The Dota 2 Workshop Tools and the Steam Box

August 8, 2014

There’s been a lot to discuss about the newly released Dota 2 Workshop Tools, ranging from speculation that it’s effectively the launch of Source 2 to its use in the summoning of eldritch horrors, but one thing I haven’t seen brought up is its potential strategic value it offers for the Valve’s Steam Box project.

First, a likely terrible recap on why the Steam Box and SteamOS even exist.  Valve as a company is heavily dependent on the success of Steam, and Steam is in-turn highly dependent on the PC market.  If PC sales suffer a permanent downturn or Microsoft makes Windows a less welcoming platform, Valve’s entire business model is at risk.  A successful Steam Box diversifies Steam’s install base, which leaves Steam less exposed.

But making a successful Steam Box isn’t a simple task, and one of the biggest complications is the Linux-based operating system.  Most games are not going to run natively at the start, and while the SteamOS will support game streaming, it’s hard to see this as anything more than a stopgap solution.  One of Steam’s greatest strengths is convenience, and for casual users the streaming solutions are unlikely to be seen as convenient.

So the SteamOS faces the console paradox: to get popular, the SteamOS needs games, but for game ports to be profitable, the SteamOS needs to be popular.  Traditionally, the most prominent answer to this paradox was the console exclusive.  Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda not only helped make the original NES a success, but their sequels have played the single largest role in selling new Nintendo consoles for over two decades, the defection of Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy 7 away from the Nintendo 64 to the original Playstation played a huge role in Sony’s takeover of the console market, and Xbox’s eventual challenge to the Playstation was backed by the success of Halo.

Over the years however, the power of the console exclusive has diminished.  For all their influence, games like Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda had comparatively tiny staff sizes and development costs compared to modern AAA mammoths.  A company developing games in the NES day could afford to experiment on multiple titles simultaneously because costs were low enough that a handful of successes could make up for the flops.  In comparison, modern AAA development is sclerotic.  There’s too much at stake financially to take risks, so while you might produce safe top sellers, you’re unlikely to ever get the next Mario.  Even then, to get a top seller you need sales, so committing to an exclusive for an unproven platform is insanity compared to simply going multi-platform.

So to take things back to the Workshop Tools, I’d like to point out that Valve doesn’t really make games, and no, I’m not making a Half-Life 3 joke.  Look at the list yourself.  Half-Life and its sequels are original of course, but besides that you have Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, and Day of Defeat, all of which are like Dota 2 and based on mods.  Left 4 Dead is a bit different in that it was acquired from Turtle Rock Studios, but the difference isn’t a huge one.  The original Portal was based on a student game Narbacular Drop, and if you ever played Portal 2 with commentary on you likely have the words “our student game Tag: The Power of Paint” etched permanently in your brain.

Valve’s MO is finding underrated proofs-of-concept and polishing them up so they can compete with AAA offerings, and in light of that the Dota 2 Workshop Tools become all the more interesting.  If these Workshop Tools become popular, and there’s no reason right now to believe that they won’t, it will create a testbed for game concepts.  The best might get picked up by Valve or they might get developed independently.  Either way their start will be on the Source engine which should eventually make it trivial to run them natively in SteamOS.

But the beautiful thing about all this is it potentially takes us back to oldschool game design where creators are free to experiment in a low-investment environment.  From the modders perspective a lot of your immediate hurdles (engine, art, and especially network code) are addressed for you in the short term, and from Valve’s perspective you get results you can evaluate before committing a huge amount of resources.  It’s theoretically a win-win for everyone involved.

And if you think about it, Warcraft 3’s contribution to gaming is more about serving as the genesis for its descendents (Dota, League of Legends, and World of Warcraft, just to name a few) than it is about its own merits.  It could be the case that 10 years down the line Dota might be overshadowed by a game that’s essentially a mod of a mod.  And to their credit, Valve appears to be pretty well positioned to take advantage to that next step in evolution.