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The Experience Changes
I don’t want to talk about the experience changes Blizzard is proposing for Heroes of the Storm. They’ve been tested and they’re bad. Every prediction made about how and why they would be bad a month ago, when they were announced, has come to pass. So far the only thing that has been underestimated is a top player’s willingness to be AFK; in-house scrims organized to test the changes had players dying trying to do things besides safely soaking out of vision range. I don’t blame them. It took multiple games in the EU testing grounds to get people to stop clearing and be fully AFK. Doing nothing, as it turns out, is both boring and surprisingly difficult.

But that isn’t why I don’t want to talk about them. I don’t want to talk about them because so many other people have already done so. Pro players, analysts, community members, each with their own perspective. What I want to address is something more fundamental: why these changes were even considered by Blizzard. I want to qualify this by saying I have no internal knowledge of Blizzard’s design process. I am operating solely from public comments and extensive analysis and research of the game itself. Some of the finer points especially may well be incorrect but the general shape, I’m sure, will make sense to everyone.

What is the number one complaint about Heroes of the Storm? The answer isn’t hard. It is Matchmaking. This has been, off and on, the most common complaint from the community for years. This might be unpopular but here is the reality: Matchmaking in Heroes isn’t bad. Blizzard, literally for years, has been trying to solve a perception problem, not an actual problem. Given the population of the game, the split into multiple modes, and in NA even the split between servers, the average match is as fair as the population allows. The issue is even though they are fair from an MMR perspective, and numerous independent analysts have verified that through community resources, they don’t feel fair in the game.

The game frankly doesn’t feel fair because you generally start losing in Heroes of the Storm because of the invisible mechanic of missing soak. If you fall behind and continue not to soak you will fall further behind. However, experience is shared so the entire team needs to organize themselves around the map in such a way that no soak is missed. Lanes cannot be left until waves are cleared. This is why it has become a trope on my stream to say “Waveclear enables rotations.” In good play, you can’t rotate until you clear. The issue is it only takes one player not doing their job for soak to start being missed. If the other team soaks then you start to fall rapidly behind from structure experience because minions are terrifying. Minions do 300% bonus damage to structures. Three Archer minions inflict more damage than a Worgen form Greymane (80 DPS x3 for 240 DPS vs 204 DPS from Greymane, Inner Beast of course adds roughly 100 DPS). A minor wave imbalance, which sometimes even happens naturally due to minion geometry not being consistent, can eliminate structures very quickly. If a talented player is "stacking" the wave on purpose, something that has only been a common tactic in the pro scene for a few months, you can do a lot of damage very quickly. That then gives even more experience and the cycle continues.

It feels bad to get stomped by multiple levels. It feels bad to be behind a talent tier and feel like you have to fight anyway, even though you know you aren’t likely to win. This is literally the reason the developers gave to the community during Blizzcon for these experience changes. They didn’t want people to be several levels behind because it felt bad to play the game from that position. They wanted people to feel like they have “a chance” to win at any given point in the game. These changes, to Blizzard’s credit, accomplished that. In all the testing I’ve done, no matter how badly or how well both teams played, experience remained relatively even. That the games felt degenerate and pointless aside, the actual goal was achieved. No one who feels helpless from being behind in levels will feel that way with these changes because it is indeed nearly impossible to fall too far behind, even if you lose all your Keeps, all your Forts, and have multiple double digit death players on your team. You are in fact still completely helpless, but the giant score screen at the top that used to indicate who was winning no longer indicates anything of the sort.

How does this tie back into matchmaking? Heroes is a team based game. It is often said that it is better to do a stupid thing as five than a smart thing as one. The issue is there is a massive divide between those who play the game for fun and those who have read external content about the game. You cannot learn about how important experience is purely from in game resources. I myself didn’t grasp it until I used AhliObs UI to actively monitor experience when I reviewed my own replays. The moment one person who understands soak is on the same team as someone who thinks kills are the way to win, the game degenerates, but those players are not far apart in skills measurable by MMR. This is also, incidentally, the same problem Performance Based Matchmaking was trying to solve.

To verify this, I encourage you to go to any pro player’s stream and ask them if they run into the problem of people not understanding how important soak is in their Grandmaster Hero League games. If you want to tilt them, do it in a game where they aren’t playing a waveclear hero but are stuck in a lane clearing.

So if we want to fix this problem and not ruin competitive play, because that is what these changes will do, we need to find a way to achieve Blizzard’s goal. Players who don’t soak, which is the most important thing in the game by an enormous margin, can’t fall too far behind in XP. At the same time there needs to be respect for the XP economy such that playing in an intuitive fashion actually gives you a benefit. We don’t want the game to be even less intuitive; that is not a long term solution.

I’ve previously given Blizzard the suggestion to add a Crit indicator for XP notifications. Since XP is the most important thing in the game, draw attention to it. Add an optional UI element to indicate soak range. Do just that change, and see what happens to the game. That is only one idea of many. But any idea, any solution, must meet the condition that it cannot ruin the game at the pro level. Blizzard’s goal is that people who ignore the game’s hidden, but most important, mechanics need to feel good. As an HGC coach and a fan of the top level of the game, my goal is that any change Blizzard makes can’t ruin the highest levels of the game. I am absolutely certain Blizzard can accomplish both.

I know many people reading this don’t even watch HGC or care about the top 0.01% of players. But competitive games retain their player base by always having that idea that you can be better, that you can climb. If the top players end up telling the bottom players that the optimal play is boring, people will quit. The game being competitive at the top end benefits you, dear reader, even if you never watch HGC.

Many people have asked me over the last month if Blizzard is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist because they don’t understand how common this issue must be. Blizzard does, because they have the data and the talent to analyze it. The competitive community doesn’t understand Blizzard’s goal, because they see the HL issues they run into as people not playing as a team. They blame the person, not the game. Thank you for reading. I hope both sides, the community and Blizzard, understand each other a little better now.

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What a well thought out and articulated article.  I agree that the main problem is the perception is matchmaking is broken, when it really isn't.  Love the ideas about the xp indicators.
Well done, once again. In the current climate of attacking Blizzard (aka chasing kills) you manage to concisely draw attention to the real discussion (aka soaking XP).
Great post Cav. I hope it's not too late to stop the death of HOTS with these xp changes.
This is a fantastic article. I'd love to see them shift the focus from artificial level balancing (the proposed changes or a form of them) to making xp soaking more visible or prominent somehow
Thank you so much!