When he’s not making games in his spare time, Benjamin Hauer works as a psychologist. His most famous game, Hero’s Hour, is a heartfelt homage to the old Heroes of Might and Magic (HoMM) strategy games, popular in the late 90’s (play it now on GX.games!).
During our interview, we talked about the importance of procedural generation, why Hero’s Hour doesn’t have a campaign mode, and his very controversial HoMM opinions!
Is making games your hobby or a career?
I’m a psychologist who makes games as a hobby. I don’t introduce myself by saying “Hey, I’m a game developer”!
How did you go from a psychologist to a game developer?
I started learning how to make games when I was 12 years old - obviously I wasn’t a psychologist back then!
It was the days of GameMaker 5 and GameMaker 6. I was introduced to it in primary school, when I didn’t know what up and down were, but that’s really where it started.
There were years where I didn’t work on games, just to turn around to find myself fiddling with small projects, and at some point I ended up here.
Is Hero’s Hour your only game, or have you worked on some other projects as well?
I’ve been working on lots of different projects, but none of them have been on any sort of a comparable scale.
My main focus has been on procedural generation, and I made various minor prototypes and experimented with it a lot.
Hero's Hour Gameplay
How important procedural generation is in Hero’s Hour?
It’s fundamental to the way it's programmed, since there are so many different units in the game.
None of the units have their data stored in the game files. Instead, it’s made from a couple of simpler numbers, and the rest is just being figured out.
Originally all of the balancing in the game was also procedurally made. I had the computer fight against itself, and based on that fight, figured out which units had to be nerfed or buffed.
Do you have a method for learning game development?
Trial and error is the way that I go about developing things. If I have an idea for something I want to achieve, I try a lot of different approaches and see what turns out best.
I remember trying to figure out how to do the Perlin Noise algorithm in GameMaker ages ago. There were no built-in functions for it, so I had to try to figure it out myself. Fast-forward several years, I became more and more interested in it, and tried to do my own things within it.
What was the main inspiration behind Hero’s Hour?
The most obvious inspiration was the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise. A lot of people say that it almost feels like a clone of Heroes of Might and Magic III, which wasn’t my intention.
Hero’s Hour is more like an amalgamation of everything I loved about that series, and plus some of the things that I thought could take it in a different direction.
Heroes of Might and Magic III by 3DO
What do you think of Hero’s Hour being compared to Heroes III?
I think it’s a compliment, especially since I don’t market it as a HoMM III-like - people notice it themselves. I really respect those games, so I hope that one day Hero’s Hour will be seen as an evolution of the genre.
Of course, it’ll never be a real Heroes of Might and Magic game, but I really want it to fit within that framework. Being seen in the same way as the unofficial fan expansion of Heroes, Horn of the Abyss would be amazing.
What’s your opinion about the HoMM franchise?
Honestly, I never really got into any games beyond Heroes V. I’ve opened up Heroes VI several times and played a couple of hours of it, but it never really worked for me.
If you ask me, Heroes V is the best one and that’s all there is to say on the matter.
Usually people swear by the third game.
I would have to disagree very much. A lot of people say that Hero’s Hour looks like Heroes III, but in my heart it’s way closer to Heroes V. You’ve got the colourful, playful graphics, with a cute design, instead of Heroes III which is, “Hey, how many pixels can we fit in this thing?”.
I focused on making sure factions played differently from one another in Hero’s Hour because I loved that feature in Heroes V, and in Heroes III all the factions are identical.
Heroes III was extremely successful and sometimes I wonder if it’s because it’s a better version of Heroes II. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that, it was an improvement in every single way, but it’s not unique.
Heroes of Might and Magic V by Nival and Ubisoft
Were there some features of the HoMM franchise you decided not to use in your game?
I love those games, but realised that if I were to sit down and play a game of Heroes of Might and Magic, it would take six hours for it to get interesting. It’s a very slow, long-form game, and that’s amazing when you’re a child and you have a lot of free time, but less so when you’re an adult.
I wanted to focus on making my game more approachable and exciting from the outset. Some people describe Hero’s Hour as HoMM with auto-combat, and that’s exactly what’s going on.
Was this the reason why you decided not to feature turn-based combat?
A year before I started Hero’s Hour’s development, I made a different adaptation of Heroes of Might and Magic with focus on a more complex, turn-based combat. You’d have all these units with different abilities you could use, and it was interesting but also very tiring to play, because there were so many decisions to make.
The game became even slower, and that’s when I realised I had to do something to speed it up.
