By Philippa Warr on August 20th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.
Confession: I have spent approximately $357.38 on a free videogame. Three hundred and fifty seven dollars and thirty eight cents.
Second confession: Actually it’s a little more than that.
The figure Valve gives you is related to the badges you earn by collecting sets of trading cards in the game. To find out how much you’ve spent in Dota 2 just go to the badges section of your profile, look at Dota 2 and then click on “How do I earn card drops?” The card drops in free-to-play games are linked to the money you spend in-game and so Steam will tell you how close you are to earning your next card drop. It also tells you how much you’ve spent but only in the period since they introduced card drops.
For me that’s just north of £215 and I’m going to try to answer the question “Why?”
When you look at the amount of time I have spent in the game it becomes less of a shocking amount – the money then works out at about 14 pence her hour. I’d definitely pay 14 pence for a game of Dota. Hell, in the late nineties my little brother used to charge me 20 pence an hour to play on his N64 and I completed Ocarina of Time twice and collected all the gold skulltulas. Perhaps this points to me making terrible financial decisions from a young age. Wait – where was I going with all of this?
Ah yes. In terms of the amount of time I’ve devoted to the game, the amount of money spent doesn’t seem disproportionate, but that’s not how Dota 2 monetisation works. I’m not paying for game time. What I’m paying for is digital clothes, loading screens, item effects, stat recording plug-ins for items, creature couriers, battle point boosters, compendia and tournament tickets.
Tournament tickets are perhaps easiest to understand. You pay some money, you get access to an event. Stat tracking gems which can be added to items are also pretty straightforward. They let you keep an eye on things like how many kills you get or how many wards you buy. You just pick a stat you’re interested in tracking for a hero and add it to an item equipped by that hero.
Battle point boosters are more interesting. They let you level up slightly faster which helps you stick a bigger number next to your Dota profile and slightly increases the speed with which you earn item drops. But the reason a lot of my friends and I buy them is because they generate good will amongst strangers. The boosters also confer a battle point bonus on the rest of your team and in a public match where you’re trying to get a bunch of strangers to work together the text which flashes up at the start of a match saying that you’ve done something which automatically benefits everyone can help get things off on a positive note.
The clothing is far more of a drain on my purse, though. I’m not alone in this by any means. It’s why you’ll hear Valve’s workshop and microtransaction system jokingly referred to as its “hat economy”. As per a Steam blog entry from June 2013, “Since the Steam Workshop launched in October of 2011, over 1,200 items created by members of the community have been made available for sale in Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, producing over $10 million in royalties paid to item creators.” In May 2014, Valve added that, for the 12 million players using content from the Steam Workshop, the average number of items they download is 57 (although it doesn’t specify paid or free). During a talk at the University of Texas Valve’s Gabe Newell revealed that the interest in digital hats had actually broken PayPal when the concept was first introduced. He mentions inflation and deflation in the hat economy as well as talking about liquidity problems which resulted in strange mini financial crises at various points of the day.
I’ve written about Dota hats before in relation to fashion. Dota workshop artist Anuxi explained that she thought their popularity was to do with how social the medium of gaming had become. They’re a way of standing out, of sharing something of your own identity. It’s a similar mindset to the one which underpins the real-world fashion industry. Clothes can act as status symbols, they can signify mood or intention and they can be used to give the world an idea of our personalities.
In his talk Newell refers to a lot of the workshop items created by the community as relating to “status” and “hierarchy”. Given some of the items in Dota stretch the “micro” part of microtransactions to breaking point it’s not hard to see what he means. If you’re buying direct from Steam, Lina has a flaming haircut which comes in at £20.99. Further afield prices can go far higher – before alterations to how item qualities work an ethereal flame pink war dog courier sold for $38,000. There’s an attraction in showing that you own something pricey or rare – perhaps even seeing it as an investment.
My approach tends to be that I like to “reward” the heroes I enjoy playing. I spend a lot of time with them – hundreds of hours each – and so, even if other heroes are more aesthetically pleasing or have more interesting items I’ll opt to spend money on my favourites. Objectively Venomancer’s character model is probably best described as ‘derpy poisonous banana with a wiggle’ but I have instabought the items released for him so far because he is MY derpy poisonous banana with a wiggle. Witch Doctor and Shadow Shaman items get subjected to a little more scrutiny. I won’t buy anything I dislike, but I seek out fun new additions to their wardrobes and spend time working out whether the new pieces will work with existing cosmetics.
This isn’t really about expressing my own personality, it’s to do with decking out my favourite toys. If you want to see where I’m expressing something more of myself you’d be better off looking at my ridiculous selection of couriers. I often play support and so I buy the courier which ferries items around the map at the beginning of the game. There are currently 20 couriers at my disposal, nearly all bought or gifted for a particular and personal reason. My current favourite is the astronomer octopus. I’ve been fascinated by octopuses for years and I obsessively follow Nasa’s photography accounts and outlets. The idea that a courier would somehow merge those two things led to much rejoicing.
There’s another aspect to spending, too. I occasionally use items to change my game behaviour. Mostly this comes in the form of buying items for heroes outside my comfort zone so that I feel pressured to start playing them. A friend of mine is thinking along similar lines. He’s considering buying items for particular heroes which he will send as gifts to his girlfriend. It’s to encourage her to try those characters as she gets to grips with the game. Another Dota buddy (Alice O’Connor of this parish) has a slightly different take on the concept but is still using cosmetics to (hopefully) alter her gaming: “To inspire me to break a losing streak, Windrunner has a new look that’s less whimsy, more ‘kill that fucking wizard’.”
Lastly, I love the creativity and variety you find in the store. Regardless of whether you play a hero or not, some items are just cool. As a result I’ll sometimes just pick up cosmetics because I think the person involved worked hard and deserves some cash, whether it’s an official Valve creation or the work of a self-taught enthusiast on the Workshop.
I spent that £215 over two years and I did so because I’ve developed a deep affection for the game, its characters and the people with whom I play and to whom I send occasional gifts. My PayPal history represents an engagement with a whole community. I used to spend over £3 most weekdays on a Boots meal deal for lunch. Across one year that’s almost £800 – four times as much as two years of Dota – and a Boots meal deal has never brought me even one hundredth the amount of pleasure as a well-crafted digital cape.