Sunday, May 24, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: The Trouble with Learning Curves!

The functionality of difficulty curves is apparent enough on its face: games should require time to master, should unfold over repeated playthroughs until you come to understand, in part or in total, the internal systems that govern a game's structures.  But that conceptualization of functionality behind learning progressions is so broad as to be worthless, akin to an architect stalwartly claiming that stairs need to get you from one floor of a building to another while lecturing a class on how to design and develop effective stair formats.  The reality of learning systems and in-game progression systems, both mechanical and meta-textual, is that their design actually manifests in strange different ways according to the genre you're engaging with, and that those manifestations, in and of themselves, denote things about the underlying mentality guiding development and, potentially, even the mentality behind the very structures that fund and shape that development.

Let's consider a straightforward genre, the first person shooter.  The mechanics of a given first person shooter are readily apparent to most players, especially players familiar with the genre from previous experiences.  As such, the manner in which we might expect an FPS to unfold is fairly static; even the controls are uniformly maintained across various titles.  Spacebar will usually mean jump, shift will usually mean sprint, and the WASD keys will govern movement reliably, nine times out of ten.  However, FPSes still maintain the auspices of a learning curve.  Theirs, like most, functions on two levels.

The first level is the multiplayer level.  This layer of FPS gameplay has been evolving for a long while, with an especially dramatic shift in multiplayer progression appearing over the last decade.  In titles of old, weapons would all be unlocked already for every player's use so, from the word go, players could use every tool at their disposal to winnow their foes.  These weapons would usually be left lying on the ground, like some kind of grim harvest providing you with an arsenal.  As such, progress would orient itself around a process of discovery, quite literally, as players learned each map.  They'd also come to comprehend the mechanics behind each weapon, but that learning curve was usually fairly shallow, especially for older FPSes.  The real meat of the learning process was figuring out how people moved around maps, and where to pick up goodies.  Of late, unlock trees have dominated the FPS landscape, wherein weapons are unlocked through sustained play and "leveling up" a grindy exp ladder.  The meta-layer of map comprehension is still a tremendous factor in player progression and mastery acquisition, but now an overriding mechanical progression has become the primary means of dictating how players navigate the game's multiplayer space.  Players engage in grind-oriented, RPG style play in order to acquire new equipment and, thusly, progress internally and acquire new tools and toys to impose upon the game world.

This raises an interesting question: what's the point of this style of progression?  This incarnation divorced from earlier concerns related to learning curves, that's almost certain.  By presenting players with a handful of options and then forcing them to work to unlock new options, you're not necessarily encouraging them to try these new options and, even if you were, the gameplay incentives are arguably less prominent than the incentives of FPSes of old.  There's a clear counterpoint: that this progression system is about engagement, about hooking players into a system and style of play, and not about teaching players how to navigate a system.  But if that is the case, then why do these systems function on the basis of sustained, incentive oriented unlocks?  There are approaches to these unlocks that edify and refine their player base: Evolve's "function" oriented unlock achievements are oriented towards rewarding players for learning how to play their various hunters as part of a team, for example.  But for every Evolve, there's a Call of Duty that limps along with its pointlessly tiered unlocks that, for some reason, put certain objects on one side of the progression, and other objects on the other, with limited consideration for their potential use.  There have been exceptions to this rule, like the first entry in the Call of Duty: Black Ops series, which allowed players to unlock whatever weapons they wanted using what were essentially arcade tokens they earned through play, but if anything this serves to highlight the strange mentality behind this kind of progression system: it's not oriented towards getting players to learn anything, it's oriented towards getting them to sustainably play your game.

