Hero's Journey: we visit Valve to get an inside look at the development of Dota 2

Chris Thursten

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This article was originally published in issue 254 of PC Gamer UK .

As the Radiant ancient explodes, so does the room. A 55-minute game of Dota 2 has just ended in a razor's-edge victory for the Dire. The kill count is close to even, and both teams' bases have been levelled by multiple near miss shots at the throne. Four Radiant players are in the Dire base when the match ends, but they can't outrun the damage being done to their ancient by a single player, the undead horseman Abaddon, whose attacks are augmented by the three Divine Rapiers in his inventory.

"The reward for learning to play is learning to see."

If you're not a Dota player, that probably doesn't mean very much to you. If you are, you'll understand that a man with three rapiers is an improbable, precarious and powerful product of the forces of order and chaos at work in every Dota match.

The outcome's sheer unlikelihood is why the room – a regular office, lights dimmed, non-players working in silence – has suddenly burst into a spontaneous round of cheers. Chairs are kicked back, headphones are torn off. For anyone with the requisite understanding, it's a spectacular upset. The human mind's ability to glean a narrative of chance and triumph from the movements of a little internet wizard is the key to understanding Dota 2's popularity. Moments like this are why hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, invest so much time in the game: the reward for learning to play is learning to see.

Afterwards I'm told by one of the players that the match ranks in the top five percent of games they've ever played. He should know: he's one of Dota 2's animators. The room we're in is the office at Valve's Bellevue headquarters where Dota 2 is made. When you think of Valve, you probably don't think of whooping developers trading high-fives over desks, but it's an image that helps to explain why the biggest company in PC gaming chose to remake a Warcraft III mod.

I spent a single day in Bellevue, and we talked Dota over lunch, talked Dota in the corridors, talked Dota around PCs where programmers worked while streaming a professional match on a second monitor. We talked Dota while playing Dota and eventually even managed to talk Dota in something resembling a formal interview. I've met plenty of developers who were enthusiastic about their work, but I've met very few whose enthusiasm has the egoless quality of fandom, who talk as if they're not responsible for the game they're praising.

"We interviewed [IceFrog] and were a little confused about why we hadn't hired him before."

In part, of course, that's the case. The original fan-made Defence of the Ancients was simply a post-work diversion for a number of Valve employees. That set the company on the road to Dota 2, but it was meeting the mod's steward, IceFrog, that prompted their first steps.

“The only way we make any decisions is based on the people who work here,” explains Erik Johnson, whose company bio lists him as one of Valve's 'business development authorities'. “We interviewed [IceFrog] and were a little confused about why we hadn't hired him before.”

“In many ways it follows in the footsteps of Team Fortress, Portal, Counter-Strike,” says Doug Lombardi, vice president of marketing (a role that grants him that rarest of things at Valve: a job title.) “Somebody had this great nut of an idea and Valve took an interest and offered them the resources to take it to the next level. The only difference is the genre.”

Johnson interjects: “Also the appeal of making a game that wasn't first person! Making a game in a fantasy world as opposed to science fiction – that was kind of exciting, too.”

Valve's take on the DotA formula is faithful to the mod, but it is not a tribute act. “We could change as much as we wanted but a lot of good choices had already been made,” Johnson tells me. “We couldn't convince ourselves that much needed to change.” Instead, Dota 2 is characterised by tweaks and recalibrations: from balance changes to a smarter, more intuitive interface.

In redesigning 108 well-loved heroes for a new game – heroes who were in the first instance based on Blizzard-owned characters – Valve have mixed their own eye for personality with an smart reading of the tastes of DotA players.

"Valve's take on the DotA formula is faithful to the mod, but it is not a tribute act."

“The community had built up so much emotional attachment over the years,” Johnson says. “If you play Dota, your mind's-eye representation of the hero you're playing is pretty fantastic, right? People would talk about that online and it was useful for us to draw on – how heroes should look and sound, what their personality should be.”

As with Valve's science fiction, there's an off-kilter style to Dota 2 that prevents it from feeling too familiar. The team made a conscious effort to draw from sources beyond European mythology, and the roster coheres more by virtue of its careful art direction than the fiction written to support it. It's classy, and with a few exceptions dodges the porny fan-art feel that hinders its rivals, League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth (and the original DotA, to an extent.)

Dota 2 is also very funny. Valve learned from Team Fortress 2 that humour helps to balance the tone of a competitive game, and the way the community talked about each hero in DotA 1 influenced how those characters were written in the sequel. Troll Warlord's backstory is a thinly veiled metaphor for the behaviour of certain types of people in internet comment threads. Earthshaker will occasionally quote directly from legendary punk RPG Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. When he uses his ultimate ability, Tusk has a chance to say any one of 83 recorded variants on the phrase “walrus punch!” Puns abound.

Acknowledging community in-jokes is a deliberate attempt to build trust, Johnson says. “It's a way for us to tell the community that we get it, that we are paying attention, that we are at least as big fans of this thing as you are.”

“Designers here really like Dota as a product,” he continues. “There are subtleties to the design. For example, you have a huge number of heroes but only ten are played at once – that leaves a lot of latitude in the design choices you can make.” It also necessitates a vast amount of playtesting, and that bolsters the need for a close relationship with the community. Dota 2 has been played in a beta form since early 2011, the community beginning as a small group of DotA veterans. It's now the most-played game on Steam.