One of the main things many reviews point out is the lack of the story campaign. Is that something you intend to address in future updates?
This is the inside scoop: we tried developing a campaign for the game, and it went dreadfully. The campaign itself was actually okay, but it took a lot of work and energy.
In December 2021, the decision was made to just pause the development of the campaign indefinitely. The campaign might still happen - there’s a campaign editor, a map event editor, and dialogue system in game.
It’s important to note that I do hear where the requests for getting a campaign are coming from, but I don’t think I’m the right person to make one, because truth be told, I would only play the campaigns in HoMM games when I was running out of things to do.
For me, that game shined brightest when building a custom map, which I’m focusing on in my game. Story mode was never really part of my vision for Hero’s Hour, because that vision was based on what I enjoyed.
Example of a battle in Hero's Hour
Are you the sole developer behind Hero’s Hour, or did you have some help?
I’m working with Alexandr Makarov, known as KingRabbit online, and who’s been creating amazing pixel art for various different fantasy assets.
The development of Hero’s Hour started in 2020 and went off without a hitch for the first long while, because of Alexander’s assets. For most of the first six factions, things were handed to me on a silver platter and I didn’t do a lot of design myself. A lot of the credit goes to Alexandr.
Since then, he and I have worked more together, and I commissioned him to do the art for the eighth faction. At one point, completely out of nowhere, Alexandr decided to do dwarves, and so that’s why we have dwarves in the game.
Which of the factions within the game is your favourite?
The first time I worked on the art of Hero’s Hour myself was for the ninth faction, the Tide, who are the Hawaiian-inspired salamander pirate people.
It also happens to be one of the factions that doesn’t really have a correlation with old Heroes of Might and Magic factions, and for those reasons it has to be my favourite.
What was the most challenging part of Hero’s Hour’s development?
The most emotionally challenging part was working on the campaign. I was so miserable, I did everything I could to avoid working it. Funnily enough, lots of the extra features were added because I didn’t want to spend time on designing the campaign.
The most technically challenging might actually be finishing the game. I’m used to working on experiments and prototypes, I’ve never had to really finish a game before.
The third most challenging thing, and this might be a bit more of a GameMaker-centric thing. GameMaker is a great engine, it just doesn’t do mods in any way, shape or form, so for a long time players kept asking for mods and I had to explain that it doesn’t work like that with GameMaker.
At this point, we actually have quite a lot of modding in Hero’s Hour, but I had to develop everything people were able to mod themselves. I had to do all the work that usually is done by modders for them just to be able to make mods for the game.
Town management in Hero's Hour
Why did you decide to use GameMaker?
When people ask what they should start developing in, I recommend GameMaker. The reason I recommend it is because it is fast. It’s so easy to start a new project and get things together and into a working state.
It might be because I’m used to it, but every single engine I’ve been looking at, apart from GameMaker, has these insane time sinks of setting things up and switching between the engine and the text editor, and things like that.
It’s important for everything to be integrated and quick, because while the start of a game is only 10% of the development time, you’re going to be making hundreds of games that never get that far.
To be able to get through the prototyping stage fast is essential. GameMaker really helps with that, and I know it’s not my own opinion either, I’ve seen other people say it too.
What’s the hardest part of being an indie game developer for you?
There’s a lot of things going on all the time. If you want to have a game that people play and care about, you’ll need constant maintenance.
When I say maintenance, it’s not only updating the game - it’s about the community. What do the competitive players want? What do the casual players want? What does the player who doesn’t even know the game, but is interested in it from screenshots want? What do the modders want?
That’s a lot of things to keep track of, especially in this day and age where the community is so close, due to social media. It’s a lot of work, and it becomes ingrained in your free time, because it’s just answering messages and talking to people takes time.
Map exploration in Hero's Hour
What are your plans for the future?
My first plan is to finish the game, but that won’t be for a while yet. I keep making new plans before I finish the ones I already have.
One day, I do want to work on a game that isn’t Hero’s Hour, but I’m terrified of making something of the same scale again. I’m a big fan of working on small things - games that take a week to make, game jam sized games.
Is there a piece of advice you would give to your past self?
When I started developing, I remember thinking: how long will it take to make a game? I realised there’s usually dozens of people working on a project like that, but it can’t be that bad!
And I’d like to say to myself back then - it’s worse. It’s a lot more time than you think.
It took me 14 months to make Hero’s Hour. It’s not too bad, but on the other hand, that’s a lot of my life. If you’re going to be spending a year and a half on each game you’re going to be making, you can’t make much more than ten games in a lifetime, and that’s terrifying.