There's nothing wrong with this, but let's consider this approach to learning curves in the context of the FPS genre's single player learning system.  Here, instead of asking players to learn and memorize maps, developers are usually asking them to explore new spaces and learn how new enemy types respond to a series of slowly expanding weapons.  There's often a narrative overlay occupying this progression-framework as well, but the portion of play oriented towards education is relatively static: you get some new toys, and you learn how best to use those new toys against new enemies.  This system is paralleled in other genres of play as well, like Real-Time Strategy games, which often present you with a single unit per campaign map, and often construct their campaigns as narrative supplemented primers for how to utilize units most effectively in multiplayer games.  The conceit is simple, and rather brilliant: it locks players into variable zones of proximal development and forces them to acquire a skillset in order for them to move on to the next area.  It's a highly translatable design structure, and it's so effective that Portal, one of the most celebrated games of the last decade, was essentially built entirely around the feedback loop of this edifying structure.  Military shooters, however, which are increasingly popular with large-scale, non-professional competitive audiences, eschew this pattern in their single player campaigns, in part because most of their weapons function in more or less the same way.  If I'm playing a Call of Duty game there isn't a tremendous amount of difference in how the M-4 and the ACR fire.  I don't need to learn which gun to use against which enemies.  At most, I might have to learn which weird rocket-thing is best suited to taking down which kind of flying-thing, but that's the most nuanced education I'm going to get. 

Perhaps this is why Call of Duty has been so successful with their RPG-style multiplayer progression system: most of their unlockable equipment is functionally similar to starting equipment, though it does provide certain visual and performative tweaks that often cater heavily to personal preferences.  Grind long enough, and you can use your favorite gun with a cute cherry blossom skin.  Given the similar functionality of most of these toys, at least in general population play, there's nothing terribly nefarious about gating access to them through a grind-system.  Players can learn which toys they want to use in the ostensibly narrative single player campaign, and hop online to acquire them for multiplayer use after sinking X number of hours into the game framework.

But this kind of progression becomes somewhat nefarious when it's imbedded in other game types.  I'm thinking specifically of games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and MOBAs, like Heroes of the Swarm. 

In DAI the stakes are considerably lower.  You're utilizing various multiplayer character archetypes that require construction or discovery of particular armors, each of which requires some level of grinding to be constructed.  Assiduous players might unlock nearly all of the various starting classes in a week, but I've been playing for months and I'm nowhere near being able to unlock the characters featured in the most recent expansion, at least not without sinking a bunch of additional time into playing DAI's multi again (something Bioware seems to really want me to do).  While some of these classes are just downright better than the others, and they're all the classes you'd expect, the classes that take extensive time and effort to unlock, it's tough to get too angry at a game that is, by definition, played against a set of AI opponents who gnash their teeth equally at whatever party you throw their way.  Sure, Isabella might be hands down the best rogue in the game, but if I can't play her, who gives a shit?  All the other Rogues are still plenty of fun, and I've just got something to look forward to as I grind it up in this game structure.  A cooperative or collaborative structure makes the kind of grind-oriented multiplayer progression most communities have become used to considerably less offensive when applied to such a nuanced and individuated progression system as we see in a game like DAI.

But when we're looking at MOBAs, there's something almost nefarious about how these progression systems function, especially when they're attached to Free-to-Play games that make most of their money through microtransactions.  Most of these titles feature parallel currency systems that allow players to eventually earn access to whatever characters they want, over a long enough period of time, or spend some contextually appalling amount of money to buy a hero all at once.  This system is also usually supplemented by a rotating set of free heroes that allow players to "try before they buy," but with hero libraries as extensive as those in League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, and Heroes of the Storm, those rotating sets often leave massive gaps in player experience that prevent them from learning just how their heroes fit into larger contexts, especially since they're divorced from any sort of parallel learning structure attached to a single player campaign.  Consider the manner in which MOBAs expect players to "trial by fire" their way through playing a particular hero and compare that to how conventional multi-unit RTSes familiarize players with their complex systems; without any kind of framework for learning how particular units fit into inter-unit interactions, players are forced to derive such conclusions themselves, sometimes at very real monetary costs.

HotS is an especially troubling example of this trend because of the tiered pricing of its various heroes.  HotS wants players to acquire a set number of heroes before they engage in tournament play, but their selection thereof is modulated by the combination of their progress within an artificially imposed sub-system, and how willing they are to spend money on a game.  I myself unlocked some of the "choicest heroes" because I purchased the game to acquire early Beta access upon the request of a friend of mine, but economically, HotS is kind of mess in the way it valuates heroes and expects players to move through a progressive framework.

