The Age of Auto Chess and Games That Play Themselves

In this world nothing is certain except death and taxes, and a new gaming fad every couple of years. With the obvious untouchable exceptions, we’ll witness the death of countless MOBA and Battle Royale games during the next year or two, as a new trend arises to conquer them all: Auto Chess games.

Auto Chess is an unsuspicious Dota 2 custom map that garnered a lot of attention and is bound to become the next big thing in gaming. Just like other trends that came before, autobattlers are designed to feed off players insatiable competitive instinct, endless pursuit for top rankings and desire for cosmetic rewards.

Auto Chess games inexorably feel like a huge step back for gaming. Instead of adding ingenious new mechanics and clever twists that reward player skill and agency, the outcome of these games is decided by sheer luck, with your interaction being limited to picking a few heroes from a randomly generated pool and placing them on a board to no great effect. It’s about as playable and in-depth as watching paint dry.

Dota Underlords Ship of Doom

Welcome to the Age of Games That Play Themselves

I’m fully aware that this is an unpopular opinion, but nothing in Auto Chess games feels designed with player enjoyment in mind. It’s a package that seems engineered to compel and addict, making the player unwittingly reach for their wallet. While I’m the first to criticize the press when it labels gamers as “addicts” or, in some situations, as suffering from “mental illness”, I realize that this is a business first and some questionable tactics are often employed to reach those goals.

Loot boxes are one of the greatest examples. They are about as “ethical and fun” as a punch in the face, and as a “surprise mechanic” they are akin to discovering that your wallet was stolen while commuting to work. Surprise!

Auto Chess games are created to funnel players down a path that will always lead to microtransactions. While Dota Underlords entered Early Access in a state that feels rushed and incomplete, a Battle Pass is in the works and should add new hero and board skins, among other things. League of Legends’ Teamfight Tactics goes for the same approach, with seasonal content that you’ll eventually have to invest in to get better rewards.

But monetization is already explicitly available in Drodo Studios’ Auto Chess. The company that created the original custom map for Dota 2, Drodo has just released its standalone version of the game after parting ways with Valve. Aptly titled Auto Chess, this is exactly the same game as the rest of them, with the big difference being the hero roster. The character design is divisive to say the least, but it still feels like Dota 2, albeit with an excessively cartoon presentation.

Drodo Auto Chess

Drodo’s Auto Chess is a testament to the inherent lack of depth of autobattlers. You have your crucial mechanic of leveling up a hero by combining three similar units, there is a shop to acquire new heroes and you can also spend your gold to upgrade your level, and consequently the number of board units. It’s a depressingly boring template that feels cliched just after a handful of games. To give you one example, Drodo’s Auto Chess features a unit called Pirate Captain that even has its own Ghost Ship, capable of swiping the board. Doesn’t that remind you of someone from Dota Underlords?

Adding insult to injury, Drodo’s Auto Chess includes a Gacha system. This is a very popular mechanic in hero collector games, pretty much a sibling of the dreaded loot boxes. You spend in-game currency or real cash in the hopes of getting a high ranked unit or material. In this case, you gain hero skins by using your hard-earned Candy or Donuts, which eventually you’ll get to purchase with real-world money if you feel so inclined.

Let’s call things as they are; you are effectively gambling in an RNG autobattler that is ultimately based on randomness and luck. Right after I wrote this, a loot box died in extreme agony.

Dota Underlords Round Start

Who’s in For a Round of Warcraft Auto Chess?

Autobattlers also feel like a fertile ground ripe for lawsuits and implausible twists. When PUBG Corp decided to sue other developers, Fortnite’s Epic Games included, claiming ownership of most Battle Royale mechanics used on PUBG, it felt surreal. When all the current Auto Chess games feel like clones of each other with slight graphical deviations, where will this eventually take us? I’m surprised that Valve, Drodo and Riot Games aren’t already battling it out in the courts for ownership of the genre. It just takes one company to get the ball rolling.

