BOSTON — Blizzard doesn’t want to refer to Heroes of the Storm as a MOBA, or a multiplayer online battle arena. I get that. The MOBA landscape is getting crowded with Defense of the Ancients 2, Heroes of Newerth, and Infinite Crisis standing as just three of the highest-profile games in the crowded genre.
League of Legends still bills itself as a MOBA, though some call it an “action real-time strategy game,” or an ARTS. Blizzard wants to differentiate Heroes of the Storm, so they’ve been referring to it as a “hero brawler,” ostensibly because they want to reinforce their simpler, more accessible design for players new to such games.
It was all beginning to sound quite silly to me. We’re talking about a bunch of games that all spawned from the creative DNA of the original Defense of the Ancients, a mod of seminal strategy game Warcraft 3. They’re all variations on the same theme. They’re all MOBAs no matter what they call themselves, right?
So at PAX East when I met with Dustin Browder and Phill Gonzales, the game director and primary character artist, respectively, for Heroes of the Storm, I wanted to know how their game was different enough from Dota 2, Valve’s MOBA on digital distribution service Steam; or League of Legends, an ARTS game, to justify an entirely new appellation.
Understanding the DNA of a MOBA
Defense of the Ancients, the first multiplayer online battle arena, was a mod for Warcraft III, which was a real-time strategy game like Command & Conquer, Dune 2000, and, of course, Blizzard’s other standout series, StarCraft. In a RTS, you build a base to collect resources to build structures which build troops which you use to kill the other guy’s base.
DOTA simplified the logistics. You still had a base to defend, but you didn’t have to build it. You still had infantry units, but they were generated automatically and ran straight for the other team’s base. Instead of controlling entire armies, you controlled one powerful Hero character, and that’s where the game’s complexity lay.
Heroes accrued experience and became more powerful during the match. They earned gold for killing enemies and destroying structures. They used the gold to buy items to use during combat. Players operated in teams of Heroes, and the goal was still the same as in a real-time strategy game: Kill the other guy’s base.
That describes the basic rules behind Valve’s Dota 2 and Riot Games’s League of Legends. The difference between the two games is mostly one of complexity. Dota 2 has one map, unlocks all of its characters from the start, and only offers cosmetic items to purchase with real dollars. League of Legends has multiple maps, offers 10 free Champions every week for to choose between, and players use an in-game earned currency called Influence points to permanently unlock Champions — or they can pay real dollars to do so.
Heroes of the Storm is no different as far as core rules go, but the designation “hero brawler” could be appropriate in that players are more likely to have relationships with their Hero from the start, and it has fewer distractions from actually wading into and staying in combat with that Hero.
If you know Blizzard, you already know your Heroes
“It’s very easy to look at our game, [as] I think a lot of people do, and say, ‘This is just the simplest version of the game you can make,’” said Browder. “We used to hear the same thing about World of Warcraft.”
“In [EverQuest] if you died, you lost experience, and if you went below a level cap, you blew away a level. At the time, that was required. The guys who made WoW were ‘ruining it’ because they got rid of that. And it was a simplification, sure. But then that complexity comes in other areas. So you’re doing tradeoffs as a designer,” said Browder.
Where Dota 2 and League of Legends offer more than a hundred characters for players to choose between, Heroes of the Storm currently offers 24. That might change over time, but the characters in Blizzard’s game map onto archetypical characters from Blizzard games like StarCraft, World of Warcraft, and Diablo, so there ought to be a more finite number.
“You can see, on a very basic level, that immersion is very tied to these characters. The iconic characters kind of speak for themselves out of the gate,” said Gonzales. “People just understand based on the lore.”
“You kind of know what you made them to do, what to deal with,” said Browder. To a point, then, the accessible nature of Heroes of the Storm has much to do with knowing Blizzard’s IP. One might argue this doesn’t make Heroes of the Storm more accessible across the board, although access to Heroes of the Storm will be through Blizzard’s online portal, Battle.net. Chances are you’re already familiar with at least one Blizzard IP if you have a Battle.net account.
Immediacy is the key to immersion
As characters gain experience in Dota 2 or League of Legends, they gain access to new abilities. A new player might not know which options to choose when the opportunity pops up. In Heroes of the Storm characters have access to all of their abilities from the beginning of the match. The choice isn’t between which abilities to take, period, but which abilities to level up.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure [in other games] when you have to select, ‘Which skill should I pick first?’ and you’re like ‘Well, should I read a guide? Should I cross-reference with a friend?’ [With our system] you have them all. Try them all; you have time to read the tool tips and experience them,” said Gonzales.
“Just use them a couple of times before you level them up,” said Browder. “We’ve only got a certain amount of choices per level, we feel we can get away with showing you that option in the field and making you choose it live.”