And it's not because there's anything wrong with grind-oriented frameworks.  Some, like Call of Duty's, are actually pretty great.  They give players a framework through which to engage with an already repetitive game structure, providing some form of punctuation to a game whose metaphorical sentence never really ends.  And some grind-oriented frameworks are transparent and equitable enough to avoid the troubling ramifications I mentioned before: Dawngate, for example, featured heroes that all cost the same amount to purchase, and had a small enough hero pool that a player expect to have an opportunity to play whatever hero they wanted to give a shot at some point, usually about two weeks after said hero initially premiered as a part of the roster.  These frameworks can give players access to concrete goals set in usually abstract frameworks that can serve to direct conventionally aimless play, which can make players feel more engaged and directed with their efforts.  That's pretty cool.

But there's something unnerving about a system that presents an interlocking series of variables as complex as any conventional RTS without any kind of supportive or educational progressive framework associated with their progression-model.  Difficulty curves are a part of games, and mapping those curves out is a crucial component of game design.  Some games, like Super Meat Boy, rely entirely on the conceit of balancing on the edge of their own learning curve to permit players to explode into ever-greater ah-ha! moments, but other titles, like HotS, present a difficulty curve with only the most cursory gesture at an educational framework in their tutorial, and then expect players to sink time, money, and effort into acquire resources, resources that could, in part because of the lack of any sort of progressive educational framework, prove to be useless or unpleasant to use in the long run.  And therein lies the rub: a complex system deserves complex framing, framing that permits players to make educated decisions in how they invest their time, framing that lets players know they're not wasting their hard earned money, or virtual currency, on a hero they won't want to touch with a ten-foot pole next week.  That Blizzard has so blithely created such a system doesn't comment on the quality of their game so much as it comments on how they perceive their players, and the value of the money and time those players are committing to their game.  Blizzard gives a fuck, inasmuch as they want to get a market share of the MOBA players that are interested in Blizzard's various internal fictions, but the range on those fucks apparently dissipates quickly.  And that's troubling to me, because when Blizzard, a company that set the gold standard for teaching players how to play RTSes properly, is more concerned with establishing a monetization framework that allows them to maximize that market share than they are with teaching players how to play their game (and learning from those players how that game is played), that means we, as a community at large, have lost something.

Games have always existed as experiential art objects and commercial art objects, occupying a strange kind of intellectual duality that all mass-produced art occupies, but with a more intense and tenuous relationship between the two aspects.  Decisions like these represent a distinct shift away from the focus on games as crafted and curated experiences and represent a shift towards the intensified commercialization of games as a commodity-frame.  To someone who loves games for their iterative narrative potential, that's more than frustrating.  It's scary.  In the era of direct-funded Kickstarters, I don't think it's the death knell of games-as-art in general, but it does make me unsure of just what will emerge in the mainstream in the years to come.  Blizzard, after all, is a tremendous trend-setter.  They revolutionized MMOs with World of Warcraft, and every other company since has based their game around the feature set of WoW in one way or another.  MOBAs are hardly the most noble or intellectual of game archetypes, but if they are subsumed by this new commercial model, that gives me a little shiver, if only because the company turning its eyes to dollar signs is such an important one, culturally and developmentally.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Heroes of the Swarm and The End of MOBA History!

Lately I've been playing a great deal of Heroes of the Swarm, which is a little strange for me.  I've hinted at my true feelings for it in a few other posts, but here I'll just come out and say it directly: I think it's an odd mishmash of cash-grabbing fan-service and haphazard groping at a title in the MOBA genre, one of the few genres Blizzard seems to be unable to carve out an effective niche in of late, and while I'm sinking hours and hours into it (in fact, it's currently one of my go-to de-stressing titles) I find it very problematic on the whole, even when I'm enjoying myself.  I have a complicated relationship with it: there are some great gameplay elements present, and the core game, the mish-mashing MOBA play structure, delivers on some of the best parts of the feedback loop that MOBAs are known for.  But that core game steps away from MOBA play structure in some pretty particular ways that limits HotS' overall depth and viability as both a competitive structure.  While Blizzard has done some work to alleviate some issues that MOBAs typically have with accessibility, in doing so they've also created a bevy of new problems that undermine the fundamental balancing mechanisms of MOBA play, largely by removing the tools that have been traditionally used to address gameplay balance issues in the genre.

Let me explain.

