OntoGeek founder Bill, editor in chief Oscar, and former staff writer Matt got together to have a virtual chat about Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s newish lane pushing game, and why it simultaneously delights and annoys them.
Oscar: So, you’ve both started playing HotS somewhere in the past few weeks, right? What are you initial impressions?
Matt: Yeah, I’ve been playing for exactly one week now; just had my first roster shift. I am really impressed with it. I’ve dipped a toe into DOTA 2 before, but mostly found it impenetrable and intimidating, even after 25 hours logged. I got through that phase of HotS quickly. It trimmed off all the extraneous stuff (like last-hits, positioning so that your carry gets all the experience and you don’t, etc.)1 and focuses on the parts of MOBA play that I find most engaging. The game is still complex enough to be enticing, but surprisingly low-stress for that complexity.
Bill: I’ve been playing obsessively for about a week and a half, and I am consistently surprised by how much I like this game. Other than Awesomenauts, this is my first real MOBA, (I played DOTA 2 for like half an hour) and I’ve been enjoying myself immensely. Much like Matt says, I find it’s a lot cleaner than what I see in League of Legends or DOTA, and I dig that. I also like that I’ve been called a lot fewer names here than I have in Awesomenauts, even though I’m probably better at Awesomenauts than I am at HotS. Real talk, though: I almost quit playing after the intro cinematic. Blizzard’s whole aesthetic is deeply depressing, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to reward that sort of nonsense.
Oscar: Alright, hold that last thought, Bill. I think we should return to the aesthetic at some point in this conversation. But shall we first dig a little bit into what has gripped us about HotS? Like both of you, I’ve played quite a bit of Awesomenauts, and a few hours of DOTA 2, and I’d basically echo what Matt says. It feels like HotS strips away a few of the arbitrary elements of e.g. DOTA or LoL and brings the genre to something of a more elegant core. Like I recently wrote, I believe a lot of these decisions have to do with the game trying to promote team play, more so than other lane pushers. What do you think about how that turns out in practice?
Matt: The barrier to team fight fun has been destroyed by the trim. I think it is much more accessible. In DOTA 2, if you don’t play the early game right, you can fall so far behind that you’ll get creamed in any engagement, but the steps to getting buff in the early game are esoteric. There’s the shop (and the SECRET shop), and if you make the wrong decisions there, it could hobble you. Getting to the fun in DOTA 2 requires some intense ritual-learning — even with a mentor, it took me a long while to remember all of it. In HotS, you grind a lane in the early game. You go for the map objective when the game tells you to. You gather with your team, push hard, and get into big skirmishes and brawls. And that’s FUN. It feels great when you get some good teamwork going, and the pressure that develops after a team fight is won or lost is something you can physically feel. I’m not sure if there’s any way to force team play with these mechanics; I’ve been quick-matched with enough Lone Wolves. But as one plays the game, it definitely becomes clear that winning teams are the teams that coordinate, and that’s not necessarily the team with the most technically proficient players.
Bill: I’ve really enjoyed the small-scale team-combos, which certainly existed in Awesomenauts, but seem so much clearer here. When Matt and I are working together well, we are alternating our stunning abilities, repositioning ourselves to sandwich fleeing enemies, and generally making things super unfair for the other team. Some of the broader, “macro” strategy still evades me, but those microdramas created by two or three players all working really well together are oodles of fun. Just before getting into HotS, I’d been playing a lot of team Starcraft 2, and as much as I enjoy that game, the teamwork is a little more removed — you’re more like partners who are separately approaching similar objectives. It would be theoretically possible for one player to carry the whole team in Starcraft 2, but that seems very unlikely in HotS. I like that dynamic, although it does sometimes lead to players being obnoxious in the chat.
Oscar: So, as an aside: I’ve briefly mentioned the toxicity element, and Cameron Kunzelman discussed it quite thoroughly in his review on Paste. How do you feel HotS compares to other online games in terms of toxicity? And do you foresee any way in which this aspect of online play could be improved? I do like that HotS has a fairly straightforward way of muting, blocking, and reporting players, and that it was a simple but surprisingly useful ping system, with which you can quickly give directions and suggestions to your team by clicking on the map. Any other solutions you see for improving the atmosphere of online play, and do you notice differences between different games modes?
