PC Gamer

Erik Johnson

Erik worked as a QA tester for Sierra on the original Half-Life, and subsequently joined Valve to work as a shipping manager. According to his official bio, he's now one of the company's 'business development authorities'. That's not a job title, mind.

Earlier this month, during the International, I had a chance to sit down with Valve s Erik Johnson for half an hour to discuss Dota 2 s past, present, and future. In particular, I was keen to talk to Erik about Valve s approach to the community—the way it chooses to talk to, and not to talk to, the increasingly large group of people who make Dota 2 their hobby. I can t promise too many hot scoops from what follows—this is Valve we re talking about—but it should be of interest if you re curious about how Valve operate as a game developer and service provider. This is the philosophy that produces the stuff you love about Dota as well as the stuff that makes you angry. The two are not, it turns out, entirely separable.

PC Gamer: With regards to Reborn, how has the beta been going? When you rolled it out, the plan for launch was post-TI . Have there been any surprises? Has it progressed slower or faster than you expected, in terms of issues rolling in?

Erik Johnson: Not really. There s a bunch of cool custom games getting built which we kind of expected. We re happy with overall performance of the engine across a variety of hardware. Dota runs faster on higher-end machines, which is what you d hope would happen if you made a big technology investment, so yeah—we re happy with how things are moving.

PCG: Is there an ETA, for Reborn?

EJ: No ETA, but sooner rather than later. Once this tournament s over, that s the thing we re pushing hardest.

PCG: I thought it was interesting watching, from Manifold Paradox to New Bloom, how your approach to designing live events for the community changed [you can read more detailed thoughts about said events here, for what it's worth. - Ed] Manifold Paradox was controversial for being the first event that brought new mechanics inside the regular Dota game. New Bloom moved away from that. Was that a case of trying it and finding that it didn t work?

"We still feel that, fundamentally, our strongest form of communication is software."

EJ: Everything that we do like that, we re just poking at something specific to see how it works. We re not technically running a science experiment, but we have ideas—like what if there was an additional level alongside the things that are going on in everybody s day to day Dota matches . How do we fit that into the experience? How do we build new content around an event that exists for everyone, rather than being something separate? That was the impetus behind that. I believe it tied into Oracle—we like building stories and depth into those heroes and making that all make sense for people.

We got a bunch of good data from it and then we did a more traditional event around the Lunar New Year. But so much of our focus has been on getting Reborn up and running and that was something that we were doing without talking. It wasn t very out in the open for a long time. We weren t making huge investments publically in events as we have in years past because we were pretty invested in Source 2.

PCG: I remember a post written in the aftermath of the Diretide that didn t happen, that said this is how we re going to change how we communicate . There seems to be a little bit of tension in the way Valve communicates between that openness and the desire for those big reveal moments. There are times when it s a case of silence, silence, silence, silence, then suddenly something new. Does that all-or-nothing difference need to be smoothed out a little?

EJ: We still feel that, fundamentally, our strongest form of communication is software. You can discern everything we ve done and everything we re thinking by reading through an update. We think that there s some amount of value in just surprising the community with something you didn t think was coming and we wouldn t want to lose that. But we hear when people are saying that we do a poor job at communication and some of it s an artifact of the type of company that we are. I think sometimes it turns to what I feel is a place that s not super accurate, like Valve doesn t care . We care a huge amount about our users and our community.

PCG: There s an orthodoxy for community management among people who run online games. Valve is really different. There s no video person who s in front of people every day.

EJ: Exactly. I guess we just take a different approach. Instead of a community manager, the person that you re going to hear from at Valve is somebody who is working on the game every day. There s a currency of time that we re all investing into our products, and we could either be getting what looks like community management or we could be working on the next hero and it really is that kind of tradeoff.

