Like the MOBA and battle royale genres before it, the emerging Auto Chess game type has gone from a popular idea riffing off another game type, to gathering an audience to eventually becoming the hottest thing around.
Originally created by Chinese developer Drodo Studios as a Steam Workshop mod for Valve's Dota 2 MOBA, Dota Auto Chess launched on January 4th, 2019. By the end of the following month, the game had attracted four million players, hitting seven in April and eight in May 2019.
According to Drodo, the title was originally inspired by the Chinese game Mahjong - a famously complicated strategy game which incidentally is where the word 'Atari' comes from- while adapting the base concept for the Dota world. Up to eight players can select from more than 50 game pieces which have different abilities alternating between battling each other and creep AI characters.
Seeing the massive popularity that Dota Auto Chess achieved in a relatively short amount of time, Valve met with Drodo, flying them to its Seattle headquarters.
This isn't a new strategy for the Steam giant; the company brought in Minh "Gooseman" Li to work on a proper version of tactical online shooter Counter-Strike following that original Half-Life mod's success back in 2000. The same was true for the anonymous Abdul "IceFrog" Ismail creator of the original Defense of the Ancients (Dota) mod for WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos, who was hired to work on Dota 2.
This time around, Valve couldn't recruit this up-and-coming developer, with the two companies deciding they could work on their own versions of the title while offering each other support. The Steam firm's take on the game is called Dota Underlords and rolled out yesterday, attracting over 120k concurrent users within 24 hours.
Valve isn't the only company trying to jump on the Auto Chess bandwagon, either. League of Legends maker Riot Games has announced it will be bringing a version of this game type to its MOBA called Teamfight Tactics. Meanwhile, both Tencent and NetEase are among the companies that have filed the Auto Chess trademark in China.
But Drodo is still hard at work on Auto Chess, removing the Dota branding from the IP in March and bringing the title to mobile devices with Chinese games firm Dragonest. At E3 this year, during the PC Gaming Show, that company revealed that Drodo's version of Auto Chess would be coming to the Epic Games Store - something that the Fortnite maker likely paid a great deal for, given that this looks set to be one of the next big things.
Once again, Auto Chess shows that the next big thing is rarely going to come from the triple-A space. Like Playerunknown's Battlegrounds and Dota before it, Drodo Studio's title was created by a small team toying around with an interesting idea - one that many of the big players in the games market want to capitalise on. Though comparisons between Valve's own Dota card game spin-off Artifact and Underlords are unfair largely because one is free and the other costs $20, there's something to be said for the Bellevue PC giant trying to innovate and do something new with an IP, deciding to try and hope on the digital card game genre only for it to flop for numerous reasons, and a smaller developer trying something entirely different and seeing huge success.
Will it be as big as the previous next big thing, the battle royale? It's doubtful that Auto Chess can meet the absurd numbers done by something like Epic's Fortnite in the West - it's far more complicated and intricate than the battle royale genre and is likely far less immediately understandable. That being said, were a company like Blizzard to look at the game type and simplify it to a simple and easy to grasp core - as it did with the MMO and card game centres with World of Warcraft and Hearthstone - then that might change. If the Overwatch giant was working on something like that at the moment, we wouldn't be surprised - especially as it is keen to attract the Chinese audience, like with the less-than-well-received by Americans mobile title, Diablo Immortal.
This is the market where Auto Chess will shine. It's hardly a coincidence that Valve has decided to make its mobile debut with this title, launching Dota Underlords on both iOS and Android. It already has over 100,000 downloads on Google Play, while it is currently 104th in the UK's App Store free game charts.
The Chinese games market is very mobile and PC-centric - with consoles yet to really make a dent in this part of the world following the ban on them being lifted. However, it doesn't look like the game is available in China just yet, meaning that the Steam giant is likely losing ground to Dragonest and its 'official' take on Auto Chess from Drodo. Valve has localised the PC version for both simplified and traditional Chinese.
It's fair to say that China is where the Auto Chess competition matters the most. The region is so vast and has so much disposable cash, that capturing even a small amount of the market could be lucrative for a Western games company like Valve or Epic. As PCGamesInsider.biz has written before, more developers and publishers are attempting to break China, meaning the American and European games audiences are going to become less of a focus for some big companies - and that's pretty clear with Auto Chess.