Matt: I haven’t encountered any toxicity so far, but I mostly play with Bill or against AI, so that minimizes or eliminates my chances of encountering jerks; worst I’ve had is people complaining about the game and declaring that they’re going back to League of Legends. I will say that the ping system is great.
Bill: I honestly haven’t played online games much in a while — I would say generally that there’s less toxicity in HotS than in Awesomenauts or some of the shooters like Gears of War 3 that I used to play online a bunch. The only other thing I play online these days is Starcraft 2, and there’s generally less nonsense in that because you’re too busy clicking to type. That said, I suspect I will encounter more toxicity once I break into Hero League, which should happen soon. People are likely to take that more seriously than they do the occasional Quick Match.
Also sadly, “less toxicity” does not equal “no toxicity.” I have seen several players saying some pretty dreadful things, and had my Allied Chat turned off for a while accordingly. I do generally like the ping system, although frustrated players will start pinging over and over and over again if they feel they’re being ignored or just if they want to be obnoxious. That’s probably better than being called names, but it’s still pretty frustrating.
Oscar: I will say that I found the amount of toxicity and flaming to be less on average in Hero League, at least on the EU server. People seem to take the game more seriously, yes, but that doesn’t translate into nasty behaviour automatically. That said, that’s just my personal experience.
So, to return to your remark earlier, Bill. Let’s talk a little bit about the theme and the visual aesthetic. What put you off the trailer, exactly? And how do you feel about the aesthetic now that you’ve seen more of the game? Matt, did you have the same reaction?
Bill: Yeah, so I made Hero League the other day, and so far folks have been pretty nice, three games in. I’ll report back!
As for the trailer/intro cinematic, it just feels like the sort of thing a group of 14-year-old boys would doodle instead of paying attention in English class. Everything about it so very boring and tired, spandex-clad space babes blowing kisses, spiky demons roaring, some super-cool dude saying “oh shi-” before an explosion cuts off his cuss word, so the content isn’t too edgy and the game can still be rated T for exTreme. As soon as Tyrael and Kerrigan leaped into the air to trade ineffective but super cool attacks, the soundtrack kicks into hyper-generic metal guitar chords that remind me of nothing so much as the ill-advised music of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Arthas swings his sword at Nova and the camera slows down so we can all admire his preposterous sword. The ridiculous costumes are all over-designed fantasy trash, the women are all (except Sergeant Hammer) exactly the same size and build, characters growl threats and spout terrible dialogue,2 and it’s just so very embarrassing.
Of course, this isn’t really Heroes of the Storm’s fault. It’s tasked with staying true to Blizzard’s broader aesthetic, whether in World of Warcraft or Diablo or Starcraft 2, and that’s a shame, because the cartoony, bouncy, super-spiky, many-pauldroned outfits and general vibe of those games is terrible.
Matt: I’m not as offended by the game as Bill is, I suppose, but I trade in disgust for disappointment. I care about character design quite a bit, and on the game design side, it’s of course extremely beneficial for characters to have a distinct silhouette such that a quick glance can communicate what you’re up against and what to expect. The game is crap at that. Especially if you’re just starting off, it’s hard to recognize and react when a hero emerges from the darkness. A good half of the characters are the same shape and armor-clad, and scrolling through the available characters evokes a vanilla blandness.
To make things worse, some characters look and move far too similar — Raynor and Tychus, Tyrande and Sylvanas, Leoric and Arthas, Stitches and Butcher, Thrall and Rehgar, and, on the icon side, Li Li and Chen (how many times have I wandered into an objective fight assuming Chen was already there and find Li Li getting murdered? More than five!). It’s a real shame, because the mechanics of each character are entirely unique; no one character feels like playing any other, which is great. It’s a magnificent shame that those characters don’t look as distinct, and are instead funneled into the same boring shapes and tropes. There are notable exceptions — Johanna, Sgt. Hammer, and Anub’arak all feel special, as does Tassadar’s ethereal glide and Nazeebo’s hunched walk — but you so frequently get match-ups where five people are playing the Buff Warrior, the Slinky Woman, or the Horned Devil. It’s dull and it’s lazy.
