Three Lane Highway: the problem with Year Beast isn't the cost, it's the reward

Year Beast

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2 and related games.

Everybody is angry about a seasonal Dota 2 event. This does not tell you very much. Events have always made players angry, and not entirely without reason—traditionally, they are not very good. That said, the angriest the Dota community has ever been was when a seasonal event didn't happen. This complicates things, somewhat. If the community is equally enraged by events that exist and events that don't exist, what have we learned? Primarily, that hardcore gaming communities are often angry about something, and that 'something' may or may not map fully onto reality. This is not a revelation, and nor is it news. Don't let that stop you, though—it's op-ed season! Grab your gun, honey, there's fish in that barrel.

Valve continue to make weird decisions about how they implement optional modes into Dota 2. Generally, knowing Valve, you can assume that this is a form of experimentation—discerning what the community will accept, what it won't. The company's weaknesses has always been that this experimentation takes place in isolation from what other companies have learned and, sometimes, in isolation from common sense. Valve give the impression of a company that is attempting to invent community events from scratch—a homebrew approach with its roots in lush, organic data. I wonder how they store and process that data, sometimes; how they account for the significant portion that is just the phrase 'FUCK THIS' over and over. It's all useful, I suppose. Nothing grows that isn't fertilised at least in part by the shit that came before it.

Where Manifold Paradox's problem was that it affected how people play regular Dota, Year Beast's issue is that it allows players to purchase an advantage in new, optional Dota. If you have lots of points your team gets a better Year Beast and that's kind of shitty to deal with. I think you'd have to attempt some pretty tricky rhetorical gymastics to take criticism further than that: Year Beast does not mean that Dota as a whole is 'pay to win'. 'Pay to win' is not a force with its own agency: it cannot creep out of one game mode and alter another. It cannot slip off the whiteboard and infect a room full of designers, it does not corrupt its hosts from within and you will never find yourself approaching Icefrog in the street only for him to raise a finger and honk "PAY TO WIIIIIIIIIN" at you like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In short: it's bad, you don't have to play it, you definitely don't have to spend any money, and you probably wasted any time you spent sharpening pitchforks (do you sharpen pitchforks? I guess you must.) Lasting impact on Dota, the decade-old fantasy wizard sport you play every day of your life for some reason? Nil.

What does concern me about Year Beast is that it demonstrates that Valve haven't really learned their lesson regarding event rewards. In every case, the outcry over an event has ultimately been grounded in the assumption that you have to do whatever terrible thing the event is making you do, and that you have to do it because otherwise you don't get whatever reward is being dangled in front of you. During Manifold Paradox, people had to bend their entire strategy around helping or thwarting Phantom Assassin because otherwise they wouldn't get items. Now, people have to build the best Year Beast because otherwise they don't get item sets.

In gaming communities, 'material' rewards tend to override every other incentive to play. People ruin their experience of Dragon Age: Inquisition's opening hours because they convince themselves that they need all of the stuff in the Hinterlands before they allow themselves to progress. Over in console-land, hand-wringing about Destiny's loot system has eclipsed the game's successes (and failures) as a shooter to such an extent that it might as well be a Faberge handle on a slot machine. This is the age of people saying 'I had an amazing time but I didn't get the right space hat so fuck it' without irony, a sentiment that is for some reason taken seriously and not laughed at like we laugh at those teenagers publishing tearful video blogs when they don't get the right car for their birthday.

In short: the chance to win stuff tends to make gaming communities behave in some really weird ways and Valve have been naive in their approach to that. On paper, giving a reward to winners makes sense. In practice, it changes the emotional register of the entire thing. It introduces entitlement, irrationality and negativity. They made the same mistake with the first-ever Compendium, which gave every owner a different Immortal item from a limited set. Technically, they were all equally valuable. In practice, everybody wanted the Pudge hook or the Kunkka sword. The system created winners and losers, and the result was much wailing.

If every Year Beast participant had the same chance of getting a reward regardless of the match outcome then nobody would care much that it was pay to win. Well, some might, but it would be those few that are genuinely concerned with the health of the game in abstract and that tends to be a far more level-headed set. It'd also mean that fewer people would feel the need to spend money on points alone (as opposed to the points that come with the Arcana), but if Valve are serious about steering clear of Bad Free To Play then they'd have to accept that.

The goal with a community event shouldn't just be to raise a bit of extra money, nor should it be to experiment with what the community will enjoy or invest in. The aim should always be to create a sense of communal attachment—to stick a pin in the calendar at a certain point and encourage people to invest that time with meaning. You should look back on a seasonal event and think 'remember that? That was cool. That's where I got this hat.'

That goal is not incompatible with an experimental approach, nor is it incompatible with making money. But Valve need to get better at it. At the moment, the memory they are creating is closer to 'god, remember that? That was awful. I spent half an hour of my life convincing one guy not to abandon the game because he wasn't going to win a hat. I can't believe I spent actual money on momentarily enhancing my team's magical rhino-dragon so that it might win me a Sand King set from two years ago that I didn't even want'.

The key is distributing rewards evenly to create a sense that everybody wins out just by participating. By doing so, the event becomes a pinata that everybody gets an even whack at—and, like at the very best children's birthday parties, every attendee is guaranteed some candy or a toy. Have you seen what happens when a parent underestimates the importance of egalitarian distribution? It's exactly like what is happening in the Dota community at the moment, only with real six year olds instead of functional six year olds.

Here, then, is how you fix Year Beast. Remove the points system, and give both winners and losers an equal chance to earn whole sets. Match this with a reliable progression track that you move along with every game you play, unlocking scaling rewards as you go. You should know roughly what you stand to gain when you start a Year Beast match, not when it ends. That way, players go in feeling positive.

Instead of selling points, sell tickets for the mode itself. Give every player one free ticket for every day they log in and scale reward distribution with that in mind. Give extra tickets to Arcana owners, and give players who play with an Arcana owner a chance to earn tickets through playing regular Dota matches. Ticket prices should be slightly lower than the lowest-value reward from a given Year Beast game, because there's no reason why the player should stand to lose: Valve have learned this lesson before, with item chests.

Then, watch a happy seasonal event unfold and watch players flock back to the next one. If there is a next one. You might have handed the whole thing over to the community by then by adding custom game tools. In which case, it's their problem. Let the little shits run their own birthday party. Uncork a bottle and bar the kitchen door: you've earned it!

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.