The original MOBA, DotA, was just a WC3 mod, which achieved its most distinct success after WC3's expansion was released.  I spent hours and hours fucking around in DotA when I was a college student, and I arrived just in time to see it transform from a wholly alienating shitfuck of a game that broke in new ways, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, every time it was patched. The version of DotA I started playing prominently featured thoroughly broken heroes who could, if properly nurtured, eradicate entire enemy teams or, better yet, teleport across the map into the enemy base and destroy the tree-of-life from full health before the opposing team had time to respond.  I watched that mess turn into an alienatingly complex game that started to drop hints at just what it wanted to be, and how it wanted to develop.  Around when I stopped playing, DotA had started to ease up on new players, giving them more money to play with and shorter matches to learn their early lessons through.  It never shook its reputation as a punishing game that broke players, and demanded ceaseless attention and practice from players if they wanted to achieve even moderate success, but it did compromise a little by making it easier for new players to begin plumbing the depths of the game.

And what depths they were!  DotA's progression structure was based almost entirely around WC3's hero progression and item system, borrowing heavily from The Frozen Throne expansion's RPG-style campaign's character growth system.  Heroes have three skills and one "ultimate ability," unlocked at higher levels. They also have six gear slots to equip items in.  Players can trade a "skill point" for a small uptick in all of their abilities ahead of schedule, equivalent to the purchase of a low-level item, which makes a tremendous difference early on in the game, but eventually becomes effectively inconsequential.  With dozens of heroes, each of whom has four skills, and hundreds of items, which can be built in different orders or configured in different ways to sometimes present sympathetic or complimentary relationships, the game was unwieldy in its complexity.  Many of the "best" heroes, heroes that broke the game, became "the best" only when constructed around a painstakingly precise build.  Other heroes, who were easy enough to play at first, might vanish completely from play with experienced players, because their patterns of action were too predictable, or their growth too conservative when compared to other characters.  The end result was a game where balance was non-existent, a fiction imposed upon the game by its fans, cried for constantly.  Its insubstantiality was eventually immortalized in what would  become the preferred tournament style for many players: ban-draft or banning-pick, which involved each team selecting a set of heroes that would then become off-limits to either team.  In order to become a competition-ready game, DotA had to introduce mechanics that allowed its player base to self-police its more broken elements.  The end result was a mish-mash of stopgap solutions that came to rely on a set of stopgap tools that players could employ to impose limitations and simulate relative game balance, and it stuck.  To this day, even DotA 2, the most DotA-like member of the MOBA family, goes through massive periods of rebalance, and tournaments still use the de-facto-balance-referendum facilitated by ban-draft style selection while establishing hero make-up for the teams playing those tournaments (though they now call it "Captain Mode" or some such tomfoolery).

This was a necessary evil, especially in the earliest versions of DotA, because of how volatile gameplay shifts could be.  Certain characters could permanently disable players, which made the game keyboard shatteringly frustrating, and often allowed players to establish runaway power imbalances.  But each time a patch came along and attempted to address those issues, sometimes a new pattern would emerge, referred to by veteran players as "a new meta," or meta-game structure.  This "meta" could shift dramatically, in part because of how complex the interplay of factors within the game could be: a slight change to a hero, paired with a redesign of an item, paired with a tweak to another item, could all coalesce to make a previously innocuous hero "broken as shit" for lack of a better phrase.  It could also lay previously unassailably badass heroes low, "nerfing" them in one fell swoop without necessarily meaning to.

This complexity was part of the game's draw, of course: "difficult to master" can often translate to "fun to dump time into."  But new players found this alienating, especially as the game grew even more complex over time.  Games like Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends sought to reduce the complexity of the game in some ways, while occasionally amping it up in other ways.  Dawngate did away with items altogether, instead having players purchase "statistic" investments that they could develop along particular paths as the game progressed.  Some level of developmental complexity was always part of MOBA structure, however, and that developmental complexity constituted an important ingredient in the game's overarching structure, a kind of volatile, rapidly shifting variable that could make impressively unpredictable things occur, and let players explore the game's systems in creative ways that made competition fun, and made competing as a player require a serious commitment of time and energy.

