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Heroes Developer Interview From PAX East

by - 3 years ago

By now you have probably heard the big news out of PAX East. You know that Deckard Cain will be the next Hero released and that the lore behind the Nexus will start to be explored in an upcoming comic. If you are like the rest of us, you probably still have plenty of questions. Fortunately, BlizzPro’s very own Stephen Stewart, aka “Leviathan” from Westmarch Workshop fame, is at PAX East. He was able to sit down with two members of the Heroes team to talk Deckard Cain, the lore of the Nexus, and other hot topics.

Here is a transcription of that interview:

Stephen Stewart: Greetings everybody this is Steve Steward here for BlizzPro and today I have the pleasure, the honor, of speaking with two of the great minds behind Heroes of the Storm. I have Kaeo Milker, Production Director, and Matt Villers, Lead Hero Designer. I have a bunch of questions. We’re very curious about Deckard Cain, the big announcement here at PAX East. For those who missed the panel yesterday, can you tell us about Deckard Cain, his kit, and the evolution of his design?

Matt Villers: So for Deckard, I’ll start with the evolution because it leads kind of naturally into the kit. For Deckard, he’s a very different Hero from what we’ve done previously. We always take Heroes who know the battlefield, they’re fighters. Even Probius. Probes fight in Starcraft. It’s a thing they do. But Deckard is a narrator. He gives quests, he identifies your items. How is he going to fight on the battlefield? That’s a fun challenge that we were excited to take on and it really shaped how we approached his kit. Anytime we tried to do forceful magic, anything destructive, it really didn’t feel like something Deckard would do, even though he does have a background as a Horadric mage. It was just like, that’s not what Deckard would do. As we worked on his kit, we found that abilities, where he was being clever and tactical, were kind of a natural fit for him. So Healing Potion was great for that because he can throw these potions on the ground. He can think ahead to when his allies are going to need healing in the future and that’s really cool. And the Healing Potion is a great throwback to Diablo as well because you’re chugging potions. The Horadric Cube, of course, that’s a super Deckard thing. Having that be something that he can use to set up other abilities, to slow enemies down for his teammates. That then ties into his Scroll of Sealing, which is this big, slow area control ability. It might hit enemies, and if it does it is pretty devastating in terms of rooting them, but if it doesn’t it still puts them away from your team for a little while. Just lots of ways to control the battlefield, to set up his allies, and outsmart his enemies. Likewise for his Heroics. He’s got Stay A While and Listen that’s a big area sleep in front of him. He can set up some amazing combos with that. Especially with like D.Va or an ETC who can chain that together with Mosh Pit. And then likewise for Lorenado, there’s a lot of control that you can do with that. It’s actually vector targetted so you can use Lorenado to push enemies away from your team or to push enemies into your team. You can walk up to a gate for example, Lorenado behind it and if there’s an enemy there, just shove him right out of the gate into your team.[/bluepost]

Stephen: I didn’t try that. When I was doing the demo I definitely was using it more as a disengage but I didn’t think about as an engage mechanic too. That’s interesting. How long has the development process been going on for Deckard Cain and were there any obstacles the team had to overcome to get him off the ground?

Matt: Our average Hero is probably somewhere in the six to nine month range. Deckard was probably somewhere in the middle of that. I want to say like mid-last year would have been when we started him. We have a process we go through where we have an idea on paper and then we try to put it into the game and see what happens. Initially, we were really attached to trying to be as close as possible to what he did in Diablo so we actually had an Identify ability on him. He would channel on an enemy and try to identify them.

Stephen: To like reveal them or something?

Matt: Right. It would reveal them and reduce their armor. That ended up being kind of weird and not working great but we had to give it a shot. We tried doing a thing where he put the Horadric Cube on the ground and he could throw other abilities into it and that would trigger different kinds of reactions, buff and what not. That ended up feeling kind of limiting because you had to put everything where the cube was and not make moment to moment decisions. Although that did lead to us doing the targeting Horadric Cube where you have the gem talents. You can pick these different gems to modify what the cube is doing each time you cast it.

