Heroes of the Storm

With the recent news that Blizzard (or Activision, depending on who you want to blame) has canceled the HGC for 2019 and scaled back the development team, I thought it'd be the right sort of time to talk about Heroes of the Storm.

First, a spot of background. I was introduced to League of Legends when I was back at Black Rock*. It came up as part of our research into what this whole Free To Play thing was and formed the basis of one of our projects there. To this end, I played it. A lot. In fact, even after Black Rock when belly up, I continued to play it to an almost unhealthy degree. This, despite the fact that I'd only actually 'enjoy' maybe one match in three.

Then, about 3 or so years ago, I got into the beta of Blizzard's entry into the MOBA genre. I even managed to persuade Leanne to give it a go as this was something we could play together and, seeing as how we were trying to get our own MOBA off the ground, there was a language that needed to be learned.

Anyhow, I think Heroes of the Storm is (was?) the best MOBA out there and here are the reasons why.

Accessibility

As far as DOTA clones go, this one does it more simply than the others. There are far fewer arcane concepts to get to grips with and, as such, it's far more accessible than the rest. Okay, sure, that's not going to make a blind bit of difference to a pro player, but it certainly serves to make the introduction of new players a more pleasant process.

It's Blizzard's approach in a nutshell - take an existing thing and remove as many of the rough edges as you can so that what you're left with is the distilled essence of whatever thing it was. Then you polish it to a mirror shine and let the public go at it.

With that in mind, I'll go into more detail about why it's just that bit more accessible than the rest.

Visual Clarity

One of the biggest issues with any of these DotA style games is that of the visual spectacle. Unless you are completely comfortable with the abilities of all of the characters, it's very hard to parse the combat. You'll see a bunch of dudes all move to the same bit of the map, there'll be a huge explosion of badass particle effects then fewer dudes will walk out of that cloud.

HotS at least tries to address this problem with a simple visual language - all area of effect abilities are accompanied by a hard, coloured outline. If the outline is red, you don't want to be standing there. Otherwise, you can ignore it. It makes combat that much easier to get to grips with without dulling the experience in any way.

In fact, looking at some LoL recently, I think this is an approach that has also been adopted by Riot although maybe not quite to the same extent.

Shared XP Pool

One of the starkest changes is the concept of the shared XP pool. In all of the other games, individual characters have individual levels. That means that it's quite possible for a single character to become 'fed' and dominate the game. It also means that individual mistakes are punished a lot more which can lead to some serious toxicity issues amongst teammates.

The shared XP pool mitigates some of that. The odd mistake here and there will be swallowed up and a decent team can carry a poor team member to a certain extent. It also makes it less likely that you'll encounter an opponent who has leveled themselves out of contention. Note, 'less likely' - not 'impossible'.

No shop

One of the most bewildering and daunting aspects of LoL and DotA is the concept of the shop. I mean, I get why it's there, but it really feels like a bit of a hangover. The shop is just so fiddly and often another source of intra-team frustration. Why have you picked that item? Don't you know how to build that character?

HotS does away with the shop in favour of individual tech trees. At certain level thresholds, the player is presented with a choice of about 4 different upgrades as opposed to the 276(!) items available in LoL.

No Last Hitting

One of the more counter-intuitive aspects of LoL and DotA is Last Hitting. It's simple enough - you are awarded bonus XP for dealing the killing blow to any minion. But when you combine it with the equally counter-intuitive desire to not push your lane out too much, it results in a couple of badass heroes, dancing around and not actually doing any damage to anything. Very frustrating.

Sure, in HotS there may be times when you don't want to push a lane too much, but for the most part, you're pretty free to just wail on anything and everything within range. So liberating!

In fact, whilst we're on the subject, I'd just like to talk about (and subsequently consign to hell) the idea of Denials. In DotA, you can attack your own minions, thereby preventing the opponent from gaining that bonus XP for Last Hitting. How twisted is that? It's a great example of a simple design feature (bonus XP for the killing blow) snowballing out of control and introducing many other features that might not have been anticipated or desired.

Camps

Both LoL and DotA include Camps. These are powerful monsters that lurk in spots outside of the main game's 'lanes'. HotS has them too, but with one key difference. In the first two games, the Camps are merely used as a source of XP - just like killing a minion. Okay, so a couple of them also confer a temporary buff to the player that killed them, but that's it.

