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Heroes of the Storm is an example of pure excellence in multiplayer design

While still only in beta, Heroes of the Storm is creative and playful in ways that will likely do more for the MOBA genre than most would expect by exhibiting the all too rare design balance between genre iteration and innovation.

Zoran Cunningham

April 14, 2015

10 Min Read

As an academic, it's sometimes difficult for me to recommend any game in the MOBA genre to new or casual players. Myriad articles have been written on the countless barriers-to-entry that come part-and-parcel with the genre. When I have to warn prospective players about toxic community behavior and admit they'll need to brace themselves for the amount of research they'll need to do in order to play well at a reasonable level, I almost feel like I've battered down their curiosity while simultaneously doing a disservice to the genre. I love the MOBA genre as much as I love any other (despite all its flaws), but it wasn't until Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm hit the scene that I finally had a game that I could whole-heartedly recommend to any student or fellow educator with an interest in video games.

It makes sense that Blizzard would designate Heroes of the Storm as a hero or team brawler rather than a MOBA. While it is still commonly classified in the MOBA genre (and I will use that term throughout this piece), it is creative and playful in ways that will likely do more for the genre than most gamers would expect. Make no mistake, Heroes of the Storm is a master class in multiplayer game design, displaying the rare spark when a developer has struck the immaculate balance between genre iteration and innovation. It solves a vast majority of issues that keep most players away from MOBA games while adding much-needed depth and fresh ideas to the genre.

Since the start of it's Technical Alpha back in early 2014, Heroes of the Storm has garnered a reputation for being an easily accessible game, with many players going so far as to call it the perfect gateway into the seemingly daunting competitive MOBA genre. The fact that it has managed to make such a sterling impression during alpha and beta phases speaks volumes of its design philosophy and execution. What exactly makes the game so great? Let's take a closer look.

Firstly, Blizzard made the bold decision to push the MOBA genre forward by actually removing one of the most intimidating and overwhelming mainstays of the genre: the item shop. However which way one cuts it, the item shop is largely considered the single most divisive feature that pushes many players away from MOBAs. Standard MOBAs feature in-match item shops that contain dozens, if not hundreds, of purchase options that do everything from enhance player stats to provide temporary boosts. Knowing what items to purchase, in what order, in particular circumstances, for specific match-ups, and then tailor that for each individual hero is, for some players, an insurmountable barrier to entry. The gutsy decision to build a game without such a seemingly core element allows every other design element of Heroes of the Storm to truly shine.

One major benefit to removing items is that the game now places firm emphasis on the actual heroes and their abilities. Good thing, then, that the game encourages players to try out new heroes in a way that's wholly unique to the genre. Players can freely try any hero or alternate skin in a specially designed solo map. The map allows players to customize hero levels and abilities while tinkering with minion and enemy spawns. It's the single best way to see if a particular hero's movement and skill-set fits an individual's play-style and it allows players to make purchases with confidence rather than sheer speculation. It's a far cry from most other MOBAs that require players to Alt-Tab the game, open up an internet browser, Google or Youtube a video of a champion in action, and then passively decide if a champion is worth spending real-world money on based solely on a non-interactive experience.

Speaking of heroes, brand strength is another boon for Heroes of the Storm as it features iconic characters from some of the most recognizable and popular games ever developed at Blizzard. It's no stretch to imagine a sizable chunk of the 10 million or so World of Warcraft subscribers will at least give the game a try out of curiosity. Even better, since Heroes of the Storm uses the same Battle.net client, friend lists from all other Blizzard games are instantly imported, ensuring a potentially large group of familiar battle companions. For a game so welcoming and accessible for new players, one little nibble may be all it takes before players find themselves absolutely hooked.

Those that do take the plunge will be likely be overjoyed at Blizzard's design decision to give players a shared pool of team experience in each match. This is almost certainly the most significant mechanics innovation to be found in Heroes of the Storm. If one player is having a difficult lane match-up or a particularly bad early game, they don't have to worry about falling so far behind that they become a detriment to their team for the rest of the match. It creates a feeling of a true team sport, where every player carries one another and contributes to the overall success of the team. Furthermore, player deaths are not as punishing as they are in most MOBAs since they don't cause a player to lose gold/exp or reward the enemy team with a major gold or experience boost that could lead to lopsided snowball victories. That very same player who struggled early on in a match could very easily find themselves contributing heavily to late-game team fights since they've been able to level up and gain abilities on par with teammates. This alleviates the oftentimes frequent feeling of early match defeatism and overall poor attitudes that can plague all too many MOBA matches.

