“I AM DRUNK,” I announce on our Mumble voicechat server at ten thirty on a Friday night. “Let’s play Heroes of Newerth.”
“Ugh, I haven’t played it in years,” Airhorse grumbles, though he once paid for an account back when it wasn't free to play. He has been trying to avoid playing it because it will be the world’s longest patch.
“Well I created a new account specially so I could give my character a joke name,” I say. (They make you pay $10 to change your name, erk.) “And FRAPS is running. So let’s go.”
It has taken me months to get back to the point where I am even happy logging into Heroes of Newerth, and now I do it drunk because it emphasises the absurdity of the task.
For weeks I was making excuses: I could play more League of Legends, see more of the community there – I could play DOTA 2 (which is the only lane pusher I’m actually above average at) with Quinns and see if I can witness or provoke a flaming. At one point, just to avoid playing Heroes of Newerth, I actually did my tax return. That’s right. I now know that I owe the government £748 in taxes for the tax year 2011/2012, and it is entirely due to Heroes of Newerth. Thanks Newerth.
But it was no use. The real story about the artist-formally-known-as-MOBA community is in this game I had been avoiding. Logging into Heroes of Newerth for the first time is like going naked into a knife fight.
You get cut.
The memory of that first cut was created a while back. I came away with some muscle-deep lacerations: it was freshly downloaded, and filled with raw curiosity, I thought I could just go straight in. I double clicked on a “noob” game, and after two seconds of lobby it loaded right into hero pick. I didn’t know what any of the heroes did, or what DOTA equivalents there were. As usual, I did the worst thing ever. I chose the cool-looking lady character. It was Valkyrie. And there was another experienced Valkyrie player on my team.
The loading bars stretched toward doom.
Those of you who are familiar with these games are wincing and shielding your eyes right now. And you are right to do so. You are feeling perhaps a tenth of the pain of what proceeded. What proceeded was the slow restructure of the DOTA framework into an intense verbal torture chamber, where not only did the other team bear down on me, screwing out my thumbnails and eating my newborn flesh with the sheer joy of a team deprived of real, genuine noobmeat, but my own team were bringing out the age old “delete HoN” “die newb” “use skills” and all the classics of old school.
In many ways, I feel like my first HoN experience is the one that puts everyone off installing a lane pushing game in the first place. A lot of my gaming friends are reluctant to put themselves in a situation where they will be insulted constantly for as long as an hour at a time, whilst slowly losing a game that they can’t leave – which is often what you experience when you first start out, even in games of League of Legends and DOTA 2. However, the HoN mechanism is structured so that you can't report anyone for their bad behaviour until you are level five (a good number of games in) or have bought an account with actual monies.
In comparison, LoL and DOTA 2 have a free, robust reporting policy enforced at all levels, and emphasised with text at the beginning of every match. Worse still, HoN allows for players to repeatedly vote to kick someone in game, which is something that both LoL and DOTA 2 don't allow – it is really disruptive and can ruin the flow of the game. It also provokes players mercilessly. I don’t know if there is a maximum amount of times each player can vote to kick the same person – but in that first game it seemed like there was always a vote going on to dropkick me and several others into oblivion. I felt like telling them I’d email them a feedback card after the game had finished, to save them typing.
I’m not really a stranger to this kind of behaviour because of my years of Doting, and going into a competitive game, you expect smack talk. But the sheer intensity and frequency of HoN smack talk in comparison to other DOTA-style games is actually kind of admirable, and I personally feel like the way S2 has developed the community systems is exacerbating bad behaviour. Heroes of Newerth really is best left to professionals… which is kind of ironic, considering that first time I had entered a game labelled for beginners.
If you want a 1 in 10 chance of actually playing with beginners, you click the “casual” button when you search for a game to join. But I say 1 in 10 chance, because even then, you will probably play in a team with a level humungoid smurf account who roars with spittling rage every time a blow isn't landed properly, and you’ll end up in a bewilderfuck vote/kick cyclone.
Sometimes you get a nice team. My friend Jimmy’s first game was with a bunch of really nice Brazilians who gently advised him on what to buy, whilst they knocked seven shades of shit out of my character on the other side of the map. (They really were very nice, actually, a pleasure to get fucked over by. I'd buy them a post-match pint).
Back in my “casual” drunk game, I am yelling “Let's go! Aaaaaaaaaaa!” triumphantly, spitting wine all over my monitor. Airhorse reluctantly puts his Newerth hat on and gathers our other friend ManlyMan (he is very manly) for a game. Our years playing the original DOTA have done little to teach us where things are in the Heroes of Newerth shop. We stumble through – but ManlyMan seems to be getting the brunt of the trollspunk. The first thing that happens is that he is told to “Go get exp retard”.
