November 18 – Heroes’ lack of items, and a discussion about resources in strategy games and how they affect comeback mechanics

I’ve been thinking a lot this morning about Heroes and the impact of having no gold or items. I have developed a theory, but first, let’s talk about game design around resources.

What are “resources?”

Image a game with only one resource. Rock, Paper, Scissors. You make a decision, you have your resource, then you throw it out and hope to win the “battle.” Your resource is that decision of which shape to make your hand into. You win the game if you make the right shape. Simple, easy, instantaneous.

Now, a game with 2 resources. The card game “War” comes to mind. You have instantaneous resource battle with each drawn card’s value, but additionally have the size of your deck as another resource. One resource will win each battle, but only by amassing the other can you win the game.

Adding on more resources adds to the complexity of a game. For our “War” example:

  • Hand: Drawing multiple cards at the beginning of a game to make a hand, and selecting which card to send to battle. Draw a card at the beginning of your next turn.
  • Card Cost: Adding an element such as Hearthstone’s mana or MtG’s land cards in which higher value cards cost more to send to battle. The amount you can spend should increase as you take more turns.
  • Resource Synergy: Cards that have different values pending your other resources. Good example: This card’s value is equal to the cards in your hand.

You can quickly start identifying how different games have resources modeled.

Hearthstone Model

I’ve been playing a lot of Hearthstone, so let’s go over those resources:

  • Hand: How many cards in your hand.
  • Deck: How many cards are in your deck.
  • Life: How much life you have.
  • Mana: How much mana you have available.
  • Hero: If your attack has attack abilities or armor.
  • Card Specifics: Each card’s cost, attack, health, and/or abilities. Those are four resources that are grouped for obvious reasons, and can combine into an overall “value” of any given card.
  • Minions: The number of, attack, health, and/or abilities of the minions you have out on the table. These are also grouped and can combine into an overall “value.”

Any action you can take in Hearthstone can be defined by the above resources:

  • “It is the beginning of my turn and I draw a card, removing 1 card from my deck and adding 1 card to my hand.”
  • “I spend 3 mana to play a card from my hand and create a minion on the field with 3 attack and 3 health, that grants a additional 1 attack and 1 health to an already existing minion on the field.”
  • “I attack with my 3/5 minion to destroy your 2/3 minion. Your minion is destroyed, and my minion becomes a 3/3 minion.”
  • “I attack with my hero’s 2 damage weapon to destroy your 5/2 minion. Your minion is destroyed, and I lose my 3 armor and 2 life.”

And so on and so forth.

Decisions

Think more about any strategy game you’ve played. As described above, any action that happens is simply changing one or more resources into one or more other resources. It follows then that anytime you have to make a decision, that you evaluate that decision to maximize your resources, and to limit your opponents’ resources.

Hearthstone example: I trade my 2/1 minion for his 5/2 minion. I make a decision to trade a card with less overall value for his more valuable card. This value is determined by the card’s specifics, in this case, it has a lot of attack, and I want to limit his potential to attack my minions and my life.

Decisionmaking, therefore, is governed by the state of resources within the game. Let’s take that same example in the above paragraph, but add in that my opponent only has 2 life left. To win the game, I need to bring my opponent’s life to 0. So yes, I could increase my minion value on the table, or remove potential life and minion loss, but I can also win the game immediately. The right decision is to win the game immediately. But it is only the “right” decision due to the way resources have been exchanged throughout the game up to that point.

Comebacks

Let’s talk about resource distribution and winning the game. Here’s a pretty easy theory to make: If you are ahead in every resource, you’re probably going to win the game.

Hearthstone example: You have a bigger deck. You have more cards in your hand. You took the first turn (and therefore have a slight edge in mana every turn). You have more minions on the table, and they are more powerful than your opponent’s . You have more life. Your hero has a weapon and armor equipped. You’re probably going to win.

With that in mind, how does the other player come back? Is that even possible? Well, I have a second theory, and this one is the real purpose of this article. To come back in a game where a player is behind (as determined by resource distribution), they should attempt first to get ahead in one resource, then use that to get ahead in other resources.

