Meet the item creators: pro and self-taught artists making millions from Dota 2

Cassandra Khaw

Of all the things Valve have done, the 'have-the-community-make-their-own-cosmetics' movement that started with Team Fortress 2, might be the smartest. By creating an ecosystem in which item-makers can profit, Valve have effectively allowed their community to hire itself to expand their game. Though still in beta, Dota 2 enjoys a constant influx of stuff . Every update bristles with new couriers, announcer packs, weaponry and other decorative paraphernalia. With that inevitable release date drawing inexorably closer each day, the momentum of production only seems to be increasing. But, who are the people behind the work?

"It's one of the best, most straightforward ways for 3D artists to profit from what they've made."

To date, item creators have collectively made millions from getting their wares into Valve games. We speak to top item makers who have made significant profits on the Dota 2 workshop, from beginners who have just started modelling with no training, to seasoned professional artists who work for big-budget studios and create Dota 2 items on the side. They say that selling Dota 2 items "it's one of the best, most straightforward ways for 3D artists to profit from what they've made." How did they get started? How do new items come together? How does Valve decide which Steam Workshop items make it into the game? Let's find out.

Getting started as an item-maker isn't a complicated as you might think. Mrpresident's first encounter with a 3D program was a mere 10 months ago when he made his first virtual box. "I was a huge fan of Dota and I'd always wanted to learn how to 3D model," he says "so, I spent a lot of time watching Anuxi and other stream their workflow process on twitch, and tried to practice their techniques and methods."

A firm believer in the educational properties of the twitch streams, mrpresident is one of the many who have taught themselves the art of 3D modeling. Similarly, Vladimir > the implyer , as he is known on Steam, never received a formal education in the field.

"I started modeling early - way before Max 6." Vladimir explains. "I got some books, learned the basics, modeled some teapots and islands made of primitives. At some point, I also began researching some original Half-Life assets, making Morrowind models and it was a lot of fun." Team Fortress 2's hat sales inspired him to start modelling for Valve games. "I always wanted a hat," he says, "but I was kinda late to that party. After the DOTA 2 workshop launched, I decided I should try my hat-making skills there."

Vladimir is arguably one the prolific figures in the Dota 2 workshop community. Clocking in a substantial 259 submissions ("I deleted some stuff, otherwise the count would be closer to 300."), Vladimir has made a name for himself competing with trained, professional 3D artists.

Australia-based Stephanie Everett, otherwise known as Anuxiamoon is one such individual. Her resume encompasses six years of experience in the game industry and big names like Trion Worlds. Of all the contributors, only she alone received the distinct honour of being assigned a 'chest' of her own. Originally too busy to join the ranks of the Dota 2 workshop contributors, Anuxiamoon first began participating in the creation of Dota 2-related items when Polycount announced a competition. She ended up submitting five sets to the event, the last of which made its way into the top ten.

"I had a block of free time open between freelance projects so I took advantage of that and entered the competition. At first, I had no idea what I was doing, but when you do something new, you always have no idea what you're doing, anyway."

"He earns enough to make full-time development of Dota 2 items a viable profession"

Chemical Alia and DrySocket, firm friends and co-conspirators, are veterans of the gaming industry as well. DrySocket claims over nine years of experience in making games. Chemical Alia currently works for a big-budget studio. For DrySocket, the Workshop is a place of experimentation, an avenue to explore quick ideas in his free time. Chemical Alia, on the other hand, began manufacturing items after being requested to produce work for the Dota 2 workshop.

"I originally got into making custom content for Valve games through Team Fortress 2. The TF2 Polycount contest led to a set for a Spy getting into the game, and that was pretty cool." Chemical Alia recalls. "I ended up getting involved in Dota 2 item creation pretty early, with some Valve folks requesting me to make a set of items, which were released alongside the Dota 2 workshop."

Though it might appear otherwise, Dota 2 item creation is serious business. 25% of total sales might not sound like much, at first, but the numbers do add up. Benjamin Retter, also known as BrontoThunder on Steam, says he earns enough from his creations to make full-time development of Dota 2 items a viable profession – a dream come true, for him. With such high stakes in play, it's unsurprising to learn that tensions do exist. Months where only a sparing number of items are accepted can, according to mrpresident, inspire high emotions.

“Mostly, people get frustrated about their own stuff not being accepted. It's gotten better recently but there have been times where two months pass by without a single accepted item and then, when they do accept items, it may be three or so sets out of the 10+ that deserve to be accepted that were submitted in the past two months. If someone has been submitting high-quality work for months and nothing get nothing get accepted,they get understandably frustrated and discouraged at the system, especially since Valve has been very quiet about how the selection process works.” Mrpresident sighs.

When asked about what he knows in regards to Valve's acceptance policies, Mrpresident offered a blunt, “Zero information.”

"There is a very strong distinction between an amazing piece of art and an amazing Dota 2 item."

