Friday, April 18, 2014

Heroes of the Storm 4.15.17 Alpha Build --- Hits and Misses

The environmental detail found in Heroes of the Storm is incredible...but that's for another post.
Heroes of the Storm recently saw what will probably be the first of several account wipes this past week. When servers came back up, players were greeted with some tweaks to the UI and game systems, as well as a slew of hero ability changes. I'm not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the heroes changes since I haven't had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with any of them. Instead, I've identified some of the larger changes featured in this build and described what worked for me---and what didn't.


Increased Movement Speed
Patch notes indicated hero speed was increased from 4.0 to 4.4. While this doesn't really mean anything to me at the end of the day, I can report that there is a subtle difference in the speed of play. I can't say for certain if this shortens the average length of the game, but certainly it allows players to enter combat situations in less time than they could before.

While hero speed wasn't something I ever had a problem with, it seemed to be a fairly common complaint posted on the feedback forums. Surely this change is simply Blizzard testing the waters, but I wouldn't be surprised if it makes it live. Hopefully Blizzard will amass some quality feedback from players who felt the original style of play was a bit sluggish.

Improved Minimap Visibility
This was a relatively minor change as well, but a nice quality-of-life improvement. Blizzard seems to have lightened up the minimap shading so that the entire map is visible by all players. Of course, you cannot see where your opponents are unless you have teammates or minions near them. However, other MOBAs tend to add an annoying level of shading/shadows to cloak the sections of the map you and your teammates haven't yet "discovered."

This is a good move on Blizzard's part. Giving the minimap greater visibility doesn't offer an advantage to one team over the other. The map simply becomes easier to read for all players. I'd bet this change is here to stay.


Haunted Mines
This map's objective seems to be the most inconsequential compared to the objectives found on other maps. Essentially, there is a mine that both teams can enter at predetermined times in the game where they kill minions and collect their skulls. There are 100 skulls in all, and however many your team acquires will be used to fuel the health of a large golem that will barrel toward your enemy's base.

In Heroes' previous build, players discovered that oftentimes entering the mine to collect skulls could actually put your team at a disadvantage. Ignoring the mechanic and playing the map as if it held no objectives was the way to go. From the looks of it, Blizzard tried to make the destructive nature of the golem more attractive to teams by increasing its health over the course of the match, but based on several matches played this week in the mines, I'm not sure they've gone far enough. Sick three or four members of your team onto the golem and it can usually be felled before it wreaks too much havoc---maybe that's OK with Blizzard. Either way, it makes me wonder if it still might be better for teams to ignore the mines and continue to push enemy towers unaided.

Lack of Robust Teamwork/Chat Functionality
I was hoping we'd see more communication functionality in this build. It'd be nice to see a League of Legends-style lobby at least in the pre-game, and possibly before the team selects Heroes. Blizzard's matchmaking system may be set up to create balanced groups, yet it'd still be nice if players were given some control over their team makeup.

Quest Rewards Restricted to Vs. Mode
The final "miss," and the most contentious of them all. Prior to Tuesday's build, players were able to complete daily quests for extra experience and gold in any game mode. This meant players could satisfy quest objectives like "Use X ability to do 20,000 damage against enemy heroes" while playing against the AI. Not anymore. As I write this, there's still quite a discussion taking place on the forums over this particular change.

Is the lure of daily quests enough to convince a more casual player to make a foray into Vs. mode? For a lot of people, the answer is clearly no. Another thing we aren't sure of is just why Blizzard has made this change. It could be something as simple as they need a greater pool of testers selecting Vs. mode and this is their attempt at enticement.

I don't care if you're for it or against it, but there needs to be intelligent reward systems for each of the play modes: Practice (you + AI vs. AI), Co-Op (you + players vs. AI) and Vs. (you + players vs. players). They don't have to be equal---in fact I'd argue the rewards should be the most attractive at the Vs. level---but they must be present for each mode. I'll be eagerly watching for Blizzard's reaction to the feedback on this topic. They've been doing a pretty good job about addressing players thus far.

