Something a little jarring was happening at BlizzCon last weekend. Blizzard is a typically self-assured developer. It has earned a reputation not for wholesale innovation and the creation of new genres, but for iterating cleverly on existing concepts to create genre-defining games.
To hear the company speaking this weekend however, one might almost think League of Legends developer Riot Games had got under its skin. Heroes of the Storm is a “Hero Brawler”, Blizzard doggedly insisted over two days.
World of Warcraft wasn’t the first MMO, StarCraft wasn’t the first RTS, and Diablo wasn’t the first ARPG, but all have gone on to be recognised as leaders in their respective fields. With these games Blizzard didn’t feel it needed to rename each genre it entered, only to excel within it.
In fairness, the entire genre was spawned from a Warcraft III mod, and what to call these team-based, hero-controlling, real-time strategy games has flummoxed the gaming community for years. They’ve been variously described as action-real-time strategy games, lane management games, hero action games, and even lords management games. But recently, multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, has gained general acceptance amongst the community and press.
The only problem, if there really is one, is that the term is promoted by Riot, a company with a suspect reputation for deliberately courting and successfully wooing away Blizzard staff.
Common sense is almost certain to prevail, but in the meantime pride rules and Heroes of the Storm is a Hero Brawler. It’s a shame too, because by deliberately avoiding the term MOBA, Blizzard has only succeeded in drawing our attention to a cold feud when we should be more interested in the news that Heroes of the Storm appears to be a truly excellent entry point for gamers interested in trying out this new and immensely popular genre – whatever we finally call it.
Blizzard has pared back much of the complexity inherent in the genre, and designed the game in such a way that a match should rarely last more than 25 minutes. There is no last hitting in Heroes of the Storm, for example, and teams level up together. Elements such as these still leave scope for individual heroics but the emphasis is much more team-focused, and Blizzard hopes this will eliminate much of the player toxicity the genre is known for.
“Keeping to 15-20 minutes has driven a lot of design decisions like removing Last Hit. We want to focus the gameplay on the enemy team,” says senior game designer Richard Khoo. “That’s why we call it a Hero Brawler, because most of the time you’re fighting enemy heroes, and we want players to focus on the mechanics, the team composition, and what’s going on.”
Blizzard also hopes that the shorter match lengths and team-based levelling will improve the social experience. “It’s something new we’re experimenting with so that one team that gets slightly ahead can’t just snowball to victory. It also frees us up to design heroes like Uther, Malfurion, and Abathur who are more purely support, who can stay on the back lines and help their team out without feeling like they need to farm gold.”
The developer is also exploring an out-of-game levelling system that will reward players with more experience points if they play with friends. “The Internet is the Internet,” concedes Khoo, “but we’re going to try to do everything we can to try to ensure you play with your friends.”
Heroes’ Ace in the sleeve is its all-star character roster. Blizzard has massive, storied franchises riddled with characters gamers are familiar with. Heroes is set in The Nexus, a lore bending dimension where the worlds of Sanctuary, Azeroth and the Korpulu sector converge in a way that would almost certainly send Red Shirt Guy into spasms. In Heroes, Diablo and Kerrigan can team up and square off against Abathur and Tyrael.
“Our heroes come from our three different universes but that doesn’t necessarily limit us to just those universes, we can look at other things. You don’t quite know what we can put out next with The Nexus,” teases Khoo.
The heroes themselves are closely aligned with their intra-franchise powers. The StarCraft Ghost Nova is permanently invisible when not attacking, for example, but will always need unimpeded line of sight. Arthas can choose between damage-dealing and tanking roles, and at the highest level must choose between summoning an army, and summoning the mighty dragon Sindragosa. But by far the most interesting is the Zerg splicer, Abathur. His tiny arms like a dinosaur’s make him pitiful in one-on-one combat, but his ability to infest and enhance allied players opens up all kinds of fascinating options and combinations.
“The talents you unlock aren’t so much power-based as options-based,” explains Khoo. “Look at Arthas. He has Summon Sindragosa, and Summon Army of the Dead, and they’re designed to fit two very different situations. Sindragosa is good for initiating team fights, and Army of the Dead is good for single-target damage, and he can sacrifice them to gain health. If we unlock a third heroic ability, it’s going to fit a very specific role on the battlefield. These choices that you make in the talents are exclusive, they’re not in addition or anything like that, so you can’t pay to win.”
In addition to these measures, Blizzard intends to differentiate its entry into the genre with its maps. “One of the key things that we think sets us apart are the battlegrounds. You have multiple battlegrounds, they all have a different mechanic that really changes up the strategy, how you make up your team, and how you customise your hero.”
“I can’t confirm this yet, but we are talking about how we might be able to allow players to create their own Battlegrounds for Heroes of the Storm.”
Whether Heroes of the Storm can succeed or even compete in a genre as crowded as whatever-this-one-should-be-called is, is another question entirely, and one that won’t start to be answered until the game goes into beta. There’s no arguing the pedigree of its competition at Valve and Riot means Blizzard’s work is cut out for it. But even this far out, Heroes of the Storm is showing the substance and polish that is Blizzard’s trademark. The game doesn’t simply represent a compelling new option for anyone who has ever eyed up the immensely steep learning curves and puerile communities the genre is known for and thought "life's too short"; it’s also a fun, tongue-in-cheek homage to the developer’s excellent work over more than 20 years.
Heroes of the Storm is expected to go into closed beta in the first half of 2014. Interested gamers can sign up for the beta today.