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Heroes of the Storm fights for a smaller, but passionate audience

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HotS may never match Dota or League's numbers, but maybe that's OK

Heroes of the Storm
Blizzard Entertainment

At BlizzCon 2017, Blizzard announced a major update for Heroes of the Storm coming later this year. There was also quite a bit of gushing about their successful roll out of Heroes of the Storm 2.0 earlier this year. Fall seems to be the season of the MOBA, as the Dota 2 International was only a few months ago and the League of Legends World Finals took place over BlizzCon weekend.

But the Heroes of the Storm team isn’t concerned about any of that; they just want to make their game better.

Blizzard’s 2018 update will bring some significant changes to the laning period of Heroes of the Storm. This portion of matches, a time spent growing powerful before you fight the enemy, is extremely important in both League and Dota. For Heroes, it has always been a secondary objective, something you do when nothing else is happening on the map.

The changes coming at the end of this year aim to extend the laning phase in Heroes, adding more time spent in 1v1 or 2v2 scenarios rather than an all-out brawl all the time. While these changes may seem aimed at making HotS similar to its main competition, game director Alan Dabiri assured us that isn’t the case.

“Our game actually has quite a bit of strategic depth to it,” Dabiri said in an interview with Polygon. “That’s one thing that I think that probably people may have gotten the wrong perception. While we think we’ve refined a lot of mechanics in the MOBA genre, sometimes people might misunderstand that for being oversimplifying, where actually players who actually have played the game a lot recognize how deep it can be, even to the point of potentially being complicated. With the changes that we made for this 2018 gameplay update, our biggest motivation entirely was around what aspects of our core game do we think we can improve. It wasn’t really in relation to any other game, or something we wanted to do in terms of the MOBA genre, which for everything else we do, there is actually a desire to push the MOBA genre when we add in these unique heroes or battlegrounds or whatever.

“We actually are trying to push the genre. With these changes, we were actually entirely focused on just trying to make core gameplay improvements. Areas where we thought ‘you know, this works out OK,’ but we think we can do better here.”

Alan Dabiri, game director for Heroes of the Storm
Blizzard Entertainment

Dabiri and the Heroes of the Storm team say they aren’t interested in creating a League or Dota clone. Instead, each and everything they do is built around making their game better for the community they’ve cultivated. Ultimately, Heroes of the Storm isn’t about being the most popular MOBA in the world, it’s about creating something that Blizzard developers and Blizzard fans love.

In more ways than one, Heroes of the Storm exists as a love letter to Blizzard as a company. The game is filled with old World of Warcraft raid bosses like Ragnaros as well as new Overwatch characters like Junkrat. Illidan Stormrage and Jim Raynor would never meet in World of Warcraft or Starcraft, respectively, but they can be best friends or great enemies in Heroes of the Storm.

Heroes has even been able to tap into the fears and desires of the community in recent months. Earlier this year, when Kel’Thuzad was finally released into the Nexus, the Dreadlord Jaina skin was released as well. The theory that Jaina, a prominent do-gooder in the Warcraft universe, was secretly an evil, demonic Dreadlord has been a fan-favorite theory for years. With the recent announcement of Battle for Azeroth, WoW’s seventh expansion, Jaina is clearly revealed to not be a Dreadlord in official canon. But the fun idea that she could have been will forever live on through Heroes of the Storm.

“That is something that is so awesome about our game and I’m really happy that we have the opportunity to do those kind of things,” Dabiri said of Dreadlord Jaina. “Obviously in a game like World of Warcraft, Starcraft or whatever, while we’ve always had a bit of humor and a close connection to our community and we’ll throw some kind of nods to the community, we can’t go too overboard. We can’t make it canon. In the case of Heroes, while there is the canon of ‘what is the universe of Heroes?’ there’s also this other side of skins that is not canon to anything, it’s just fun stuff.

“Being able to do that, and we’ve done this a lot, you’ve probably seen this in a whole bunch of things we’ve done, whether it’s the voices, what they say, whether it’s in our portraits, whether it’s skins, whatever, on the battlegrounds, we love looking at things that are going on in the community and bringing those into the game. I think it’s a cool thing. I think it’s fun. I think players love it.”

Blizzard Entertainment

Ultimately, the developers want their players and community to have fun, but they also want to keep this game as uniquely Blizzard as possible.

For years, Blizzard has built games to push the genres that its developers love. Anyone who watched a panel with Jeff Kaplan or any of the other old-school WoW developers will have undoubtedly heard Everquest, an MMO that pre-dates World of Warcraft, brought up dozens of times. WoW’s team loved Everquest and decided to create a game in that genre. But WoW wasn’t designed to kill Everquest, it was built as something that would add Blizzard improvements to a genre that the developers cared about.

In the MOBA space, Heroes of the Storm is no different.

“There are key mechanics that probably exist, that are kind of core to the identity of being a MOBA, which Heroes of the Storm is, but there’s areas where honestly we’ve already challenged this,” Dabiri said. “Some people might say an item shop is key ... core to being a MOBA. Some might say gold and last hitting and this that and the other thing are key to it. I think that’s where we said ‘no, we’re actually OK with challenging that statement.’

“We believe that we’ve actually been successful in that regard, showing that, you know what, these per-hero talents actually can provide more flexibility, more control and more compelling options. That’s part of being a game developer I think. That’s the experience of us looking at a genre and something we enjoy playing and say ‘how can we actually keep pushing that? How can we keep making it better?’ We don’t want to be so dramatically different that it’s not identifiable in that genre, we actually do enjoy the genre, that’s why were making a game in that genre, otherwise we’d make something else. But I think we’re OK with challenging a lot of those sacred things that exist and you’ll see us keep doing that in the future.”

Blizzard Entertainment

Heroes of the Storm was never built to be the League of Legends killer, it isn’t designed to topple that skyscraper. Instead, Heroes plays in the uniquely Blizzard space. As long as Blizzard can make a game that it’s proud of, that their community loves, it doesn’t need to be the top game in it’s genre.

Blizzard isn’t looking for validation from MOBA fans, their own community is good enough for them.