Whether or not you're currently playing Heroes, do you have any thoughts on the recent round of changes?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Expect a BlizzCon announcement soon

Earlier this morning during a chat with a friend and fellow Blizzard enthusiast, we both were left wondering whether there was any precedence for not knowing if BlizzCon is or isn't going to happen at this point in the year. To me, it feels pretty late in the game. I was lucky enough to attend BlizzCons '11 and '13, and swore Blizzard announced the dates early on in the year. After some very light wiki-research, I discovered it's really not that late at all. In fact, we should expect to hear the official word any day now.

Thanks to Entropia for supplying the event months
While in recent years Blizzard's been in the habit of announcing BlizzCon in the first quarter, we haven't yet reached two of the dates on that list, and we're not far past March 25th. So really, just under half of all Blizzcon announcements happened right around this point in the year. So fret not, we'll have an announcement soon. However, there's a distinct possibility the announcement will entail the reasons why they've elected to not hold a BlizzCon in 2014.

Part of me would not be completely shocked if they decided to skip this year given everything Blizzard is working on. There's Warlords of Draenor to finish up and get out to players in a timely fashion, likely meaning the event would be rather light on WoW news. Heroes of the Storm is in the Alpha stages and seems to be a few months away from full release. Surely they're continuing to work on new assets and expansions for Hearthstone, Diablo and Starcraft. That's not to mention the new trademark they recently filed.

At the same time, when I had the chance to speak with Mike Morhaime at BlizzCon '13, he mentioned that the event is a highlight for them and that they don't like skipping years. Given that Blizzard actually wants to do it, combined with the fact they're celebrating the 10th anniversary of World of Warcraft as well as the 20th anniversary of the Warcraft franchise, I don't see how they could skip 2014. Plus, if they weren't planning on BlizzCon this year, I can't imagine what reasons they'd have to wait this long to tell us it's not going to happen.

What's your hunch?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Heroes of the Storm: First Impressions

Img: Blizzard
It's not often that I get to use the cliche "love-hate relationship," but when it comes to MOBAs and me, there's no better term to describe my feelings. Introduced to the genre but a few years ago via League of Legends, I find the style to be both fun and frustrating---mostly the latter. The learning curve can be quite daunting, random matchmaking can become a disadvantage in and of itself, and the player environment seems less forgiving and quick to judge compared to what I've witnessed in other online multiplayers. Thus, I was eager to see how Blizzard might add to their legacy in the genre.

Quite honestly, I expected Heroes of the Storm to be "Blizzard does League Of Legends." After receiving an alpha invite earlier in the week, I'm pleased to say that's not the case. While LoL and Heroes are competitors on the surface, and many comparisons can and will be drawn, Heroes offers a fresh perspective that will appeal to veteran MOBA players as well as those new to the genre. In other words, Heroes could do for MOBAs what Hearthstone did for TCGs.

Players of any MOBA-style game will find themselves in familiar territory with Heroes, but Blizzard's added their own spin resulting in a unique experience. I've only spent approximately five hours with the game, and I'm fairly noobish when it comes to MOBAs (my two-year-old Summoner sits at level 19), but there are a some things that I feel Blizzard really got right with their iteration in a genre that's only growing in popularity.

Team-wide Leveling

Immediately differentiating itself from League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm eschews individual hero leveling during the course of a match, featuring team-based leveling instead. Any experience earned via minion and enemy kills or structure destruction is awarded to the entire team. This is interesting because unlike LoL, this means no one on your team falls behind; in terms of relative strength throughout the duration of a match, there are no weak links---unless of course somehow your entire team manages to fall three or four levels behind your opponents.

This approach to leveling means there's less focus on grinding minions to get that "last hit," and more focus on truly working with your team, watching the map, and paying attention to enemy movements. There's less time spent claiming and remaining in a lane and more time being responsive to the map objectives and the battles your teammates are waging. It makes for a more exciting, dynamic experience.

