Many games use some form of microtransactions, and Dota is no exception. Dota 2 microtransactions are what help keep Valve’s free-to-play game afloat, but there are plenty of reasons to criticize the current monetization model.
Detractors of League of Legends and Riot’s free-to-play model will point out that one has to grind or purchase runes and champions in the game, which makes the playing field uneven. Heroes of the Storm is guilty of this as well. I got into the Alpha right at the end, and at the time I didn’t have tons of time or money to sink into a game, especially one still in development. This put me at a significant disadvantage: I could only play certain heroes that were free that week, or that I had managed to unlock. Games are less fun when people are yelling at you for not picking Nova because she’s OP when you don’t have her unlocked yet.
Loyal fans of Dota are thankful that Valve has not chosen that microtransaction model on which to base the game. All heroes in Dota are free for everyone, and the paid items like cosmetics are designed to be entirely optional—you can have Puck wear a jellyfish hat if you want to, but it doesn’t give your hero any additional perks.
However, it’s not actually that simple.
Valve’s come under fire a lot in the past year regarding their marketing of chests and sets. Specifically, the chests that afford players different chances to get specific drops could be seen as a form of gambling. Earlier in 2017, Belgium singled out loot boxes like the chests that Valve sells as a potential form of gambling that’s targeted at younger people. In the US, you have to be 18 (and thus have a semblance of impulse control) to purchase lottery tickets. With Steam’s Wallet system, a 14 year old can get a Steam gift card for their birthday and essentially “gamble” by purchasing a bunch of chests with the hopes that the item set they want will be inside. This is legal at the moment, but it’s not a stretch to see why it could be questionable for young players.
Play the game of chance or wait for marketability?
If you really want a specific set, you can either open a bunch of chests and hope that your luck is good, or you can wait a few months and buy one on the marketplace when they become marketable. Valve changed the marketability rules for sets a couple of years ago. There’s now a waiting period before they’re marketable or tradeable, whereas previously they were available almost immediately.
The downside of the waiting period is that the low-value sets become more or less worthless once they become marketable. People end up buying more chests than they had initially planned in an effort to get a specific set, and, as a result, the market is eventually flooded with a larger supply of the most common sets.
Buying chests in Dota 2 gives you a bad return on your “investment.” This makes them more like scratch lottery tickets. You might get something back, but it’s going to be a fraction of your initial investment.
Cosmetics are a fun part of Dota 2, but they’re not essential to gameplay.* Some players find them distracting (or they make potato computer more potato) and have a mod to have them all disabled by default. There have also been some unannounced changes to the amounts that their creators are paid, according to this article from March of 2017.
*It’s worth noting that you could only play Siltbreaker if you had a Battle Pass, so it was more like paid DLC. This was an unprecedented move.
Valve tempers some of the rage regarding microtransactions and the monetization of Dota by having some of the money go into tournament prize pools. That way, when players buy a Battle Pass, they are helping their favorite teams potentially win more money as well as increasing the prestige of the event. When we still had Compendiums, they were split 50/50: half the $9.99 went to Valve, and half went into the prize pool coffers of The International. The TI7 Battle Pass only paid 25% into the prize pool.
The reduction in prize pool percentage, the pay-to-play nature of Siltbreaker, and the [alleged] cut in Workshop creator pay seems ominous for the future of Dota 2’s microtransaction system.
Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not an accountant.
I don’t know how Valve’s finances work. Maybe their overhead costs have increased quite a bit and they need to take a bigger cut. Maybe The International is getting exponentially more expensive to host every year. I look at landslide stuff all day, not profit margins. Unfortunately, Valve’s changes over the last few years to the monetization structure of Dota 2 are starting to look more like a cash grab.
Gabe Newell used to seem like a guy that was a gamer who made games for gamers, if that makes sense. Kind of like how Jeff Bezos used to be a nonchalant bookseller and is now a billionaire mogul. As time goes on, it seems like players are getting more and more dissatisfied with how the workshop, chests, and Battle Passes work.
I’ve only opened up a few chests during my stint with Dota. I’m not big on cosmetics, and while I like collecting some things, digital items just don’t scratch that itch for me. But even I was allured by the $2.49 for “just one more chance” at the rarest drop. I opened up six or seven chests and got two decent sets out of it that I was able to sell later for about $6 each, and made back the money I spent. Between waiting for the marketability window to open and waiting for the market to stabilize and someone to pay at the price I had set, it took months.
Until those paid out, they were a sunk cost. Even still, that money is stuck on Steam—I can only use it to purchase additional Dota items or other Steam games. For a casual player like me, it’s really not very useful.
We should be thankful that Dota 2, at least at its core, is truly free-to-play. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question Valve for their increasingly corporation-oriented profit structures as well as questionable chest gambling systems.