Heroes of the Storm represents something of a departure from Blizzard’s usual M.O for releasing new products. For the last twenty years their strategy has been the same: identify a market that is suitably zeitgeist-y but which is not yet saturated; do a crapload of market research and design experimentation to figure out what makes it so popular; and then make their own entry into the genre which is far from revolutionary, but which is so accessible and refined in terms of mechanics and highly polished in terms of production values that they establish dominance over the market, or at least a significant share of that market. It’s been that way ever since Warcraft II, and the most recent example — Hearthstone — is doing just as well as you’d expect by carving out a huge portion of the virtual CCG market on both PC and mobile. Blizzard like to operate from a position of strength; they’ve always been pretty good at design (even if they do occasionally make fucking stupid decisions like the Diablo 3 auction house) but if there’s one thing that makes them so good at what they do, it’s that they have the time and the resources to do it properly where other developers might feel pressured by financial constraints or publisher deadlines.
This is why Heroes of the Storm is a dramatic role reversal for Blizzard. It’s their entry into the MOBA1 genre, a market which is so cutthroat that it’s already strewn with the bodies of dozens of failed and cancelled titles. The MOBA market is currently dominated by the behemoth that is Riot’s League of Legends, with Valve’s Dota 2 also holding on to a sizeable portion of the playerbase. Valve and Riot are much tougher competition for Blizzard; they have just as much money as Blizzard do, and furthermore they’ve already been operating in the market for some time and have had 2-3 years to grow their audience share. MOBAs are incredibly deep games that require a level of time investment on par with a particularly obsessive brand of MMO, and so Blizzard are facing the same problem that the horde of World of Warcraft challengers did a decade ago: Heroes of the Storm is up against established best-of-breed games whose playerbases are going to be extremely reluctant to abandon something they’ve sunk hundreds of hours into in favour of something new. Breaking their stranglehold is going to be extremely difficult.
So despite their reputation, their resources, and (thanks to Battle.net) the huge network of existing players that they’ve made a habit of leveraging into playing their new releases, for once Blizzard are operating at such a huge disadvantage that they’re the definite underdogs in this scenario. If they’d just copied LoL and slapped a coat of Blizzard paint on top I wouldn’t rate their chances much, but fortunately there appears to have been a realisation early on that targeting hardcore MOBA addicts would have been a total waste of time as no matter how many of them there are and no matter how much money they’re feeding into LoL and Dota, most of them are already spoken for. Instead, Heroes is aimed squarely at an even-larger audience: the people for whom existing MOBAs are too complicated, too intimidating, and just too downright demanding. This makes a hell of a lot of sense; there’s no room in the market for another League, but for every player that game has there’s ten more who bounced off or lapsed out, and who might be very much up for a less stressful take on the genre.
It’s a strategy which ties into that other strength of Blizzard: taking a previously existing idea (even if it’s one of their own) and cutting it down, polishing it and repackaging it as something that’s twice as accessible, even if it has lost some of its depth in the process. That pretty much perfectly sums up Heroes: it’s Dota for people who don’t have six hundred hours to spend on merely becoming very bad at a game instead of downright abject, and League for those of us who would like to be able to log on and play a game in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Friends. It’s the familiar heroes-and-towers-and-lanes setup, but ruthlessly, ruthlessly streamlined in a way that I’m sure would horrify those hardcore players the other would-be MOBAs made the mistake of targeting. There are no items in this game, no gold, no last-hitting and certainly no denying2. XP gain has been massively simplified; a hero merely has to be in the vicinity of dying creeps and structures to receive the XP for their destruction, and that XP goes into a team-wide pool that means everyone levels up at the same time. Each hero still has three abilities and an ultimate that unlocks at level 10, but the basic abilities are all available from level 1 and increase in power automatically as you level up; the decisions around items and abilities have been shifted to choosing which of a pool of four supplementary talents to take at specific level gates. These talents are split between buffs to existing hero abilities (like Sylvanas’s Shadow Dagger now healing her for each enemy damaged) and extra generic abilities like applying a shield to a teammate – it’s nothing dramatically game-changing, but they do provide enough valid choices that characters can be built in legitimately different ways.