“We all want to work on games that as many people have fun playing as possible,” Johnson says. “It's just riskier to make a product that you're going to spend a lot of time on in secret without showing anyone, versus working right there with the community and seeing their reactions to everything you do. Above all else, we want to feel like our time – which is our most valuable resource – is being spent efficiently.”

"After more than two years of testing, Dota 2 will be formally released later this summer."

It seemed a bit crass to bring up Half-Life 3 this long after the fact – so I didn't – but Johnson's remarks reflect the way that Valve has changed as a company. The things that make Dota 2 a Valve game – a mix of grassroots enthusiasm and exemplary individual talent, reinforced by a love of statistics and crowdsourcing – are all less applicable to the series that made the company's name. These qualities don't contradict one another: Valve's designers seem to enjoy the challenge of working on a competitive game, and gain satisfaction from the surety of movement that their vast amount of crowd-sourced data offers them.

After more than two years of testing, Dota 2 will be formally released later this summer, prior to the International tournament in August. It's likely that the last two heroes to be added to the game before release will be Abaddon – a melee hero with a great deal of utility and survivability – and Legion Commander. Legion's Dota 2 incarnation is possibly the most significant reinvention to date, evolving from a male knight on horseback to a halberd-wielding female foot-soldier with long banners trailing from her armour. Johnson anticipates that the remaining DotA heroes will be added in the months following the International, at which point Valve's long conversion work will be at an end.

The game is ready to drop the 'beta' tag, but there are still questions to be answered. Dota 2 can be punishing, confusing for new players, and flat-out unpleasant from time to time. Valve's solutions to these problems have been practical but tentative – such as community generated in-game guides, a reporting system for player behaviour, and sophisticated matchmaking that takes into account skill level, the amount of people you're playing with, and prior conduct. Yet there are still unflinching orthodoxies in Dota's design – the across-the-board lack of a surrender option, for example – that seem to contradict Valve's assertion that it's possible to please everybody with a sufficiently responsive approach.

“It's tricky,” Johnson tells me. “There is a balance... Dota's a competitive game, and people are deeply invested in it, so losing is not fun, but the people who are winning are probably having a lot of fun. We don't want to dampen both sides of that equation. One of the things we never want to lose is the amazing comeback, like the game we just played – both sides probably would have surrendered in that game at certain points. That would have been a robbery of fun.”

If there's a weakness to Valve's methodology, it's not that they have faith in the wisdom of crowds, but that any crowd is comprised of individuals – and individuals are perfectly capable of behaving and reacting unreasonably. The argument against data-led design says that the customer is always right, and that if an individual customer has a bad time then it doesn't matter what the graph says. It's telling, then, that Valve don't see Dota 2's players as customers – at least, not in the sense that they are Valve's customers.

"We look at every single person in the game as creating user generated content."

“We look at every single person in the game as creating user generated content,” Johnson says. “A person who just plays the game is generating some value for the other nine people playing. It's not something they can sell, but it's content they're creating.”

Dota 2 is built around these transactions, beginning at the individual player level, passing through the Workshop – where usercreated cosmetic items begin their journey to the in-game store, earning six-figure sums for some – all the way to the competitive scene, dispersed among dozens of tournament showrunners who sell tickets and merchandise through the game client. These surrounding systems are a vital part of Dota 2's identity – they're game mechanics too, in a sense. Johnson describes Valve's responsibility to a player who is having a bad time in the same way he talks about Valve's responsibility to its business partners. Valve are just as likely to invest in finding a new way to reward good behaviour as they are to add a new hero.

“Professional players are the next step,” Johnson says, addressing a flaw in Dota 2's current structure. “The amount of value they're creating is extraordinary. I don't think we're close to accurately compensating those players for the value they're creating. That's something we want to turn our focus to.”

Johnson uses business terms to describe Dota 2 – it's a product, a network of creators and consumers exchanging value. There's a calculating intelligence to its design – but that is appropriate, in a sense, because Dota is very much a numbers game. Watch a professional match and observe how economic momentum is as much a measure of a player's performance as kills and deaths. Commentators are just as likely to get excited about a character pulling ahead on a graph as they are a particularly skilful play. Valve's attitude to Dota 2 has a similar ring to it. I get the impression that the development of the game is part business, part fantasy football.

“I'm not trying to be self-deprecating, but there was no grand strategy,” Johnson says. “There's a bunch of people here who were huge fans of DotA 1. We wanted to make that game, and thought we could do a good job of it.”

If any company is in a position to justify a passion project, it's the one sitting on top of Steam. As it happens, Dota 2's snowballing popularity makes it less likely to drain Valve's swimming pool full of money and more likely to bankroll the construction of a water slide.

The word that I keep coming back to is 'trust'. The community, by and large, trusts Valve; and Valve trust the input they receive from their community. They also trust in the quality of the game itself, in IceFrog, and in the notion that there's a huge potential audience for a game this absurdly complicated. They have a 'build it and they will come' attitude to the International that, again, seems predicated on trust. This apparent innocence might well be deceptive, but there's no better expression of it than a room full of smart people cheering because a zombie on a horse carrying three magic swords has just blown up a giant glowing bonsai tree.

“We look at Dota as a product whose lifespan is further out than we can think about usefully,” Johnson tells me when I pry for details of longterm plans. “We just assume that it's going to be around forever.”

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