Monday, November 9, 2015

An Explanation of MOBAs, Especially Heroes of the Storm

Greetings, everyone!  I am so ridiculously behind on my reviews for this blog that I'll never catch up.  Want to know why?  I've had a Blizzard renaissance!  But it's about MOBAs, so I need to talk about those. 

The past several months, I've been playing a lot of single-player Diablo III: Reaper of Souls and a lot of multi-player Heroes of the Storm.  Diablo III's recent changes have been amazing, and I'll go into them in greater details if/when I ever write a review of Reaper of Souls.  Heroes of the Storm, however, is something brand-new to me.  And it's incredible. 

MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) are the most popular genre of computer game in the world right now.  10% of the population of Korea plays League of Legends (the most popular MOBA, and no that statement is not an exaggeration).  The total prize pool topped out at $18 million (!) for the most recent international tournament for Dota 2 (the second-most popular MOBA).  Ironically, both League of Legends and Dota 2 trace their origins to Defense of the Ancients, or DotA. 

DotA is a fan-made mod of the Blizzard game Warcraft III, in which five players duel five other players on a map littered with enemies and treasure.  Without getting into specifics (and MOBAs get *extremely* specific), DotA emphasized strategically choosing your hero from a long list, manipulating the nooks and crannies of the map to your advantage, dexterously micro-managing the abilities of your hero, and communicating with your teammates to win.  It was an extremely popular mod for several years. 

In 2006, a new game studio called Riot Games sprung up, and in 2008 launched what would be their only game: League of Legends.  League of Legends was a wholesale adaptation / interpretation of DotA, in large part adapting it into an original engine with redesigned characters.  Some of the character redesigns could hardly be called redesigns, but LoL has a look and lore all its own.  League of Legends is absurdly popular worldwide. 

Dota 2 is the creation of the American game-development giant Valve.  Valve is most well-known for Steam, a PC gaming online store and community, and a number of hugely popular game franchises, including Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal, Team Fortress, and now Dota 2.  Dota 2 is not "Defense of the Ancients 2" because Defense of the Ancients is expressly a mod using Blizzard assets, and it would extremely problematic for Valve to use that exact name.  Thus, "Dota 2" isn't an abbreviation for anything.  It's just "Dota 2."

So anyhow, Valve recruited IceFrog, a modder who was the driving force behind DOTA's curation and development during DOTA's peak popularity, to work on Dota 2.  As such, most of the heroes in Dota 2 are straight-up adaptations of DOTA's playable characters, with slight changes to aesthetics and gameplay design.  Look, it's not fair to say that Dota 2 and League of Legends rip off DOTA.  They both did, kinda, but not enough to litigate.  Actually, well, there were several years of litigation, but the current coexistence of DOTA, League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of the Storm is the weird compromise that we have.  All four of those games are MOBAs, and the one I'm obsessed with is the youngest of the four, Heroes of the Storm. 

Heroes of the Storm, or "HotS," is the game I've devoted the most time to in the past six months - I started playing in April and I'm still going strong in November.  Blizzard has been working on their own adaptation of the MOBA genre since at least 2011, when LoL and Dota 2 were blazing hot.  Heroes entered alpha in 2014 and beta in 2015, with an official launch in June of 2015.  It's a little ironic (and for Blizzard, unfortunate) that they are several years late to the party, since the first MOBA was an adaptation of one of their own games, and the top MOBAs are all derived from that original DOTA mod.  Oh well.  I'm sure Blizzard is pouting behind the piles of late-2000s WoW subscriptions and early-2010s Hearthstone microtransactions. 

I got into the HotS closed beta about a month before the beta was open to all users.  That's right.  I was playing HotS before it was cool.  Worth mentioning: LoL, Dota 2, and HotS are all free-to-play, with a variety of optional micro-transactions paying for each of their games.  The top spenders have spent literally thousands of dollars on Dota 2 and League of Legends.  I've spent $40 on HotS, which is definitely worth all my dozens of hours of time invested. 

HotS simplifies many of the more arcane aspects of Dota 2 and LoL.  Dota 2 and LoL matches typically last forty minutes to an hour, while most HotS matches take twenty to thirty minutes.  Instead of a complicated laning / building phase of gathering gold and buying items in addition to managing part of the map, in Heroes there is no gold system, and your character learns a new skill or talent every few levels (in all MOBAs you gradually gain levels over the course of the game).  HotS also has entire teams share an experience pool, so there's no or last-hitting mechanic for leveling up individual characters.  The maps in HotS are a little less complex than the Dota 2 and LoL map, but Heroes has nine maps with differing objectives and layouts instead of a single map for every game.  There are more differences, but I won't get into the deep nitty-gritty.  Mostly because I don't have a wealth of experience playing LoL or Dota (briefly tried each of them, years ago, and didn't like either one). 