Stephen: Right. Like there’s an increase slow duration…

Matt: Exactly. Or the one that spawns healing potions is my favorite. You throw that onto five Heroes and there is an explosion of healing potions. It’s great! It’s cool that you still get that feel of the Horadric Cube alchemy but it’s not quite as limiting as the original version we did. There was a lot of difficulty with just making sure that each of the abilities that we tried to do actually felt like something Deckard would do. We would get that feedback from the team a lot. We tried something where he was going to do this angelic magic but it didn’t quite feel like Deckard. Or he’s going to call down a meteor strike since there’s a meteor strike in the cinematic but it didn’t feel like Deckard. It took us a bit to get there but we’re really happy with what we landed on.

Stephen: Players have been wanting Deckard. I’m a Diablo 3 player, that’s the thing I’ve been doing for the last six years, and I can recall tons of conversations with friends about how they have to add Deckard someday. We were like, ‘What would he do?’, and we would do a stay a while and listen kind of thing so glad that that’s in there. It really feels like this was almost a BlizzCon level announcement. What made you guys decide to go with it now, here at PAX East?

Kaeo Milker: We’ve made a couple of announcements at PAX East over the years. It’s a really cool show with an awesome group of people. I don’t know if you got to cruise around and check it out but this is right up our alley. It’s a cool place and we don’t get out to the east coast as often as we should so it’s nice to be able to spread out the love a little bit.

Stephen: It’s a gift for us our here in the cold. Thank you. So how about something to hold us over until Deckard his the PTR. Will there be a Deckard Cain announcer available or anything else to look forward to?

Matt: I’m not sure on the announcer front. We’ve been having a lot of fun with that, but I can’t even remember if there’s an announcer in there. Would you like to see an announcer for Deckard Cain?

Stephen: That’d be great! He has that iconic voice so that would be something interesting. Seems like you guys did a great job of capturing the feel of Diablo. Things like the potions with the look, the sound effect, the Hero’s voice. Were those all new assets or did you use existing assets from Diablo?

Matt: So this is a fun one. We actually spent some time working with the sound designers on this and they really went all out. It’s all new sound assets. We did use the Diablo ones when we were playtesting before we created the new sounds, but we definitely wanted to go that super Diablo nostalgia route. We wanted to capture the feeling of messing with your inventory, the sounds of the potions, the papers, and the scrolls. Things like that. So to give you an idea, for the potion sounds, our sound designers actually tried all kinds of different liquids and they would stick a straw in them and blow bubbles to find just the right sound. They came up with some consistency with like a protein shake mixed with water mixed with something else and that gave them the exact right sound that they wanted. They get so into it. It’s awesome!
Kaeo: Actually for every Hero, even if we have source assets that are more recent, they go in an recreate a lot of them to make their own spin that’s specific to Heroes. It’s really cool. Like Matt said, our sound team is so passionate and it’s fun to watch them work.

Stephen: I remember, I think it was a past BlizzCon, there was one of those lighting talk panels and there were guys up there violining bones. You guys go nuts with that stuff.

Matt: My favorite is I was walking through the hall one time and they had bags full of water they were freezing. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’, and they were like, ‘This is for Kel’thuzad’.

Stephen: Another big reveal here at PAX was the idea of the story behind the Nexus and the lore. You talked about existing realms and their Lords but what’s the story on how the game-specific realms like Volskaya Foundry and Infernal Shrines ended up in the Nexus?

Kaeo: We’re not getting into that yet, but part of this whole thing is in the past we said don’t worry about those things. Just play, go have fun. Now we really want to start to get into it. We’ve actually opened a lot of doors and asked a lot of interesting questions along the way and we’d like to start answering them. The first step in that is the comic that will be coming out later this month, Rise of the Raven Lord. It’s really focused on his story and some of the things about his realm and what’s going on in the Nexus. In time we would really love to explore why are these Heroes, why are these worlds coming into the Nexus. What does that mean and what are we fighting for?

Stephen: Something I’ve noticed with you guys at Blizzard, in general, is that you take almost a multi-media format. Like you see shorts in Overwatch or comics like you’re doing. Do think Heroes might see books or other multi-media things to get the story out there?

Kaeo: There’s a lot of options there. Like you said, we as a company like to support any medium we can to get the story out there and we have a lot of fun going into different mediums. I would love to see us explore a bunch of them, starting with the comics. There will also be some things that we do in-game. We will also use things, and Kevin talked about this a little on the panel, sometimes our themed skin drops that come out will be interwoven into the story as well.

Stephen: I was told that this question was very important so here we go… There hasn’t been a Hero released with the Specialist label since Probius last March. Is that just a coincidence or has there been a conscious decision to move away from that particular classification?

