Hesitation isn’t something we tend to associate with Blizzard. The creator of Warcraft is known for slow but decisive development, the end result of which is almost invariably comprehensive, polished, genre-defining games. Heroes Of The Storm is something of an edge case, though. It’s the most publicly iterated game the developer has ever produced, appearing at three successive BlizzCon events in different forms and under different names. It has been Blizzard DOTA, Blizzard All-Stars, and now – somewhat confusingly – it’s called Heroes Of The Storm. Blizzard would like you to call it Heroes.
It’d also like you to remember that the original Defense Of The Ancients was a mod for Warcraft III. It’d like you to remember that this vastly popular and hugely lucrative genre is grounded in a merging of realtime strategy and RPG mechanics that it pioneered. The language used to frame the game, both at BlizzCon and since, is loaded with challenges to Blizzard’s wayward children.
“These other games are about making superstars: there’s the one guy who gets to do everything and be really cool and powerful,” says producer Kaeo Milker. “We’re looking at how each player can take a meaningful part in their team’s advancement.”
A roster of star Blizzard characters will join forces for this friendly, group-minded approach. Players can choose to be Assassins, such as StarCraft’s Nova, a sniper with passive invisibility and a long-range skill shot. They can play as durable melee warriors, such as Diablo’s archangel Tyrael, or support healers, whose ranks include Warcraft’s Malfurion Stormrage. Specialist characters like Diablo III’s Witch Doctor have control abilities that allow them to push lanes and manipulate the game’s rhythm. The roster is diverse and it’s growing. Eventually, it will include heroes from The Lost Vikings and Rock N’ Roll Racing.
Heroes come with a difficulty rating, with warnings attached to characters who demand highly skilled play. These include Abathur (see ‘Intelligent design’) and Warcraft villain Illidan, whose damage output is based on comboing regular auto-attacks with a range of special moves. He’ll be a more natural fit for players used to League Of Legends or Dota 2.
In pursuit of a more accessible, equitable and focused MOBA, Blizzard has taken the genre apart. Earning gold to purchase items and enhance a character is gone. Competing for last hits against lane creeps is gone. Hunting neutral creeps as we know it is gone. Even the concept of individual power levels has been stripped away. In Heroes, players don’t have levels, but teams do. If one player earns experience, his whole team reaps the benefit. It’s impossible for new players to fall behind, or for a single superstar to emerge who carries his team to victory.
This approach has left a hole in the game. Blizzard has had to find another means of providing players with a way to pull ahead, because MOBAs are ultimately predicated on imbalance, on a steadily building power differential between players that eventually becomes unstoppable. In Heroes Of The Storm, dynamic objectives give players something to work towards. In the Cursed Hollow map, an item called a Tribute spawns at a random location at regular intervals. The team that claims three of these items earns the favour of a capricious Raven Lord, landing a huge debuff on the enemy team. In Blackheart’s Bay, coins can be gathered from treasure chests or looted from monsters in order to pay off a ghostly pirate at the map’s centre. When this happens, he turns his cannon on enemy buildings.
It’s a system that works well because, unlike Dota 2, Heroes endeavours to be clear about what is happening and why at any given time. An alert that the enemy is gathering Tribute is a natural call to arms, creating team battle scenarios without requiring an understanding of game economics, power curves, or match phases.
The game will be free to play, with purchasable alternative costumes and skins for in-game mounts. An account-wide levelling system will be used to steadily unlock characters, and Blizzard plans to use this to gate the difficulty of the game and more accurately match players of similar skill.
Time spent playing Heroes Of The Storm reveals a game that is – despite its back-and-forth development process – confident in its overhaul of a genre currently characterised by complexity and hostility. Blizzard is approaching the MOBA as a problem that it has the expertise, resources and time to solve. Players who believe that the MOBA is fine as it is might find something objectionable in that attitude, but they may also find, with time, that there’s beauty in simplicity.