With the HGC League’s Western Clash about to begin, Whitemane as the newest hero, and the Horde and Alliance duking it out in Alterac Pass, Heroes of the Storm is gaining more attention than ever.
But how did it all start? And how has the game been evolving in terms of heroes, player-base, and even lore since then? CGMagazine interviewed Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm Production Director Kaeo Milker and Senior Game Designer Matt Villers, to find out.
When the developers of Heroes of the Storm first started making the game, it was actually a custom map for Starcraft 2. The team really just wanted to showcase the work of their editors and launching ability with the first debut in Blizzcon 2010.
“We were all excited about that as well, but it was like this groundswell of everyone like, ‘This is so cool! I want to have Thrall and Raynor together, like that sounds amazing,’” Milker said.
“I think that excitement was internal and external, and it just grew into the point where we showed it next year again, and it was again supposed to just be a custom map at that point for Starcraft 2, but then we made the decision to kind of splinter off and make its own game about it,” he said.
From that point, Milker’s team grew from a few people to an entire team working on Heroes of the Storm. A strong motivator for its artists and designers was how they were already excited to play around with different Blizzard game worlds that they already know and love.
Historically,Heroes of the Storm has been about the gameplay. It’s been about getting in, fighting, and even to the point that a tutorial has Uther telling players to not think about it too much and just jump in and play it. However, with the passion and knowledge the team brings, Heroes of the Storm has created some really interesting character interactions over the years. It has gotten to the point that the team is now delving more into those interactions and start exploring the Nexus itself.“
Why are these characters here? What are they fighting for? These are ideas that many players may be asking themselves along the way, but we haven’t ever really provided any solid answers to,” Milker said.
This year, the game has already started digging into this, with the comic called Rise of the Raven Lord. The Raven Lord is the overseer of the Raven Court, which is the area in the Nexus where Cursed Hollow and Towers of Doom take place.
However, what happens to characters like Thrall and Raynor? DoesHeroes of the Storm lore affect them within their own universes in terms of story? Milker told us that his team is largely telling the story of the Nexus, and the characters who have been brought into the cosmic storm will have parts to play in that. However, it will be specific to Heroes of the Storm and the lore they are creating for it.
“We bring these characters in, and sometimes we might bring a version in — like we’ll bring Thrall in and that’s the Warcraft 3 version of Thrall, and not the WoW version of him that you’ve seen most recently. So they’re getting brought in from specific moments in time,” Milker said.
The game has also been doing things with their skins, where they explore Nexus specific lore using them. “So we’re kind of this fun play space that’s separate from our normal game worlds and that’s unique to Heroes of the Storm,” Milker added.
When there are all of these elements that have been built into the game, and the people behind them know about the different characters — but with the characters being reinterpreted — it lets the team explore their favourites and their own creations as well.
Gameplay and Heroes
Heroes of the Storm continues to evolve in terms of gameplay, too. More things have been added to the game’s user interface, hero kits have been reworked, and new abilities have been added over the years.
“We’re constantly revisiting things that we’ve done in the past, and then we’re doing it pretty regularly with reworks, so we’ll go back to heroes that maybe came out a year ago, two years ago, and when they do come up, we will add new abilities or reshift shift around their kit just to make them benefit from all we’ve learned from the last three years of adding new stuff to this game,” Milker said.
“So I would encourage players who haven’t played, or even players who haven’t played for a while to come back, because it’s awesome.”
One of the lessons the team has learned along the way is the process of creating better gameplay. To Senior Game Designer Matt Villers, this was integral to having a good time while playing as your favourite heroes.
“So probably the biggest example that sticks out for me is initially, we had this concept where it was going to look likeStarcraft and have the distortion blur. In Starcraft, you have a whole bunch of units, usually, and there are Banshees together, and it’s easier to see the blur. Every race has tools to deal with it, and it turned out in Heroes of the Storm that it actually became more of an eye test,” Villers said.
“People were there changing their settings to try to make the shimmer as visible as possible. It wasn’t the great kind of gameplay that you want,” he added.
During that time, Villers also wanted information to be clearer so the team could make decisions around it. So they started having regular meetings where they talked about areas of the game, gone through them, and figured out what things have been learned over time and how they can do better.
“We did that with quest talents, actually, over the past year, so that’s something we’ve been kind of revisiting and trying to be smarter about and making sure we’re doing fun quests that don’t get in the way of playing your hero,” Villers said.
One of the questions that the Heroes of the Storm team always ask themselves when they set out to design heroes is: ‘Why would players pick this hero?’
When thinking about creating a new hero, they make sure they introduce something special about them so that they would stand out. The timing of each hero release is also an important part of the process, especially when they want to put somebody in the game, but it might feel a little bit redundant to the players.
“Usually, the way we deal with it is we will go, ‘You know, we’re going to set that aside for now, and see if we can find an opportunity to do that later.’ And that’s actually something we did pretty recently with Fenix, where we originally wanted to do quite a bit earlier, but we had some concerns about how he might overlap with other characters,” Villers said.
When there are heroes that are not performing as well as the team would like them to, they would also look at what they’ve learned from newer heroes.
“Maybe there’s something that a previous hero needed that we didn’t realize at the time, but now that we’ve done some new heroes, we kind of better understand what those pieces are that are important, and can go back and try to apply that knowledge to the other heroes,” Villers added.
Of course, feedback from the team and the players add to this. Before something gets added into the game, the team is playing it with the players right away. They then take what they’ve learned from those sessions and tweak the game.
“A big part of this is this idea of constant evolution,” Milker said. “I think we really took a big step this year. We’ve created content that is first to come out of this breakneck pace, and I’m really proud of our team, because we came from makingStarcraft 2and Warcraft 3, which were box games where we would ship a game, and maybe two or three years later, we’d ship an expansion. But in between, there would be maybe some patches, but there wasn’t like this ongoing delivery of stuff to the game or heroes.”
ESports and the Future
The Heroes of the Storm team is also very passionate about eSports. Originally, with the game, eSports wasn’t the prime goal. They knew it was team-oriented and so put a lot of emphasis on teamwork into the game. However, when eSports started evolving alongside the game, the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship(HGC) was created.
“There’s a really consistent schedule of really quality professional matches of these games to watch,” Milker said. And so it’s a very serious part of it, and a lot of the work that we do is making sure we’re conscious of the highest level of flavour for pros down to people like me playing golf.”
As for the more casual players, the hallmark of all Blizzard games comes into play. “It’s easy to learn, difficult to master, and it’s really important that we have that, because our games are accessible to tons of people,” Milker said. “And Heroes is a free-to-play game, so even more people — you don’t have to buy it, you can just jump in and play it.”
In Heroes of the Storm, players can even choose the versus A.I mode and have a good time, never having to deal with the competitive side of it all. They can hop into Quick Match and simply enjoy the skins of their favourite characters, or even fight their way to Grandmaster and make their way into HGC.
The beauty of Heroes of the Storm is that it’s a celebration of all things Blizzard. It brings in characters from different worlds where they can get up to shenanigans with heroes they could have otherwise never interacted with outside of the Nexus.
Both Milker and Villers had a lot of fun doing crossovers so far, and are excited to introduce the Nexus to more of them in the future.
“You can look for us to continue doing these kinds of things, because it’s just a fun celebration,” Milker said. “It’s a good way for all of us to rally behind one of our games for a little while the heroes celebrate it — and [have the Nexus] be the place that we celebrate together.”