Auto Chess is the Latest Gaming Industry Gold Rush, Like MOBA and Battle Royale Before It

Auto Chess is the Latest Gaming Industry Gold Rush, Like MOBA and Battle Royale Before It

In such a short period of time, there's been an explosion in the autobattler genre.

The autobattler genre is the new zeitgeist in our industry. Focused around the mod Auto Chess, it's a new trend that publishers and developers, great and small, are chasing with great zeal and effort. Within a few weeks we've seen a few announcements and releases seeking to capitalize on the growing community.

You might not have known what Auto Chess was until these last few weeks. Perhaps you're still in the dark. The original Auto Chess was a strategy mod for Dota 2 developed by Drodo Studio and launched earlier this year. Despite the "chess" in the title, it's actually a mix of Mahjong and some chess concepts. Players draw from a pool of chess pieces and strategically place them on a spread of boards; once placed, the pieces automatically fight each other based on placement, hence the "autobattler" moniker.

Drodo Studio released Dota Auto Chess in January 2019. By February it had hit 5 million users, certifying it as a bonafide hit and catching the attention of various video game studios. Auto Chess isn't a done-in-one game, and anything like that is ripe for studios to jump in and monetize. Drodo Studio is pursuing its own standalone release with Auto Chess on the Epic Games Store and mobile platforms. Valve Software, the owner and operator of Dota 2, released Dota Underlords last week. Finally, Riot Games entered the fray with Teamfight Tactics, its own odd version of the autobattler genre.

If Twitch is to be believed, Teamfight Tactics is currently winning the race. Basically, major companies like Valve and Riot Games can usetheir considerable resources to leap ahead of the original creator of the genre. And there's no guarantee that players will jump to the official Auto Chess once it has been released.

In fact, it's quite likely that Auto Chess will continue to roll around in the background being quite profitable for Drodo Studio, but not taking the crown as the leader in the genre.

Consider the Battle Royale genre. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is the standalone creation of Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene, but the genre itself has been superseded by Fortnite Battle Royale, with contenders like Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Blackout occasionally drawing more eyes. Likewise, League of Legends is based on the Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft 3, originally designed by Steve Feak. Its competitor, Valve's Dota 2, is designed by IceFrog, a developer who inherited the original DoTA Allstars mod from Feak. League of Legends is still the more popular of two MOBAs.

We've been here before. The history of the game industry is littered with the trends that everyone followed, despite that fact that only a few can truly thrive in a genre. There's always one game that blows up, and then the entire industry tries to follow suit. Many without understanding what made the original compelling in the first place. Think of the past knock down, drag out genre fights we've had: Battle Royale, MOBA, Gacha RPG, Destiny-style MMOs, Soulslikes, traditional MMOs. You could honestly stretch back further to older genres like 3D platformers and kart racers. Hell, I remember when every first-person shooter was set in World War 2 because Medal of Honor blew up big in 1999.

Riot's variant on the autobattler uses the LoL character to draw players in. | Riot Games

And while there's a ton of craven capitalism at play and everyone trying to reach the gold rush instead of making their own thing, I can't entirely saythat I don't think the competition is worthwhile. For one, competition keeps the current market leader improving their game; in many cases, you have to be better or lose position and customers. Yes, you'll have a strain of loyalists that will never leave, but players tend to go with the new hotness, the most popular, or simply the most fun game available. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was known for bugs and jank before it had to start improving on those issues with the competition.

There's also something to be said for the variation between similar games in a genre. Players may tend to prefer one variant over another because it leans towards a style of play or property they know well. Teamfight Tactics is clearly based in the autobattler genre, but with changes like the random draft carousel and item drops, or the hexagonal play area, it seeks to differentiate itself. The complement of League of Legends champions on the roster helps bring those who already play LoL over to a new genre. Fortnite Battle Royale is a faster and more twitch-based game than the PUBG it was patterned on. Nioh is clearly taking after Dark Souls, but its focus is more on combat and missions, rather than the mix of combat and exploration that defines the FromSoftware series. Fate/Grand Order relies heavily on the popular Fate/Stay Night to draw players away from similar titles like Granblue Fantasy.

There's room for competitors in a genre, and in hindsight, it may be preferable to have them there. This week, I'm personally reminded of the friendly competition between Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft and Square Enix' Final Fantasy 14. WoW Patch 8.2 launches on Tuesday, quite close to the early access release of Shadowbringers, the latest FF14 expansion. WoW's Rise of Azshara patch is a make-good patch for Blizzard after the endgame play of the Battle for Azeroth expansion was seen as disappointing to many players. There's seemingly been an exodus of players moving to Final Fantasy 14, to the point that some in the community call it a refuge from modern WoW.

But FF14 only exists because it copied some ideas from World of Warcraft in the first place. The original Final Fantasy XIV Online was a rough game, but it was also more unique and idiosyncratic. In contrast, the remade Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn drew far more from World of Warcraft. "I think it would've been good if they tried seeing what happened if they turned World of Warcraft into Final Fantasy. So, because they tried only to make something that was 'different from FFXI,' they ended up with not much of anything," current game director Naoki Yoshida told Kotaku about the original FF14 back in 2012.

"They should have said, 'Hey you, go play WoW for a year [for inspiration].'" Part of the reason that dissatisfied WoW players can jump over to Square Enix' MMO is those similarities, despite both games having stark differences.

So while I look at companies jumping on the latest trend with cynicism, at the end of the day, it'll probably lead to the creation of games that folks love. Perhaps Teamfight Tactics fulfills a slot in someone's life that Auto Chess never could, or Dauntless provides an easier experience compared to meatier Monster Hunter: World. The original should be lauded and remembered, sure, but sometimes the fun is in the remix.

Pop a kickflip in Judgment! | Caty McCarthy/USG, Sega

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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