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NB's Blog: Why DoW2 is not an "eSport"

By Ninjabutter - 9th January 2010 - 12:45 PM

Greetings, fellow GameReplays community, and be warned! This is an opinion piece, and I like to think of myself as a very opinionated person. What that means in common terms is I'm angry, vocal, and high enough ranking on this site to have a front page piece. Oh, the excitement!

I'm fairly comfortable saying that most of you have heard of the Dawn of War franchise as it's been a cornerstone of the modern RTS scene for the last five years, finding its way into the WCG events for a brief period and becoming an ESL tournament staple since its development. While Dawn of War and the three expansion packs it spawned were fairly popular and maintained a steady following in the RTS circuit, most of its initial crowd consisted of people who were followers of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniature game (upon which Dawn of War is based), people who played Company of Heroes and wanted to see what it looked like in space, or habitual RTS gamers who wanted to know what it was like to play a video game that didn't end with -Craft. However, if Dawn of War entered the scene as an innovative newcomer looking to make a name for itself, Dawn of War 2 crashed into the arena like the Kool-Aid mascot plowing through a brick wall, screaming its name and beating pots and pans over its head like an angry child. Relic Entertainment had a game sequel on the way, and it was BIG and AWESOME and you were going to be so sick of hearing about it that reading more developer interviews would cause you physical pain and possibly vomiting. Video clips were released ranging in length from a few short moments to several minutes in length, each showing almost exclusively the single-player campaign and packed to capacity with so many fiery blasts and raging gunfights that you couldn't help but wonder if they'd taken Michael Bay on as Lead Artistic Advisor. You want explosions? You got explosions.

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You want BIGGER explosions? We can do that too!

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You want to see more about the fluid gameplay, simplified tech trees, and revolutionized base-building? Why? We've even got green explosions!

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However, multiplayer remained mysterious until almost the opening day; Relic simply stated over and over that "multiplayer would be very different from the campaign" while feeding us once-a-week tiny clips that didn't really show anything. As a result, the introductory open beta was a bit like chumming the water during a shark feeding frenzy. Everyone and their Aunt Sally wanted into this thing just to see what Relic had pulled off, what multiplayer was like, and whether three Space Marines were really a match for six Orks. We here on GameReplays received so many staff applications in the first few weeks that I actually had to start turning some down, not due to a lack of personal qualifications but a lack of room for more staff. We had transfers coming in from just about every other game portal on the site. Dawn of War 2 was getting all the attention it had been demanding for the last eight months. During this time, while playing in the open beta, I added over forty people to my in-game friends list. Some were newcomers, others were people I knew from the first Dawn of War, and some were people I knew from other areas on GameReplays. This was in February of '09. Now, everyone fast-forward a year and let's check my list again!

Of the forty-seven friends I added in that time, not one of them still plays the game. Not a single one. Every one of them, without exception, saw past their initial enthusiasm for "something different" (and explosions) and became disillusioned, falling back into whatever other games they were playing before, games that weren't "revolutionary" but instead managed to hold their attention for more than a week.

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Pictured: Innovation!

If there's one thing we're aware of on this site, it's this; the multiplayer community is crucial to a game's success. Dawn of War 2 was advertised as a competitive eSport, something to rival Starcraft 2 but beating it to the punch, something to be played in the WCG and ESL at top levels. This was mentioned numerous times in interviews with the game's developers and especially its Lead Designer, Jonny Ebbert. This is precisely why I personally had so much interest in the game; Dawn of War was a competitive eSport title but had a few flaws that, while not bad in themselves, hampered its success as a true top-tier tournament game. I, like most of my friends, played in the competitive leagues and wanted to see what Dawn of War 2 would pull off that would fix those flaws, hopefully leaving us on the ground floor of an awesome RTS with a rich background that could actually rival Starcraft in terms of tournament sponsorship. What we got instead was just about the complete opposite; a new version of Dawn of War that looked prettier, graphically speaking, but was otherwise worse in almost every aspect, especially from a competitive view. Let's take a look at a few of the finer points of this issue, shall we?

The issue: Auto-cover.

So what's it do?

Without a doubt the single most loathed, bitched-about AI concept in the entire game if not the entire franchise, it makes your units automatically seek cover instead of standing in the open. If you park them near cover, they'll move to crouch behind it, where they take less ranged damage from the enemy.

And that's bad... how, exactly?

You have a Farseer, one of the Eldar commander units. This Farseer has seen better days and is just about out of health, and losing her completely would be a large setback. However, she's still fighting and casting spells to full effect, so pulling her out of the fight would be equally bad in the short term. Solution? Pull her back far enough that she isn't an obvious target, but she's still within range to buff friendly units and cast large area-of-effect spells. You're an experienced player and you know at a glance how far the enemy can shoot; you use this knowledge to plant your Farseer a short distance outside the enemy's range or line of sight, as putting her further away would put her out of spell-hurling range. The AI doesn't see this; the AI sees that you put your Farseer in the nasty open terrain instead of in the delicious heavy cover a mere two yards to the north (read: closer to the enemy). The Farseer then moves into the covered position and is promptly shot to death. Auto-cover has just turned your cleverly-positioned Farseer in the open into a bleeding corpse behind some nice, defensive rocks. Note that this is not all hypothetical theory-crafting; it's a step-by-step description of the last time I played with a Farseer and a classic example of auto-cover blatantly sacrificing skill in favor of making the game more noob-friendly.

The issue: No base-building whatsoever.

So what's it do?