In our heads we re constantly saying, fundamentally, what do I think I could add the most value to? But the question really is, what does the community want me to work on today? If we told everybody what we were doing, would they say oh, that s the right thing to work on ? That s how we re testing the decisions we re making. When an artist s saying 'I could make a blog post about what happened last week, or I could start sketching out what Pit Lord s going to look like' they say 'I think people just want me to make Pit Lord.'

PCG: There s a certain degree of trust on both sides there, right? You re trusting that you know what the community will respond best to, but you re also asking the community to trust that that s what you re doing. They don t have that information. There s no sense of even how big the Dota team is or what day-to-day looks like. That s the flipside. Do you think that you need to let people in a little bit more, or simply refresh that trust from time to time?

EJ: It comes up often enough that certainly it s something that we need to look at.

"We certainly don t want to come in and enforce our set of rules."

PCG: Something that seems to have not come up for a while is player behaviour. There was a bunch of different approaches to the report system and—must be more than a year ago now—some data about how it affected things. Is that something to return to post-Reborn? Because that s one of Dota s problems, as a piece of software—people. Is that something that should get more attention?

EJ: It s not something that currently bubbles up super high, at least in terms of what we see in terms of feedback. But there are people at Valve who look at that problem almost continuously.

PCG: For the platform as a whole? For Steam?

EJ: For Dota also. Matchmaking and behaviour in Dota have a pretty strong relationship. So the same people look at those problems all of the time.

PCG: We talked about community management in terms of PR, but it also concerns how the community talk to each other, the language they use—is that something you feel that you can wade into? It seems a point of tension with the notion that the community is always right. Sometimes they are calling each other names.

EJ: I think the community s reasonably good at policing itself when it comes to the type of language they use. We certainly don t want to come in and enforce our set of rules. If the community rallies around a certain set of things that they want to make happen then we re happy to write the code that makes that come true. We have access to a bunch of data that s useful for us in terms of measuring how those things are being done inside of the game, so maybe our view on it is a little bit... we think more accurate.

Surely people get angry and say bad words when they play games of Dota, especially when they lose, but as a whole, if you walk around this event…

PCG: ...people are nice in real life.

EJ: We fundamentally love our customers and our community. We re not really willing to go to the place where we feel that we need to make a bunch of decisions about the content they create for each other.

PCG: Related is the newcomer experience. It s something that you ve experimented with two years running at this event and in terms of the game itself. Dota s other big problem is its accessibility. How has your approach to that changed? You did the first spate of tutorials a year and a bit ago. You re doing new ones for Reborn. What was the thinking behind that?

EJ: It was a little bit of hey, let s go back and revisit this and tinker with it . Dota has a lot of users so its accessibility actually seems pretty great. People tend to play the game and keep playing it for a really long time. I think, fundamentally, people come into Dota 2 the same way they did with DotA 1—one of their friends is playing Dota and they want to play games together, and that s how they get into the game. But, especially around the International, we cast the net pretty wide because there could be a bunch of people who want to try it out and see if it s the thing for them. The training maps, that s their goal.

Same as the new player stream that happens with the event. The audience for that might be a bunch of people that just want to show, say, their parents. Clearly there s no strong business motive for Valve to get a bunch of parents to watch Dota when they re probably never going to play it, but there is a bunch of value in a bunch of fans feeling good about the product that they care so much about. Does that make sense?

PCG: That s an interesting angle. Speaking to you before, and speaking to others from Valve, I understand that you serve the audience that you have. But what if you want somebody else to join that audience, somebody who doesn t already have a channel into it?

EJ: As with any problem, you want to make it the simplest possible problem. Valve want people to play Dota. They re only going to do that if they re having fun. If they re not having fun they re going to go and do something else because entertainment time is hard to come by. We don t make our world super complicated— what region should we go into where we think a certain percentage of users would be playing Dota? What s the demographic of our users? We re like, how do we make a bunch of people happy . That s really all we re trying to do. With this event, it s how do we make the people who come here super happy . When people are playing Dota or using Steam or playing Counter-Strike: how can we make our existing customers super happy so they tell their friends, hey I m super happy come play this game with me .