In Dota 2 and League of Legends, players use the gold they earn from killing enemies to buy items from shops during a match. In Dota 2 the shops are located in the middle and the sides of the map. In League of Legends, each team’s single shop is located in the corner of the map at their spawn point. In either case, selecting items to buy takes players out of combat for as long as it takes them to make the purchases.
This is not an issue in Heroes of the Storm.
“It’s easier to support your allies because you don’t have other incentives pulling you away from the game,” said Browder. “It means you really focus on the map, the objectives, the other team, all of the time; you’re just trying to stay engaged and keep on them. It means the pace of the game is kind of relentless. It’s got more of an action kind of feel to it.”
In Dota 2 and League of Legends, the player who lands the killing blow generally earns the gold for killing that unit. “Last hits” are a staple of game strategy in League of Legends. If a team wants to make one of its players stronger at a more rapid pace than everyone else, for example, that team needs to make sure the player in question gets all of the last hits in order to earn the gold to run back to base and buy items more quickly.
New players don’t have to learn how to navigate the cognitive dissonance of wanting to kill a bad guy but having to hold back to give someone else the kill, because Heroes of the Storm eliminates the gold and vendor aspects of the game. “We’re trying to make sure that if it’s the obvious thing to do, the game rewards you for that,” said Browder.
The big picture difference of keeping the focus on the action is that where an average game of Dota 2 or League of Legends may take 40 minutes between two teams of equal skill, a game of Heroes of the Storm averages out at around 20 minutes.
Putting the ‘T’ in Team
In Dota 2 and League of Legends, players level up individually, which is another motivation to focus on individual accomplishment. In Heroes of the Storm, entire teams level up together, which means players may be more willing to experiment with character types like support classes, which don’t do as much damage and therefore don’t get as many kills.
Team leveling also means Heroes of the Storm players may be more willing to slide naturally into archetypes they’ve learned from MMO play. “We have some pretty powerful support classes, because our heroes don’t need to earn. None of our heroes need to get kills to get anything right. They just need to help the team,” said Browder. “So we have a character that’s a very dedicated healer. That’s their job. Follow the big guy around, keep him standing. That’s your job. And that can be, for some players, an easier job than worrying about trying to physically dance with another player.”
Heroes of the Storm also introduces a new type of class, the Siege character, who focuses on dealing massive amounts of damage at long-range. “I’ve had people tell me they just want to kind of PvE [player vs. environment]. I’m like ‘Well, I’ve got a couple of classes for you.’ Just go out, don’t even worry about the other heroes,” said Browder. “If you see another hero, get away from them. Just focus on towns, focus on minions, don’t worry about it. Your job is to blow up those NPCs.”
Blizzard has added one element that is definitely more complex than other variations on the MOBA theme. Dota 2 and League of Legends feature neutral enemies in the spaces between enemy bases. These neutral enemies drop gold and experience, and in League of Legends they can also drop buffs to make characters more powerful.
In Heroes of the Storm, neutral characters are called “mercenaries,” and if players do enough damage to them mercenaries will join the fight on their side. This introduces a new tactical element.
“So there’s a bunch of siege giants. When you beat up the siege giants, they carry these big rocks with them, and they’ll walk up the line and start hucking rocks at enemy towns. And they have range to outrange the fortifications that are in front of them, so it’s a problem,” said Browder. “You can’t just wait for your [minions] to push them off. They’re going to destroy something. They’re going to keep going unless an enemy Hero gets out there and deals with it, so you’re sort of creating problems for the other players.”
“A lot of stuff we’re doing is, trying to, instead of just I go out and I get more powerful, I go out and create gameplay for you,” said Browder.
“You always see the siege giants, no matter what battleground you’re on, they always have that same visual cue even though they’re cosmetically different,” said Gonzales. “And you’re like ‘Oh, siege giants. Yes, those would be helpful. Or the knights.’ There’s always that consistency, and it’s very reliable, and it’s very easy to interpret.”
“I don’t know that it is simpler. It may be more complicated. It’s hard for us to know. We’re kind of creating the game we want to create. And sometimes it’s simpler, and sometimes it’s not,” said Browder.
Down with acronyms
MOBAs, ARTS, hero brawlers — I still think all these different appellations are kind of silly. Dota 2, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm are really all of the same genre at their core. What differs between them is how they’ve chosen to either stick to the formula established by Defense of the Ancients or to evolve the core game rules — and then in which direction to guide that evolution.
Riot Games added complexity with League of Legends. Blizzard is simplifying things with Heroes of the Storm. I’m patient with ARTS, “action real time strategy game,” because it does sound a little more complicated than MOBA, “multiplayer online battle arena,” which sounds vanilla. So if Blizzard wants to call their evolution of the genre a “hero brawler,” so be it.
At least they’re not calling it an HB. I think that’s where I’d have to draw the line.