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HoN, LoL, push mid, gank top. If that all sounds like gibberish to you, then you’ve never played a multiplayer online battle arena. Even though these MOBAs trace their origins to a custom map for Warcraft III that let two teams of five heroes attempt to destroy each other’s bases, games like League of Legends and Dota 2 have helped make this one of the fastest growing genres in gaming.
One of the more popular MOBAs is Heroes of Newerth, a PC game launched in 2010 by developer and publisher S2 Games. While a success in its own right, HoN never took off the way its biggest competitors did, but S2 is hardly ready to concede defeat.
GamesBeat talked to S2 Games founder Marc DeForest, who detailed the upcoming changes coming to Heroes of Newerth in early 2013 (known as HoN 3.0), including the addition of computer-controller bots. We also talk about the growth of the MOBA genre, the notoriously newbie-unfriendly community, and the challenges of differentiating HoN from its competitors.
GamesBeat: MOBAs have seen a lot of growth.
Marc DeForest: We’ve been pretty successful ourselves. I know that just in this year alone we’ve seen about 50% increase in our player base. We’ve had solid growth in North America, but we’re actually seeing most of our growth come from southeast Asia. I think our partners there said we’re the number one online game played in Thailand, which is a pretty exciting stat to have. Our partner in southeast Asia, we just signed a deal with them to launch HoN in Taiwan and China as well. The size of our company has doubled this year in terms of personnel. We’re close to 100 people. I just signed a lease on a new office this year which over doubles our current square footage to make room for additional growth. We’re not stopping with what we’re doing with HoN. We’re going to continue to operate it as a service. We’re going to continue to invest in it. We’re going to continue to invest in the company. We’ve got some other tricks up our sleeve, and we’ve got some other things we’ve been working on, which is pretty exciting. We’re almost three years old now and still extremely popular and still growing. I think that’s a testament to not just how good of a game HoN is as it is to the stickiness of this genre.
One of the things we have not spent enough time focusing on is the capability of learning how to play the game better before you play it online. Early next year we’re going to launch HoN 3.0. It’s an extremely solid update. We’ve spent a lot of time working on it. We’ve invested a seven-figure budget just into this update alone. One of the things we’re going to focus on is putting bots in the game. We’ve spent a lot of time making sure our bots feel like real players and not be so challenging that it is exactly the same as playing real players. Also, we’re focusing on easing players into playing their first bot game and teaching them the mechanics of the game in an easier fashion.
We have a thing in the office where if anyone calls it a tutorial then they have to get their hand slapped with a ruler, because it is not a tutorial. It’s not boring, but it is a good new-player walkthrough that will help transition someone, whether they’ve not played a game like this at all or they’ve been a long time LoL player and they’d like to try and play HoN.
But we knew we couldn’t just cater to all of those new players. 30 of the original (character) models, this being a three-year-old game, are getting refreshed artwork to a higher quality. Of course, we just call them HD versions of the models, but they look significantly better. And the map is getting a complete overhaul. The buildings, the towers, the wells, and the textures throughout the entire map are going to be changed, and it looks fantastic. I think people are going to be impressed. We’ve redone the in-game chat to make it better and streamlined it. We’ve redone the buddy list and notifications. So, you know, we’ve taken the time to take feedback from the community, to look at the things that we think we can do better, put those together, sit down, come up with a plan, execute on making the UI (user interface) better, making some of the art better, adding some new features, putting in bots.
We’ve had a lot of people who are like, “I’d love to just be able and sit down with me and four bots against five bots, me and two buddies with two bots against five bots, or I can get in a match and queue up with four other people I may not know and play against bots. It’s a totally different experience. And they’re pretty impressive. That’s the key. You don’t want to look at a bot and say, “I can tell you’re being controlled by a computer. You’re doing real asinine things.” They’re actually intelligent.
GamesBeat: The best thing with this is that one person can essentially play the game by himself and learn a new character or just learn the game in general. Especially when you’re new and trying to learn what a MOBA is.
DeForest: Yeah, and it’s an incredibly stressful time, and if you encounter the wrong type of players that exist you’re going to get punished, you’re not going to enjoy yourself, and you’re going to blame it on the game. You know, it is our responsibility as developers to make the transition for somebody who doesn’t really know much about the game to becoming somebody who can be great at the game. Self-admittedly, we looked at that and we didn’t do a good job of it. We’re always looking to improve on all the things that we do, including the games that we make. Nothing we do will ever be perfect, and we have to make it better.
Speaking of that concept, we also revamped our “report a player” system to make it more accessible and easy for players. I’m sure you see, being a player in the States yourself, that people can be mean-spirited and can be extremely hard on other people. That devalues the content. The community is actually a big part of the content of the game, and if you have a community that is detrimental to people who maybe aren’t that good, who maybe just want to log in, have fun, and not get berated for making one wrong move, it’s our responsibility to offer tools to our community to help police themselves and to make sure that people like that are no longer part of that community.