Speaking as a lapsed Dota player I do sometimes miss the meatier decision-making and the tension of the laning phase when each team is trying to get an edge on the other in a hundred little ways, but I think this streamlining definitely achieves its goal of making Heroes matches quick, simple and clean. Most of the stuff I listed above were the primary reasons games of Dota could go on for an hour plus, most of which was spent grinding up gold to buy the items needed for endgame builds. Here all that stuff is gone, and each team instead progresses at a universal rate determined by their map control and teamfighting ability – and because it’s centrally set, Blizzard can tinker with that rate to dramatically shorten match times while retaining the fundamental strategy and individual skill that MOBAs rely on. They’ve settled on around twenty minutes as the ideal length, and I must say I’m surprised at how each game still feels like a meaty experience with a beginning, middle and end despite being half the length of a typical Dota match. The short match times really do work, to the point where I’m starting to wonder how I ever tolerated it being longer; it’s just about the right amount of time to feel like it’s worthwhile playing, but not long enough that you feel you have to set aside a whole block of time just for it. This is a MOBA where you can jump in for a quick game in between doing other stuff, where you can reasonably fit one or two matches into a lunch break, and that alone is a very valuable selling point for Blizzard’s target audience.
Blizzard have done a fair bit more than just cut, though. They’ve introduced a few new innovations too, chief of which is having more than one map. There are currently six different arenas in Heroes, each with a different layout (some even dispense with the third lane entirely) and their own individual special objective. These objectives kick in two to three minutes after the match starts, and most of them involve picking up and turning in a certain amount of tokens — seeds, skulls, doubloons, whatever — to unleash some horrifying fortification-destroying monstrosity on the other team. The objectives are valuable enough that you can’t afford to ignore them, and so the two teams inevitably end up colliding as they scrabble for tokens, with one- and two- player skirmishes quickly escalating into full-scale teamfights. It’s a great mechanism for forcing players to fight instead of farm, and the different objectives also serve to give each map its own sense of character (which is good because visually most of them are rather bland in that special Blizzard way). It also makes map control and pushing creep waves extra-important as it’ll give you the space to complete the objective – or at least it’ll mean that while the enemy team is fighting you in the middle of the map the creeps will be smashing down their base. If you need a little extra pushing power there are mercenary camps of tough, neutral minions scattered around the map; you have to defeat them before they’ll join you (which usually requires the efforts of two or more heroes) but once you do they join the nearest creep wave and usually end up pushing down a wall or a fort before they get killed.
These features are especially welcome because they ensure Heroes retains some of the complexity it would otherwise be in danger of losing while at the same time isolating that complexity inside each individual match – put simply, I don’t have to memorise a hundred different hero ability sets and items in order to do well at it, but I do have to pay attention to positioning, map control and the overall flow of the game. The maps may be different but the same principles can be applied to each, and it’s this that you have to learn and grasp in order to be good at Heroes. It’s still got a fair bit of depth to it, enough so that after 90 games I still feel like there’s plenty of room for me to improve strategically, but it’s not so deep that I’m sitting here looking at a learning curve that’s disappearing into the stratosphere and thinking “Bloody hell, I’ll never get up there.” I think they pitched the balance right, in other words. They successfully refined the MOBA concept in a way that only Blizzard really can, stripping out the dead weight and making it truly accessible for maybe the first time ever.
But that’s not to say that they’ve done everything right.
In-match, Heroes is a solid experience. It never quite reaches the highs of Dota, but it gets pretty damn high regardless and I see that as an acceptable tradeoff for being able to dip in and out whenever I want. Outside of the matches, however — in the menus and in the in-game shop — it’s a different story entirely. First off, Heroes tracks two types of level in the metagame: overall player level, which increases as you gain XP with every match played, and individual hero level, which only increases if you play games with that hero. The higher hero levels have colour and skin unlocks associated with them, which is fine; it’s a nice way to show off your experience with a hero you’re good at. The lower hero levels is where it gets dicey, however, as certain talent options and the hero’s alternate ultimate ability are locked off until you hit levels 2, 3 and 4. Often these are the best talents for the hero in question or are otherwise critical parts of the build you want to try – but you won’t be able to until you’ve played 4-5 games with them (more if you don’t have an XP bonus active). For those 4-5 games you’ll be playing a version of the hero that’s effectively crippled, which in a lot of cases severely impacted my enjoyment of them. I suppose the intent is to introduce the hero’s abilities gradually to avoid overwhelming the player, but it’s backfired massively and seems like the worst first impression the game could make.
