Ever since they changed Heroes of the Storm's name from Blizzard All-Stars and, even more regrettably, Blizzard Dota, Blizzard has insisted on calling its excellent new MOBA a "hero brawler" and therefore not calling it a MOBA. It was a silly choice when Blizzard first made it. Now, it's become a damaging one.
The term "MOBA" is a vague one. At face value, all it means is what it stands for: a "multiplayer online battle arena." As the word has aged and become ever more popular thanks to the meteoric success of League of Legends and Dota 2, the first proprietary games to take the name from the original Defence of the Ancients mod that birthed all this wonderful content, it's come to describe a number of things that are far more specific than a multiplayer online battle arena. Today, a MOBA in the purest sense of the term is a game that has all of the following characteristics:
- It's played from an isometric top-down perspective.
- Games are played by two teams who compete to destroy a big building at the back of their opponent's base.
- Each base is protected by one or more lines of defensive turrets that attack any enemy who gets within range.
- The game is centred around real-time player-vs.-player online multiplayer, but also features player-vs.-environment thanks to the inclusion of computer-controlled characters ("creeps" or "minions") that spawn at regular intervals and push towards the closest enemy turret.
- Each player controls a single "hero" character with unique assets and in-game abilities.
I could go on and on. But I won't. Given all the above characters, we can at least determine that a MOBA is a game that combines core action-RPG (read: Diablo-like) gameplay with turret defence and real-time strategy elements to make for a unique competitive multiplayer experience.
All of my descriptors apply to Heroes of the Storm, just as they apply to League of Legends and Dota 2 — the two most popular MOBAs, and the ones that Blizzard has looked to for much of its inspiration when creating and releasing HOTS. But at least since 2013, the developers and marketers working on Heroes of the Storm have made a point to tell people that their game is not a MOBA. Speaking to GameSpot in November of that year, HOTS game director Dustin Browder justified the choice by saying that he felt "we're making something a little bit different and a little bit new." From GameSpot (emphasis added):
Heroes of the Storm is inspired by the original Defence of the Ancients: All-Stars modification for WarCraft III. The original mod went on to kickstart the genre that Dota 2 developer Valve now calls MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), and League of Legends developer Riot calls ARTS (action real-time strategy), but Blizzard instead opted to avoid calling their game a MOBA/ARTS and instead christen Heroes of the Storm a hero brawler. Speaking to GameSpot, Heroes of the Storm game director Dustin Browder elaborated on that decision. "We fully feel like we're making something a little bit different and a little bit new," he said. Heroes of the Storm is "certainly based on a lot of the games we played in WarCraft 3 and even in Brood War that were made by our fans, but we're trying to create something that's very very quick, and can be played in about 20 minutes." Other than a shorter duration for matches, what else sets Heroes of the Storm apart from League of Legends and Dota 2? "It's very much about map objectives," Browder explained. "It's about taking over the battleground and engaging with those objectives, and it's very much about playing with your team. It's about team levelling. We start you with all of your abilities, so you're using everything at once. It's a little bit more action-orientated in that sense, a little less about the RPG components. It's more about playing with these iconic heroes that you've seen over many many years inside our games." "So we felt like the hero brawler was a better name for the game we were making, but whatever anybody wants to call the game is totally cool. We just feel that [hero brawler] made a lot more sense." "Coming from a bunch of guys that made real-time strategy, action real-time strategy didn't make a lot of sense for this game," Browder concluded.
"Action real-time strategy," in case you don't know, was one of the other major contenders for the genre name when things were first getting started in Dota and then League of Legends and Dota 2. Browder's explanation is basically saying that since Heroes of the Storm is different than these other games thanks to the way it simplifies gameplay templates the genre is known for, and because it features a cast of already-established fictional characters pulled from other established game franchises Super Smash Bros. style.
Heroes of the Storm is a dramatically different game when you compare it to League of Legends and Dota 2. But is it different enough that it's in another genre entirely? Genre classifications are useful if they help illuminate aspects of a game's character for its players. They're damaging, meanwhile, when they become too restrictive for game developers to express themselves creatively.
