The Heroes of the Storm "technical alpha" wrapped up on Tuesday with a mostly uneventful patch to what they are technically calling "beta" - seems like the same game it was on Monday, plus a new hero, some usual patch fixes, a new battleground, and addition of the game's new lower-tier ranked mode. My experiences in the game have been generally positive, and overall I am okay with the business model. However, I will say that it is very striking how - and why - in this model widespread criticisms are known and simply do not matter to the developer's bottom line.
How I spent my "Alpha"
From the reset in early October until Christmas-time I played this thing about 3-4 hours per week to complete daily quests and work on any heroes I did not own in that week's free play rotation. At Christmas, they announced a unique portrait icon for reaching the maximum account level of 40 during alpha, so I made a push to do this. In the process, I advanced all but one of the game's heroes to at least level 5. This unlocks all talents for the heroes and also a one-time payoff of 500 gold per hero. Collectively, I hit level 40 with a grand total of 52,000 gold, including one time awards of 6000 gold that all accounts get in the early levels and 15,500 gold for leveling heroes. (Murky, who has yet to be free to play since the alpha reset, and the newly released Thrall are each worth another 500.) I.e., I pulled down roughly 30,000 gold in normal (not one-time) income over a three month period.
As an early alpha player, I was able to take advantage of a heavily discounted bundle that offered ten heroes who cost a total of 64,000 gold for $29 - more than half off, as 10,000 gold heroes normally cost $10 in the store. This skewed my experience slightly in that I already owned many of my staple heroes before I had to start spending my in-game currency. I was then able to pick up my top five favorites from heroes I did not own - Anub'arak, Azmodan, Gazlowe, Valla, and Rehgar - for 33,000 gold, and left the alpha with the remaining 19,000. This sum buys basically any two heroes of my choice, but could in principle have gotten me to a roster of ten characters if I had been starting from zero.
Ten characters matter in Heroes due to how the game has implemented draft mode for ranked play. In addition to an account level requirement, you must have permanent access to ten heroes - NOT including the weekly free rotation - because you could theoretically get the 10th pick and watch the first nine players pick nine of the ten heroes you own. The community perceives this move by Blizzard as a way to try to encourage players to buy heroes for cash, though I can see some value in not having the weekly draft strategies vary extremely widely based on who is available for free that week. The bigger issue is that, especially early on, players will very likely fill out their roster with the cheapest characters, which will skew the meta and also likely lead to acrimony with pick-up-group teammates when someone with does not own any top tier heroes who remain on the draft board.
At the end of the day, I don't have too many complaints about a system where 2-3 hours per week for daily quests will unlock a character of your choice for free once a month. The one flaw is that gold gain is heavily skewed towards the daily quests, with very slow gold gains (maybe 20-60 gold per hour) after your dailies are complete, which can make it feel unrewarding to continue playing beyond your first 2-3 matches of the day. That aside, skins and mounts cost roughly what they do in other games and are purely cosmetic. Bundles are underwhelming, though prices may do better in the future - you can buy a limited time package of a hero and their skin for 25% off, or you can unlock the hero with gold for $0 (almost always more than the 25%) and then pay full price for the skin (or wait for a future sale).
Your complaints are known, but don't matter
With all of that as background, if you follow the community for this game anywhere, you will hear roughly the same complaints over and over again:
- Players feel that gold gain per match (especially beyond the dailies) is extremely low compared to the cost of heroes.
- Players do not like having to spend time leveling, including an hour or two leveling new characters to remove "talent gating" restrictions that often render that character ineffective, and high account level thresholds for the ranked modes (in my case, up to three months). My readers can probably guess at this point that experience gain can be doubled through a cash store consumable.
- Players are very concerned about the significant one-time cost to get in the door for draft play, and the extremely high barrier before you own most or all of the heroes and thus are no longer affected by cost in your competitive draft picks.
- Some players are also objecting to the high price of cosmetic skins relative to heroes. I buy fewer skins in this and other games as a result of the pricing, but at least these are cosmetic items and will be discounted for sales.
The business model of a game cannot be a democracy, as the people in this case aren't even willing to pay for cosmetic items. Likewise, there are many issues with the "good old days" of the mandatory subscription model, which among other things is all-but a dealbreaker for me these days. The one issue we did not have in the subscription era was player buy-in/acceptance of the model; if you didn't buy, you weren't in.
The decisions that developer make in games like this one (and others, such as Marvel Heroes) don't just write off the non-paying majority. You can be paying (in my case, $43 for a title that is still in pre-release testing) and still get the short end of the stick to leave room for other people to spend even more. You can also be paying a lot less (or nothing) if you're prepared to tolerate various limitations. The price is that we end up with models where your experience is impacted no matter how much you are willing to pay - for example, even if you own all the heroes, your PUG teammates may not.
I won't say that the good old days were all good, but I feel comfortable saying that there are parts of being a consumer in this era that are frustrating at best.