While several players on the forums are requesting some sort of "last hit" incentive, I think they're missing the point of this particular design. Without an item shop (which I'll get to in a moment) and absent individual-based leveling, the need for a "last hit" reward in Heroes becomes moot---unless Blizzard decides to conjure up some sort of reward mechanism that fits within their current design systems. Personally, I don't see much room for a significant change here. Abandoning the "last hit" model was a conscious choice on behalf of the game's designers, and it works extremely well given the type of experience they're offering.

Diverse Maps & Objectives

There are at least four maps in the current alpha, and each map has its own unique set of features and related objectives. When I heard about this firsthand at Blizzcon, it wasn't something I got excited about. After seeing it in action, I think it's genius! Like League of Legends, there are camps of mobs in the jungle on each map that can be fought for experience. However, Blizzard calls them "mercenary camps," and for good reason. Say you defeat a camp of wraiths. Not only does your team receive experience, but a handful of wraiths from that camp will rise up to join your team, heading towards the nearest lane to destroy enemy minions and structures unfortunate enough to be in their path. 

And the maps. Oh, the maps! Each is laid out in the familiar style with lanes to push and defenses to destroy, but they also have a related objective the teams can and should take advantage of to do some serious damage to the opposing side. In most situations, it would be folly to ignore these objectives---Blizzard's made them an integral part of each map, and the team that decides to ignore the map objectives hands the opposing team a significant advantage. So not only will you be pushing lanes and trying to make progress in the traditional MOBA style, but both teams' attention will be redirected at times when these objectives become available. Brief descriptions of the four:

  • There are two towers that can be controlled by either team. If a team controls both towers, a statue at the center of the map is activated. If a player from the controlling team clicks the statue while the the towers are still controlled, that player turns into a huge dragon with two massively destructive abilities: a frontal-cone fire breath and a charge that punts opponents back to their base. 
  • Every so often, many dozen undead minions spawn in a mine underneath the map. The teams head into the mine to clear these minions, creating a tally. After the mine is cleared, each team gets an AI-controlled golem with strength relative to the number of minion kills the team acquired. 
  • Coins are collected from killing pirate camps and treasures chests that spawn (with an alert) at specific points on the map. Once a certain number of coins are acquired, they can be used to pay a pirate captain to shoot holes through enemy defenses. If you're carrying coins and you die before you can turn them in to the pirate, you drop those coins, leaving them for the enemy team to snatch up.
  • Some sort of necromancer spawns "tributes" one-at-a-time at a pre-determined point on the map. Several seconds before the tribute spawns, both teams are shown the spawn point, giving them plenty of time to arrive before it spawns. Collect three of these tributes, and the necromancer curses the enemy team for a short period, essentially rendering their minions useless and their forts defenseless.

Smaller Maps & Shorter Games

When I say "smaller" and "shorter," I'm making a comparison to League of Legends---and I could totally be off in some of my observations here. Still, to me it seems like the maps aren't as large both in length and width. I found it quite a bit easier to move between lanes to assist my teammates, and with less penalty to the abandoned lane. As it relates to the randomly spawning objectives, this makes it so that each team has a fair chance at reaching them. 

I think the smaller maps, coupled with the objectives that can greatly assist a team towards victory, translate into shorter games (around 20 minutes). Personally, I feel this is the perfect length. The sweet-spot. When a League of Legends match eclipses the 35-minute mark, I start questioning whether my time has been well-spent. At that point, the only consolation for me is a win, and it's a small one at that. League of Legends is a game that you could try to squeeze in over the lunch hour, but you might not be able to finish. With Heroes, it seems you might have enough time for a match and perhaps a game of Hearthstone with some minutes to spare!


