Dota Plus Assistant and the Pay to Win Nightmare

The Plus Assistant feature that launched this week as part of the new paid subscription service Dota Plus is causing a minor controversy in the Dota 2 community. This feature uses machine learning to churn through data from millions of real matches to recommend specific strategic choices to players in real time. These recommendations can include which hero to choose against a particular lineup, what skill to level up first, and which items to choose in game.

The Dota community is incredibly sensitive to purchases that can affect game balance, and with good reason. Dota is a free game that puts every player on level ground at the start of each match, with visual differences being the only way to differentiate who has spent money on the game. This is often cited as a significant difference in Dota’s main  competitor, Riot’s League of Legends. Riot locks playable characters behind a paywall, requiring players to invest significant money or time to unlock them all. A wide character selection gives an advantage to paying players with the luxury of more available options for countering their opponent’s choices.

This is a vastly different world from mobile free to play monetization. As someone familiar with the inner workings of intrusive mechanics like consumable boost items and gambling-based loot boxes, the Assistant’s robo-recommendations didn’t set off my hair-trigger “pay to win” alarms, but there are many in the Dota 2 community who think otherwise.

As always, there’s a relevant Xkcd

There’s a clear disconnect between what I imagine when I think of unfair paid advantages in the game and why the Dota 2 community is concerned about Assistant. Just for fun, I tried to envision a version of Dota 2 with the “pay to win” elements dialed up to the max…

Dota 2: P2W Nightmare Edition

Before each game, every player can equip consumable items (boosts) that give you in-game benefits. For example, a “Speed Boost” item that lets you start the game with higher movement speed on your hero. These items are gone after the game is completed.

Once per day, you have a free chance to earn boosts in a gambling-style minigame. The odds are heavily against you getting the best boosts, but there is no indication of how likely you are to get a boost. It looks like a slot machine or spinner. Using a game that exists in physical form with fair odds makes players think the result is truly random, but in reality you will win a weak boost 90% of the time, a decent boost 9.99% of the time, and a powerful boost 0.01% of the time. You can buy additional plays in this minigame with real money.

You can also buy in-game currency (soft currency) that allows you to purchase boosts from an in-game store. You can earn soft currency in other ways, but you’d have to grind forever to buy the most rare boosts. Prices in the store are set to appear more expensive than the price of playing the minigame to push people towards the more addictive and uncertain purchase option.

Setting prices in the store in soft currency instead of hard currency (real money) is a common F2P strategy because it makes people more willing to spend money, and it hides the real dollar value of items behind complicated exchange rates that can vary depending on sales and promotions.

Your Nightmare is here.

When you die in a game, you are at a “pain point”, meaning you are more susceptible to spending money. That’s why they show you a popup that offers you a chance to buy an in-game advantage with soft currency before you respawn.

People are also more susceptible to spending money when they’re at a high point in the game, so after winning a tough game you get a popup with limited-time sales offers that you will miss out on if you wait too long. Limited-time sales are more profitable than longer sales because it feels like you’re missing out if you don’t make a quick decision.

The end result of this is that whoever spends the most money on the game has actual in-game advantages, so whoever spends the most money wins. However, Valve claims that any boost in the game can be obtained for free, so everyone is on an even playing field.

In pro tournaments, pro teams all have infinite access to boosts. This is so that the game is fair at a pro level, and it also advertises the most expensive and powerful boosts to everyone watching the game.

Waking Up from the Nightmare

Now that I’ve communicated how unfair I imagine a “pay to win” version of Dota could be, I’ll answer a question often posed by the community: is Dota Plus a “pay to win” feature?

My answer is that I see Dota Plus as equally “pay to win” as hiring a coach to guide you while you’re playing. If my life depended on winning my next game of Dota and I had to choose between Dota Plus and having an experienced coach like Purge giving me suggestions while I played, I would trust Purge with my life, no question about it. I see these data-based suggestions as a robo-coach: they’re better than going in blind, they can teach you some new insights, and they are more convenient than getting the data externally, but they’re no replacement for even an average human coach.

So is it “pay to win”? Sure, to some very small extent. Are there other options for “pay to win” available for Dota players that are more effective? Absolutely, live coaching. So is it going to be a problem? No, because I know what P2W looks like when it’s really unfair.

To me, these questions are like asking “Does fish have mercury in it, and if so, is that a problem?” Sure, fish contain trace amounts of mercury, and it could be a problem if mercury levels in fish are significantly high. But for now, I’m going to keep eating fish and playing Dota and not worrying about it.

I believe the Dota community will make a fuss about this for a while, and individual players will blame their lack of Assistant when they lose, but I don’t think it will have a significant impact on the success of Dota Plus or the overall success of Dota 2.

I’ll be interested to follow up on player data in a few months to see what impact if any Dota Plus has on the player base. I don’t believe Dota Plus being viewed as “pay to win” by some fans is going to result in any significant decline, and if anything I expect to see higher year over year monthly player numbers with Dota Plus.

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