The fated weekend is almost upon us, and this year there’s no shortage of hype. BlizzCon 2013 will lift the fog surrounding the next World of Warcraft expansion and provide us with more details on Diablo III’s expansion, Reaper of Souls. The Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft panel will undoubtedly be a good time, and there, we could learn about the direction of the title post open beta. Admittedly, I’m unsure of what to expect from the Starcraft II panel, not being totally familiar with the game beyond the campaign mode. What really stands out to me though about this year is Heroes of the Storm.
For those unfamiliar with MOBAs, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, the market is oversaturated. There are two big titles, Riot’s League of Legends and Valve’s Dota II, with a third title, S2′s Heroes of Newerth a good ways behind the rest of the pack. Behind those three, there’s a plethora of smaller titles struggling to find their spot in the crowded market. Each of the three titles mentioned features their own dynamic competitive scene, metagame, the whole nine yards. Those roaming from MOBA to MOBA often make their selection based on a couple of considerations. The question becomes, what does Blizzard have to do in order for Heroes of the Storm to be successful in the MOBA market?
It’s no secret that Blizzard will profit greatly from the strength of their franchises. Part of the joy of playing the original DotA mod for Warcraft III was the opportunity to play as characters such as Sylvanas Windrunner, Thrall and even a Hydralisk. While their names might’ve been different (Traxex, Chen, Lesale Deathbringer, respectively) in DotA, there was no doubt a connection to the original source material that boosted the experience. I expect this to continue with Heroes of the Storm. I mean, who doesn’t want to play as Diablo, or Jim Raynor, or Arthas? If we’re Blizzard fans, of course we want that. Beyond that though, there are some big question marks.
Casual and Competitive
Heroes of Newerth features a learning curve that, is frankly, on par with EVE Online, for players new to MOBAs. That, in conjunction with a decidedly vitriolic community and a focus on competitive level play tends to scare off new players. Blizzard will obviously want to avoid that, based on their casual friendly stance. That said, it’ll need to avoid it without becoming casual to the point that veterans of the genre will view it as a ‘kiddy pool’ experience. It’s a tough line to walk. It’ll likely suit Heroes of the Storm to adopt the same stance Hearthstone has: easy to get into, hard to master.
There is another side of the coin, though. Starcraft II has made a living by being a super hardcore game. Maybe Heroes of the Storm could function similarly? Both arguments have merit.
If there’s one thing DotA II has done well, it’s the interactions between characters. Slardar, a hero featuring an ultimate ability that weakens armor and reveals invisible characters has some choice words for Rikimaru, an assassin that makes a living by hunting from the shadows. Unique interactions in conjunction with detailed backstories make the game more palatable for individuals who enjoy a side of lore with their crazy action. It goes without saying that this is something Blizzard could very easily replicate and, frankly, do a lot better.
How awesome would it be if, after disposing of Sarah Kerrigan, Jim Raynor were to drop a staple line from the original Starcraft title, “I’ll be seein’ ya”. That’s just a small morsel of the interactions would we could enjoy. Imagine, Garrosh versus Thrall. Illidan and Arthas. That sounds awesome even before we consider the possibility of crossovers. What would it be like if The Lord of Terror met up with Zeratul? I don’t know, but I’d imagine it’d be badass. Blizzard has the chance with this title to satisfy content dreamed up in a number of fan fictions, Twitter conversations, forums, the works. Handling this deftly would allow them access to a whole other demographic.
Blizzard will also need to decide how it will handle hero unlocks. Riot’s League of Legends allows players the chance to grind up in-game currency to spend on purchasing champions, but it’s frankly a lengthy process, unless you manage to acquire certain ones while they’re on sale. Of course, the option is always there to just purchase them with real money. Conversely, Heroes of Newerth moved away from that system a while ago, and all heroes are available upon installation of the game, save Early Access heroes, which is its own unique program.
There’s reason to believe that World of Warcraft will, at some point, move to a F2P option, but for now, we can look at Hearthstone as an example of how Blizzard wants to do business going forward. Hearthstone allows players the chance to grind out card packs through the use of dailies without ever spending a dime. It’s slow, but thanks to a boost provided by one time quests, it’s actually not that bad. Hearthstone could be a model for how Blizzard’s freemium titles function in the future, and it seems like it’s a successful model to follow.
The Other Stuff
There’s a lot more to be considered about Heroes of the Storm and, undoubtedly, we’ll know more come Friday at 4:45 PDT when the Heroes of the Storm panel starts. For now though, the short answer to the question ‘what does Blizzard have to do in order for Heroes of the Storm to be successful in the MOBA market?’ can be summed up with ‘create a dynamic title that takes advantage of its impressive franchises while carving a unique role in a crowded market’. It’s a tall order, make no mistakes about, but based on the success of Hearthstone, and the willingness to reverse decisions like the Diablo III Auction House, I see no reason not to be optimistic about the coming MOBA.