Yesterday, Valve announced it would be developing its own standalone version of Auto Chess, separate from the version being made by Drodo Studio. Anytime Valve is announcing a new game, it's noteworthy; but the story of Auto Chess, its popularity, and why this deal matters in the grand scheme of things is a lot larger than just a mod.
For many people, especially those who aren't plugged into the Dota 2 community, you might not know what Auto Chess is or have heard of it in passing from a Dota-addicted friend. Much like Warcraft 3 before it, Dota 2 has a custom games feature where users can create their own game modes and upload them for others to play. While other modes have been popular, Auto Chess was a breakout, the Defense of the Ancients to Dota's Warcraft.
Like Dota, Auto Chess is an amalgam of design concepts that can only exist in the confines of a ramshackle mode inside another video game. Players go through sequential rounds purchasing chess pieces to put on their board, then fighting each others' boards over and over while upgrading, saving, spending, risking, and theorycrafting. Myriad class and race synergies force players to plan on the go, tuning their board on the fly to combat what other players are buying.
The end result is a game that combines the calculated risk of poker, the automated unit fights of battle simulators or tower defenses, the positioning and strategy of a tactics game, and the synergy-focused, in-the-moment planning of a deck builder. You have to describe Auto Chess in terms because it's so laden in influence and design from so many sources, yet it coalesces into something that manages to feel finely crafted and slapped together all at once.
Add in a lack of onboarding unless you seek outside assistance, and it's both seemingly impenetrable and, in my experience, incredibly compelling. I've clocked over 3,000 hours in Dota 2, and at least a solid chunk of my time in the last six months has been in Auto Chess. I'm not alone either; the game mode recently hit a milestone of eight million subscribers, as an optional download for a free-to-play MOBA. It's even boosted Dota's numbers a fair bit, so it makes sense that Gabe Newell is paying attention.
Of course, Auto Chess had to eventually outgrow its humble roots and branch out. Drodo Studio, the team behind the mod, recently launched a beta of its mobile Auto Chess game sans Dota references. A few imposters have already popped up on mobile app stores. It quickly became clear that there was a new genre to mine, and Valve was watching its own potential slip out and away.
According to the blog post from Valve, the company flew Drodo out to discuss a potential collaboration before settling on being amicable competitors. And at the moment, even that is a stretch, as Drodo seems set on the mobile market while Valve's mention of a "standalone client" implies a game for PC, likely under the Dota Underlords trademark.
But if this situation sounds eerily familiar, that's because it is. Auto Chess' trajectory has been mirroring Defense of the Ancients. It's a mod that quickly gained popularity despite its barriers to entry, picked up enough steam for larger companies to notice, and now there's an impending land rush.
Alongside the aforementioned clone competitors, Auto Chess will be on two different platforms, each vying for attention. And while the market for mobile can't be understated, especially overseas, Valve stepping in and making its own version is a big move. It very much validates Auto Chess as a genre worthy of attention from big name companies, but also means the original mod will start to wither and die as focus moves towards streams of revenue.
With the impending release of Valve's game, we're going to see something that is the spiritual successor to a mod for a game that was the spiritual successor to a mod for another game. That's a somewhat-dizzying chain link of influences and successions, only amplified by the fact that this is Valve's second time swooping in and nabbing a piece of the chain. Whether any of these games capture the same spark of the moment that the original mod did is another question entirely, but it's safe to say that Auto Chess is a genre that a lot of publishers are going to be eyeing now.