My brain would usually ready a match-long sigh, but, being drunk, I guffaw instead. I inform Airhorse that I am going back to base to buy whatever thing the recommended items tells me to. Dickhead #1 laments ManlyMan's newbiness, and asks for help. We do not give it. We are also newbs. ManlyMan chuckles to himself on Mumble – we carry on laning hopelessly.
Troll guy asks ManlyMan to leave after his last death. We ignore troll guy. Other troll guy on our team asks why ManlyMan picked Monkey King on first go. Airhorse and I giggle to each other. The three of us hardly know what we are doing. I buy a recipe by accident and can't stop laughing. ManlyMan types “Yeah sorry, I should have known what hero is hard to play the first time. Since it's my first time.” Airhorse and I laugh harder. Airhorse keeps dying. So do I, gradually. Some prick called Charles Dance is murdering us all the time. In my head, Charles Dance is an upper class gentleman who apologises every time he messes us up. Charles Dance is farming us and making our dick team unbearable: they are bombarding us with abuse.
I can feel us starting to get reluctant to help the dicks on our team in fights. It will be a long time until we lose for sure. We're scheming on a thing: it's sabotage.
The Heroes of Newerth forums agree: the consequence of having no bots is that every new player has to practice in public – which may be a gleeful experience for the pros – but it is a traumatic and slightly unpleasant experience for those with skin thinner than an elephant's hide. In most reviews of the game this community is represented by the euphemism “the competitive community is not for everyone”. Getting flayed to death is also not for everyone.
Here is someone on the forum joking about what would happen if HoN implemented bots:
“I hope trolling is built into bot behaviour to give the realistic HoN experience.
if (player_brown = dead)
then (print.TEAM "fuk n00b /uninstall")
(print.ALL "brown feed. we cc 15")
It's a shame: S2 built this super-nice, really economical war machine, and then had an international shower of bastards descend on it. They went to all the bother of making new, slightly quirkier DOTA heroes and making a whole host of new items and menu systems, and they made a nice little shop to monetize, just to have people come on and shout abuse at each other, hate on each other, and kick people until they never load up the game again and go and cry in the bath and tell themselves they are fat and unloveable and will never get a boyfriend because her skills are just not good enough in HoN. Pass the wine. I must have the wine! My life from now on will be a failure!
But to be serious: in the history of the world, I have never heard a developer say that they want to make a gamer disconnect from the game as part of the experience, perhaps unless it was a horror game, but I think possibly 90% of the people who start this game actually disconnect fairly quickly and go and watch Morecambe and Wise for an hour to grow back their sense of humanity. I lie back and think of Scotland whilst people are lobbing around insults, but there are getting to be more and more people who are migrating to an online space that is heavily community moderated: both League of Legends and DOTA 2 are that space, though the problem persists there too.
This issue is not going unnoticed by developers: in Develop in April, Managing Director of Valve Gabe Newell asked "How do you properly value people's contributions to a community? An example is – and this is something as an industry we should be doing better – is charging customers based on how much fun they are to play with. So, in practice, a really likeable person in our community should get Dota 2 for free, because of past behaviour in Team Fortress 2. Now, a real jerk that annoys everyone, they can still play, but a game is full price and they have to pay an extra hundred dollars if they want voice.”
Newell said to the Seven Day Cooldown podcasters: “We're trying to figure out ways so that people who are more valuable to everybody else [are] recognized and accommodated. We all know people where if they're playing we want to play, and there are other people where if they're playing we would [rather] be on the other side of the planet. It's just a question of coming up with mechanisms that recognize and reward people who are doing things that are valuable to other groups of people."
Newell's got it right: if you want to expand your player base, you make them feel comfortable, rewarded, and like you belong. You can still keep the competitive edge: after all, professional football has a strict card system, and if you're rude to other players you are restricted access to the game. It's still one of the most competitive and popular sports to be in.
Can you imagine a world in which online multiplayer were always a comfortable, safe, rewarding experience to have? One where you rarely if ever encountered a troll? One where the people on your team were welcoming, whom you liked and formed real camaraderie with? Where you didn't have to be drunk to laugh at your own difficulties? Where you knew everyone's nickname and personality by memory, because you loved playing with them? You would spend all your time and money there. Friends would join to be with friends. We wouldn't need bots. It would be a wonderland. It would be that virtual world that our parents always worried we'd be sucked into forever. I would throw my salary at it like the cash were white hot in my hands. Newell just knows that is where we all want to go: to the promised land.
Heroes of Newerth would be, without its community, a cheap well-oiled version of DOTA, but the inability of the game mechanics to manage its community, or to offer a way to practise with bots to avoid that community, makes it impenetrable. It's out of its depth, and the playing fields of Newerth have become the nihilistic wastelands of Mad Max without any of the cool bikes. And yet, the environment isn't out with our control. The universal truth is this: you can be great at LPGs without being a cunt. It's in the DOTA wiki.
They told me to uninstall. So I did.