Not too long ago I was invited to participate in the closed beta for Heroes of the Storm, the new Blizzard MOBA. I was growing a little tired of the genre after several others had let me down, and the influx of MOBA games on Steam certainly doesn't help. This genre is the hip new thing to go for it seems, and just like any other trend, it tends to overstay its welcome. With market leaders SMITE, DotA2 and LoL, there's little room for more. And those that do want to get a spot will have to make their own space.
Much like SMITE did, via the enforced skillshot policy and the step away from isometric. Heroes of the Storm accomplished this and surprised me with its innovation in the popular genre. Based on this innovation I can actually see Heroes of the Storm having potential in its own corner of the market.
In this article I'll try and dissect the ways that Blizzard has created a new space in the MOBA genre. In particular, there'll be three points to address:
1: Staying in the action
* 2: Diversity of game flow*
* 3: Everyone gets to play*
Let's start with point 1. Most MOBAs have a bit of a problem with keeping people in the action. Heroes that fall on hard times will be forced to abandon their lane for a bit so that they can recover, and in games like SMITE, LOL and DotA that means a long trek, as teleporting only goes one way. Heroes of the Storm, however, plays it a little differently. Apart from using the Hearthstone (Nice touch, Blizzard!) to teleport back to the spawn zone, heroes can also make use of shrines.
Shrines are small structures hidden safely behind the lines of defense that contain a small amount of healing water. A player can consume these healing waters to get a lot of health and a good chunk of mana restored over time, although that player will not be able to use a shrine again for some time afterward. Because this shrine is about five steps away from where the action is taking place, the player doesn't have to miss out on a thing. They can just take a gulp of healing water and jump right back in the action.
Strife did a similar thing by allowing heroes to regenerate health and mana much faster when out of combat for a bit. This approach means more combat, more action, more play. A possible drawback for this though is that it won't sit well with the eSports scene, as it does make "laning" easier and it takes away from the punishment players receive for bad plays, but by adding a considerable cooldown to the regen effect, Heroes of the Storm does manage to counteract this drawback a bit, creating a pretty decent balance in my opinion. I am not an eSports player however, so take that with a grain of salt.
Then there's point 2: Diversity of Game Flow. Most MOBAs have little variation in gameplay styles. They're primarily centered around a tri-lane 5v5 gameplay, where the map objectives consist of taking towers and occasionally securing a team advantage via a boss monster. Heroes of the Storm, however, decided to go overboard with their variety and created a handful of different maps that all have some means of securing a considerable opportunity to break enemy defenses.
The Garden of Terror has a day/night cycle for example, and during the night the teams can eliminate monsters in the area between the lanes to acquire seeds. Upon reaching 100 seeds, their team will spawn a terror in their base, which one of the players can pilot. The terror has the ability to paralyze defense structures and can deal excessive damage to enemies.
Haunted Mines are a different variation on the concept, where the mines, an underground part of the map, will occasionally get infested with skeletons. A hundred skulls are available for grabs in the mines, and once all the skeletons have been destroyed, both teams will awaken their bone golems. The more skulls your team has collected, the stronger your golem will be. Interesting deviation: The golems will reawaken in the exact location they died at the end of the previous cycle.
A different approach is used in the Bay, where there's a second currency that players can carry. They can break open treasure chests or eliminate undead pirates to collect doubloons, which can then be given to captain blackheart in the center of the map. Once a team has paid enough doubloons, Blackheart will bombard the enemy defenses. Of course, having to carry those doubloons to the captain comes with a risk, because if you get killed, you drop all your doubloons for the enemy to pick up!
This kind of variety makes every game just a little bit different, and the various maps are beautifully crafted. Some maps can take longer to complete (Blackheart Bay, Garden of Terror) while some don't last all that long (Haunted Mines). It's very interesting to see so much emphasis on map objectives and to see such a diversity in them, too. It makes games vary just a bit more.
With all that said, I think the most important part is point number 3: Everyone gets to play.
There's no gold. There's no items to buy. This is a complete overhaul of a staple of the genre. The only currency used during matches is experience. Every three or four levels, a hero can choose a new talent, which will modify their abilities. Since experience is distributed evenly among all allied heroes in the vicinity, there's no gold hogging strategy. The carry/support dichotomy that's been prevalent in the standard MOBAs is not present here.
In MOBAs like League of Legends or DotA2, heroes that don't need as much gold to function well are pushed into a 'support' position. In this position, they make sure that whoever they are in lane with gets all the gold while they get none. Although LoL did introduce gold sharing mechanics, supports still get far less income. This leads to supports falling behind the more the game progresses, which usually diminishes their impact on the game. This makes support less desirable, while being a more comfortable role due to the lack of pressure.
In Heroes of the Storm however, supports can keep up with the pace of the game. They will generally be the same level and have the same amount of power to exert as any other class. For example, I bought the starter pack for five dollars, and that included the hero Malfurion. Malfurion is a healer who utilises heal over time, some movement hindrance and a low cooldown, long range spell to influence the battle. Where as normally, a character like Malfurion would have to settle for becoming obsolete towards the end of the game, I usually end up being one of the most influential players on the team when using him.
The way Heroes of the Storm allows supports to keep up, is a welcome change. It's more action-packed than with the standard MOBAs, and I feel the role and its players are less marginalised making it very enjoyable to play a support in Heroes of the Storm.
I wanted to write this article to applaud the makers of Heroes of the Storm for their creativity in gameplay design. As I wrote about before, there are markets that are oversaturated with carbon copy clones, or games that are just run-of-the-mill collections of genre staples. It's important to keep an eye out for creative solutions to problems in gameplay design, as it helps spawn new subdivisions of genres.
MOBAs have generally been known for long matches (30 minutes for League of Legends, 60 minutes for DotA, for example) with a lot of pressure in terms of strategizing and the 5v5 standard format, eventually does lose its charm. This is why Heroes of the Storm appeals to me I suppose and it might appeal to you for the same reasons. The varied maps, the shrinking of item builds, the shorter, more manageable matches, I'd say that Blizzard has created a sort of 'snack MOBA'. Easily digested, a more comfortable version of the old format. Something to recommend to beginners, perhaps, but enjoyable to veterans, certainly.
Either way, bravo Blizzard! You've done well!