"There s this pull towards a bunch of short-term good, long-term awful decisions."

PCG: Does that allow you to take a longer view? I was wondering if you d seen a lack of growth because of the lack of landmark updates during the time that Reborn has been in development. The rate of new hero additions has dropped off dramatically over the last couple of years, from 13 in 2013 to three last year, one so far this year. In other games those things are done specifically because it gets the game back out in front of people again. Do you feel the need to compete in that way?

EJ: We re still growing pretty well in terms of users. We were at eight and a half million users this time last year and we re at eleven and a half million this year. Again, like, it s data that tells us that we re pushing things forward but we re not driving at some magic number and we re not driving towards growth. I feel like—let s just keep making people happy and keeping them entertained, because that s a hard enough problem—to convince someone to spend some of their very limited entertainment time on a thing we built.

You asked if this is the long play on things? I hope so, because everything we do at Valve, that s how we try to approach it. We ve always felt like there s this pull towards a bunch of short-term good, long-term awful decisions that are just sitting there waiting for people take all the time. We re sad when we see other companies do that. As long as Valve s been around, our decision has been to just do the long-term thing. That s the company we want to come in to work at every day. Not some silly short-term decision being made.

PCG: Finally, Pit Lord. Question mark?

EJ: It d be awesome if Pit Lord was in the game. I don t actually know, though.

PCG: Fair enough. Valve things.

EJ: Looking forward to those five-man teleports, though.

Still hungry for Dota 2 hot takes? Check out Three Lane Highway.

PC Gamer

The ESL One Cologne Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament that wrapped up this weekend with an exciting win for Fnatic was the first event in which competitors were subject to randomized drug testing. And you'll never guess who was caught trying to cheat! Really, you won't, because I'm about to tell you: The answer is nobody.

A bundle of interesting figures came out of the Cologne event courtesy of ESL, including that it was the most-watched CS:GO event of all time. More than 27 million unique viewers spent a combined total of nearly 34 million hours watching the action on Twitch, including a a peak concurrent user count of over 1.3 million. That represents an increase of more than 30 percent over the ESL One Katowice CS:GO tournament in March.

"ESL One Cologne followed in the footsteps of ESL One Frankfurt in that it transformed a mere esports event into an esports festival," ESL said in a statement. "Visitors on-site were able to take part in many festival-like experiences including bullriding, testing their reflexes on a T-Wall, and getting an airbrush tattoo, brought to them by ESL s sponsors/partners."

That's all very positive news, but what I find more interesting is that the newly-implemented drug testing came up with nothing. "Following up on the earlier announcement of ESL s partnership with WADA and NADA to create and implement the anti-doping policy, NADA has prepared a prevention program which was presented to players and visitors during the event," it continued. "ESL conducted randomized anti-doping testing among players in the competition, which returned negative results for all tested players."

An ESL rep declined to say how many players were tested, citing the need to maintain confidentiality of its process. ESL said it will continue to implement the new drug testing policy at all future ESL One events.

PC Gamer
TRIGGERNOMETRY

We write about FPSes each week in Triggernometry, a mixture of tips, esports, and a celebration of virtual marksmanship.

Things were not going well for the best CS:GO team in the world. 

Yesterday on one of the biggest stages in esports, the grand finals of the ESL One Cologne major, Swedish superstars Fnatic were stumbling. $100,000 was on the line, and their opponent, Team EnVyUs (formerly Team LDLC), was crushing them on Dust2, the first map of a best-of-three. At this point in the match (and in the video above) EnVyUS led 14-7—they simply needed to win two more rounds to take the first map. Now, in the 22nd round, Fnatic had fragile control of bombsite B in a three-on-four situation. 

