When you first fire up Heroes of the Storm - Blizzard's MOBA starring characters pulled from its various game universes including Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, and Overwatch - the tutorial suggests that you not worry about the setup too much. Why are these people (and aliens, and demons, and robots, and, and…) all in one place? Why does killing a minion produce a health-regenerating orb? Why do heroes respawn and not simply stay dead? The answer to all three is:
Of course, the real answer is obvious: because this is a MOBA, and those are the conventions of the genre. But Blizzard wants to change that, and emphasize HotS not just as a playground that exists 'because MOBA,' but as a unique place separate from its more established universes. And it all starts with a free digital comic called Rise of the Raven Lord, coming later this month.
A raven rises
First, you may be wondering why Blizzard would even bother with all this. MOBAs aren't really known for their cohesive story, and Heroes of the Storm is a game where magic-wielding warriors square off against guys in power armor who speak with a southern twang. That's before we get into the implications generated by cosmetic skins that transform a psychic alien into an Egyptian god of death, or an angel into an anime-style mecha.
Heroes of the Storm has always rooted itself in the idea that this is not just a contrivance for the sake of gameplay, but a universe unto itself. The Nexus is not just a concept or excuse for Thrall from Warcraft to beat up on Tracer from Overwatch - it's a canonical parallel dimension where the game takes place. The announcers who inform you of what's happening on the map are not disembodied voices that exist for the sake of players, but are presented as omnipresent beings who speak directly to the characters.
Sure, it all feels a bit hand-wavey, but the foundation has been there from day one. Rise of the Raven Lord simply takes the existing design philosophy one step further, and reinforces the idea that HotS can exist not just as a mash-up of existing properties, but that it can also stand apart on its own merits. Penned by Valerie Watrous, lead writer of StarCraft 2 (as of 2016) and Diablo 3 (as of 2017), the comic will expand on Heroes' setup and flesh out its universe, giving lore-hungry fans a new way to enjoy the game.
The story follows the titular Raven Lord, a character previously relegated to a disembodied voice on two of HotS' battlegrounds. It turns out that in the Nexus, the Raven Lord - along with other announcers from the game - rule over their domains by utilizing heroes from other dimensions as their enforcers. A bit weird? Think of it like a duke in the feudal age conscripting knights to serve and enforce their will.
Only here, the duke is a reality-warping wizard and the knights are video game characters.
There's no word yet on exactly how many issues of the Heroes of the Storm comic will be released (or how often), but Blizzard is treating this as a chance to more closely weave together game updates with lore. As production director Kaeo Milker explained to me at PAX East 2018, "Every time we have information come out about the game, we're going in and out of this storyline, so that we have a season arc telling one, singular story over the course of the year."
"We've put out machinima and cinematics and all these things. They come out, and they're focused on a little moment in time or a specific piece of content. We'd like to interweave more information about that overarcing lore and story of Heroes of the Storm into those. So this is our way of starting that." If all that sounds a bit familiar, it's probably because you can already see this design philosophy at work in another Blizzard game: Overwatch.
When Blizzard released an update containing a new mode, map, and an assortment of skins for its hero shooter earlier this April, it did so alongside the above trailer. Overwatch doesn't have a full-on story campaign, but by tying updates and seasonal events to lore, Blizzard manages to satisfy players who are eager to learn more about the Overwatch universe. Milker said the HotS team hopes to follow that model.
"[Overwatch] is definitely a source of inspiration for us," Milker notes. "They've done such a great job from the beginning, and they were building up an entirely new game world from scratch. So they had this awesome gameplay, and they also wanted to make sure you knew who these characters were, and why you should care about them. I think Heroes had all these characters that people already had relationships with, but now we're looking inward - what is the Nexus, what's happening with that?" Milker said he hopes to reach a point where, like Overwatch, gameplay updates and lore updates become tightly interwoven.
As I thought about the crossover between Overwatch and its multimedia projects (such as the "Casual" Hanzo skin based on his appearance in the Reflections comic), I wondered if the same could happen for Heroes of the Storm. We're about to be introduced to the Raven Lord and no doubt several other characters unique to the HotS universe; could we see an original hero from the comic added to the game's playable roster?
Milker smiled. "Anything's possible in the Nexus."
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