Among my many professional failings is the inability to comprehend MOBAs. I understand the basic mechanics and have tried to enjoy both of the major players: gave LoL a real go for a few weeks then got bored, gave up Dota 2 after seven bewildering hours I'll never get back. My regret is never reaching or understanding the fun part that must be there. Then I played Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm.
HOTS began as a Starcraft II custom gametype called Blizzard Dota, made internally and intended to showcase SCII's arcade mode. At some point the SCII team decided to scrap this idea, and begin making a standalone game using the SC II engine. This team's prior experience is in making a game they knew would be an eSport from day one. It's a schooling that shines through in the visual clarity of HOTS' chaotic battles, but also informs a major shift away from tenets of the genre.
The major difference between HOTS and Dota/LoL is the absence of gold and items – the former accrued to buy the latter. The advantage of such a system is the flexibility a large range of items offers across characters. The disadvantages are that it's an arcane list of stuff to be memorised – a barrier to new players – and any one character can only use a small percentage of the items. So HOTS takes the core principle of flexible upgrade paths for each character, and builds a new system.
Talents are a set of four options, bespoke to each character's abilities, that you choose from while levelling. At the start of the game (level 1) you choose the first, and then every third level until 20 choose another. Talents can buff existing abilities, add new ones, or give passive traits – and they offer both large swings in functionality and subtle tweaking.
Take as an example my main man Stitches. He's kind of tanky, with decent damage and a bit of self-heal, but his main role is throwing out a big hook and reeling opposing heroes in for a pasting. Let's not go through every upgrade choice you can make – his talent tree can be viewed here – but depending on the game Stitches can be made into something that suits it.
Stitches could go super-tanky: capable of blocking attacks, regenerating health, escaping stuns quicker and so on. Or we could focus on his hook. Make it longer, give it the ability to hook two heroes at once. Perhaps add a stun effect to the Slam ability to incapacitate new arrivals. You can choose the heroic ability Gorge, reel someone in and then instantly swallow them whole – and drop them off somewhere nice. A lot of Stitches players amp up his Slam move, eventually making it a wide (and frequent) AoE attack that poisons and stuns. You could even make a minion-focused Stitches that produces a slimy Retchling to tank for him. Point is that there are four options at each level, but the number of possible permutations in any hero's talent tree is, for me at least, incalculable.
Global XP is another major change, with each team in HOTS sharing experience and levelling together – other MOBAs depend on your character getting last hits on enemy minions for individual XP. This instantly feels like a good move for a team-focused game. In other MOBAs a character can have a terrible start and then spend the rest of the match a couple of levels behind their team. The HOTS system emphasises team interdependence and adds simple timing windows – if you can unlock heroic abilities by hitting level 10, and then somehow kick off a team fight before your opponent hits level 10, you're onto a winner.
Design decisions like global XP are not deviations for the sake of it, but illuminate the core principle behind HOTS's take on the MOBA ruleset. Blizzard's designers have made a game that encourages and rewards team play, where the individual moments (great as they are) never quite overshadow the importance of working together.
The most obvious example of this is the level design. First of all, HOTS has more than one map. Second, the maps are objective-based, typically featuring a creature that can somehow be commandeered, or a territorial war of some kind. The objectives are great fun to see play out, especially when you end up controlling a big beastie, but also powerful enough they can't be ignored. Though the levels differ in the type of gameplay they lead to, the objectives all force both teams to try to do the same thing at the same time – bringing them together at regular intervals.
This is the flipside of emphasising team play – you get an awful lot of team fights. Not only does this make for more frequent action beats, but it also plays to Blizzard's ever-present strengths in animation and feedback. The fights feel and look great to be a part of, even when you're not doing so well – and on that note, the final touch to this style of play is found in the forgiving level curve.
The levelling curve in HOTS works thus: teams can gain an advantage, and there are crisis points, but overall both stay within touching distance. Yes if the opposing team gets four levels up, you're done, but that just never happens – and I've been in teams three levels down that have somehow pulled it back. Point is, you can lose a fight in HOTS and it isn't the end of the world. You can even lose a couple. Which encourages risk-taking, crazy plays, and the odd YOLO for when you just gotta get paid.
This incidentally deals with a long-standing MOBA problem – it's often possible for a team to have an unassailable position, but for the game to take another twenty minutes to play out. HOTS never feels like that. Even when you're taking a battering in HOTS there's some way to change the momentum. You'll lose plenty of games, but it almost never feels like you're fighting a losing battle. HOTS is all-action, all of the time.
This raises a question about HOTS – is it, after all, a MOBA? I've outlined key aspects of Dota/LoL that, without exception, HOTS has chosen to move away from entirely or replace. You don't have to memorise items or study up on heroes to have fun for half an hour. Even the perspective is different – where the competition goes up and down, HOTS goes left and right.
The correct answer, perhaps, is that current MOBA players are not the target market. The success of HOTS will not be measured by how it compares to Dota / LoL. It's about whether Blizzard's unique take on the principles behind MOBA games causes a shift in the mindset of players that don't play MOBAs. It's not trying to break the duopoly so much as break free.
Blizzard has eSports experience and deep pockets. With that kind of backing, who knows how high HOTS can fly? It's impossible to know if, over time, its design will continue to surprise or quickly grow stale. What I do know is that HOTS still seems brilliant after a few weeks of play. I'm confident I'll still be playing in a few months. And I don't even like MOBAs.