Once upon a time, at the height of Dota Underlords, the Auto Chess subgenre was huge. In January 2019 the first Auto Chess game made an appearance, suitably titled Dota Auto Chess. Like Dota itself, it was a mod, a product of Valve’s extensive modding support through the Steam Workshop. Also like Dota, it drew a great deal of attention and went on to become a standalone game. By May, it had over 8 million players, making it a true breakout success. But now while it exists it has mostly been forgotten.
A Subgenre Is Born
Of course, with that success, it was inevitable that others would take notice. Many other developers sought to emulate the success of Auto Chess. The most notable of these were of course Riot Games with Teamfight Tactics and Valve themselves with Dota Underlords. The developers of the original mod, Drodo Studio, also tried to cash in on their own trend. Their game was simply titled Auto Chess and implemented microtransactions to make a profit. While the standalone Auto Chess has waned in popularity without the support of Valve, Teamfight Tactics has flourished. The latter game occupies the twelfth highest spot of all the categories on Twitch, as of this time.
But what of Dota Underlords? Valve’s official spin on the genre, with the very characters that started it all, seemed primed for success. While it started off with a bang, peaking early at 202,254 players, it has fallen off hard. As of this writing, the game had a 24-hour peak of only 3,139 players, a far cry from its competitor. What happened? There is no one specific answer, but there are a few major factors that contributed to it.
Fall From Grace
The main factor, unsurprisingly to some, is Valve. They are notorious for long periods of silence and abandoning beloved games (looking at TF2). This radio silence is typically offset by the high quality of their releases, which many see as justifying the wait. Their multiplayer games in particular have great staying power due to their high skill ceilings and dynamic gameplay. However, Dota Underlords doesn’t fit this formula, and Valve hasn’t seemed to realize it. In TF2, for example, the gameplay remains fresh across hundreds of hours through the interactions between players. Despite being seemingly abandoned, the gameplay remains fresh through the inherent unpredictability of players and the variance in skill.
Auto Chess games, however, don’t have that same kind of direct interaction. The only input players can have is to reposition and modify their team. Direct combat is handled by the AI and thus is entirely out of the hands of players. This creates an issue where dominant strategies can be found quickly, and thus the game is “solved”. Regular content patches help prevent this by constantly changing up the options players have. This keeps the game from feeling stale and allows new strategies to flourish. But in classic Valve style, support for the game quickly dried up, and with it, the player base did too.
The second reason for the decline of Dota Underlords is the existence of Teamfight Tactics. If Underlords was alone in the Auto Chess market, it may have fared better than it did. But the existence of Teamfight Tactics gave players a much more appealing option. One with regular updates, completely different characters, and an active player base. One of the things that allow Valve games to endure is the lack of any real competition. While Overwatch may have been huge, it didn’t capture what made TF2 special, which helped bring players back. Teamfight Tactics, however, is comparable to Dota Underlords, leaving players with little reason to stay.
What might be in store for Dota Underlords in the future? Well, on December 8, 2021, Valve released an update for Dota Underlords. The patch notes just said this: “Extended Season 1 end date to 2031.” This is Valve-speak for “This game will no longer be updated.” It’s safe to say nothing will change in the near future, at least until 2031.
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