If not a brilliant approach to handling the game, it's arguably a friendlier design. Your hero is who he/she is with a handful abilities that you'll add to and/or augment over the course of a match---no need to worry about purchasing strange item combinations to counter your opponent's build. As you rack up minion and hero kills, you don't earn a currency to spend like in LoL. Instead, at every three team levels players are given a choice between "talents" that will alter certain hero abilities for the duration of that match, or with some heroes, provide a new ability altogether. You know exactly what's in your arsenal and based how the game is going, you can hopefully make an intelligent choice that will greater benefit your situation. 

I had to do some research in LoL before I found my character(s) of choice to be fully optimal in any given match. There were a handful of specific item builds that really needed to be understood to be a true threat out on the field. While there will always be room for research, it's not something I see as a requirement to be competitive in Heroes. Without items, you rarely need to return to your base, save to replenish your health and/or main resource, the management of the latter being the most important aspect for players to be concerned with during the early stages of the game.

Interesting Character Choices

There is a refreshing variety of character choices, both in complexity and role. From what I can see, most characters are hybrids and can be built up several different ways in any given match depending on a player's preference. For instance, the Barbarian can go full-on tank, full-on damage, or some combination of the two. Malfurion can go healer with minimal damage, damage-dealer with minimal healing, or settle in at a spot in between. When I played Malfurion, he ended up having five abilities by the end of the match instead of the traditional four. 

I wasn't aware of just how interesting character choices could be until I elected to be given a random character for a Vs Match (Blizzard's term for PvP games). I ended up with Sgt. Hammer, a siege tank that will be familiar to fans of the Starcraft series. I was overwhelmed by the volume and variety of talent choices I had throughout the course of the match---and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sgt. Hammer seems like a complex hero that can be played in many different ways. I chose a tankier build, and by the end of the match I had seven abilities to choose from. A quick glance at my action bar and one may have thought I was playing Warcraft!


I'm excited to see how Blizzard shapes this title over the coming months. As far as gameplay goes, it feels pretty polished. The response I've witnessed from other players seems to be positive overall. If you head on over to the feedback forums you can read more about what other players are saying. As a novice when it comes to MOBA experience, I'm most interested to read what players think is wrong/missing in the game. Because from this vantage, there's nothing significant I can identify.

Blizzard took World of Warcraft and created an appeal that reached far beyond even their own expectations in a genre that wasn't widely appealing up to that point. I can't help but feel they'll do the same thing with Heroes of the Storm. Don't get me wrong---League of Legends is by far (and will remain) the most widely played MOBA. However, there's absolutely no reason why this game and LoL can't coexist. I guarantee you veteran MOBA players will play Heroes, while at the same time Heroes will have the drawing power and appeal to introduce new players to the genre. What seems to be a mantra at Blizzard applies to this title as well: easy to learn but difficult to master.

Right now, if given a choice between League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, I will choose Heroes nine-point-five out of ten times. For me, it comes down to the dynamic maps, the shorter game times, and the low barrier-to-entry when it comes to choosing and playing a hero.

And to think, this should only get better? Well played, Blizzard. Well played. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

WoW Weekly: Your remaining MoP goals

WoW Weekly is a biweekly-ish, self-absorbed look into the things I've been doing -- or not doing -- in the game. From auctioneering and pet battling to mount farming and raiding.

I beat Mists of Pandaria a couple of weeks ago. For reals.

The nice thing about the vastness of MMOs is that you can sort of play them how you want to play them, and set up goals for yourself that don't necessarily align with the arc of the expansion. Before Mists of Pandaria dropped oh-so long ago, I had two simple goals for myself: defeat Garrosh (Flex counts) and complete all of the achievements found under the Quests>Mists of Pandaria tab. Not hugely taxing, but fun while requiring a certain level of dedication. The former was accomplished before Christmas '13, the latter made a bit more difficult on account of a few bugged-out achievements, including the last one I wrapped up.

"That's it, I'm done. See ya guys," was the veiled, empty threat I sent to guild chat. Admittedly, I had begun to burn out on this expansion's content well before that day, but really, the final achievement was the one artificial loose end I'd left out there, so it was satisfying to finally complete it. Still, once that was done, it marked the final item on my self-prescribed To-Do list. Are there other nice-to-have-objectives on the list? Indeed, but they aren't calling to me, and I've been logging in only when feeling compelled or for guild events.

