E3 2010: Might and Magic Heroes Kingdom preview

On Tuesday, we caught up with Chris Early, Ubisoft's Vice President of Digital Publishing, to chat about Heroes of Might and Magic's future with a new browser-based MMO. I must admit, I'm personally a bit skeptical about whether browser-based games can supplant full-fledged applications, but after talking with Chris, I'm sold on the concept -- at least insofar as Might and Magic Heroes Kingdom is concerned.

First up, the basics. Just what is MMHK?
  • Ubisoft calls MMHK a "strategic casual MMO." It's turn-based with more of real-time strategy vibe than we've seen in other MMOs and it's designed with people who may only have a few minutes a day to play in mind. Think of something along the lines of multiplayer Civilization with thousands of other people and you'd be near the mark. Now, whether "casual" turns into hours of "just one more turn" is another matter entirely.
  • Gameplay and lore from the Might and Magic franchise we all know and love -- the goal with MMHK is just to throw more players into the mix.
  • Want PvP? You can do that. Want PvE? You can do that. Want to advance as a merchant-type character purely for the pursuit of wealth without killing your fellow players? You can do that, too.
  • Browser-based, which means you can play it on your PC, your Mac, or even your shiny new iPad -- wherever you've got an internet connection.This means there's no software to download or install.
  • Free to play with an optional subscription fee. (Though Ubisoft hasn't announced pricing for the game's North American release, it's currently live in France, where a monthly subscription runs five euros.)
If that sounds like something that might be up your alley, read on for more details.

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What's the point?
You begin as a single hero with a single city, surrounded by wilderness. You clear the wilderness around you and expand your city. (This early part of the game is a sort of tutorial -- you'll encounter monsters in the wilderness, but no players until you've grown a bit and gotten the hang of things.) Improve your city, expand your territory, fight other players -- or ally with them.

The goal of the game is the control of artifacts in the game world. When a player discovers an artifact, a server-wide message tells everyone where it is -- new alliances may be formed or siege wars may be fought for the control of it. The alliance that controls the most artifacts is the "winner" at the end of the server season (more on seasons in a bit).


Domination, honor, & wealth
There's m ore than one way to play MMHK. Players on each server are ranked in three categories: domination (territory controlled), honor (battles honorably won -- you gain little honor for picking fights with opponents weaker than you), and wealth (self-explanatory). Advance in whichever way you enjoy: forge alliances to control huge swaths of land, fight your way from one side of the world to the other, trade and amass wealth to the envy of other nations.

Of course, you don't have to choose just one. Perhaps your starting hero tends towards diplomacy -- but you can acquire additional heroes who can lend you expertise in other areas. Gameplay seems highly customizable to your playstyle of choice through your selection of faction, heroes, and careers.

Factions
Your initial hero has a choice of four factions (think classes): Haven, Academy, Inferno and Necromancer. (Those of you familiar with the franchise may be aware that there were more factions -- future expansion, perhaps?) This determines what type of hero and city you start with. The types of cities you control determine heroes you can acquire, the skills they can pick up, and the troops you can train. You can always conquer different types of cities to expand your abilities -- allowing your hero(es) to train new careers and letting you pick up a wider variety of troops and heroes. However, specialization seems encouraged. Your leaders can only control nine different sorts of troops (which you can get without adding any other faction cities to your domain) and your heroes can only learn three careers.


Turn-based in real time
The game is turn-based with everyone's turns taking place in the same real time. Put in work orders, command troop movements -- and then walk away from your keyboard if you'd like. (A bar along the top of the screen helps you keep track when actions you've scheduled are due to be completed.) Only a few minutes of effort will set your game in motion: MMHK doesn't need large blocks of time commitment. This could make it a great diversion for those of us pressed for gaming time these days -- or something to spend a few minutes on while you're waiting for your raid group to get together. However, for those who want a more in-depth experience, Chris tells us that you certainly can spend more time with the game, especially as your territory grows.

Servers & seasons
When you first create a character in MMHK, you're on a (relatively) new server of up to 3000 players. After a month, new players are no longer accepted (though you can continue to join for two months if a friend invites you). Though this may seem awkward to both players of single-server MMOs and multi-server MMOs, the goal is to prevent you from jumping into an established game where your competitors already control huge swaths of territory and you don't stand a chance. (Because as we all know, getting corpse camped in Stranglethorn Vale by level 80s is just no fun.) Each server runs for a "season" of about six months during which time a story will unfold. Once the season's over, you start over on a new server, with bonuses for having completed a previous season (a larger bonus if you were more successful).

Tired of your server? You're not locked into just one -- though you'll have to create a new character on each server. Ubisoft is currently operating 30 servers in France and, while Chris wouldn't comment on how many servers they plan for a North American launch, they're prepared to run as many as needed, launching a few at a time as population demands it.


Alliances
This is "a game of alliances." There aren't any 100-player raid dungeons to run, but allying with other players is the only way to win. Pool resources, share territory, and avoid being an isolated target. Want to play a merchant-type who spends time gathering resources and accumulating wealth? Join an alliance and let others serve as defense on the front lines.

While in most MMOs, to efficiently manage a guild you have to go to a third-party to host forums or similar to effectively communicate with your teammates, Ubisoft wanted to provide everything you'd need for alliance management right in MMHK. There are forums and a built-in mail system to easily keep in touch with your alliance-mates. There are also statistics to show how well your alliance (and players) are doing in different areas of the game. Just like players, alliances are ranked on domination, honor, and wealth.

Lore
Fans of the Heroes of Might & Magic series know there's a lot of history to this game, and though this is a new format, Ubisoft plans on keeping it "very true to the lore." Like all of Ubisoft's Might & Magic games, it takes place in the land of Ashan and the MMHK team has its own loremaster to be sure they're keeping the story straight.

When can I play?
Want to try the game out for yourself? (It's free -- all you have to lose is time.) The game's going open beta in the US and Canada in July. Head over to their website and register (there's a button on the right) to be notified when it launches.

This article was originally published on Massively.