While the stage at E3 this year may have overshadowed this quiet rise to prominence with its Keanu Reeves unveilings and big games, behind the scenes a genre is becoming a monster, poised to rock PC and mobile gaming to its core in the same way MMOs, MOBAs, builders, battle royales, and card-based RPGs did before it.
The Auto Chess genre may not rise to the same levels as these incredibly popular and trend-chased models, but fertile ground is absolutely laying the way for it to happen. Within the span of E3 2019’s opening week, we have three huge players on three giant platforms, all ready to vie for dominance – and that’s not even counting the mobile implications, where the genre lends itself to easy controls and low tech requirements.
How did this get started?
Auto Chess rose to fame along hundreds of thousands of players in a Dota 2 map mod (Which is interesting, since Dota once began as a map mod inside Warcraft III), developed by Drodo Studios. You can read a deep dive into what the game is in this article here, but essentially you’re creating teams of fighters from a big pool of pieces to take on other players in the game. You can draft from mages, assassins, tanks, and more, creating a composition designed to exploit bonuses from race/class combinations. Each round, you have choices to make in terms of what pieces to purchase, if you want to save your money and work on your “econ” via investing and sitting on a pile of cash, level up in order to upgrade your available purchase pool and raise your unit cap on the board, and combine units in sets of three to create high-tier power units.
Why is it so popular?
Other than the obvious reason that it’s fun? The key points come down to accessibility, strategy, and variety. Auto Chess gives you the explosive team battles from the MOBA genre without any of the micromanagement, lane structure, teamplay, or complicated builds; you simply pick your pieces and eat popcorn while the fights play out. Anyone can do it. While there’s skill in crafting your unit group, knowing when to sandbag to get your income going, and determining what pieces are likely to be available, no games are ever alike, and you may be gently prodded into using new units and combos consistently. For instance, if your go-to strategy is stacking mages to get the powerful debuff on your opponents and rip them to shreds with powerful spells, but no mages are coming up and you’re on round 10, you’re probably going to have to shift and adapt with a pivot to something else. The choice whether to force your favorites is just one of many that you make each and every round, and the constant choice and variety keep things interesting game after game. Skill is only one part of the equation, and the random elements and variables let anyone have a big moment from time to time by combining units into a massive game-changing monster.
So what happened in the last week?
Valve’s official version of Auto Chess, titled Dota Underlords, had some leaked video hit the web (it’s been removed from a lot of places but you can probably find it somewhere, oh scrappy internet explorer), confirming the nature of the game. Given what’s coming up in the Dota world, we can probably expect to see more of the game – and maybe even play it – during the huge upcoming Dota annual tournament, the International.
At the PC Gaming Show press conference at E3, an announcement was made that the original modders/creators of Auto Chess are bringing their Auto Chess to the Epic Games Store later this year. What this means for support of the original mod inside Dota 2 isn’t known, but you can take an educated guess.
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And later this month, Riot Games and League of Legends are bringing their own Auto Chess into the battle with Teamfight Tactics, their own take on the genre.
These developments don’t happen in a vacuum, and there’s no doubt that heavy hitters, indie wunderkinds, and mobile-monetization specialists alike are all currently scrutinizing the genre to come up with their own spins on this rising style of game. Away from the big stages and private demos, this titan of a gaming genre tiptoed behind the scenes, avoiding the direct spotlight – but is quickly becoming one of the hottest and biggest genres to land on both PC and mobile.