Feed Your Smeevil: Valve’s Ingenious Metagames

Dota 2 prizes and collectible cards, just two of the ways Valve is expanding its PC domination

Dota 2 prizes and collectible cards, just two of the ways Valve is expanding its PC domination

Valve’s transition from designing games to operating a massive content distribution platform and becoming an industry juggernaut is one of the most interesting stories in gaming.  While Valve has a strong track record of releasing polished, high quality games, that design savvy doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of meteoric success Valve has enjoyed with Steam.

So how did it happen?  Once you’ve ruled out black magic and infernal pacts, it becomes obvious that Valve has some very clever people on its payroll, and that’s never been more obvious than right now.  A full range of new meta-products are being rolled out on the world’s largest PC games platform that transform everything from making Steam purchases to spectating Dota 2 matches into a game experience.

The Compendium

With the opening of qualifiers for The International Dota 2 Championships, Valve announced it would be selling a companion piece, the “interactive compendium”, a virtual handbill for the event with a ton of functionality.  The marquee item for Dota 2 players is a unique courier, a pet-like creature that ferries items in-game between heroes and their base.  Called the smeevil, the courier evolves as players watch matches during the International, unlocking new custom appearance options and abilities.  The compendium doesn’t even require the matches to be spectated live: even watching replays contributes to the devilish little smeevil’s Pokemon-esque evolution. 


But that’s just the tip of the compendium iceberg.  Besides allowing players to predict the outcome of matches and participate in polls and other social content, the compendium has a feature familiar to any Kickstarter adherent, the Valve equivalent of stretch goals.  25% of each $9.99 compendium purchased contributes to a “prize pool” with thresholds that, when reached, unlock new content for the compendium.  Currently at over 2.1 million USD, the prize pool has already unlocked items like a custom HUD skin and more stages of evolution for the courier, with further stretch goals promising items and taunts.  The final goal, at 3.2 million, promises to allow compendium owners to select the next hero shipped in Dota 2. 

The final trick up the compendium’s sleeve is also a dangerous one for players heavily invested in the game’s rich marketplace of tradable weapons and cosmetic upgrades.  While observing matches, there’s a chance that virtual items will drop for the spectator and be added to their Dota 2 war chest.  That’s right, just by watching other people play Dota 2, players can earn new items for their heroes.

Games within Games within Games

Insidious?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Very much so.  On top of the revenue from the sale of the compendiums, by providing strong incentives to players to watch matches during the International tournament Valve can show astronomical viewing data to potential sponsors.  Valve doesn’t really care if you tune your PC to an International match and then go make lunch while your smeevil evolves; the numbers are still there.  And adding the familiar framework of stretch goals to the compendium’s arsenal ensures a certain zeitgeist, in which, ideally, players are encouraging their friends and online communities to also invest so that that next goal can be achieved. 

This all comes alongside the announcement of the Steam Trading Cards beta, a platform wide metasystem that lets players of specific games acquire cards that can be crafted into badges to display on your Steam profile.  Of course, Valve has wisely ensured that only half of the sets of cards for each game will drop for one player, driving a trading community and marketplace where cards are exchanged or sold. 

Crafting badges and completing other tasks also grants experience points that contribute to a Steam level.  Add in rare foil cards and foil card sets and the ability to upgrade badges by collecting multiple card sets, and you can practically see the glow through your monitor of obsessive collectors’ eyes lighting up.  Though the cards currently aren’t functional in any game or game environment, the trading cards FAQ hints that such things are possible, even likely, in the future. 

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” 

How does this benefit Valve?  Well, aside from encouraging gamers to spend more time on their platform, and get more engrossed with the Steam community, inevitably leading to more game sales and in-game purchases, the trading cards in free-to-play games like Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2 only drop based on purchases/purchase history.  For every nine dollars spent in one of those games, a single card will drop.  Naturally, a third of the games that currently support trading cares are free-to-play Valve games.

Even if none of these things appeal to you personally, or you find them a little distasteful, it’s easy to see how they would appeal to a large subset of gamers, and to appreciate Valve’s brilliant implementation of them.  Though we’re not particularly drawn to any of the things on offer, we don’t find them egregious, and it’s becoming ever more clear how Valve ascended to its current throne atop the world of PC gaming.

About the author

Alan Bradley

Getting played by video games since the '80s. Host of the Pictures Changing Podcast (pictureschanging.blogspot.com) and notorious raconteur.