Games, how they work, and how they should work

Hello again! It’s been a while hasn’t it? What have I been doing? Oh, you know. Fretting about A- level results, getting ready for uni, the usual. Anyway,  Let’s get going. This week I’ll go over the games behind the recent boom in the popularity of DotA clones. I’ve also written a guest review-type-thing of the 2 current leaders of the genre, League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, for Buy That Game. You can read it here. It covers the basics of how to play, whereas this will go into how their finer differences affect the whole experience of playing each game. If you have no idea what these games are, I recommend you read the review first.

Finished? Good! Now, in that review, I gave over the impression that League of Legends is  an over-all better game for the beginner. It’s a shame really, as I think having the choice of the 2 different takes on the genre really quite interesting, and the games were never really in direct opposition. I’m not just being picky here, I actually think S2 Games, the makers of Heroes of Newerth have got the idea of ‘free to play’ all wrong. To see why, we have to look at both games beginnings. DotA was a pretty hard-core games, it was built in an RTS game by a skilled RTS player for skilled RTS players. It’s quite a interesting piece of game design, blending RPG style levelling and stats with RTS style tactics and recourse control, but that’s for another time (maybe when Dota 2 comes out?). Some time passes, and Riot Games and S2 Games show up and make their respective titles. Back then, and this is the important bit, Heroes of Newerth was built as a “regular” game, with a single flat fee model, whilst League of Legends was to be free to play. They each went their separate ways, with HoN sticking with the original DotA mechanics and LoL updating almost everything, but suddenly HoN changed to the free to play model, much like games such as TF2 did not so long ago. What a mistake.

The problem is not simply that they changed their minds, but that they did so with seemingly little planning. A game like DotA has quite a steep and unforgiving learning curve,  so an enormous void sits between new and experience players. Now, HoN stuck to the original DotA design, including all the small things that add up to make it an intricate system that’s hard to master, which was good as their target market was ex-DotA-players. LoL on the other hand went after the more casual players or people who had never played either because they never had the chance or they were too intimidated by the finer complexities. Now, with those target audiences in mind, the original market models each developer chose makes perfect sense. LoL couldn’t scare the very people they were targeting away by forcing them to pay up-front, and HoN charging people acted as a sort of passive screening process, only letting through the people who were dedicated enough to make the game pay for itself.

OK, so S2 made a mistake, but what’s the real damage? They’ve widened their target audience surely? Well, yes, you could argue that it is doing them any harm and that their player number are going up. It’s not really that simple though. Before the change to free to play, you probably could’ve bought HoN and worked hard and got good, but now the rather butt-hurt community make it hard for you to keep your self-confidence or your patience, and the fact that you didn’t pay for it means you have no compelling reason to keep playing. Then you go to all your chums and tell them about your horrible experience, you all go and get LoL but you forget to cancel your HoN account. Now, S2 Games have useless statistics and are probably down a couple of thousand particularly touchy players. Yes, I know, I’m blowing it out of proportion, and yes, I know the player numbers are probably genuinely increasing, but I’m sure by not as much as they were anticipating.

What can we take from this? Don’t rush anything, ever. Valve were probably planning the switch long before they introduced hats and random item drops. Don’t assume it’ll work, it takes planning and, more importantly, testing. Just because you have a micro-transaction store doesn’t mean you’ll make lots of money from it, and finally remember you can lose parts of your demographic as well as acquire new ones.

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to write another one of these, university is going to be pretty hectic for a while. Still, be sure that I will write another one eventually. See you all then!

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my review (and all future posts!) at

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