Heroes of the Storm largely abandons this complexity, removing items from gameplay altogether, and locking player choices to a selection between four "traits" every few levels, some of which add new abilities to a player's arsenal, most of which just tweak existing abilities, or add passive effects to a hero's arsenal make them a little more effective under certain circumstances.  The other tweak, the ability to select one of two "ultimate abilities" for one's hero, seems to have been intended to give the game a sense of depth, but the end result is actually rather predictable: there is, more often than not, an unquestionable "best build" for each hero in question, and those skill choices usually consist of a "right" one and a "wrong" one.  The complexity that MOBAs usually present by making the developers less involved in issues of balance are absent, replaced by an attempt at ground-up game design that doesn't quite mesh with the genre it seeks to re-define.

It isn't that the outcome isn't fun: it's that the outcome is fairly predictable.  If you play HotS for a while you'll notice the same characters appearing in most matches, and the same characters being absent from most matches.  It's no mistake that people love Jaina Proudmoore and Nova: they're incredibly powerful characters.  Likewise, no one in their right mind will play the E.T.C. unless they're trying to level him up for money.  And therein lies the rub: if your game has a collection of effective and ineffective heroes, and your game's internal pricing structure hints at your perceived valuation of these heroes, your game probably is probably kind of predictable.  And predictable structures usually aren't the best vector for e-sports, a crucial aspect of most MOBA communities.

Outside of North America, video games are more than a viable sport: they're downright popular.  Hell, in some parts of Asia they're the most viable sports, financially and culturally.  League of Legends and DotA 2 both host international tournaments that draw global communities and feature hefty purses for winners.  Blizzard clearly wants in, and why shouldn't they?  They essentially birthed the current e-sports culture when they release Starcraft in 1998, but in the MOBA arena they've been falling behind, and they're clearly aware of it.  They recently launched a campaign to make mainstream North American culture and the world-entire aware of HotS as an e-sport, broadcasting a HotS tournament called "Heroes of the Dorm" on ESPN 2, and offering a massive chunk of tuition to the winning team.  The event received mixed support, but the nature of the event is quite telling: e-sports usually draw professional players, players who literally do nothing but play their game and train on a daily basis. Blizzard had to tap college level players, players who one would assume categorically couldn't make it in the professional circuits surrounding other MOBA titles.  That meant they were tapping into a market of amateur/professional athletes, college athletes who, unlike the athletes who are regulated by the NCAA, were still expected to complete their classes, and still theoretically had time to do so as well.

I missed the tournament myself, but it was, by all reports, quite a bit of fun to watch, and it apparently got some new love for the genre and for HotS, along with all the shade that one would expect to be cast upon ESPN for airing video games on TV as a sport.  And it could be that HotS will occupy a kind of niche within the MOBA framework, a kind of welcoming public space to players unfamiliar with the genre.  But all of the larger concerns I have about the game, from its relative lack of depth to its problematic developer-oriented balance, manifest, in a sense, in this tournament, and its adjacent factors: it consisted of non-professional athletes selected entirely from North American colleges, easily the weakest market for emerging cyber-athletes, perhaps partially because of the competitive nature of North American post-secondary education and perhaps partially because a social stigma still prevails in North America surrounding adults who play video-games.  The consensus seemed relatively clear that audiences would accept video games on TV, but that the people who usually watch e-sports, people who digitally stream content, were more or less nonplussed.

It's tough to blame them: HotS is fun, but it lacks depth, especially when you compare it to other MOBAs.  It's flashy, but once you strip away the upper layers of flash that occupy the game, the systems are relatively shallow, and many of the fights are decided before players even enter battle.  HotS lacks the dramatic reversals and "maker-plays" that often occur in MOBAs, and that relative stability means that most of the time a winner is clearly established before the midpoint of the game, and gaps in team-progression, a problem in any MOBA structure, are nearly insurmountable. In a DotA 2 game professional players are known to turn the entire match around with a single bold hail-mary play, but, while reversals sometimes happen in HotS, they're nowhere near as dramatic.  It's not that it isn't a good title in its own regard, it's simply that, as a MOBA, it feels like stripped down version of other games in the genre.

