We are living in the middle of the glorious age of the Auto Battler wars. The three main contenders are Drodo’s Auto Chess, Valve’s Dota Underlords, and Riot’s Teamfight Tactics. The prize is, expectedly, a billion-dollar niche in the PC and most importantly – mobile gaming market. Competition is always fun to observe from the sidelines and beneficial to all of us as players, but in this case, things are extra spicy!As a Dota veteran and nowadays an avid Dota Underlords player, I’d love to put forward my perspective on the Auto Battler wars and Dota Underlords chances to become the market leader.
The MOBA wars - history repeats itself
Years ago, the original Dota, the first super-popular MOBA, spawns from Warcraft 3 as a custom game. Blizzard are too slow to act, and Riot jumps on the business opportunity. They pick up some of the people involved in the original custom game (while causing huge drama by closing the biggest Dota community site down and turning it into a LoL advertisement) and create League of Legends. It becomes the biggest PC game in the world with 100 million active players. Valve and Blizzard are a bit late to the party and even though their products (Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm) have different degrees of success, LoL remains the undisputed market leader.A few months ago, Dota Auto Chess appears as a custom game within Dota 2. Its unrivaled popularity gives birth to the new Auto Battler genre. To spice things up, Auto Chess seems like a game that’s well-fitted for a touch interface, and let’s face it – mobile games are much more important than PC games from a business perspective. Every game developer and publisher dreams of having a hugely successful title in the mobile market, and Auto Chess seems like it’s got the potential to become one.Now, all involved parties cannot afford to miss this opportunity, especially keeping the lessons from recent history in mind.
Valve, the game-mod specialists
Valve just had the biggest flop in their history as game developers – Artifact. Despite being a well-polished original product, it came to an extremely quick death due to numerous problems and circumstances:Artifact was a latecomer to the card game genre (DCCG).It featured a very controversial monetization system that turned away a lot of people.It incorporated RNG into the gameplay in an anti-fun way with the random attack direction arrows.And probably many, many other problems which are flying under the radar, but which ultimately led to the game’s demise.In light of the fact that Valve’s current biggest hits are made from custom games (CS: GO and Dota 2), it seems Auto Chess gives the company the perfect opportunity to redeem themselves and learn from the mistakes they made with Artifact and indirectly from the mistakes that Blizzard made with Dota.It might be the case, however, that their sour experience with Artifact makes the devs afraid to take risks, which could be a disadvantage for their new title.
Can Dota Underlords beat the competition?
Timing: This time around Valve did something very uncharacteristic. They acted quickly. The Dota Underlords closed beta came out days after Riot’s announcement that they are working on Teamfight Tactics. It became apparent that Valve want to beat Riot to the punch this time around. That’s great, but sadly it might not be enough: Marketing: Dota Underlords is using the Dota IP and heroes, while Teamfight Tactics is using the LoL IP and heroes. The simple truth is that Dota Underlords is easier to pick up for Dota players, while Teamfight Tactics – for LoL players. And as we already mentioned, there are a lot more LoL players in the world. This means that even if Dota Underlords is ahead a few months, there is a huge playerbase willing to wait for Teamfight Tactics in order to play something they are familiar with. This trend is clearly reflected in the Twitch viewer numbers, where TFT usually holds around 70k concurrent viewers, while Underlords – around 10k. If you’re not already playing Auto Battler games and you want to pick up one, you are much more likely to have friends playing LoL and TFT than friends playing Dota and Underlords.This might require Valve to make a 2nd thing they are not used to – to invest in heavy advertising and marketing to try to capture any new players who aren’t already exposed to Auto Battlers but are willing to give them a try. The big advantage they have in this regard is that Underlords is already available on mobile, while TFT is still playable only in the LoL client. They have to hurry up, however, because Auto Chess is already running ads and probably have an advantage within the Chinese mobile market.Gameplay: most people would argue that one of the biggest factors that led to Artifact’s downfall are some unfavorable gameplay decisions. Valve cannot afford to make the same mistake with Dota Underlords, and they seem to be aware of this. The first iteration of the game was an almost identical clone of the original Dota Auto Chess mod gameplay-wise (although the two titles are already diverging), showcasing that Valve want to minimalize the risks they take in terms of game design decisions. The only big innovation they made is the new items system, which isn’t a big risk considering almost everybody hated the original Auto Chess items systemBalance: one thing they need to get absolutely right, however, is balance. An Auto Battler title simply wouldn’t be fun to play at all if some strategies are much better than others, and arguably this is currently the case. In this Dota Underlords Tier List made with the help of a community poll where numerous players rated the most common Underlords strategies, you can see that some strategies are rated much higher than others. Knights, in particular, are the best Alliance in Underlords right now, while Alliances like Scrappy and Savages are almost impossible to win with. In this regard, however, we have faith – Valve’s experience with balancing Dota 2 almost to perfection can come to help them achieve the same for Underlords. Balance patches are coming out weekly, so the metagame is likely to change and Alliance tiers – even out.
Our prediction is that, sadly, Dota Underlords is fighting from a disadvantage in the Auto Battler wars. Teamfight Tactics benefits directly from the huge LoL playerbase, while Auto Chess has the first mover advantage, which could play a big role especially on the critically important Chinese mobile market.We still have hope, though, because even if Dota Underlords doesn’t become the most popular Auto Battler, it has a very good chance to become the best one in terms of polish, gameplay, and most importantly – balance and strategic depth. If you want to give it a chance, you can start by checking out this Dota Underlords Guide. It covers all of the basics of the game –economy, hero and Alliance strategies, and even positioning, so it’ll give you a solid foundation on which to build your understanding of the game and the genre.