I am just now getting in the huge genre that is the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA). MOBAs and the idea of eSports is something that's been growing within our industry. League of Legends boasts 27 million daily players, with 7.5 million playing concurrently during peak hours. DotA 2 peaked at 825,000 players today. Everyone is making their own MOBA because it's that big.
My problem is MOBA games are played primarily online. There's a general lack of smooth on-ramps for new players; you jump into the deep end or you don't jump. You need to do research on characters and item loadouts. You need to understand the specific terminology behind the genre as a whole and each title's specific permutations. When you go online, not being prepared means suffering the fire from your fellow players.
My MOBA education has been a slow process, but one game that's helped is Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm, which strips out some of the more complex aspects of the genre and streamlines others. Don't understand anything about the genre? Blizzard has created a helpful tutorial to ease you in. You don't need to worry about item loadouts because every character has a simple branching talent tree. Worried about honing your skills online? No problem, there's a mode that lets you play against AI players. The game's been immensely helpful in understanding creeps, lanes, and pushing; Heroes of the Storm is my MOBA gateway.
At PAX East, I sat down with Heroes of the Storm director Dustin Browder to gain more insight about the game and its development.
USgamer: One rather unique part of Heroes of the Storm is every map has an objective. Not only are the objectives important to winning, but they also provide casual players with something to do that's not directly competitive. How did your team land on your implemntation of Battlegrounds?
Heroes of the Storm game director Dustin Browder: We learned this from Starcraft. Did you play much Brood War?
Browder: Brood War had no matchmaking. You just picked a map and played. You offered up your game, someone would join your lobby and you'd just go. Brood Wars developed into a very small group of maps that people would play. Big Game Hunters and Lost Temple being the two most popular. That was all that was played really, even worldwide.
We go to Warcraft III and introduced matchmaking with the Quick Match system: you hit a button, we'll find you a map and find you an opponent. You're not in control of the map anymore, but it was a healthier environment because you're getting different maps all the time and you're constantly challenged to think differently about the game.
We move to Starcraft II and carry that over, but not everybody came through Warcraft III. They came from Brood War and they said - it's a community and I'm making this message for them - "Give us Lost Temple and go away. We don't need you. Stop making maps." We kept at it. We made maps, they made maps; everything was going pretty well and then we got to a point in Heart of the Swarm.
We were developing the beta and at the same time we were having a real balance problem in Wings of Liberty. The multiplayer team was overburdened. They said, "We got maps due next month" and I said "Screw the maps. We've got a serious balance issue and a beta that's on fire." And the community said, "Where's our maps?" It took two years, but we went from "Never give us anything new" to "Give us something new all the time just because." This is healthy place for a community to be, because they're seeking out new challenges.
So we thought, "We should have a game with a lot of Battlegrounds." At the same time, whenever we would go out with stuff from Starcraft II, we'd show all of our campaign missions. We had this mission in Wings of Liberty where lava would rise and fall. [Editor's Note: I believe the map he's talking about is Lava Flow.] When the lava fell, you had to run to the low ground and grab all the minerals. When it rose, you'd retreat. There was a sort of give-and-take to the map. A lot of players would see that map and they'd go, "Can I get that in multiplayer?" and I'd go, "No, it's Starcraft. This is an eSport. That's insane." But the idea was always there: How could we give them that experience? Where there's a story to the map, but at the same time it works as an eSport.
When we came to this game, it kinda clicked. We do a lot of maps and we'll make these maps that have a little plot to them. The campaign maps made us want to do that, but we couldn't do that for Starcraft II. When we were talking about doing this, a lot of players said, "We can't do this. There's always other things I have to manage," but we were going to cut a bunch of that anyway.
So we cleared a bunch of stuff out and they said, "This is crap, the game's too simple!" We put it all back in, but we put it back into different areas. It wasn't the stuff you were used to seeing. "The pieces I'm used to playing with aren't here anymore!" True, but there are other pieces that will challenge you in a more healthy, interesting way. A way that's constantly evolving as the months and years progress. You don't need to learn one item system, you need to learn a constantly evolving talent and map system.
