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Road To The IGF: Heroes Of Newerth's Laura Baker

In our latest interview with 2010 IGF finalists, we talk to S2 Games' Laura Baker about DotA-inspired multiplayer action RPG Heroes of Newerth, a finalist in the Technical Excellence category.
[In the latest Road to the IGF interview with 2010 Independent Games Festival finalists, Gamasutra speaks with S2 Games' Laura Baker about DotA-inspired multiplayer action RPG Heroes of Newerth, a finalist in the Technical Excellence category.] Heroes of Newerth (HoN) is a session-based multiplayer action RPG that acts as a spiritual successor to popular WarCraft III mod Defense of the Ancients -- but aims to renovate its graphics and gameplay. Two teams of five playing as special Hero units try to destroy one another's bases. The result is a tactical team-based experience. Here, S2 Games' Laura Baker discusses the project's inspirations and the challenging balancing act between serving DotA fans and making the game accessible to those who never played it. What is your background in making games? S2 has always focused on competitive multiplayer titles, starting with Savage - The Battle for Newerth in 2003, followed by Savage 2 in early 2008, and ultimately followed up with our latest title, Heroes of Newerth. We're a pretty small studio that (as cliche as this sounds) likes to make the games that we enjoy playing. What development tools did you use? On the art side of things we use 3DS Studio Max, Adobe Photoshop, ZBrush, and I think xNormal. Our programmers pretty much just use Visual Studio 2005. The design team uses the ever-handy notepad++ to modify much of the game mechanics and hero abilities as needed. Beyond that, we haven't really used much middleware, our engine was made from scratch and most of the features and functions we needed our programmers were able to write for us. How long did you work on the game? About three years total, including engine development (which was shared by Savage 2). The bulk of the HoN-exclusive work has been going on for about 2 years. As for how much time remains.. well, we're getting ready to go to open beta soon, but we'll continue working on HoN for a long, long time to come. HoN takes cues from WarCraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, right? What made you want to build on that? Well, it comes back to making the sort of games we like to play. At S2, we played DotA in the office for a while and loved it, but couldn't help but realize how much better it could be if it only had certain bells and whistles and other improvements. We really think HoN can take the DotA-style gameplay to new heights, having not been held back by many of the limitations DotA had. The game seems aimed for an audience of, to put it loosely, genre fans. How did you know where to innovate and where to be familiar? The main goal was always to appeal to the DotA fans first and foremost. There's definitely a balancing act between making HoN familiar to DotA fans yet accessible to players who had never played DotA before. We'll have a tutorial by release, which helps, but in general we innovated in ways that made sense when there was very little gameplay downside to doing so. The art is exceptionally lovely. What considerations did you have when assembling heroes and Hellbourne that look lifelike and diverse? The main considerations when making art in HoN are cool-factor and gameplay. Our art director Jesse Hayes is always stressing a certain style and wanting things to be exciting and cool, for lack of a better term. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the human imagination isn't the only limitation here -- we are constantly making efforts to ensure that the art doesn't negatively impact the gameplay. Visuals for a spell have to be clear and precise, each hero needs to be a certain size (so they can take the same paths through the forest as other heroes), and we like to have visual feedback for nearly everything without making battles feel too cluttered. If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently? I don't think there are many things that we would do differently, actually. We learned a lot from developing our previous titles, and applied that knowledge to HoN's development. In a way, HoN was our "second chance" in which we got to do things a bit differently. Were there any elements that you experimented with that just flat out didn't work with your vision? Hm, there were a few heroes that never saw the light of day that didn't really work out. Or rather, they were re-worked until they did work out. For the most part, though, we've been lucky to be building off a concept that has already been proven with DotA, and we've had years to learn what does and doesn't work and get a really strong grasp on what we're doing, so we haven't really had any major problems. Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed? Unfortunately, no. We've been crunching pretty hard here lately, but I look forward to checking them out sooner or later. What do you think of the current state of the indie scene? I think we're getting more avenues for indie developers to get their games out there. Digital distribution has really made it possible for companies that can't afford to sell retail to still be able to sell their games. Development tools (including complete game engines) are becoming more available too. It excites me that if someone is determined enough, they really can make a completely playable game with a pretty small budget. At the same time, huge-budget titles really make it difficult for indie developers to compete in the single-player market, I think. Huge cinematics, voice acting, and tons of play time are becoming the norm for single-player games these days, and indie companies just don't have the resources to pull off games with that type of scope. I think indie titles have the most success as puzzle games or multiplayer-focused games. I kind of see two classes of games here: the epic 50-gigabyte single-player titles intended for hours and hours of play, and the small, accessible short-term titles (some multiplayer ones aren't so short-term). I think both classes of games have a lot to offer, and I think the added diversity is something most gamers would welcome. [Previous 'Road To The IGF' interview subjects have included Enviro-Bear 2000 developer Justin Smith, Rocketbirds: Revolution's co-creators Sian Yue Tan and Teck Lee Tan, Vessel co-creator John Krajewski, Trauma creator Krystian Majewski, Super Meat Boy co-creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, Sidhe's Mario Wynands, who worked on Shatter, Daniel Benmergui, creator of Today I Die, Klei Entertainment's Jamie Cheng, executive producer on Shank, Star Guard creator Loren Schmidt, Miegakure developer Marc Ten Bosch, Joe Danger creator Hello Games, Limbo partner Dino Patti, Closure's Tyler Glaiel and Jon Schubbe, and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity's Ichiro Lambe.]

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