Then you’ve got the vast array of game types on offer, which is to say that there’s one game type on offer: Quick Match, which is just a standard matchmaking mode. It’s unranked and just throws you in a game with nine other chumps, and the matchmaker isn’t all that fussy about team composition either; in Heroes you pick your hero before you find a match instead of drafting them during the match, but unfortunately it has no qualms about putting you on a team with three assassins (glass cannons) and no support healers while the other team has an almost perfect lineup. There’s also a Versus AI mode which is moderately useful for learning a character’s abilities in a safe environment, but the Heroes AI is predictably terrible and so every one of these I’ve played has been a one-sided stomp.
And then you’ve got your Hero League, which is the actual ranked mode for Heroes of the Storm, except this doesn’t unlock until you a) hit player level 30 and b ) own ten heroes. Fulfilling the first condition is difficult enough – I’ve played 90 games, most with various XP bonuses from launch events, queueing with friends and the in-game booster packs you can get for spending real money, and I’m still only level 23 — but it’s the second condition that’s the real ballache, since Heroes follows the League model of having all of the 40-odd heroes locked by default until you buy them with either real money or in-game currency. There’s a weekly rotation of 5-7 heroes you can play for free, but you have no control over what those are and anyway they don’t count towards your ten owned heroes total, so your only recourse is to get grinding if you want to participate. And here’s where we hit my principal beef with Heroes of the Storm: I know it’s a free-to-play game, and I know Blizzard have to make money off of it somehow, but it is tremendously grabby with both its real-money and in-game currency pricing. I just did a tally and you can buy the ten cheapest heroes with 28,000 of in-game gold, which just so happens to be more than all of the money I’ve made so far. To buy them for real money would cost £38 – and bear in mind that these are what can be thought of as the basic starting heroes, the solid dependable ones you throw at new players to get them accustomed to the game. If you want the more interesting (and expensive) ones you have to pay a whopping £7.50 per hero.
Coming to Heroes from Dota 2, where all 100 heroes are available to play from the moment you install the game, this strikes me as a incredibly grasping monetisation strategy. Cosmetics, fine, boosters, fine, but locking heroes — the basic foundation on which the game is built — behind a paywall is really fucking dumb, especially when they’re priced as stupidly as they are. Blizzard attempt to soften the blow with various sales and package deals, which is great until you notice that the heroes bundled together in the packs are all from the cheaper end of the scale and that they’re thrown in with some skins to make the saving seem larger than it actually is. It’s sad to see a developer that had managed to acquire a reputation for doing F2P right with Hearthstone fucking up their pricing as badly as they have here; I have no qualms about spending on F2P these days, but Heroes has wrung a measly £7 out of me so far. I think I’d spent at least £15 on Hearthstone at the same point in its lifecycle, so this more aggressive pricing isn’t really working for them since the value proposition behind what I’m buying isn’t anywhere near good enough. For me, anyway.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that many of the basic features of Heroes are locked behind paywalls that require a prohibitive amount of grind to tear down. If I actually cared about participating the Hero League at all I’d be very, very annoyed that they’d set the minimum requirements for it so high; I understand it includes that pre-game hero draft that’s missing from Quick Match, but as it stands I won’t see it until I’ve played another 40-50 games, and no matter how quick and accessible Heroes is that’s still a significant quantity of time. As it is I’ll just be annoyed that I can’t even try heroes properly unless they’re on rotation, and then even if I like them I’ll have to scrounge up enough in-game currency to buy them – when you make about 400 gold per day if you play daily, and the most expensive heroes cost 10,000 gold, that is going to take some time. Fortunately it’s difficult to take this as a mortal insult when Heroes has succeeded so well at being precisely the sort of disposable fun a MOBA should be, but it’s still something that leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.