Matt: So basically Specialists, when we first came up with that designation, it was kind of the bucket for all of the weird Heroes that we weren’t sure where else they would go. We kind of made up, as we were early playtesting before we even did Alpha, we made up our first roster of Heroes. And then before release, we were thinking of categories and we had some kind of wackier Heroes that ended up in that bucket. But there are a lot of Heroes that could go either way. Like we did Junkrat pretty recently and you could probably put him in the Specialist bucket. He’s a little bit wacky. Ragnaros for a while was a Specialist before we changed him over to Assassin. We’re trying to be more conscious of who we’re putting in that bucket. Do they really need to be going in there? Could they be more easily labeled as Assassin or something else? And thinking about with each of these Heroes we’re doing, what role do they actually fill on a team? So I don’t think we’d be opposed to doing a Specialist again, but we don’t necessarily sit down and go ‘This Hero needs to be a Specialist’. We’re just going to make the Hero as cool as we can first and then if they don’t really fit any of the existing labels then they go in the Specialist bucket. Really even like Sylvanas versus Gazlowe versus Murky, they all have a little bit different roles as far as how they fit on a team. Abathur is super different from Probius. They’re all Specialists, sure, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what they actually do on your team.

Stephen: Do you feel that the tags in general, the classifications, does that help you guys on the design side or is that more for the players to say if you want an Assassin these are your available options, just to make it clearer?

Matt: It’s a little bit of both. We do think about it. That’s actually one of the main things we consider when we create a new Hero, is what role do they fill on a team, which has some overlap with the roles. But we definitely want to use those to communicate to players as well, ‘here’s kind of what you can expect from this Hero’. We’ve tried to go into a little bit more detail with the Hero descriptions to try to talk about this Hero is more like a mage or this Hero is a sustain damage dealer. You’ll see that in the Hero descriptions as well.

Stephen: You mentioned Ragnaros underwent a description change. You look forward and you make new Heroes but how much are you guys looking back and saying ‘can we improve or change this?’ for any of the existing Heroes?

Kaeo: Yeah, totally. It’s something that we’re constantly talking about. We’re actively reevaluating some of the role classifications right now as well so we’ll have more to talk about that potentially in the future.

Stephen: We’ve seen more information made available in the form of Quest Tracking, the Kill Feed, the Target Info Panel. What other things are you working on along those lines and what is the latest when it comes to releasing the API?

Kaeo: This is something that we are very interested in. It’s really more of a prioritization and bandwidth concern for us for when we can do something like that. We’ve done some work recently that has exposed more data to our HGC website. There are some really cool stats that are coming up in pseudo real-time for HGC matches if you go to the HGC website. I think some of that work paves the way for other things we would like to do but I don’t have any exact timelines for it. But we totally hear the need and we would love to expose more data in the game and potentially expose more outside the game as well.

Stephen: Do you feel like esports drives those initiatives or is it more like ‘esports would benefit from this’ but it’s going to be something that the team has to designate as important first?

Kaeo: It goes in both directions. There are a lot of really compelling reasons why we want to do that kind of work. Some of the things were actually driven by the web team themselves. The people working on the HGC site were really passionate about those things. Some of the unblocking work was done by them directly and that provided some benefit to us as well. It goes both ways but it’s really cool when everyone’s excited about something like that because it starts getting some momentum.

Stephen: Varian saw some dramatic changes with his Heroics being moved to Level 4. Can you talk about the design choice there and how it might affect Heroics for other Heroes in the future?

Matt: So the big thing with Varian was that it felt like he really didn’t get his identity until Level 10. He was kind of like half a Hero and then he gets to Level 10 and it’s like, ‘okay, now I actually have my role. Now I can do what I was meant to do’. So that was a big motivator for us. We almost regretted that he had so much generic stuff going on until he got to that point. Looking back on it and having a chance to revisit it, we wanted to move out of it earlier so that you could capture your identity and start filling your role on the team earlier. Especially because around Level 4 is when the fighting starts to get really intense and Objectives start coming online so you want to be able to fit in and contribute at that point and not wait until much, much later.

Stephen: The Map Rotation for Ranked Play has remained largely unchanged recently and most players seem to think that that is a good thing. Can you talk a bit about the philosophy behind Map Rotation and what we might expect in the future?