Hearthstone example: You are ahead in every resource imaginable in Hearthstone (outline in the previous example), and have several minions out on the deck. You have a 5/2, a 5/4 (with taunt), a 7/7, and a 3/3, while your opponent just has a 3/1. You have 3 life left, your opponent has 2. It’s your opponent’s turn.

He draws his card. He smiles with joy and play it. Flamestrike. Your minions are all destroyed, save the 7/7 (now 7/3). But you no longer have taunt. He attacks with his measly creature and wins the game.

His path to victory is clear. First he gains a minion lead, then he uses it to take a life lead.

Comebacks like this are usually on a much less dramatic scale, and happen back and forth throughout the course of the game. The key lesson to take away, however, is this: If you are behind, get back into the game by gathering more resources and reducing those of your opponent.

In Hearthstone, if your opponent spends his first handful of turns going balls to the wall, using up all the mana he can, throwing out every cheesey low mana cost minion he can get, casting all his spells, etc… sure, he will have a lead at the end of his spending spree. But you will probably have more cards in your hand. Use them, wisely, to do things like reduce his minion lead. Reduce his life lead. Remove specific cards that grant him ability leads like cards that allow him to draw cards into his hand. Being able to do so efficiently, while not lowering the one lead you have in your hand, is the key to victory.

Back to Heroes

And now finally, back to Heroes. Yes, Heroes doesn’t look like it will have gold or items. Blizzard is removing a very key resources from the MOBA genre. And that’s okay – they want their players playing Rock Paper Scissors, not War. Both are legit games, but RPS is definitely more simple and easy to understand, along with being much faster. Is that the only way to make a MOBA more simple? Absolutely not, every resource is up for evaluation. League removed denying from their game, is it worse than DotA? No, it’s just different.

One of my biggest concerns about Heroes is that the lack of items will play a role in reducing decision making and ability to come back into the game. One great thing about League is item and experience potential – do you trade power now for power later? The “red potion” comes to mind easily – you get a lot of power now, but it disappears after 3 minutes. Or, for a similar price, you can get an item with lesser power, but it lasts forever and can be built into stronger items later in the game.

These kind of decisions dominate League’s item philosophy. Do I want an item with an active ability to be more powerful in a crucial moment, or do I want to be slightly less powerful at all times?

So, in conclusion, will Blizzard be able to create opportunities for those same kinds of decisions within Heroes? Absolutely, and they seem to be doing so with map-specific features. The one showmatch that is publicly available features a pirate ship that fires when you pay them enough gold doubloons. Those doubloons are a map-specific resource, and one that can definitely be used to make a comeback.

As it stands, only time will tell if teams can realistically use that resource to make a comeback. My biggest concern is that a team that is good at killing will be able to abuse that resource to get even further ahead, because they can kill opponents to make them lose all their doubloons. If a lead in one resource allows you to get even ahead in other resources, it can become imbalanced and unfair to play against, eliminating comeback potential. If you can’t rely on one resource to bring you back into the game, then that resource might as well not exist.

As a final example, imagine if minions in Hearthstone could attack your hand directly, forcing you to discard. A minion lead early on could force you to lose the one thing you did have going for you, a hand lead, and you’d lose without having many options available. Balancing these resources and making sure one is no more powerful than the other is key when designing a strategy game. And I, for one, hope that Blizzard does exactly that when tuning Hearthstone.


I wanted to add a little bit at the end to address the showmatch. Blackheart’s Bay has the resource “scoring” point directly in the middle of the map. So a team that controls the middle of the map has control over that resource. Collecting doubloons at that point becomes secondary – if you can kill every cap attempt, your opponent has no chance to use it. Imagine if the League of Legends store was in the middle of the map and you had to clear out your jungle just to use it. Late-game scenarios would spiral out of control as soon as you lose the ability to buy items. That’s the kind of imbalance I’m talking about.

So how would I fix Blackheart’s Bay? Simple – place a pirate ship at each home base and allow players to cash in safely even if they’ve lost control over the middle of the map. The showmatch had most of the fighting only in the middle of the map, and Blackheart’s position right in the middle is no doubt the cause of that. I’d also remove losing doubloons when you die – that seems like an unfair punishment that hurts players who are already performing poorly.

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