Hero Shooters and You - The Birth of a Genre

By Kevin Tavore, 7 months ago
They say April showers bring May flowers, but it seems the gaming industry has not seen fit to follow that particular proverb. What we're getting is a downpour of hero shooters in May and the forecast doesn't look to be clearing up any time soon. 2016 will see the beginning of a brand new genre for gaming, and it's going to be a flood.

When the Xbox One launched back in November of 2013, if you had said you were excited for all the hero shooters that were coming in a few years you'd no doubt have received a look of confusion. The hero shooter genre simply didn't exist. Of course, today isn't much different - you still get that look of confusion when you say you're excited for the upcoming hero shooters, but it's for a different reason: most people don't even know what a hero shooter is and those that do can't agree on a concrete definition.

But that definition is important. We've already seen a successful Battleborn beta on Xbox One last month and that's just the beginning of the deluge. Battleborn will release on May 3rd. Then on May 5th Overwatch will get its own open beta before it releases on May 24th. In the meantime, Gigantic has had an ongoing beta this entire year and there are rumors of other hero shooters coming to Xbox One this year, such as Paladins from SMITE developer Hi-Rez. If we look beyond Xbox, there are considerably more - Paragon on PC and PS4, Lawbreakers on PC, and Battlecry on PC (though rumors say it may be cancelled). The genre is on the rise and it's going have a huge impact on the gaming landscape.
Battleborn is only the first among many this year.Battleborn is only the first among many this year.

So what is a hero shooter? If we're going to figure that out, it's important to consider where it came from. Once we know what it is, we can finally see where the genre might be going.

A Brief History Lesson
The genre is particularly interesting because it appears to have become popular before a single title was ever released under the name. For every genre that came before, there were games that came first and established the general conventions of the genre. Then one or two games would finally release which put it all together and, through their popularity, established the genre.

Hero shooters have not taken that traditional route. Instead they appear to be engineered as a fusion of popular shooters like Team Fortress 2 and Halo and popular MOBAs. I'm going to assume most of you are familiar with shooters, but a discussion of MOBAs is probably important for those of you who are console-inclined.

Perhaps the most popular cast of characters in gaming.Perhaps the most popular cast of characters in gaming.
Despite humble beginnings, the MOBA genre (multiplayer online battle arena) is a behemoth in today's gaming culture. It started as a little-known Starcraft mod called Aeon of Strife back in 1998. It featured two teams, eight heroes, three lanes, AI-controlled minions, and RPG elements in the form of upgrading gear. In 2003, Defense of the Ancients was released for Warcraft 3. From there, everything spiraled out of control and has since culminated in the popularity of both League of Legends and Dota 2. If you're interested in knowing more about the basics of what makes a MOBA a MOBA, you can take a look at this five minute League of Legends introductory video. League of Legends has rocketed in popularity in the past five years. It garners well over 100,000 viewers at any given moment on Twitch, and most days it breaks 200,000 viewers. To put it in context, Black Ops 3 only has about 20,000 viewers on a Saturday afternoon.

<i>Heroes of the Storm</i> and <i>SMITE</i> stand as the only two<br/>successful copycats against <i>League</i>'s popularity.Heroes of the Storm and SMITE stand as the only two
successful "copycats" against League's popularity.
It seems obvious that publishers and developers saw the success of MOBAs and wanted a piece of the pie. First, they took the traditional route of simply making their own MOBA. That particular venture ended in dismay. You've probably not heard of Warner Bros.' DC Comics MOBA Infinite Crisis or EA's Dawngate. The publishers cancelled these games the same year they were released due to poor performance and they are two of the more successful contenders. In fact, only SMITE and Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm have managed to secure any ground at all in the genre and stand as exceptions to the general rule that no MOBA can stand against League and Dota. SMITE found safe harbor by changing the gameplay to third person action (as opposed to traditional RTS gameplay) and Heroes of the Storm survived only on the strength of the signature Blizzard IPs Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft. Everything else has been quickly crushed and dismissed, leaving publishers with millions invested and nothing to show for it.