KRIMZ's work over the next minute may have saved Fnatic. He makes a strong entry frag through tunnel to secure the site, then takes a position behind car on bombsite B. He eats a pop flash thrown by the CTs, who are in the site before he recovers from the flash. Popping back up, KRIMZ chews through two of the attackers, going deep into his spray, adjusting beautifully from right to left. Now in a one-on-one, with nine bullets in his mag and his gun recoil jumping like an angry bull, he sees Happy emerge from window. Initially at a disadvantage, KRIMZ absorbs a hit before crouch-dodging behind cover to his right, squaring his crosshairs as he shifts to score a headshot onto the EnVyUs leader.

Three kills in three seconds, and zero bullets in his magazine by the end of it.

Fnatic would win eight of the next nine games to force overtime, win the OT (including one round with a hilarious quad AWP setup), and then win the second map, Cobblestone, comfortably at 16-7 to take the championship. Moments like this one demonstrate how much momentum plays a role in Counter-Strike.

PC Gamer

The Dota Major Championships were announced back in April, but details were sparse. Now that the "fall" event is closer, we've got more information, specifically that the first Major will take place in Europe in November. There'll be another tournament in winter and spring, and then the International next summer.

If you want to attend, you'll have to wait for further information on tickets, though the blog post from the Dota team says they'll be available soon.

If you want to enter the tournament you'll want the Open Qualifiers, which any team can enter and which will take place between October 6 and 9. Two teams from each region will then be invited to enter Regional Qualifiers, which will take place between October 10 and 13. Some teams from the Regional Qualifiers will then be invited to take part in the Major. Registration is here.

At each stage some teams will get invitations without having to qualify through the previous stage, and these will go out on October 5. If you think you're part of this category, then make sure you don't change your roster after September 5 or you'll have to enter the Open Qualifiers like everyone else.

PC Gamer

survey fridays

Every week we ask you to rank a series or just reminisce about PC games in a not-very-scientific survey. Look for the survey link in our  Twitter and Facebook feeds each week, and the results every Friday. Previously, we ranked the Mass Effect and Call of Duty series.

You guys really love hard games, or at least, you love whichever game you remember as the hardest. In my latest survey, I asked respondents to rank the hardest game they've played on a scale of 1-10. Over 40% scored their most challenging experience a 10, and 70% scored it an 8 or higher.

You also love a lot of different hard games, and have different ideas about what makes a game 'hard.' Among 2,660 respondents, the top game cited as the hardest they've ever played was only mentioned 385 times—around 14% of the total. (Actually, one person wrote in SEGA Bass Fishing 1,006 times, but I've cut that from the results, along with several variations of "your mom.")

What's the hardest PC game you've played?

the top 10

Click the icon in the upper right to enlarge.

Unsurprisingly, Dark Souls got the most mentions, with 14% saying it was the hardest game they've ever played. It was followed by Dark Souls 2, which took in about 5% of the results. From there, though, the results are immediately diverse, with shooters, platformers, puzzle games, strategy games, and MOBAs all bunched together. When I cut out jokes, console games, games with specific caveats, and those that received only one or two mentions, I was still left with over 70 games. (Here's my curated list of the top 77.)

The top 10, naturally, are the most popular hard games—and games that are arguably best known for being hard—so the results actually get more interesting the deeper into the list I go. At number 11, for instance, you'll find I Wanna Be The Boshy, a fan game based on number six, I Wanna Be The Guy, an intentionally difficult tribute to early platformers.

Further down (and I'm skipping around a bit), we find StarCraft II, STALKER, Insurgency, Alien IsolationKerbal Space Program, the Touhou seriesVVVVVV, Volgarr the Viking, SpaceChem, Dustforce, Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, and, of course, Bad Rats, a notoriously awful game which has accrued a positive rating on Steam, because ironic Steam reviews are all the rage.

It's good to see the Touhou Project's bullet-hell games earn some mentions. We recently published an introduction to the series, which is currently being localized by Playism.

