Heroes of the Storm designer discusses eSports, balance, Battleground design, and the June 2 launch

Yesterday was a big day for Heroes of the Storm, as the Grand Finals of the college Heroes of the Dorm tournament aired in front of a nationwide ESPN2 audience. Prior to the event, Shacknews had an opportunity to speak to one of the game's designers about how the game has grown, its future in eSports, the changes in design philosophy, and what players can expect from the June 2 launch.


Yesterday was a monumental day for Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard's MOBA wrapped up its big-time college tournament (titled "Heroes of the Dorm") with the final four teams duking it out for supremacy and college tuition. At the end of the night, in front of a capacity crowd and in front of a national ESPN2 audience, Golden Bears of UC Berkeley emerged victorious, taking advantage of a critical Arizona State mistake to take the fifth and deciding game.

Before the Heroic 4 took the field, Shacknews took some time to speak to Heroes of the Storm's game designer Kent-Erik Hagman. In addition to talking about the Heroes of the Dorm tournmant and the eSports side, in general, the topic quickly shifted to the upcoming 1.0 release for Heroes of the Storm, as well as how the game has grown since its inception.

Shacknews: You have a huge turnout at this event. So that leads me to ask, how do you feel the eSports side of Heroes of the Storm has grown since the game first became playable?

Kent-Erik Hagman, Game Designer: Very grassroots-y! (laughs) I mean, what's hilarious is that back early on in the alpha, people started running tournaments and we were actually freaking out, going, "We're not ready for this!" One of the other designers I sat with said, "I feel like Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, it's like no matter what you do, the eSports scene will rise up." Their team was freaking out, because they had to get all the paperwork in. We took off Custom Games and they still found a way, going "If we all queue as five at the right time, we'll still match in together and do our tournament." So we just said, "Oh my goodness, we need to support them." It's been pretty crazy and exciting. I walked in here thinking, "That's a lot of chairs to fill." Then the line started pouring in and I said, "That's a lot of people! We might do it!"

Shacknews: How do you see the eSports side growing in the future?

Hagman: It's our game to lose, really. We've got BlizzCon coming up and I know we want to make a big push for that, as well. In my opinion, there's a lot of stuff still lacking in the game to help the eSports scene, especially with the interface and UI. I know [Blizzard Senior Software Editor] Matt Schembari was just down at the town hall, talking about how he wants to polish it, as well. I can't say for sure what we're going to do. I just know we do want to do a lot to level it up. This interface we're using is something we cobbled together last-second. We couldn't even make code changes, so that's why a lot of things are the way they are. But we would love to make a real, good eSports interface that we can use for events such as this and BlizzCon coming up.

Shacknews: You talked about features that are lacking, so that leads me to ask about the 1.0 release coming up. What's going to be the biggest different between what we're seeing now and what we'll see in June?

Hagman: I actually don't think you're going to see a huge difference in June. For us, the big thing is, this game is not done on June 2. If anything, the game is starting on June 2. We're going to continue to update, and polish, and add a lot of features post-June 2. I can't really speak to what we're doing, come June 2, but we have a lot more that's in the pipe for afterwards, as well. This is just our first iteration and we're experimenting with a lot of things. We're doing crazy things, like an interface where we weren't showing the mini-map. Everybody was so thrilled that we did that one. But we're learning to see what can we do, what should we do, what's right, what's wrong, let's get feedback on it. We're seeing this as Year Zero of Heroes of the Storm. Year One starts June 2 and Year Two starts June 2, 2016 and it's going to be a continuing, evolving process, where we continue to help the eSports scene however we can. There's a lot of room to grow about how we can make this a better eSport.

Shacknews: Speaking of player feedback, is there any particular element you're looking to address between now and launch?

Hagman: There's nothing, in particular, I'd say that's jumped out at us. We had that really long Technical Alpha period, we had this closed beta period to iron out the kinks. I think we've gotten most of the kinks out, but that doesn't mean we're done. I think there's a fair number of Heroes whose Talent choices are really lacking, in my opinion. That's because I'm really close to their work and I go, "This Talent pick-rate is absurd. There's not even a choice at this tier. Why are we offering all these choices?" So there's still a lot of polish I'd like to see done on each of the individual Heroes to level them up and make their Talent trees these really diverse and interesting things, so every time you play the Hero, you aren't just doing a cookie-cutter build every time. I'd love for you to actually think about the Talents you want. I want them to be meaningful, impactful decisions that influence the game. I think that can take the game to the next level where we'll see high-level players picking different Talent strategies and fans can be amazed at like, "Oh, this is really cool! We would have never seen this strategy if it wasn't for them going with these different Talent builds." That's one aspect I'd like to see leveled up.

