Dota 2 has become a way for some people to make a lot of money. There’s Valve, the developers behind the game. There’s the professional players, who’ve profited from the big eSports scene. However, there’s also a more surprising group that has benefitted from the game’s release. Meet the Dota 2 item creators.
Dota 2 is a free-to-play game. There’s no retail cost, and you could easily clock up 1000 hours played without spending a penny. This is a game funded entirely by microtransactions, but not of the pay-to-win variety. Instead, players can purchase items and clothing for their heroes.
In Dota 2, there’s around 100 heroes to choose from, each with a unique look and personality. Most of these can be kitted out with different costumes and weapons, meaning there’s a huge variety of combinations and possibilities.
A lot of these cosmetic items have been made in-house by Valve. However, through the use of the Steam Workshop, amateur and professional artists alike are free to submit their work. If the created items make it through the (admittedly tough) submission process, decided by both the playerbase and Valve, then the artist’s work will be put up on the store. The artist will then get a cut for every item sold.
It’s a great idea, allowing the artist to have direct interaction with the playerbase, as well as a huge platform to showcase and sell their work. It works financially too. According to Gabe Newell, some artists are making over $500,000 a year.
I spoke with Anuxinamoon, one of the most popular Dota 2 item creators. Regarding the long-term profitability of item creation, she claims that ”you can’t expect to make a good living off one set, but if you keep making items and getting them into the store, you can definitely sustain yourself on this work alone. I do this full time so I am able to sustain myself as long as I keep making items“. As much as any other job, Dota 2 item creation still requires hard work and dedication.
There’s also no guarantee that your item will be accepted. Many artists have reported spending months waiting to see whether their set will be implemented, only to be faced with disappointment. In fact, there have been items removed even after acceptance. Of these, Ursa’s ‘Alpine Stalker’ set is probably the most infamous. Fans believed the set didn’t fit in with the lore of Dota 2, so Valve pulled it from the store. Now, the set has ‘immortal’ rarity, and is worth a fairly large sum for those that bought it before the removal.
Beyond just the lore, there are other restrictions that Valve place upon Dota 2 items. For example, sets cannot render a hero unrecognisable from the original. No matter how cool an outfit may look, if it makes the hero look like something else entirely then it has no place in the game. I asked Anuxinamoon what she thought about the guidelines, and how it affected her work as an artist.
“Restrictions definitely breed creativity. It’s also a great platform for people learning how to do some serious game art as it has a set style and theme. If someone can adhere to the style and theme of a character while making something unique and interesting, it’s a great achievement and great learning experience for real life game dev.” Anuxina went on to discuss her thought process when designing a set, saying “I always like to try to push the boundaries a bit, which seems to ruffle some conservative feathers. The thought process is a mixture of a clear, striking silhouette, clean lines and good flow. But also to be able to tell a different story about the hero. Then it’s just hold onto your hats ’cause I have no idea how it will turn out!“
So there’s the vocal community to deal with, harsh guidelines by Valve, and no guarantee that your items will ever hit the store. However, the allure of “$500,000 a year” isn’t something easily overlooked, and the idea of designing stuff for your favourite game is an exciting prospect. Anuxinamoon gave me some sound advice for anyone hoping to break into the Dota 2 item-making industry:
“Get off your ass and start! Just make stuff and suck at first. But as you make more things you learn a bit more and apply a bit more knowledge. As long as you finish stuff and not give up half way on a project you will always improve. There are loads of free and paid help on the Internet for learning just about anything. And when that fails, community forums like polycount.com and eat3d.com are always great places to ask questions.“