Notably, HotS draws all of its characters from past Blizzard games, including WarCraft, StarCraft, Diablo, and The Lost Vikings.  DotA used WarCraft assets, so naturally all of its characters resemble WarCraft characters.  LoL and Dota 2 also have visible roots in these Blizzard characters, but are different enough to satisfy lawyers.  Anyhow, HotS currently has 43 playable heroes (with 4 more announced heroes upcoming) and a barely-there story justifying how they're all fighting one another. A new hero is added to HotS every three or four weeks.  Mastering the gameplay quirks of each hero is key to HotS. 

Anyhow, I've played almost every hero in the game for several matches (all except Artanis, a StarCraft character who's the most recent addition), and naturally I have some favorites.  So of course I made a list of them.  But one last thing before I get to the list, I'll talk over some basic HotS terms.  Enjoy part 1 (of 3) of my Heroes of the Storm primer:

Some Heroes of the Storm Gameplay Terminology
Warrior - one of the four official HotS hero classes.  Warriors typically have high health and defenses compared to heroes of the other classes.

Assassin - one of the four official HotS hero classes.  Assassins focus on dealing large amounts of damage to enemy Heroes, and usually solid siege damage as well.

Support - one of the four official HotS hero classes.  Supports can heal their allies and improve their team's survivability in a variety of ways.

Specialist - one of the four official HotS hero classes.  Specialist heroes either don't fit into one of the other three categories, or are excellent for pushing, soaking, sieging, and/or completing objectives.

Heroic / Ult - at level 10, all heroes choose between one of two Heroic Abilities, or "ults" (short for Ultimate, which is the identical term for LoL or Dota 2).  Heroics are activated by the R key, and are hugely powerful.  Smart use of Heroics can change the course of a game.

Structure - Every HotS map is divided in two, with each team occupying one side. Each side has structures providing cover and defense - towers, forts, keeps, and a Core. The game ends when one side destroys the other side's Core.  All structures attack nearby enemy units, but provide a large EXP windfall to opponents when they are destroyed.

Objective - Every HotS map has a special theme and a unique side objective; succeeding at more objectives than your opponent is key to victory in HotS.  For example, on the Haunted Mines map the objective is to summon a giant Golem by collecting skulls in a certain part of the map.  Usually a successful objective results in either summoning powerful monsters, transforming into a powerful monster, or bombarding your opponent's structures with bonus strikes.
Lane - Each HotS map is divided into either two or three lanes, or open pathways connecting the two sides.  The maps basically resemble a football shape, with a straight center lane and curved top and bottom lanes.  Each lane has one fort, one keep, and four towers on each side of the map.  There are walls, winding paths, camps, and locations related to objectives in the spaces between lanes.  Each lane has tiny soldiers ("minions") sprouting from each Core fighting one another.

Mercs / Camps - Every HotS map has camps scattered throughout, in the spaces outside or between lanes.  Camps are occupied by neutral mercenaries or "mercs" that will attack if provoked.  Defeating all the mercs in the camp will result in all the mercs reviving as friendly AI units that will join your minions in a lane.  Obtaining merc camps is a great way to increase a lane's pushing power.  Don't ignore camps.

Push - pushing refers to a team's ability to put pressure within a lane.  Heroes that can wipe out minions and mercs quickly, safely draw fire from structures, or provide a strong lane presence with summons are especially good at pushing lanes.  The closer to your enemy's core the lane fights are taking place, the stronger the lane's ongoing push.

Soak - Your whole team always gets experience points when an enemy hero dies or an enemy structure falls, but EXP obtained by killing minions only occurs if there's someone present in the lane.  Staying in your lane to earn EXP from minions is called "soaking."  If one team has all five members in one lane and the other team has at least one hero in each lane, then the second team will get ALL available minion EXP while the overloaded team will only receive EXP from minions in their lane.  Soaking a lane to kill minions and mercs is important to gaining levels, especially early on in a match.

Siege - Siege refers to damaging enemy structures.  Attacking from outside the structure's range or causing them to waste ammunition on minions, mercs, or summons are basic examples of good siege tactics.  Most of the Specialist heroes in HotS are excellent at taking down structures. A strong push usually goes hand in hand with good siege damage.

Gank - A quick kill outside a team fight, either from a surprise ambush, a 1 vs 1 encounter, or being outnumbered or out-pushed in a lane.  It's common for one or more heroes to move between lanes in order to gank laning heroes. Setting up numbers advantages and ambushes for ganking is key to success in any MOBA. 

Team Fight - This is obvious.  When multiple heroes from both sides start to fight, it's important.  Team fights typically occur when both sides are attempting to seize the same camp, complete an objective, or defend / attack a structure.  Some heroes and skills are better for ganks, some are better for siege, and some are better for team fights.   

