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The Rise of the Auto Battlers

As the auto battle genre rises like so many others in the gaming world, currently dominating twitch and gaining rapid popularity, we wanted to take some time to reflect on this interesting new genre. Dota 2 Auto Chess released in January 2019 and by May had reached 8.5 million players and at least 300,00 concurrent users daily. At E3 this year the creator of this explosively popular mod, Drodo Studios announced their own standalone version of Auto chess for Mobile and PC to be released later this year. And in June Valve Announced its own standalone version Dota Underlords while Riot Announced their take on the genre, Team Fight Tactics. So let’s dive in and take a look at the history and context of the auto battle genre.

Genre Overview

Auto battlers as a genre consist of a few core mechanics: army building, unit placement, unit or faction synergies and an element of random chance. If you aren’t familiar with the genre or haven’t had a chance to play one for yourself just yet here is a quick primer.

You receive gold each round to buy units from a random pool of units. Each unit has a unit type such as assassin or mage, and a faction like demons, or druids. You buy your units and place them on a chessboard playing field, and when the round starts your army faces off with an opposing army while the units’ AI battles it out. As you progress and earn more gold for winning rounds you can buy more units, upgrade the ones you have by buying copies of them, or by acquiring items to augment your units. The factions and types of units you have also impact your strategy as having multiples of a given type or faction gives buffs to your whole army, for instance having multiple druid faction aligned units may give you a buff to healing.

This core gameplay loop continues until your maximum life total or that of all of your opponents is reduced to zero.  That’s the short version, each component of the gameplay loop is relatively simple and relatable to familiar ideas.

In a way the auto battle genre is nothing new, if we look back in gaming examples of similar genres or games exist, most notably Ogre Battle 64: A Person of Lordly Caliber. An odd strategy RPG developed by Quest Interactive in 1999, the game operates incredibly similar with its tactics layer existing in how units were placed on a 3×3 grid and synergizing in different ways based on that placement.

Ogre Battle 64: A Person of Lordly Caliber

The automatic nature of the genre as well as some of its general feeling multiplayer wise hearken back to many Warcraft 3 mods, which makes sense considering Dota 2’s Arcade sought to revive that kind of creative casual space within the Dota 2 engine. In its own way, Auto Chess is reminiscent of LegionTD from Warcraft 3 where the core gameplay is building your own army but the competitive element is how that army stacks up against those of other human players in the same match. Since Auto Chess often pits the player against several other opponents in rotation, you don’t just build an army to fight one matchup you build the army for its own benefit in a way. This also parallels the games inspiration in Mahjong which Drodo Studios cited as a big influence on the creation of Auto Chess.

Warcraft 3 LegionTD mod

In Mahjong, players try to spell out or match certain combinations of tiles through replacement of their own hands or trade offs with a central pool of tiles while also preventing opponents from building combinations of their own. The reliance on skill, strategy, calculated moves and luck creates a game that is easy to understand, but difficult to master.

So the game itself is not new but it is an innovation and revival of older mechanics and formats, this sense of familiarity and intuitive play allows players to learn through doing and the random elements of the game at least at a low level of play when someone is trying to get a handle on things rewards improvisation. The random nature of unit pools in the game also lends itself to an avoidance of a stale meta composition, while certain units and synergies may have priority, unlike in card games you cannot force the same composition every time and facing multiple opponents means you don’t just build an army to counter one opponent. This level of complexity in the long term layered beneath the relatively straight forward gameplay loop seems to be a major deciding factor in the popularity of the genre.

The Business of “New” Genres

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Auto Chess originated as a mod in the Dota 2 Arcade and in a story not unlike the origin of Dota 2 Valve proposed a deal to Drodo Studios. Back in May Valve updated their Dota 2 blog  with the results of their meeting with the team from Drodo. While Drodo turned down a direct collaboration with Valve the two agreed to a mutually beneficial agreement. Valve received Drodo’s blessing to develop their own standalone auto chess game and Valve agreed to continue supporting the Auto Chess mod  even implementing a paid battle pass system for the mod in Dota 2 with a revenue share between the two companies. Valve also agreed to help players link and migrate their account progress over to Drodo’s new standalone Auto Chess game. Which seems to be a better deal or at least a more amicable one than the kinds we saw around the start of Battle Royales becoming popular.

As for other companies entering the scene, Riot launched Teamfight Tactics in beta recently and we are sure to see other entries into this genre in the coming months. Meanwhile the Chinese Based Drodo Studios announced at E3 that their own standalone game would be coming to mobile and PC. The mobile component of this genre is an important consideration, in China and in most of Southeast Asia mobile gaming is a massive market and fans were thrilled to hear that they could not only enjoy Auto Chess on mobile but also Dota Underlords.

Always More Questions

So I’m sure the question everyone’s minds is, will auto battlers be the next big thing in esports? Is this the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something big? The answer is honestly up in the air. Drodo and ImbaTV, a Chinese production company who is also aiding in the development of the standalone Auto Chess, have been working on tournaments and the esports scene for the genre which is already showing signs of growth in terms of popularity and with professional players begin to emerge. Dordo and ImbaTV even announced a 1 million dollar prize pool tournament slated for October 2019. By the same account, the non-esports sense the genre has been dominating Twitch in the past month.

Reducing the genre to an investment opportunity or to a game solely meant for esports is in some ways short sighted, and a paradigm we all too often find ourselves in within the esports space. Looking at a game within the layer of its competitive readiness, streamability, monetization models and esports scene. In the case of auto chess, we can encounter an interesting duality to this notion on one hand much like Mahjong, Auto Chess offers an experience that can be competitive or casual based on how a player interacts with it. The genre thrives on its degree of accessibility and to some degree on its slower paced gameplay loop. From a streaming perspective this also makes it a great game to play while interacting with a community. It also offers a good idle experience where the randomness and improvisation of army building can be its own joy for the noncompetitive solo player.

Personally, I think these factors more so than its competitive scene will be instrumental in the sticking power of the genre as well as the room for innovation and lack of a tactics or strategy oriented genre presence in esports at present as traditional RTS titles like Starcraft have somewhat fallen out of favor in the last decade. However, we are still at the beginning of auto battlers becoming a codified genre and as such we will likely see a good deal of divergence as individual games seek to differentiate themselves from one another.

While Underlords and Teamfight Tactics rely on familiarity with and buy in to a world and set of characters that are familiar, the standalone Auto Chess appears to be taking the base of Dota characters while also adding more unique and original characters to the game. With how fast this genre has moved and with two titans of the MOBA genre with hats already in the ring I am curious to see what other games in this same vein both single player and multiplayer will come out in the next year, with a focus on how the format will innovate and speciate in its own way.