I’ve often defended the kind of consensus driven aspect of game development. To me it simply follows that making a game for a large audience is a job best suited for a highly skilled team. A group effort allows for multiple perspectives to be validated within a single work and will generally broaden its appeal and make it a more relevant/significant piece of art. ”But Mike! Assassin’s Creed has broad appeal and its story reads like Dan Brown fan fiction! How is it a significant work in the video game medium?” I’ll tell you how: it reflects the society it was produced in. This isn’t to say that marketing departments have no say in the success of a game, it’s just that in this day and age, there are many more avenues through which an independent studio can disseminate their work. Every once in awhile though, we are treated the unfiltered vision of a single game designer.
So you’ve probably heard of a man by the name of IceFrog. He was the anonymous developer who took control of the original DOTA Allstars after Steve ‘Guinsoo’ Feak left to form Riot Games. For the past seven years, he’s been the sole content developer for DOTA Allstars and its well optimized cousin Dota 2. Any and all decisions regarding balance, new content, and overall design are funneled through him. Now if you’ve never heard of IceFrog or DOTA, this probably sounds like a recipe for disaster. I mean just imagine if someone like Peter Molyneux or Hideo Kojima was never reigned in by a team of developers occasionally. You’d be left with a self-indulgent mess of a game that’s all concept and no execution. A development team along with marketing experts and focus groups can help pull off the blinders and get designers to look at their labors of love a bit more objectively. Yet somehow IceFrog makes it work all by himself.
Okay, so IceFrog had one hell of a starter kit. He took the reigns of DOTA Allstars (with a little help from Neichus) after the release of version 6.01 when the game was already well on its way to its current state. IceFrog though, has done far more than simply patch the game. The amount of heroes and items he alone has added to the game dwarfs the rosters of most other MOBA’s. This isn’t even counting the numerous remakes of Guinsoo and Eul’s heroes. The same goes for the items and gameplay systems. On top of that, he’s done a good job of balancing one of the most complicated yet popular games in the history of the medium. This alone was enough to get the attention of Valve (or as one 3D artist at the IGDA described them: game developer Valhalla) and sign him on for an independent DOTA remake titled Dota 2.
I can’t stress the complexity of the game enough either. To get a sense of how daunting the process of balancing DOTA is, you have to understand the basics of game balance. One of the easiest ways to balance multiplayer is creating some form of symmetry. Everyone in Call of Duty starts on the same playing field and most of the balance in the game comes from the twitchy nature of the game. There are different weapons and loadouts but for the most part, any build can be trumped by good reaction times. When any level of asymmetry is introduced, balance becomes a much bigger headache. With Starcraft, you have an entire team devoted to balance and they’re still refining the game. IceFrog has managed to balance DOTA not in spite of having a development team but because he doesn’t have a team. People have invested a great deal of time into DOTA because of the joy of mastering such a complex system. Almost any instance of imbalance can be made up for with player/team skill. While having a team of developers can help make a game more approachable, IceFrog clearly never wanted that for DOTA. The game already had a decent niche at the time he took over and not having someone to answer to in terms of a release schedule or player concerns allowed the game to develop naturally alongside the community’s meta game.
This isn’t to say the man is without his critics. You don’t even have to play DOTA to know that it holds one of the most vitriolic communities on the entire internet and you would be foolish to think that some of that hate didn’t spill on to the game’s creator. With nearly 2 million people playing a game with an extremely steep learning curve, no tutorial, and little in the way of matchmaking, it’s no wonder that people can be a bit on edge. DOTA is a game where a single player can ruin an hour long match if he doesn’t know what he’s doing and the fragility of such a great time investment is one of main reasons DOTA can seem hostile to new players.
For those select players that still find the time to complain about the work that IceFrog has put into DOTA, I wish to remind them of another great solo developer: Tarn Adams, the creator of Dwarf Fortress. Like DOTA, it’s a game of mind-boggling intricacy with an insane skill curve. With every update Adams seems to be further detailing the brilliant corner of gaming he’s carved out. The strength of Dwarf Fortress and DOTA is that while the community has a great deal of input, they are ultimately the products of a single designer’s vision. Like the personal works of great solo musicians, these are games that show that an individual can express himself to society instead of simply holding a mirror to it. Where many game designers and artists seek to embody their medium of choice, these individuals seek to shape them.