INTERNET GAMING  CAFE:  HEY,  NOW,  YOU'RE  AN  ALL-STAR...

MANILA, January 17, 2006
 (STAR) By Marco Lim - The house lights at Blue Skies along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City are muted and subdued. The place resembles the inside of a bomb shelter more than an Internet gaming café, ironic when you think about the café’s name. No azure skyline to admire here, just narrow, stygian halls lined wall-to-wall with computer monitors flickering interminably with life, providing a rave-like atmosphere against the otherwise sepulchral surroundings. The Indigo Girls’s Power of Two plays incongruously in the background.

The café is packed with grade school and high school students gleefully exhausting their after-school hours playing computer games before their buses and carpools arrive. They harp on each other mercilessly, hurling expletives, barking orders and spewing sexual invectives across their gaming stations, some even rattling their chairs in excitement as if they sat on a lit cigarette. Stop dying, shouts one player. Guard the tower, cries another. Back me up. Take out the defenses.

If, in fact, you had lived in a bomb shelter the past year and a half, you might conclude the source of this adolescent aggression was Counter-Strike, the First-Person Shooter or FPS classic that ushered in the Internet café boom of the late 90s. After all, Counter-Strike has ruled the Internet café arena without contest for close to a decade now, staving off the challenge of lesser FPS titles and grinding countless Real-Time Strategy games from Starcraft to Battle Realms into de_dust.

Well, guess again. It’s not Counter-Strike. Not anymore.

The game is Defense of the Ancients or DotA as it has come to be known in LAN-speak, and it is arguably the most popular custom game to come out since, well, Counter-Strike spawned from the DNA of the Half-Life series. Its progenitor is Blizzard Entertainment’s vaunted Warcraft RTS franchise, specifically the expansion pack to Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos entitled The Frozen Throne, released in 2003.

According to one of DotA’s chief moderators, Spit-wad (DotA’s entire programming team is referred to only by their cyber tags, which knowledgeable fans will notice are synonymous with some of the most powerful items in the game), DotA was itself derived from an earlier custom game, Aeon of Strife from Reign of Chaos, and underwent various iterations and lead programmers before finally reaching its apex with DotA All-Stars. "DotA was originally created by Eul," says Spitwad. "There were many versions after that including DotA: Darkness Falls, DotA Chaos, and many more. Finally, Guinsoo decided to make DotA: All-Stars, which was the version that made DotA become so popular."

Following patch 6.01 (the DotA franchise updates new patches regularly to address bugs, balance fixes, and new characters and items), Guinsoo relinquished lead programming duties to Icefrog, who continues to hold the position to this day, circa patch 6.19b.

However, to appreciate DotA’s evolution, you have to go back all the way to 2002, with the release of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. With Tides, Blizzard Entertainment began the gradual process of sharing the source code of their gaming engines with their legion of loyal fans. This allowed novice game programmers a platform to create new, fully functional custom games by manipulating a user-friendly map interface not unlike your garden-variety Adobe Photoshop. Instead of inputting code from scratch, gamers could use a simple point-and-click system to adjust tile settings, game triggers, unit skins, and map dimensions.

Around the same time, Blizzard began the construction of what would become the world’s preeminent online gaming portal, www.battle.net. Gamers from all over the world were soon able to log on to global gateways in Asia, North America and Europe to play their favorite Blizzard titles against and among one another.

Combined, the two innovations opened the virtual floodgates for thousands of aspiring game makers to share their homemade creations with the rest of the Blizzard community. Blizzard fans were soon trading custom games like Star Trek geeks exchange fan-fiction, turning some game makers into celebrities overnight. (Icefrog has often been referred to reverently online as "Team Icefrog" despite his repeated assertions that he is only one person). Soon, fans were no longer playing Blizzard’s core titles; they were playing cult hits like Starship Troopers, Dark Deeds, Hero Siege and Footman Wars.

The Warcraft III flagship and its expansion pack debuted in the Philippines to tepid interest and middling sales compared to previous Blizzard titles. Fact of the matter is, Counter-Strike, in its prime, cut a swathe through it, too, but riding the back of its most user-friendly map editor yet, simply dubbed WorldEditor, the title survived on the strength of its fan-generated custom games, albeit barely. All that would change after DotA.

Within months after its release, Internet cafés were swarming with youths who had all but given up on games not featuring the crosshairs of an AK-47.

Despite its cash cow going from Counter-Strike to Counter-Stricken, the Internet café business was thriving again; so well, in fact, that many LAN cafés had waiting lists most nightclubs would envy. According to the café managers of Blue Skies, 129 and Hobby Stop along Katipunan Avenue, which corner the fertile gaming beltway of Ateneo, Miriam and UP, the average DotA player spends about P90-175 a day at P30-35 an hour. Since most DotA players come in groups of six, one party can spend in excess of P1,000 for a three-hour block.

The premise of DotA is as simple as it is appealing. There are two primary factions in the game: the noble Sentinels and the villainous Scourge. Each side boasts an eclectic choice of lethal, powerful heroes, all of which are called to defend their Ancient – the World Tree for the Sentinels, the Frozen Throne for the Scourge. Each Ancient is defended by guard towers and structures, which randomly spawn troops called creeps to bolster its army.

The map, with forests and back roads snaking through it, has three main routes separating each base. The creeps traverse these routes on their way to the enemy base, like driftwood floating downstream. Each path cuts across a shallow river, the border of the territories on either side, beyond which lay opposing turrets at key chokepoints.

Players can control one of three kinds of heroes: strength, agility and intelligence. Each hero has three spells or abilities. A fourth spell is made available only when a hero reaches level 6 or higher, called his/her Ultimate, which is his/her "finishing" spell (if Voltes-V were a hero, his Laser Sword would be his Ultimate).

