DotA 2 dominates one of the Gamescom halls with its lights, sound and grand spectacle; drawing enormous crowds of avid gamers who flocked to see some of the world's finest digital athletes face off in tense five versus five tournaments. DotA started life as a mod for Warcraft 3, but with Valve snapping up IceFrog and translating the experience into a massive full game, it's set to become a cybersport all over again. Tucked safely beneath the looming central stage, I sat down with Valve Project Manager Erik Johnson to discuss how it's shaping up so far.
Jonathan Lester: What originally inspired Valve to run with the original Defence Of The Ancients as a major retail release?
Erik Johnson: For us, it started out as a group of people who were huge fans of the game - and as we continued to play it as developers, we became fans of IceFrog who were building it by themselves. We were really surprised at how large of an audience this game had built, pretty much from just a single person's work. We brought him out and talked to him, and he was definitely somebody we wanted to work with at Valve. Also, he had ideas of where he wanted to go with the game and what a sequel would look like. We kind of went from there!
Jonathan Lester: Could you give us the elevator pitch? What is DotA 2 all about, and what can newcomers expect?
Erik Johnson: The consise term for the DotA 2 is an "action RTS." It has the traditional camera position of a real time strategy game, but you only control a single unit so there's not as much base building and things like that going on. It has an RPG element where the hero that you're using starts off as a level one hero who's not that powerful. A lot of things in the world are dangerous and eventually over the course of a fourty five minute game, has a bunch of items and a bunch of abilities. It's five on five, so it's a very competitive product.
Jonathan Lester: How many heroes will there be - and what sort of abilities will they bring to the table?
Erik Johnson: There are about 105 different heroes who have completely different roles and abilities within a match. In the latest bracket match, you had a good look at Lina: who is a great early game nuker. She has a bunch of really powerful magic spells. Towards the end of the game, it tends to be more dominated by heroes who deal physical damage.
We also saw Spectre in that game. Spectre is more of a late game hero, that's really focused on getting as much gold as possible over the course of the game and buying a bunch of powerful items. And then hopefully doing enough damage to the other team to win if the match lasts that long!
Jonathan Lester: How difficult was it to achieve balance between the classes?
Erik Johnson: A lot of work was done by IceFrog in DotA 1 over the last six years. He would tell you that, in the same way that we've always been a fan in the process of experimentation and fan involvement, he's been doing the same thing in the original mod. He's been getting feedback from all the fans about heroes and balance changes and then rolling out constant updates until testing to see if his assumptions were correct.
So over a long period of time and a huge amount of work, we've arrived at a system that works and is pretty entertaining.
Jonathan Lester: It's entertaining enough to watch! These are some of the best players in the world, though, and how accessible is it to newcomers who don't have experience with the original mod?
Jonathan Lester: Has your relationship with Blizzard taken a hit over the naming debacle?
No, I mean, we're still huge fans of the Blizzard guys and we're good friends with the guys that work there. I'm looking forward to Diablo III as much as the next person.
Jonathan Lester: No kidding, it was shaping up nicely this time last year!
Erik Johnson: Hah, I know that, as a gamer you want everyone to release their games - but if you look at Blizzard's track record, I'm okay with that approach.
Jonathan Lester: I bet... so how's Episode 3 coming along?
Erik Johnson: No... we have no comment on that.
Jonathan Lester: Right, sorry, I couldn't resist. Back on track: the Gamescom DotA tournament you're running is an absolutely fantastic initiative. Will events like this continue regularly throughout the life of the game?
Erik Johnson: Yeah. So, we want to do an event like this once a year and want to get the best in the world together in one place. And give something pretty entertaining for our fans to watch! There's also a huge group of DotA tournament organisers who are going to run events of their own throughout the year.
Jonathan Lester: Will it be possible for players to organise tournaments from within the game or client itself?
Erik Johnson: Sure, people will be able to run online tournaments and offline - as they say - like here on the LAN. We're streaming these events on the web, and the next step is for people to be able to watch these games in their client.
Jonathan Lester: Will DotA be delivering community-created content through Steamworks? Will there be any editing functionality?
Erik Johnson: Well, we're always looking for lots of ways to create a system that rewards people in the community creating value for others. The tournament is one portion of that, after all, we're giving the winner one million dollars! IceFrog has delivered a huge amount of value for fans.
Other ways that people can create content, especially around DotA, is that players can create guides. They can coach other players. Team Fortress 2 went down the route of custom items in the game for people to buy - and the [creators] make money.
Jonathan Lester: Speaking of Team Fortress 2, how has the recent switch to a free-to-play model treated you?
Erik Johnson: It's gone great. It's like everything, we're always trying to run experiments and learn about what our customers want us to do. TF2 is a great game to try F2P out, to learn about how it would work because the more players, the more fun it is. You want to have a really large community to play with! It's been really successful, and we learned a lot of lessons about where we want to eventually take DotA.
We can't wait to see where that is. DotA 2 is tipped for a 2012 release, and we'll keep you updated with the latest.