League of Legends vs. Heroes of the Storm

I’ve got a new video out discussing why I think League of Legends is not only better than Heroes, it’s not even in the same, well, league. For more, check out my article on why I consider League of Legends to be the world’s greatest game. Enjoy!

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Over the years of talking about strategy game design, one thing that has become apparent to me is that I see a potential in strategy games that other people don’t. To most people, there are a bunch of interactive entertainment titles out there. Some of them are more strategy-ish, some are more puzzle-ish, some are more like novels, but ultimately some are fun and some aren’t. Players can and will interchange a Civilization for a Super Mario Bros, let alone a Heroes of the Storm for a League of Legends.

In practice, this makes total sense, because no existing strategy game has fulfilled what I see as the promise of strategy games. We live in a world of fractionally-baked strategy games, and fully-baked puzzles, toys, and contests. So right now, you kind of can just interchange one thing for another without noticing too much of a difference, at least… for a while.

Of all the kinds of interactive entertainment we make, I see strategy games as having by far the most potential. They, and only they, have the potential to be interesting and surprising repeatedly, for years or even decades. “Replay value”, and even most game design discussions on “emergence” are only the tips of the iceberg.

At least, that is how I see it. This is something that really does distinguish me from a lot of my peers in game design, who believe that the whole concept behind strategy games is just one “aesthetic” among many that are more or less equal.

The strategy games that exist today – 4X, some Rogue-likes, Dota-likes and above all, designer board games – only hint at the possibilities that strategy games offer. If you look for it, you can see it in little moments, here and there. Moments where you really have a serious decision to make. But in today’s games, these moments are fleeting. We see them a few times here and there, but they soon disappear altogether and we eventually give up and move on.

What I set out to talk about today is a comparison between League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, but in the process of trying to explain that, I have to explain my entire philosophy on what good strategy game design looks like.

Even though they might appear to be quite similar, and even though Heroes of the Storm makes a lot of good design calls, League of Legends is a far, far better strategy game than Heroes of the Storm. It’s not even close. If I were being technical, I wouldn’t even put them in the same genre.

Videogames have relied heavily on Dungeons and Dragons design tropes of actors with hit points moving around in a 2D space hitting each other until they disappear. The earliest war games pioneered some of these ideas which were then incorporated into D&D, and with the advent of videogames, it was the standard method of operation, almost regardless of genre. Most videogames, as well as many board games, fall into this design pattern that I call “D&D Boxing”.

The great thing about this design pattern is that game design is super easy. You just add a bunch of actors into a space, each with health, maybe some special abilities, a few obstacles (like walls), and your game pretty much is ready to go. The downside is that the game lacks a clear core mechanism and a structural design that would allow for strategic depth to exist. This is why these games always MUST rely on execution or other forms of randomness to appear to function. These things create variable outcomes in a strategically shallow system. For more on what I mean by a structural design, watch 3 Minute Game Design.

In the 90’s, the RTS was the latest and greatest implementation of D&D Boxing. StarCraft combined good production values, online real-time play, and frequent patching to create one of the first major E-sports, and define much of what online strategy gaming would be like for decades and counting.

Now here’s what I’m NOT saying: I am not saying that StarCraft can’t be fun. I think boxing can be fun, and Dungeons and Dragons can be fun. But what I am saying is that StarCraft, like the many games that came before it and since, did not embrace structure, and none of these systems are capable of having great depth.

DotA did something markedly different in the creation of the “lanes” system. Now, instead of a big empty box that we crash our units together in, there is a formalized, designed set of rules – a core mechanism – of lane-pushing. Now, the “hit point bars” are placed on the level itself, and it’s not just “zero” that matters anymore – now every point on the lane matters. Not only that, but with multiple lanes, we now have several axes on which a player can be advancing or failing to advance. In principle, putting resources towards one lane means that the other team can put resources towards pushing the other lanes.

This whole lane concept is not just “better” than the system of StarCraft or XCom, it is a fundamental change. Having some central mechanical “spine” like that allows a designer to design other things around it, and end up with a cohesive design. Mechanisms actually add to or multiply each other’s value, rather than overlapping it. Think of a core mechanism as a strong foundation or a strong central pillar in the middle of a building. Each new unit in StarCraft is like a new floor on a building that, the moment you add it, it crushes the existing floor. D&D Boxing based designs are, to some extent, “running in place” because of the fact that they are not built on a strong foundation.

The advent of the Dota-like represented a huge leap forward in strategy video game design, and it’s no accident that the amount of execution, coming from something like StarCraft, could be reduced dramatically now that there was more of a structured system present.

Heroes of the Storm does a lot of things right. It’s great that the matches are shorter. I love that objectives need to be stood upon for a couple seconds to capture them – League of Legends needs to do this IMMEDIATELY! Getting rid of old annoying chaff like runes and masteries is obviously great. Shared experience is mostly a positive thing.

But the design of Heroes shows me that its designers did not understand what made DotA special in the first place. Yes, there are technically still “lanes” in Heroes maps, but they are no longer central to the game. Some stages only have two lanes, and some stages make it possible to win without even pushing any lanes, but just by taking objectives.

In this way, Heroes of the Storm marks a massive step backwards, back towards the D&D Boxing model. This is revealed in a few other of the game’s rules. The inclusion of many different maps, each with their own little mini games, is a good indicator. In one mission, you “push a kart”, I guess because Overwatch has it. Some missions have you collecting some new resource and depositing it somewhere. Some missions have a teleporter that teleports you to a separate minimap. And this is only the beginning. I could very easily see maps that have all kinds of weird little mini-games that you have to do to win.

Some of the things that people think are good, are arguably not good. It seems good that there’s no more “farming” or “laning phase” anymore. Except that these things, while they are problematic, execution-based and somewhat boring sometimes, are part of what gave League of Legends some structure. Similarly, increased movement speed (both by smaller maps overall and by the “mount” feature) seems like a good idea because you can get to the “action” faster, except this, like the removal of farming, also means that your position means less. In League of Legends, if you decide to go Top, it’s a big commitment to move to even the middle of the map. The large map and relatively slow movement means that position matters, but it also ends up being a novel way of allowing “conscious thought” to take place in a real time game.

From PROGAMEREVIEW.COM: “Teamfighting is fun, the last hitting is not. I’d even argue that the reason most people enjoy Moba’s are because of team fights. So why wait 20-30 minutes when you could get straight into the team fights?”

Because that 20-30 minutes are giving the team fights meaning and context. Some team fights are literally just 5v5, right in the middle of the level, and that’s the worst. But most team fights are like, 4v3, one guy is split pushing Top which already has a tower down, one person is defending from super minions Bot, and one person who was warding Baron is moving back toward the team fight, which ITSELF is pushed down midlane and threatens the second tier tower. No to mention, the fact that experience is not shared means that the “farming phase” is still having ramifications on the team fight in terms of who’s “fed” and who isn’t. And again, we can agree that last-hitting is bad, while still acknowledging that at least they are a part of the larger structure that gives the later game states meaning.

In Heroes of the Storm, we’re a few steps back closer to the old design principle of, put a bunch of actors in a box, put a few obstacles down, and see what happens.

By no means am I trying to forgive League of Legends of its many, many critical design flaws. There are too many characters, the execution is still pretty high, and the whole last hitting thing IS really problematic. But it’s also the most exceptionally polished version of the most inherently strong design in videogame history – the “lane pusher”. Heroes of the Storm is fun, but it’s more of a constant, reactive slap-fight that feels more like playing an FPS or a fighting game than it does a strategy game.