It started innocently enough. My boyfriend wanted to show me some new pairs of shorts he had bought, but I had just started playing Heroes of the Storm. “What do you think of this pair,” he probably said as I clicked on a digital dwarf with feverish intensity. “Uh-huh,” I said.
I just wanted to unlock Kerrigan. And since Heroes of the Storm is “free to play,” I should have been able to unlock Kerrigan without spending any money. If I had wanted to unlock her right away, I could pay $9.99—or I could earn several thousand virtual coins by playing Heroes of the Storm for several hours, several days in a row.
I opted for the latter. This was “cheaper,” you see, because it required me to spend time, not money.
But, of course, once I had Kerrigan, then I “just” wanted to unlock Stitches. And Nova. And Zeratul. That’s it! (That’s not it.)
Back when my friends fell victim to the addictive throes of games like Everquest and World of Warcraft, I felt empathetic, but I didn’t understand the appeal. I never liked doing “chores” in Skyrim or Dragon Age. I could justify that rather than collecting virtual herbs and flowers for the sake of in-game power-ups, I may as well go to the grocery store and “power up” the old-fashioned way. I do not possess the proper nature or nurture to become susceptible to cultivating a game’s virtual garden—unless that garden is comprised of colorful collectible characters, apparently.
When you play Diablo or StarCraft, do you ever think to yourself, “I wish this were more like playing with Barbies?” Diablo isn’t too far off that mark already; Jenn Frank once described Diablo as “toy theater,” in part due to the game’s top-down perspective and precious character models. My interest in games that evoke a Barbie aesthetic has been well-established, and I’m pleased to report that Heroes of the Storm is another in a line of games that scratch the same itch.
Of course, HotS has that whole “hyper-competitive game” aspect, but you can’t even play in the Hero League until you’ve earned ten fighters. Basically, you have to have ten dolls in your carrying case before you’re allowed to enter the big-kid playpen. Choosing who will join my cavalcade of fighters in Heroes of the Storm feels a lot like looking at the sea of glassy-lidded boxes in a toy store aisle. So many of the costume designs in HotS are thoroughly impractical for battle; the fighters look like they’d fit in better on a fashion runway, at a high school prom, or perhaps singing futuristic jazz at a cyberpunk cabaret. It’s Barbies all the way down.
Of course, I’d have no interest in collecting these sparkly figures if it weren’t also compelling to play with them. My favorite battlefield is the Tomb of the Spider Queen, in which I lead my dolls about the board collecting massive gems to appease gorgeous arachnids clad in outfits Alexander McQueen would covet. There’s something satisfying about watching the StarCraft heroes scampering to siphon jewels into an hexagonal mound, hoping to win their Spider Queen’s aid. It’s one of the gaudier and more unabashedly femme levels on offer, so it’s definitely not what I expect from a Blizzard game.
Multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBAs) like League of Legends and HotS begin as free-to-play experiences, but they do rely on the fact that most players will be charmed enough to part with several bucks. Personally, I have more experience with this type of game in the iOS gaming space; I understand the tricks used by Kim Kardashion: Hollywood and Candy Crush Soda, and I can see through them. Unlike Candy Crush, though, the difficulty spikes of HotS and LoL don’t change for players who can’t pay. You don’t really “need” to collect all the heroes in order to win a match; you can win plenty of matches by playing as Raynor over and over—although you’ll probably get bored fast. And that boredom is exactly what HotS capitalizes upon.
After having played this game for a bit, let me reassure those of you out there who feel intimidated by League of Legends and Smite and all of those other super-intense MOBAs (and their equally intense competitive communities): the actual game at hand in HotS is not that hard. The self-referential and thoroughly adorable tutorial is simple and straightforward, especially if you’ve played a little bit of Diablo 3. That’s not to say that high-level competitive play isn’t compelling to watch and engage in—it definitely is. Then again, I’ve been known to compete seriously at Super Smash Bros., with which this game shares many a goofy similarity.
HotS charms the player into collecting tons of heroes through relatively short, accessible matches; this allows the game to showcase a lot of different types of characters in rapid succession, with just enough of that get-a-new-thing dopamine rush to keep you hooked in. The characters themselves, much like in Smash Bros., are not vastly different from one another; the game is easy to learn but hard to master, and the characters are just dissimilar enough to motivate a player into continually climbing the collection ladder. In other words, the game manages to satisfy the spirit of an action figure (or Barbie) collector, all under the guise of being a Very Serious Competitive Game.
This has had an unusual effect on my brain as a player. I don’t usually feel ashamed about spending a ton of time playing StarCraft, for example, because I can self-justify that StarCraft is somehow making me “smarter” (although, that’s debatable). Even when I’ve played tons of StarCraft matches in a row, I’ve never compared the game to a “part-time job” like I have done with HotS. Matches in HotS don’t feel quite as mentally stimulating as StarCraft; the stress is there, but I’ve found that my brain tends to loop winning a HotS match into the idea of gold collection (and, thus, hero collection), rather than the nebulous “getting smarter” feelings that I associated with StarCraft. In other words, my brain has straddled between classifying HotS as a collect-a-thon and a competitive game, but collect-a-thon is winning. The result is that when I play HotS for eight hours straight, I don’t feel proud of myself, because deep down I know that I’m playing for the “wrong” reasons.
My only point of pride is that in spite of all the time I’ve logged in gold-farming for the characters that I want, I still haven’t buckled down and entered in my actual credit card number. And yet, ironically, spending real money on HotS would probably be the dose of reality required for me to quit. I wouldn’t want to get my heroes without “working” for them—that would feel boring, hollow. I am “working” for the heroes either way, either with real-world money or real-world time, but apparently my brain only wants to earn characters within the confines of HotS. If I don’t spend real money, and instead only spend time, then I’ve managed to convince myself that I’m not “wasting” anything. But, of course, if I think about it for long enough to write a whole column about it, then I realize that I’ve been kidding myself.
I don’t know if my determination to not spend any money is what Blizzard had in mind when they designed their monetization system for their game. They would likely be happier if I gave up and paid up, even if it meant that I stopped playing. This way, though, I can reassure myself that I’m still the one “winning.” Just don’t ask me what it is that I’ve won.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric at Relay FM.