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Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm has a struck a chord with me for a very simple reason: I know what the hell is going on. That’s more than I can say of most “multiplayer online battle arena” games—otherwise known as MOBAs—which, despite their magnificent popularity in the world of eSports, are hard to parse for the uninitiated.
This revelation, along with the game’s recognizable heroes from some of the biggest gaming franchises to date, has caused me to rethink my general distaste with trying to understand this strange genre and take a closer look at what Blizzard has created.
Blizzard indirectly spawned the MOBA genre, after all. When the company, responsible for absurdly successful games like Diablo and World of Warcraft, released Warcraft 3 in 2002, they also put out the Warcraft Editor, a set of “modding tools” that let savvy players make their own content for the game. Modern-day MOBAs such as League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm can trace their roots back to one of those Warcraft 3 mods, called Defense of the Ancients.
In your standard MOBA, two teams of players vie to control a map normally consisting of three lanes: one on top, one on the bottom and another running down the middle. While some games have variations to their map design, the most basic maps still follow this formula. The goal in these matches is for the teams to destroy each other’s Nexus, or the core of their respective bases. Along the way players have to take out defenses such as towers, gates and other buildings, all the while defending their bases from the same.
While the core idea is basic enough, MOBAs can get incredibly complicated and hard to follow, especially as each game adds more layers of mechanics and more playable characters for players to memorize and manage. League of Legends, the most popular MOBA, is the most-played PC game in the world, and has been for some time. But for many gamers, it’s totally inscrutable.
The key with Heroes of the Storm is that Blizzard seems to have finally figured out how to make the MOBA genre accessible to even more players. In doing so, Blizzard has taken the first steps toward turning a genre its own community helped create more than a decade ago back into a game its fans might actually enjoy playing.
From my very first minutes playing Heroes of the Storm as Raynor (the Space Marine from Blizzard’s hallmark Starcraft franchise) to my later time tooling around with Li Li (an anthropomorphic panda from the Warcraft series), it was clear that Blizzard has perfected the MOBA formula. Heroes features iconic and recognizable heroes from Blizzard’s many other game series, and its mechanics are indeed more accessible. The game’s fast-paced action (matches often last a quarter or a third the time that League of Legends matches do) and intense player-versus-player battles make Heroes of the Storm a refreshing slap in the face to an otherwise complicated and convoluted genre.
“We really got motivated to continue developing this game and especially refine the immersive experience of bringing all those heroes together,” Phil Gonzales, the game’s senior artist, told Playboy during June’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) gaming convention.
They thought a lot about how best to represent so many disparate characters from their large back catalog of games, and one way they accomplished that was by replacing the complex item shop present in most MOBAs with a more player-friendly “talents” system. So instead of sifting through “recommended weapons” and other item combinations that could make or break a match or having to memorize the ideal gear combinations for various characters, Heroes of the Storm players can make the characters themselves more inherently powerful. It’s a different layer of strategy, and besides—many of Blizzard’s characters have iconic weapons already, and they wouldn’t simply go “shopping” for new ones, as Gonzales explained.
“Tooling around with the heroes, making sure their abilities exemplified them, struggling with the item system and eventually shifting to talents, which made the heroes even more unique—and it wasn’t about an item shop suiting everybody, but it was like: “This is your hero. You’re making choices, [this is] your hero’s experience,” he explained.
’ACCESSIBLE’ IS NOT A DIRTY WORD
By changing and tooling around with the MOBA genre’s core mechanics, Blizzard was sticking true to its initial approach with Heroes of the Storm’s development: to put its own spin on the MOBA.
“We absolutely wanted to mix things up, we wanted to our take on this genre of the game, and all of the changes that Phil has been talking about has been leading towards that,” Alan Dabiri, the game’s technical director, said at E3. “There were things that we really loved about these types of games, and there were things where we [looked at it] and were like, ‘Can [we] do a different take on it?’“
Heroes of the Storm is a much faster game than its counterparts. You’re always in action—there’s no going back and forth to buy new stuff, and no arbitrary phases to each match, such as farming lanes (which consists of defeating fodder enemies to build your Hero’s level). The developers have prided themselves on making Heroes a swift experience where it’s all action from the first whistle to the final bell. And that is why it’s so much fun to just pick up and play.
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You’re not hindered by a steep learning curve, where not knowing strategies can hurt you right away. And although some players and critics may confuse the game’s “accessibility” with simplicity, Blizzard took that perception into account, and the game has underlying depth that’s there for those willing to dig deeper.
“I think a lot of people mistake accessibility with being too simplified or whatever,” Dabiri said. “‘Accessibility’ just means we want it to be open so people can jump right into it, and then they learn the depth and complexity that exists there. There is this whole strategic element that over time you learn. And to be honest, some people may not want to learn it, and that’s OK too; you can actually remain at that [beginner] stage as well.”
“We’ve got this mantra at Blizzard which you may have heard before: ‘Easy to learn, difficult to master,’” he continued.
Heroes of the Storm is a game that Blizzard built with its fans in mind. With interesting game mechanics, accessible—yet deep—gameplay, and a talent system that allows you to build a character without having to spend hours poring over what to “shop” for, Heroes allows even the most green-gilled players to jump in and experience the rich, dense combination of some of Blizzard’s best franchises with the insanely popular MOBA genre. And that’s what’s at the heart of it all: changing the genre to cater to fans, rather than asking players to adapt.
Joseph Bradford is a freelance writer based out of Las Vegas. When not blabbing about video games to anyone who is willing to listen, he can be found spending time with family and enjoying a great jazz record. He also hosts a weekly podcast about the gaming industry, aptly named Gaming the Industry.