Four ways Blizzard's Heroes of The Storm will outplay League of Legends
Dozens of League of Legends competitors have failed because they made the game even more complex. Blizzard sacrificed depth to make Heroes of the Storm more accessible, realizing that there is still plenty of depth left over.
After a lengthy beta period, Blizzard finally released Heroes of the Storm (HotS), its first multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) in June 2015. The game enters a marketplace dominated by Riot’sLeague of Legends (LoL), which dominates the MOBA market hands-down.
League of Legends is a phenomenal e-sport franchise that boasts 67 million monthly players and over billion dollars in revenue per year. Dozens of high profile MOBAs have been launched to compete with LoL but one after another they have all been knocked out without ever gaining any meaningful traction. In fact, with the exception of Valve’sDefense of Ancients (Dota2), no MOBA has come even close competing with LoL. And even as the second biggest MOBA, Dota2 is some five times smaller than LoL.
Yet, despite the ever-increasing competition with continuous MOBA launches, and all the failed titles, I believe that Heroes of the Storm will rival League of Legends. In my mind, the magic of Blizzard’s games is based on their ability to first get immersed in a benchmark game, second to understand the game at every level and third zoom out and create an accessible version of the benchmark game. I believe that just like Hearthstone, which is an accessible version of Magic the Gathering, Heroes of the Storm will be the accessible version of League of Legends due to four key design decisions, described in the following.
#1 Say goodbye to last hitting, gold and items
The biggest difference between HOTS and other MOBAs is, by far, the fact that there’s no in-match currency. This critical design change leads not only to significantly different gameplay, but also a massively reduced entry barrier both for new and experienced MOBA players. What’s critical is that this design change doesn’t hurt the meta game of hero building (hero building = choices player makes during a match that alter how his hero plays) which is a crucial component of MOBAs.
Heroes of the Storm has a more streamlined game loop as players don’t have to travel to and from their home base to build their heroes.
In League of Legends players earn gold (in-match currency) by last hitting enemy minions (last hit = the final blow that kills enemy minion). This Gold is then consumed during the match to shop items from the in-match store, which boosts the player’s hero.
To be successful in a League of Legends match, a player has to first make sure that they are constantly clicking on enemy minions when their health is very low. After this dexterous process, known as “gold farming”, has gone on for a while, the player has to leave the lane and make his/her way to one of the in-match stores located either in the middle of the map or in the player’s home base. When in the shop, the player is presented with an overwhelming amount of items. The player, who doesn’t know which item combinations to buy at different stages of the game for their particular hero, is almost guaranteed to make the wrong decisions. In other words, items, as the base of hero building is an overly complex and highly unintuitive system that leads new player not only to personal failure but also to the failure of his/her team.
In League of Legends, the items store plays a crucial role in the outcome of the match. Each player builds their champion by purchasing items with the gold they earn from the lane. It is vital to purchase the right item combination for each champion at different stages of the game.
The complexity of itemization comes from the different stats associated to each item (each item boosts some of the hero’s ability with a certain percentage) and the inherent difficulty in understanding which stats do what. It's simply overwhelming for new players to have a bunch of numbers thrown at them, which Blizzard avoids by using text descriptions of their abilities during level up, and showing the numbers in a tooltip.
There’s no gold and no item store in Heroes of the Storm. Instead, a player builds his hero by choosing from a list of different talents that become available as the player’s hero levels up. There are 7 talent choice moments during a match. Once the player chooses one of the talents in the list he will not be able to revert his choice nor will he see the same talent options later in the game.
Most of the active League of Legends players love the statistic itemization described above for three reasons. Firstly, it enables incredibly high level of customization for heroes. Secondly, it’s a crucial skill and competition element that allows players to excel over others through creative item builds. And thirdly, the difficulty and creativity of different item builds drives the community. Players seek information about builds for each of the heroes from dedicated web pages and gameplay streams, and also create their own content.
Both the importance and the depth of hero building through items in League of Legends and talent choices in Heroes of the Storm drives the community to share hero builds online. It’s also a skill element that is crucial in making a MOBA into an e-sport.
Once the player gets deep into League of Legends, they start to understand how each item affects each of the heroes. In a way, items are like a symbol language the player has to learn. Once you know how to read this language you’re able to make fast decisions and build your heroes based on the strengths and weaknesses of your and your enemy’s team as well as based on how the match is going. In my experience, learning to enjoy League of Legends takes three months of almost daily game play.
There are no items in Heroes of the Storm. Instead of purchasing items with Gold to build their hero, the player is choosing and building talents, which unlock as their hero levels up during the match. In my mind, losing itemization is both a brilliant and a very bold design change.
Firstly, loosing itemization lowers the entry barrier for players who are (relatively) new to MOBAs. Instead of cognitively overloading players with a massive selection of items to purchase, HOTS translates the choices to a player through a hero-specific talent tree. The game also lowers the complexity by presenting between two to six talent choices as the player reaches seven of the threshold level-ups.