In HotS, taking the camp adds the creatures to your side and they stomp off, up the lane and join in the fight. It makes sense and is much more visceral and appealing than its abstract equivalent.

Maps

Actually, I'm a bit conflicted about the choice of maps in HotS. It kinda goes against the accessible thing in so much as there are multiple maps to learn - and you really do have to learn them as each one plays in a different way - but then again it's much more interesting than just that same DotA layout, again and again and again...

Freedom

In LoL or DotA there are very established roles. There's a solo top lane, a solo mid lane, a jungler, an AD carry, and a support. These are fairly rigidly defined and woe betide anyone who tries to deviate from this formula.

HotS has a much more fluid association with roles. Sure, your team will need a good spread of role archetypes - a healer, a tank, a bit of range, etc. - but for as to how they play in the game themselves, there's a lot more leeway. Beyond ensuring that each of your guys is near enough to enemy minions when they die, the teams are free to roam around and do what they want. Then the map objective will normally pop and everyone will collapse onto that.

Game Length

A game of LoL can last up to an hour and a half. They're very rarely less than 45 minutes long unless one team surrenders at the 20-minute mark. That's a hell of an investment into something that can be very frustrating to be a part of.

HotS games generally end after about 15 minutes. Some can stretch to maybe half an hour, but it's very rare.

Turnarounds

In LoL, generally speaking, once you'd started to lose, that's it - you were done. If the enemy team ever got more than 2 levels on you, you were basically finished.

Not so in HotS. Somehow, you're only ever one decent team fight away from a comeback. As such, it means it gives the losing team hope (provided they can stick together enough to see it through) and means that the winning team has to concentrate right to the very end.

Character Selection

LoL and DotA follow the same sequence when it comes to getting a game going. I'm sticking with a pickup game format rather than Ranked / Draft mode here, but you get into a game then everyone picks their character. This quite often causes a whole bunch of conflict as people will want to play a particular character that either doesn't make for a good team composition or straight up causes arguments as to who will get to play them.

I always found it was quite weird that you'd encourage people to buy a thing then render them unable to use that thing.

By reversing the process - player's pick their characters before starting the game - HotS ensures that in Quick Match at least, you'll always be able to play the character you want. Okay, so it puts a whole lot of pressure on Blizzard's matchmaking algorithms - often with 'hilarious' consequences - but for the most part, it's just a much more elegant system and one that makes it slightly less likely to start arguments.

Disconnects

If a player decides to go AFK or loses connection in LoL, you're screwed. In HotS... well, you're still screwed but at least they've got the good grace to drop an AI in to take control of that hero. You can even ping them and get them to follow you around the battlefield.

It's not ideal, but it's better than nothing.

Events

With special events around Christmas, Chinese New Year, Halloween, Easter, etc. the game felt alive. In addition, the special quests that they'd throw up to spice up your own meta were very compelling. The rewards were normally time limited or unique skins and mounts that would be unavailable for the rest of the year. Miss out, and you'd have to wait 12 months for the event to come around again.

At the time of writing, the quest line involves playing a board game to flip over quest cards and unlock new things. The level of polish and presentation is exactly what you'd expect from a Blizzard game - in short, awesome.

Want to win this? Well, you can't. Not anymore.

The End

I can absolutely see why Activision or Blizzard would want to scale back support for HotS. The game is so generous in terms of monetisation - there's almost no friction that would cause you to have to spend at all. That skin you want? You'll be able to grind enough currency for it soon enough, if it doesn't pop out of a loot crate before then.

Stopping the pro-game in its tracks is a weird one though. I mean, again, I understand why they might want to do that. Hell, I've been in the same situation myself. At Bullfrog we went from 'Hey, let's make this cool game' to EA telling us 'Sure, that game will be a success... but if you made this one instead, we'd make a lot more money.'

But it's the manner of the announcement that really sucks. You can't just do that to people's livelihoods. Dick move, whoever made that call.

I'd also be very interested to see analytics of the playerbase now. My guess is that, because of the bad publicity and with nothing for players to aspire to, the numbers have fallen off a cliff.

* Thanks Ash...

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