By Nathan Grayson on November 22nd, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Papa Blizzard, Papa Blizzard! Why are Aunt Kerrigan and Uncle Diablo fighting? No, seriously, why? I didn’t even know they were from the same side of the family. Or the same dimension. And yet, for all the “because why not”-ness of the game’s premise, Heroes of the Storm plays quite nicely, taking MOBA mechanics and sanding down the rough edges to a point of real intuitiveness – sculpting a svelte ice swan from a figurative iceberg. I discussed the surprise hit of BlizzCon with game director Dustin Browder, and we touched on everything from business models to plans for a map editor to whether or not Heroes counts as a “casual” MOBA. That was all delightful. Unfortunately, Browder’s perspective on the MOBA genre’s epidemic of absurd, hypersexualized female characters turned out significantly less so.
RPS: What is the Storm? How does one become a hero of it? Is it at all important to any sort of story? A blizzard is a type of storm. Is it just another way to say Heroes of Blizzard?
Browder: Honestly, theories differ. Some people have said that it’s Heroes of Blizzard, because yeah, Blizzard is a storm. Other people have said the Nexus is sort of a storm of worlds crashing together. That’s where it’s come from. And some people just thought it was a cool-sounding word.
Inside the studio, I think you get all three of those answers to where it comes from and what it means.
RPS: Is there any sort of story here – if not with narrations and cut-scenes then through, say, little mid-match character interactions ala League of Legends?
Browder: It’s very light in terms of how it’s done. Heroes meet in the Nexus to battle it out. For glory, for honor, and kind of just for the fun of it. It’s not canon or because Thrall died in some battle and now he can’t be in Orgrimmar or something. It’s very loose. I mean, this is a game where at some point a murloc is gonna get Diablo in a headlock and kill him. It’s not a serious game. It’s not a serious part of the lore.
We’re doing some character interaction stuff, though. We’ve got heroes who will talk back-and-forth to each other. We have a line where Nova kills Arthas, and she’s like, “Who’s the ghost now?” We’ll try to have relationships. We certainly had discussions about Kerrigan and Raynor when they’re on the same team, when they’re on separate teams, etc. So I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with relationships that already exist and ones you might imagine would exist if these characters came together.
RPS: Over the years, I’ve developed a wild theory: Blizzard is not, in fact, an altruistic charity like everyone presumes, but is instead some sort of business. How do you plan on making money off this one?
Browder: At this point, the basic outline I can give you is that we’re probably gonna have a rotation of heroes you can check out or change over time. We’re gonna give you an earned currency you can use to check out or permanently purchase anything you want to use in the game. We’re excited about the idea of – though I’m not sure if we’re going to go this way or not – hero-specific quests that you can complete. Those will earn you things.
We’ve also really geeked out about what the Hearthstone guys did with their quest system. They encouraged people to play as different classes in that game. I don’t have a Druid deck, but I got a quest the other night to be one. Six hours later, I’m playing my new Druid deck and optimizing it. It got me out of my rut of playing my Warrior deck. We’re excited by the idea of maybe doing something similar to that.
We also want to give you additional earned currency for playing with your friends. So if you just went into chat and made a friend, that’s totally OK. We want to get you playing with your buddies, form new relationships, and try new things. Those are the basic values of the system we’re building.
RPS: LoL and DOTA have taken eSports by storm, but how is your Storm going to take eSports by… DOTA? No, that really doesn’t work. Please act as though I said nothing, but randomly answer a question about similar topics stated much more eloquently.
Browder: We’re pretty much going to do what we did with StarCraft II. We’re going to provide the tools, we’re going to provide all the features we have time to create, and we’re going to create the best game possible. Then we’re going to see what the community does with it.
That’s exactly what happened with StarCraft, and now here we are years later doing WCS. This is after years of community development, and we’re looking at it saying, “How can we help this community be stronger and better? How can we help our partners to do better on their end?” So we’re trying to very gently support our community and make sure that they’re as successful as they deserve to be.
It’ll be the same way with Heroes. And if the community takes it to a place where we find ways to help them, then we will come in with everything we can to help them be successful.
RPS: I suppose Heroes of the Storm would also make for a pretty different eSports proposition than LoL or DOTA. It’s streamlined in a way that I think people are enjoying quite a bit, but that also makes it – and this has become a pretty dirty word in the gaming industry – a lot more casual.
Browder: It’s like Hearthstone in that respect. Is that game casual? Yeah, sometimes. But after you play it for a while, is it anymore? It’s a very competitive game. It is, in many ways, simpler than what anyone else has done.
We’ve removed things that we didn’t like in the genre for Heroes, and we’ve added new things to make it even more complicated. Or maybe more challenging, is a better way to put it. It’s not about providing you with 17 choices that are all watered down. It’s about providing a few choices that are each like a nail in your brain. Like, “Oooooof! Which three… [gasps dramatically] I don’t know!” That’s what makes great game design.