Secondly, losing itemization lowers the entry barrier for players who are already familiar with MOBAs as they don’t have to learn a new symbol language. In my opinion, the key reasons why experienced MOBA players don’t switch from one MOBA to another is because of the need to learn a whole new item language. Learning new maps and heroes is fun, but learning hundreds of different items and how they translate into different build strategies for each of the heroes is such a significant time investment that most players will do it only once in their life-time.
Because talent building is significantly less complex than item building, it also pushes away the legions of dedicated League of Legends and DOTA players. But then again, as we know from a good dozen of failed League of Legends follow-ups, players are unwilling to switch from one these two established MOBAs. On the other hand, given the high learning curve of LoL and DOTA, for each dedicated player there is another lapsed player or two up for grabs.
#2 One for all and all for one
Unlike in League of Legends, the player’s team shares a common experience pool in Heroes of the Storm. This means that experience points earned by each individual in the teams is summed together and once experience thresholds are crossed, every player in the team will level up at the same time.
The team’s experience level is shown on the top (numbers 9 and 10). The team ahead in levels will have more powerful heroes. Reaching certain levels first, like level 10 when ultimate skills unlock, opens up an opportunity for the winning team to pull ahead.
In Heroes of the Storm players earn experience mainly by controlling lanes, destroying opponent’s structures, conquering mercenary camps located between the lanes, and by taking down players from the opposing team. The player doesn’t need to last hit minions, instead the player has to simply be close-by when his/her minions take down enemy minions or structures to earn experience points for his team. Having two heroes on the same lane will not increase the amount of experience points the team earns. Then again, teaming up with another player can result in a quick take down of the opponent’s structures, leading thus to more overall experience points earned for the team.
The shared experience pool changes the gameplay significantly in several ways. Firstly, because there are two to three lanes per map and each match always has five heroes, players are freed to go roam, capture mercenary camps and lay ambush to enemy heroes. The game doesn’t force players to farm for experience and gold on a lane. Secondly, the shared experience pool and the inexistence of gold and last hitting opens up hero design for more specialization. For example, Abathur is a hero that stays away from fighting and plays the match from a safe distance through allied heroes and by manipulating the battlefield.
The shared experience pool and the inexistence of last hitting enables truly unique heroes like Abathur, who can fight entire match from the safety of the base using skills such as symbioses that infest target allied heroes and allow Abathur to be in the battle without being physically in the vicinity of battle.
To be fair, there are characters in League of Legends that are purely healers. There are skills and items that are specifically designed for characters to be supports, a role that Riot is trying to make more interesting and viable with every patch. Yet this champion re-tuning is hindered and made definitely more complex by the need for last-hitting.
#3 Jungle redefined
Each of the 9 maps (at the moment of writing) in Heroes of the Storm is truly different and the difference is not only due to size, layout or art, but also due to the unique map objectives. This variety of maps combined with unique gameplay really towers over League of Legends that still has only four different maps, out of which only one, Summoner’s Rift, is played the most.
For example, in the “Garden of Terror” map the teams rush into the jungle as soon as the night arrives. In the jungle teams defeat terrors, which drop evil seeds. The team that first collects 100 seeds can then have one of the team members turn into Garden Terror (a crazy strong hero) for a period of time, and can turn the tide of the battle.
To truly enable objectives in gameplay, HOTS grants almost every hero in the game with a free mount (horse, pony, magic carpet etc). The only limitation to using a mount is a 3 second cool-down timer. The player automatically dismounts if they decide to attack or are being attacked by an enemy. The mounts allow players to move 30% faster, which has a huge impact to team play, allowing players to abandon their lanes and travel quickly to far ends of the map and help their team mates to take objectives.
Almost every hero has a customizable mount. Mounts are free and allow heroes to travel 30% faster. The player dismounts automatically if they attack or get attacked. The mounts enable team play around map objectives by allowing players to move faster from their lane to areas on the map where their team needs them.
In addition to large objectives, each map also has mercenary camps. Players can take over mercenary camps by beating the mercenaries. This results in mercenaries joining the player’s side and pushing the lane until they fall.
Overall jungling, which is the practice of taking down monsters located in the areas between the lanes, is different in Heroes of the Storm than LoL. In League of Legends, the primary reason for jungling is resource allocation. The jungle offers a lot of gold and experience that can be accessed through slaying the monsters that spawn and respawn in predetermined locations on the map. With typically one player dedicating him or herself to taking down monsters, it leaves two lanes available to both gain high experience and gold rather than only one lane leading to all accessible resources being utilized by a team with a jungler.
Because HOTS doesn’t have itemization and because the team shares an experience pool, jungling heroes can help their team directly by sending mercenaries to lanes from the jungle. In other words, just like everything else in the game, jungling helps the team directly to win and this help is clearly visualized through mercenaries joining fights by the side of the team.