Eventually, we’ll get dozens of clones before the year is over. Despite my lack of expertise in development, these games strike me as some of the easiest and fastest to develop, from prototyping to final release, and if you already own a franchise with a decent cast, it will make things easier. That is the reason why I don’t fully understand when Jagex said that it was a “bit late” to the bandwagon. would it be so farfetched to believe they could get an autobattler in Early Access before the end of the year?

I honestly believe that many big-name developers are hurriedly working on their Auto Chess games. It’s a matter of time before we get to hear about Warcraft’s Horde Chess, NCsoft’s Blade & Soul Battle, Nexon’s Urgency Chess, Electronic Arts Star Wars Jedi Rush, and so on. It’s a simple affair of judiciously studying the mass appeal of an existing franchise and reshuffling the assets for a game that plays itself based on character stats and abilities.

Drodo Auto Chess Battle

Eventually, each game will try to put its own spin on the genre however, it must be substantial enough to make it feel refreshing. Dota Underlords’ unit specific items are a nice touch, but far from a groundbreaking feature.

My fear is that we are standing at the dawn of an age of low standards and derivative releases. Players will happily gobble up anything that looks remotely like a game, as long as it includes leaderboards and Battle Passes, and is hyped as “the greatest thing ever™” by the YouTuber that screams the loudest. This is where the autobattlers are leading us and I can’t shake the feeling that if you have played one game, you’ve played them all.

I can’t wait for the next gaming trend: auto Tic-Tac-Toe, with purchasable skins for Xs and Os. I’ll only give in to temptation if it comes with a Battle Pass though. That will really seal the deal for me.

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How Valve Has Fallen: From Half-Life to Dota Underlords

Valve’s created many moments that will remain engraved in players’ minds for the rest of their lives. It was Gabe Newell’s company that created indisputable classics such as the Half-Life and Portal series, not to mention being at the helm of video game digital distribution platforms with Steam.

But those days are a thing of a distant past. Valve isn’t the trendsetter that it used to be and seems content with following a new trend, resorting to game designs that lack the flair that Gordon Freeman once brought us. Valve seems to be following the money, instead of striving for innovation and brilliance like it once did.

It only takes a quick glance at the studio’s latest releases to realize that despite its huge success, Dota 2 was heavily inspired by League of Legends. I’m willing to give Valve a free pass for that, but fast forward a few years to Artifact and we see Valve’s attempt to set foot in one of the latest and most profitable trends; the digital collectible card game. Hearthstone was the obvious game to beat, but Blizzard’s colossal CCG didn’t feel the blow, not even in the slightest.

Artifact

Where Do We Go from Here?

Artifact’s colossal failure wasn’t entirely expected, but putting a price tag on a game in a genre filled with great free-to-play options felt arrogant. Valve’s ego was so inflated from previous successes that it was convinced players would jump in blindly, and truth be told, many did. Soon enough though, players realized that Artifact wasn’t everything it was advertised to be, especially with Hearthstone or Shadowverse ripe for the picking. Polished, brimming with content, and above all, free. What else is there to say?

Artifact isn’t dead, but it is going through a painful “process of experimentation and development.” No matter how much they change it, the harm is done and even if a business model switch is looming, it won’t make paying players happy. Artifact is in a scary place, stuck between uncertainty and cancellation. So, what’s next for Valve? Perhaps the long overdue Half-Life 3? Another insanely funny and genuinely clever Portal game? Maybe a third game in the awesome zombie co-op shooter Left 4 Dead? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely considering Valve’s adverse relation with the number “3”. Every single one of its franchises hits a dead end with third titles, and this has naturally turned into its own meme.

But I wouldn’t lose hope. Perhaps Valve, in another one of its unprecedented outbursts of creativity, is secretly working on Team Fortress 3. You know, there’s this huge game called Overwatch and the hero shooter genre is timeless, so maybe it can borrow a significant chunk of Blizzard’s player base with a new game?

