Frostburn Studios keeps Heroes of Newerth alive

At Frostburn Studios they really are playing games for research. Most of the time. 
The Heroes of Newerth live--on top of the Globe.

The top floor of the Globe Building, 211 E. Water St., downtown Kalamazoo, is where Frostburn Studios will be making sure their MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) video game stays addictive.

The game is five years old, has 30 million online accounts, and up to 120,000 concurrent users (people playing online during peak times). "How do you keep people doing that?" is the question studio head Brad Bower tries to answer every day.

HoN has a huge following in Thailand and other Asian countries. Garena Online, a Singapore-based online gaming platform and distribution company, purchased HoN from Kalamazoo-based S2 Games. The official announcement was May 5, but the deal had been in the works since June, 2014, when Garena created subsidiary studio Frostburn, and staffed it with former-S2 HoN veterans. Frostburn now has 43 full-time employees, and may be up to 50 by the end of the year, Bower says.

Much of the year's delay was due to dealing with the myriad legalities of an international game, "especially since we're looking at a China release pretty soon," Bower says.

In his office, the studio head bemoans his lack of time to play the game he loves.

"I just had a kid!" he exclaims. Bower gets at least an hour of play in every day, even during the recent Mother's Day, he admits. His wife likely understands -- it was she, after all, who first achieved a bloody goal when the game was new.

"My wife loves to rub it in my face.... She killed every person on the enemy team -- it's called an annihilation. She was the first person who did an annihilation," he says.

HoN is not easy -- "It's got a steep learning curve." Think of it as a chess game where the pieces are alive and blasting each other with balls of fire. Players join in teams (always Legion vs. Hellbourne), control individual Heroes, and are aided by computer-controlled pawns (Creeps). The goal is to capture the opponent's base and destroy its central structure, or to force surrender. Players look down from above as their heroes fight and die.

That's the general play of all MOBA's. HoN was the star title of S2 Games (950 Trade Center Way, Portage). The company released it in 2010, and it grew to have a world-wide following.

But then S2 created Strife, another MOBA. As Bower describes it, it's really awkward for one company to handle two similar games. For example, if they'd developed a new innovation for one game, wouldn't they want to include it in the other? "How can you make both games stand apart in the same genre?"

The purchase by Garena "was something that was mutually beneficial for both sides."  HoN "is the biggest game in Thailand, one of the biggest games in Southeast Asian region, and that's where Garena is based," Bower says.

Garena began in 2009, has grown to 17 million monthly users on PC, 11 million on mobile, and might be valued at over US$2.5 billion (though Garena won't confirm), according to a March 2 TechInAsia story.

In the HoN announcement, Mars Zhou, senior director of Garnea Online, says, "We found a lot of synergy in how Garena and HoN work, and are extremely excited to welcome them to the Garena family. Having achieved immense growth within Asia, we are striving to extend HoN's success to America and Europe."

"They wanted to be able to continue to pump resources into this game, making sure that it was making the things that would continue the game's longevity far into the future," Bower says.

Game as a service

There needs to be constant focus on HoN. The days of publishing a game, selling it, and moving on to the next title may be over, Bower feels.

"What is really starting to take off, is the model of games as a service.... When you release the  game, you support that game."

HoN is free to download and play. Its income is through players purchasing "Goblin Coins" which can be used to buy helmets, battle axes, and anything else that their heroes might need.

Bower's main work on HoN when he was with S2 was in customer service and micro-transaction support for the game -- the Goblin Coin player-to-player and player-to-game economy.

Players become invested in the game with each new item, character, or larger upgrades, such as HoN's new capture-the-flag mode. Still, there is a danger that heroes will tire of battle, and move on to other realms.

"One of our pillars at Frostburn is, we want people to become as invested in our games as we are," Bower says. They're continually working on new features, and listening to gamers' desires.  "You're part of that community, you're bringing them more, and you keep giving them reasons to keep coming back and checking the game out."

HoN will likely not stay Frostburn's only title. Garena is pushing them "to come up with that next big thing," Bower says.

Five-year-old heroes

In Thailand, when visiting as one of the people behind HoN, "you have people just falling down saying 'oh my gosh, thank you,' " Bower says. The country has a big LAN cafe culture -- cafes where people rent computers and play on networks. When he walks into a LAN and most screens have HoN on them, "It's really a surreal feeling that you really just can't quantify."

In Michigan, he'll find fans while out in his HoN T-shirt. "It really is a feeling that I cannot describe. You feel like the work you do has such an impact."

But the game isn't as popular here. On some gaming news sites, there is the opinion that the game has declined in popularity in the U.S. over the past few years. SegmentNext  wrote, in a piece on the Garena sale, "the development and marketing of the game never really acquired pace, and now the title seems to be a mere shadow of what it could’ve been.... Garena seems to have the required influence on the internet to bring HoN back to the top and challenge the likes of LoL and DoTA (top MOBAs League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients)."

"We're competing with juggernauts," Bower says, with little Frostburn in charge of a game just behind LoL (Riot Games) and DoTA2 (Valve Corporation). "So, the competition is huge."

"Most games at five years, no one knows about that game any more, that's something in the past." Yet, Garena is investing in the title, he points out.

In North America, "They've been saying this since 2011-2012, that HoN's a dead game. It became a meme of sorts, where people would say it just because they thought it was funny."

But if the game did not have growth potential why, in 2014,  "would a company wanted to purchase the entire IP?”

Making Michigan a video game state

Most of Frostburn's employees are from Southwest Michigan and other parts of the state. Many are Michigan State grads. "They've got a great game design program over there."

But Michigan is just not a video game producing state. There are three major video game companies in Michigan -- two in the Kalamazoo area (S2 and Frostburn), and Stardock in Plymouth.

Any young, local talent would likely head for jobs in California or Texas, Bower says. "I would've killed to have anyone in the industry here to have been able to show me the way.... I want to see that for everyone here."

Bower is from Byron Center, south of Grand Rapids. He had a love of gaming, but a talent in business. He realized, as a student at Kalamazoo College, "I can take what I'm good at, business and economics, and combine it with what I'm passionate about, which is gaming."

He spotted an intern position at S2, and told his wife, "This is my chance."

Bower worked his way into customer support for HoN, developed its micro-transaction system, and became associate producer and director of operations before moving with Frostburn.

"I would love to see the video game industry, the digital media industry, really start to take off in Michigan."

The talent is here -- "There are a lot of great schools here that are really growing students...." -- but there are challenges ranging from cold winters to more gaming jobs elsewhere.

One incentive Bower says they've got is that employees honestly love, and play, their game. "We want to be playing the game that we make."

When he catches game designers playing, they always have the excuse, "I'm doin' work, sorry, I gotta do this for work!" Bower says, laughing. "It's a rough life, I tell ya what!”

Need an addiction? Heroes of Newerth can be downloaded a It’s free to play, but player gear, attributes, etc. will require a credit card.

Mark Wedel grew up with Pac Man and lived in an arcade in the 1980s. Now, he admits to playing basic brutal first-person-shooters online, as a means of training for the upcoming zombie apocalypse. He’s also a Kalamazoo freelance writer.
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