As we saw quite a long break in competitive Dota since The International, I started thinking about the looming 7.23 patch, and the direction that Dota will take when it finally hits. In my pondering, one thing stuck out to me as I thought about support heroes of the 7.22 meta and the numerous patches before it: the presence of GPM or XP gain talents on popular support heroes. Now, there are always exceptions, but almost every hero that is consistently played in a support role has a significant GPM or XP gain talent in their level 10 or 15 talents. These talents’ value is perceived to be so high that most of them are being taken in 65-80% of the games those heroes play. Shadow Shaman players take XP gain over health 68.1% of the time. Ancient Apparition players take GPM over spell amp 79.1% of the time. Crystal Maiden players take GPM over mana cost and loss reduction 81.5% of the time. I could go on.
This got me asking why this is. Obviously the scaling benefits of these talents feel like they can make a greater impact, as you are always going to perceive your game as having the potential to go longer than it might. Plus, gold and experience are often perceived to outweigh benefits that have tangible stat lines to them like “200 health” and “10% spell amp” because if you want those things, you can just buy it with the gold you’re getting. Now I can probably go into the details of why those might be logical fallacies, and how a significant number of these “economy” talents actually boast worse win rates than their alternatives or even the inverse arguments that these talents are only seeing worse win rates due to a selection bias of people already winning, but I’m not exactly interested in that. What I am interested in, is why these are necessary to exist in the first place, and why players perceive their value to be so high, and that requires backing up a bit.
Before joining the Dotabuff team, I worked as a Game Designer, and one important concept that was taught to me very early on is to be wary of power creep. The slow increase in power of content added to games as their lifespans grow. This is talked about extensively in circles of TCG’s like Magic: The Gathering, but exists blatantly in other games, such as MMO’s that continually release new equipment or poorly balanced strategy games. Power creep is a tough beast to tame, because adding power to a game can be a convenient fix for things that are imbalanced, or for metas that are stale. Adding pieces that are 1% more powerful than what users had before can help keep the game fresh, and renew players’ interest in experimenting with strategies, counters, and general theory.
So why bring this up? I think Dota 2 is a perfectly good exemplar of a game that managed its power creep well in terms of its hero design. An inexperienced designer handling the balance of Dota would inevitably patch meta problems by adding more power to the game, then adding more to fix those problems, and eventually balloon the game into a strange, uncomfortable state. Valve and Icefrog however, are some smart cookies and know damn well how to maintain a good budget of comparative strength in hero design. If you look through changelogs, you’ll actually see spells on heroes from 7-8 years ago are mostly similar. In patch 6.72 in 2011, Queen of Pain had her Sonic Wave damage increased to 350/475/600. Today, in 2019, it deals 340/430/520. In patch 6.75, in 2012, Lion’s Finger of Death was buffed to do 500/650/860 damage. Today it deals 600/725/850. I could find many more examples, but the point being, that there haven’t been any significant changes to the Dota balance meta that are worth bringing up… except one. The map and item economy.
As the years have progressed, Valve has slowly, and perhaps inadvertently added more gold and experience to the map, while at the same time, uncapping player’s abilities to harness and use those resources. Does the following screenshot give you any clue as to where I’m going with this?
Item slots were, at one point, a highly valued resource. Not only was there no backpack, but TP scrolls had to be held in the main inventory, and observer and sentry wards stacked separately, taking a slot each. A well-equipped support only really had a single free item slot once their boots and wand accounted for two of their slots. Though this impacted supports almost disproportionately due to the aforementioned wards, this was a major pain point for cores as well. Limiting item slots meant that cores had to make very deliberate decisions about how to upgrade items to maximize those slots. Items with multiple major components like Mjollnir often had to be built outright, or one component like the hyperstone may have to sit in stash while you work on the recipe. This was especially true later in games when a core hero had 3-4 item slots filled already. This resulted often in cores having stagnant power plateaus through the game, where other heroes could catch up in relative power, even if that plateaued hero’s net worth was growing. Gold had to be spent in chunks, and power came in spikes.
