How 5 Chinese devs built Dota Auto Chess, the hottest new game inside Dota

© Drodo Studio
Written by Mike Stubbs
Dota Auto Chess is the most exciting Dota custom game made to date – its developers finally speak out on their experience and how they crafted it.
In early January, as the Western world was slowly getting back to normal after the holiday season, people in the Dota world started to talk about a hot new custom game dubbed Dota Auto Chess. Before we even got wind of it, the custom game had become massively popular in China, with tens of thousands of players battling it out and thrusting it up the charts to make it the most popular custom game made inside Dota 2.
A tweet thread from Team Secret manager Matthew 'Cyborgmatt' Bailey in early January was what introduced Auto Chess to a lot of Western fans. At that time, the game had 100,000 concurrent players and over 672,000 subscribed players, but soon the numbers would explode even further. Even at these figures, some media outlets questioned if this was a bug in the system, as few custom games – especially ones that seemingly came out of nowhere – had managed to put up numbers like this.
Now just a few months on, Dota Auto Chess has over five million subscribed players, and usually has more concurrent players than major titles such as Grand Theft Auto V or Rainbow Six Siege. It’s an unquestioned success, with tournaments already being organised by some of the biggest tournament organisers in the world, and streamers bringing in tens of thousands of viewers.
But despite all of the success the five person development team, Drodo Studio, have remained fairly quiet, on why they created this crazy new game inside of Dota, and what they’re aiming to do now they have one of the most successful games of the past year on their hands. Until now.
“When we become older, we find it was very hard to play Dota 2,” says one of the Dota Auto Chess developers, known only as Toto, from Drodo Studio. “So we decided to make a game without complex operating so it can make elder players [come] back to the Dota community.”
That’s certainly a surprising reason that lead to Auto Chess’ creation, but when you think about it, this does make sense. Dota is a game that requires hundreds of button presses per minute, even at the lower levels, as well as quick thinking and decision making. It’s certainly not massively difficult to play Dota, but it can be stressful and exhausting. Auto Chess on the other hand takes a lot of cool things from Dota, and turns it into a game that you can play with just the mouse, and just a few clicks per minute. Compared to frantic stress of playing Dota, Auto Chess can feel like relaxing on a beach.
Auto Chess is difficult to explain without the aid of visuals – it’s not quite as simple comparing it to chess, either – but at the most simple level eight players fight it out in multiple rounds of one vs. one battles. You use gold that you acquire in battles to buy new heroes, and before each battle you place a team of your heroes onto the battlefield. Once the battle starts the heroes you place down auto fight against your opponent’s heroes, and eventually one side wins. If you lose, your character loses small amounts of health, and once your heroes are fully drained of their health, you’re out of the match. The last one standing wins.
It’s a relatively simple idea, but just like Dota, it features a ton of complexity that gives it a very high skill ceiling. The best players in the world know the ideal combinations of heroes to use and exactly where to position them on the battlefield for each round, but what makes it really entertaining is how once each round starts, things are out of your control. You have to hope your strategy is the best – and that can be nerve racking in close battles.
A screenshot of Dota Auto Chess in action
Battles in Auto Chess can get very tense
With all this complexity in Dota Auto Chess, it’s clear that a lot of work went into this. It may be a custom game within Dota, which of course takes away a lot of development tasks as the engine and art assets are already in Dota and are available to be used, but to put this all together, and get it to the relatively polished state it’s in – including a ranking system and cosmetics – is quite the achievement.
“We had five people [who] worked on it for about two years,” says Toto. “Since this is our third game, technically it was not so hard. We only have five people in our studio, so making a standalone game is very hard for us. But as a Dota custom game, we don't need consider things like mode, hero skills, marketing.”
With two years of development time there was some pressure to make sure that Auto Chess was a success, otherwise that would have been a lot of wasted time. But of course no one could envision the kind of success that – of all things – the custom game has enjoyed. Over five million players to date is a ridiculous number, and one that some of the biggest franchises in the world struggle to hit.
“We originally believed it would popular in the Dota community, but not as popular as right now,” says Toto. “We started this game from enthusiasm. So honestly, we don't have any budget for marketing or advertising. Now we are really enjoying this success. The only issue is that we must work much more than before!”
The success has allowed the team to start making some money from Auto Chess. They sell in-game ‘candy’ that can be used to unlock new cosmetics for your character – all of the cosmetics are skins that are already available in Dota. However, at the time of writing the only way for the team to sell candy is externally on auction sites. Some custom games have in-game microtransactions, but despite the success of Auto Chess, Valve is yet to allow them to sell currency in the Dota 2 client. The team hopes they’ll be given this chance soon, but they say they have no control over it.
As you might expect, with so many players and a bit of money coming in – despite the difficulty they have of actually selling in-game currency – many big companies are sniffing around the Auto Chess scene. Reports have surfaced that Valve may be interested in bringing the team into their company; Tencent have asked their users in surveys about potential Auto Chess clones; and multiple companies in China are supposedly trying to claim trademarks around Auto Chess. However, none of this seems to be phasing the team, as they are very clear on what they are prepared to do when the big names eventually come knocking.
“We won't [sell Auto Chess],” says Toto. “We can consider co-working with a large company, but at the least, we must remain a member of develop team.”
That certainly still leaves the doors open to a potential acquisition from Valve, as they have a history of bringing in mod creators and letting them build their own thing inside of Valve. Counter-Strike and even Dota itself springs to mind, however, it seems unlikely that the team is prepared to cash out on Auto Chess – instead, they’re making it clear that they have plans for the future, such as possibly turning it into a standalone game, and will continue to work on it for some time.
Auto Chess has already proved to be more than just a flash in the pan, but with a development team that is clearly committed to sticking with it, and a community that is already building a competitive scene, there’s a chance that Auto Chess could be around for years to come. Stay tuned.