Designers who say they are able to make a living selling outfits and skins for Dota 2 say they may need to get new gigs now that they’ve noticed an unannounced change to the game’s economy affecting their bank accounts.
In a post on the Dota 2 subreddit, a collective of anonymous artists alleged that Valve has not only been paying them less for items, but doing so without having properly notified them. We reached out to this collective, who agreed to discuss the issues on condition of anonymity because they fear Valve will retaliate against them. (We also reached out to Valve for comment, but did not receive a reply by publication time.)
Cosmetics are an attraction for any game, letting players customize their favorite character’s appearance for a small price. In Dota 2, custom content is a marketplace, where independent artists can create sets of cosmetics and sell them. Recent changes, however, have turned what was once a thriving economy into a hollow shell.
When an artist creates a set—a complete collection of cosmetics that gives a hero new pieces of armor or a shiny new weapon—it can be considered for inclusion in a chest, which players can purchase for a random chance at one of the sets inside at $2.49 a pop. Artists receive a 25 percent cut of the sales, split among the various contributors. Though workshop creators were hesitant to tell me what profits they’ve made from chests due to non-disclosure agreements, numbers from sales are high enough to earn a living wage. (From the workshop’s institution in 2011 to 2015, creators for Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2 earned a total of $57 million.)
That split changed after the fifth annual International in 2015, when Valve introduced a new system for artist compensation. Major Valve events are commonly highlighted by an additional out-of-game item, the modern version being the Battle Pass. Players can buy Battle Passes to access a host of in-game activities to complete for rewards, including a special series of chests filled with sets made by popular workshop artists. After The International 5, for the coming year of Majors and Battle Passes, Valve changed the artist cut for chests to 12.5 percent, while also giving them 12.5 percent of total Battle Pass sales.
According to the workshop artists, with the release of the 2016 Fall Battle Pass last year, Valve silently removed their 12.5 percent cut of Pass sales, while also adding more creators to the chest pool.
“If Valve sold zero chests but sold a million Battle Passes, everyone would be enjoying the work of artists, but artists would not see a single cent,” one artist said “Valve has essentially found a way to create two methods for people to buy the chests: one benefits both us and Valve, the other benefits only Valve.”
This change is just one in a long string of decisions that has left professional creators struggling to make a living. Chests are purchasable through the Battle Pass, allowing players to buy a pass and earn all these creators’ content for free without a single dime headed their way.
Pile on an ever-increasing standard of rarity, the lack of major chest releases outside Battle Passes, and an arms race for the shiniest item for each character, and the Dota 2 economy is in a sorry state. The artists recounted one International event where a surplus of immortal-rarity items—extremely valuable cosmetics that can change the way a character’s ability or animation looks—flooded the market. Now there are many heroes they can’t develop for anymore, because players would need something of equal-or-greater quality and rarity to ever think about purchasing one.
Take, for example, Lina’s plethora of items. She has a unique arcana for her head, an immortal for her chest, and several mystical-level cosmetics. These exact all kinds of changes in flashy, sometimes gaudy ways, and it’s a never-ending race to be the first artist with the flashiest item in a slot before it gets claimed by someone else, a zero-sum game of content creation.
“Once someone has an immortal, they’re not gonna unequip it,” said one artist. “That slot is dead,” another artist chimed in. “Axe? Never make a set for him. He has an immortal for pretty much every slot.”
Dota 2 carries the legacy of its predecessor as a game built on custom-made content. For a short period, professional artists were able to make a comfortable, living wage on their craft. Now, many are eyeing the exit signs.
“Personally, I’m switching to [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive], unless things improve for the better,” one artist tells us. There are a lot more skins attempting to breach the market in Counter-Strike—also a Valve product—but it doesn’t have the same issues with artificial rarity and provides reasons for players to purchase chests outside of aesthetics, making the market much more viable.
“I love [Dota 2] and I love its universe, its characters and all that,” said another. “But I have much less interest in trying to make a living as a 3D artist through its Steam workshop, unless Valve gets rid of their arbitrary greedy decisions, which basically give them more of a drop in their water. But to us, it’s the entire river.”