Interview: S2’s Shawn Tooley on the state of Newerth

August 29, 2012

S2 Games has been in the industry for nearly a decade, making a name for itself with its FPS/RTS mashup series Savage. In 2010, they broke into the burgeoning multiplayer online battle arena genre with Heroes of Newerth. The game was given a free-to-play component in 2011, and just recently changed to a much more open, purely free-to-play model. We spoke with Shawn Tooley, chief operating officer of S2, about the company, views on the future of free-to-play and the state of Heroes of Newerth.

Snackbar Games: What was your inspiration for creating the Savage series? What is it like to create a game that, because of its genre, appealed to a more niche audience?
Shawn Tooley, S2: Alliance; it was a space-based game in which individual players controlled their own ships, with two sides with bases and various strategic goals. Niche audiences can be a lot of fun: instead of making “just another shooter” and having an easy-come/easy-go player base, we got some real die-hard fans from Savage. The media really seemed interested in the idea of what we were calling at the time a “real-time strategy shooter.” Savage may not have topped the sales charts, but we know it had a profound impact on many of the players who played it.

SBG: How has experience designing the Savage series affected the development of Heroes of Newerth?
ST: The engine we developed for Savage 2 was then used and improved upon for Heroes of Newerth. There isn’t much from Savage development that directly correlates, other than general experience: learning how to do the work we do better, how we approach issues of usability and user experience.

SBG: Being a first-time developer at the time, what were the difficulties you encountered in developing Savage?
ST: Thankfully we were pretty small, so a lot of the issues first time developers encounter were mitigated. Too much funding as a startup leads to swollen teams, and if you don’t know how to wield that many people and how to be productive with all those “cooks in the kitchen,” it can hurt more than it helps. We had some real talent involved, so while making a new game engine from scratch (and figuring out how to execute on a game type that wasn’t really established) was challenging, it ultimately was just a matter of time. I think most of the difficulties weren’t so much related to the making of the game itself, but learning how the industry works, how to get the right types of press coverage and market the game. There were definitely some learning pains related to distributing the game via retail stores, as well.

SBG: Given that Heroes of Newerth was just re-released as a free-to-play game, what difficulties were presented in turning a paid MOBA into a F2P MOBA?
ST: The biggest difficulty in turning HoN free-to-play was spreading the word that the game was now free-to-play.  The current players were a huge help with this. They spread the word to their friends and grew the community by word of mouth.  One of the other difficulties is that this genre is known for its steep learning curve. This doesn’t mix well with free-to-play.  One way we are improving that is by introducing the Core Pool into the game. This brings the hero pool from over 100 heroes down to 40. Players will be able to learn these heroes and the gameplay of HoN, then after getting comfortable with all of those heroes and their abilities, move into the full hero pool to learn the rest. Combining this gradual learning with the mentoring system, veteran players will be able to help their friends learn and new players will be able to ease into the game.

SBG: What is your opinion on the current state of the free-to-play market in video games?
ST: I believe the free-to-play market is in its infancy right now.  You can see developers testing many different ways of making games free-to-play. You can also see more and more games are becoming free-to-play. It is increasingly difficult to ignore free-to-play because there are so many high quality free titles in the market now. They are no longer shallow games that force you to pay to enjoy it.

SBG: What challenges does the free-to-play model have for monetizing games?
ST: One of the challenges is getting past the stigma that a free-to-play game is lower quality and not worth playing. This is quickly disappearing as free-to-play games take over the market. This creates another challenge, though. With so many games joining the free-to-play market, you have to give players a reason to both play and purchase in your game. This is something we do very well. We give players a compelling and complete game and then provide them with impressive additions to customize their game experience.

SBG: What do you believe Heroes of Newerth does to distinguish itself from its main competitors, League of Legends and Dota 2, which have also adopted the free-to-play model?
ST: There are a number of things that make Heroes of Newerth stand out from the competition. The gameplay is faster-paced and more action-packed than any other game in the genre. We are paving the way with innovative features such as our robust replay system, mentoring and our in-game video/stream player, HoNTV.  Our dedication to always improving our game week after week is what ultimately sets us apart from every other competitor in our genre.  We are never satisfied with here and now, there is always something more we can do to make the game better for our players.

SBG: What is your personal opinion on what makes a good video game?
A good video game is made when the people who work on the game are as passionate about it as the people who play it.  When the makers care about the game, they go above and beyond to make a game that both they and the players would want to play.  It leads to innovation and a constantly improving game because it is so important to the developers to have a remarkable game.

SBG: If S2 could develop any new game from any existing series on the market, what would that game be?
We make the games we love to play. Currently our focus is on developing HoN, and that’s the game we want to be making!

For more on Heroes of Newerth, check out the official site.