Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More From the Heroes of the Storm Technical Alpha

Cooperative PVE in Blizzard's technically upcoming MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, has quietly taken a high spot in my gaming rotation due to the game's polish and familiar faces. 

I got into the "technical alpha" for Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm MOBA back in June and promptly did not play it.  Given a business model in which matches played translated into characters unlocked, it made little sense to play before the beta reset.  The game remains technically in alpha despite a functioning cash shop and allegedly over 2 million concurrent users during my gaming hours, but Blizzard announced earlier this month that hero and skin purchases and unlocks will be permanent. 

Gameplay
Yes, the chat claims there are 2,000,000 players online.  This has to be both the biggest "alpha test" in software history and the biggest abuse of the term "alpha test".
The game has largely met my expectations.  Compared to League of Legends, the game is more cooperative - your team has a shared level, so you never risk hampering your team by damaging foes and thus "stealing" experience or resources.  You unlock talents at fixed team levels without the need to return to your base hub to spend time shopping - and opening the door for a team to hit level 10 mid-battle and suddenly bust out a bunch of newly unlocked heroic abilities. 

Collectively, I play this game much like I play Marvel Heroes - the maps are the same but my approach to the maps is different depending on who I am playing.  The huge advantage of setting the world among Blizzard's various properties that the characters are already established - they look and sound like they should so even in the space of a few lines, ability animations, etc, you can recognize and appreciate that you're playing a familiar face. 

Business Model
My current roster
The business model will be familiar to League of Legends and Marvel Heroes players, but with a few quirks. 
  • Players will have access to a weekly rotation of 5-7 heroes (the final two are available at higher account levels, and typically have more complicated kits) for free, and earn currency that can be used to unlock characters permanently.  One possible issue for people looking to jump in with their friends is that this roster is applied to the entire game, so you and your friends will be stuck with exactly those five characters on your first play sessions. 
  • You can pay between $4-10 to unlock characters immediately, with better "exchange rate" compared to in-game gold for the more expensive heroes (and a huge premium for brand new releases).  
  • There are hefty one-time bonuses for your first few account levels (so you can unlock at least one character and be less at the mercy of the weekly rotation) and for trying each character to account level 5 (to encourage you to do so).  
  • Beyond these, Blizzard is very likely tuning gold gain, which is currently very heavily slanted to daily quests.  These quests effectively offer up 100 bonus gold per match for playing a certain type or franchise of hero, compared to 10-30 base gold depending on the game mode and whether you win.  Very rewarding to log in once a day (or every 2-3 days, as you can hold up to three dailies in your quest log) for an hour, significantly less rewarding to continue playing after you've cashed in.  
  • At the moment, it looks like you can expect to unlock a new hero every month or so depending on which price bracket you are aiming at, which is not bad.  
Blizzard is also offering some bundles, which can be a good way to establish a baseline stable of heroes to run your daily quests with.  I put $43 into the game when the tech alpha reset happened to snag some limited time offers.  The current bundles aren't that impressive but I assume that more promotions will happen as the game is actually open to the public.  

The shop also includes cosmetic skins, most of which are $10 though some are as low as $5 or as high as $15.  Cosmetic mounts are also available for $10-20.  That said, Blizzard has an unusual number of free visual options, including color variants for every skin and mount in the game (unlocked free with character experience) and exclusive gold-only cosmetic skins to sink some of that gold so that players will pay for heroes with cash instead. 

Outlook
There are definitely some bugs left to sort out - for example, losing a cooperative match awards no money or exp and does not display a match results screen so you can determine how you did - but overall this game is looking solidly like what we would have called a beta before marketing people killed that term.  For the moment, I am logging in whenever I have daily quests available, and sometimes playing beyond that.  Given my calendar and the fact that I haven't really stuck with a MOBA in the past, this is relatively high praise. 

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