VVVVVV, Volgarr the Viking, Dustforce, and SpaceChem all come recommended (I don't think I ever made it past Vogarr's first stage, though). I did expect to see a few more puzzle games. One game no one mentioned, I presume because it's newer and a bit more niche, is TIS-100. It's made by the creators of SpaceChem and Infinifactory, and might be one of the most challenging puzzle games I've played (though it's presumably easier for experienced programmers, and anyone who paid more attention in school than I did). Print out the manual if you can.

Choosing difficulty

difficulty levels

Click the icon in the upper-right to enlarge.

All of the games I mentioned up there can easily be described as 'hard,' if for different reasons. Against skilled opponents, CS:GO, Dota 2, League of Legends, and StarCraft 2 are very hard, and they're complex. Dwarf Fortress and Kerbal Space Program require a lot of learning. Super Hexagon, and the bullet-hell games and platformers, require precision control.

But plenty of games which aren't known for being hard can be very hard. The Witcher 2, for instance, came in at 19, in part due to its permadeath mode and first boss. Those damn RC missions from GTA: San Andreas also came up. Civilization V on Diety difficulty, too.

In the survey, I asked which difficulty setting (based on four generic settings) the takers were most likely to choose when starting a new game. The distribution is about as I expected: almost no one takes the easy route, the most people (39.8%) leave it on the normal difficulty, and slightly fewer choose the hard (28.7%) or the hardest modes (26%).

Broken mice and broken bones

When asked to tell us the worst thing they've done to express frustration with a game, plenty said that they don't react physically—they curse, uninstall the game, go outside, or do other healthy-sounding things. "[I] stopped playing for few months to get over my anger and hopefully renew my interest," said King_Matt. A calm and wise king is Matt. We can all learn from the great King_Matt.

And apparently, a lot of us need to. The word "broke" came up 222 times and "smash" was included in over 100 responses. Banana peels came up an awful lot, too. Here are a few examples:

I chucked my keyboard at my brick wall. It dragged the desktop with it. It corrupted my hard drive, broke my keyboard and most functions on the case didn't work properly. - Abernath

Thrown a banana peel out the window. But I picked it up later. - Kenu

I once got so frustrated while just trying to get fuel up to my ship [in Kerbal Space Program] that was trying to get to Mun that I decided to fly all my rockets into Kerbol (the sun). I spent about 5 hours just designing the booster/fuel ships to help get my whole fleet there and give them the last push into its blinding embrace. Once every single one was burned to ash, and all the crew with it, I deleted the save and went to bed. It was only after I woke up that I realized what I had done. To say the least, I cried. - Nerd__Guy

 Threw my lamp out the window. It was a damn good lamp too. - Anonymous

Literally ripped out a chunk of hair in frustration once. - Nate Dogg

I actually broke my grandfather's trackball mouse while playing when I was a kid on his PC. I had to buy him a new mouse from Walmart. - Brain

Threw more money at it. This is a recurring theme with me in multiplayer games. - Ryan Daniels

In my grandest fit of frustration, I suppressed my volatile feelings with the warm, cheesy comfort of Hot Pockets. A lot of them. It turns out one man can eat a lot of Hot Pockets. They come out a lot faster than they go in. - Chudbunkis

Threw a banana peel at the screen. - As7iX

Broke a finger. - Dodie

So is Dark Souls really that hard?

I predicted that Dark Souls would be the most popular game in the survey, so I added an extra question. I asked everyone, regardless of which game they put down as the hardest, to agree or disagree with the statement "Dark Souls isn't even that hard, ugh." I think we can all agree that I chose an extremely unscientific way to phrase the question, but we definitely can't all agree on whether or not Dark Souls is hard. 

PC Gamer

When I saw the release trailer for Half-Line Miami, I assumed it was a gag whipped up by somebody bored with the wait for Half-Life 3, or a set of skinned levels built in Hotline Miami's level editor. It is neither. Half-Line Miami is a free, fully playable mash-up of Hotline Miami and Half-Life 2, complete with the G-Man introduction, and it's really good.

