Blizzard fanboys, choose your Heroes of the Storm

Senior designer David Kim reveals the secrets behind Blizzard's upcoming free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena game, and some noob-owning tips too

Blizzard has been a company that focuses on refining an existing genre to make it a cut above the rest.

Look at the StarCraft series; it changed up the real-time strategy genre and the eSports scene back in the day. The Diablo and World of Warcraft series did the same for the role-playing game (RPG) and massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) genre respectively. Now the bigwig company is heading into a domain made famous by its WarCraft III modding community; the multiplayer online battle arena genre (MOBA).

The possible trump card?  Iconic characters from Blizzard franchises like the Lord of Terror Diablo himself (or herself) and StarCraft II’s Queen of Blades Sarah Kerrigan. More heroes from WarCraft, Diablo and StarCraft lore will join them in Blizzard's upcoming MOBA title, Heroes of the Storm.

Long story short, MOBA titles pit two opposing teams of five heroes to take down an enemy’s main headquarters tower. Players work together to take down the opposing team’s barriers placed on set lanes on an asymmetrical map while also being wary of enemy heroes sabotaging their efforts. Rather than one standard map and random fantasy characters, Heroes of the Storm features four maps with different game-winning options.

After numerous bouts using various Blizzard heroes at the Korean gaming expo G-Star, we think it may be the perennial hit game that can override the current competition due to a combination of Blizzard’s brand name and tweaked-up play mechanics.

A hero brawler?

Heroes of the Storm does not deviate a lot from the established formula, but Blizzard isn’t setting out to reinvent the MOBA wheel. The team is making it more open for a wide range of players, as well as labelling it a ‘hero brawler’, according to David Kim, the project’s senior designer who used to work on the StarCraft II series.

“We feel like the title change is mainly because we’re using Blizzard characters and it takes place on different battlegrounds that have special mechanics to play on. In one of them, you have to collect these coins to turn it into this legendary pirate who uses a giant pirate ship to open fire on an opponent’s home base. By calling it that, it captures the essence much better.”

Kim said that the huge focus of Heroes of the Storm is teamwork, thanks to the aforementioned alternative tactics. “We don’t want it to be a ‘I want to compete with my own teammate and get ahead in levels, so I can be a stronger level than you’ situation. The only competition should be your enemy team. Thus, when a teammate levels up, everybody levels up.”

“At the end of the day, you are trying to destroy the enemy’s main tower, but the small objectives are recommended as they offer more tactical options via teamwork and coordination. If you and your team are MOBA-savvy, you may not even need these tactics though you will be at a huge disadvantage.”

This seems to be the case, as we played on two other battlefields where collecting sun and moon coins dropped at random across the middle of the field will summon a dragon warrior that helps your team destroy obstructions on a random lane. The catch is that you’ll be stuck collecting and activating these collectibles, leaving yourself (and your teammates) vulnerable to oncoming ambushes.

Streamlining the hardcore genre

Other changes include the removal of items and a change in jungling; the act of killing neutral enemies on a MOBA map for team resource allocation.

“Jungling is in,” Kim emphasized, “but not in the same sense back in the WarCraft III mod. We don’t have items, but we have a new talent system that lets you customize them outside and in the game. As you level up, you get three choices of active and passive boosts, as well as skill upgrades. If your opponent’s team is of a certain combination, we need a tank. An Arthas user can spec health or defense to help that.”

We used a lot of ranged characters on our playthrough with Diablo III’s Demon Hunter and StarCraft II’s Jim Raynor. The former used homing and wide-ranged shots, as well as the vault ability to get out of trouble quickly, while the latter had more passive abilities dedicated to longshots and health-chipping.

As we let our heavy hitters on our team do most of the clean-up, we used the talent tree to bolster our damage-dealing capabilities and active attacks. Essentially, we ended up with combinations that made us glass cannons.

At the same time, some expert-level tactics like last-hitting is removed because Kim said that the team does not want a match to be partly about stealing from your teammate.  But it’s not all dramatic changes just for the sake of being different, according to Kim. “We’re playing on the same team. We don’t want to be competing against each other. [Pre-producing and balancing] the game took a long time. The first time it made an appearance under a different title was three to four years ago. Even the version showed two BlizzCons ago was much different than the one at G-Star.” Kim still stressed that the teamwork part was the toughest to nail down.

More after the break...

Complex? We’ve got complex.

Expert MOBA players aren’t left out, as there are advanced characters to use in the game that have a specific play style. “WarCraft III’s Illidan Stormrage’s effective passive ability can only be set on active, and is only useful with other different abilities,” says Kim. “StarCraft II’s Abathor doesn’t participate in combat directly. He always stays back behind towers while using an ability that gives another hero additional area-of-effect and defensive abilities. He can also teleport to any of your teammates for emergency support.”

“On his own, however, he’s useless. He’ll get owned hard in one-on-one combat with anyone. To use him effectively, you need to pay attention to the map and jump in to any ally’s position at the right moment.”

With this and Blizzards’ upcoming Hearthstone card game, which is also free-to-play, this isn’t an indication that the company is fully heading to the popular model. “As a whole,” Kim said, “we like to branch out and take as many areas as possible. We like to have a good mix of the free-to-play, retail and subscription system. For Heroes of the Storm, it’s the right way to go given how it’s built, while StarCraft II won’t be heading that path anytime soon. We choose the model after settling on the design of the game. More on the game, less of the trend.”

“From a designer’s perspective, we’re not worried about the business aspect because we’re still trying to make the best game possible. But looking at the games I’ve played and spent money on, I’d say a lot of them are good games that I would have spent money on. Like iPhone games; when I asked my friends how much they spent on a game, they’d say ‘$20’. If I asked them whether they’re willing to pay that same amount up front, they would say ‘no’. The option to play the game first, more so than what a demo offers, is a really strong tide-turner.”

Kim can’t say which parts of Heroes of the Storm will be free to play, not even microtransaction options, but gamers will get a lot of the game for free. Perhaps that’s the best route to go, as MOBAs or games like it set the model as the standard and deviating it may cause the game to be shunned even before it’s out.

A hope for an inviting scene

For those who are scared of the mid-to-high levels of entry for MOBAs, Kim assured that Heroes of the Storm will be for all kinds of players. “At Blizzard, we have a philosophy: easy to learn, hard to master. That alone is making us hit as broad an audience as possible.”

He was also surprised at the fanfare the game got from top StarCraft II players from Europe to Korea who attended the 2013 StarCraft II World Championship Series. “I thought StarCraft II players were only interested in super-competitive and super-strategic games, as Heroes of the Storm is a little more laid-back and more team-focused. It’s such a different game compared to StarCraft II, but first impressions seem to have been pretty good.”

It’ll take a while for this fresh and streamlined take on the MOBA genre to be fully playable, given Blizzard’s track record of taking its sweet time with games. In any case, 2014 may be the year where players will start livestreaming their impromptu Blizzard trademark character fights and writing up FAQs on using Abathor or some minor obscure Blizzard-branded goblin or viking of a lost nature in great detail, if the promising preview build is of any indication.

Heroes of the Storm is now available for beta sign-up, and is expected in 2014.

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