Q: What have become your key design directives since the launch of the technical alpha?
Dustin Browder: There are three top things at this point. We’re really trying to capture the magic of Blizzard heroes. We really want to ensure the heroes leap off the screen, that they really feel like the characters you imagined them to be.
We also want to try to create an experience where all of these heroes feel fundamentally different from one another, where all of the heroes are very strange and unusual.
We’re also focusing on battlegrounds. These battlegrounds are really key for us as a way to create new and interesting gameplay. So, each battleground has its own special characters, and its own game mechanics that surround it.
A core value is teamwork. We’re really making volleyball here. This is an experience where you need to work with your allies to win the game, and we’re doing everything we can so there’s no way you can accidentally hurt your friends. You can’t kill-steal by mistake, everything just goes towards the success of the team.
Q: You describe it as “making volleyball”. I recall a couple of years back at GDC you compared making StarCraft II to making “Basketball 2”. Has volleyball been a similar metaphor throughout the design process of Heroes of the Storm?
Browder: I almost compare StarCraft to karate, or Jujitsu, right? Two men enter, one man leaves. For us, we use volleyball as an example because it’s not easy to be a superstar. Maybe I don’t understand volleyball very well, maybe that’s not true, but my understanding of volleyball is that it’s really about teamwork. It’s really about setting up your teammates, and making sure you’re working together as a group.
Heroes of the Storm is distinct from other player-versus-player games we have out there where you’re trying to show off how great you are, and you’re kind of competing against your allies as well as your enemies. That’s cool, and a great way to make a game – ‘I got that kill in’, ‘I got more kills than you’ – there’s nothing wrong with that kind of gameplay. But for this we wanted so much to focus on the map objectives, we really wanted to create that gameplay experience that was ‘five versus the world’. You can do better than your allies, but it doesn’t make you more powerful. It’s really about working together as a group, coming together to overcome the opposition.
So [the volleyball analogy] seemed like a fun way to go for us. We’ve been holding onto it for a couple of years, and so far it seems to have served us very well.
Q: Something else you’ve mentioned in the past is the toxicity or inter-player animosity of the MOBA playerbase. Early on, it’s something you identified and sought to alleviate or minimise in Heroes of the Storm. Would you say you’ve had success doing so in the technical alpha?
Browder: We’ve made some progress for sure. Allowing you to share in the experience of a kill has removed some tension. Having team levels means that if you’re the only person on the team having a bad night, it’s not the end of the world, and you guys can continue together. We also allow you to choose your hero before the launch of the game so that you don’t have a bunch of fear that when you get into the game you’re not going to get the character you want to play, or that you’re angry some other player got the character and you’re fighting with them. That’s been a big benefit to us. You can’t talk to your enemies. I’m not really talking to my enemies, throwing my own teammates under the bus with my enemies.
At the same, the alpha is up, people are playing it, and people do rage. If people don’t like the way I’m playing, they have time to notice that because it is a top-down game. In a game like Call of Duty, you don’t have time to see what other players are doing. I might just have time to hit the scoreboard and go, ‘Wow, you are zero kills and seven deaths!?’, but I don’t really have time to call you out. In the team strategy game you have a little bit more time.
We think there’s still more work in front of us in this sense. We’ve noticed that the more you’re playing with friends, the better off you are. We’re obviously doing everything we can, but our most powerful tool is to get you in with friends.
One thing we’re doing right now in the game is giving you 25 percent bonus experience points – which translates directly to your gold in the game – for playing with friends. That’s worked out really well for us. We’re only in technical alpha so the numbers are very, very small and it’s hard to know how this will impact on a larger population, but I’ve seen many, many times people come in looking for a group, and they’re not just leaping right into the matchmaker naked and alone. They’re looking for people, they’re making friends, making connections because we’re incentivizing them directly to do so. But I think there’s more work for us to do in this area. We’re going to continue to talk about what we can do to encourage players to be kind to one another, to encourage players to make friends, and to keep working on the gameplay systems so that there are fewer and fewer ways for you to accidentally ruin the game for your allies.
Q: To shrug away the universe-defying conceit of these characters coming together to compete with one another, you’ve come up with the concept of the Nexus. Are there other ways Blizzard’s lore departments could contribute to Heroes of the Storm?
Browder: They have already. They’ve given us 25-plus heroes, and they’ll continue to give us more amazing heroes as we go forward. The only reason people love these heroes is because of all the work that lore group has done. That’s the most powerful way they have and will continue to contribute.
If you mean is there a way the can contribute to the interactions within the Nexus – no. It doesn’t have to, cannot, and will not make sense in Blizzard cannon.
Q: Sure, but you’re already telling smaller narratives throughout with the battlegrounds, and so on?
Browder: We’re making some fun characters – we’ve made the Raven Lord, we’ve made Blackheart – but I don’t know if you’ll see Blackheart sail into Booty Bay one day! These characters are intentionally over-the-top, intentionally insane and meant for the more lighthearted, confused world of the Nexus.
Q: Based on the data you’re harvesting from the technical alpha, what characters have been popular and unpopular, and what steps are you taking to remedy that?
Browder: Zeratul was a little overpowered, and he’s been very popular as a result. I know that Nova is very popular, particularly because players haven’t really had a chance to play her before in a Blizzard game, but we’ve talked about her for many, many years. We had a game [StarCraft: Ghost] and she was the centre of it but we never had a chance to release that game. She’s been a very popular character.
The challenging characters for us in many ways are the characters that we’ve never had a chance to play before, and their powers weren’t super-obvious so players had mixed expectations as to what they could do. We’ve had some comments on Tyrael, for example. I think he’s a pretty good character, and we’ve had some players tell us they always wanted to play him, but they’ve seen the powers he has and they didn’t quite match their expectations. Tyrael right now is a tank-support mix, which kind of makes sense to me for an angel with a sword, but I think he’s a little too support-y right now, and not aggressive enough. He is the Angel of Justice after all. I think he needs to smite a bit more than he’s smiting right now. So we’re looking to change up his powers a bit and make him a little more smite-y so you can lay down the law.
We’ve never been 100 percent happy with Illidan. I think the community likes him a little bit more than we do. We still want to make him a little more jump-y, and a little more dangerous if possible, so we’re going to do some moves in that direction.
I think Tyrael is really the big one that we’ve been working on in recent weeks. The responsibility here is not small. We really want to do right by the characters. It’s a huge thing, and an important step to take.
The other real challenge is [refining] characters down to a handful of abilities. Arthas has probably a dozen different abilities on his raid version, and you can imagine the sorts of things he could do – maybe he’s done it in a cinematic – that he’s never done in a game before. So one of the things we’re often working on is the talents. We don’t want Arthas to have 15 different abilities at any one moment. How can we leverage our talent system to allow him to have the equivalent of 15 abilities, when you’re just choosing the one you want, choosing different aspects of Arthas?
I think we’re always getting feedback on talents, and we agree with that feedback. We’ve been working – and will continue to work for many months, maybe even years – on that talent system. We want very few generic talents, and to keep the talents really customised to the heroes, to allow them to show different aspects of the hero. If you think Arthas should be all about being a Death Knight, or if you think Arthas should be all about cold powers, there are ways to modify him to get to that level of customisation.