Heroes of Newerth: the sink or swim of MOBA gaming

Everyone plays League of Legends. Some play Heroes of Newerth. But that alone is not a trump–argumentum ad populum, if you will–though there are good reasons why there is such a huge disparity in game populations. Simply put, these are two different games in the same genre.

Seems obvious at first. Of course they are two different games, and of course they’re in the MOBA genre. One is a DotA clone and the other is a new hash of a MOBA game, perhaps the first stab at originality in such a closed and sparse genre, but that makes all the difference. HoN ported the old Warcraft III mod bit for bit, mechanic for mechanic, hero for hero, Butterfly for Wingbow, while LoL cherrypicked mechanics, drafted up new heroes champions, and made new items to create an original game, albeit with a heavy wink-wink-nudge-nudge to dear Icefrog in regards to the spirit of the genre. In a sense, it is not real DotA. This makes all the difference in player population because real DotA is fucking hard.

Ask any old DotA player about their first match–what the hell went on in teamfights? How was I supposed to know not to auto-attack the creep? Why do I need regen in early laning? I need an Poor Man’s Shield on melee heroes, what? And in HoN, why am I being vote-kicked for using the courier…?

League of Legends is a much easier game:
No creep denying: your opponent has less control over how well you do in the laning phase, so it is easier to get gold from killing creep.
No gold loss on death: makes it easier to save up for items in spite of in-game mistakes.
Much slower game speed: easier for newbies to parse the chaos of team fights and escaping attacks and ganks.
No runes in the river: the obvious point is that no one can get a brief advantage over anyone else; the subtler point is that if someone is missing from lane early on, they are probably ganking.
Blink skill: facilitates easy escapes and initiation, plus gives a champion in a slower-paced game a little more map mobility.

HoN players will argue that this make LoL a wimpy game, but LoL is annihilating HoN on every other industry benchmark. LoL has 30 million registered accounts with 1.3 million people playing at a time; my most recent logon to HoN (about six minutes ago) says ~94,000 are online. The DreamHack prize pool for the LoL tournament was $40,000 for pick-up teams while the professional tournament for HoN was just 20 grand more (yeah, some LoL nobodies could have ended up taking home more money than established, sponsored HoN professionals, depending on how the divy goes) but the kicker there is the sponsors–LoL picked up MSI, BeatIT, SteelSeries, and Intel to back them while S2 had to sponsor their own game, probably because no one else (besides Alienware) would. At least when Riot sponsors their own game, they drop $5 mil on a single competitive season. Also HoN is nowhere to be found on MLG’s 2012 Fall Season list… but LoL is. This all can be summed up in one of my favourite graphs, powered by Google Trends:

You can see the moment when S2's business model loses to LoL's free-to-play style.

Even the biggest LoL-haters on the planet can’t deny this game’s popularity, especially on the grounds of terrible business models–something S2 seems better at making than balanced heroes–since LoL has always been free-to-play and HoN still cost $30 up until the end of last summer. Taking that long to play catch-up cost S2 a huge amount of lost players as well as migrators wanting to try the new thing… and I have a hard time believing a small company like S2 wasn’t agile enough to get the new business model through the corporate gears. Nothing like being dragged to the surface to drown in plain sight.

An unpopular chord that resonated with the community spawning from this change to free-to-play can be summed up in this popular internet image posted by tookie22 on reddit crediting forum user Puro:

This is a popular forum signature, which I’m surprised still exists, especially after giving Phil The Thrill a banhammer when he was barely good at casting.

Even worse, S2 doesn’t even support their game while Riot patches weekly with accompanying videos to what each patch entails and why they chose to alter certain mechanics. The weekly HoN patches rotate the free heroes and capriciously nerf and un-nerf certain aspects of the game, but at least it’s still playable. Actually… Clan Milk’s most recent tournament was plagued by server issues that cost a much better team to lose the first of a three-game series 3v5 and then lose the third game, after annihilating their opponents in stable server conditions in game two, for the same problems. This is like having a powerpoint at during a business merger randomly displaying porn; if this happened during a Starcraft II game, Blizzard would never hear the end of it and there would be a permanent dark mark on that game for the rest of its competitive lifetime. But this is the norm for S2, who has had this game out for a little over two years. When the HoN servers suffered from almost a week-long DDoS, even the LoL servers had trouble handling the influx of orphaned HoN-ers.

The company-community drama escalated to a point where Tralfamadore, an accomplished professional player who once represented gaming giant SK, posted his resignation on reddit. Now, Tralf is a known drama queen and returned to his team a couple days after this, but the points he makes in his tirade are well-articulated and, sadly, still true. The point that S2 isn’t listening to professional players’ input may have been a key reason for the game’s competitive decline; higher prize pools in DotA 2 caused the top team in the entirety of professional HoN, fnatic Raidcall, to switch it’s competitive roster to Valve’s newly-released DotA 2.

S2 has to know that their terrible business practices are putting holes in their money sack–and they have to know that those rivers of dollars are going straight to Riot and Valve, right? Nope. How? Blinders. S2 is notorious for censoring their forums and hiring shoutcasters to keep them from saying anything that would put the company in a bad light; according to an old r/HeroesOfNewerth moderator, “Breaky and Phil are poor excuses for casters and their partnership with S2 impedes the rise of anyone else who might try to step into the light. Why should anyone try to became[sic] a great caster for HoN when S2 has an official outlet for it[?]” [source]. Additionally, S2′s asymmetrical view on bannable offenses is frustrating to the community, who in turn become less willing to hand over their hard-earned cash.

To add insult to injury, Forbes recently named LoL the ‘most played PC game in the world‘ and in 2011, HoN’s lead designer and the community’s beloved spokeswoman left the company… to be picked up by Riot. When I said S2 has to know those rivers of dollars are going straight to Riot, I meant it. This is just the most transparent beeline, though surely S2 is feeling the pain. As Harvey Dent once said, ‘you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’. I think S2 wants to live a little longer than that.

How can this happen? How can you choose to sink? People have said the same things about EA and Activision, but those companies aren’t hurting quite on the scale that S2 is. HoN is S2′s only cash cow and Activision CEO Robert Kotick’s ‘wring the towel dry’ business plan isn’t going to work if you have but one towel to wring. In any case, getting grouped in with EA and Activision is never a good thing, considering S2 has one game, and it’s been out of beta for two years.

This is the bed they made, and they must sleep in it–but it didn’t have to be this way. A thick skin and an ear for your customers can go a long way–and yeah, yeah, customers aren’t really qualified to make business decisions, but they are equipped to punish you by taking their business somewhere else. But you know who else doesn’t deserve to have a job as a forum mod? A kid who made his internet fame out of shoutcasting. I’m really not seeing the skill overlap there.

To amend a quote from a random internetter, Heroes of Newerth is a great game supported by a shit company and League of Legends is an easier game supported by a great company. When your eyes are so fixed on money, sometimes you forget how to make it.

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