It’s Friday, January 4. A new custom-made game joins a seemingly endless list of ‘Arcade’ games in the Dota 2 client, most of which are just , ‘play once for the sake of it’ mods. Not this new one, though. After months of development Studio, a Chinese publisher made up of just a handful of people, is ready to publish their take on combat in the Dota universe: Auto Chess.
Skip forward three months, and what once was seen as just a mod has grown into quite the phenomenon. A few days ago, Auto Chess crossed 7 million installations - viewed in the Steam Workshop as ‘subscribers’ - averaging growth of over 80,000 players per day. Streamers picked up the game quickly too, to the point that Twitch even made it its own category. With a strong, growing community behind and a recent partnership to develop a mobile game, everything seems to be going Drodo Studio’s way.
We got to ask the CEO and founder of the company, Chao “Toto” Sun, a man who has donned a cloack of mystery, a couple of questions about Auto Chess, its popularity and what the future holds for it.
Even to Sun, the numbers supporting Auto Chess are somewhat unexpected: “Originally, we just thought it would popular among Dota 2 players. But now we even have a lot of players from other games.” Indeed, the game’s relatively calm pace with quite a bit of downtime, combined with multiple layers of strategy, has attracted gamers from various other titles. From Dota 2 to Hearthstone to even CS pros - many have succumbed to Auto Chess’ unresistable, charming atmosphere and high replayability.
Part of Auto Chess’ success as a title on Twitch is the high amount of patches Drodo Studio keeps pumping out at regular intervals. Heroes are balanced or even completely overhauled, and every now and then new heroes and items join the roster. Just last week Zeus and Mars were introduced, adding the ‘God’ race to the list. “Normally we add 2-3 heroes in each time. We don’t have a fixed schedule that how often to do that,” Sun says. “The process of adding new heroes includes brainstorming, designing and testing.” If at any point a problem arises, a hero is put on hold longer.
But how long does it take to develop such a hero in general? According to Sun, that can wildly differ: “From a few weeks to a few months. Some of were under [construction] before we released this game. But some of them became new ideas after we released the game, like Mars.” No matter which hero is being developed at any given time, though, Sun sticks to the ambitious plan Drodo Studio has openly shared from the beginning of Auto Chess’ rise to glory: “We hope we can add all Dota 2 heroes to this game.”
It’s a bold plan. Auto Chess revolves around maximizing the odds to finding the right pieces, leveling up heroes and figuring out the best synergies to defeat your opponents. With an oversaturated chess piece pool, these combinations are going to take ages to find. As of now, with just over sixty heroes available, games of Auto Chess easily stretch beyond 40 minutes of playtime already. Dota 2 has a whopping 117 heroes in total - almost double of what Auto Chess has incorporated so far.
Should Drodo Studio really want to incorporate that full roster, some measures are gonna have to be taken in order to avoid games that take an hour and a half to complete. Sun is well aware of that: “As you see, we removed 3 least popular heroes from chess pool [Riki, Sand King and Slark, red.] in the recent update. Besides that, we have a few other ways which we will use in the future to make the game balanced.”
How exactly this will be done remains a mystery for now. Perhaps the roster can be split in two at some point, and let players have access to either roster A or roster B in a game. It could even be taken one step further, if the roster is split in four and any 2 parts are picked at random, making six different possible roster combinations.
If the common saying is true, and idea theft should be seen as a form of flattery, Drodo Studio is soaking up compliments left and right. Already Auto Chess has spawned many a copycat - and not just other mods in Dota 2’s Arcade mode. Multiple China companies (including giant Tencent) are filing for ‘Auto Chess’ trademarks. On the video game market, a range from poor to reasonably well-developed clones have begun spreading. Facing this development Drodo Studio acted swiftly, and partnered up with mobile games developer Dragonest to stay ahead of the competition and continue expanding its checkered empire. With Dragonest, a mobile version of Auto Chess is being built. There’s a catch: Dota 2’s characters will be replaced by Dragonest’s lookalikes.
Why Dragonest though? Surely, bigger companies were interested in a new game that’s creeping up on the market. For Sun, the choice was pretty simpleDragonest was one of the first companies to contact us,” he says, also noting that Dragonest’s plans for Auto Chess looked promising to Drodo’s team “The communication [with Dragonest] was really good.” Interestingly enough, Sun says that the team hasn’t noticed too many changes in Auto Chess’ development since Drodo’s partnership with Dragonest: “We are still focused on developing the game itself. Dragonest is responsible for technical support and publication. ImbaTV is responsible for esports.”
The most important absentee in this story seems to be Valve. The company has built its legacy on mods created by players - the Counter-Strike series, Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 all started off as community-made games. Surely Auto Chess, in a way a mod to mod, suits them beyond the currently provided in-game promotion and dedicated servers, right? Furthermore, how will the side-by-side development of Auto Chess as a Dota 2 in-client mod and the Dragonest mobile game work? “Dota 2 characters are owned by Valve. We fully respect that. We can not use them, [unless] we work together with Valve.” But Sun doesn’t open up about a potential partnership for launching a standalone desktop : “Both Valve and us are care about players’ feedback. So, the goal for us is to make the game better.”
When a game is still a mod, however, the list of possible improvements tends to be quite long. There is one thing that tops most players’ list though: the queue times. While Team Liquid’s ‘qihl’ Discord server has made matchmaking a far less stressful event, in-game queues can take frustratingly long. As Dota 2 content creator Purge points out in the hilarious video above, there are many unnecessary hurdles before one can enjoy a game of Auto Chess. Of course, Sun is blind nor deaf to this. When asked which issue Auto Chess has he’d like to fix with a snap of his fingers, he says: “More and more players are pouring into this game. Sometimes they need to wait a long time to start a game. This is the issue we want to fix right now.”
When looking at the numbers, it seems surreal that Auto Chess has only been out for three months. Where it will end, no one knows. But from the looks of it, Drodo Studio might have created one of the most influential mods of the last years.