It's not often that we get to witness the genesis of an entirely new game genre. On January 3, 2019, Dota Auto Chess was first posted to the Steam Workshop as a mod for Dota 2, Valve's eminently popular MOBA that supports custom games sectioned off in their own Arcade. In the few short months since then, Dota Auto Chess has rapidly become one of the most iconic mods of our time, garnering well over 7 million subscribed users at the time of this writing and sitting at a pristine five out of five stars after over 3 million ratings.
When you learn of its humble origins, it's something akin to the legend of a monolithic company like Apple starting in Steve Jobs' garage. A mere five people make up Drodo Studio, the China-based creators of Dota Auto Chess, and they pushed their creation into the world without a major marketing budget or any big publisher backing. Its meteoric success is what every mod maker must dream of - and now, Auto Chess has reached a tipping point as the game pushes beyond the bounds of Dota 2.
If you're not familiar with Dota Auto Chess, the best thing to do is jump in and try it for yourself - it's a free mod within the free-to-play Dota 2, so there's zero barrier to entry. Unlike Dota 2 itself, however, Auto Chess doesn't put a premium on razor-sharp reflexes, tight team coordination, and farming gold like your life depends on it. Despite the checkered game board, the chess similarities end there; it's got more in common with strategic, communal games like Mahjong, Five-card Draw poker, or even Go Fish, as you try to scoop up resources to make the best possible hand (or in this case, a coalition of heroes).
The basic idea is that eight players amass an army by buying heroes from a shared pool, with multiples of the same unit able to combine for powered-up versions, and heroes synergizing based on their species and class. Each round, your forces are matched against someone else's, and your units automatically duke it out with sword slashes and spells until only one team is left standing. The loser takes a bit of damage based on how badly they got thrashed, then the whole process starts again until a lone winner stands victorious. As with so many endlessly replayable games, getting started in Auto Chess is simple, but true mastery only comes from experience and a thorough understanding of its technical depth.
As I'm sure is the case with many of its players, my first exposure to Auto Chess was via a multitude of Twitch streams. One by one, my favorite Hearthstone streamers were enamored by this mod, and the Dota 2 Twitch page seemed like a 50/50 mix of the traditional 5v5 matches contrasting with that pleasingly simple 8x8 checkerboard. Auto Chess seems to strike a chord with fans of card games like Hearthstone, and the more I watched (and eventually played) the more I understood why. It's got many of the same elements: unique build options for your armies, a structure that rewards long-term strategy, and just the right amount of luck as you hope to pull the heroes you want from the shared pool (while keeping an eye on your opponents and pivoting if they're snatching up similar units).
Auto Chess seemed to hit at the perfect time for the Hearthstone crowd, as the meta had gotten stale in the months before the Rise of Shadows expansion and dedicated players were sick of playing and facing a homogenized pool of decks. Suddenly, here was this incredibly well-made mod that rewarded many of the same skills as Hearthstone, like envisioning a line of play that extends into future turns and knowing how to counter certain strategies. It also looks great, as a virtue of having all the highly polished Dota 2 character models to choose from (with many community-made equipment sets serving as the lavish attire for powered-up heroes). I imagine there was also plenty of pull from dedicated Dota 2 players, who could dip into a quick match of Auto Chess for a pace of play that's far less intensive than your average ladder match - and with far less toxicity.
Beyond the complexities of the winning Dota Auto Chess strategies, I'm fascinated by the many factors that subtly push its reach even further. You're a team of one in Auto Chess, so there's no one depending on you but yourself - which completely eliminates the possibility of getting screamed at by a teammate because you made a wrong move. Dota 2 has a reputation that can scare off newcomers who'd rather not be on the receiving end of enraged vitriol, but every match of Auto Chess I've played has been a cordial affair, with only the occasional bit of friendly smacktalk. And without the need for communication or any degree of teamwork, language barriers aren't an issue. I've queued into lobbies with players from all over the world, and it seems like there's always a shared, unspoken consensus: We're just here to play Auto Chess, have a good time, and hopefully eke out a win.
Maybe it's just me, but there also seems to be a hint of battle royale's best traits in Auto Chess' secret sauce. Sure, you'll never drop onto a map alongside 99 other players in frantic search of weaponry - but everyone's out for themselves in this shared space, falling one by one until a winner is crowned. Defeat feels painless: Finding a match is never an issue, what with how enduringly popular this mod is, so you can always queue up in a heartbeat if you lose early on. Or, if you feel particularly invested in the match, you can stick around and watch the rest play out, perhaps learning a thing or two from the winning player's strategy. Like the best battle royale games, getting first place isn't the end-all-be-all, because you're still having fun even when you're not on top.
