Tutorials and practice in MOBAs is something I think about a lot. It came up again over the last couple of weeks because Riot ventured the opinion that a sandbox mode in League of Legends would introduce problems and take away from fun of the game.
I already talked about the sandbox situation in greater detail here but I figured I’d put forward a few of my own ideas for useful practice scenarios. Before doing so, though, I wanted to check on the current state of tutorials in MOBAs. A quick peek turned into a longer look because Dota 2’s Reborn beta has introduced a whole bunch of new tutorial stuff in the form of these guided bot games you can play in their entirety as well as a demo hero mode. What I’ll do, then, is go into Reborn’s guided bot matches in more detail to say what’s good and bad about them – how they work and what’s still not covered. Next week’s Dote Night will be for broader thoughts about MOBA tutorials in general. Feel free to pitch in with your own in the comment section!
Interestingly, when you go to the “learn” section the game advises you start with these guided bot games. It’s interesting because previously the tutorial aspect of Dota – the one they added as a kind of map to work your way across by completing short sequences or challenges – focused on introducing the basic concepts of the game like last hitting, creeps, towers. They were these standalone ideas at first. In Reborn the idea is that you should learn by seeing how a full (very basic, highly curated) game plays out. I think that’s fair – the best way to sell the experience of Dota is to plonk them in a game and give them enough info and guidance to score a win and feel like they had some ownership over it. Having a parrot flapping about while the idea of last hitting is explained? Useful but not exactly a gripping start.
To start one of these bot games you pick a hero – Lina, Luna or Sven. The three of them represent each of the different primary attributes in the game. There’s intelligence (Lina), strength (Sven) and agility (Luna). I won’t go into tedious detail on all these points but the primary attribute thing is important because it means that although you can increase all three stats for any hero, the one that’s marked as their primary is the one which also gives damage. That’s one of the reasons you itemise differently for each hero. I don’t think primary attributes are every explained quite so explicitly but every time you level a new ability or buy a new item in-game text appears to explain what the item does and why it’s a good choice, so it does explain that building agility is good on Luna.
Something I didn’t really like was that at the beginning, when you’re buying your items before you move into lane there’s not a similar standard of explaining, just just purchase tangos and a salve and some other bits without question. It would be cool if the game actually explained why, given it wants you to jump into a game instead of the separated-out tutorial. Presumably you ought to know what these green beans are and why they’re important. It’s also not explained why you buy a circlet rather than slippers from the main shop when you’re heading to lane and intending to build a wraith band – that would have been a good time to explain that the circlet isn’t available in the side shop and slippers are. I don’t think that would have been info overload, it’s just a good opportunity to introduce the fact that a side shop exists. You’d go into more detail on how that helps you build items faster when you need the next bit of the item.
All of these guided bot games put you in the safe lane on the radiant side – the longer one which runs across the bottom of the screen. It’s a good choice for starting out and the bots won’t start invading the jungle and ganking you so you can just get to grips with the basics of being in a lane. The game emphasises the importance of not dying over getting kills and, by way of reinforcement, gives you a little last hit challenge in the top right of the screen. You need to get ten last hits to complete it and it feels like a decent way to focus the player’s attention on getting that gold from creep kills instead of chasing kills on heroes.
It’s a slightly odd start to a game when you’re familiar with Dota, though. You’re told to follow the creeps into lane which instantly made me feel weird because WHAT ABOUT BLOCKING? It also ignores the runes which spawn at the 0.00 timer mark and which are usually contested by players instead of simply heading to lanes. No-one wards either. I can see why all of that stuff has been stripped out but it’s odd to play a game without it. I started thinking perhaps you could have escalating tiers of guided bot games. The simple one I played, then one which gets you to block, then another which gets you to contest the rune. It would probably be a programming nightmare but that is not my problem :D
The other thing I thought was missing or could have been done a little differently was that the game explains why you’re doing something or buying something but it doesn’t explain why it’s that option instead of a million billion others. Or at least it does so sporadically. To take an example, you don’t level Sven’s Cleave ability until relatively late. The game points out that this is because Cleave does damage to multiple units and that means the point where the creeps meet gets pushed back towards enemy territory which in turn makes you more vulnerable. It doesn’t do the same when it explains Luna’s Moon Glaives. In one of the games you’re fighting against a Phantom Assassin and you buy a Monkey King Bar. It’s an item which means she can no longer use her passive ability to avoid being hit by you but the game doesn’t explain this situational usefulness. I think just a passing mention would help new players aware of why you’re better off not just following a rigid build order, but trying to take into account particular game factors.
As an aside, I’d say Lina’s guided bot game is the most interesting for pointing out how items and skills work together. You learn how you cast spells to keep her passive going and you realise how much easier that is to do when you have functionally infinite mana because of your item choices. There’s also the bit where you buy a Eul’s Scepter and the game explains about trying to learn how to time the cyclone effect of that with your stun.
When you’ve built your early game items the game sets you another challenge – to take down the six outer towers of the enemy team. Again, I liked that it gave you a visible way of seeing your progress on this front so the objectives were clearly made to seem more important than kills. In the Luna game this was pretty straightforward, in the Sven game I was in a strange cycle where the bots would cluster up and head mid for a fight but not quite in tandem with me and so they couldn’t make use of my skills and would be wiped out before I got there. I’m used to Dota bots and their quirks so I could manipulate the situation a little and get the rhythm back but I’m not sure what a newcomer would have done. I think it would have been interesting if when it detected a kill deficit of, say, more than 5 and no towers being taken in a particular length of time it gave you advice on what to do – go to the jungle and kill some things for money so you could finish those mid game items, or (if you were sturdy enough) go kill Roshan and get his Aegis which is basically a 1up mushroom to use in fights. That sort of thing.
I like that the explanations unfold as you encounter situations rather than in advance of them. It means you can anchor the knowledge to that situation. I’d really like to watch a friend who has never played Dota before play with it and see how they move, what warnings they trigger and whether they end up with a concept of how the phases of the game work. I’m so aware that this stuff has been drilled into me and it never occurred to me to, for example, check Roshan, because I knew the bots wouldn’t be. Someone new might go for a wander and see what that big pit thing was. I was also getting fed up with being told creeps were attacking me when I’d decided the slight grazes they were inflicting were worth the pay off. A newbie might have appreciated the repeated reminders because positioning is really hard to learn at first.
The other weird thing for me is that I tend to play support characters. These guided bot games have you playing a carry role on the safe lane instead. You’re the one doing the biffing and making the more obvious plays and building for damage. I’d be interested, as Reborn develops, to see whether there would be ways to have guided bot games for supports – here’s how you ward a rune and why, here’s why you build mana boots or a mekansm. Same with a mid or offlane position – explaining runes in greater detail or how to lane alone against the enemy’s safe lane. I suspect that stuff lends itself better to minigames or micro challenges though so I’ll go more into those ideas next week.
I’m going to go tinker with the demo hero mode for a bit now, but if any of you fancy booting up those Reborn guided bot matches (or have watched a newbie try them out) I’d really like to know what you thought of the experience. What was good and what was missing? Oh, and perhaps most importantly, DID YOU LEARN ANYTHING?