Valve Dota Underlords Auto Battler Team Fortress 2

This is only speculation, but one thing that is very real and palpable is Valve’s latest game, Dota Underlords. Like a snake eating its own tail, Valve once again turns a mod into a full game. However, unlike Dota 2, where the Auto Chess craze derived from, this Auto Battler game feels bare bones and, quite frankly, deprived of any true challenge or long-lasting appeal. It’s a game where lady luck (RNG, in fact) plays a preeminent role, leaving player skill as a superfluous afterthought.

Dota Underlords doesn’t feel like a true Valve game. It feels like a student project that garnered lots of attention for some unfathomable reason, and that is noticeable in every aspect of its design, from the overly simple mechanics to the rudimentary graphics. Early Access isn’t an excuse for everything, and I always expect more from Valve in every regard.

I strongly disagree with most player claims that Dota Underlords is “fun” and “interesting”, but I do agree with those who say it’s addictive. Loot boxes are addictive as well and that doesn’t make them any more fair or fun. Watching a bunch of heroes having a go at each other is the stuff of generic mobile games, where auto battlers, commonly known as hero collectors until recently, are a dime a dozen. Dota Underlords is an evolution of the hero collector genre, with a side dish of RNG for extra… hmm… appeal?

Dota Underlords Bubble Chaos

The Future Is Uncanny

It’s not like Valve won’t release Half-Life 3 because it lacks the budget, engine or staff. No one is asking it to push the medium forward once more, as it happened with Half-Life 2’s brilliant physics-based puzzles or the exciting and brand-new Gravity Gun. I just want another trip to a world that profoundly affected me, to reunite with old friends and enemies, and to continue a story that was cut short because Valve didn’t bother to release Episode 3. There was no closure.

This abrupt cliffhanger felt like a genuine cop-out, one that could tarnish the reputation of a studio for good. It’s been over a decade and the promised third episode is now an illusion. With Arkane Studios pumping out two fantastic Dishonored games during this interval, I’m starting to wonder if Valve’s staff isn’t being pushed around for lesser, potentially more profitable projects, such as Dota Underlords.

Valve Campo Santo In the Valley of Gods

It is rumored that Valve has other games in development, something that isn’t surprising. There is so much untapped potential in the studio’s catalogue that it would be a crime not to take advantage of it. However, I’m guessing that the next big game is going to be a “borrowed” one: In the Valley of Gods, developed by Firewatch creators Campo Santo, now a Valve subsidiary since 2018. I’m utterly convinced that this will be a remarkable adventure, but it won’t be a tangible way to gauge Valve’s current expertise.

I have such an admiration for Valve’s previous efforts that I’m reluctant to watch it transform into a bland trend follower, failing to realize its own ideas because of too much reading into charts and figures. Valve made a name for itself when it didn’t care about what was hot, setting out to create the games that its staff wanted to play. Those days appear to be behind us. Right now, Valve seems to be on autopilot, pretty much in tune with its latest release, an auto-battler.

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Dota Underlords – A Roll of the Dice

I hope that the future will prove me wrong but we may be on the verge of the birth of another gaming trend: Auto Chess games. Dota Underlords and League of Legends’ Teamfight Tactics are the hypothetical precursors of the genre, but this style of gameplay harkens back to the origins of mobile games. It’s heavily RNG-based, with luck playing a major part in your experience, while your effect in a match is akin to rolling a dice as the battles unfold automatically.

At this stage, Dota Underlords is a conundrum of massive proportions. It’s not that different from the dreaded hero collector games that you find on mobile, yet it gets praise for a depth that simply isn’t there. It works as a harmless game mode for Dota 2; as its own standalone game, it’s shallow and unrewarding.

Dota Underlords Round Start

RNG: The Game

Currently in Early Access, Dota Underlords feels strangely rudimentary. Valve virtually rushed it to the store in an attempt to thwart Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics from taking the spotlight. The clueless tutorial is proof of this, teaching absolutely nothing substantial about the mechanics of the game with round after round of generic and useless info. Only after googling some tips I was able to understand what was needed to level up a hero.

