The “leaver” problem in DotA genre games

Ever since the early days of Defense of the Ancients (and I’m sure in Aeon of Strife as well), players leaving in-progress games in this genre has been a pretty big problem. And of course, why wouldn’t it? In a 5 vs 5 game that can take an hour to play where every single player matters a great deal, all it takes is one person to quit for the game to be ruined for the 9 remaining players.

Today, with 2012 fast approaching, we’re seeing the explosion and growth of a genre at a probably never-before-seen rate in the games industry. With League of Legends raking in obscene amounts of money, the actual “sequel” to DotA on the horizon as well as another game from a separate company using the DotA name, the genre is absolutely booming.

I’ve always been fascinated by the popularization of this genre, as I’ve written about before, since it boasts an absolutely huge entry barrier. While the games do not tend to take much reflex skill (although being a subgenre of real-time strategy, it certainly has its place), they almost universally require a huge amount of knowledge that can only really be obtained through grinding out hours and hours on the game in question. For example, Heroes of Newerth currently boasts 93 playable heroes, each with unique skills and hundreds of possible item builds (and of course, no game is played the same way twice).

This barrier of knowledge and experience leads to a pretty obvious gap between players in the game (“omg why did you buy X item on Y hero”), and makes it very easy to blame a teammate for your teams short-comings. As it’s not really a matter of skill, players tend to almost never have the feeling that they personally screwed up, so they will often pass the blame to a teammate – whether deservedly or not.

All of this, the knowledge requirement, lack of personal blame, and long game timers ends up making these games hellish for new players to get into, as an inordinate number of games will end with people yelling at each other. If you’re not playing with anybody you know, and your team loses, chances are people will get heated at one another for wasting each others’ time.

Which leads to people leaving, potentially in the middle of a game, often before the game is even decided. As mentioned, the big problem here is once a player decides to leave: that’s it, he’s gone and his team is probably as good as done for. As these games tend to be very “task based”, even a bad player is much preferred to not having the player at all (aside in some cases, such as “feeding”, but that’s another topic for another time). If 9 players in a game play for 30 minutes and all generally think the game is going well and is evenly matched, but one player had a bad start or died too much or is generally frustrated and leaves the game, there is a good chance that the game is ruined for all 9 remaining people. At least the other team of 5 get an easy win, but in these games a well fought match can often be more rewarding than an easy win.

As this genre has become more retail-based (unlike the actual DotA game, which is merely a Warcraft 3 map), they have implemented “leaver protection”, which is usually just a fancy way to say “if you leave the game, you get punished”. The problem with this is it locks players into playing the game, forcing them to be even more frustrated, causing even more discontent in the community. Still, it’s preferable to no leaver protection at all, as again it is one player’s experience against many.

Mostly, I am surprised that no game in the genre has attempted some kind of re-joining mechanic. Games do have re-joining on disconnects (another staple feature that the original DotA lacked), but this only works for people who disconnected due to hardware or network malfunction, not people who intend to just cease playing the game. Of course, with the aforementioned complexities that happen on a per-game basis such as item builds and which hero is more powerful as a result of feeding/farming, it would be very hard for someone to just jump into a game in progress. So it certainly would have to be an option, such a checkbox when looking for a match entitled “I am willing to take a disconnected player’s place”.

As well, players that do this should be considered to be doing charity work: they should not receive any negative statistics that may be incurred on the original player that had left (i.e. ELO rating decrease in the event of a loss). I am not sure how the ratings of the other players should be affected, as it’s entirely possible that the replacement player may be much better than the one he replaced. Perhaps some kind of “good guy Greg” policy where the enemy team can no longer lose rating if they lose and possibly gain some for allowing it. Obviously, this mechanic would only be allowed in a non-serious ladder format, i.e. public matchmaking when you are paired up with strangers.

As this subgenre extends into more and more varying gameplay types, I’d really like to see this mechanic be tested. It’s kind of a strange concept as these games tend to be considered at their core RTS games, which have never had join-match-in-progress, but this genre takes the RTS elements and pulls them much closer to the arena deathmatch style, which has alwyas had the join-match-in-progress mechanic.

I understand the complexities that these games bring to the mechanic of joining matches in progress, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. For example, and what inspired me to think about this design, Super Monday Night Combat is in the works which is going to be a DotA-style shooter that should be much more welcoming to this kind of option. Really, I’d just like to see it tried – as an avid player in this genre and clocking in far too many hours with DotA classic and Heroes of Newerth, I can’t emphasize how many games have been ruined by leavers. The problem is certainly alleviated to a great extent with the leaver protection, but that just means in place of an empty player slot, you have an angry (or AFK) person on your team half of the time. There are a lot of times when it would have been great to just swap that guy out for someone fresh.

I know it’s a strange reference to make here, but this feature has sort of already seen a rough implementation in the World of Warcraft dungeon finder. With it, you queue anonymously and get paired up with 4 other total strangers. Of course, in this game, you are merely fighting NPCs, but the same amount of aggravation can occur (more, even) if people don’t do their job correctly. And if a group member isn’t working out for you, you can kick him and get a replacement easily. It really avoids a lot of the rage and aggravation and streamlines things much more, and I’d love to see it tested in the “hero arena” genre.