Geez, I wrote this article, and one day later the entire gaming world implodes. I think we’re going to see a lot more post-modems in the future, but for now…
While the game isn’t formally shutting down, Heroes of Newerth announced in the middle of last week that the next major patch that would release for the game would be the last. While future patches weren’t deemed an impossibility, they would be small and focused entirely on balance: the game, it seems, will never get another content update ever again, which is likely a preamble to a full shutdown that will either happen later this year or early in the next.
Heroes of Newerth was not a large game. It never reached the astronomical numbers of its main competitor, League of Legends, and it certainly couldn’t compete against DOTA 2 or Heroes of the Storm, which were younger but far more polished than it was. It would also be a lie to say it was a terribly impactful game: while it may have been a bigger deal when the beta was first released as an immediate response to the DOTA mod to Warcraft 3, and proved that MOBA would indeed become a genre, in the years that followed its importance in the games industry would diminish and almost entirely fade. Yet all the same, it persisted for years and years, silently serving a small fanbase new content, and while it would never break free from the shadows of the games that were larger than it, it always managed to survive patch to patch.
It would be a lie to say that the world will be dramatically different without Heroes of Newerth… but out of respect for it’s interesting history, and it’s shocking longevity, I figure it at the very least deserves it’s very own post-mortem.
Even if, you know, it’s not technically dead.
A lot of the game’s early history has been lost to us, but there are things we know for sure. DOTA, or Defense of the Ancients, was released in 2003 as a mod for Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos and it’s expansion, The Frozen Throne. It didn’t take long for people to realize that this new game mode, which focused on a team of heroes navigating lanes, minions, and defensive towers to reach the heart of the enemy base and destroy it before they could do the same, would be a revelation.
One such group was S2 games, founded by Marc "Maliken" DeForest, Jesse Hayes, and Sam McGrath. The studio was founded the same year DOTA was released, in 2003, and they launched their first game that same year… and while their very first game was, indeed, a Newerth title, it was not the MOBA that would later go on to be the most well-known game in the franchise.
No, their first game was 2003’s Savage: The Battle for Newerth.
Savage was a unique game: a mix of a RTS and a FPS, two teams – humans and beasts – fought to destroy the primary enemy structure, the Stronghold or the Lair, respectively. One player on each team would play the commander, who would build structures, mine resources, and research new technology, while everyone else – up to 127 players – would play FPS, either following their commander’s orders or doing their own thing in their shared effort to beat the enemy team. It was an innovative gameplay mechanic and it got solid reviews upon release, even winning a prize in 2004 for best indie game. Still, it was not an enormous commercial success, and the company would stop supporting it in 2006. Still, they did the bro thing and released the source code to the public, which has allowed the public to keep it alive.
Around this time, in 2005, they started developing Heroes of Newerth itself. It would take four years for the game’s beta to be released, however, and in that time they released a second Newerth game, Savage 2: A Tortured Soul, which was a direct follow-up to the first Savage. It introduced some new features – for example, the “Hellbourne”, which would make up one of the teams of HoN – but it was otherwise less successful than the first game in the series.
Eventually, however, Heroes of Newerth would be released to the world, in beta, on April 24th, 2009, and in August 22nd, about four months later, pre-sales of the game were available for people who participated in the closed beta. You could grab the full game for thirty bucks: not a bad deal, for a brand-spanking new PC game that promised to give DOTA a professional treatment. And plenty of people had gotten exposure to the game in this time: by the time the beta would end, about three million people would give it a try. So things were looking good.
But then October 27th 2009 rolled around, and Riot Games self-published League of Legends. Releasing it to the public for the low, low price of absolutely free.
Heroes of Newerth would never really recover from that blow.
Still, the beta continued. Open beta testing opened on March 31st of 2010, and on May 12nd of the same year, it was finally released to the public.
Heroes of Newerth did a few things differently from the other MOBAs at the time, or even those that would follow it: for example, rather than having two basically identical teams, players would either play on the side of the Legion or the Hellborne, an artifact from the old Savage days, which would impact the kind of minions and buildings you had. It also had a higher level cap than other MOBAs, sitting at around level 25, because every time you leveled up you could either choose to level up an ability (as was the case in most MOBAs) or you could level up your agility, intelligence, and strength stats by two. Finally, it has a role fairly unique to the genre: the Suicider, a player who would willingly take poor match-ups and reduced gold, as well as having a higher chance of dying, in order to optimize their teammates chance of doing well.
It was new and it was exciting, but it also cost thirty bucks. And that was a big ask in a field dominated by free-to-play games (or at least free-to-download mods). It didn’t help that, according to many on the forums, the community started to go downhill not long after the game went free: a MOBA having a toxic community is far from the most unusual thing, but apparently it got a reputation for the kind of game that really attracted racists, for whatever reason.
So things went downhill. S2 games tried to recoup losses. In December of 2010 with a 2.0 release, which introduced microtransactions that could be spent on cosmetics, like heroes skins and announcer voices. But when that ultimately failed, S2 games did the inevitable and made the game free-to-play on July 29th, 2011, but not a true free-to-play game as we understand it: free players could only play one mode, and had limited access to champions, which had to be bought with the in-game premium currency. They also released a new in-game currency, tokens, that let people play the other game modes. But players who bought the full game early would be able to access all content and updates without any charges.
Understandably, this was not a good compromise. At this point League of Legends had millions of players and only charged for cosmetics. It was a system doomed to fail, and while one year later S2 games released this and made the game actually free-to-play, it wasn’t nearly enough to shake the game’s reputation. It didn’t help that, in the same year, they suffered a breach that compromised 8 million accounts.
They made one last effort to revitalize the game with a 3.0 release in 2013, which gave the game a visual update, added bots, and a brand-new tutorial. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t really work, and this was around the time that the game really started to fade from prominence.
…but not so much that it wouldn’t be noticed then bought out by Garena, a publisher and developer who thought they could do a better job with the IP. They eventually released a 4.0 version of the game, called Rise of Apex, that really seeped in the lore of the game, but it obviously wasn’t enough to draw a crowd. They continued to silently release heroes – up to 142 – release lore comics, and give the game necessary new balance patches, but nothing can last forever. The game had fallen into its comfortable place as an eternal second-fiddle, and in an age where League of Legends had hundreds of millions of users around the world and one of the largest esports scenes on the planet, there wasn’t much they could do to compete.
Garnea has enough other games under its wings that it’ll be fine. Meanwhile, the original developers, S2 games, made one final shot at the big time with a 2015 game called Strive, another MOBA that was aimed at a far more casual audience than HoN. Since then, they’ve launched two other games – a rerelease of Savage called Savage Resurrection, and Brawl of Ages, a TCG strategy game that basically everyone forgets exists. Needless to say, they haven’t done much since.
Much like everything else that surrounded it when it was alive, there isn’t a whole lot else to take away from the death of Heroes of Newerth. It didn’t teach us anything new -- we already knew that trying to charge a premium price for a game that should be free-to-play was a mistake, just ask Battleborne – and it certainly wasn’t ambitious enough to make the kind of exciting mistakes that future games could someday hope to learn form. It will very likely go out the same way it went on: silently, unassumingly, and witnessed only by a few close fans.
That’s not a lot, I’ll grant you, but it’s better than most could hope for.