Among the gaming community, publishers are known to take the wrong message from the success or failure of a game or feature. We need only look at the Xbox One's original always-online plan to see that in action. Then there's Valve's attempt at creating a paid marketplace for Skyrim mods which got shut down in about three days. But publishers can learn from mistakes, especially when those lessons come in at the tune of $50 million. And they have. Hero shooters are the result of that lesson learned.

So What Is a Hero Shooter?
Let me be clear right away: a hero shooter can be a MOBA, but it does not have to be. Overwatch is not a MOBA and neither is Paladins. Battleborn and Paragon are MOBAs but are still hero shooters. At its heart, a hero shooter is a shooter where you select a character with specific abilities that have a major effect on gameplay. It is the diversity of characters that publishers hope will give the games their longevity.
Genji will never kill a minion because <i>Overwatch</i> is not a MOBA. That doesn't mean he's not unique!Genji will never kill a minion because Overwatch is not a MOBA. That doesn't mean he's not unique!

MOBAs feature an array of different heroes (or champions or gods) which the player selects at the beginning of a match. Each of these heroes has approximately three basic abilities and an ultimate ability which differentiate them from all the other heroes in the game. Heroes are usually built around specific role archetypes such as assassin, tank, healer or support. Each hero in a game generally plays differently than the others even when they perform the same role. Players need to master not only the general gameplay mechanics, but also the specific heroes they are playing. The different heroes give the game depth.

Your average shooter does not do this. Even shooters with classes like Black Ops 3 play largely the same across those classes. Yes, you do have a special ability that you can use occasionally, but the second to second gameplay is largely the same. Hero shooters change this by taking heroes from MOBAs and incorporating them into the shooter gameplay. Where Halo added depth to the game by including 15-20 maps across many gametypes, a hero shooter instead has only a few maps across 1-3 gametypes, but with dozens of different ways to play the game based on the hero you select.

Some of you may be asking how this is any different than Team Fortress 2. It has a number of classes that all play differently that's true. But it is still limited. The different classes all have specific roles and there's not a lot of crossover between them. In a hero shooter you have many heroes that fulfill the same role in different ways. Instead of a Medic you have many different healer characters that protect and heal in different ways. It is a significant evolution from TF2's gameplay that sets hero shooters apart.

So, a hero shooter is a game that takes MOBA-style heroes and puts them into shooter gameplay archetypes. Each hero shooter is a combination of MOBAs and shooters in some ways. Overwatch is more of a traditional shooter while Battleborn is much closer to a straight MOBA with some additional gametypes. At its core, it's the heroes and all their different playstyles that establish this genre as something different than anything that came before.

The Future
Hero shooters will be interesting to watch moving forward. There is quite a lot riding on the success of this genre as a whole. No doubt some games will be more successful than others and the battle between them will be gruesome but hopefully fun for the players. That's where gaming's civil war comes in. It's no coincidence that Overwatch is hosting an open beta the very same week Battleborn releases. It's too early to tell which of the hero shooters will eventually rise to the top. And to be honest, that may not really be important. Only one hero shooter needs to succeed to establish the genre.

Personally, I think the genre is a perfect marriage. Shooters lately have grown stale and are struggling to monetize post-launch support if they aren't already massively successful like Call of Duty and Battlefield. DOOM recently announced a $40 season pass for its map packs and I haven't seen anyone particularly excited to jump on that purchase, which leaves the long-term success of the game up in the air at this point. Even Halo 5: Guardians has been giving its maps away for free and using player customization as the primary revenue source as it fights to keep players engaged months after launch. MOBAs certainly have longevity and it's a good bet that one of the key components to that is the diversity of gameplay styles. If hero shooters can capture that, the future is looking bright.
This cast might have just what it takes to evolve a genre.This cast might have just what it takes to evolve a genre.

So what do you think? Can the hero shooter genre establish itself amongst titans like League and Battlefield? Or are publishers about to find out that gamers just aren't interested in this kind of mashup?
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Purveyor of news articles and the occasional walkthrough or op-ed. The American equivalent of Aristotle. Likes almost all genres but has an unhealthy aversion to exploration and puzzles. Nicest place he'd never want to go? Japan.