Most MOBAs tend to break just after they’ve had an update, at the hands of their players. The Heroes of the Storm dev team like to do it themselves, beforehand. Consider Cho’gall, the two-headed ogre whose dual personality requires two players to partner up – and at the other end, the three characters controlled simultaneously as the Lost Vikings. Look at Murky, squished in an instant, useless in the wrong hands, but just as quickly returned to the field at a spawn point of his choosing. Each hero a game unto themselves, the stuff of overambitious mods.
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There’s this sense of gleeful abandon to all of Heroes of the Storm’s character designs – one that isn’t evident in other games of its type. So what’s in the water at HotS HQ?
Game director Dustin Browder traces the trickle of inspiration back to a single design decision – the abandonment of an item shop of the kind seen in traditional MOBAs in favour of a more flexible talent system.
The problem with Blizzard’s nascent item shop became suddenly apparent when the Heroes team started work on Abathur – not so much a square peg as an amorphous, pulsating bag of zerg DNA. Nothing created for him within the stricture of the shop system worked – so the team ripped it up and unfolded a new plan.
“Each hero is self-contained,” says Browder. “So it can be as bizarre as it wants to be and it doesn’t cause ripple problems throughout the rest of the play experience. It just exists in its own bucket – its balance, its internal logic problems. That was hugely powerful for us.”
Don’t forget: the core of the Heroes of the Storm team had come from StarCraft. Though the changes made to the seminal eSports RTS now are careful and conservative, the design decisions that put it there were born from an excess of ideas – its three races “almost three different games smashed together”. Blizzard even coined a design philosophy – “concentrate the cool” – around it.
“It was a very badly explained design philosophy,” admits Browder. “Everybody misinterprets [it] a thousand different ways. The idea was, ‘Take your good idea and put it just on one part of the game. Just beat it in there, make sure each thing has as much cool stuff in it as possible.’”
For Heroes of the Storm, Browder does his utmost to empower hero designers to build characters as different from each other as possible.
“We need to stand behind them and encourage them the whole way and say, ‘Look, everyone is going to tell you you can’t and you shouldn’t – we’re going to tell you you can and you should,’” he says. “‘We’re going to cheer you on as you struggle through this incredibly difficult process of trying to create something truly new and unique and exciting.’”
That process can see failure follow failure, as with the creation of new gnomish time lord Chromie.
“Hey, we could really use another mage,” game designer Kent-Erik Hagman was told. “Can you jam one out?”
Chromie’s design team promptly fell into a pattern of testing and burning ideas, one after the other.
“Not a single ability from my first pitch survived,” Hagman remembers. “Everything [came about] through playtesting and iteration. We landed with this long-range artillery and made it her thing: she’s the super-long-range character who pokes people down.”
The artillery is a Sand Blast ability – a devastating mortar strike that launches a full second after activation. Blizzard knew they wanted players to miss, to fail to predict where their targets were going to be. In that frustration lies Chromie’s magic.
“I know it sounds really weird and negative,” says Hagman. “But when you miss with an ability and it’s clear why you missed, it’s actually a really positive feeling. It says, ‘I can get better with this character’. If I’m in a game and I land every skill shot with a hero because it’s easy, I won’t have much incentive to keep playing as them. I don’t feel where I went wrong.”
Upcoming hero Medivh, out June 14th, was a completely different but equally strange story. A corrupted guardian with his roots in Warcraft III, he was first envisioned as a mage who “just hulks out with power”.
“It’s kind of historic for hardcore, old-school Blizzard fans,” explains Hagman. “[But] we’ve kind of done that story – a character that gets corrupt with power.”
Instead, after learning the art team would tackle Medivh in his ‘mysterious prophet’ guise, the designers decided he would be a repentant old man.
“It was like, ‘That’s really fresh, that’s something we haven’t done,’” recalls Hagman. “There’s a guy who’s not going to like killing everybody. As a designer I was really excited, so I labelled him as support, where he’s shielding allies and being protective and proactive.”
Beyond that, naturally, Hagman wanted a game-breaking skill. Medivh can take the form of a raven.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world but it’s also completely mind-blowing to think that this guy can fly,” he says “We [also] had this older portal idea that we wanted to get into the game, and it was like peanut butter and jelly. We really ended up designing everything around those two things.”
As with all of Heroes of the Storm’s strangest creations, these celebrations of the outlandish and unprecedented, Medivh is tricky to wrap your brain around – but has the potential to be wildly potent when mastered.
“If your team doesn’t use your portals they’re doing nothing,” warns Hagman. “Medivh could totally be the type of hero who has a 38% win-rate, and then 55%… Believe me, we will be ready to react if Medivh gets too powerful.”