Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with game director Dustin Browder and discuss the past, present and future of Heroes of the Storm. While I had expected to learn some super-secret facts about the game, what I ended up discovering was the thought process behind its development. Sure, I did get to hear about a few small changes coming to the game, which I’ll go into later, but the biggest surprise for me was how personal the success of Heroes of the Storm actually is to Browder.
Upcoming Heroes of the Storm Features
We’ll start with the straightforward topics and things that players can expect in the relatively near future. Haunted Mines will be coming back into the map rotation. Currently, there’s no set date, but the development team is messing with it in order to make it more competitively viable. The biggest problem with Haunted Mines was that it only required each team to focus on a single lane in a battleground that was already quite small. “We like Haunted Mines. We didn’t always like how it played, but we think there’s stuff we can do to fix it,” Browder added.
Speaking of maps, unfortunately, there is no Warcraft themed map or event in the works. However, Browder does hope that eventually there will be at least one themed map for every game, but it doesn’t seem to be a priority right now with so many large changes on the horizon. Additionally, the team doesn’t want a repeat of the Eternal Conflict event where so much content for a single game is pushed out at once. Even though the community didn’t seem to mind the event, he mentioned that it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience for the development team due to the lack of variety.
For those players looking forward to the Arena game mode it is still coming, however, it probably won’t be in the same exact format that was displayed at BlizzCon 2015. The feedback and hype surrounding Arena was pretty strong after BlizzCon, but the team wants to instead use it as a testing ground for exciting new ideas. What players can expect is something similar to Tavern Brawl from Hearthstone, or any of the other shifting weekly game modes found in other MOBAs. One week might be the Arena mode we previously experienced and next week could be ARAM.
Heroes, Balance, and Feedback
Now on to the slightly deeper topics. The way Browder and his team decides the next heroes to be introduced into the game is probably a little more complicated than you would think. They don’t simply reach into a hat and draw out character names or not create Kel’Thuzad because everyone keeps asking for him. Instead, “It’s very complicated. We look at what we just did, what we think we’re doing later, we look at art, we look at universes, we look at roles.”
Apparently, the team already has a list of 200 potential characters to add to Heroes of the Storm. So, if you’ve been spamming your favorite Warcraft or StarCraft heroes on the Blizzard official Twitter for the past year and think you’re being ignored, chances are that they’ve already got that hero on their list. There are so many things to consider when choosing the next hero to develop.
He mentioned that things like meta requirements, having appropriate art, and making sure the important names are eventually added into the game, all play a role in deciding the next set of character releases. Furthermore, releasing one or two new heroes generally won’t solve all of the game’s problems or shortcomings. “You can’t achieve all of the goals. You can’t make a StarCraft hero who is a support, who fixes this problem in the meta, who is this shape in the art and is not a monster,” he added. Apparently Browder has received some flak from the design team for creating too many monster-like heroes, but really “how many humans with staves do we need?”
One of the biggest surprises was how personally Browder takes feedback about Heroes of the Storm, especially from social media and everyday gamers. When asked exactly how much social media feedback plays into his decision making, Browder responded:
“I don’t know how to quantify that. Everybody’s feedback ultimately goes into your brain. There’s no avoiding it. I’ve certainly had feedback from my team that I consider Twitter too much. They worry about how much it influences my directions.”
This isn’t just positive feedback either. In fact, comments that some might consider abusive are taken into consideration as well. According to Browder, “What I’ve found is the people who are the most angry are often the most passionate. There is a chance they’re just trolling me, but I have to assume they’re all real users who are just really angry.” Most people don’t go on Twitter or game forums if they don’t actually care and he understands this from personal experiences as well.
Balancing heroes isn’t an easy thing, however, and more characters means additional complication. Even if the community comments about certain talents or characters being overpowered, the decision to make changes usually comes down to the data. People will say that a certain talent isn’t any good, but the win rate is above 50% and vice versa. The only type of criticism that he doesn’t find helpful are vague statements, such as “I don’t like your matchmaking.” Instead, Browder wants to know the specific problem instead of a vague generalization, “I need to know what I can do to make you happy.”
“It’s very easy for a game to become highly conservative and closed off as it advances. I really want to hope that five years from when we’re working on Heroes we’re still able to surprise ourselves and surprise the community with what we’re doing whether it’s battleground work or hero design work or an update to a rank system.”
The future goals for Heroes of the Storm are very similar to its current ones. It’s about building a dedicated community but not excluding new players. It’s about keeping the game exciting and unpredictable. But mostly, it’s about making the players happy.
“The reality is a free-to-play game only does well if it has a large, happy audience. That’s actually all that matters. Everything just happens naturally after that. If you try to manipulate it, you destroy it. You only get an eSports out of a big community. We only get to support our streamers with a big community,” said Browder.
This is why assumptions, such as releasing overpowered heroes to increase profits, generally aren’t true. Blizzard isn’t willing to damage its reputation to make an extra $500,000 by purposely making characters strong on release. In case you forgot, Activision Blizzard purchased a mobile IP for nearly $6 billion last year. Of course, they might be attempting to squeeze the last few drops out of World of Warcraft with microtransactions, but producing games that last 10+ years has always been the company’s goal.
Players also seem to forget that there are often just as many underpowered heroes and overpowered. Characters like Artanis, Lt. Morales, and Dehaka were clearly not very strong on launch and there are still many that could use buffs or reworks. The biggest reason for balance discrepancy is that a few days after a heroes release provides way more data than the development team could ever personally test, which is why there are usually multiple tweaks after a character officially enters the Nexus.
Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Heroes of the Storm, Interview, MOBA
“It’s not about short-term gain ever. It’s always about the game’s quality, it’s always about supporting the community that we have,” Browder concluded. “If we start bleeding it with short term little things it’s going to damage it, and then where are we going to be in two years?”