The best way I've found to understand Heroes of the Storm since I began playing it is to compare it to League of Legends and Dota 2, two similar games the make similar design choices that impact similar characters. I suppose one could also just look at Heroes of the Storm and think: "Hey, this 'hero brawler' is fun!" But to me as a gamer and an avoid MOBA player, it's much more interesting and fun to think about where and how Blizzard's design choices for HOTS differ from those taken in other MOBAs. The comparison is necessarily for fruitful analysis of the game that I love. Pretending they're not in the same genre seems like a great way to stop a good conversation rather than help start one.
And what about Blizzard's developers? Do they — or would they — feel trapped if they consider Heroes of the Storm a MOBA? Does calling it something else liberate them to be more creative and adventurous when developing ambitious new characters and maps?
I noticed a small bit of rhetoric at this year's Blizzcon whenever the HOTS developers took the stage. They kept using the phrase "breaking the rules of the genre." Game director Dustin Browder said it when he revealed a new two-player character and another map coming into the game that, for the first time in HOTS, doesn't require each team to push towards the enemy's core in order to win. Others kept saying it when they went into further details about all the very cool, and very experimental, things that Blizzard is bringing into HOTS soon.
Heroes of the Storm is indeed "breaking the rules of the genre." But it can only break the rules of a genre if it's actually in that genre in the first place. If something doesn't exist within the ecosystem in which things like turret defence, single hero characters, and automated creeps pushing down specific lanes are considered rules, than how could it break those same rules? It couldn't. That's why you don't hear Treyarch boasting about all the ways it's broken MOBA rules with its new first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops III. If Heroes of the Storm actually was a "hero brawler," Blizzard's statements about it break rules would be meaningless.
Heroes director Dustin Browder continued to reference "other MOBAs" after Blizzcon when he tweeted a series of statements about Heroes of the Storm's controversial addition of kill-death ratios:
It seems to me like Heroes of the Storm's moniker as a "hero brawler" is nothing more than a clumsy exercise in branding. What frustrates me about Blizzard's naming choice is that it makes the company seem like it's trying to pretend like other major MOBAs and eSports simply don't exist, or that HOTS is ignoring them. And that in turn makes the company seem tone-deaf. It's like the way that HOTS game insists on calling ultimate abilities "heroic abilities" instead.
Ultimate abilities are the super-powerful abilities that each character in a MOBA unlocks over the course of a match. They take longer to unlock and level up than other abilities because of their game-changing potential — they can do things like wipe out an entire enemy team or save your whole team in a millisecond or two. Every other MOBA I've ever played calls them ultimate abilities. Even Overwatch, Blizzard's now team shooter-ish multiplayer game, has similar moves that it calls ultimate abilities.
Is using "heroic" instead of "ultimate" a big deal? I think it is. Once you consider how Blizzard's shoutcasters for Heroes of the Storm all use the word "heroic" instead of "ult" or "ultimate" the way that shoutcasters in Dota 2 and League of Legends do. Changing the name of an important feature and gameplay motif, just like changing the genre title, makes Heroes unnecessarily confusing and foreign to MOBA fans, eSports enthusiasts, and ultimately gamers as a whole. It's more fun for everyone when gamers and game developers can converse with one another about why they think something works in HOTS (or whichever game) better than it does in League or Dota 2. Or vice versa.
Having a common language makes it easier to speak to one another in the same language. Blizzard trying to reverse course on established terminology and rhetoric just seems kind of...odd in comparison. "MOBA" and "ult" might be funny sounding words, but they exist for a reason: because a culture created and popularised them — the same culture that Heroes exists in, whether Blizzard wants it to or not.
It's ultimately the developer's decision to call its game whatever the hell it wants, of course. But it takes a lot of hubris to step into an established genre and the community (and industry!) that's formed around it and try to demand everyone start using a different language. Genres are most useful and helpful for gamers when they help bring people together under a common barrier to bask in their mutual appreciation of something. Blizzard trying to plant Heroes of the Storm's flag somewhere outside of the established MOBA and eSports communities helps divides gamers instead.