With the release of the Warcraft III expansion pack "The Frozen Throne" and its improved map editor, many budding developers began releasing their own versions of Eul's popular Defense of the Ancients. Eul too was working on a official sequel, under the name Thirst for Gamma (Eul and Song, 2004).
The map's development ended up running for only a month. Being one of the most popular maps Battle.net had ever seen, a DotA sequel commanded high expectations, but when early Thirst for Gamma versions were made public before the map was anywhere near a playable state, players left disappointed, and the project was shelved.
Development was later picked up by Cidolfas and Dreka, who did a respectable job of polishing it up, but Thirst for Gamma had already lost its chance to be the big sequel.
I'm going to discuss both Eul's original release and the ideas it was exploring, and the later releases because they contain some interesting changes.
The early versions of Thirst for Gamma lack polish and have many features unimplemented, but there's plenty of detail about what was planned. Below is the original terrain:
There are five lanes on the map: three inner lanes and two outer lanes. The inner lanes are straightforwardly dotted with towers, and troops march along them. Unlike the original DotA, these troops were now symmetric (they shared the same numbers and stats).
The central lane houses the Well of Gamma, a coveted power source that both teams are vying over. A small bonus which matches the theme is that all units near the well gain slightly increased attack damage.
The outer lanes have four neutral towns, which consist of decorative buildings, a single tower, and a handful of units standing guard. Each team controls two towns at the start of the game, which generate troops that march towards the enemy main base. The troops are weaker than those on the inner lanes, but towns may be captured by razing the tower, which instantly spawns a new friendly tower and populates the town with a fresh batch of guards.
Other town behaviours weren't so well defined (it's an unfinished map), but it seems that after capturing two towns on the same side of the map, the troops were intended to feed into the inner lanes and keep pushing. This would be damning for the team who lost a town, because it applies two lanes worth of pressure, and would only be recoverable by committing heroes to a recapture.
According to the loading screen, the neutral towns were intended to have their own exclusive item shops selling unique Racial Items, and offer special services. While unimplemented, these features might have contributed to a more strategic game. There isn't much evidence for what the more central Night Elf town was supposed to do, and the corresponding Undead town hadn't even been added yet.
Mobility on the terrain proved a serious issue at release. The map was too large, probably because it was intended to accommodate 6 towns and 2 bases. There are very few paths between lanes and no teleport item, making for long walks and predictable ganks (we can safely assume the paths simply hadn't been added yet).
Furthermore, the Well of Gamma plays a critical role when upgrading items. This made being far away from the mid lane not only disadvantageous, but inhibited players from participating in one of the game's most interesting new systems.
Thirst for Gamma took a fresh approach to items, with some obvious RPG inspiration. There are six item types: Weapon, Shield, Armour, Helmet, Accessory, and Jewellery. A hero can only hold one item of each type, or two accessories/jewellery. Furthermore, items were classified as Basic, Enchanted, or Legendary (correlating to low/mid/high cost). The item type restrictions allow for an increase in item diversity.
For example, lets look at Weapons: each weapon:
- Adds some attack damage
- Has one of the fixed levels of attack rate: very slow (-20%), slow (-10%), average (0%), fast (+10%), very fast (+20%), and fastest (+30%)
In most AoS maps, attack damage and attack rate are decoupled, and dps can be optimised by investing in whichever is shorter supply. Thirst for Gamma couples these two stats: they only appear on Weapons (until much later in the game), which means that now several weapons can exist in the same price bracket.
For example, a very slow +25 damage item costs the same as a very fast +6 damage item. Which one would you pick for securing last hits?
The more expensive items have unique effects to mix things up, and make choosing between weapons, shields, and helmets more difficult. Occasionally the bonuses will break the usual type-bonus conventions, such as a helmet which adds attack rate but no armour, which lets players specialise if they really want to.
Another important feature is Orbs. When a neutral creep in one of the map's jungles dies, it has a 42% chance to drop a coloured orb, which will be either Black, Blue, Green, Red, White, or Yellow. Heroes can travel to the Well of Gamma at the centre of the map to fuse any Basic (cheap) items with orbs, granting permanent bonuses to the item based on the orb colour and the item type.
The chart below explains the various bonuses:
The interface for this is clunky, but orbs can be transferred from player to player at no cost, and orb fusing is free. This invites the idea of a dedicated jungler who can indirectly support their team by hunting down the orbs they need.
I like that there's an axis of wealth other than gold that players can focus on, and it gives the neutral camps a special purpose in the game.
The terrain has a lot of space dedicated to neutral creeps. Unlike most games where the creeps are bundled together in camps, Thirst for Gamma's creeps spawn individually, and are scattered around the four forest zones in the corners of the map. Some of the creeps are weak, some are powerful, and because they're widely distributed it's difficult to engage more than two at once in combat before they start walking back to where they spawned.
Because orb drops are the primary goal of the creeps, it makes some sense that they're scattered individually, but in practice it adds a lot of walking to jungling, and it's nigh impossible to farm neutrals in any efficient or creative way.
The forest zones are located outside the boundaries of the lanes and behind enemy towers, which makes it very difficult to try and gank them. This is part of a general problem on the map of lanes being very constricting and manoeuvring difficult, something I don't think players appreciated.
Casters and Mercs:
There is one easy way into the forest zones though: there are pairs of Casters near the centre of the map. If a player walks up to and clicks on a caster, they may pay to avail of the caster's services. These include a full heal, or instant teleport to one of the four forest zones.