The actual gameplay is straight out of Hotline Miami, but the maps, enemies, and sound effects are taken from Half-Life 2. And instead of the usual assortment of blunt objects and firearms, you're equipped with the gravity gun, which works exactly like it does in HL2: Pick something up—explosive barrels included—and then fire it at your enemies to turn them into pulp.

There are eight levels in all, one for each area in Half-Life 2. For players who are into the DIY thing, it comes with a level editor as well. The soundtrack by Sung is pretty fantastic too. And it's free!

"I made this game as a declaration of my love for these 2 games, and as an experiment in game design," creator Thomas Kole explained.

Grab it—trust me, it's worth your time—at Itch.io.

PC Gamer

This appeared last week according to the Dota 2 store date, but it's worth highlighting in case you missed it. Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon's animated TV comedy duo now have a Dota 2 voice pack. Rick and Morty banter, voiced by Roiland, replaces general announcements and megakill announcements and can be bought from the in-game store for $7.99. It was added to Steam for voting a couple of months ago with the above teaser video. The Mr Meeseeks courier has yet to receive enough support to make it into the main game. Poor li'l guy.

Couriers and cosmetics can struggle to pass Valve's art rules (which might be why Mr. Meeseeks hasn't made the cut). Voice packs are a really neat way of bringing bits of pop culture into Dota, though. What next, Bojack Horseman?

Ta, Gamespot.

PC Gamer
PC Gamer

Zombie Army Trilogy, the "cult horror shooter" set in the dying days of the Second World War, now features eight new playable characters who might seem a little familiar: Francis, Bill, Zoey, Louis, Coach, Nick, Rochelle, and Ellis, collectively known as the survivors of Valve's Left 4 Dead games.

"We're delighted to be able to bring such iconic characters to Zombie Army Trilogy," Rebellion Developments CEO Jason Kingsley said in a press release reported by Polygon. "As thrilling zombie shooters designed to be enjoyed with friends, Zombie Army Trilogy and Left 4 Dead share a lot of common ground."

And how, you may be wondering, did eight people who, with the possible exception of Bill, weren't even born when the war ended manage to find themselves fighting in it? That question is answered in a free 12-page digital comic entitled Wrong Place, Wrong Time, which you can pick up here. The Left 4 Dead update is a freebie, too.

Rebellion has also put Zombie Army Trilogy on sale for 66 percent off over the weekend, dropping it from $45 to $15 until August 24. Hit up Steam for the details.

PC Gamer

The 2015 edition of ESL One Cologne is now underway, with 16 top-ranked Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams battling in the Group Stage for entry into the quarterfinals. Four teams will make the move today, and another four will advance on Friday.

The teams in competition are divided into four groups: Group A features Team SoloMid, Ninjas in Pyjamas, Renegades, and Counter Logic Gaming; Group B contains Team EnVyUs, Luminosity Gaming, Team Kinguin, and FlipSid3 Tactics; Group C has Fnatic, Natus Vincere, Titan, and Team eBettle; and Group D boasts Virtus.Pro, mouseports, Cloud9, and Team Immunity. On Friday, the groups will be redrawn for eight more Decider/Elimination matches.

Right now the favored teams are perpetual champions Fnatic followed by Team SoloMid, a team formed in February that hasn't yet won a major.

ESL One Cologne is also interesting this year because, for the first time ever, ESL will conduct randomized drug testing during the competition. The move comes in response to a claim by former Cloud9 player Kory "Semphis" Friesen that he and his teammates were on Adderall at ESL One Katowice.

The real action will begin on Saturday, with the first quarter-final match scheduled to begin at 4:45 am EDT. Semi-final matches are slated for 5:45 and 9:10 am EDT on Sunday, followed by the big finish at 1 pm EDT the same day. Follow all the action at esl-one.com.

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