Three Lane Highway: $18m is an awful lot of money to spend on magic books and other thoughts on the Compendium

Chris Thursten at

Three Lane Highway is Chris' sometimes silly, sometimes serious column about Dota 2.

Somewhere, in the offices of a distant videogame publisher, a mid-level business guy is crying. He's crying because a couple of years ago he was all like "we should sell an internet magic computer book for our competitive online game" and his bosses were all like "lol no". He's crying because everyday he has to fill out reports with words like "outreach" and "conversion" on them. He's crying because the Dota community has, at the time of writing, spent $18,867,328 on internet magic computer books.

The Dota 2 community has purchased almost 1.9 million of these books in just shy of two weeks. Every day, 150,000 people—equivalent to the entire population of the Dota subreddit—think "yes, it's time for another magical computer book, thank you." I am not in a position to question the value of the Compendium. It's really well made! And I own two and a half of them.

But these are still the kind of numbers that make you think. It's hard to explain exactly why 2014's Compendium has been so much more popular than last year's. It's a better product, certainly. You get more items for buying it, the stretch goals have more of an immediate impact on the game itself, and leveling it up is compulsive and carries a tangible—if ephemeral—benefit. It could just be that a lot of people are willing to drop the price of an indie game on a battle booster and the promise of a special hat.

It could also be that the community really does want The International to be a big deal—that all that investment really is targeted at inflating the prize pool to the point where this year's winners will become some of the richest people in e-sports. There's credibility in that. This is after all a game about ego, competition, and victory through sheer weight of numbers: it is not out of the question for the Dota community to sit back and decide to farm out their lategame advantage.

Then there's the outlying chance that we've all been hypnotised. That Valve's experimental psychoeconomics has exploded out across the internet in a great flash of purple light, wallets bursting in its wake.

I think there's probably a little bit of truth in all of these. They all contribute to the notion that The International is an event—and that the Compendium, while not a ticket, is nonetheless a way of confirming your participation in that event. People want to belong, and they want to be seen to belong. Valve's genius is evident in the moments when other people get to see just how much everybody else has participated—in the countdown at the start of a match where you find out how big everybody's magical internet book is. The community's genius, on the other hand, has been to collectively amplify the importance of the Compendium itself. I didn't even think before buying the Compendium. I just saw it and bought it, because I'm a part of this community and, well, that's what you do.

Without the community, for example, the Arcana item vote would be a transparent means of gathering marketing information—a little like those internet quizzes that tie into your Facebook profile and ask you pointed questions about your spending patterns. The community makes this whole process less cynical, turns the vote into something fun where people can argue about whether or not Io should get a face painted on him. The Compendium becomes, thanks to the discussion it creates, part of the life and character of the game.

Then you extrapolate this process across the game's expanding audience, across the ambassadorial role of e-sports and the popularity driven by last year's International and, yeah—many internet magic computer books get sold.

The funny thing about success like this is that it makes it very difficult to figure out what the future of the game is going to look like. At the moment, it feels like the good things about the Dota community expand fractally across the scene at every level—from the jokes shared by friends who regularly play together to forum communities, reddit, and outwards. Accross nationalities and languages. I wonder about how long that will be the case—whether or not we'll reach a point where Dota is so big that this sense of a singular collective effort—expressed through the Compendium drive—won't be quite so pronounced. That'd be a shame, I guess, but it'd also signify actual global saturation.

It'd be hard to be too angry about not being special any more when Dota games are being shown on television, or projected onto the moon, or something.

This year's International is going to be telling either way. Last year, Valve's Erik Johnson told me in an interview that they were probably going to stick with Benaroya Hall for 2014—that the focus would be expanding the spectator experience online, rather than allowing more people to attend in person. For whatever reason, that's not the decision that was made. This year's tournament is going to take place in a much bigger space, with much more people in the audience—and a worse view, inevitably, for some. The money will mean more to the victors and falling short of that money, if Valve stick to the old distribution model, will have an even greater effect on the scene in the year that follows. It's easy to see that $18m investment as one part of a fractal expansion of competitive Dota at every level.

Is this the pattern for the future, I wonder? Endless growth without fractures forming, without oversaturation or compromise? I ask now, because that has never happened before.

If you'd like to read more Three Lane Highway, click here.