Coming up on its third year since launch, Blizzard’s take on the MOBA genre, Heroes of the Storm, has seen success due to how approachable the game is, as well as the developers’ continued support with new content and heroes. In fact, I had the chance to play the latest addition to the hero pool, Diablo‘s Deckard Cain, which I thoroughly enjoyed thanks to the clever uses of his abilities.
At this year’s PAX East, I spoke to Heroes of the Storm Game Designer Matt Villers and Production Director Kaeo Milker about Deckard Cain, the upcoming comic book series based on the game, and more.
Michael: Deckard Cain is probably the most prolific character in Diablo. When Heroes of the Storm first released, his absence seemed a bit weird. Was he someone you have always planned to bring to the roster?
Matt Villers: Deckard has been someone we’ve been wanting to do for awhile. It’s just a matter of how you actually approach that challenge because it is a big challenge. He is not a fighter; everyone else we bring in is these legendary warriors and they have battlefield experience. Deckard is the narrator, he’s the wise old man, he tells stories, he guides you on quests, he identifies your items, but you never see him fight. By looking at him, you don’t really expect him to be someone who would fight.
We wanted to take on that challenge of bringing that character and making him feel appropriate in the Nexus with all these great heroes. We were waiting for the right moment to be ready to tackle that challenge and really do him justice.
M: Specifically for Deckard but it could extend to other characters as well; how did you go about creating the move set for him?
MV: I feel like Deckard was one of the biggest challenges we’ve had to tackle. It’s always fun going through that process of coming up with the abilities the heroes. We all get in a room together and go through their background, their lore, what powers they’re known for, and things like that. That will give us room to have a discussion and see what ideas might be cool to do for them. The designers assigned to the hero will sit down and draw the kit and come up with the base gameplay that we think will work well for them.
For Deckard, we actually started out with a really heavily.Diablo inspired kit. We had the healing potions pretty early on: healing potions are in Diablo, he is going to be a healer, so this works. We had this thing where he could identify enemy heroes which was kind of weird because it would channel on them, reveal them, and reduce their armor. He had this thing where he could give the Nephalem Glory buff to an ally — by the way, he still has as a talent at level 13 — that was originally part of his base kit.
Then we were trying all these whacky ideas for heroics. Maybe he could use heroics from other Diablo heroes or some kind of angelic magic. What we found is that a lot of these things we tried felt forceful and destructive or weird. The feedback we’d get on his abilities is that this doesn’t feel like something Deckard would do. So, we kind of revisited a lot of that.
Also, for things that weren’t working like “Identify Ray”, it’s a fun idea but in practice doesn’t work. You’re channeling on someone — which is a really risky thing to do in Heroes of the Storm — so you want a big reward but we didn’t want Deckard blowing people up. So, you’re not really getting enough out of the risk you’re taking.
But after a few rounds of revision, the big thing we found is that anything that was clever and strategic fit him really well. Like “Healing Potion” right out of the gate stuck; part of that was the fact that as Deckard, I can be clever and put the healing potions down in advance where my allies are going to need the healing; I can maybe cluster healing potions in one spot or spread them out; I could put healing potions in multiple lanes at once and support allies all over the place. You really feel like, instead of being forceful, you’re outwitting your enemies and just being clever; that is what Deckard does. That really ended up working well for us.
M: You also revealed you’ll be focusing on storytelling this year, as well as a comic book that is releasing later this month. What are some of the ways you’ll accomplish this? Will there be anything in-game or will it mostly be outside of that like the comic book?
Kaeo Milker: We sort of touch on it in a number of places. If you look back at the way we release things for the game, usually we’ll release everything from machinima trailers that will be cinematic sometimes, to write-ups and in-game things like the flavor text we put on skins.
As we look at the rest of this year, we’ll be weaving this into all types of media. Every chance we get, we’ll be trying to touch on this along the way as we are releasing information about the game.
M: Do you think there could be something like Overwatch‘s Retribution event in Heroes of the Storm?