In addition to the above slot management, the absolute cap that a core hero could reach was lower. The backpack allows for items like Refresher Orb, Black King Bar, and Necronomicon to be replaced with more stat efficient items once their activations have served their purpose. Valve has also allowed a few key mechanics to escape the bounds of item slots, namely Town Portal Scrolls, Moon Shards, and Aghanim’s Blessings. Boots of Travel’s value used to exist in freeing up an item slot so you could buy an item that gave far more than your power treads or phase boots, and until they decoupled the cooldown from your actual TP scroll, BoT’s saw a massive decline in purchases.
I know I’m hitting a lot of points here, but bear with me, I promise I’m going to make a point of all of this. The map economy has, similarly to the item capacity, inflated. Some of you may remember the monumental 7.00 patch. The patch that saw a massive overhaul to nearly everything, but key among the changes was the addition of new jungle camps on the opposite side of each team’s usual jungle. At first these were balanced with adjusted spawn timings, but as the next few patches rolled in, we saw some of those timing changes reverted, and we eventually settled on the current map layout featuring three camps in a safe “triangle” on either side of the map, and six camps throughout the main jungle.
Patch 7.00 also introduced a new mechanic unheard of before, bounty runes. These also saw multiple iterations in their execution, spawning at different times, offering different mixes of gold and exp at varying spawn frequencies and locations. Regardless of the execution, these served as added gold to the game. They were placed as objectives for players to clash over, but they ultimately added scaling to the game’s economy that wouldn’t have been there before.
In addition to the above two points, a number of other changes affected general farming rates such as the addition of shrines to stay healthy on the map, and a near-global movement speed buff to melee heroes in patch 7.21 which can serve to help heroes move from camp to camp more efficiently for quicker jungle clear times.
All of the above points factor into one main conclusion, that there is not only more gold in Dota, but a greater capacity to utilize it. To confirm this, I sampled average GPM, XPM and Last hit stats from each of the 5 previous Internationals. The results were as follows:
Keep in mind that the 7.00 patch I cite where a lot of these mechanics were added was shortly following The International 2016, which is where we start to see the averages soar upwards. Additionally, a small amount of inflation in these averages is likely to occur simply due to players getting better and understanding how to rotate through their farming patterns, though I would speculatively say that this doesn’t account for all of it.
The point of all of this is that Valve has slowly unleashed a greater potential for cores to excel in games. I believe a lot of these balance changes existed to help bring games to a close, where late game stalemates in earlier patches would end up dry and uninteresting because teams lacked objectives to fight over, and farming hit its effective cap too early. This has had a knock-on effect though of making supports drop off in effectiveness sooner in games.
Previously, supports had the largest relative impact on a game through the first 10-20 minutes of a game, then gradually, cores surpassed them and had the largest relative impact beyond that. The point where the two crosses over have slowly been pulled earlier and earlier in the game, and I believe this is why we see supports favoring talents that boost their personal economy. Cores are just able to rake in more gold quicker and use greater flexibility in item slots to hold onto more low-cost stat items than they could when they were bound by slot limitations. This makes supports feel out-scaled and less impactful in games, resulting in what I perceive to be a less enjoyable experience. That 600 finger of death damage I talked about earlier, feels far weaker if you’re using it on a player with two bracers in their inventory. Since role queue didn’t exist, I don’t have any way to verify that support players are in lower supply than before, but I know I personally used to find supporting to be a fun and rewarding role, and that luster has been buffered away as time has passed.
I believe Valve is aware of this though. In the last two “letter” patches, we’ve seen neutral creep bounties and exp reduced, and in patch 7.22 we saw death costs reduced, with killstreak bounties increased. There does seem to be an effort, despite it being low-and-slow, to scale back the in-game economy.
Balancing a game as complex as Dota is a feat of epic proportions that takes a number of highly thoughtful individuals to address. Though there tend to be missteps along the way, surfacing the trends that come from these changes can help to inform the future and keep our game the tight, competitive, and rewarding experience it is. I would personally love to see cores have a slower growth rate, but maintain the expanded late-game cap to help close late-game scenarios. I feel supports would have more control over the outcome of a game, and players may find more enjoyment in queueing for those roles, helping to alleviate a lot of the problems we’re seeing with queues. I’m certainly not advocating for a return to a 6 item slot dota, however, I do believe that these changes which appeared to be quality of life-related, ended up having economical ramifications which may need to be compensated for. What are your thoughts?