We're going to continue to add more Battlegrounds to the game. I think that's going to continue to shake up the meta-game, so to speak, in terms of what players are favoring and what-not. What's really crazy for us is that we can do very minor changes or no changes at all and the meta-game will start to shift, because players are still learning the game and there's so much depth to how the game can be played -- how you load out your lanes, how you react to how the enemy loaded out their lanes, now Tributes start spawning, the mines open up, what mercs are available, there's so many variables in the air that I think players are still trying to figure it out. I think we will be able to look a year from now at the games being played today and think, "Wow, it's such a different game," but not because of anything we're going to do, but because of what the players are going to do as they explore the game space.

Shacknews: How do you approach new Battlegrounds? When it comes to creating new Battlegrounds from the ground-up, what does the team look at?

Hagman: We typically start with the mechanic first. We try to figure out what's a new mechanic or what's a twist on an old mechanic we've done. Garden of Terror was like "Let's mash together Dragon Shire and Haunted Mines and see what happens." Sky Temple was almost a variation of Blackheart's Bay, but we really wanted to do "King of the Hill" style and see how that could develop and what would be the payoff if we did King of the Hill. To us, a map is always the activity and then the payoff and the combination of the two makes it unique. So Dragon Shire is a King of the Hill map where the payoff is a player vehicle, whereas Sky Temple is a King of the Hill map with the payoff being direct damage to the forts. So we look at that and we try to make sure every Battleground is distinct and unique in the gameplay mechanics, so we look at that first. Then we sit down and think of how many lanes are appropriate. So far, most of the maps are three lanes. We've done two lanes for Haunted Mines and it doesn't mean that's off the table. There's no reason we couldn't do four-lane maps in the future if we find a mechanic that fits that.

We also work closely with the art team to see what world we want to go to next. At BlizzCon, we talked about wanting to go to the world of Sanctuary, where the high heavens and the burning hells are crashing together. From there, we go with a fantasy-driven, "Okay, if we're in the world of Diablo, what would that look like?" I'm not going to spoil any of that, but I'm really excited for it.

Shacknews: Going all the way back to the Technical Alpha, what do you feel has been the biggest change to the game so far?

Hagman: I would say it's been our design philosophy on the Talents. From way back when the Talent tree initially shipped, we had a completely different understanding of how the system worked. We, as designers and as players of the game ourselves, started to wrap around what Talents really work and which ones don't. Hint: Most of them don't, so we need to re-jigger some stuff. I'd say the Talent system has changed the most and I think you'll continue to see changes. We're trying to figure out what the right level of tweaking is on that, but I'd say that's the biggest change.

Shacknews: How has your approach to character balance changed?

Hagman: Earlier on, we were much more free-reign, "do whatever needed to be done," with little regard to how players are playing it. We're now much more sensitive to that. We're understanding that players have fallen in love with a character, so if we go in and change it, we want to change the bad part, but be very sensitive and respectful to what players love about that character.

For Stiches, for instance, everyone loved the hook, so we didn't want to nerf the hook so badly that Stitches would just be a heavy tank with a lot of hit points. We wanted to change it so the hook was still amazing. It was our understanding that people weren't necessarily excited that he had a ton of health. Yeah, it's extra power and who doesn't like that? But that wasn't why you played Stitches. You played him so you could hook people. So we wanted to keep that gameplay, but allow us to nerf him to an appropriate spot. If we had to do that ten months ago, we probably would have put less thought into it and just done what we needed to do to get the numbers right. But now we're very careful when it comes to touching these live Heroes. These are Heroes people have paid for. These are Heroes people have invested hundreds and hundreds of hours in. At this point, from a player's perspective, you develop an attachment and ownership of that Hero, so who are we to come in and change that Hero? We will do it, if we need to for the health of the game, but we're careful and respectful of the bond players have formed.

Shacknews: Lastly, Heroes of the Storm is all about the Heroes. Any hints as to who's coming next?

Hagman: I wish! I would love to! But I can't.

Shacknews: Had to give it a shot.

Heroes of the Storm is set to release its final version on PC on June 2.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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