to buy the cool alternate couriers. This is how they get you. Must...resist...
- I've finished the majority of the tutorial, but I may never leave this place. I can't. Not until I know what I'm doing. How can I leave if I don't have confidence in what I'm doing? Maybe it would help to play with some friends?
- Oh my god. Those arseholes that stuck around in the newbie area -- that's me. That's me right now. I'm the problem. D:
- I've started getting annoyed at my team, wondering why they don't do basic things like buy a courier. But I'm not gonna yell at them on the chat...keep calm...
- It's almost tempting, to be an arsehole in this game. I don't know what gets over you. You can't even blame newbies, because how the hell are they going to learn everything they need to without lots of fumbling around? They're in the training area for a reason. So much of this game is hidden knowledge, stuff that is never really explained. Plus, everything I've learned about this game has come from asking questions on Twitter, and doing my homework. The fact any of us keep playing is a damned miracle.
- I played one match where my team had a Zeus who, on his own, kept the entire enemy team at bay. It was amazing, and completely changed my mind on the character -- who I tried back when I didn't know how anything worked.
- OK now I'm playing as Zeus, because I'm a copy-cat.
- TRULY ZEUS IS A GOD -- I'm going in matches where I get a K/D of 12/2 now. I feel drunk on my power.
- I'm forgetting to use my money for stuff. I have so much of it sometimes. Woah.
- I've started getting similar results with other more offence-oriented characters, like Razer. It helps that now I know how to use the bulk of the recommended items and have now figured out how to use the courier reliably, and talk to my team.
- Maybe...I could try a normal, public match...
- Once again, choice paralysis: normal matches have the full roster. I don't know most of these characters, or how they work. Guess I'll stick to Zeus and Razer for now...
- IS THAT A PHOENIX IN THIS MATCH? Look at that majestic beast. Look at all these strange creatures I've never seen before, using mysterious attacks like "I'm putting you in a black hole void now." I'm equally awed and annoyed.
- Welp, got slaughtered. Yay??
- My friend just told me he spectated that match and I am MORTIFIED. Nooooo don't watch meeeeee.
- Lets check out what people are making for this game over on the Workshop, the place where people can upload alternate models/costumes for the game:
(Needless to say, this character is normally not called ANTIGAY.)
...ok, maybe I've seen enough of the Workshop.
And that, my friends, is where I'm at now. I went from being a clueless newbie to embodying some of the worst gaming has to offer -- a rage-quitter, a farmer, an arsehole. Thankfully I've finally stepped out of the training area, so I'm not terrorizing folks anymore. And I've heard tales of low-priority pools, the thing Valve punishes you with if you exit matches early. I'd rather find matches quickly, thank you. And sure, I guess I learned how to play the game a little too.
In spite of all the time I've put in so far, it seems to me like I've got a long way to go still. I plan on watching some professional matches, if not some tutorials to get better at the game. Mostly, I'm surprised that I've stuck with what is admittedly a kind of obtuse game -- and I still found myself loving it. The first 60 hours are only the start. I just hope I don't turn into too much of a jerk along the way.