Blizzard’s History Suggests It Could Be a Force in MOBA Market
Despite Riot Games announcing recently that it has 27 million summoners online daily in League of Legends, the title that might be poised to make the biggest splash in the MOBA world hasn’t even been released yet: Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm.
The MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre has been one of the fastest-growing in the industry in recent years. While this is largely due to the exploding popularity of League of Legends, other titles like Valve’s DOTA 2 have attracted plenty of attention as well.
With player numbers seemingly growing every day, you’d think it would be a challenge for Blizzard to break into the genre against the entrenched juggernauts, much as other developers have tried to break through in the MMO world and take on World of Warcraft.
But there’s one major difference here, and that’s Blizzard’s approach to making games. Several of the design tenets that Blizzard has enshrined in their past titles could really shake up the world of MOBAs.
One of the big reasons the MMO genre has grown as much as it has in the last decade is Blizzard’s efforts to make World of Warcraft accessible. Before WoW, MMOs were decidedly not user-friendly. Conveniences like marked quest-givers, instanced dungeons, and auction houses were rare prior to prior to WoW’s ascendance, and they’re now ubiquitous.
More importantly, Blizzard has the knack for getting people to try out game genres they may have previously ignored. With World of Warcraft, Blizzard not only built a game that over 100 million people have played, it also defined genre conventions that still define the majority of MMOs some ten years later. StarCraft (and StarCraft 2) made real-time strategy games into a worldwide eSports phenomenon with their well-conceived ladders and the connectivity through Blizzard’s Battle.net platform. Hearthstone has shown an uncanny knack for drawing players into digital collectible card games, as is evidenced by its position among the top three games viewed on Twitch.tv, eclipsed only by LoL and DOTA 2. Furthermore, StarCraft 2 professional Ryan “State” Visbeck thinks that Hearthstsone is the next big esport. Obviously, Blizzard has made a habit of opening up and/or expanding genres.
The MOBA world is already pretty large, but it still could grow more. Blizzard has the resources, and as evidence suggests, the design philosophy that can make that happen.
Easy to learn, difficult to master
Ask any newcomer to the world of MOBAs what their biggest complaint is, and they’re likely to say the games are just too difficult to break into. Large numbers of champions to learn, specialized jargon, and a distinct lack of quality tutorials means that new players are in a learning mode for quite some time, and to say that the community isn’t all that forgiving of noobs in their midst is a major understatement.
When you pair that up with a game that demands players take on specific roles and perform them well, it can make for a frustrating experience. Contrast that with Blizzard’s current titles. In-depth tutorials, shallow learning curves, and plenty of ways to sharpen your skills are the norm. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Hearthstone.
The world of CCGs can be hard to get into, but Hearthstone strips almost all of that mystery away. Gone are the complicated mechanics of Magic: The Gathering, where you have to know whether some cards may be “unblockable,” and if they depend on what “lands” you have in play, whether that monster can fly, where every turn has multiple phases, and there’s an effect for almost everything. In their place is a streamlined experience in Hearthstone that anyone can pick up and play with a minimum of time investment. Watching new players — people who had never played CCGs — pick up Hearthstone for the first time at PAX East last year, I knew Blizzard was onto something.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that Hearthstone is simplistic. The complexity comes in later, in the form of deck building, maximizing card synergies, and the like. But that’s the beauty of Blizzard’s titles — it’s perfectly feasible for you to be an average-level player and play the game all the time. Matchmaking pairs you up with players of similar levels in games like StarCraft and Hearthstone, and even WoW uses your gear level to put you into challenges that are appropriate for you. Matching players carefully by skill level can go a long way toward helping them ease into a new game, and it lessens that chance that a veteran player will be yelling at them for a ‘noob’ move.
Familiar Heroes, new twists
During the last 15 years, Blizzard has built a huge portfolio of beloved characters, and it plans on leveraging them all for Heroes of the Storm. Sure, we all know who Teemo, Jinx, and Ashe are now (OK, maybe not ALL of us do), but when LoL launched, those characters were unknowns. Blizzard, on the other hand, is launching HotS with heroes like Illidan, Diablo, Kerrigan, Raynor, Malfurion, and even the Demon Hunter from Diablo 3. Who doesn’t want to pit The Lich King Arthas against Illidan to see who would win?
All of these characters are instantly familiar to a large percentage of gamers; not only from their appearance in prior titles, but also because Blizzard’s work has become a part of pop culture. Heck, Dwight dressed up as Kerrigan in a Halloween episode of “The Office.”
Blizzard is also employing some new twists on the MOBA formula. While the accepted standard arena layout consists of three “lanes” with defensive “towers” that players destroy as they push into enemy territory, Blizzard is replacing those towers with full-fledged towns. Those towns include various structures, from gates to defend to towers that regenerate health and mana.
Blizzard is also including multiple types of minions, so it’s possible to have minions on your team that heal you, shoot from range, or dive into melee combat. While these aren’t major changes to the formula, they are small tweaks that will help distinguish HotS from the crowd.
There are still challenges
None of this means that Blizzard’s attempt to break into the MOBA world is going to be easy. LoL is an entrenched property with a huge number of die-hard fans and a large eSports following, and getting people away from a game they’re already heavily invested in (in both time and money) isn’t an easy thing, as Blizzard well knows. DOTA 2 is growing daily, and it’s backed by fan-favorite company Valve. It’s not like either of these games are going to just hang it up simply because Blizzard’s making a MOBA.
It’s also important to note that Blizzard is facing many of the same challenges entering the MOBA market that others face trying to take on WoW in the MMO space. The company hasn’t been the little guy taking on the entrenched crowd favorite in quite a while, so it should be interesting to see how it approaches the situation. People tend to be beings of inertia, and to get them out of a game they’re already invested time, money, and effort into takes more than just a name or a flashy trailer. Furthermore, it’s not like Riot and other companies are sitting on their hands. In fact, Riot has just received a patent for a brand new spectating system that may bring viewers closer to eSports than ever.
Regardless, it would behoove these giants of the genre to pay attention. Blizzard has a history of making games that not only appeal to new players, but also keep veteran, hardcore players around. That combination has been powerful for the developer in both the MMO and RTS worlds, and now it’s turning an eye towards MOBAs. While there’s certainly no guarantee of success in the world of gaming, I wouldn’t bet against Blizzard.