I am no expert on MOBAs or Free-to-Play business models. I dabbled with League of Legends for years, but I never invested in the community, the competition, or the theorycrafting surrounding it. I am no expert on Heroes of the Storm either, but I have played it enough to know I like the game and hate its business model. The way Blizzard has monetized its newest game will be the very reason I give up playing it.
The pricing and reward structure of Heroes of the Storm leaves a lot to be desired. Stimpacks, for example, give you a significant boost to your experience and gold gain from playing matches. They last seven days and cost $3.99. At player level 10, all players are awarded a free stimpack; otherwise, you must pay to acquire them.
Stimpacks are not unusual – other F2P titles use similar consumables – but these come with an anti-consumer catch. On their store page, Blizzard warns, “stimpacks are not paused or extended for maintenance downtime” and “Heroes of the Storm regularly undergoes scheduled maintenance.” An exceptions may force Blizzard’s hand in the future, but when HOTS is down for whatever reason you lose time that you paid for with real money.
Aside from stimpacks, Heroes of the Storm has a lot of cosmetic options. Cosmetic items have become a staple across the video game industry, and a large part of that is due to their success in the MOBA genre. I have no issue with their implementation here, even if the gameplay value of adding in mounts to the MOBA genre seems like a stretch at best.
My problem arises from how Blizzard chose to name the different categories of their cosmetic skins. Borrowing the nomenclature from World of Warcraft, the word ‘rare’ may imply something else to those less familiar with that game, but here it means the most affordable tier of skins ($4.99 to be exact). From what I saw on the store, most skins belonged to the ‘epic’ category, which retail for $9.99. Neither word has any real meaning in the context of the game, and only serve to be marketing buzzwords to generate sales or even mislead consumers.
There is one other type of skin you can get, the Master Skin, which cannot be purchased with cash. This is unusual for MOBAs, but Blizzard made sure it was fair for them. Unlocking a master skin requires an individual hero be level 10, as well as a one-time only charge of 10,000g. More on that in a bit though.
None of my problems thus far are that big a concern. I can avoid wasting my money on any of them, and I can still be successful at the game without them. To have more success, I need access to new heroes, and Blizzard has done a great job of frequently rewarding players with gold to make those purchases. But that doesn’t last forever.
Heroes of the Storm gives you enough gold up front that, by the time you reach max player level, that you should be able to afford the ten required heroes you need to access the game’s more competitive modes. It seems like you are obtaining gold at a fair rate, but, in time, most of those sources dry up and earning new heroes by playing the game takes longer and longer to do.
Here are the one-time only ways in which you earn gold:
- Completing the tutorial nets you a total of 1,000g.
- Each individual hero has their own levels to earn; at level 5 you are rewarded a bonus of 500g. There are other bonuses at later levels (9, 15 and 20), but those take many more hours to earn than the first five levels, which only take a few games to get.
- With a new hero rotation each week, that 500g bonus for reaching level 5 on each stacks up quickly, but you will get them all if you try.
- Your profile also has a level, which rewards you with with gold in various increments from levels 2 to 40 for a total of 16,000g.
- To put these amounts in perspective, outside of brand new heroes (costing 15,000g), the next highest tier is 10,000g (currently 13 different heroes at this price point). From there, it goes to 7,000g, 4,000g, and 2,000g. Of that final tier, there are only six heroes priced at 2,000g. If you want to bother purchasing a Master Skin, then that’s another 10,000g per character you have already purchased.
The only two sustainable ways to earn gold are Daily Quests or playing matches:
- Daily Quests are there to keep you playing every day or at least every couple of days. Ranging from a reward of 200g to 800g, these are the best sources of gold gain you will ever have, but they are also severely limited in when and how you gain that gold. More so if your play time is limited.
- Winning a game against other humans rewards you with 30g; losing rewards you with 20g. Heroes of the Storm is significantly shorter in match length compared with other MOBAs – it should take around 20 minutes to complete a match. With one hour played, the means anywhere from 60g to 90g.
After these facts are known, most fans (myself included) arrive at a crossroads. On one side, there are those who believe Blizzard deserves some money for the time invested. Assuming you didn’t pay a dime, getting all of the gold from that first set of sources I mentioned will take many, many hours. They are also rewards for playing the game as intended, so they are not things you are forced to do. Once you’ve completed those, then you have effectively played Heroes of the Storm for as long as many other games, even the ones you likely paid for. Why shouldn’t Blizzard get some of your money after that?
Others cite that this is an affront to the business model itself. They argue Free-to-Play games should allow the most dedicated fans to unlock all the meaningful gameplay bits through playing, within a reasonable amount of time. If your goal is to unlock every hero, then assuming Blizzard has a regular schedule for adding new ones it is impossible to catch up without spending real money. And, considering how competitive MOBAs are by nature, it seems unfair that if a hero gets changed, players may be stuck with them as one of their few unlocked characters. They also argue that the incentive to play the game after maxing out your level is not there, since there are so few reasons to play beyond dailies for gold gain.
My own opinion remains mixed – I can see both sides. I feel it is unfair how long it will take to unlock a significant portion of the game’s roster unless you pay cash. I also worry that the requirement of having ten heroes unlocked for ranked play will penalize those who make mistakes with their early gold bonuses. Once my ability to afford new heroes in a reasonable amount of time goes away, will I still want to play? How upset will I be if I spend the little gold I do have on someone terrible or someone who gets nerfed soon after I bought them?
I love Free-to-Play as a model for this type of game because it allows more people to play, regardless of their income. Whether I pay or not, I benefit from having more players active in Heroes of the Storm – my queue times are shorter, the competition is better, and the community benefits from having more points of view around. Blizzard benefits too because the longer we play, the better the chance we buy something. If the core experience loses a player’s interest, then there’s not a strong enough hook to keep them around, enhancing the community and potentially being converted into a paying customer.
I concede that Blizzard deserves some money, especially after the many hours it will take to work through all of those initial gold bonuses. But, there is a fine line between what they deserve and what Free-to-Play means. I think it is reasonable to reward those who put in the time and effort, whether they pay or not. Heroes of the Storm does an excellent job in rewarding players, initially, but months and years down the line, I don’t think their drip feed of gold will work to keep players like myself coming back.
I am not here to take down Blizzard or denigrate what they have done with Heroes of the Storm. I think it is a fine game, and I have heard similar praise from games of all backgrounds. Heroes of the Storm can be enjoyed regardless of what you spend on it, and that’s an important point to keep in mind. At the same time, I want things to be fair for those who put in the effort, enhance the game by being some of its biggest fans, and ultimately spend their time instead of their money to unlock all they want to unlock. I also want to make sure the game remains accessible to those who might spend a few dollars here and there, but don’t want to be compelled by the slowness of hero unlocks to spend money on the game every week.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Heroes of the Storm, MMO, MOBA, Starcraft, Warcraft