Heroes of the Storm – Interview with game designer Matthew Cooper

[Game website] I recently had the chance to interview Matthew Cooper, a Game Designer behind Blizzard’s hero brawler (not MOBA), Heroes of the Storm, which is currently in Closed Beta. Rather than focusing on how different it is from other MOBA titles, I was more intrigued to find out about the whole development process. And I got to ask what hero is next! Read on for more details.

 

Q: I was informed that you started off working on RTS games, including the StarCraft II franchise. I am curious, how did the transition happen?

A: I joined Blizzard and Team 1 in 2008 to work on SC2 as a Balance Designer. After Wings of Liberty shipped (2010) there was a period where we we’re mostly focused on live before ramping up on Heart of the Swarm. During this time I started getting more involved with Heroes. There were some blotched Heroes playtests because of balance issues or bugs so I offered some of my time to help out this project. Within a month or 2 I was full time on Heroes doing Balance, Heroes, and System Design.

Q: What were some of the challenges going from developing traditional RTS titles to the hero brawler/ MOBA genre? Were there similarities from a developer’s point of view?

A: There were actually a lot of similarities. We were building Heroes using the SC2 engine and editor so the tools were familiar, allowing for rapid iteration. I also had played 1000s of hours of games in this genre so it was awesome to use that knowledge and passion towards Heroes of the Storm.

At times, being a veteran of the genre actually made things more challenging; you just accept all the mechanics of these games and the way they work. The real challenge came when we looked at the game from a top down perspective.

“Do we need an item shop? How about levels, or lanes, or minions? How long do Death Timers need to be? What is our ideal game length?” We spent many months looking for the fun and cutting away what we didn’t feel like added to the gameplay experience.

Heroes of the Storm screenshot 1

Q: Could you elaborate more on your current role in the Heroes of the Storm team?

A: I’m a Game Designer. Currently my primary focus is on the Talent system. This includes doing talents for new heroes, updating existing heroes, cutting Resurgence of the Storm, etc.
Outside of talents I work with the balance team and the hero design teams primarily.

Q: Could you share some rough numbers about the number of people and departments working on Heroes of the Storm now?

A: There are over 200 people working on Team 1 across Legacy of the Void and Heroes of the Storm. I work primarily with the design group on Heroes so there are roughly 15-20 guys in that group.

Q: Was the talent system always like the current version, right from the start? What were some of the ideas which were taken out?

A: The current talent system is about a year old at this point. Along the way we’ve continued to refine aspects of the talent system like how often player’s should choose a new talent, how many talents should be at a tier, and what kind of content those talents should be. Most recently (12~ months ago) we moved away from a primarily Stat driven system into what we have today.

1. Over the years here are a few of the systems we tried: No Shop or Talents. Play with the character you picked. At some point you could swap your hero, so if you didn’t like your current hero matchup you could swap to something more favorable.

2. Every X Levels or Y Currency: Choose stat points. If you go deep into a stat point (i.e. Health), then you can eventually choose a Health related mechanic (i.e. Imposing Presence).

3. An actual talent tree where players we’re given 1 talent point per level up and could choose to invest their points in 2 or 3 different talent trees. Usually you’d want to unlock the bottom ability and would have a few talent points left over to sprinkle into other trees.

Heroes of the Storm screenshot 2

Q: Could you drive us through briefly, the process and duration of designing talents for a new hero before making it to the live servers?

A: It depends a bit on who the hero is, which Hero Designer is working on it, and what the goal and vision for that hero is. Typically, more unique heroes (Abathur, Lost Vikings, Murky) require additional iteration while we are trying to figure out how to build talents for these characters. Generally speaking though, it’s something like this:

1. Once the Hero design is in a solid state and people are excited about it, that Hero gets implemented and starts getting tested vs. AI and in regular playtests

2. Before we move to regular playtesting we try to get in some really simple talents. We often use a lot of generic talents here, or simple talents like: Increased Range, Decreased CD, Increased Damage. The goal at this stage is to have a couple talents at each tier but still mostly be focusing on the core hero kit.

