Generally speaking, I’ve tended to stay away from extremely competitive games. My time spent in Starcraft 2 was mostly spent in either LAN games with friends or the campaign, I stopped playing Magic: The Gathering when I realized there was no room in my local scene for fun, gimmicky decks amongst the competitive netdecks, and I’ve basically hated all of the time I’ve spent with MOBAs.
Let’s clarify. I have experience with League of Legends, SMITE, and a smidge of DotA 2. I could write a laundry list of the things I’ve hated about these games, but instead here’s the short list of design decisions that make me not like these games:
- A lot of the character progression involves tweaking extremely granular statistics through extremely specific leveling and item loadouts. This progression is displayed in the form of percentage increases to fairly abstract stats, things which are extremely hard to see and feel in moment-to-moment gameplay.
- All of these games have huge rosters, which is absolutely awesome, but the problem is that in these massive rosters it becomes hard to quickly tell how a single character is distinct from the others. For example, look at these two League champions:
Just looking at these two, what’s the difference in how they play? They’re both spooky, floating magic ladies with silly headgear and glowing hands. Maybe the right woman uses those orb things, while the left lady uses…stone magic? No idea.
- There’s just the one map. I get that having one map makes understanding that one map super-important, and lets players get really familiar with that map, but having one map is also super boring.
Then, I had a friend convince me to install Blizzard’s MOBA, Heroes of the Storm. I expected another one of these games that I’d pick up for a couple days before I had a bad game, realized I had no idea what I was doing, and would finally uninstall after someone questioned my sexual preference. Instead, my experience with Heroes was….downright enjoyable?
I enjoy Heroes of the Storm for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the overarching reason is that Blizzard made sure to make the game extremely easy to understand, and it did so by designing everything with clarity in mind. They tried to keep all of the same gameplay decisions as these other MOBAs, but they made these decisions more simple, and collected groups of micro-decisions which don’t have a lot of individual impact and turned them into larger, impactful macro-decisions.
For instance, Heroes of the Storm completely throws out the item shop, which is a decision I completely agree with. I found that the shop only brought with it a disgusting degree of granularity. Look how many boots there are in League of Legends:
Let’s ignore the fact that “Boots of Mobility”, “Boots of Speed”, and “Boots of Swiftness” have basically the same name for a second. There are 8 types of boots to buy, and they all make you faster. Can you figure out what these boots do beyond that just by looking at them? Which set is the fastest? Sure, maybe Sorcerer’s Shoes boost magic, and Berserker’s Greaves boost attack, but what the fuck are “Ionian Boots of Lucidity”? The only way I can distinguish these is by reading the tooltips, which is far too droll for me to do out of game, and takes far too long for me to do in-game.
Instead of an item shop in HOTS, Heroes all get the choice to pick one of several traits which offer certain benefits. Not only are all of these traits tailored to each Hero, ensuring no trait picks you can make will be totally useless to your character, but these traits are also extremely clear. Here’s an outdated (but still indicative of the current game) screenshot of that trait selection screen:
Notice that these traits all have nice summations right on the button, allowing you to quickly figure out what each of them do. All of these also have pretty distinct effects: one buffs a target’s Speed, one stealths a target, one shields a target, and one lets you channel Mana into pure damage. These all have pretty distinct effects, they’re all pretty useful, and all of them are described in terms of tangible ideas. While Quickening Blessing and Searing Arrows are, indeed, percentage increases of stats, they’re not described like that, and there are no perks that do the same thing, so there’s no number crunching to see which is the optimal route to the same goal. Want dudes you heal to be faster? Pick Quickening Blessing.
On top of this, the character pool has the benefit of being easy to understand. A quick glance at any Hero can quickly let you know what that Hero does, and what sort of roles they play in the game. For instance, take the three Protoss Heroes from the game, who easily are the most similar-looking heroes in the game:
Would you guess that the guy in big, bulky armor is a tank, the floating guy with the glowing stuff is a mage, and the dark guy with the facemask is an assassin? Congrats, you are exactly correct. You can quickly look at these guys, either in the character select screen or on the battlefield, and quickly figure out their role in combat. Other heroes are even more distinct. When you see two Heroes marching down the lane to you, and one’s a woman with a staff and a cloak, and the other is a literal, actual tank, you know what’s going on.
I’m not saying every game needs to simplify its decisions loud and clear like Heroes of the Storm does. After all, I constantly trumpet my love for a series which champions secrecy and esotericism, a series which rhymes with Shmark Shouls. You see, the thing is, those two games aren’t that different at all on this front.
You see, the point of both Heroes of the Storm and Dark Souls is to reach a point of mastery, defined by your ability to quickly and appropriate select techniques in your arsenal to complete a wide variety of challenges. In Dark Souls, these techniques are the basic mechanics: light attack, heavy attack, block, parry, roll, etc. In Heroes of the Storm, these are your attacks and hotkeys.
There is some player customization that allows for variance on these techniques (talents in Heroes, equipment and stat loadout in Dark Souls), and this is where true mastery lies, but in reality navigating the possibility space of these variations is pretty simple once you understand the basics of your character’s toolset.
Both games, generally speaking, actually make it pretty clear what difference a change in loadout is going to do. Heroes of the Storm has helpful tooltips explaining each talent. Dark Souls has actually extremely detailed descriptions of how every item or stat boost will affect your stats. In general, both games make understanding what your character does and can do pretty easy. The game is about taking that knowledge, and reading the world to figure out what element of your utility belt you need to retrieve.