You think my bag of Gamescom coverage is empty? Hah! Far from it. I’m beginning to worry I’m going to spend the rest of my life documenting what I saw and who I spoke to across four frenetic days in Germany last month. This time, it’s a quick chat with Valve bigwig Erik Johnson about DOTA2 – why they made it, what’s different, whether normal humans as well as superhumans can play it, whether they’re trying to become kings of pro-gaming hill, how aggressively they’re competing with Riot Games, Blizzard, et al… He’s not the chattiest subject admittedly, and I was miserably short on time due to my next appointment being approximately eighty miles away from Valve’s stand, but let’s see what he has to say about the impending reworking of the monstrously successful mod.
Note – this takes place before the conclusion of The International, the DOTA 2 pro-tournament held during Gamescom.
RPS: How’s The International going?
Erik Johnson: It’s going great, like we expected – these are the best 16 teams in the world, and they’re playing like the best 16 teams in the word. We’re just heading into the brackets now, in fact the first elimination game’s being played right now. I hope fans are getting a kick out of it – we’re sure getting a kick out of it, it’s a lot of fun.
RPS: Have you got a favourite team?
Erik Johnson: Not really. I just want good, exciting games. I hope it comes through, especially for people who don’t really know DOTA, how talented all of these players are.
RPS: I was watching some games on the screen and I could barely keep up – they seem almost superhuman.
Erik Johnson: Yeah, they’re pretty amazing. I just want a great competition, good matches, exciting matches.
RPS: Would you be able to even slightly hold your own against any of these guys?
Erik Johnson? Would I? No, no, noooo. I’ve played DOTA for two to three years now – not even in the ballpark. We actually did play [them] – they’ve had access to the game for about a month and so the Valve people were early on mixing in with the teams when they were playing. We’re not anywhere close.
RPS: Were they immediately good at it due to their experiences with the original?
Erik Johnson: Oh yeah.
RPS: What would you say is the major difference between this and the original, outside of the graphical stuff?
Erik Johnson: The things that we’re most focused on is the experience of getting into a playing a game of DOTA. We want people to be able to play this game with their friends really well. Icefrog’s been building this game by himself for six years and there are a number of limitations in being a modder on any platform. Now we have a pretty large team that’s building this game at Valve, the number of things we can do is a lot greater.
RPS: He must have been like a kid in a candyshop when he suddenly had access to all these people and all that budget…
Erik Johnson: I would think so. Yeah, it’s been pretty fun and there are a lot of fans of the game involved in building this.
RPS: My concern is can normal human beings play this too, and to what extent?
Erik Johnson: Yeah, the reality is that pretty much no-one here is going to be able to play like these guys. Just like any sporting event, if you watch the best in the world your chances of being as good as them are slim to none. But we have games of five on five for people who are brand new to the game, and they’ll have a great time. They’ll have as good an experience as you can get, with everybody being at the same skill level. A lot of the things that the professionals are doing, just like any other sport, they’re on this kind of bleeding edge and the difference in skill between the teams is relatively small – so any little things they can do to gain a march on their opponent… For a less experienced player, it’s not going to happen as much.
RPS: It seems a profoundly different prospect to TF2, which found a bunch of ways to be a sort of gateway experience to online shooters. Can you talk about whether you’re doing anything similar with this?
Erik Johnson: Well, we think that DOTA 1 proved that the game has pretty broad appeal. There are tens of millions of people who play DOTA 1 today, and for us that’s a great indicator that there’s a lot of good things going on in the product. We’re not going to jump in and change all of those things, because they’ve been tried and tested. But DOTA 2’s a product like a lot of our products, it’s going to have a long life after we ship. We’re going to keep building on it, experimenting and learning things.
RPS: Will there be stuff added, rather than changed, to help ease in new players?
Erik Johnson: Yeah, there’ll be ways for the new player to learn about the game. One of the features we’re going to do is coaching, where an experienced player can watch a new player and kind of teach them while they’re in the game. We think that will be kind of useful for the kind of new people.
RPS: Some of the other games in this genre are pretty famous for how hostile their communities can be, especially to new players – how are you going to manage that?
Erik Johnson: The reality is these are pretty competitive games – when people lose, nobody likes to lose. So people can get upset, but making sure that the gamers have relativity similar skill levels within the games can go a long way to making sure everybody has lots of fun, but as anybody who’s played DOTA 1 will know, losing a match in DOTA 1 is no fun. But the game has enough depth that it always gives you… in the same way that we try to do in our singleplayer games, you can think through the decisions that you have made and how you could have done them better. That’s kind of part of growing and becoming better at the game.
RPS: I guess there isn’t really the scope to feel you’ve done well individually even if your team loses, as there is in TF2 or even CS to some extent – this is purely win or lose, it’s pretty absolute, right?
Erik Johnson: It’s closer to absolute. The game is built in a way where it rewards the team that works well together pretty heavily. Individual skill is great, but if your team isn’t working together well, the other team is going to come out on top. Left 4 Dead probably has more of a similar feel – if you someone on your team who’s bring the team down, or you’re not communicating well as team, that’ll really hurt you.
RPS: I know this was a passion project for you to some extent, but how much of an interest is there within Valve in consciously courting the pro-gaming scene? There seems to be a hell of a lot of money in that these days – even down to the prize pot you’ve got for the International.
Erik Johnson: No, we don’t look at this as… We think that finding interesting ways for fans of DOTA to get to see all these guys in one place, we think that’s a cool thing to do for them. The reality is that that’s how we approach almost all of our decisions. We want to find ways to entertain as many people as we can, and we’ll figure out how to make money off of that later. If we approach it as ‘how can we make the most dollars?’ up front, it just leads to a bunch of bad decisions.
RPS: But you’re surely hoping it will trump rivals in this genre, in terms of pro-gaming take-up?
Erik Johnson: I don’t really know, as a goal, how we would act on something like that. We think those other games are great – they have huge followings of people that really love it. Some of those people might like our game and want to try it, and that will be great, but gamers will play as many great games as exist, it seems. It’s not a zero-sum deal. If it turns out that a bunch of professionals want to play our game, great. If not, then we’ll be asking them what we can do for them to want to play it.
RPS: There’s always a tendency to look for the conspiracy theory, the hidden agenda, behind decisions like this: people can struggle to believe that a company the size of Valve did something primarily because it just wanted to.
Erik Johnson: That really is what it is. We were huge fans of the product, we met the single developer behind it, we were huge fans of him, we really wanted to work with him and from there it was let’s build this product and see where it takes us.
RPS: How much did you anticipate there maybe being problems with Blizzard when you embarked on DOTA 2?
Erik Johnson: We’re at least as big fans of Blizzard as anyone out there, and we’re good friends with a lot of guys there. We want to build as good a product as we can, and hopefully they do too, it depends what makes sense for them.
RPS: Are you expecting their StarCraft DOTA to be a competitor?
Erik Johnson: I saw what they did at Blizzcon, it looked kinda cool.
RPS: For you personally, is your main work on DOTA 2 done and now you’re off to other projects, or will you be sort of semi-permanently attached to it for as long as it continues?
Erik Johnson: Oh, we’ll all be working on this game for a long time. As long as people think what we’re doing is cool and keep playing the game, we think of DOTA as a pretty long-term product.
RPS: Do you have a preferred character in it yourself?
Erik Johnson: It’s tricky, because there’s some value in learning lots of different characters in DOTA. If I had to pick, it would probably be Earthshaker, who’s actually been picked in a lot of the games out here. He’s just a good support hero who has a lot of disables on him. Fun hero for me to play.
RPS: Thanks for your time.