Game Dota2 Court documents reveal parts of the untold history of DotA

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The history of DotA’s development is confusing and mostly hidden away in private chats, but thanks to testimonies given in a court case, some of DotA’s secret history may finally be coming to light.

Valve and Blizzard are currently suing uCool inc. and Lilith Games, two game developers that have released mobile games that Valve and Blizzard allege plagiarize elements of Dota, Warcraft III and World of Warcraft. In response, the defendants’ lawyers argued that Valve doesn’t necessarily own the copyright to DotA, and in order to answer that question, both parties needed testimony from DotA’s forefathers. theScore esports has read through depositions from several key DotA developers, and when put together, they provide a fascinating look into how DotA was built.

The judge’s order denying summary judgement mentions that the court heard depositions from Kyle “Eul” Sommer, the creator of DotA, Stephen “Guinsoo” Phreak, who made DotA Allstars, his contributors, Stephen “Neichus” Moss, Derek “Terrorblaze” Baker and Abdul “Icefrog” Ismail, who took over DotA after Guinsoo and is the lead designer on Dota 2. theScore esports was only able to obtain portions of Neichus’ and Terrorblaze’s depositions, as well as a partially redacted deposition from an unnamed developer who took over development of Dota 2 after Guinsoo and Neichus, was the “author” of DotA Allstars between 6.02 and 6.83 and joined Valve in 2009.

According to that unnamed developer’s deposition, they have regularly deleted or destroyed emails, chat logs and any other communications they had about DotA and Dota 2 since 2014, which would leave most of the later history of DotA lost to the recycling bin. Luckily, this developer, Neichus and Terrorblaze were able to provide plenty of info about how DotA heroes were designed after Guinsoo’s departure.

Neichus said that he got his start like most people who worked on DotA in the early days — he just happened to post a few ideas on the forums that Guinsoo noticed and liked. Over time, his ideas were accepted more readily, and he was put in contact with Guinsoo.

“I do not recall if I was given an immediate acknowledgement or — my understanding while on the forums was that we would be excited to have our ideas used,” Neichus said in his deposition. “So it would not — it would not have upset me if my idea were to show up without having my permission asked, because it was more an honor to have it go in there than the idea that they were being taken from you.”

Neichus said that he originally created Morphling using WarCraft III’s World Editor, and the hero eventually made his way into the game, though Neichus wasn’t notified until he actually saw Morphling show up in a version of DotA. Once he had Guinsoo’s ear though, he was able to pitch ideas directly. Neichus said it was more like a friend telling an idea to another friend instead of an employee pitching something to their boss, and both he and Terroblaze were throwing around ideas at the same time.

Terrorblaze testified that he did significant design work on a decent chunk of classic heroes, including Tidehunter, Spirit Breaker, Enigma, Obsidian Destroyer (now known as Outworld Devourer), Alchemist, Dark Seer, Clockwork Goblin (now Clockwerk) and Witch Doctor. But many of those heroes came about just as Icefrog was taking over development and changing the way DotA was built.

Neichus said he quit his post as lead developer of DotA just a few months after taking it on, partially because of burnout, partially because DotA’s increasing popularity made working on it feel less and less like a hobby. He worked several hours a day on the game under Guinsoo, and had more work to do when Guinsoo left the project. After Neichus left, Icefrog took over the game, and Terrorblaze said he provided a totally new take on how the game was put together.

“Icefrog was more like an actual lead developer as far as how he managed the — not only Clan TDA and how it provided feedback on the map, he — he — to my experience, he segmented things out more effectively. So people always knew what they needed to do at any given time, instead of people being left up to their own devices all the time and just being called on when needed. You always knew what you were supposed to do at any given time if you were online and something needed to happen.”

It might seem surprising that there wasn’t any structure like that before hand, but a lot of these developers were in high school or college at the time, according to the depositions, and few had experience as project managers. On top of that, Icefrog wasn’t brought on because of his management skills, instead, Neichus noticed him because he was a “superior programmer” who was able to fix a lot of glitches very quickly. DotA was still collaborative under Icefrog, but it was less opaque. You weren’t giving suggestions to Guinsoo, you were part of a team that operated together.

Unfortunately, a lot of the design documents from that period are lost. It wasn’t just the unnamed developer who deleted their emails and chat logs, Terrorblaze mentioned that he didn’t save things like the Microsoft Word document he used to plan out Abaddon’s abilities. The unnamed developer says they got a request from Valve’s lawyers in April 2016 to stop deleting documents they didn’t think they would need anymore, but by then it was too late.

What we have left are these testimonies, which paint a picture of a game that was essentially under lockdown while it was being developed by Eul that was opened up to the community by Guinsoo, which Icefrog eventually harnessed and made into a real development team that turned DotA into one of the most important games ever made. While most of the testimony is redacted, the case is still ongoing, and could provide more opportunities to learn about the history of DotA.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.


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