Review/Post-Mortem: Dota Outland, Part 1

RD_Preview

Just before the Frozen Throne expansion was released in July 2003, Eul’s Defence of the Ancients was easily among the most popular maps on Battle.net. But it was also a rare example of a map that didn’t have tons of clones, since it was made using non-standard tools that made editing it difficult.

Then the Frozen Throne expansion was released, with a new editor that incorporated those tools. Now anyone could do what Eul had been doing, and DotA’s popularity, plus excitement about the possibilities offered by the new editor, led to a sudden flood of developers pumping out their own DotA clones and variants.

I should know; I was one of them.

Dota Outland (Softmints, 2003-2005) was my first major mapping project, and also the first that I made available online. I was an enormous fan of Eul’s work at the time, and decided to fork one of the contemporary DotA versions (‘TFT’, I believe) to try out some of my own ideas, and experiment with the editor. The resulting map branched pretty far from the DotA formula, but in some ways it was still familiar.

This review deserves a bit of context. I was 13 years old when I started working on Outland, and while it was a very creative period for me, it was also a time in which I was happy to incorporate absolutely any idea I came across. Many of Outland‘s features were adapted from ideas I saw on forums, in other games, or that came up in discussion with friends.

It was also a period in which I was absolutely an additive designer. It’s open to debate whether someone who simply adds things is even a designer at all, but I’ll give myself credit for the few steps I did take against feature bloat. Putting it lightly, Outland contained a lot of content, and despite most of it being fluff that didn’t govern how the game was played, I’m going to list through what’s there to air the ideas and give a sense of the what the game was like.

That’s a lot of coloured dots.

Towers:

I don’t know what motivated it at the time (probably whim), but Outland‘s lane towers are placed in pairs, with a row of defensive blockades in front of each to inconvenience melee attackers. The blockades can be attacked by heroes to destroy them, which will improve the efficiency of melee troops attacking the tower. These blockades respawn 5 minutes after being destroyed (they were picked up by the system that respawned trees), and are usually worth the effort if a player wants to continue applying pressure to the lane.

In hindsight, they were too easy for ranged heroes to destroy. If blockades were only attackable at melee range, it would create a valid reason for (ranged) heroes to risk going under an enemy tower; a possibility that wouldn’t otherwise exist.


The attacking troops had to run around the blockades to reach the tower.

As was the trend at the time, Outland has secondary player resource. It’s called Energy, and can be obtained in three ways: killing enemy heroes, buying it with gold (not cheap), or by grabbing the +energy bonus that drops when a tower dies. This bonus can be retrieved by either team, which means that rather than rewarding the last hit, the game rewards having control over the area at that particular moment. I felt like this would be more exciting than awarding it for a last hit, and would encourage players to push themselves rather than rely on troops doing it passively in their absence.

Because towers are in pairs, the defending team will usually get the energy after losing the first tower of a pair, unless the attacker has particularly good timing or makes a concentrated effort to secure it. This means that sometimes it is wrong to take a tower that’s on low life while there’s minimal risk of dying, and in hindsight I’m not happy with how that conflicts with a player’s intuition. This mechanic needed more iteration.


An energy crystal left behind from a dead tower.

Energy has many uses, and one of them is upgrading towers. Upgradeable towers are a staple of both Warcraft III and almost any TD, so I’m surprised that more AoS maps didn’t try this out. Any of the game’s basic towers can be upgraded to one of these:

  • Fountain Tower: This tower has no attack, but regenerates the life and mana of nearby allied heroes at a modest rate. It’s excellent for sustaining in lane, but prone to buckle if the enemy group up and push uncontested.
  • Fire Tower: Has immolation which damages nearby enemies over time, and deals splash damage on attacks. The most effective tower at clearing enemy troops.
  • Poison Tower: Its attacks leave a buff which slows enemy units, and deals minor damage over time. It also has an aura which slows any enemy heroes in a large radius. It creates opportunities for the defending team, rather than surviving well on its own.
  • Feedback Tower: As well as burning plenty of mana with each attack, it also has a player-controllable single-target mana burn spell. This makes it great at fending off a single enemy hero, but when its attacks are distributed against a group, it’s less useful.
  • Fortified Tower: Gains a large bonus to maximum life, and returns 50% of damage taken. A very passive choice which delays enemy progress.


Poison and Fire towers doing their job.

Having two towers on each lane gives players plenty of configurations to try, though certain pairings (such as two Poison or two Fountain towers) are awful, since their effects don’t stack properly. I think to avoid griefing, making all towers strictly upgrades would be worthwhile (such that Fountain tower keeps its attack), and possibly allowing towers to switch their upgrade for a steeply increasing cost would make committing early more viable in the long-run.

I think a tower-upgrading system can work quite well, but it shouldn’t be backed by a relatively available resource like Energy. A team which decides to fortify several of their towers should be compromising somewhere else. If the tower-upgrading resource was only available from salvaging enemy towers, or some other very limited objective, I think it could have been a much more engaging strategic option.

Barracks:

The barracks in each base are functional buildings, which have provided different options during different phases of the game’s development. At one point, barracks allowed players to spend their Energy to hire troops for their team. The troops were AI-controlled, and immediately marched along the lane corresponding to the barracks at which they were hired.

The available troops included melee fighters, casters, and (expensive) siege which could out-range towers. The Energy cost limited how much players could hire, but also each barracks can only stock a certain number of each unit type at a time, to discourage hoarding Energy for an unstoppable push on one lane.