It also frequently leans on singular approaches to winning, which can be pretty uninteresting to watch.  In HotS, objectives are usually key to victory, so much so on some maps that players can win an entire game without ever directly attacking an enemy's base.  That strategic layer is something new, something that belongs entirely to HotS, but it is, like many of HotS new developments, a bit problematic when you begin to look at it closely.  If one strategy is considerably more effective, and less risky, than another strategy, players will never choose any other strategy, at least at higher levels of play, and, as a result, games will play out more or less the same way every time.

This is what I fear will become of Heroes of the Swarm.  It's not a bad game, not by any stretch, but it is a game with issues, and those issues seem to emerge from the fundamental approach developers have taken to developing the title: by attempting to encourage play that breaks the lane-oriented structure of MOBAs, Blizzard has essentially just replaced lane-management with a scrum for objectives every once in a while.  By attempting to do away with massive, alienating meta-shifts that break balance, Blizzard has removed the tools that players used to use to correct those balance shifts on their own and, in doing so, introduced a new host of balance issues to their project.  In trying to make a game that speaks directly to their fans in North America, they've lost track of a larger global market, a market that doesn't seem to have need or desire for the game they're trying to produce. 

And that's a bit of a shame, because for all its flaws, Heroes of the Storm is a very pretty game, and, with a different direction to it, it could have become a real challenge to entrenched MOBAs.  If there's one company that could smash the DotA 2/LoL schism into dust and emerge as the victor, it's Blizzard.  But in trying to please their fan base while appealing to a broader audience, Blizzard has created a gorgeous house with relatively little furniture inside.  It's well constructed, and safe to stay inside, but there's only so much to do in there before things start to feel old.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: In Service of Fans!

Fan service sometimes takes on a grotesque countenance, especially when it's imposed on to existing structures.  "Fan favorites" from a single player campaign might become playable characters in multiplayer, upsetting balance or disrupting existing patterns of gameplay for the worse.  Games, good ones at least, are polished, tested design objects, and creating them around the whims of a fan base, instead of the dictums of craftsmanship, can have disastrous implications.  Consider Heroes of the Swarm, Blizzard's simultaneous attempt at a MOBA and Smash Brothers conceptual clone.  HotS is ramping up to be a commercial success, and it claimed my money, at least in part because the friend of mine who  has to approve every MOBA I play socially decided that this was the new MOBA for our friend-group, but as a MOBA framework it's an absolute mess: none of the things that make MOBAs a rich framework for digital competition are present, at least in part because balance takes a back-seat to fan-service.  A character in HotS plays the way a Blizzard fan might expect that character to play, instead of in a fashion that necessarily compliments other heroes.  Compared to, say, Dawngate, which generated its fiction after the fact, and crafted the play of each hero first, often in a way that consciously complimented existing heroes, the design of each hero in HotS is secondary to its presence in Blizzard lore.  As a result, you end up with a framework that often presents only a single viable build for heroes, and sometimes even presents heroes that don't have even a single viable build to their name, especially in more competitive frames.  A handful of heroes consistently manifest in HotS' multiplayer frame, and while patches do disrupt that trend from time to time limited player input and shallow gameplay prevents any real disruption of Blizzard's creative framework: if you're not a Blizzard fan, there isn't a whole lot to keep you tapped in to HotS, aside from its highly-addictive daily quest framework.

I was talking to a friend about this phenomenon, and she had a theory that I tend to agree with: decisions that are made solely because fans will love them are often universally bad decisions.  Design by committee is rarely a good way to design, and designing by fan-committee is really only viable if you're conceptualizing porn parodies: fans are masturbatory creatures who, on the surface, want their expectations of a product or brand to be fulfilled.  But therein lies the rub: good game design is often highly disruptive.  The feedback loop present in most games turns on the presence of "ah-ha!" moments, whether that feedback loop is as long-term as A Wolf Among Us', taking hours to play out, or as shallow as Halo's, taking only a few seconds to reset.  Part of those "ah-ha!" moments derives from expectations being upset, or fulfilled in interesting ways: while it's satisfying to see Master Chief kill Covenant, it can actually get boring.  The moments where that pattern is upset, for better or worse, are actually the moments that define gameplay, but those moments often have less of an effect of making players see their character as an unstoppable badass, and more the effect of making it clear that the game framework is a space where their creative inputs can have some amazing impact.  These moments can be as sublime as nailing a headshot on a distant enemy running for a scout-fighter, or as infuriating as getting snagged by a plasma mortar that twists in just the wrong way.  Either way, those moments are definitional for your game experience, coloring everything that surrounds them.

