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How to kill a game with a blue byte...

July 11, 2015
Dla wersji polskiej przejdź tutaj: "Jak zabić grę niebieskim bajtem..."

The latest events concerning Heroes Online need some commentary. I do realize that many of Acid Cave's readers do not play Heroes Online any longer (if ever), but since Blue Byte got not one, but two Might & Magic games to develop (apart from Heroes Online they also inherited Duel of Champions) then we have the risk of someone at Ubisoft getting a bright idea to continue working with them. I'd like to point out what kind of mistakes, in my opinion, has the company made on the course of the last two years and what it led to.

Good beginnings

Return to the past: A screenshot of the Amber Thorn Cathedral from the game's development phase.
Let's start from the beginning. Heroes Online during the testing phase was - in my opinion - a very good production. Of course, some things were irritating, like the daily limit of "storyline battles" that a player could fight, but things like that were in the minority and they were "passable". Even today the game has magnificent graphics - probably the best I've ever seen in a Flash game - and many of key elements that made the Heroes series so popular, e.g.: a well written campaign, a lot of RPG elements, player duels and the return of hex-based battlefields. And one of the new elements - the "flanking" mechanic - was so good, that it passed on to Heroes VII! It really shows that the primary authors of Heroes Online were experienced, great professionals and chose many of the best Heroes elements for their game. However from that time things only got worse...

Even before the "release day" (and I'm writing this in quotes because according to naive words of community managers the game - after two years - is still officially in the Beta phase), in 2013 we were assured that more factions will be added "from time to time" to the basic two. And for two years none were. In the beginning the paid game elements (ones the player obtains by spending Hero Seals) were designed mostly as just extra additions - like extra dyes, portraits, pets and some bonuses like the experience boost shards. From then, however, the "buy" button has been installed just about everywhere - next to resources, units, buildings, mana potions, spell scrolls and many other otherwise normal game elements. The hero development was also reduced to just 12 single-level "skill-spells", many of which lost their former effectiveness, which led to the current situation in which playing with the Knight (Haven Might hero) is significantly harder than playing with a magic class hero.

The Economy of Grinding

"Whyyy? What did I do to you?"
The worst was yet to come, however, and it did at the end of September 2014, where Blue Byte made some drastic changes to the gameplay. They completely deleted all resource mines and decreased the town resource silos' production as far as 10-fold. At the same time they introduced limits for creatures and resources, which made "stockpiling" them impossible. Effectively the authors completely removed the Heroes economy based on resource production and instead made grinding a necessity, as well as fighting over even the smallest gold pile. As if this wasn't enough, they also increased the resource costs of most town buildings, which led to the current situation, where resource production is counted in tens, but the building costs are counted even in thousands. Apart from that the Hero Seals amount that a player gets at the start of the game or from the most important quests was also cut down c.a. 4-fold. Also, the option of retreating from a battle was now restricted, as well as the possibility to repeat it. Just to make matters worse, the test server was shut down, which now meant that all the changes were now being applied "live" to the actual game, without proper testing. One of the very few good changes was removing the daily "storyline battle" limit, the one mentioned at the beginning of this article.

235 000 wood? Right away! Where's my wallet?
Many of further game decisions were "one step forward, two steps back". A good example is changing the hero's map speed. At one point it was decided to slightly increase it, but at the same time speed-boosting stables were completely removed from the game, as well as the possibility to buy speed shards for just gold. Adding Guild Provinces also didn't help much, as their bonuses give relatively little, but their cost is so huge that for most medium-sized or small guilds (not to mention players that prefer playing solo) it's absolutely impossible to accumulate - it's as high as hundreds of thousands of resources for a single building (while resource production is still in tens, may I remind). However the bugs introduced with new versions were so bad that they led to many exploits which effectively ruined honest rivalry and also caused serious technical problems which made logging into the game impossible for almost everyone.

Community? What community?

Listen up: To any crticism say "thank you for your suggestion", and to any bug report say "write a support ticket". Problem solved!
During all this time also the Polish community managers weren't much of help. They mostly cared not about the community, but about their company's image. It was very hard to get some substantive answers to community members' questions and many of the posts and topics containing (deserved!) criticism, - especially ones that were emotional and contained strong language - instead of being passed on, were deleted. It came to a situation, when because of the login problems players wanted to cut the authors up with a blunt soup spoon, and the community manager ordered to start a completely out of place topic, where people should write nice things about the game. According to fans, their feedback was rarely heard or passed on, even if it concerned serious game bugs. It led to fans and moderators figuring out that they are being completely ignored, which resulted in a demonstrative resignation of all moderators from their functions.

Just before this text was written (or at least the Polish version ;), another horrible decision was made. Officially explaining that the Polish community has grown and is too large for the Polish dev team to handle, it was decided to... remove it! Basically the Polish forum was shut down, the players were redirected to an English-speaking one and the Polish game support was closed. All this despite the fact that Poland is one of the biggest markets for Heroes games and our community's activity was very high. (Was. There's not even 1% left of it now, when we can't write in our language) Players, as a reaction, wanted to make a list of support, asking not to shut their forum down (following a Behemoth's Lair community veteran, Mr Pool), but even this was halted, because... it was declared as against the forum rules. I have no words.

Suicide on Stage

The ship is ready to sink, sir!
To sum up, it looks like one group of developers would create the game in 2013 but completely different people would make decisions of its further "development". The game from a very nice browser version of "Heroes of Might & Magic" evolved into a boring, restriction-full and "buy"-button-plenty parody of itself.

In closing let's say a few words about Duel of Champions as well. The only visible thing Blue Byte did with the game was to finish the work done by the previous dev team and release whatever was done in the form of probably the weakest DoC expansion ever. Aside from that, for over 7 months from the game's acquisition there are no signs of any work being done.

Does all this mean that Blue Byte is a bad company? No. After all it's this company that created such a promising game as Heroes Online once was. However the actions Blue Byte has taken since are an ideal example of how to torpedo your own ship.

Acid Dragon

I played Heroes Online as a Necromancer hero. Despite the then-present limits of daily battles the gameplay was quite nice. HO had the exploration, the hero development, the economy and the towns of a Heroes game, but also new elements such as: flanking attacks, catapults firing also at troops and staged battles, also with new objectives like surviving a number of turns or killing/protecting a certain unit.

Unfortunately soon after something really bad started to happen. The first symptom was the last province - Lightlands. If it wasn't for Acid's help, I wouldn't have finished the storyline mode (and therefore the game). The second symptom was redesigning the hero skill tree and increasing spell costs (which explained the mana potions being put in the game's shop :P) - many skills were gone, others were weakened.

The worst part came with removing resource mines and building cost changes. Replacing resource and troop reserve stockpiling with strict limits tied to hero's level and the increase of building costs combined with resource income decrease (which made grinding a necessity) completely killed the game for me. I could have come back to it because of Guild Provinces, but their costs are insanely high!

Was the game bad? No. So what went wrong? Item shop.
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