KM: We may look for opportunities to do that. I don’t have any of the specifics on what we would do there yet. Historically, we weren’t really trying to tell a cohesive story for the rest of this year. We really think of it as a season this initial year starting out with this Rise of the Raven comic later this month. We really try to delve into the realms, the realm lords and what the Nexus is.
M: For the comic books, are you thinking about expanding it to different realms, not just the Raven Lord?
KM: We’ll see how it goes. We’ll start out with that — it’s a digital comic so everyone will have access to it — but we’ll see. We want feedback on it too and see what our players think.
M: To me, Heroes of the Storm has always been a good MOBA for beginners that is fun but is still something that has the capacity to be competitive. How do you strike that balance?
MV: In general, we have this design value of easy to learn, difficult to master. That is very much what we’re trying to capture with Heroes of the Storm itself. We want to make it easy to get into; the information is clear, it’s intuitive, it just makes sense when you pick it up. At the same time, there is a lot of room to grow. Maybe I’ve played a 100 hours with this hero and I’m still learning things or discovering new ways I can play them.
You can see a really skilled player and they will shine in a way that someone who has just picked it up might not. But someone who has just picked it up can still have fun and feel powerful.
M: With this being the third year since its release, do you have any other big future plans for Heroes of the Storm?
KM: I think it’s all about evolution. We’ve worked really hard to really change the way our team works; that way, we can deliver a lot of content very frequently. This is a really new thing for us. Our team has worked on StarCraft II, Warcraft III, and original StarCraft, so we were a boxed product team where we worked on something for many years, released it and then went away for a couple of years, then release an expansion.
Now, as you see, our patch schedule is insane; I think we patched 57 times last year which is nuts. But there’s so much content; we’re always tweaking things. Everything is open for improvement. It doesn’t really matter what’s in-game or what’s new in the game; we’re always looking at it on how we can make this game better.
So much of our focus is about that; we’ve been doubling down on that recently with our hero re-works. It’s not just about bringing new heroes into the game, it’s about looking at the 70 plus heroes that we’ve already added and taking all of this new knowledge and information that we gathere while making heroes for the past three-plus years and applying that to things that we’ve already done before. Again, we’re looking for every opportunity to make it better.
M: Who have been some of the heroes who have been deemed overpowered and needed to be re-worked recently?
MV: We usually don’t when someone is overpowered. With that, we’ll usually just adjust numbers.
Generally, for re-works, we’ll look to see if there are heroes that feel like they have been left behind based on things that we’ve learned with the newer heroes that we’ve done.
One of the examples I can throw out is with supports. We’ve been getting a little bit more involved with the decisions you make as a support. You can kind of see this with Deckard and the different ways he can use healing potions, Alexstrasza and the different ways she can use her heals, and Ana who has this really engaging skillshot-healing gameplay. We don’t want it to be like playing whack-a-mole with the lowest health bars.
Now, we’ve recently gone back with Malfurion and gave him some extra layers to his gameplay just so you can get more satisfaction out of the decisions you’re making and you have more opportunities to distinguish yourself and show off your skill if you can play him well.
M: So it’s not necessarily about taking an “overpowered” character and making them weaker but taking a character that may be considered weak and bringing them up?
MV: It not even necessarily about being weaker. Basically, you can separate it out into balance, which is how the numbers are tuned, and gameplay, which is how the hero actually works mechanically.
Usually, for re-works, we’re looking at the mechanical side. Sometimes the mechanics are holding back the balance; for example, when we did our stealth re-work, we almost couldn’t put those characters in a place where they were balanced because they would feel really frustrating to play against. So, by bringing down the frustration that created space for us to adjust the balance.
M: Is there any chance Heroes of the Storm will come to consoles or is it more catered to PC?
MV: Our focus is really on PC, it has been from the beginning. There would probably be a lot of changes needed to make the gameplay work on console. No plans in that regard right now.
Heroes of the Storm is available now for PC. If you want to try Deckard Cain yourself, he is available in the Public Test Realm until April 23.