Looking at options in the barracks.

In practice, I don’t think the hired troops added value to the game. Most heroes weren’t well equipped to deal with the strategy, and spending money for a “bigger wave” wasn’t satisfying or engaging players intellectually. Fewer unit types, with specific strengths and weaknesses (such as the siege units) would have had more strategic potential. Also, it is important that players can’t simply hire all the specialist units, the constraints on hiring should reflect that. However, even with these changes I don’t feel like hired troops would fit well with the character of the game.

Later in development, hiring was removed and barracks received a new function. Players could spend Energy to change what damage focus the troops coming from that barracks would have. The three options were:

  • Hero Focus: Troops deal bonus damage to heroes, but less to troops and towers.
  • Troop Focus: Troops deal bonus damage to troops, but less to towers and heroes.
  • Tower Focus: Troops deal bonus damage to towers, but less to heroes and troops.

Teams could play rock-paper-scissors in each lane, sort-of, since heroes moving around would mess with the balance at any particular time. This implementation was pretty awful, because there was no visual indication of what focus units had, and also because switching wouldn’t have any effect until the next wave gets into combat 60 seconds later. I was hoping that players might catch each-other off guard with a sudden hero-focus and get kills, but usability was more important than I knew at the time.

A team with more Energy would have had a blatant advantage with this system, since more Energy means more freedom to pivot. Thankfully, the mechanic never saw much use.

Guardians:

Heavily inspired by the “objectives” seen in other AoS maps, Guardians were a powerful creep owned by each team, isolated in a distant corner of the map and visible to allied players. When killed, they would give a large gold bounty, and did not respawn. The intention was that teams would rush to defend their Guardian, but in practice most players did not notice that they even existed, and were certainly not willing to run over to a corner of the map to defend in the event of an attack.

In later versions, Guardians were moved to where the Quest Towns are located on map. They lost their offensive capabilities, and became responsible for their team’s passive gold income. The central location helped, and being disarmed meant that they could be threatened right from the start of the game. Attacking the enemy Guardian was a decent way to apply pressure and provoke a response (its high life would ensure there was time to respond), but having your own Guardian attacked proved an unwelcome chore. I don’t think “weak spot” objectives of this type are inherently bad, but I didn’t know how to make them work.

Healing Wells:

I’ve never been a fan of consumables in AoS maps, since there is a feeling of “wasted gold”, even if in practice they often pay for themselves. So instead of potions, Outland has two neutral healing fountains on the map. These were very popular and useful, but did have issues when opposing heroes showed up to the same fountain, since neither can meaningfully damage each other, and everyone leaves unhappy. A simple solution would have been disabling regeneration for a contested fountain, or something similar.


A boring old healing well, with a bridge to the north.

Waygates:

For those unfamiliar, a Waygate is a teleporter with the advantage that it’s compatible with the pathing system: a move order will consider using Waygates if that would be faster. Adding these to Outland was a great move: the Waygates in each team’s base send units to the ones in the middle of the map, and those two middle ones are connected to each other. The result is that heroes can revive and get right back into the action at either central gate, with minimal downtime, which is exactly what I wanted.

The Waygate network halves the maximum walking distance between any two points, which is a very welcome change, and doesn’t change the amount of room on the battlefield. Outland did not have, or need, any teleport items for this reason. I feel like this is a feature that more maps would have benefited from. I expect/hope that topologically non-planar maps will be explored more in the genre’s near future!


Chart of how Waygates are linked.

A small disadvantage is that there’s no cooldown on Waygate usage, so occasionally heroes will end up having a silly chase scene where they keep jumping back and forth trying to catch each-other. A possible solution would have been placing the exit points of each Waygate slightly away from the entry points. As a final note: planting mines at a Waygate exit is cruel, but effective!

Bridges:

Another pathing-related mechanic in Outland are the bridges spanning the river. Inspired by Battle for Icecrown‘s moving terrain, the two bridges can be raised or lowered by hitting a lever close to each bridge. When the bridge is raised, units can travel cliff-to-cliff; when it’s lowered, units can wade through the water. The bridge’s state is permanent until someone changes it, so it’s possible to inconvenience enemies by leaving it in a position that impedes their future movements.


Normally a unit in the river can’t see uphill to hit the switch as shown.

Any units on the bridge will follow its change in state, so it’s possible to drop an enemy into the water, or save an ally as they leap onto the bridge just in time for it to raise out of the river!

Where should bridges be located to optimise their contribution to gameplay? We want somewhere that players will frequent, so central locations like the ones I chose make sense. I also believe that each team should have a “preferred” configuration depending on what they want to do, such as keeping a bridge raised to stop ganks coming from the river, or keeping it lowered to prevent enemy access to a certain shop or objective. For this to be meaningful, a bridge needs to be the only convenient access point in its locality, and unfortunately Outland doesn’t meet that condition because I had made plenty of side-paths.

To-date, I believe Outland is still the only AoS to have experimented with player-controlled terrain changes, and I feel like there’s a lot more room for unique mechanics and gameplay to emerge from it. Variations might include switches which raise/lower two bridges simultaneously, toggle two bridges (one goes up, the other goes down), or allow players to create force bridges.

Next week, Part 2 will continue the list of features, and discuss the more identifying characteristics of the map.

 

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