The scoring system in Heroes of the Storm also reflects the shared team mentality of the overall game design. The “Takedowns” category in the player summary screen denotes both kills and assists, meaning it's very possible for a support character to have just as many takedowns as an assassin character simply on the basis of being involved in the majority of team fights and contributing in an effective manner by healing teammates and poking enemies. It also prevents the bad feelings of a player "stealing" a kill by simply getting the last hit on an enemy character and thus reaping all the gold and experience rewards. Like other elements of the game's design, it helps create a sense of participation and contribution that is oftentimes sorely lacking in MOBAs.

Quick games via shorter match lengths are another significant hurdle that Heroes of the Storm has managed to overcome through its design. Traditional MOBA matches often last between 45-60 minutes, where any match below 30 minutes is considered a fluke and matches lasting as long as a full-length feature film are more common than they should be. A typical match in Heroes of the Storm lasts 20 minutes. There may be an occasional 15 minute lopsided victory or an extended 30 minute war, but these times are still within a healthy window. This bite-sized approach to matches allows newcomers (and even jaded veterans) to sink their teeth into a nice experience without feeling as though they'll be devoting a large chunk of time to a match that they can't pause or take a break from without sabotaging their team. The quick match format and low time investment also helps mitigate the sting that comes with losing a long, drawn out match. This makes the game far more compatible and appealing to various playstyles and life schedules.

Another revolutionary aspect of Heroes of the Storm is that it features multiple maps. While this may seem like a no-brainer to players unfamiliar with the genre, a large map pool dramatically changes the landscape of how matches are played. The vast majority of MOBAs, especially those played at the highest competitive level around the world, feature only a single map for competition. With Heroes of the Storm, players never know what map they may be playing on next. It's a welcome element of surprise for players who may feel the inevitable stagnation that comes from playing hundreds of matches on a single map.

The fact that other games in the genre refrain from using multiple maps in competition sheds considerable light on the design challenge of balancing and fine-tuning each map and Blizzard deserves some credit for having the courage to experiment in relatively uncharted territory. Heroes of the Storm not only offers a large slate of maps to play on, but each of these maps feature dynamic secondary objectives throughout each match. These secondary objectives vary distinctly from map-to-map and add a much appreciated element of strategy. One map might encourage players to defeat pirate mercenaries to pay off an undead pirate king for a barrage of cannon fire against enemy structures while another map might feature two dragon shrines that players need to capture in order to unlock a powerful dragon avatar.

Players new to MOBAs are often happy to discover that defensive towers in Heroes of the Storm have a limited ammo supply (before they need to reload) and do considerably less damage when compared to other MOBAs. This leads to faster lane pushes and quicker games in general. Mercenary camps throughout each map are not only good ways for players to grab extra experience, but they are also recruited when defeated to help players push lanes. These features help in the aforementioned category of match length by increasing the moment-to-moment activities of players throughout the match while decreasing the overall length of matches by rewarding bold and strategically effective decisions.

Blizzard also deserves credit for a non-obtrusive and clean user interface design that is easy to navigate and discern. It's easy to add friends, chat, form teams, discover heroes, enter a training session, or jump between competitive game modes. Nearly every visual category in the menus can be moused over for explanatory text. Blizzard isn't afraid to refresh the look and feel of the UI with each major patch, chasing the elusive goal of perfect ease-of-use. More importantly, Heroes of the Storm makes use of established Blizzard UI elements that have been core to the DNA of all their biggest titles in StarCraft, World of Warcraft, and Diablo, and stylistically incorporates them in a way that will make anyone familiar with any Blizzard game feel right at home. It's a wonderful cross-pollination that gets better with each UI tweak and update.

The constant tweaks to UI are reflected in Blizzard's attitude toward the equally important category of game balance and character/map design. With each update and patch, Blizzard isn't afraid to test the waters and experiment with whimsical and aberrant character abilities and map features. Having the humility to concede to design flaws and fix them in a way that works and makes the player base happy is an essential characteristic for any developer in the competitive online game space.

This is certainly heaping a lot of praise, to be sure, but Heroes of the Storm already feels like a game very carefully and lovingly crafted by a passionate team. For a game that's struck so many right chords while still only in beta, it's safe to say that the gamers have a whole lot to look forward to and plenty more years of fun as Heroes of the Storm continues to improve with every patch and update.

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