It took us a while to get there and it was very scary. Internally, externally, there was suddenly a lot of rules to designing a game like this that I wasn't aware of until we got there. We powered through it. We ended up with something that we're very happy with. Who knows if we'll find an audience or how big that audience will be.
USgamer: What kinds of things are you seeing in closed beta that you didn't expect?
Browder: One of the things that was nice is we made an artifact system. It's a system other games in the genre have had, where you can buff some of your heroes and choose some stat bonuses. Everyone said it was going to be cool, but I was a little nervous about it. We tried it and the community raged. They let us have it with both barrels on day one. I was so happy to cut it three days later.
USgamer: Right now, each Battleground is essentially its own game mode. Are there any thoughts as to adding other mechanics?
Browder: I'd love to, but I don't know what they are yet. That's the beauty of it. One of the things we're going with on a fundamental level is you haven't seen anything yet. That's the message. It's not done. When we launch? Still not done!
That's one of the things about free-to-play that's so nice. With Starcraft, we have to launch a box. We save up all of our changes for two years, we shove them in the box, and we hope we give you enough value to make it feel like the box is worth it to you. In this case, because players are constantly buying skins and heroes, we can just keep it rolling. "Here's something new." They don't like that? Don't do that again. I don't know if they're going to like it, but let's find out.
I've told the development team, "If you ever get bored coming into work someday, let's fix that. Tell me what you want to do to keep this game fresh." Because whatever that is is going to be fresh to our players. Are there other game modes besides Battlegrounds? Absolutely. Is there the ability to do user-generated content? Absolutely. Dedicated PVE content? Totally. Whole other PVP game modes? Completely. We've got to figure out what they are, roll them out to people, and see what they think. We want to keep working on this game for a long time, to keep challenging what it is.
USgamer: In many MOBAs, the visual style or character design lets players know what they're going to be dealing with on the battlefield. With Heroes of the Storm, you're drawing from a pool of characters that have existing designs, which can be confusing, especially in the case of similar characters like Raynor and Tychus. How do you differentiate the characters and work around that problem?
Browder: We are relying a little bit on your knowledge of our characters. These characters have been around; sometimes for 20 years, sometimes less, but they have an established lore and fiction. [Raynor and Tychus] are probably our worst example. Our artists certainly raged when we said we wanted to do both characters.
- "We can't do those.
- "But we wanna! They're two famous characters from Starcraft and it's kind of important that we hit those."
- "But it's two guys in a marine suit with guns."
- "Well, how different can the gun be?"
I think it's a fair point, but I think that's our worst case. Characters who are similar to one another, but have different styles. One's calling for help because he's a leader of men. The other's Tychus. We are relying on the attitude and personality of the character to help communicate their role.
USgamer: For the neophyte player looking to get into Heroes, you're told by veterans to stick to one game (Warcraft heroes, Starcraft heroes, and Diablo heroes) to complete quests for gold. Unfortunately, some games lack a character for every role (Assassin, Warrior, Support, Specialist). Will that be fixed?
Browder: Warcraft's going to have a bigger pool because it's got so much lore behind it. There is a Starcraft tank that's missing and a Diablo support that's missing. We'll get some heroes in there to help fill some holes. If you're worried about maximizing your gold output, there's going to be holes like that. That's okay.
USgamer: Are there any characters you want add in particular?
Browder: There's tons of characters. Kel'Thuzad, he'd be really cool. I've love to see Garrosh. I know we got a lot of orcs already, but I still love them. Rock and Roll Racing characters. Blackthorne would be cool.
USgamer: You've been with Blizzard for almost 10 years. What's it like working on free-to-play for the first time?
Browder: It gives us the potential to keep working on the game in small pieces. We don't have to save everything up for one big moment. It allows you to be a lot more interactive. You come in and say "What can we do for our communities today?"
It forces us to plan in much shorter terms, but we have to keep the long-term in mind or we'll never get to it. It makes things more complicated. People ask me, "How many Heroes are in the game?" I don't know. Not because I shouldn't know, but because I'm playing the live build with you folks and I've got two versions that I'm playing at the office. It forces you to think of the game constantly in a lot of different areas. It's a very different experience.
What's interesting is we've got this whole other layer of keeping the economy balanced, making sure we're offering a lot of free stuff without giving everything away. It's certainly a new way to think about games.