Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane – it’s 1995, DOS is still the predominant operating system and the computers are as large as cardboard boxes. The first ever E3 is just around the corner, as is the first PlayStation, and companies like Remedy and BioWare are just being established. Gaming’s formation period hasn’t ended yet, but the potential is there and so is the passion. Enter New World Computing’s Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest, a spin-off of the successful Might and Magic series. The game receives praise for combining elements of adventure, simulation and strategy, as well as offering an accessible, yet hard to master, gameplay. A year later, in 1996, Heroes of Might and Magic II comes out, improving upon its predecessor in every aspect while only taking a fraction of the time to develop. It’s the first in the HOMM franchise to receive an expansion, possibly due to 3DO’s purchase of NWC earlier that year. And then Heroes of Might and Magic III comes along on February 28, 1999.
See, HOMM III was a truly special game, one of those games that live on in the hearts of their fans for decades and are remembered fondly by everyone who’s experienced them. The third installment of the franchise was by far the best one yet, and arguably one of the best turn-based strategy games ever created up to that point. It was bigger and better than the prior iterations of HOMM, building on the concepts of the previous games and improving upon them. The number of units was doubled, the graphics were tremendous for their time, and, as customary for the franchise even to this day, the soundtrack was absolutely beautiful, professionally made and easy on the ears. Heroes of Might and Magic III remains, to this day, one of the greatest achievements of the strategy gaming genre.
3DO made an attempt to capitalize on the success of their game even further, releasing two expansions and the episodic series Heroes Chronicles, which utilized the same engine. Sadly, this marks the beginning of The 3DO Company’s end. The turn of the millennium brought nothing but the realization that the situation was becoming ever more dire by the day. The expansions weren’t selling as well as they’d anticipated, Heroes Chronicles was practically invisible on the market. Production of Heroes of Might and Magic IV began around the beginning of 2001, but soon it became obvious that NWC wouldn’t be able to finish the game quickly enough and, thus, it was shipped early, unfinished and unpolished, prior to post-release patches and changes. Critically, the game did rather well, but the fan base was split in half. Some absolutely abhorred the complete change of pace from HOMM III, while others loved the new features, though the latter group was a minority at the time and even more so now. Heroes could now take part in the battles, the combat view was changed, the UI slightly modified, just enough to throw even the seasoned veterans for a bit of a loop. The spell system was different, the atmosphere was off, the list went on and on. The result was a commercial flop, despite the critical success. This was, arguably, the final blow for 3DO. The expansions did even worse, understandably, as the player base either moved away from HOMM IV and back to the previous game or completely gave up on the series.
The 3DO Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2003, just a year after the release of HOMM IV. Employees were laid off without pay and the company’s intellectual properties were sold off to the highest bidder. The Heroes of Might and Magic and Might and Magic names were bought by Ubisoft. NWC ceased to exist following the dissolution of their parent company, and that was the end of Heroes of Might and Magic as we knew it.
Ubi announced their plans to develop a fifth game almost immediately after buying the franchise. The producer was to be Fabrice Cambounet and the game would be made from the ground up, despite Ubisoft gaining access to NWC’s prototype of the next game in the series. NWC’s version was true to the legacy of the franchise, featuring the familiar 2D graphics and interesting artwork. What Ubisoft created was nothing like the previous games, be it visually or in terms of the gameplay. It received favorable reviews and was generally regarded as a soft reboot of the series, thus not prompting any serious backlash from the already dwindling HOMM fan base. The game, in my eyes and in those of many other players, had done away with the charm of its precursors. The 90s feel was gone, and so was the lightheartedness. The rest of the games in the franchise, the sixth and seventh installments, received negative reviews and low sales numbers, and despite this there is no indication of Ubi trying to return to the classic feel of the series in order to rekindle the passion that gamers once had for it. And why would one of the biggest corporations in gaming attempt such a thing? HOMM is relatively cheap to develop and, at this point, the expectations are so spectacularly low that even the faintest sign of progress and improvement would be regarded as a step in the right direction by the big gaming news outlets that seem so inclined to heap praise on even the most hastily produced and mechanically shoddy triple A release.
The story of Heroes of Might and Magic is telling for the path that the gaming industry took in the early 00s. All semblance of innocence is gone, and most of the old-timers have either adjusted or dropped out, leaving only the big sharks to compete. Yes, independent development is alive and kicking, maybe even more so that ever before, but one can’t help but feel that the spark has gone out of game development, that the passion is only observable in those small developer teams that make games on the side. Big titles are made in boardrooms now, amid discussions of optimizing sales and preventing any possible controversy. The actual creative process takes a backseat to the PR departments and all the other white collar employees whose job it is to maximize the shareholders’ profits.