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Dote Night: Autumn/Winter 6.82

Fashion Wizards

Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na'Vi's Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

As Dota enthusiasts and experts pick through the 6.82 patch notes and ponder their implications this seems like an EXCELLENT opportunity to flesh out a talk I gave earlier this week at VideoBrains about how that process echoes parts of the high fashion industry.

The loose theme of the event was Old and New. Deus Ex, Doom, Unreal, the Zelda series and more were on the list of specialist subjects but I'd been asked to talk about Dota 2.

In temporal terms Dota can be a problem. It's a game with masses of social and development history. It has its roots in the Starcraft custom map, Aeon of Strife, and moved through various developers and incarnations once recreated as a Warcraft 3 mod. A few years ago Valve hired the current developer IceFrog and thus we have Dota 2. Taking Dota to mean all of these forms you've got a game which is over a decade old.

In that period it's been a part of many players' lives. I've devoted 1557 hours to it and have been rewarded with, amongst other things, a host of new friendships, work opportunities and an outlet for alternately dealing with and ignoring bouts of depression. Periods of Dota get remembered with the same fondness I have for Ocarina of Time and GoldenEye.

But unlike those games, Dota isn't a discrete product. Ocarina might get gussied up and re-released on any number of platforms but what you're playing is mechanically and narratively the same game. Dota gets updated periodically so when you boot it up you'll have to play the current version, not the one you may be nostalgic for. There are other games where this happens – Counter-Strike, Hearthstone, League of Legends, StarCraft. I've heard them referred to as 'living games', or as a kind of flowing river to Ocarina's motionless rock.

This is where fashion comes in. I've been looking for another way to think about these games. I've never liked the comparison with ongoing processes or constant motion because it doesn't convey what's actually happening. Dota patches involve bursts of activity and analysis followed by longer periods of stabilisation.

Two years ago my life was very different. I used to work for a fashion and beauty website and my Septembers were dominated by the spring/summer round of fashion week shows. But now I've come back to it as a potentially helpful comparison when thinking about how Dota patches affect the community and its continuity.

Designers use fashion week shows to showcase sets of clothes. The clothes represent a (hopefully) coherent set of ideas – a statement of intent from the designer and a thread of logic which unites all the looks as they pass down the runway. But there are dozens of shows for each fashion week and once a few have gone by you'll find enthusiasts and experts raking through them looking for repetition, for striking departures, for shared philosophies. These become the defining trends of a season and will be what filters down to the high street.

Last night my friends and I were on Skype doing pretty much the same thing with the 6.82 patch notes. You can see it all over Reddit too – a scramble to figure out Icefrog's intentions and the potential effects of the patch. Instead of how we should dress, the question is how should we play. The tower bounty and glyph changes might end a vogue for super-early push strats but what will best replace that? Is Bloodseeker a support now? Will this patch kill Tinker?

Suddenly favourite heroes – wardrobe staples in the last patch – must be looked at afresh, paired with new companions or retired for the moment while they're figured out. Button-down shirts and pastel biker jackets from spring give way to shearling coats and normcore for autumn. This summer's Razor trend will fade and new combinations will come to the fore.

Obviously parts of the comparison hold up better than others. After the initial flurry of activity and experimentations there's a gradual move towards an optimal game – at least amongst the top tiers of competitive play. The emphasis is on winning and so other aspects of fashion like finding what suits you and adapting the meta to fit around that don't work. Or at least, there's perhaps a degree of finding heroes and combinations which suit you within the meta but personal expressiveness is subservient to exploiting the mechanics as efficiently and reliably as possible.

The fashion comparison holds better for pub matches. Players will see big name Dota teams trying out strategies and adopt the ones they like. This seems to happen regardless of whether the strategies actually suit the situation or the player's own skill. It's like seeing Gwyneth Paltrow arriving in a caped Tom Ford concoction for the Oscars and deciding to pin a pillowcase to your collar as you head off to the gym. When not trying to channel pros, in my experience people will tend to stick to the heroes or playstyles they feel suit them. Mossy green suits me in terms of clothes, Venomancer suits me in terms of heroes so I'll try to find ways to make him work in new metas.

(Sidenote: instapicking Pudge and demanding mid would be the equivalent of those people who show up to fashion week wearing a duvet and cowboy boots, hooking every street style photographer and talking loudly about how great their blog is to anyone who might be able to get them seated in the front row.)

There will also be echoes of the cyclical nature of fashion in that particular heroes and playstyles can re-emerge, but the reasons for this happening are very different. With fashion they will generally be deliberate nods to earlier periods – attempts to play with nostalgia or to rework/update concepts. With Dota it would generally be a byproduct of rebalancing the game. The language which gets used to talk about them can be similar though. I booted up my laptop to play offline two days ago while travelling and found I hadn't updated the game client since 2013's winter event, Wraith Night. It was such a weird experience. Retro is the best way I can think of to describe it. A blink dagger cost 75 mana to use – how did we live like that?!

But I wasn't able to experience this older version of the game in the way I can with Ocarina. It's only available offline, with bots not human opponents and teammates. It's a dead game not a discrete one. Like fashion and clothing Dota needs people and it needs movement. This won't stop you having preferences for particular patches and a nostalgia for eras of Dota but they and their context disappear. They're Global Hypercolour tshirts and Spice Girl platform trainers.

The point of the talk was to find a way of thinking about Dota which reflected how the cycle of patching and playing works. Navigating change is essential to both the fashion industry and Dota 2. In drawing the comparison I'm hoping it might also be of use to others and, perhaps, will help communicate why I love two such apparently disparate fields. In short, fashion weeks and patches keep these communities and industries vital, viable and invigorating.

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