Our goal from the beginning was to maintain the depth, but simplify it. So, make something simple to learn, but difficult to master, to get people into it more quickly.
- Jonny Ebbert, on removing base-building from Dawn of War 2

Dawn of War has a fairly standard base-building setup for an RTS title. Your Headquarters is your starting building, and produces builder units and a single type of combat unit, a weak one. Builder units then create other, more specialized buildings that make other, better troops, or allow you to make units stronger. Relic decided that tried-and-true method was simply too complex, and therefore Dawn of War 2 features absolutely zero base-building elements, with all units being made at the same HQ building, and resource buildings simply falling, already complete, from the sky.

And that's bad... how, exactly?

The first, most glaring problem is that a complete lack of base-building means that half the build order you use for any race is eliminated; all building decisions are removed and builder units are non-existent, so your starting build order consists of nothing but troops. Sounds fun and simple and fast on paper, but makes most matches utterly boring in the early game since for the most part, only a single build order actually works against a given opponent. This is especially evident in mirror matches. From an eSports perspective, Dawn of War in the early game consists of skilled players rushing in with fast, weak troops to pick off isolated builders, prevent completion of essential buildings, and deny territory to the enemy before they can reinforce it. In Dawn of War 2, literally all of these, the most obvious indicators of skill among the high-level players, are removed; there are no builders, there are no additional buildings, and captured points cannot be fortified so there's no reason to rush out and contest them early. You can simply stroll over at any point in the game and take them. Looking back up at Ebbert's quote, his prediction was only half-right. Build orders in Dawn of War 2 are simple to learn, period. There is no level of "mastery" because you cannot master ordering three units when there are only two to choose from and your enemy makes one a poor choice.

The issue: Shifting focus from 1v1 to 3v3.

So what's it do?

As title. Dawn of War, like pretty much every other RTS game ever conceived, was based around the aspect of two players going head to head, and all game balance was centered around this notion. In a heated argument over game balance, the simplest way to invalidate your opponent's points was to question whether they were a real 1v1 player or some team-stacking noob. Dawn of War 2 shifted that focus from 1v1 to 3v3 (completely bypassing 2v2 and not including it until a later patch), which in the RTS world is basically like trying to divide by zero.

And that's bad... how, exactly?

Some games do this well. Heroes of Newerth is a very team-based game and most commonly runs 5v5. Heroes of Newerth is also not an RTS; it's a DOTA clone that bears no resemblance to an RTS beyond the level of appearing on the same monitor. There's a simple reason that 1v1 has remained the competitive level's choice of game mode in the RTS environment for as long as the genre has existed: it's the most definitive indicator of skill. Most of you probably know at least one RTS or FPS gamer who kicks ass in 2v2 or 5v5 but can't play 1v1 to save his life (literally). In a team match, you have other players to pick up your slack, other people to use as a crutch. In Dawn of War 2v2, it's entirely possible for one player to go for a very heavy early game, sacrificing his economy reserves to get a mass of units out on the field quick, while his ally makes virtually nothing and puts everything he has into tech upgrades, getting vehicles into the battle ages before the enemy has unlocked anti-vehicle weapons and probably taking the game against an inexperienced player, or even a good player if the tech-monkey knows how to do it. This fast-techer could have poor unit control, a crap economy, no map control, and no real standing army to speak of, but use his ally as a living crutch to carry him through the first four minutes of the game and let him swoop in and claim victory at the end. You know how this player would fare in a 1v1 with that same strategy? The enemy would note his lack of combat units, realize what he's doing, move into his base unopposed, kill his builders, kill his weak scouting units, and ruin his economy so even if he managed to unlock tanks, he'd have no place to build them and probably couldn't even afford them.

When I'm playing 1 versus 1, suddenly it's like, my pride and reputation are on the line. You know how it is when you're completely dominated by a person. Whereas, when you play on a team, it's more about just having fun and trying to contribute.

I used to be a pretty hardcore 1v1 player, but I just realized it was like a machismo thing for me. It wasn't... so much fun, except when I won, and when I lost I felt like shit.

- Jonny Ebbert on making Dawn of War 2 a 3v3-based game instead of 1v1

Most of you competitive players have known at least a couple of people who played 1v1, simply couldn't handle it, and started playing team games instead. Dawn of War 2 was built for those people from the ground up, even as the same guy who originally said that quote was telling us he wanted the game to be a competitive title.

There's more. There's always more. However, traffic patterns have shown most of our reader base has the attention span of a hamster so I'll cut this off before I lose the few of you who've actually made it to the third page. The sum of this angry pile of text is this: Dawn of War 2 is simply not on the level that Dawn of War was, and is in fact so far beneath it from a competitive aspect that I'm amazed the game has not died completely.

People ask me several times a week whether Dawn of War 2 is worth getting, or if the sequel is better than its predecessor. I have never lied to them. I have always told them that I think Dawn of War 2 is a good game, and I genuinely believe it. You know what else is a good game? Minesweeper. But it's not competitive. It's not a tournament game. It's entertaining, but it's not an eSports title, and neither it nor Dawn of War 2 ever will be so long as its developers continue with knee-jerk patching reactions and radical, poorly tested changes.

I like Dawn of War 2. You might not think it after reading this, but I really do. I still play it. However, I play the game the way it was always intended; as a purely casual gamer. I don't really care if I win or lose. I play it to kill half an hour between when I eat dinner and when Scrubs comes on. When I feel like playing a game that I actually care about, a game where I can face a highly-skilled opponent and face off in an intense match that's determined more by skill than how badly the AI is fighting against my orders, I play Dawn of War.

Most of you Starcraft hounds are reading this and laughing, as our franchises have been fierce rivals for years now; just post a "Which is better?" thread here in our forums and see how fast it devolves into flaming and fanboyism. So, in parting, I'd like to leave you with this gift:

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That's right, boys; he's all yours now.

- Ninjabutter, Director of Dawn of War & Dawn of War 2