Kaeo: We’ve been playing around with it. For a while, we didn’t do it and then we started to and we had some feedback. It’s interesting because a lot of people have varying opinions on which maps should or should not be in the rotation. So I think we’ll kind of keep playing around with it. Playing around with how long we stay with one rotation and what maps we put in. We really like having all these different Battlegrounds in the game, it really mixes things up a lot. There is a different Meta per Battleground and that’s important to us. There are Heroes that or more or less viable per Battleground and we like to mix things up like that. I think you can look for us to keep experimenting with that and trying to find a good balance.

Stephen: Any updates on Performance Based Matchmaking and when we might see it rolled out again?

Kaeo: Not the season that we’re on now but the previous season we had some challenges with our season roll. It actually wasn’t tied to Performance Based Matchmaking, there were some other underlying things that we had changed that ended up breaking and causing a lot of issues for us. As part of that, we ended up disabling Performance Based Matchmaking as we focused on getting our seasons back solid again. The season that we are on now has gone out very well. I think things are in a much better place. Now that things have stabilized and we’ve corrected some of the things that went wrong under the hood we are looking at activating Performance Based Matchmaking again. I don’t really have a timeline for it but we are really excited to get that back out. I think it is going to make a really big difference in the game.

Stephen: Under the original system, you could gain or lose up to 50 additional points based on your personal performance and players often seemed to be on the high side of that range. Given the team-based nature of Heroes, is one player’s performance, good or bad, enough to justify gaining or losing 40 or 50 points when an average win is worth about 200 points?

Kaeo: Interesting question. There’s a lot of math behind how we do those adjustments right now. It’s largely designed to get you where the game thinks you’re supposed to be. So generally when we make those types of adjustments it’s right and it’s trying to normalize you back to where we think you should be. Do you have any thoughts on it, Matt?
Matt: So one of the things that we did before we ever put it out, we had it running behind the scenes but not actually changing your stats. Like running a simulation. If it did where would you end up? Looking at that data versus where players actually ended up, it turned out that when we were running it behind the scenes it was predicting pretty accurately where players would end up quite a bit earlier than they ended up with the existing system. They didn’t actually use it on players of course because they didn’t want to mess with ranks, but just to get an idea of how accurate it was they were testing it that way. The results were really compelling and that why we decided to put it out in the first place. That’s kind of how they arrived at those values is through that testing and experimentation.

Stephen: Any update on Hanamura?

Kaeo: We’re working on it. I think we’re all excited to get it back again. From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s a really cool looking battleground that we want to get back in there. It just had a lot going on. I think it created a lot of confusion and there was a lot of debate about what was the right thing to do on that battleground at any given moment just because there was so much going on. We’ve been doing a lot of work on it in various stages of playtesting. I think it’s come a long way. We’re excited to get it back. I don’t have a timeline for you but it will be coming back.

Stephen: When it comes to something like that I guess the more complicated things get the harder it is to pinpoint what is the purpose of this or what is the directed playstyle. Do you feel like it’s more about paring down in terms of what we want to the map to be or do you like that more complicated, organized chaos if you will?

Kaeo: I think a big goal for us is that we do want it to be pretty clear what you’re supposed to do on a map. If there’s too much going on it can be pretty rough to make decisions. Should I be pushing? Should I go to the Objective? Should I be mercing? It’s good to have decisions but if there are too many competing all at once it gets chaotic and it’s hard to get the team together. That’s really what we want, for it to be clear where your team should go. You can have that big team fight, the awesome moment. We’re not trying to take decisions away but there’s a sweet spot there that we’ve found with some of our other battlegrounds. There are a good number of decisions where you feel like you have choices to make but it’s also not hard to understand what you should be doing with your team.

Stephen: You guys have come out with some really awesome and creative Brawls recently. The players seem to especially be enjoying the PVE Brawls like Escape from Braxis and Deadman’s Stand. Is there any chance that these might be added as custom games or could we at some point see like a full-blown PVE game mode?