MOBAs are especially noteworthy in this regard.  DotA's gameplay has historically shifted back and forth depending on how players "broke" a variety of heroes after certain changes emerged for those heroes.  That was possible, at least in part, because DotA didn't attempt to maintain any sense of intellectual purity, and didn't really ask its fans to engage with its heroes as anything more than mechanical elements.  That means that they were willing to try some crazy shit, like building a giant strength-based demon as a caster, things that Blizzard prevents by both limiting player choices (by presenting some pretty strict build-trees for their heroes) and designing their heroes to fulfill fan expectations, instead of gameplay roles.  Even certain mechanics, like stealth for example, feel less like they're intended to give the gameplay a particular feel, and more like they're just there to facilitate your expectations of how a hero will behave.

The sad thing is that it's not necessary for fan service to go this way.  In fact, fan input can be incredibly helpful for developers.  Mechwarrior Online is currently showcasing this in their renewed effort to actually engage with their fan base by finally generating an effective redesign of their UI that incorporates qualities that their fans have been asking about for a long time.  These qualities are admittedly pretty basic, with things like "the same loadout modification functionality as web-applications" on the docket, but the changes, and the meticulous manner in which they've been tested and are presently about to potentially be rolled out, are pretty impressive.  They've also done something truly remarkable by taking their most maligned map (the infamous River City) and dramatically redesigning it, incorporating feedback from their very-vocal fan community, but also exactingly playtesting the shit out of their work pre-release.  By making fan-service more about communication and collaborating than fulfilling an expectation, MWO has essentially stumbled on a winning formula: they simultaneously engage their fans, making them feel listened to and like they had some level of creative input in shaping the game they play without sacrificing the integrity of their own design process (which, to be fair, has been historically hit or miss for PGI).  It doesn't necessarily defy fan expectations, so the initial "ah-ha!" moment is a bit mollified, but the overarching philosophy of providing many frequent future "ah-ha!" moments is implicit in the design philosophy, and it could pay dividends in a game that asks its players to play in the same environs time and time again as much as MWO does.

There are relatively few examples of fan service that both comes out of nowhere and satisfies existent fan taste while contributing positively to game flow.  PAYDAY 2 has built a business model out of releasing that sort of content, and then occasionally charging for other similar content packs, but PAYDAY 2's efforts on that front are very hit-or-miss.  For every dope Hoxton mission, there's an infuriating reskin of another map, or a Pro-Only map with a punishing difficulty curve and little patience for your bullshit wants and needs.  The example of spontaneous and remarkable fan-service content that springs most readily to mind for me is actually Dragon Age: Inqusition's most recent "Dragon Slayer" package, which made multiplayer a little more epic while adding some neat new heroes to the mix, including Isabella, who, between her cleavage, her dialogue, and her dynamic play style, has long been a fan favorite.  DAI's most recent multiplayer expansion has that are soussant of fan-fulfillment and design twists and tweaks, introducing linear internal combo oriented gameplay for some of their new classes, and bringing dragons into DAI's multiplayer, something that wasn't necessarily missing, but definitely won't go amiss in the future.

It's worth noting that all of the examples I mentioned, while successful in their own right, likely won't be nearly as successful as HotS.  I'm not sure if that serves as commentary on the nature of fan service, or the raw unbridled brand recognition that Blizzard has enjoyed and will always enjoy, but it seems silly to speculate at this point, before HotS has even launched.  I will say that the sort of fan service that I see from studios whose design habits and choices seem painstakingly oriented towards satisfying their fans in the way they think their fans need to be satisfied, instead of the way their fans might ask to be satisfied, and the sort of fan service that emerges through transparent and communicative design processes excites me more than the kind of naked fan-service that HotS presents.  Of course, I'm still playing it.  But I think that has less to do with my love of any particular character set, and more to do with my OCD-oriented relationship with grind.  The real test of HotS staying power, and the success of their fan-oriented design strategy, will come after the grind is done, when all that's left is the game in its purest competitive frame.