Hint: you need to get three copies of the same hero to merge into a two-star hero and three two-star heroes to create a powerful three-star hero. It’s not about combat experience (kills, matches, etc.) as I initially expected it to be.

Dota Underlords isn’t a game that you can play to kill some minutes since a successful match can take up to an hour. You’re not facing a single opponent; instead you participate in an eight-player tournament where you face one rival at a time. A defeat will take some of your health, with each participant being eliminated as their health drops to zero.

Matches have the problem of being mostly decided by lady luck, as you take the heroes that you get from the shop. If you’re lucky enough to get a few heroes to fuse into two-star heroes during the early rounds you may have a shot at the top spots. Otherwise you’re likely to find yourself in a situation where it’s impossible to catch up with the other players. Spending gold to reroll the shop with no worthwhile upgrade showing up is a guarantee that the goddess of RNG isn’t by your side. No matter the heroes that you choose or their board placement, Dota Underlords is mostly about hero level with skill playing a lesser role.

Dota Underlords RNG Shop

You can also spend gold to upgrade your overall player level with each stage granting an additional hero spot on the board. This is essential as to not fall behind but I always make leveling up my heroes the top priority. Having a full team of one-star heroes ultimately amounts to nothing much but it’s all about balance… and luck.

There are other ways you can affect the performance of your heroes, thanks to loot rounds. During the first three match rounds you will face AI creeps. If you win you get to pick one item from a pool of three, and if you lose stop playing immediately because you’re bad beyond belief… I mean, the game chooses one item for you. For example, some items can be used with one hero while others have overall boosts that affect a specific class. Further loot rounds happen at round 10, 15, 20 and so on.

Alliances need to be taken into consideration as well. You must pay attention to the icons under each hero, as they represent their faction: Assassin, Druid, Mage, Human and many more. This is a system where having multiple heroes from a single faction on the board will reward you with some boosts.

Dota Underlords Ship of Doom

Am I a Player or Am I Being Played?

At the end of the day, Dota Underlords can be incredibly infuriating. When you win it feels unrewarding as it’s mostly down to luck, even if you’re unwilling to admit it during your first victories. When you lose it’s mostly due to a case of bad luck. Leveling up heroes, using items and creating alliances… everyone is doing it as well. You either have good high-level heroes, and hero balance is a serious issue right now, or your odds of winning are seriously affected.

If this was proper chess instead of Auto Chess, you know just like the classic Battle Chess series, each match would surely have several layers of strategy to it. As it stands it’s just a frenzied rush of heroes while tactical prowess sits at the sidelines, depressingly eating popcorn and shaking its head in disbelief.

Monetization is yet to rear its ugly face but you should expect an unhealthy dose of hero skins. This should add to the mess that happens on the board as the heroes aren’t that easy to recognize to begin with. That takes me to another worrisome issue, the clunky UI. It feels unintuitive and ugly, certainly not up to the standards that you would expect from a company such as Valve. Eventually you’ll grow used to it but that is not the same as appreciating its design. Teamfight Tactics’ UI looks extremely clean and polished in comparison while Dota Underlords’ interface seemingly designed without flair and with mobile devices in mind. This game is available for PC and mobile devices but that’s never an excuse for lackluster design.

Dota Underlords Bubble Chaos

When you perform well Dota Underlords grabs you and you feel tempted to keep playing, raising your ranking in the hopes that you’ll become skilled enough to turn into a respected player.  By skilled I mean having a broad knowledge of each hero’s strengths and a four leaf clover in your pocket. Dota Underlords has obvious eSports ambitions and additional features may eventually turn it into a richer game, or a proper game, one where your actions have real repercussions.

Right now Dota Underlords feels more like a weird emerging trend that is more frustrating than interesting. A game where your role is more of a spectator rather than that of a player. It’s akin to rolling the dice and hoping that you get the desired results. In my book this doesn’t count as a proper game, let alone spawn an entire gaming genre. Sure, it’s addictive but in a very exasperating and punishing way. I would never trade the challenging depth of Minion Masters for any Auto Chess game.

And boy, that shop bell really gets on my nerves.

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