3. Once we’re happy with the core playstyle, we take a much deeper look into talents, designing new and unique mechanics and figuring what talent builds are available (can this character do a DPS build, is that okay?).

4. Balance is involved along the way, but really comes in at the end to fine tune the hero kit and the talents. They usually identify some problems with talent synergies that we have to address by moving some talents around, cutting talents, or what not.

5. The duration really depends on which character we’re working on. I’d say on average the talent process has been underway on a hero for 4-6 months before they go live, and we continue to iterate after they go live.

Q: Do you work closely with the animation team? I am guessing you would have an animation effect idea in mind while brainstorming about the talents.

A: Each Hero Designer works with the art team for hero and talent related goals. We also have a designer who acts as the bridge with art so that we can funnel effect/animation/art concerns through a single person.

We work in a very collaborative environment so we frequently receive ideas and suggestions from our art team. On the flip side, if we have an idea for a talent that we’re not sure how to present in game will go jam with the art team and usually they’ll have some good solves.

Heroes of the Storm screenshot 3

Q: What are some of the difficulties when designing talents for the heroes?

A: Everyone has a different play style. We try to design a wide range of talents that offer options for counter play, off-builds, etc. Talents like clairvoyance or cleanse don’t get seen much outside of a competitive environment so it’s hard to test if they’re working or not before collecting a lot of data.

We are very flexible with the talent system but we try and hold ourselves to certain goals. If we see a talent that has a very low pick rate, we’re immediately thinking of ways we could make this better. Because there are so many talents across all our heroes, there are always a couple problematic talents we’d like to fix.

Q:  Are there any personal favorites in terms of heroes or talents?

A: Gazlowe will always have a special place in my heart. He was our first real split push character and our first character who could do things like solo Knights at level 1 or take an early Grave Golem by himself.

Heroes of the Storm - Gazlowe

Another character I really enjoy is Lost Viking’s (which just came out!) They’re extremely challenging to play as but their theoretical power potential is enormous. I actually play all of our characters (I’m level 5+ on every hero), but I really attach to characters that play or do things a little bit differently.

 

Q: Do the folks working on different games within Blizzard talk to each other to share some ideas and give feedback?

A: Absolutely. We have a feedback mailing list for Heroes and we receive emails every day with suggestions, ideas, or just general feedback. People from all across Blizzard, whether it’s development, CS, or HQ, are always sending us feedback which is great!

Q: Being a Diablo III player from the start, I have seen some talents and skills being re-worked on the live servers in the name of “balancing”. Do you foresee such drastic actions being taken for Heroes of the Storm?

A: We already do this to some extent. We’re constantly looking at the Heroes, their abilities, and their talents and making sure it fits what that character is supposed to be doing. We also want to make sure it’s fun to play as or against.

As an example, early on Murky was a Siege/Back door character. Once we saw this on Alpha, and played with and against it, we learned that it was a lot of fun for Murky to play this way, but the other players (in some cases all 9) we’re frustrated by this play style.

Since then we’ve made many changes to Murky trying to find a style that is fun and unique for Murky, while not frustrating for the other players in the game. We found that if we can encourage Murky to team fight and stay with the team more, this is much more enjoyable for everyone involved.

 

Q: Touching on the topic of talent balancing, what were some of “bigger” talent changes made thus far on the live server?

A: Wow, too many to name. We count Heroic abilities as part of the talent system, so if you look at Abathur we added a new Heroic (Monstrosity) and changed his Ultimate Evolution ability to not have access to Heroic abilities.

In January we did fairly significant overalls to Falstad & Li Li (as well as the Abathur changes). Cutting a talent like Resurgence of the Storm, and now the addition of some new level 20s are also big changes.

Q: Give us a clue on 1 talent you are working on for an unannounced hero. Just a slight clue.

A: For an upcoming Warrior we have a talent that activates if the character we’re to take lethal damage, granting a massive shield. It’s a fun pick and has resulted in some huge moments.

Heroes of the Storm screenshot 4