Heroes of the Storm and designing for team play

A well-known prob­lem with so-called MOBAs1 — which I pre­fer to call lane-pushers — and online com­pet­i­tive videogames in gen­er­al is that their play­ers often dis­play bad atti­tudes towards each other.2 In the case of lane-pushers, where team play is cen­tral to vic­to­ry, enjoy­ment of the game can be com­pro­mised by the way peo­ple act: team-internal fric­tion and frus­tra­tion, rang­ing from snark­i­ness to flam­ing and abuse, as well as by the way peo­ple play: lone wolf behav­iour that does­n’t take the needs of the over­all team into account.

The most recent major game in the genre is Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, an inter­est­ing (re)turn to form for the pub­lish­er, since the whole genre was based on mods for their Starcraft and Warcraft 3.3 Having played the game for a cou­ple of months since its offi­cial release, I get the feel­ing that much of its par­tic­u­lar take on the genre has to do with the facil­i­ta­tion of team play, and to mit­i­gate some of the poten­tial nas­ti­ness sketched above.

Some of these design deci­sions are worth a brief dis­cus­sion. Whereas in other lane-pushers like League of Legends, DOTA, and Awesomenauts, indi­vid­ual heroes have their own level dur­ing a match, all heroes with­in a team in Heroes of the Storm are always on the same power level. The expe­ri­ence gained from defeat­ing ene­mies and destroy­ing forts is shared equal­ly among all team mem­bers, which results in no one play­er ever lag­ging behind the rest. A def­i­nite advan­tage of this design is that lone wolf behav­iour is dis­cour­aged: you’re never going to end up hav­ing the high­est level in your team.

Paying some doubloons to Blackheart so he'll pelt the enemy team's base with cannon fire.

Paying some dou­bloons to Blackheart so he’ll pelt the enemy team’s base with can­non fire.

Another impor­tant fac­tor is the game’s addi­tion of cen­tral map objec­tives. Each of the game’s eight maps has a recur­ring the­mat­ic goal, which push­es teams to coor­di­nate in order to col­lect a par­tic­u­lar num­ber of items before the enemy does, dom­i­nate an area for a cer­tain peri­od, etc. For exam­ple, in Sky Temple, you have to defend indi­vid­ual tem­ple areas in order to fire huge ener­gy beams at your oppo­nen­t’s forts, while in Haunted Mines, you gath­er as many skulls as pos­si­ble to raise the power of your peri­od­i­cal­ly acti­vat­ing grave golems. Controlling these objec­tives is cru­cial to win­ning a Heroes of the Storm match, and they can even allow teams to make last-minute turn­arounds. I’ve been in numer­ous games where we seemed to be los­ing for fif­teen min­utes or so, only to swing the game around with some great last-ditch efforts. In prin­ci­ple, this is a very ele­gant design that real­ly endears me to the game.

There’s trou­ble in par­adise, though. Even if I’m cor­rect in assum­ing that these design deci­sions — as well as oth­ers hav­ing to do with com­mu­ni­ca­tion — were made to pro­mote pos­i­tive team play, in prac­tice, the results are far from ideal. The game is still host to mas­sive amounts of neg­a­tiv­i­ty — see Cameron Kunzelman’s review on Paste — and while the sit­u­a­tion on the EU serv­er seems to be a bit clos­er to a 60/40 dis­tri­b­u­tion of nice / abu­sive teams, it still both­ers me a lot that many play­ers have such a bad atti­tude online. It’s like some peo­ple choose to for­get that peo­ple make mis­takes all the time and are always learn­ing — espe­cial­ly in a skill-intensive game such as this — and use every­thing that goes wrong as an out­let for pent-up frus­tra­tion.

If we refo­cus on the design deci­sions sketched above, it’s not all that sur­pris­ing, in the end. There’s still a win­ning team and a los­ing team, and in the los­ing team, play­ers are prone to start blam­ing each other when things go wrong. While the power level is shared, there are still other sta­tis­tics in a match that peo­ple can com­pare each other on. Instead of “you’re lag­ging behind” it’s now “your hero dam­age is pathet­ic for an assas­sin” or “the oppo­nen­t’s heal­er healed way more than you did”. The cen­tral objec­tives seek to stim­u­late team play, but at the same time, they cre­ate focal points of frus­tra­tion. Players that are too slow to react to incom­ing objec­tives, or are sim­ply fol­low­ing anoth­er strat­e­gy, risk becom­ing the tar­get of abuse if the enemy team ends up win­ning the objec­tive. Whether or not other play­ers real­ly dropped the ball in terms of play is irrel­e­vant, as long as toxic play­ers have some­thing to latch on to beat oth­ers with when things go sour.4 In short, there will always be strug­gles and fights over who is the weak­est link in the team.

In the end, this is some­thing that no game design­er can elim­i­nate by design, because it has to do with basic prin­ci­ples of team play, con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, and decen­cy. If those are lack­ing in a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of your play­er base, they are going to be lack­ing in your game too.

What remains, then, is how these design deci­sions impact the game as a sport (ama­teur of pro­fes­sion­al). Even if facil­i­tat­ing team play does­n’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly lead to a less toxic envi­ron­ment, it may lead to a more sat­is­fy­ing game to play and watch. I for one pre­fer the ebb and flow of Heroes of the Storm to that of DOTA 2, for exam­ple. How the game will match up with its com­peti­tors in the long run will remain to be seen.

  1. Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas []
  2. In some cases, bad atti­tudes is a euphemism. The dark side of online game com­mu­ni­ca­tion is rife with speech that is racist, sex­ist, homo­pho­bic, etc. []
  3. The ver­sion in the lat­ter game, called Defence of the Ancients, was the name­giv­er of Valve’s DOTA. The Starcraft mod was called Aeon of Strife.  []
  4. Not to men­tion the extreme cases where there is team-internal abuse even when your team is win­ning. Go fig­ure. []

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.