3/11/2015

How Blizzard tries to solve MOBA problems

I really didn't want to start playing Heroes of the Storm. For two reasons. One - I never had enough time to really enjoy playing any MOBA on a decent skill level. Two - whenever Blizzard releases a game there is a high chance it will be the only game I'll be playing for the next few months. I logged into the beta maybe a week ago and I'm amazed at what I've seen so far in terms of design.

Bear in mind that this article's purpose is to analyze how Blizzard has approached many problems that can be seen within MOBA games, especially on the entry level. For obvious reasons, I will be comparing it to the most popular two - LoL and DotA 2.

If MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch was still on,
I'm sure they would feature Drow Ranger vs. Ashe at some point.
Problem #1: Copying
The situation of the most popular MOBAs on the market is pretty ridiculous. Everything started with a Warcraft III mod, then LoL pretty much copied it, then Valve copied it (or "further developed"), and now the company that did the base for original, but not the original stepped into the picture. 

Battles between LoL and DotA 2 fans are almost equally amusing as the console fanboys throwing shit at each other while the "PC Master Race" is defending their 10% market share (mostly thanks to MOBAs). The differences between the two titles are cosmetic at best and are mostly on the visual side. Sure, the balancing is different, the difficulty is different, monetization is different, but the whole core design stayed untouched since what, 2003, when the first version of DotA saw the light?

Blizzard had to differentiate. Not only because the formula deserved a bit of a change, but mostly because with established fan bases of the 2 biggest titles, not even the legions of Blizzard fans would be interested in a third game that's exactly the same. What did they do?

They took the most static element of the puzzle - the map - and made a few variants of it, making the players not only push lanes and jungle, but also fight for the overpowered power-ups that can be complete game changers. From resurrecting bone golems through collecting doublons for a pirate to bomb enemy forts to letting players turn into a dragon. On top of that, the lanes are no longer defended by towers you can just walk by. They are fortified, with walls and gates. And lastly, the mobs in the jungle, instead of being just a source of experience, cash or buffs, became mercenaries that you can recruit once every 3 minutes if you defeat them first. This way, the map design alone is a very distinctive game changer. 

Like with almost everything done by Blizzard - not really a revolution, but evolution comparable to dogs growing wings overnight.


Problem #2: Accessibility
I couldn't really get into DotA 2. The item icons were so small I could barely see anything, The AI of towers was just confusing in the first few matches and the overall difficulty at the lowest levels, the confusing plethora of characters to choose from... Lost two games, won three games, changed the character, lost again and that was more or less it.

LoL is correcting quite a lot of these. The free champion rotation is obviously there as a part of the more aggressive monetization plan, but it also narrows the initial choice of characters down, which is a very good thing for beginners. The item icons are bigger and the player can actually see what they depicts. The suggested items for each character are also a great idea for those who just want to try and play without reading through a number of guides first. On the other hand, the multitude of items later on did force you to put hours into investigating every single champion or at least copy-pasting a working build from some website. Not even then you have a chance for a relatively even fight, as LoL has a system of runes and sigils and whatnot that literally lets the higher level players who farmed more (or paid more) get significant bonuses that help them dominate lower level players. Mixed with uneven matching alghoritms it's far from a noob-friendly environment. 

Heroes of the Storm eases us into it. There is only 5 heroes in the rotation at first and that's more than enough for new players. As you gain player levels, you unlock slots that give you some more heroes in the free rotation, but that happens after you are already familiar with the basics and are unlikely to get overwhelmed. The player level gives you no advantage in a single match. Learning your hero is also much more user-friendly. There's no items you have to worry about in the middle of the battle and all three basic skills are unlocked from the start. The only thing you have to manage is traits that you get every few levels. Traits give you additional skills or improve the existing ones. At level 10 you get the ultimate skill (R). Simple? Wait, it's been made even simpler! When you are starting with a new hero, you have only half of its traits unlocked, so you only have to choose between two each time something pops up. When you finish your match, your hero gets experience and levels up, which unlocks additional traits and an alternative ultimate skill. Sounds limiting at first, but as soon as you learn that in no more than 5 battles your hero gets all its traits unlocked, the limitation becomes nothing more than just a smoothened learning curve. Especially with dynamically adjusted difficulty level that seems to base on your player level. 

What's also interesting is that for every hero you take to level 5, you get some ingame currency to buy new heroes, so it encourages you to try new heroes instead of sticking to one or two you know.

Some might argue that the trait system is an insufficient replacement for the skill upgrading and item buying system of DotA 2 and LoL, but nobody in their right mind can claim it's less user-friendly. And again, it helps HotS differentiate itself from the two.

These guys are actually behaving better than DotA and LoL fanboys.
They only attack the opposite "team".

Problem #3: Community
It's no secret that the current MOBA communities (especially LoL) is full of harassment and misbehavior. Riot even introduced the Tribunal system to fight the offenders, but all this reporting and reviewing cases feels more like pitting the players against each other more than really solving the problem. 

Blizzard tries to root out the causes of the problems. I'm sure they won't be able to succeed completely, but there are some ideas that certainly help fight some of the aggression.

First one they decided to tackle was the competition within the team. There is no such thing as individual hero level in a match. The whole team gets a level. You can't steal a kill, as everyone that does damage gets the kill and the experience goes to the mutual pool anyway. There's no coins to buy items, so players don't have to compete over that too. Still, there are statistics that show who did more siege damage or who participated in more takedowns, but nobody gets ahead of the team with the level and nobody lags behind. You'd be amazed how much it cuts down the shit flying on the allied chat. 

Another common cause of rage is players quitting mid-game. LoL community even wrote an open letter to parents about that recently. Players quit, the rest of the team is doomed. How do you counteract that? It looks like there is a number of ways. First - if a player quits or has connection problems, the hero doesn't idle. Heroes of the Storm switches to a bot as a backup. When the player reconnects, he regains control of the hero. Sure, the bot might not be as good as the player, but at least is isn't just standing in the base. Second idea is the very length of the match. Many co-op vs. AI matches last between 10 and 15 minutes. PvP matches last around 30 minutes. That's approximately 50% of a standard LoL / DotA 2 match time. On top of that all, the matching system seems to be much more effective here than the team setups in LoL that can take half an hour.


Next step in MOBAs?
Since I've never played any of the titles on more professional level, it's hard for me to assess how much the simplification of gear/skill systems will affect the depth of gameplay, The matches do seem more varied when it comes to level-related tactics and it could actually be enough to make up for possible lacks in the character development depth. Not to mention the fact that number of systems or items doesn't necessarily increase depth.

From what I've seen so far, HotS is a much smoother experience for a starting player. Shorter matches, shorter setup times, more incentive to learn new heroes and much friendlier learning curve combined with more map variety can all be great attractors. It definitely does a great job standing out as a title without abandoning the 10-players-3-lanes core of the genre.

How successful will it prove to be? Time will tell. Right now, top 2 spots on Twitch don't seem to budge, but who knows? Maybe it's because more people are actually able to play HotS on a satisfactory level that they don't have to watch it.



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1 comment:

  1. Heroes of the Storm is decent game for me.
    At least it has a balance though it cannot reach the best MOBA due to it's too casual, I enjoy playing it.

    I am quite agree that it's balanced, and it can expresses the word "comeback is real" very well. (http://www.heroesofthestormsource.com/gameplay/heroes-of-the-storm-balanced-moba-youre-looking-for/)

    To sum up my opinion, HotS is not the best MOBA but I enjoy play it.

    ReplyDelete