DPS and ADC - "Damage Per Second" is a common measure of how much damage a character can do in a video game, and is a common term to many RPGs.  High DPS is good.  "Attack Damage Carry" is a term used in MOBAs, and refers to a high-DPS character that "carries" his or her team to victory.  ADC is a catch-all MOBA term for a high-risk, high-reward, high-DPS character that is devastating when played skillfully and protected / supported by its teammates. In HotS ADCs are almost always assassins, but occasionally may refer to a specialist.

Tank - a hero role (or verb pertaining to that role) to absorb damage in place of other heroes.  Taking is almost always the job of a warrior hero, typically occupying a front-line position to protect the ADCs and supports behind them.  

Bruiser - a hero role that balances tanking with DPS.  Bruisers will fight in the front lines and take significant damage, but also provide significant DPS.  Typically a bruiser needs back-line support or a front-line tank to be most effective.  Bruisers are almost always warriors, but the term may be applied to melee assassins being assisted by good support units (blurring the line between Bruiser and ADC).

CC and Peel - "Crowd Control" refers to anything that affects enemies without dealing damage.  Stunning, slowing, rooting (locking them in place, but they can still attack and use abilities), silencing, blinding, and re-positioning (i.e. knocking an enemy away or dragging an enemy in) are all forms of CC.  "Peel" refers to CC used in conjunction with DPS, i.e. a warrior stunning an enemy for 2 seconds so an assassin can finish it off.  Which heroes have good CC is something to consider whenever you're building a team composition.

Burst and DOT - Burst refers to damage that's done all at once, and "Damage Over Time" refers to damage that occurs over a specific period.  A fireball attack that deals 500 damage immediately after it hits an enemy is burst damage, while a poison attack that deals 500 damage to an enemy over 5 seconds is DOT.  Bursts are almost always more desirable than DOTs, but many heroes have powerful DOTs that shouldn't be ignored.  "Burst heals" and HOTs are their healing equivalents, but aren't used quite as commonly.  In part because the abbreviations can get... confusing.

Engage and Escape - Engage refers to an attack or ability that makes contact with an enemy to initiate a team fight, and Escape refers to an attack or ability that allows for a safe exit from battle.  Both are important.  It's a huge asset when a team has a great engage strategy, and a serious liability when a hero can't safely retreat from a battle that goes poorly. 

Takedowns -  Defeating a hero directly is a kill, and being present nearby when a kill occurs is an assist.  Takedowns are a hero's kills + assists.  Support units with weak offense won't get many kills, but often lead a team in Takedowns because they're supporting DPS and bruiser characters that score several kills.  Having a large number of takedowns and zero deaths is the second-best stat line you can get in Heroes of the Storm, just after the win.

Vision - Your units can only see up to a certain distance surrounding them, with areas behind walls, outside the vision of your troops, or concealed in cover (either brush, mist, or smoke) being invisible in a classic Blizzard "fog of war."  Manipulating map vision is key to victory, by using the map's cover and barriers to excellent effect, and using vision-boosting abilities of heroes to provide extra map awareness is a powerful asset.

Rule Number 1 - Try not to die.  Dying gives the enemy EXP and takes you out of combat for increasingly longer periods as the game wears on.  This effect is exaggerated in League of Legends and Dota 2 (where doing nothing is preferable to dying, often), but is still super-important in HotS.  Retreating is a better option than dealing a little more damage to an enemy just before dying, 99 times out of 100.  Try not to die.  That's rule number 1.

That's... a lot of info to take in.  MOBAs are a fascinating genre, and HotS is my favorite because it emphasizes the best parts of MOBAs (teamwork, map strategy, huge cast of fun-to-play characters, and click-based gamer dexterity) while toning down the worst parts of MOBAs (ridiculous item systems, last-hitting, lack of map variety, wack experience curve). It's perfect for people like me, who were fascinated by MOBAs but extremely turned off by Dota 2 and LoL. 

Plus, I have a lot of affection for Blizzard games in general, especially the Blizzard games of my teenage years.  I played a SHITTON of WarCraft II, Starcraft I, Diablo II, WarCraft III, and their expansions.  Diablo III is one of my favorite games of the past five years.  I never played WoW, but I look up the story content of each expansion to see who's alive or dead from WC2 and WC3 (really).   I've almost always been a Blizzard fan, but my aversion to MMOs kept me away for several years.  Not anymore. 


So that's what I've been doing for six months.  I have about 800 games of HotS played (!), mostly with warriors and specialists.  And that's what my next HotS article is going to be: my favorite Heroes in the game.  It's going to be a list of ten, and all ten will be among the twenty-six I own.  Look forward to that list in the next few days; this post was originally that very list, but I spent so long writing about the background of HotS and MOBAs in general that I decided to spin it off into a separate article.  Go me. 

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