Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, full of rules, regulations, and esoteroic topics that slip through the cracks.
One of the highest-profile disputes in the gaming industry has come to a settlement agreement. Blizzard has agreed that it will back off from Valve’s use of the DOTA trademark for commercial use, while Blizzard retains noncommercial use of the term for modders, map creators, and the community revolving around the game. In addition to the commercial/non-commercial separation, Blizzard has officially changed the name of its upcoming Blizzard DOTA to Blizzard All-Stars, so expect a new branding push soon. At the end of the day, I am still bewildered as to why we’re fighting over DOTA, an acronym and phrase that comes packed with baggage and various connotations.
Back in 2010, Rob Pardo told Eurogamer essentially that trademarking DOTA was a slap in the face to the community that created the genre, and for a company that built a great deal of its success on mods, it seemed genuinely out of place for Valve. While everything is always about money, sometimes things are about money just a little less. With its own products announced using the DOTA name and former-DOTA developers having joined S2 Games and Riot Games to create Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends respectively, the MOBA genre is healthy.
Terms of the settlement
What a shocker — we don’t know the terms of the settlement. We won’t, either, except the basic details. Let’s read the press release together!
May 11, 2012 –Blizzard Entertainment and Valve today announced a mutual agreement regarding concerns over the names of upcoming products. In accordance with the agreement, Valve will continue to use DOTA commercially, including DOTA 2, while Blizzard will preserve noncommercial use of DOTA for its community with regard to player-created maps for Warcraft III and StarCraft II.
“Both Blizzard and Valve recognize that, at the end of the day, players just want to be able to play the games they’re looking forward to, so we’re happy to come to an agreement that helps both of us stay focused on that,” said Rob Pardo, executive vice president of game design at Blizzard Entertainment. “As part of this agreement, we’re going to be changing the name of Blizzard DOTA to Blizzard All-Stars, which ultimately better reflects the design of our game. We look forward to going into more detail on that at a later date.”
“We’re pleased that we could come to an agreement with Blizzard without drawing things out in a way that would benefit no one,” said Gabe Newell, president and co-founder of Valve. “We both want to focus on the things our fans care about, creating and shipping great games for our communities.”
The companies do not plan to discuss the terms of the agreement beyond today’s announcement.
Commercial vs. non-commercial
The goals on each side of the fight were simple: Valve wanted to shore up protection for the trademark on its own internally developed huge title that is currently in beta and making some waves, while Blizzard wanted to protect a community term that also was making its way into upcoming Blizzard projects. I once said that DOTA worked for a community moniker because there was no other game in town. Now that there is competition in the space, the DOTA name doesn’t hold as much weight.
Valve and Blizzard agreed down the commercial barrier. The distinction is all about business purpose and revenue. Valve is using the trademark in order to make money, whereas Blizzard has “secured” the non-commercial use of the term so that there won’t be problems down the line when DOTA pops up in mods, maps, and other fan creations. Blizzard also lost the right to use DOTA in the title of Blizzard DOTA, now renamed All-Stars.
So what kind of game is it, then?
You don’t need to have gameplay in the title, obviously. Here’s the issue for me: Blizzard All-Stars is going to be an ensemble-cast MOBA/lane-structured DOTA-like experience, but nothing in “Blizzard All-Stars” conveys that to anyone not familiar with what type of gameplay that could be. You have to be told what type of game Blizzard All-Stars is; what is the definition, in just a sentence, of what this game is about?
Here’s the problem with ensemble-cast games — you need to let the player know what type of game they are getting themselves into with the crossover. Each Blizzard character present in Blizzard All-Stars comes from a different type of game. WoW characters come from an MMO, StarCraft characters from an RTS, and Diablo characters from an action-RPG. The unifying aspects of Blizzard All-Stars are Blizzard characters and a single gameplay mode — MOBA commercially, DOTA non-commercially. I’m a Mega Man fan, but will I enjoy playing as the character in Marvel vs. Capcom 2?
How then do you market a game that has no descriptive game mode that you can talk about in the generic term it was birthed in? Like this, actually: you never talk about the game mode.
All you have to do is strip out the logos and replace “DOTA” with “All-Stars.” They were ready for this.
So no DOTA in the title …
No, not really. In fact, did the DOTA name on Blizzard DOTA actually add anything other than the familiarity? Let’s not discount the familiarity — it’s a billion-dollar name — but with the changing climate in the e-sports scene, I can’t help but think anything with the DOTA name is letting itself be defined by the past and not the future of the genre. That, again, feels like something out of place for Valve, when it really shouldn’t bother me from a purely financial and business point of view.
Valve’s big name
Commercially, the DOTA name could be a big hit where DOTA is known best — the Asian markets. While I’m not privy to Valve’s data, just by looking at Blizzard’s success in China and Korea especially, one would hope to get a nice piece of that pie if it could wrangle a title popular enough. DOTA could very well be the property that brings Valve to China and Korea in a big way.
Valve also has a chance at rebranding DotA. There is an undeniable skill gap present in the game, where certain mechanics take a good deal of practice to become competent against, especially when you’re up against players of varying skill levels. Counter-Strike famously had this issue, where the very community itself could not grow or felt insulated because it was just too hard for new players to compete against the older vets. World of Warcraft saw unprecedented growth when Wrath of the Lich King launched, mostly because of the new types of accessibility introduced into the genre at the time. When people can actually play your game, they tend to stick around.
My horse in this race is that I’ve been a DOTA player for plenty of years now, and the evolving nature of the MOBA scene has made me realize that this fight might have come a year too late. Someone asked me this week if the fight over DOTA was “worth it.” Of course it was worth it — Valve has literally nothing to lose except the name it wasn’t sure it had in the first place. There are contingencies in place for all things.
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact your lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at firstname.lastname@example.org.