As you may have already heard, Dota 2’s recent New Bloom event has not been well received. The main feature, a 5v5 brawl accentuated with the periodic appearance of semi-controllable ‘Year Beasts,’ has been plagued by a number of questionable design decisions. The first several days were marred by widespread server issues due queues for the event being restricted to random 10 minute intervals. This kind of queue restriction is great if you’re trying to boost player density, say to create tightly matched games in the sparsely populated >5000 MMR region. It’s significantly less productive when you’re dealing with a record high concurrent player count of over one million, most of whom are trying to get inside your shiny new
holiday event hat-creation device.
And all this is weird because, as many people have pointed out, none of this seems very like Valve. I can’t find the video right now, but there was a talk about how Team Fortress 2 patches were structured in a way to periodically reinvigorate player interest. But for the many casual Dota 2 players out there, New Bloom could easily be an interest killer. You rush home from school or work, knowing that you’ve already missed a number of opportunities to build up wins for those event couriers. You find that you can’t queue up for the event, and, assuming you’re outside of the one-hour warning window, you have no idea when the next queue will open. You can’t practice for the event at all, which makes you nervous because you know random internet strangers can be less-than-cordial when hats are on the line. Then, once you finally manage to get in the queue, the server crashes, meaning you can wait another ~2 hours to try again, or just do something more productive with your time.
New Bloom feels like a design-by-committee disaster, where requirements and restrictions were pushed with no concern for the viability of the final project. The F-35 of Holiday Events. And while there’s been a lot of speculation about Valve’s motives, whether to chalk this up to incompetence or capitalism, I have a theory that they might not have had that much control over the general direction of the event. I don’t propose this in an attempt to absolve them, but because this alternative explanation is significantly more troubling. So with the tone properly set, let’s talk about Pay-to-Win (P2W).
Originally I had planned to write a whole spiel about Pay-To-Win: how it’s never literally paying “to win,” how it’s really about paying for an advantage that accelerates a reward cycle, and how in a player-versus-player environment these advantages often need to be subtle in order to avoid frustrating the non-paying players into quitting. But as people have accumulated larger amounts of ability points, it turns out that the Pay-To-Win in this mode is not subtle in the slightest.
And speaking of a lack of subtlety, take a look at the original page advertising the point system:
Image nabbed from 2p.com’s New Bloom Article
The immediate impression of this points system is that the deck is stacked against a non-paying player. There are only three ways to get points without paying, all three fall under varying degrees of unreliable, and the points provided by these methods feel utterly inconsequential compared to the 2400 options. My point here isn’t that this is a bad P2W system because of it’s lack of subtlety; it’s that the system was designed in such a way that makes me believe subtlety was explicitly not a goal.
With that in mind, let’s ask a simple question: why does New Bloom even exist? As you might remember from the Rekindling Soul Update:
One more thing: we on the Dota 2 team have a number of updates in the works right now that we’re really excited about, some for the rest of this year, and a big update for early next year. But we’re pretty sure we won’t be able to make enough progress on the larger update if we put it down to work on Diretide – so we’ve decided that we’re not going to ship a Diretide event this year. We know that last year we weren’t clear enough in our communication about this, so this year we wanted to be up front about it early. Next year will bring monumental changes to Dota 2, and we’re confident that when you’ve seen what we’ve been working on, you’ll agree it was worth it.
It’s a pretty popular theory that the “big update for early next year” is a conversion to Source 2 based on its inclusion in the Dota 2 Workshop Tools last year. It’s reasonable that Valve wouldn’t want to put a lot of work into creating new versions of Diretide and Frostivus only to then have to start all over in the new engine. But New Bloom is apparently important enough to ship regardless, which suggests that the most important holiday on Valve’s development calendar falls in February, and no, I’m not referring to Valentine’s Day.
And why shouldn’t it be? China is an enormous part of the Dota scene, and Dota 2 is still trying to make inroads there. The far more concerning possibility is that New Bloom is as much about pleasing Perfect World, the Dota 2 operator in China, as it is pleasing the actual Chinese playerbase.
If it’s true that Perfect World has a great deal of influence over the structure of New Bloom, then that lack of subtlety I mentioned before suddenly makes a lot more sense in a “feature, not bug” sort of way. Consider this section from an IGN article on Free-to-Play game talks at GDC Europe:
By listening to someone familiar with the Chinese free-to-play browser game market, you’ll get an entirely different perspective. The much maligned ‘pay to win’ label in the West, where users can only really advance by handing over money, is pretty much a standard for distribution and financial gain in China. As described by Jared Psigoda of Reality Squared Games, something like the seemingly omnipresent energy mechanic in Western social games, which caps the amount of things someone can do for free in-game, is the most innocent thing in the world. They make Zynga look almost saintly when it comes to the transparency of their revenue-driven intentions.
“When I talk to Chinese game designers,” said Psigoda, “they say, ‘I just dug this new pit, this monetization pit, that somebody could spend 10,000 dollars or 50,000 dollars in and not reach the highest level.’ It’s all about the monetization of the game.”
Chinese publishers hope to earn back the development budget within two weeks of launch, so everything – armor, pets, equippable angelic wings — can be upgraded, and everything costs money. And users pay it, because they want to be first on the leaderboards. Psigoda provided statistics showing some gamers would spend over 100,000 dollars on a single game. In some games, botting is a built-in feature, though the service will only remain active if you pay a small fee while away from a computer.
And as for Perfect World specifically, I have a little game. Take the name of any of the games they’ve developed, append ‘p2w’ and search for it in your search engine of choice. If you’re like me you’ll find an abundance of helpful forum post titles including:
“pay to win?”
“How do you feel about this game being pay to win?”
“This game is absolutely Pay To Win”
“Is PWI the most P2W Game?”
“Why is P2W bad?”
“Paying to Win, why this is actually a positive thing”
I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to monetization design Perfect World doesn’t do subtlety. And why should they? The gaming culture they design for does not demand it, and it is not in the interests of anyone making games there to introduce it and ruin the ride for everyone. Given that environment, New Bloom is a perfect fit. If anything the pit isn’t deep enough.
All this is predicated on the assumption that Perfect World has the clout to dictate to some extent the terms of this event. I certainly cannot prove that this is the case, but consider the situation. China is an undeniably huge part of the Dota community, but in order to get Dota 2 inside of China, Valve needs someone like Perfect World. Maybe they could shop around for other operators, but this would at the very least be immensely time consuming, possibly a major social faux pas, and even if they somehow managed to find another operator, it’s unlikely that they would find one that would have a more, shall we say, “enlightened” view on P2W mechanics. These factors give Perfect World a degree of leverage over Valve that could plausibly allow the scenario I’ve laid out in this post.
If you think it’s outrageous that Valve would agree to these concessions, consider it this way: without Perfect World, we would not have had the recent Dota 2 Asian Championships, and we might have even seen greatly reduced Chinese participation at the recent Internationals. Salt about the TI4 finals notwithstanding, having to put up with a month of a terrible event isn’t an entirely unreasonable price to pay for a healthier international competitive scene.
So from this pragmatic sense, I might be ‘ok’ with New Bloom. I still find it repulsive, but I can ignore it if that’s what it takes to keep Chinese teams active in the professional scene. That being said, slippery slopes aren’t always a fallacy. This year’s New Bloom establishes a troubling precedent, as previously all P2W experiments were done in PvE modes. P2W in a competitive game is always 100% unacceptable, so hopefully this event is not a harbinger of things to come.