Kaeo: This has been a cool experiment for us. Brawls are a really neat place that we can play around with ideas and mess with the game in ways that we wouldn’t be able to just bring out and change a core gameplay mode. I want to have us keep using Brawls as that place to get a feel for these kinds of things and it’s really about reactions from the community. It was really awesome seeing the reaction from our first PVE Brawl and Deadman’s Stand is live now. That stuff really informs where we want to go with this stuff. Again, it’s about prioritization. At its core, our game is a PVP game that we’re making still. But it’s really cool to see what people are interested in doing with the Heroes and exploring them and experiencing them in a different light. I’m excited to see where we go with it.
Matt: When we first started on those Brawls it was kind of scary because we designed the game completely around PVP. We had no idea how it was going to feel with these characters trying to do a PVE match up so it was a pleasant surprise to us to see that was pretty fun.

Stephen: Yeah, I think it has been great. At Blizzcon 2016 there was a slide that broke down participation percentage of the different game modes. Do you happen to have information along those lines that you could share with us?

Kaeo: Sounds like a Travis presentation. I don’t have anything like that off the top of my head but the distribution stays pretty consistent with that generally.

Stephen: The team has said before that Quick Match is supposed to be sort of like the wild west, where anything goes and there aren’t a bunch of rules when it comes to team comps. Are you guys still happy with the philosophy or might we see some tweaks to QM to see more traditional comps?

Matt: We are hearing player feedback a lot and I think it is still a really important value to us that Quick Match is that place where you can play the Hero you really want to play. It’s awesome that I can be like, ‘Hey, it’s release day for a Hero. I can queue up and maybe have to wait a little bit but I get to actually play the Hero I feel like playing’. But we are mindful of the feedback and we have been making adjustments in terms of the rules for how Quick Matches are formed to try to improve how enjoyable those matches are. I think that is something we are going to keep working on going forward.
Kaeo: It’s that balance though where we don’t want to dictate a meta so specifically that you can’t go in there and experiment and have fun experiencing things. I think sometimes things come out of that where players go, ‘Wow, I didn’t think that was viable but it was and it was fun’. We want to find that balance between having it be broken in there where you’re just like, ‘This doesn’t work, I just lose inherently’ or you’re like, ‘That worked, that was fun. Let’s do more of that’.

Stephen: So that like creative feel.

Kaeo: Yeah.

Stephen: So for the last question we’ll bring it back to Heroes because of course, we are here for Deckard Cain. Has the Hero design process evolved over the years? Have there been many changes as far as getting Heroes out the door? In conjunction with that, are Heroes typically release right after you have them done or do you maybe package a few and work on a bunch at the same time?

Matt: We are working on multiple Heroes at the same time. To give you an idea of what the process looks like time-wise. We start out with our big get-together meeting and go through the Heroes lore and backstory and jam on what ideas we think would be cool for their kit. The Hero designer will go off with this blank sheet of paper and dream up a kit for them. We’ll put it in the game and start playtesting it. Then there’s a period of several months where we are just playing the Hero like crazy trying different ideas. We’ll start putting their talents in. This is probably the first third to half of the process and then we are pretty settled in on their kit at that point. From there the focus shifts to a lot of polish stuff. Making the art and sound as good as possible. Balance. We do a ton of playtesting for that too. A Hero is usually pretty solid about halfway through the process. From there it is just getting that last 10% in to make them as good as possible. So usually we’ll have several Heroes at any given time that we are working on in various stages. They’ll be in playtest together. It’ll be crazy. And then reworks go in too. It almost gets traffic jammed sometimes. It’s something where we do usually have a little bit of wiggle room, where we can move things around if we need to. It’s a cool process. We’ve gotten pretty good at that side of it. In terms of things like how we approach like talent design and how we think about which mechanics are healthy, that’s definitely something that learning over the years has changed. We work a lot more closely with our live design and balance team now too to inform us on what mechanics we should be putting in the game and what’s healthy.
Kaeo: All those learnings go back to our Hero reworks as well. We’re taking all that knowledge, not just for the new Heroes, who are getting better and better, but we’re also consistently going back to our existing Heroes as well. Making sure that we are leveling them up and taking all the great stuff that we have figured out along this path of making seventy plus Heroes and applying them back the Heroes that we did early on.

Stephen: That’s awesome. I want to thank both of you guys for your time today. It’s been really awesome, lots of great information. I hope you enjoy PAX!

Matt: For sure, thank you so much for coming out.


JR Cook

JR has been writing for fan sites since 2000 and has been doing Blizzard Exclusive fansites since 2003. He helped co-found BlizzPro in 2013. You can hear JR every week talk about Hearthstone on the Well Met Podcast published on iTunes.

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