“The official art guide is a good place to start but they will still pick items that break the art guide to a certain degree if they and the community like the item/set enough, but sticking to the guide will give you a higher chance of getting accepted. Some people have tried to figure out patterns but it appears to be almost random. My best guess has been that they look at the first few pages of highest community upvoted items and then select the items they like from there.”

Retter argues that a lack of style understanding can be a barrier to new artists. “There is a very strong distinction between an amazing piece of art and an amazing Dota 2 item. The most successful contributors to Dota 2 aren't those who are the absolute best artists, they are the ones who understand what works well within the restrictions Dota 2 has; How does it look from the in-game perspective? Does it fit the lore of the character? Are the colors balanced with the rest of the character? Does it animate well? Is it too distracting? Generally, if an item is popular and fits all of the criteria Valve has provided it won't be long until it's in the game but there are always exceptions to that rule.”

Given the community that its serving, it's unsurprising to learn that competitiveness is omnipresent.We are talking about Dota 2, after all. Chemical Alia notes: “The general culture among contributors is sort of a weird mix. One side of it is pretty constructive/supportive of other artists, but it can get angry and borderline hostile at times.”

One of Vladimir's works.

But while rivalries still exist, things appear better than before. Vladimir describes the past of the community as one steeped in grudges, split loyalties and 'a lot of passive aggressive shenanigans.' “Thankfully now most of the contributors are pretty friendly and everyone tries to learn from every other contributor. “

Whatever the eccentricities of the Workshop acceptance rate, for many, creating and submitting their work is a good way to learn, expose new work to community feedback and, of course, make money.

"Normally, when you make assets for a game, there's no personal investment in how it does."

“I believe it's one of the best, most straightforward ways for 3D artists to profit from what they've made. Normally, when you make assets for a game, there's no personal investment in how it does. The Dota workshop creates a way for artists to learn, to showcase their abilities, AND to make money. “ DrySocket enthuses, a sentiment echoed by Retter who professes that the community is the number one reason he is making items for Dota 2.

As for what actually goes into the creation of a Dota 2 item, the design process seems to differ from person to person. For modellers like Retter, spontaneity is the primary ingredient. “Sometimes I'll know I want to make items for a specific hero and so I'll open up Photoshop and just start painting over the hero without any specific design in mind, creating interesting shapes and silhouettes until something clicks, and then move into 3D once I feel I've developed it enough.

"Other times I've either been playing or watching a Dota 2 game and I'll be hit with a burst of inspiration for a certain item or design which I feel would look really cool on a hero, these ones are usually my more successful designs, or at least, the ones I'm most proud of. I've just recently got into the habit of writing these ideas down when they come to me so I have a backlog of ideas to work through instead of stopping and starting every time I finish an item or set.”

“Usually I just get a random spark of an idea which sweeps me up and I ride it as long as I can.” Anuxiamoon quips. “For Dota 2, I sometimes do a semi meditative think process, where in the chaos of my brain I find shapes and lines and ideas that I think would work well. Whether they do or not is something I then figure out during my brainstorm sketch process. If you could see my sketchbooks, they are filled with scribbles and ideas for lots of Dota 2 Heroes.”

"The process can take anywhere from three days to a week."

With others, it's a more streamlined procedure. Chemical Alia and DrySocket frequently collaborate together on projects. “The first thing we normally do is brainstorm. Here are a few of the things we'll consider: what characters are newly available to the store, what characters already have awesome recently sets, which characters contrast with the sets we've already made so they can keep things fun, what characters are popular with the player base and so on. From there, we brainstorm set ideas, become acquainted with the character through the models, lore and voice acting. Then, we start drawing a whole bunch of ideas until we settle on a final design.”

The process, according to the pair, can take anywhere from three days to a week. “After that point we split up the work, where each of us takes about half the set and does the high poly, low poly, texturing, everything. We'll bring it all back together again once that's done, take a consistency pass over the textures to make sure it all feels right, and start on our marketing shots. You'd be surprised how much work there is actually besides making the models that you see in Dota! Testing takes forever, and making the actual promotion shots always takes longer than expected.”

Some of Chemical Alia's courier concepts.

Dry quips, half mournfully. “My girlfriend does NOT like it when I say 'I'm almost done' because she never believes it anymore.”

"I see the Workshop community as more a group of gamers, rather than artists."

On top of harsh critique from their peers and personal obligations, Dota 2 item-makers must contend with the general public, a group composed of the frequently vilified players of Dota 2. While some rail against the acid so commonly associated with that demographic, others take it in stride.

“They're a pretty opinionated bunch, but I think that's to be expected because they care about the game and what content goes into it. I see the Workshop community as more a group of gamers, rather than artists. So, while the feedback we get from them might not be the most technically insightful or artistically constructive, it still gives us an idea of how your average Dota 2 player responds to your work and that is a super important metric.” DrySocket remarks.

“There's definitely this strange relationship between contributors and their fans.” Mrpresident says. “You wouldn't believe how many times I and others have been told to "read the art guide" as if people that have sunk hundreds of hours into item creation somehow haven't taken 15 minutes to read the art guide, and then intentionally try to push it and see if Valve likes it.”

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