There are actually dozens of micro-strategies related to the jungle in LoL compared to HOTS, which focus on two things: get monsters and complete the map objective. Heroes of the Storm does an excellent job of telling you what you should be doing, by zeroing in on a few core strategies based on the map. In LoL there is immense depth as to what decisions you can make, for better and worse, but they leave it completely open to you what you do at any given point in the game. Heroes of the Storm is much more obvious than League of Legends to a new and or average player.
#4 Hit the ground running
Finally, what makes Heroes of the Storm stand out from League of Legends is the fact that every hero starts with three unlocked skills, leaving only two ultimate skills locked until the player’s team reaches level 10. (In LoL a player gradually unlocks skills as he/she levels up). This means that a player can get into the battle faster. This is a huge improvement to fix the early grinding and farming phase that characterizes each League of Legends match.
In League of Legends, every time a player’s champion levels up, they can unlock or improve on of the skills of their champion. This slows down the game and adds unnecessary complexity, as the player has to not only purchase the right items in the right order from the in-match store but also unlock and improve the right skills in the right order.
In Heroes of the Storm, each level up unlocks a choice of different talents for the player to choose from. These talents are the base of hero building as the player chooses what hero attribute or skill they want to improve as they level up. Each of the improvement options is presented only once at specific levels. Oh, and unlike in League of Legends, every hero in HOTS has two ultimate skills; once the player’s team reaches level 10 each player chooses between two ultimate skills that will redefine the match.
Tassadar is one of my favorite heroes as there are many ways to play him depending on the team and how the match is going. If there's a healer in the team I will choose talents that improve my attack skills at the expense of shielding talents. On the other hand, if there are no healers on the team, I will choose shielding talents over damage dealing and improve my ability to reduces the damage my team takes. I can also play the anti stealth counter and choose talents that allow me to spot assassin heroes who use stealth if opposing team has those type of heroes. All of these strategies and more can be quite easily achieved by choosing the right talents.
Personally I love the hero building through talent choices instead of using items. The choices a player makes to build his/her hero are clear and definite. Once a talent has been selected, there’s no turning back. This combined with the three unlocked skills from the start makes the game so much more enjoyable.
On the other hand, the fact that you don't get all your skills at once in League of Legends leads to a methodical build up that makes level-ups very impactful - whereas many level-ups in HOTS can be pretty irrelevant. Blizzard unlocked three skills from the get-go to lower the barrier of entry and reduce complexity, but some can argue that this makes the game less interesting.
In LoL skills matter a lot because they are a resource. A player has limited skill points and needs to allocate them in the best way possible. Each level up feels like a huge power boost, largely because it actually is. In HotS, a lot of times you pick a talent, which generally improves only one of your abilities leaving other skills untouched.
The three unlocked skills from the get-go is actually a big opinion divider in the MOBA community. Many players like it but other feel that it makes HotS lag behind LoL in accessibility. You constantly feel like you're gaining strength in LoL, which keeps you locked-in. In HotS it’s sometimes hard to feel that your hero is getting much stronger as not every level up allows you to chose a talent that would power-up your skill.
Accessibility Over Depth
I believe that Blizzard has made the perfect product decision by not going head-to-head against Riot’s League of Legends. Getting rid of last hitting, gold and items truly separates Heroes of the Storm from League of Legends which in turn allows Blizzard to attract both new and churned MOBA players, a considerable player segment that Heroes of the Storm is designed for.
League of Legends is not the only game that will be affected by the rise of Heroes of the Storm. The way I see it, HoTS has redefined MOBAs in many ways with its design choices. Even new and growing battle arenas like Vainglory (read: If Vainglory Doesn't Make it, No One Will) will be immediately challenged due to their complicated item shops, limited maps, tap/click intensive last-hit driven gameplay and longer sessions lengths.
But just like any game, Heroes of the Storm has its own faults and challenges. As the game continues to grow they’ll need to solve three key issues to truly challenge League of Legends:
1. How to add more strategies to each map. Right now it's too straightforward once you know what you're doing. The simplicity is great for new players, but you also have to create room for players to feel like they have room to master new strategies.
2. How to implement a meta-game between matches. The hero leveling up just isn't enough to sustain the game long-term. League's is best in class, but also far too complex for HotS. The reason this is important is it gives veteran players the ability to tweak their strategies adding a whole new layer of depth, as well as a new lever for balance that won't break the accessibility for new players.
3. How to add new characters once the base pool is exhausted. In other games like League of Legends, you have an unlimited pool of ideas since the character can be anything. Blizzard has tied HotS fictionally to characters from their other franchises at the risk of running out of interesting characters. Soon they’ll face the difficult task of making something out of nothing. Blizzard’s creative power is very strong and I’m sure they’ll overcome this, but it’s going to get a bit tougher.
The main takeaway is that Blizzard sacrificed depth to make Heroes of the Storm more accessible, realizing that there is still plenty of depth left over. Instead of taking something complex, and just making it a different kind of complex, they actually were bold enough to take elements out. The reason why every other League of Legends competitor has failed is they made the game even more complex. Players don’t want a more complex game. League of Legends is plenty complex already.
Feel free to read other MOBA posts from my Deconstructor of Fun.