Heroes of the Storm is a great-looking game compared to the other big MOBAs out there today. Despite that, Blizzard's game might have a problem.
Well, most of its character skins are just sorta...dull. They're unimaginatively slight reworkings of the base hero's physical appearance that add something like a slightly different outfit or a silly hat on top of their head. The only skins available for the Sgt. Hammer, a character drawn from the Terran siege tank unit in StarCraft and my favorite Heroes character at present, basically just gives her vehicle a few different paint jobs:
Others break the character mold more ambitiously than Sgt. Hammer does. But when they do, they're either a) still drawn within the fairly strict lines of Blizzard's established fiction, or b) play on well-worn motifs from other science fiction or fantasy worlds. The wackiest skin for StarCraft II character Tychus, for instance, dresses him up as an infected Terran—a throwback to the same game:
The skins Blizzard teased today stick to these templates. There's the different sets of armor:
The funny hats (in this case, bunny ears):
And then the apparent wild-card skins, which change one of Heroes protoss characters into a few different types of mech that look like they were pulled straight from Gundam or Transformers:
If you don't play MOBAs, it might be hard to appreciate the value that gamers derive from special character skins. By and large, these games are free-to-play, and their publishers therefore rely on a small number of in-game items like skins to get people to shell out money.
Over in League of Legends that means we get things like the new $25 DJ Sona skin. Some may see her as nothing more artful than a clever bit of commercialization as a result. She certainly is a money-maker for League developer Riot. But she's not only that. She's a radical redesign of the base character Sona—an ethereal fairy-like creature who hypnotizes her enemies and heals her allies by way of a magical harp. DJ Sona floats around with a giant set of subwoofers that blast out music made by real-world EDM stars like Nosaj Thing, Pretty Lights, Bassnectar, Crystal Method, Dada Life, and Renholdër.
How does Riot get away with charging so much money for something as seemingly ridiculous as a futuristic DJ character dropping into a fantasy game full of zombies, werewolves, and wizards? She looks and sounds really cool, that's certainly part of it. But more importantly, she stands out.
MOBA players buy skins for their favorite characters so they can do just that: distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack, announce themselves as someone (or something) relatively rare and therefore special. It's a way to solidify the relationship a player has with his or her favorite character. Not every League player is going to cough up $25 for a single character skin, so picking up one like DJ Sona is a handy way to reaffirm—both to yourself and to other players—that this character is truly yours. Many League games I've played begin with me and my teammates complimenting whoever has the coolest (and usually most outlandish) special skin on our team.
I just don't think Heroes of the Storm's skins are radical enough. It's not entirely fair to compare a game as young as Heroes of the Storm to entrenched genre heavyweights like League of Legends and Dota 2 when it comes to stuff like special skins. League has been around since 2009. Even though Heroes is already charging top-dollar for character skins and releasing them at a regular rate, the game is still in Beta. But the reason Heroes' lacklustre skins frustrate me is because they reveal a weird tension that exists in the game—one that I'm not sure Blizzard has figured out how to resolve quite yet.
The problem is that it seems like Blizzard is having to play it safe with their character designs. Similar to Super Smash Bros., Heroes of the Storm is a piece of fanfiction for diehard Blizzard fans to indulge in—finally living out their dreams of rushing into battle as someone like Diablo, the Lord of Terror.
The game's players likely expect the characters to look a certain way. League of Legends and Dota 2 don't face the same pressure, because they're entirely self-contained games with no officially licensed history. There can easily be a DJ Sona, or an "Arcade Sona," or a "Pentakill Sona," because there wasn't as much of a foundation for who or what plain old Sona was in the first place.
Like Mario in Smash, there's only one Diablo. You can dress him up a bit and give him some extra makeup. But once you stray too far off the beaten path, he starts to lose his inherent Diablo-ness. Like his frog-like Murloc skin, which definitely does not play the character safe:
Seeing a huge pus-infused frog monster standing in for Diablo is so striking that the first time I ran into one in-game it took me a few minutes to realize what I was looking at. This confusion and discomfort illustrates a bind that Heroes of the Storm is currently caught in. There hasn't been a successful MOBA like Heroes of the Storm yet—one that draws from established fiction for its source material.
The game has to juggle two different expectations simultaneously: making a character like Diablo feel at home in his new skin while also reassuring past fans that he's still the same Diablo they know and love.
Why not just stick with the single, original Diablo then? Well, Blizzard would be losing out on a lucrative opportunity if it didn't give its players more reasons to spend money. But a MOBA without skins also wouldn't really feel like much of a MOBA.
The problem with Heroes of the Storm's few unabashedly weird skins like Frog Diablo isn't that they exist or warp our sense of the original character. It's that they're also disappointingly unimaginative in their own way. Frog Diablo is technically a crossover with World of Warcraft, but if you're not familiar with that it reallyjust looks like a generic Swamp Thing that crawled out of some goopy pit. "Kaijo Diablo," meanwhile, looks like a spoof on the monsters from Pacific Rim or a Godzilla movie:
To be fair, skins that are ripped (however shamelessly) from some other piece of pop culture or a generic fantasy setting are ubiquitous in MOBAs. But this isn't just any MOBA. It's the MOBA made by Blizzard.
Gamers adore Blizzard because they're one of the very, very few developers that's managed to take the most routine-sounding sci-fi and fantasy premises and make them something authentically unique. StarCraft has as many space marines and giant mechs as any other sci-fi game. But they all look and feel like they belong in StarCraft, and nowhere else.
Now, Blizzard is trying to find a new home for its StarCraft characters and many others in Heroes of the Storm. I'm excited they're doing this. But just like they did with all the great stuff that made Heroes possible, I want to see them do so in a way that sets all these characters apart from the run-of-the-mill MOBA crowd.
UPDATE (9:30 pm): This article originally described Sgt. Hammer and other similar characters in Heroes as having alternate skins that were essentially recolorings of the basic/primary skin. This was intended as a subjective criticism, but the word "recolorings" made it sound too similar to the different color options you unlock (for free) as you level up a given character when I was only referring to the separate skins you have to unlock and also pay for with in-game gold to acquire. I've changed the wording to clarify this.
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