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Dota 2 Artist Spotlight: Don Don

Dota 2 Artist Spotlight: Don Don

Hi there, Don Don! How are you doing on this lovely Sunday afternoon?

 Hello, I'm doing fine. It's a nice, sunny day here, so I don't have any complaints.

 I'd gladly trade you - overcast and way too humid here. Before we begin, tell us a bit about yourself.

 I was born and raised in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. After graduating with an art degree at a local school, George Mason University, I was fortunate enough to land my first industry job as a Character Art intern for EA Mythic's Warhammer Online. Shortly afterwards, I moved to the Seattle area to work at Arenanet on Guild Wars 2.  Now I'm living in sunny California, working as a freelance character artist and occasional Dota 2 hat maker.

 Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but it's gotten tougher to keep up with as I've gotten older. There's always more artwork that needs to be made!

 I've always loved 2d artwork despite not being particularly good at it, so most of my personal art is trying to learn how to draw and paint using both traditional and digital means. For anyone interested, I update my blog periodically with my attempts at non-3d art: http://runswithpencils.tumblr.com

 What was it that got you into this line of work, making cosmetics for Dota 2?

 I've been freelancing for a little while now, and it isn’t always easy to find steady work. Oftentimes there's a lot of downtime between projects, and potentially making money off of Dota items seemed like a good way to spend my time when I didn't have any ongoing contracts.

don don wukong courier

Wukong - Monkey King Courier created by Don Don

 So, to rewind or backtrack a bit, when and how did you first hear about DotA (WCIII) and Dota 2?

 I don't remember when exactly it was, but I used to play a lot of WCIII, so I think my first exposure was when Dota All Stars came out.  All my friends left ladder to play it :P

 And Dota 2? Did you migrate over when the beta was announced?

 No, I didn't start playing it until I started making cosmetics, which was around February of last year.

 Kind of combining the previous two questions here - was there anything in particular that made you want to dive into the world of Dota 2 cosmetics? What made you start?

 I had originally planned on entering the Polycount Dota contest, but I was swamped with other projects and didn't get a chance to. Anuxi was probably my biggest motivator to finally start a few months afterwards though. I've known her for a while, and she seemed to really enjoy making cosmetics, so I figured it was worth a shot.

 Awesome! Shoutout to Anuxi; she does make beautiful sets. Let's move on to the Workshop itself. Regarding the Workshop, what are your thoughts on how it is handled? Any comments on that?

 It works surprisingly well, considering how chaotic of an environment it is.

 Would you mind going into a bit more detail on that? What makes it chaotic?

 Well, Valve kind of lets the community run itself.  For instance, Valve doesn't communicate where they would like to take the Workshop, but the community finds ways to push the direction of cosmetics, like adding more custom content to submissions. It's a bit of a free-for-all, but I think it works because it keeps everyone on their toes.

 Valuable insight there. Many people (myself included!) don't know what goes on "behind the scenes," so to speak. Back to the original question about the Workshop, do you think there is any room for improvement there?

 There isn't all that much that goes on behind the scenes, really. Due to the nature of the Workshop, I think most workshop artists are probably as much in the dark as everyone uninvolved is. With that said though, I do think a little more communication or direction would be nice. I feel unqualified to speak much about the organization or structure of the Workshop though, and I honestly don’t spend much time thinking about where or how to improve things.  Instead my mind is more often preoccupied with what I can more reliably control, which is the quality of my items.

 Fair enough. Let's dive in a bit deeper. With as hard as it used to be to get a set added into the game in the beginning, what are your thoughts with the sets that have been getting added into the game recently? Do you think all of them are deserving?

 It's still difficult to get items into the game. There are more and more people contributing, which means everyone's chances of getting in are becoming slimmer. Touchy subject, but no, I don't think all items that get in deserve to get in. But even if I don't agree with an item that has gone into the game, I can understand why they’ve been added. Ultimately, these items still read well from in-game, and they add both variety in visual, and expands the community of contributing members. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I understand the rationale behind it.

 I'm thinking about your previous reply about art standards in the workshop. How do you feel about them as a contributing artist? Are they dropping, improving? Any comments you'd like to make?

 To be honest, it's been fairly consistent. There are high points, and there are low points, but everything seems to even out in the end. As unrealistic as this sounds, I would personally like to see firmer quality standards implemented. This would offer some transparency on the approval process, and pave the way towards a more reliably consistent system that is questioned less often. It would also help reduce some of the negative feedback that happens every time a new batch of cosmetics hits the store. This does lead to a different problem where everyone has very different ideas on "quality,” and unfortunately I think “quality” is often confused for whether or not someone likes the item in question. I’ve seen well crafted and designed items described as low quality products simply because the viewer didn’t like it. There’s no way around this, and it only hammers home the idea that there is no perfect system, and it’s impossible to please everyone.

 Switching topics a bit here, what are your thoughts on evolving sets/items and sets/items with alternate forms already available?

 Call me biased, but I find the idea of evolving items to be a bit of a gimmick. I'm not a huge fan of alternate styles because I feel like the original design should be strong enough to stand on its own, but I would gladly take those over evolution stages. From the consumer's perspective, I don't have time to go through the leveling process, and as an artist, I would rather spend my time working on one good, solid set of items instead of watering it down for ease of evolution stages, or making several more, unique items.

 Thank you for that, good perspective. Sticking to the theme of asking for your opinions as a workshop artist, what are your opinions of tickets that come with a set, and do you think that Valve is or should be as strict on those sets as they are with normal workshop sets? There has, as I'm sure you've seen, been a bit of controversy surrounding this topic and some sets in particular.

 Unfortunately, most people, especially the organizers, undervalue how much bundled cosmetics bring to tickets. I think that's why you see less bundled cosmetics these days. Ticket items don't seem to be held to the same level of scrutiny as regular workshop items, but they definitely should be.

