In early May I had an informal, unrecorded - but as far as I know not off-the-record - chat with Valve’s Robin Walker about item chests and reward mechanisms. He explained to me that in the early days of the Team Fortress 2 store Valve had assumed that it should be possible to ‘lose’ when opening a crate: that you should have a chance of trading your investment in a key for something of lower value. They eventually figured out that this didn’t work, and that more crates would be opened if every potential item reward was of greater value than the key used to unlock it.
This is why Dota 2 chests only contain Rare items and above. Even if you don’t get the stuff you’re after, you should get something you can trade - it’s about degrees of winning, not whether you win or lose. In the past I’ve thought of this as a good example of Valve’s ability to look at a scenario and find a way to fix it so that everybody wins. I admire that about the company: this notion that a better, more equitable way of rewarding the player is always waiting to be discovered.
I’m writing this now because I think the situation with the Compendium Immortal item has been handled badly, creating the potential to ‘lose’ the Dota item game in a way that harms the community Valve is building around The International.
Here are the basics. The Compendium is a promotional item for The International 3 that acts a combination of betting book, fantasy football league, and a way for the Dota community to crowd-fund the tournament itself. A percentage of each sale goes towards the total prize pool, and at certain milestones new stretch goal-type rewards are unlocked. Players are incentivised to buy multiple Compendiums in order to support the sport they love and to receive further rewards down the line.
The most recent stretch goal to be completed was the creation of a unique item that would only be available to Compendium owners. This is actually turned out to be a set of items - five, each for a different hero - with every Compendium owner receiving a different one based on a random draw.
This is where problems emerge. By creating more than one item - and by distributing the items randomly - Valve have created a situation where there’s a risk of losing. On the surface, each of the items are equally rare: but the Dota community has its own ways of judging value, and as soon as items are stratified it becomes hard to change their perceived worth. The criteria go something like this.
- True rarity: will this item be available again in the future? The most valuable items will never be seen again after the event where they’re distributed.
- Carry or feed: items for heroes with high kill potential are more valuable than items for technical heroes and supports. There’s no good reason for this, it’s simply an expression of trends and prejudices in the Dota playerbase - but it’s a well-understood phenomena. You could also call this ‘Pudge items uber alles.’
- Look and feel: items that change animations or look exciting are worth more. In general, weapons are more valuable than armour.
I trust that Valve’s developers know that this is how the community works and are capable of making decisions that anticipate it - but the Compendium Immortals are an absolute disaster. Look at how they break down.
- Whalehook: an item for Pudge, a popular hero with high kill potential. It’s one of the most strikingly different Pudge hooks in terms of silhouette, and it comes with new animations for one of his abilities and his teleport action.
- Leviathan Whale Blade: an item for Kunkka, a carry. It’s a really great-looking sword and makes a massive change to one of his ability animations, adding a surfacing whale to Torrent.
- Scree’auk’s Talon: an item for Vengeful Spirit, a support who is sometimes played in a carry role. Updates animations for two of her abilities, including her ultimate.
- Mace of the Chosen: an item for Abaddon, the most recent addition to the roster. He’s a support hero, but he’s new enough that some players play him in the carry role from time to time. The mace updates a few regular animations but no ability animations.
- Cauldron of Xahryx: a back-mounted item for Lone Druid, a technical hero who is popular in the pro scene but doesn’t get much play in pub matches. It updates his attack animation while in his regular form, but has no impact on his Trueform ultimate.
Within a few hours of the release of these items, the imbalance in their relative value has been exposed and is being exploited by the trading community. Valve’s mistake was locating the most striking changes to look and feel in the items for Pudge and Kunkka - i.e, items that would have been popular anyway. The Vengeful Spirit weapon sits somewhere in the middle, but Abaddon and Lone Druid lose outright: the combination of less popular hero and less impactful item has caused their value to plummet. Based on the current state of Dota2Lounge, the value of the Abaddon mace is less than half that of the Pudge hook or Kunkka sword.
Guess who got the Abaddon mace.
The thing is, I like Abaddon. I’ll probably keep the mace. The problem is that I received a reward that is less valuable than someone else’s. I lost out in something that never should have been a competition.
Gambling on opening a regular chest is a decision that I take in the knowledge that I might not get the item I want. I willingly take ownership of a negative outcome because I know what I am getting myself in to.
The Compendium works on different principles. I invested my money because I wanted to support the tournament, and because I would receive a steady stream of rewards for doing so. I don’t mind that every other Compendium owner gets the same rewards that I do, because it’s a we’re-all-in-this-together-type arrangement. In the future, Smeevil couriers will be a sign that you cared enough about TI3 to boost the prize pool with your own money. That’s pretty cool. That’s something I want to be part of.
The new Immortal items turn a Compendium purchase into a gamble, rewarding some players more and others less for what should be a community-focused investment. This punctures not only the spirit of crowdfunding but the feeling of goodwill that comes with it. Imagine if it was possible to ‘lose out’ on a Kickstarter investment - that backers who paid the same amount had an arbitrary chance to receive a product of differing value. It’d be a disaster: not only does it jeopardise trust in the system, but it distracts from the cause itself. That, I think, is what will happen with the Compendium: it’ll go from being a way to support the e-sports scene to a way to gamble on receiving a valuable Kunkka or Pudge item.
In short, community-building initiatives need to create a sense of stability and equity, while systems that focus on personal gain are free to incorporate chance and luck. Mix the two and you create damaging power differentials: players who have more, despite equal investment, able to demand more from players who have less. This causes divisions within the community in question - in this case, supporters of The International - and ultimately trends towards disillusionment and collapse. That might sound a little dramatic, but take a look at actual society and how well that turned out.
The irony is that Valve evaded exactly this issue, in exactly this context, earlier in the year. When the ‘unique taunt’ stretch goal was reached, Valve released a set of items as a bundle that every Compendium owner received. It didn’t matter if the Pudge taunt was worth more than the others because everybody got it.
This time around, there were three ways to avoid this issue: give every item to every player, give the same item to every player, or allow the player to choose which item they received. It’s too late to do any of these now. Valve’s best option - and something I hope they’ll consider - is to announce that the Abaddon and Lone Druid weapons will be upgraded to also alter ability animations. This could well take place after The International, but knowing that - say - unique Borrowed Time or Trueform effects were on the way would be enough to make unlucky players feel less hard done by.
The conspiracy theory goes that this situation has been engineered to drive up sales of the Compendium as players rush to get the hottest new items. I don’t really believe that: I’m more inclined to see this is as an uneven distribution of ideas and dev time combined with a misunderstanding of how the community would treat the new items. I believed Robin when he told me that it made no sense for players to be able to lose out on an investment. I also believe that Valve are serious about creating a sense of collective ownership around The International. I hope they see the way that those ideas relate to one another, and that they’re capable of learning from what - to my mind - is a crucial mistake.