This past month, the five-on-five heroic warfare simulator Dota 2 has seen a surge in popularity thanks to a custom game mode developed by the independent Drodo Studio. Simply titled “Dota Auto Chess,” it has launched Dota into some of its highest concurrent player counts in ages and drawn in new streamers and audiences. But its surging popularity seems on course to repeat the history of most popular multiplayer game mods: an original idea becoming someone else’s money-making machine.
Dota Auto Chess is not exactly what the name might imply. It’s chess mostly in aesthetic, but the custom mod for Valve’s Dota 2 is better-described as a hybrid of tower defense, poker, and tactics. Like most good custom games, it’s a hodgepodge of various genres that becomes something new in its own right. You don’t need to know what Dota 2 is or how to play it to play Auto Chess, you just need to download it.
The game seems simple at first. Each player in the Auto Chess lobby has an 8×8 tiled board, their play area for the duration of the game. Every round, you gain gold and can purchase units of varying cost and rarity to place on your board to defend your territory and invade others’. These “pieces” are pulled from a limited pool of various Dota heroes, but their proper names aren’t as important as their descriptors.
The key to building a solid board is amassing units of complementary boons to enhance their abilities. If you own multiple “beasts,” for instance, all your units gain bonus damage. Elves grant a chance to dodge attacks, though only for other elves. Mages reduce magic resistance, warriors increase armor, and so on. A scattered assortment of pieces can be valuable, but infinitely more so is a cohesive, synergized fighting force.
The tradeoff is that you have a random allotment of units to purchase each round, and if you want more options, you have to spend some gold to reroll — the same gold that you spend on buying units, as well as levelling your board to place them and have better chances at seeing rare ones pop up. The more gold you have banked, the more interest you generate, but hoarding might mean ceding a few rounds and losing precious life in the process.
A Winning Formula
A good game of Auto Chess feels like you’re playing back from a deficit at a high-stakes poker table. Every blow to your life is dire, every piece of gold valuable, each win an incremental advance that can still be undone a round later.
My friends and I will play together in lobbies over voice chat, and the most tumultuous moment of every game is when someone decides to “pivot.” They’ve realized their board is not going to work — maybe the synergies aren’t lining up, or they’re not finding the units they need, and so rounds’ worth of gold saved is about to be blown in a Hail Mary attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sometimes it works. Just as often, it doesn’t. It’s always exciting to watch.
It’s that excitement that keeps me and others queueing up round after round. It’s also why the game’s numbers have outdone actual games sold on the Steam storefront and even boosted Dota 2 in the process. And that popularity means a lot of eyes on the developers and the game itself.
The Fate of Mods
Some of the biggest games of the last ten years have started as freely available mods. Entire genres like battle royale (Fortnite, PUBG) and multiplayer online battle arenas (League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm) began as mods for other games. Valve’s two most successful multiplayer titles, Counter-Strike and Dota, both descend from mods as well. Sometimes, the creators of a mod are the ones who are able to make this transformation to standalone product and profit from their work. In other cases, a company with more money and resources capitalizes on a mod’s success, ripping the rug out from under the original developers.
To get an idea of what the future might hold for Auto Chess, you needn’t look further than the game it was made in. Dota 2 is the “sequel” to a mod for Warcraft III called Defense of the Ancients. That mod spawned numerous successors, including Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends, as well as forging an entire genre. If we’re being technical, it was StarCraft mod Aeon of Strife that started it all, or possibly even Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis, but DotA was the flashpoint.
While the folks involved with DotA have all moved on to greener pastures, the contest over who “owns” DotA was an ongoing matter for years. Does Auto Chess have a similar road ahead? Tencent, which owns stakes in studios like Riot Games and Epic, has already surveyed audiences to determine interest in a standalone version of Auto Chess. [Note: Tencent also owns Fanbyte.]
The Next Battle Royale?
The allure of custom games is the idea that anyone can make them — but the reality is that anyone can take them and make them their own as well. The legacy of Warcraft III’s infamous custom scene was the creation and popularization of several genres and types of games; a scene where amateur devs made patchwork experiences you could stumble into and while away hours in. But once the market has been established, the higher powers that be can swoop in, and what was once your pet project is now a multimillion-dollar cash cow for someone else.
The developers of Auto Chess have said, in community-translated AMAs, that they have no current plans for either a standalone or mobile version of the game. Right now, it seems they are content to continue expanding their vision of Auto Chess within the world of Dota 2. And it works wonderfully, as more users catch on every day and big-name streamers from within and without the Dota community get involved. Even tournaments have sprung up, and reddit threads are asking for a special Auto Chess match at the next Dota 2 International.
But throughout all of this, the looming threat of the appropriation and commercialization of the mod is hard to ignore. For now, Auto Chess feels like a relic from the golden age of custom games. Hopefully it won’t become a reminder of why that age ended.