The idea of local casting services is pretty interesting, and I wouldn't have minded seeing it fleshed out further. For example, DotA Allstars' side shop sells teleport scrolls which often get used instantly: not unlike a local casting service. Maybe some interesting gameplay could have resulted from more locally available 'spells'.
Another spending opportunity is Mercenaries: units your hero can hire and control. There's a limit on how many you can have, and also a limit on how fast your team can buy them. The mercenaries are team-specific and have their own abilities, so they can be an invaluable strategic opportunity, perhaps for taking out neutral towns (though no mercs were specialised for this).
As expected from any alpha-version AoS, Thirst for Gamma's heroes were a mixed bag. Some of them had slightly altered ladder abilities, while others had respectable custom scripting (for that era).
Unfortunately, what was missing was the kind of custom effects that players were used to from the original DotA. Thirst for Gamma's graphics needed to be at least as revolutionary, and as almost no effort had been exerted on art so early into the project, players left unimpressed.
One area where there was some graphical flair were the item shops scattered around the map. In one example, entering the shopping area spawns a ghost that must be killed within a certain time limit, or the merchant won't appear. Another requires you to buy a powder keg to blast some trees out of the way before you can reach the merchant, while another still appears only when approached, and greets you by surrounding himself with spirits. This is definitely reminiscent of the original DotA, which had similar "secret" shops.
Heroes in Thirst for Gamma have a maximum level of 10, but their abilities can accept up to 4/4/4/1 ability points. This means that even a fully levelled hero won't have maxed out all their abilities: they must choose to prioritise their ability points.
A player's typical response to this kind of scarcity is to figure out their least important ability and put only 1 point in it. For a designer to ensure the system is dynamic and players are making choices, heroes must have no fluff abilities, which is a very ambitious design goal for any lane-pushing game, and not one accomplished during Thirst for Gamma's lifetime.
Speaking of Thirst for Gamma's lifetime, the map is a rare example where the most well-known version (the initial release) isn't the most recent. While the later versions might not be representative of Eul and Song's overall goals, they do offer some food for thought. Let's take a look...
Under Cidolfas' wing and attributed to Skalm, the terrain was eventually finished off, and the final result has a surprisingly nice flow while being easy to memorise. Despite looking similar to the terrain of the early versions, it's actually less than half the size, and much quicker to traverse as a result.
The lane troops were reverted to DotA's familiar "asymmetric but balanced anyway" ghouls versus huntresses. The creep camps were moved to a more contestable location between the lanes, the shops were moved to more consistent locations, and the capturable towns were replaced with themed side-bases. (According to a forum post by Dreka, it was intended to make the towns capturable again at some point, but this never happened.)
Overall: very positive changes.
The later versions keep Thirst for Gamma's RPG item type system (weapons, shields, etc.), but expanded upon the classes of items: Basic, Enchanted, History, and Legendary. The authors, presumably looking to DotA for inspiration, decided to implement and emphasise restock timers on items: a rule which says that once an item is bought, it can't be bought again for a fixed amount of time.
This was a prized strategic feature of DotA, and appeared to a limited extent in early Thirst for Gamma, but has been abandoned in modern mobas because it causes team-mates to argue about who gets what.
The item classes were as follows:
- Basic items were given a 3 minute restock time, and as before are the only items which can be fused with orbs. The table from previous versions was scrapped in favour of a vastly simplified chart. Each team has shops selling Basic items in their base.
- Enchanted items are stronger than Basic items, and also have a 3 minute restock time, but can't be fused. There are 2 shops on the map selling each Enchanted item.
- History items behave just like Enchanted items, but have a 4 minute restock time, and are unique to a single shop on the map. (The two History shops sell different stock.)
- Legendary items have a crippling 12 minute restock time, and are also unique to a single shop on the map. They can't be picked up before level 6, or before 12 minutes have passed. Legendary items are the best in the game; they tend to break item type restrictions (such as non-weapons granting attack rate), or have useful active abilities.
While the reinforced structure around items is nice (items are clearly bracketed by cost and effectiveness), the exclusivity of Legendary items is a precarious choice.
For example, there is a Legendary weapon which gives Vampiric Aura (15% life leech to nearby melee allies). It's the only life leech item in the game, which means that the hero who picks it up first can enjoy it throughout the mid-game. For perspective, the maximum level in Thirst for Gamma is 10, and a solo laner will be level 6 by 9 minutes. So by the time a Legendary item is back in stock again at 24 minutes, everyone has been max level for a while.
On the other hand, picking a Legendary item first allows the enemy team to counter-pick their legendaries, which might be considered an acceptable balancing mechanism.
Other changes included some usability improvements to the orb system, and the addition of more custom-scripted abilities to the heroes. I particularly liked the addition of a History shield item which offers no protection, but lets heroes dual-wield weapons. I think that's the kind of thing Eul might have been going for.
Would Thirst for Gamma have been better received if it was incubated for longer? I'd like to think so; the variety of features in the original release demonstrates that there was enough creativity on the team to produce something with lasting appeal.
Whether it would have met with success is an open question: not many lane-pushing games handle capturing towns well, and with its terrain difficulties, Thirst for Gamma might have already been in a tough spot. That said, AoS development is a very iterative process, and judging a map by its first month isn't a fair test: and probably not one Thirst for Gamma should have underwent in the first place.