Heroes of the Storm isn’t the answer to MOBA’s problems… yet

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 2 February 2015 08:24 GMT

Heroes of the Storm probably isn’t the accessible, welcoming MOBA that’s going to change the genre forever.

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Blizzard invited me to come play Heroes of the Storm. I deleted the email.

Blizzard emailed me politely requesting an RSVP. I wrote back saying I was no good at and had no interest in MOBAs, so thank you but no thank you.

Blizzard wrote again, saying that I was precisely the sort of potential player it wanted to join Heroes of the Storm, which is a MOBA for people who don’t already know how to play MOBAs.

I had never been to Blizzard’s Sydney HQ, and was starting to feel worn down by all this charm, so I said okay. After all, it meant a few hours of playing video games instead of doing real work.

I feel pretty confident saying that Heroes of the Storm is going to be a success. Blizzard’s fan base is huge. It’s committed to quality, so the final game will likely be a sterling effort. And with Hearthstone Blizzard showed it can make a much-populated genre fresh (and compulsive).

I get the feeling that Blizzard is hoping to make accessibility the point of difference.

I sort of understand why it exists, and I sort of don’t. On the one hand, Dota 2 and League of Legends between them have the MOBA genre pretty well stitched up; others come and go, but that bazillion dollar market is owned firmly by Valve and Riot. Why would you want yet another version of the same game?

On the other hand that argument applies to every genre, and to cite Hearthstone again, there’s clearly markets for certain types of game that the traditional masters (Magic: The Gathering and its like) aren’t tapping or catering to.

I still feel like Heroes of the Storm needs a differentiator beyond Blizzard’s charming characters and the hold they have over its existing fan bases, and I get the feeling that Blizzard is hoping to make accessibility the point of difference.

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Accessibility is often considered a dirty word, but if there’s one genre that needs a little help in that regard, it’s MOBAs. The learning curve is vertical. The communities are toxic, acting as a further barrier to learning.

How does Blizzard intend to address these two enormous problems? I took this question to senior technical designer Justin Klinchurch.

The answer to the difficulty problem seems to be getting rid of the item system seen in rival titles.

“This gives you the choices that you need in-game to spec out your hero, make your hero powerful; you can decide exactly how to build them,” Klinchurch said.

“It’s all keyed towards the neutral hero. I think that not only makes a lot of those decisions more intuitive, I think it does make it more approachable. Up front, you don’t need to learn this huge list of items to make any kind of progress in the game. It’s like, here’s a short list of four choices and they’re all gonna be useful for your hero. So whatever flavour suits you.”

I don’t think this really addresses the problem of needing to learn to play the game moment to moment; it probably makes the jump from “competent” to “good” easier, but it’s not a path from “knowing the controls” to “competent” – and that’s something this game desperately needs, and its tutorials do not provide it.

At present, there’s a basic movement and attack tutorial, which spends far too long explaining the basic concepts of clicking and A+clicking. There’s another one that teaches you how to use your specials, break down structures, and heal at fountains. Then there’s training, which drops you in with very easy bots and has you go at it. If you wander into the bushes a tooltip will “explain” jungling in a woefully inadequate way, but as far as I saw that was about it as far as extra information in the training section.

“We’re getting a lot more feedback on just how effective the tutorial is. So we’re still looking at it.”

At no point in any of this does Heroes of the Storm provide guidance as to what you should actually do. Apparently what you should do depends on who you’re playing as, who your team mates are playing as, who the enemy are playing as, what your team mates are doing and what the enemy are doing – so of course, it’s hard to teach that to anybody through any means bar trial by fire, over and over again, preferably with friendly, experienced veterans around them.

If you are a MOBA newb, of the sort Blizzard apparently wants to attract, and you have questions like “what are lanes” and “what is jungling” and “what should I do”, Heroes of the Storm is not going to provide answers.

Klinchurch said the tutorials may be improved as time goes on.

“It’s something that we’re still considering,” he said.

“Especially now that we have a lot of new players coming in. We’re getting a lot more feedback on just how effective the tutorial is. So we’re still looking at it.”

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Heroes are rated by difficulty and role, which doesn’t provide much guidance for beginners wondering how to fit into a team.

Of course, no tutorial is going to make you as skilled as a veteran player. The reason high-level MOBA play is so exciting, and the genre has become one of the fastest selling eSports scenes, is because it requires so much skill, experience, strategy and co-ordination. Those are all things you either have naturally or develop as you play with other people after you reach a base level of competence.

In a welcoming, warm and friendly community, acquiring this skill is a pleasure and a joy. MOBAs famously do not provide this kind of community, though. The word “toxic” gets thrown around a lot, and with good reason.

The spirit of MOBAs seems to be competitiveness above all else, including human dignity and the right not to be called ridiculously disrespectful names because you win, or lose, or exist quietly on the other side of the globe, or whatever. Complain about the toxicity in a MOBA community, and MOBA veterans who apparently have nothing better to do will hunt down your tweets and be toxic at you. Some actively fight to retain a culture of unfriendliness and shit talking, because that’s what they like about their little worlds.

“This is definitely something we’re paying a lot of attention to,” Klinchurch said.

” We do want this game to be welcoming to everybody. Toxicity is something we take very seriously.”

“This is really important to us. We do want this game to be welcoming to everybody. Toxicity is something we take very seriously.

“We were hoping that some of the mechanics help with this a little bit. Going from individual levels to a team-based level – now you’re not worrying about competing against the other members of your team. You’re all working together to have a level.

“But still, you get those people that like to rage on the internet. We’re definitely looking into ways that we can make it a much warmer experience.”

That’s kind of a non-answer, and to be honest, I think the hyper-competitive culture that pervades MOBA is impossible to shift and one of the most impermeable barriers to entry. You need to learn a team sport like MOBAs from other players, but other players are there to win and to get a better KDR than their useless matchmade team playmates.

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Something is happening here and someone knows what it is.

Clearly some people can stomach it in order to learn the game properly, and they become very good indeed. In my session there was one friend of mine whom I know to be very good at MOBAs and experienced with Heroes of the Storm. When he was on my side, we won by a landslide. Then he went to chat with Blizzard, and the team opposite, who had two MOBA veterans if not Heroes of the Storms players, immediately slaughtered us.

This is the difference experience and skill makes: one guy can turn the tide. If you doubt this at all, let it be known that the veteran came back later, joined a match more than half way over, and reversed the scores within minutes.

I can see why that would be fun, and I’d love to watch my friend play against other experienced veterans, facing a real challenge.

But do I ever want to play against him again? No. No, I don’t. And if Blizzard wants brand new players like myself to get on board, it needs to put us in situations where we can learn to play, not just be repeatedly slaughtered by Alex Walker. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen until full launch.

“Our population is still relatively small, and it will grow over time. The more people we get in, the better the matchmaking will be,” Kilnchurch said.

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If you do this, someone will shout at you. Ditto if you don’t do it.

Talking to Kilnchurch I kind of got the feeling that he didn’t remember what it was like not to know how to play a MOBA competently; maybe he was born knowing how to play. This is an attitude I feel I’ve encountered in everyone who makes or plays MOBAs – a kind of amnesia.

Clearly, MOBAs are popular enough that there can be at least a couple of competing titles with huge player bases, hauling in heaps of money, and I expect Heroes of the Storm to be one of them. But MOBA in its present form is never going to go hugely mainstream the way shooters or social games have, and at this stage in its lifecycle, I don’t think Heroes of the Storm is likely to change that. Let’s see what happens during the beta, though.

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