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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.
GamesBeat: Do you guys see that you do have a lot of players who install the game, play a couple of matches, and either get overwhelmed or maybe they get turned off by the harsh community, and then they just stop trying?
DeForest: Absolutely, and, again, not that I want to shine a negative light on the things that we do, but just being honest in our interpretation of what we’ve done, our major competitors already have bots in their games, and our game has been around for three years and we don’t have bots. It’s grown to the player base that it currently has of roughly two and a half million active players, it’s done that without tools like bots, and we see trends where people see this game, they hear about this game, they log in, they play, and they realize, “Wow. If I don’t know what I’m doing, then I’m not sure I have a place here.” They have a bad experience, and there are enough games out there trying to garner our interest and time that you shouldn’t have to work to have fun. And if they happened to roll the dice and have one of those bad experiences, experience one of those bad eggs in the community, then they’re not going to come back, and that definitely shows up in numbers.
GamesBeat: How big of a challenge is it to wrestle for MOBA players? You have LoL, you have Dota 2, and all of these competitors and, even more so than with other genres, they all appear to be very similar. More than, say, one first-person shooter would to another. You have the same sort of map, the three lanes, five against five. So is it difficult to differentiate yourself?
DeForest: Yeah, I look and I say there are three major players (League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of Newerth), and I say that each of these games have their own qualities. They have their own things that they’re aiming to do. And when you look at, say, League of Legends. League of Legends is a great game. It tries to do different things than what, say, Heroes of Newerth or Dota 2 try to do. Heroes of Newerth and Dota 2 are far, far more similar to each other, believe it or not, than to League of Legends. And while, yes, the map is the same, the objective is the same, you have this concept of playing a hero or a champion with spells, but just in your art style alone, if you look at three games, they’re all pretty drastically different. Some of those are going to appeal to other people more than others. But then you can look and you can say, well, one of the ways we try to position ourselves is by being more true to the original DotA game. Of course, Dota 2 is absolutely the truest, but we look at that and we say, “Well, we’re a game that offers a slightly higher skill ceiling.”
When you learn the basics of how to play these games, you can really learn to excel and achieve the highest level of skill amongst all three of them. But I think that, like with a lot of games — you mentioned shooters. A lot of shooters are very similar. You’ve got multiple Call of Duty games. How do they truly differentiate themselves? But these games, I think, are extremely social, and it is a matter of becoming trendy. It is a matter of finding ways to get people to play with their friends, because that’s what they want to do. They want to log on with their buddies from school or their buddies from work and they want to log on, play together, have a good time, talk about it the next day, and, so, more than just differentiating yourself is offering people the tools so that they can play together.
GamesBeat: You were saying earlier that HoN has actually been seeing growth throughout the last year. I have to say, I would have thought that maybe the game would have been hurt with Dota 2’s entry into the market, because they are seen as more similar, as the more hardcore MOBAs, and more as the real successors to the original DotA as compared to League of Legends.
DeForest: The way I see it is, because I think you’re absolutely correct, you look and you say, “Wow.” This game from the last twelve months has gone from — I don’t know the exact date of when they launched their beta, but they’re seeing massive peaks of concurrency. The way I see it is that if we’ve been able to grow through their entrance into the market, and the amount of players that they’ve been able to get, that just shows how popular this genre is and how much the genre itself is growing, and I think it’s a testament to the game that HoN is. You have this huge, very closely related competitor that comes to market, that’s being developed by the company that owns the largest digital distribution platform on the market (Steam), and we’ve still been able to grow. All I would have to think is that, in the event that if Dota 2 didn’t see the light of day in 2012, we would just be that much bigger. But I take it as an extreme compliment that, better than our player base contracting while that’s happening, that we’re still expanding and we see a bright future in front of us in 2013.