Oscar: I think I’m with you on most points. I agree with you, Bill, that a lot of it is due to the game sticking closely to Blizzard’s past aesthetic, which is understandable, but lazy, and to be honest, there’s not all that much to work with in that department. Blizzard’s whole shtick has been to do mildly amusing takes on fantasy and sci-fi clichés. At the same time, there is really no excuse for not taking this moment as a cue to start doing something different. Why are there more aliens in the game than non-blonde women? Why is the only character of colour a horrible voodoo stereotype, including a faux-Caribbean accent? They wisely left out the Warcraft trolls at this stage, but really it couldn’t get any worse.
You get the sense that maybe they’re trying to move in a different direction with Overwatch,3 but we’ll have to wait and see. And yes, there are exceptions in the game. Anub’arak is probably one of my favourite characters, as are the Zerg, except for Kerrigan, I suppose.
As a bit of a wishful thinking thought experiment, take a look at these tweets from Rowan Kaiser and imagine an alternative universe:
they certainly have enough heroes and companions, I think, but they might struggle with characters outside of party members.
— Snake Juice (@RowanKaiser) August 7, 2015
Would we jump on this in an instant? (Yes, we would).
Bill: Yes, I’m generally more interested in the Overwatch aesthetic than the rest of their games. It’s got a pretty strong Pixar vibe, which I’m in favor of. And yeah, I would play the heck out of a BioWare MOBA.
Matt: I’m incredibly excited about Overwatch, and mentally praise its character design every time I see the logo on Battle.net. More of that, please.
Now, I am in favor of a BioWare MOBA, with the caveat that it also has some major redesigns in there. I’m pretty sure its character silhouettes would be even worse off than Blizzard. You need some cartoony exaggerations when working from a top-down perspective. That said, give me a Rachni Queen to break down some Geth towers already. Or Wrex. Give me Wrex.
Wait, you could legitimately make an Elcor Turret-soldier in the BioWare MOBA.
Oscar: So, I think we’ve discussed most of the things we wanted to. Is there anything else you’d like to add? I know Bill and I have been watching some of the professional HotS matches in American and European open the past few days, and I’m feeling like this is the game that might me get into watching eSports a bit more. What are your impressions?
Matt: Margaret and I hooked up the laptop to the television, grabbed some snacks, and watched for hours. Watching team Bob? field a team of three specialists and no assassins against Gamers2 was a treat. That sort of experience is totally new to me; I’ve never really been into watching eSports or sports, and I felt like I finally tapped into an experience that I’ve seen from afar but never truly understood. I want to invite friends over and yell at HotS games with a buffalo wing in hand. It might be the most American I’ve ever felt (outside of Bill’s bachelor party).
Bill: Yeah, I have enjoyed the heck out of HotS esports. I watched the August North America Open championships all day its first day, and my wife and I watched several games together, too. I think part of what makes it an enjoyable esport is its relative newness — the casters still feel like they need to explain a lot of what is going on, which means it’s more comprehensible to newer/more casual viewers. I tried to watch some of the International last month and my insufficient DOTA knowledge meant I could barely tell what was going on. HotS doesn’t feel quite like that. Its relative lack of complexity compared to DOTA or LoL makes it much more accessible, as well. Its newness also means that there’s a lot of room for new strategies and new ideas to develop in the meta — at least half of the characters made an appearance in the August Open, and even though some teams (*cough* Tempo Storm *cough*) are much better than everyone else, there are still a lot of new and young teams trying to make names for themselves and thus trying very, very hard. I’m looking forward to the Americas Championship in September, and intend to invite some friends over to watch the games and eat buffalo wings, per Matt’s suggestion.
That about wraps up this conversation. At some point we might get our servers and accounts in sync for a special OntoGeek HotS day. Until then I’m sure we’ll be enjoying the game some more in the near future, with the idea firmly in the back of our heads that there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the aesthetic of the game, and perhaps eSports in general.
- A carry is a character that is supposed to become the most powerful damage-dealer in a team, and the rest of the team is supposed to support and play with the carry’s growth in mind. [↩]
- I do feel sorry for the poor folks who had to figure out how to make every character say “hey, you’re hurt, go to a healing fountain” in a way that best communicated that character’s essence [↩]
- A multiplayer shooter game, currently in development by Blizzard. [↩]