These heroes engage creeps and opposing heroes in combat, attempting to destroy towers and buildings in order to gain strategic footholds in enemy territory. As more enemy structures fall, opposing troops and heroes can move more freely into the enemy team’s base, where they must destroy the Ancient to attain victory. Along the way, a hero is rewarded experience points for killing creeps or being in the vicinity of a kill, which he can then use to build up his repertoire of spells as he sees fit.

What sets DotA apart from ersatz custom games is its unrivaled list of 72 one-of-a-kind heroes divided evenly on both sides, from The Techies, a suicidal goblin with a chip on his shoulder and a bomb the size of a refrigerator strapped to his back, to the Ogre Magi, a two-headed Ogre that hurls magically enhanced Molotov cocktails at his opponents. "It’s important to me that heroes have their own character to make them feel more real and legendary," declares Icefrog. Ask 10 Filipino gamers who their favorite DotA character is and you’re liable to get 10 different answers (although you can immediately discern a list of the usual suspects, such as Bone Fletcher, Sand King and the Crystal Maiden). Even the DotA programmers have their own favorites. "My favorite heroes are Goblin Techies (mines, never get suicide), Stealth Assassin, Tiny, Pudge, and Faceless Void," says Spit-Wad.

Heroes are often adjusted, tweaked or removed depending on fan response. "(It’s) still a work in progress on some heroes," explains Icefrog. "Most heroes start out with a unique ability/theme and get developed from there. They don’t always make it to the final versions." Through all the changes, however, one rule remains: no hero is ever truly dead. Just ask Chen.

Hero and creep kills also yield gold, which players can use to purchase a surfeit of scrolls, potions, weapons, and magical items to make their heroes faster, stronger and more deadly. Items can range from as low as 420 gold for Power Treads to 1,250 for the Eye of Skadi (which grants its user an additional 200 mana, 150 health points, plus 25 to all statistics and frost attack) to 1,650 for the Monkey King Bar (plus 75 damage, 15 percent increased attack speed, 30 percent chance to deal 90 damage, and the ability to stop channeling spells).

For sheer volume and variety, no game – custom or commercial – can match DotA, an assertion its programmers take great pride in. "With 72 current heroes and almost 100 different items, the game doesn’t get boring," beams Spit-wad. "There is always a new strat or item combination to try." In fact, some of the most famous DotA characters originated as fan musings on the DotA homepage (www.dota-allstars.com), a refreshingly democratic process that makes you think maybe, just maybe, that hero you’ve been doodling at the back of your math notebook could someday be a DotA mainstay.

The game’s diverse and dynamic gameplay is particularly appealing to a generation of Filipino gamers who change their cellphone ringtones and wallpapers seemingly every week. The game offers countless permutations on hero builds and item recipes, keeping Filipino gamers coming back eager to test new strategies and team compositions. Comparing it to CS, Robert Uy, owner of 129 Internet café, says, "DotA is the new team game. And since there are over 70 heroes, the team combos are a lot. CS is like a ‘broken record.’ The matches are only five to 10 minutes long at most and everyone knows the weapons and items. Not like DotA."

Despite its massive catalogue of in-game characters, DotA’s gameplay and mechanics are not impeded by the weighty specifications of its RTS cousins, which only enhances its mass appeal.

Part of the reason why RTS classics like Starcraft – considered the litmus test for any game of its genre – failed to topple Counter-Strike was because it could never really compete with the barkada-driven appeal of the FPS alpha-opus. With CS, dozens of friends could join the same game without losing significant reaction time or frame-by-frame speed; Starcraft, like most RTS, could carry no more than four players in one game before succumbing to lag.

DotA, on the other hand, allows up to five players on either side for a total of 10 players. What’s more, unlike most RTS which require intense multitasking, unit micro and resource management, DotA entrusts gamers with only one responsibility – their hero. There is no gold to mine, no food to gather, no armies to command. Just one solitary hero who lives, dies, and kills by your hand. It makes DotA the kind of game that first-timers and neophytes can grasp in a matter of minutes (if they’re brave enough to stomach the unpitying cat-calls of "noob" by fellow gamers, that is).

The DotA team estimates that up to 300,000 players are playing DotA at any given time (factoring in café games, that figure is probably closer to 500,000). To hear Icefrog explain it, "I believe that people love DotA because it offers enjoyable gameplay to both new and veteran gamers, whereas many games tend to focus on one demographic. When DotA (was) developed, there (were) two critical factors to keep in mind – fun and balance. It’s very difficult to maintain the equilibrium between those two aspects of this type of game. It is this fine equilibrium that allows for both demographics to enjoy the game. What I like the most about it is the lack of serious time commitments needed to enjoy the game. Many online games require countless hours to achieve the same enjoyment that this game provides in 40 to 70 minutes."

It’s also the kind of enjoyment that’s best experienced in the presence of others. Kills are frequent and plentiful in DotA, the action fast-paced and frenetic – a perfect catalyst for that other great Filipino pastime, trash-talking. As one gamer (who wished to remain anonymous, and whose cyber nick, as with many DotA players, is not fit to print) reasons, "It’s not the same as playing on battle.net. (DotA) is more fun to play in a café than at home because there you get to shout and curse at your friends and make fun of them when they die."

At its heart, there is something uniquely Filipino about Duel of the Ancients. When you get right down to it, the objective is to capture the flag (or in this case destroy it). There’s something familiar and nostalgic about this type of game. Who doesn’t have fond memories of childhood games such as patintero, cops and robbers, and agawan base, games where the object is to protect a sovereign position from invasion while simultaneously laying siege to an opponent’s camp? Only here, you get to do it as an emerald dragon or an animated corpse or a living black hole – and who doesn’t think that’s a much better way to spend your time while waiting for the bus?


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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