Drodo Studio didn't just suddenly spring into existence with the creation of Auto Chess. The team's first custom map was GemTD, a tower defense game closely modeled after Warcraft 3 mods of the same type. "We [all] knew each other in-game - we used to play Dota together," says Toto, who acts as the English-speaking ambassador for the team and prefers not to use his real name. "Our members play a lot of games like Hearthstone, League of Legends, Warcraft 3, CS:GO. We were regular players [before, but] now we hope we can get some ideas from them to make Auto Chess better."
Auto Chess' place in the Dota tapestry is a fascinating circle of life - a popular mod born of an even more popular mod. Dota 2 is Valve's sequel to Defense of the Ancients, a massively successful custom map for Blizzard's Warcraft 3 (which, it's worth mentioning, dominated many of my school nights way back when). For the record, Toto and the Drodo team think highly of each games' custom map-making tools. "We love both," he tells me. "War3's is friendly to freshers; Dota 2's is good for senior developers."
When Defense of the Ancients' core development team split up around 2005-2009, with some going off to help create League of Legends and the enigmatic IceFrog becoming the auteur of Dota 2, it felt like a missed opportunity by Blizzard to snatch them all up and make a standalone version of Dota. Heroes of the Storm seems to have been made in response to the popularity of the MOBA genre that was leaving Warcraft 3 behind. Now, Valve seems to be facing a similar dilemma, as the runaway momentum of Auto Chess seems to be slipping through the company's fingers. Though Drodo Studio had talked in past interviews about collaborating with Valve on some kind of profit-sharing system for map makers, the team is now breaking out Auto Chess into its own mobile game in China, removing any explicit references to Dota 2.
It makes sense that Drodo would take its business elsewhere, seeing as the team can only make so much profit on Auto Chess' current form. The team set up an ingenious microtransaction system with a 'Candies' currency within the mod that linked out to external vendors; candies are used to buy cosmetic-only skins for your trusty courier avatar. But as Motherboard notes, trying to acquire officially sanctioned currency has gotten a bit iffy after Drodo's eBay account got shut down. With the mobile version of Auto Chess, Drodo stands to make serious bank in its partnership with Chinese mobile publisher Dragonest, given that the massive mobile games market in Asia is absurdly profitable if you can manage to crack it.
Time will tell how Auto Chess fares on its own as a mobile title, particularly without the Dota 2 aesthetics' visual polish on the impressive hero models and their flashy attacks. The heroes of the mobile Auto Chess are clearly modeled after their Dota 2 counterparts, albeit in a chibi style that looks a lot simpler than the Source's engine's detailed aesthetic. Dota 2 isn't exactly known for its cuteness, but Auto Chess seems tailored to the mobile gaming crowd that loves adorable designs and cartoonish features. It'll also be interesting to see how combat shakes out; how closely can this new engine approximate the ebb and flow of fights in Dota Auto Chess? And perhaps most importantly: Will Kunkka's summoned ghost ship attack still look as intimidating?
Whatever ends up happening, it'll be fascinating to see where Auto Chess goes from here. Will Drodo follow in the footsteps of folks like Brendan 'PlayerUnknown' Greene, who turned his Arma 3 mod into H1Z1 and later the battle royale progenitor PUBG? The distinct Auto Chess format has already inspired numerous rip-offs on mobile platforms; can the official Auto Chess leave its imitators in the dust, just as Minecraft easily conquered all its clones?
For now, Drodo is making a commitment to the Dota 2 community that first embraced Auto Chess, pledging to update Dota Auto Chess even as the mobile version continues development. When he's not hard at work making balance changes and bug fixes, Toto watches a bit of Dota Auto Chess on Twitch, which now has its own channel separate from Dota 2's and has been the starring game of multiple Twitch Rivals tournaments. "Baumi played our game on Twitch [from the] very beginning," says Toto, who also gave a special shout-out to ShadedTheFaded, a frequent Auto Chess streamer who's battling Crohn's disease. "I know his story," says Toto. "I hope our game can make him happy."
Community-made mods and custom maps all come from a place of inspiration, as players take it upon themselves to create something new within the framework of the game they know and love. And whether Auto Chess lives on in Dota 2 or comes to dominate the mobile market, it'll stand eternal as one of the greatest - and quickest - success stories in mod history. "I know most map makers have insisted on creating with passion," says Toto. "I hope our success can make them more determined about their own work."
Quotes have been slightly edited for clarity.
There are plenty more new games of 2019 to look forward to, if you can manage to pull yourself away from just one more match of Auto Chess.