Some of the nice-to-have's:

  • Molten Core runs for the other half of the Bindings. Either my DK or my rogue deserves Thunderfury, and it's up to RNG to decide which character gets it. 
  • Ice Crown Citadel runs for Shadowfrost Shards. Averaging seven per week, I have 36 more to go. 
  • Dragon Soul for clusters, as the rogue has recently embarked on that chain. 
  • Legendary Cloak for my DK; I'm on the final collection leg and it's not the low drop-rates that frustrate me; it's LFR, the quality of which has seemingly worsened as of late.
  • Boosted 90 selection: haven't yet pre-ordered, partly because I know there's going to be pllllllenty of time before we'll need to be concerned about actually playing WoD, and partly because I simply don't need another 90 right now. That said, I'm leaning towards boosting my 82 Alliance shaman, as I'm most definitely going to be experiencing the story from both perspective in Warlords.

How do you spend your time during the pre-expansion lull? Do you have any outlying goals for this expansion? If not, will you assign yourself something new to achieve? 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The longest wait

I'm tired of hearing about Warlords of Draenor.

Earlier today, Adam Holisky of WoW Insider fame shared a graphic illustrating the length of time we've had to wait in the past for new in-game content. And the verdict's out: the time between patch 5.4 and the Warlord's beta release---no matter when it happens---will be the longest since World of Warcraft has been a game. By the looks of it, 5.4 and its main content, Siege of Orgimmar, will be a year-long-plus patch. Does that fact surprise and/or disappoint anyone else?

Throughout MoP, I felt that the content pacing was just about right. And because of that fact, I'm ready for new content now. Blizzard was able to live up to its promise of faster content delivery, but at this point I can't help but wonder if we'd have been better off if each of MoP's patches lasted a month longer than they did. That would've pushed 5.4's release to December or later, meaning most guilds would still be in the midst of progressing through Siege of Orgrimmar.

Instead, here we are. The guild I'm in completed their main Siege of Orgimmar goal over three months ago (clearing Flex on a 1-night schedule). We're popping into Normals here and there, but we haven't been able to devote a regular schedule to it because it'd mean cutting out too many of our eligible raiders. Currently 11/14N, progressing the rest of the way could be an enticing goal for our group, but because our guild culture and my raid philosophy leans towards "bring everyone who's able," it's not something we're going to be focusing on.

So it really looks like there will be nothing new for players to do, save for beta content, for at least another six months. If my account wasn't renewed and paid for well past (what I hope is) the latest possible release date, I would consider unsubbing. When a game's not fun to play, I don't play it. A simple concept, and also why I take breaks from League of Legends for weeks on end. I'll be there on Day 1 of Warlords, no doubt, but for now, World of Warcraft is hands down the most boring game I own. If it weren't for my guild and raid group, I'd be long gone.

Imagine this all were a play. There were 15-minute intermissions between Acts One through Three, and now for some reason we're having to wait over an hour for the start of Act Four. During this last intermission, the director has come out on stage and is holding a Q&A, letting us in on some of the juicy tidbits we can expect to see in Act Four, even though almost everyone in the house is intimately familiar with the plot. They're bringing out costumes, set pieces, and the orchestra is playing samples of the musical accompaniment. Also, the director has artfully dodged several questions about just when the final act will start by shouting "SOON TEE-EM!" to the confusion and frustration of almost everyone in the theatre.

You look around and notice that many seats have been vacated. Several other people are no longer paying attention, distracted by (or taking refuge in) their smartphones. Others seem to be diligently trying to focus, yawning and glancing at their watches, while still others are fixated on what's happening onstage, hanging on to the director's every word.

You don't see me, because I'm at the pub down the block on my second beer parked in front of Ms. Pac-man, waiting for a text from someone at the theatre telling me the show's about to start. Where are you?