Heroes of the Storm is the valet treatment of fan service – the drunken, 3am who’d-win-in-a-fight conversation taken to its big-budget conclusion.
But that sort of character clash doesn’t naturally lend itself to the subtle balance of the MOBA – nor to the kind of art coherence you could recognise in a screenshot. A team at Blizzard have spent years squinting at concept art, scrapping prototype skillsets, and negotiating the entrenched opinions of fans and fellow developers.
Here’s how three worlds were introduced to each other and, against the odds, persuaded to play nice.
When work first began on Heroes of the Storm, it wasn’t Heroes of the Storm. It was Blizzard DOTA, a showcase mod map for StarCraft II that the company intended to give away. Even then, however, its nascent team had an idea of who its tentpole characters would be: Arthas; Illidan; Raynor; Diablo.
“Diablo was a little tricky,” recalled senior artist Phill Gonzales, “because Diablo III wasn’t out yet so we couldn’t reveal that appearance. We did the Diablo II version – we couldn’t spring their surprise before they got to do it.”
It was the first inkling of the difficult dance the developers would have to learn. More than any other team at Blizzard, Heroes of the Storm’s are beholden to the rest of the studio – expected to keep an eye on happenings across WoW, StarCraft, Diablo and Hearthstone and accommodate them in their work.
For each new hero, they start by gathering a pile of concept art from around Blizzard’s Irvine office. And occasionally, Gonzales takes that pile to fellow senior artist Luke Mancini to say: “Nothing works”.
Tyrande is a case in point. The pointy-eared priestess rode into Warcraft III in bright-blue armour on the back of a tiger. But in WoW, without a unique model, she sported a generic night elf’s white dress – which the dev team eventually converted into an even more ornate ceremonial gown.
“It worked, but we’re a very kinetic, combat-oriented game,” said Gonzales. “We wanted her to be going back towards that Wonder Woman, amazon kind of presence the night elf women have.”
The dress was fixed in WoW lore – the subject of years of cosplay and card art. Mancini ultimately compromised with a mixture of cloth and heavy-duty armour that satisfied both sides of Tyrande’s background.
It’s helped that the Heroes team have been happy to freeze their characters in certain periods and celebrate them that way – preserving Diablo II’s villain as he was, and recapturing the Thrall of Warcraft III. In fact, there’s a reason Heroes so often returns to the look of 2002’s finest RTS – its team is packed with Reign of Chaos and Frozen Throne veterans.
“They’re just like, man, Thrall’s always gonna be this,” said Gonzales, affecting the gruff voice of a Warcraft old-timer. “And we’re like, okay! Put that plate [armour] on. We’re going there.
“Other times it’s saying, that’s the most iconic look, that’s what people want.”
Upset is often avoided with recourse to alternate skins, which provide the “liberating” possibility of jumping back and forth between eras. If fans want a Master Thrall who invokes WoW, they can have that. And if Blizzard’s artists fancy drawing a topless Tychus from his prison days, there’s space for that too.
Once the aesthetic’s sorted, of course, there are tough design decisions to be made. With any Diablo character, the team inherit an entire talent tree they need to boil down into a handful of skills – while taking care to incorporate the most memorable.
“People have expectations,” said Mancini. “Kael’thas has a phoenix, he has pyroblast, he has flamestrike, and that’s what people want to see.”
Thrall proved troublesome. His original kit found him dropping totems and turning into a wolf. Very shamanistic – but not particularly Thrall.
“We really made a big stand to say, we want elemental attacks, we want a lot of this classic chain lightning stuff that we saw in Warcraft III,” said Gonzales. “That’s what we want out of Thrall. It’s a very different branch of the shaman tree from WoW.”
In the end, the team created a new shaman in Rehgar to take on those restorative abilities – so that Thrall was freed up to be an elemental powerhouse.
There’s constant struggle to find skillsets for new heroes that don’t overlap with those already in the game. Johanna joined a Heroes of the Storm already chock-a with warriors – including another Diablo fighter, Sonya – and Blizzard had to work extra hard to ensure she didn’t step on anyone else’s steel-plated boots.
When the team brought the Butcher over for the upcoming Eternal Conflict update, meanwhile, they reduced the complexity of Diablo’s “authentic” palette, exaggerating and simplifying the demon’s bulk in a way they were happy with.
“But then you put him next to [Warcraft terror] Stitches and it’s like, oh God, you guys are the same dude,” said Gonzales. “You’re big with a chopping axe and a hook and you’re covered in bloody stitches and you borrowed so many abilities from each other.”
The design team managed to separate the two into distinct roles – tank and melee assassin – and the artists worked to preserve each of their identities.
“Thankfully one of them is red and one of them is blue,” said Gonzales. “And now we can never do a red Stitches and never do a blue Butcher.”
Something Gonzales polices hard is scale. Thrall’s the warchief, and so needed to be one of the larger, more impressive orcs. Rehgar had to be shorter – and the Blademaster could only be tall if he was also skinny.
“There’s all these kind of factors that I’m very adamant about,” he said. “They do have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Doing the history of every character justice isn’t easy when there’s a game to be balanced. Not all heroes are created equal – and flattening out a prime evil like Diablo, Al’Diabalos, the Lord of Terror, entails a massive nerf.
“You have to manifest a weakness in them that seems fair,” said Gonzales. “We do push and pull to figure out where that feels the best – because we do have to short-change some of those guys when they go from boss monster to just another hero on the map.”
The team fought to keep the power and size of Azmodan, another hellbeast and former boss, and compensated by doubling-down on his key disadvantage – the fact that he can be taken advantage of when caught.
At the other end of scale, you have Murky. How can it be viable for a baby murloc, repeatedly wiped out before re-hatching, to take down Thrall?
“You have to work really hard to create the sense that it’s okay – that even this character who’s a complete idiotic disaster could be a problem for Thrall,” said Gonzales. “I always think it’s awesome when he accomplishes that. If he’s really good and he’s lucky, he can do it.”
Others simply can’t be shoehorned into any traditional MOBA playstyle. StarCraft’s Abathur was better suited to the backline than battling to collect XP – and so the swarm-ling geneticist became a catalyst for the shared XP system that now underpins the entire game.
And then there are some Blizzard characters, like humongous lava dragon Deathwing, that it’s difficult to imagine sharing a screen with anybody else. Understandably, the Heroes team want to take their time with them – finding breathing space in the game’s release schedule so that both developers and players can get their heads around the strangeness. The only released example to date are the Lost Vikings, who introduced a split control scheme.
What they haven’t done is abandoned any fan-favourites outright.
“We have an enormous list, and a lot of this is when, not if,” said Mancini. “We look at what the game needs right now, and there are definitely characters who would be more challenging to work on. We don’t necessarily want to do too many of those in a row.”
The work goes on; by the time Heroes of the Storm has a roster to rival League of Legends, you imagine the team will want to return to the beginning and update their creations one-by-one. But Mancini is satisfied that his game does something that none other from Blizzard has: epitomise the studio’s style.
“Obviously Diablo has a very different aesthetic to Warcraft, but there are certain underpinnings to that – the exaggeration and the stylisation that we’ve really tried to bring together and keep consistent across the characters,” he said.
“We’ll get people to a point where it stays true to their characters and is still recognisable. That’s one of the most exciting things about working on the art team – getting to work with all these different IPs and making sure everyone fits in.”