 Just one more here in the same vein. Many recent sets are becoming more and more elaborate with the custom particles, ability icons, and so forth added. How do you feel about this? Do you feel that these sets (created by the community) detract from Valve’s “Arcana” sets?

 I don't quite understand why changing everything  has become the norm, and admittedly, those things are what I care about the least. They aren't features that I would like to add to my own submissions, unless they make logical sense like....updating an ability icon that features a part of the hero, and you're just updating the icon to reflect the cosmetic. I do not want to go down the path of changing an icon just for the sake of changing it. They do seem to compete a bit with Valve's own arcana items, but I'm not one to pay much attention to item rarity.

 On that note, do you like how much creativity and freedom Valve is giving to artists regarding those changes (particles and ability icons)?

 Yeah, I do. Creative freedom is always welcome to me. I just hope those kinds of customization don't become a requirement.

 Very well. Let's switch gears a bit. I'm going to change the focus to be more on you specifically now. Starting out sweet and simple - who is your favorite hero, and what is your favorite set (added or currently in the workshop)?

 My favorite hero to play is Razor. Do you mean favorite set in general? Or favorite set I've made?

 For fun, how about you answer both? (:

 Favorite set in general is probably a toss up between Chemicalalia and Drysocket's Clockwerk or JeremyKlein and Ziedrich's Anti-Mage. Favorite set I've made...Most people are probably expecting me to say my Dragon’s Ascension set for Dragon Knight, but it’s the Ephemeral Haunt for Spectre.

ephemeral haunt spectre set

Don Don's Ephemeral Haunt set for Spectre

 Wonderful. Great work, all of you! Going on a slight tangent here, have you ever worked on anything else we may have seen (other games/projects), and have you ever done any collaborations with other artists?

 All of my studio game experience has been in the MMO space, so MMO fans may have seen some of my work for Warhammer Online and Guild Wars 2. That experience has come in handy while making Dota items since the idea behind sets and singles are basically the same thing.  I've freelanced for some mobile titles too, like Dungeon Hunter 4. For Dota collaborations, I've been working with my concept artist friend Ziedrich, and my friend Jenny takes care of any animation needs I have.

 Going back to Dota 2 here, how excited were you when your bundle of items was added into the game as a purchasable chest?

 Pretty excited! One of the best days of my life, for sure.

 And we're all so thankful for the countless hours you've put in to make those amazing sets. On that note, how long does it typically take for you to design a single item for a hero, like a weapon?

 Probably 3-4 days. A week if it's something more involved, like a mount.

 And how long does it typically take for you to design an entire set for a hero?

 Anywhere between 2-4 weeks. I’ve taken more than that on a few sets, but thankfully that hasn’t been the norm (yet).

 That's a lot of work! There must be a lot of patience involved. What is your process for creating a hero set like? How do you start?

 Normally I start with some chicken scratch sketches that only I can decipher. It's mostly so I get a rough design idea going. I then go into Zbrush and push and pull some shapes with my original sketch in mind, making changes and refining as I go along. At some point I'll take a screenshot and paint over it in Photoshop to clarify the design, and then it's back to finalizing the Zbrush model. Once that's done, I take everything to Maya so I can build the final in game model and test how everything looks in the game.

don don item collection3
 And how do you decide which hero you'd like to work on?

 For a while it was based on which heroes either didn't have any cosmetics available at all, or those that had very few. Now it's based more on which heroes I find most visually appealing.

 More and more heroes are finally being broken down so they, too, can get some love from artists like you. Who are you most excited to work on, including heroes who have yet to be broken down?

 I'd really like to make something for Visage, but I don't know when he'll be available. Hopefully not too far in the future :)

 Do you draw inspiration from anywhere specific for your creations?

 I look towards a lot of real world costume/armor, as well as other artists.

 Are there any artists in particular who have really struck you?

 My mind always blanks on this question. There are many, but one that comes to mind at the moment is character designer reWhy.

 Not a problem. We're reaching the conclusion of the interview now, so let's look ahead a bit. What do you feel the future holds for the Workshop?

 If current trends are any indication, I see more and more parts of the game being open to customization. One of the TI4 stretch goals had something to do with base customization, so I wouldn't be surprised to see that happen soon. Also, with the recent release of the Workshop Tools, I can see a demand for more thorough model changes to go along with custom maps. I'm curious to see if the Compendium and stretch goal concept featuring cosmetics gets pushed further, kind of like what ESL did. Maybe when the scene gets a little bigger?

 I certainly hope so - it's always fun to show off and have these numerous ways to customize your game (as far as eye candy goes)! What is the next project you plan to work on?

 I've been working on a Terrorblade set with Ziedrich. Hopefully it doesn't take too much longer for me to finish!

 THAT I am really excited to see. I won't press you for more details though - surprises are always best, right? Continuing on, where do you see yourself in five years?

 Hopefully I can maintain some sort of relevance in the Workshop, but who knows? Outside of Dota, I'd like to explore storytelling in my personal work. Nothing big, but I'd like to experiment with some short stories.

 Great aspirations, and we wish you all the best. Thank you SO much for your time, Don Don, both for this interview and for your incredible work. Any shoutouts or closing comments you’d like to make?

 Thanks so much for interviewing me! It's been an honor. And thanks to everyone who has ever purchased or even equipped any of my items. Your support is greatly appreciated, and I hope you like the content I create in the future as well. Lastly, a shoutout to all my friends and family who provide me with valuable feedback on my work, and thank you all for telling me when to stop torturing myself over minute changes!

Allison Panagis

Allison Panagis

Staff Writer

This fiery spirit is a reader, writer, gamer and lover. She talks way too much and she loves cats and dogs equally. Shh.

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