I think the game will be competitive. I actually feel like it’s competitive when we play in the office. I don’t feel like it’s very casual. I feel like my need to coordinate with my team over map objectives is enormous. The better team wins, and the worse team loses. We need to come together as a group and win these matches by correct composition, by correct positioning, by hitting skillshots – the whole thing.
But I don’t know where it’s going. You could totally be right.
RPS: It’s certainly an interesting position to be in. So far, the genre has thrived on players who are super dedicated to eating up all sorts of tiny, sometimes arbitrary nuances – both in order to understand the rules and, ultimately, to be best at playing their favorite characters. The best MOBAs fuse the thrill of rapid-fire character building with the long-term satisfaction of learning. I can’t help but wonder if your game can match that level of near-bottomless depth. Do you even want it to?
Browder: That is awesome [that players can have that kind of experience with those games]. There are players who will continue to like that, and they won’t find as much of that in this game, and they won’t like it as much as a result.
RPS: What sort of crowd are you aiming to pull in?
Browder: The crowd that likes Heroes of the Storm.
We don’t really know, to be honest. There’s this belief that we must do a bunch of market research before we start making games. We have all these clever guys and we do all these focus groups. We get this perfect target audience [demographic], this guy, and then we build our games especially for him. But really at Blizzard we build the games we want to play. We build games that get us excited and are aesthetically pleasing to us. They have clean game design. They have pretty art. The code is well-built. We like these things, and we hope they find an audience.
We don’t necessarily want Heroes to be like WoW, but I’m using WoW as a comparison. When they shipped it back in 2004, the biggest MMO at the time was EverQuest. I remember people saying, “EverQuest is the real game, and WoW is just the dumbed-down version of EverQuest.” That was some of the feedback. What WoW had done was remove some things – XP loss on death, the challenges of sitting for a long time to recover, etc – and then it added more in other areas.
It was easy to look at that and be like, “Oh, they just removed some shit.” But once people got into it, they realized there was always other stuff.
That’s what we’re going for. I don’t know if we’ve succeeded. We could totally fail. But we’re trying to create an experience where we’ve gotten rid of some stuff and added other stuff. It’s its own experience. We feel like when we play, it’s very competitive and very scary and there’s a lot of skill involved, but we’ll see.
RPS: Heroes’ maps are already fairly elaborate – at least, insofar as some have “quest”-like objectives and others have multiple locations/tiers – but how crazy are you planning to get with future additions?
Browder: That’s the beauty of having the map editor we have and building a game around different battlegrounds. We want to communicate to players very early that this is not about one map. This is not about a collection of maps. This is about a constantly evolving selection.
It’s a lot like what we did with StarCraft II. We shipped that in 2010, and the general consensus from the community was, “Make Lost Temple, and then go away. We don’t need your maps.” And we were like, “O… OK.” So we made a bunch of maps like Lost Temple. But here we are in 2013, and if we don’t update the map pool every couple of weeks or months, the community is up on us like, “Dude, where’s my new maps?” And that’s right. That’s correct. That’s one way to play with a constantly evolving set of terrain.
We really want to do that with Heroes as well. In 2015 at BlizzCon, you could come in with an idea for a battleground and pitch it to me, and I might say, “Oh, OK. Sounds cool.” I can take that back to the studio, put it into the editor, and have something up in just a couple weeks.
RPS: Surely, then – between that and this game’s origins as a StarCraft editor showcase – the natural conclusion is a Heroes map tool that anyone can use?
Browder: I certainly hope that it is.
We’re talking in the studio about the challenges that we have as a free-to-play game. You know, in StarCraft if you start using the editor to upload pornography, we can ban your game and ban your account, and you’re out. In a free-to-play game, we don’t really have that option. You can always create a new account.
So there are a few hiccups we have to work out in terms of security of the service. But once those are solved, we’ve got some ideas. We just need to decide which ones make the most sense. I think once those are out of the way, you can expect to see an arcade, a map editor, the whole thing. We’d love that as part of our game. I mean, it’s helped create this whole genre. We wouldn’t even be here without that.
[PR motions that time is running low]
RPS: You have some interesting alternate outfits for heroes. Roller Derby Nova, especially, caught my eye. On its own, that’s totally fine – just a silly, goofy thing. A one-off. But it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting focus choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes?
Browder: Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.
RPS: I have to add, though, that comics might not be the best point of reference for this sort of thing. I mean, it’s a medium that’s notorious – often in a not-good way – for sexing up female characters and putting them in some fairly gross situations.
Browder: We’re not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that.
RPS: But it’s not even about a message. The goal is to let people have fun in an environment where they can feel awesome without being weirded out or even objectified. This is a genre about empowerment. Why shouldn’t everyone feel empowered? That’s what it’s about at the end of the day: letting everyone have a fair chance to feel awesome.
Browder: Uh-huh. Cool. Totally.
[PR says we’ve run over, tells me I have to leave]
RPS: Thank you for your time.
NOTE: This interview, quite obviously, ended in an uncomfortable place, and I decided to break that down at length in a separate opinion piece. It will be live soon, and I’ll link it here when it’s been posted.