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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