The unlikely evolution of Heroes of the Storm

The inside story of Blizzard’s exciting new game, from its lead producer.
Heroes of the Storm
Heroes of the Storm © Blizzard
By Ben Sillis

The MOBA genre is a crowded one, with more than a few games from top tier developers doing battle for the attention of you and your team. But right from the start, Heroes of the Storm has been doing things a bit differently, to say the least. Blizzard’s game has a focus on quick bursts of fun, teamwork and interactive maps with a mix of challenges lest you get tired of taking on Roshan over and over in Dota 2.

Like League of Legends and Dota 2, it also has its own remarkable story. What started out as a StarCraft II map editor quickly morphed into its own game with its own rules and meta – and legion of fans. The game is still in closed Beta, but already has millions lining up to play. To find out more about its origins, and where Heroes of the Storm is headed next, we caught up with lead game producer Kaéo Milker. Stay tuned for part two later this month, where we discuss the game’s tournament potential with Blizzard senior eSports manager Kim Phan, and for a chance to play the game yourself enter our Beta invitation competition.

Hi Kaéo! Tell us how you came into your current role.
KM: Like so many of my colleagues, I came to Blizzard as a huge fan. Games like Warcraft II, Diablo and StarCraft captured my imagination like no others, and I made the decision way back in 2001 to leave my former career behind and do whatever I could to get my foot in the door here. I dove headfirst into any job I could get here and parlayed the experience earned in early roles in quality assurance (for Warcraft III and World of Warcraft), tech support and recruiting into eventual opportunities in production.

My first foray into development was as the creative development producer around the time that World of Warcraft launched in 2004, and then starting in 2005 I joined Team 1 as the original game producer for StarCraft II alongside then lead producer Chris Sigaty. Over the next eight years I led production for the art and engineering teams for StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm.

Heroes of the Storm was born as a StarCraft II mod. When did you realise you were making a MOBA, and that it had some competition as a result? Did that put you off at all?

We originally started making Heroes as a custom mod for StarCraft II purely as a way to show off the game’s map editor. We set about making a spiritual successor to the original Defense of the Ancients map made by our own community in our Warcraft III editor – and that game was itself a successor to the Aeon of Strife maps our community made in our original StarCraft editor. So to us, the early incarnation of Heroes was the perfect concept to show off the next generation of Blizzard’s RTS map editor in a way that millions of players could instantly identify with.

As far as competition goes, every game we’ve ever made has had some excellent company in its space, but I think our approach of trying to make the most fun games we possibly can has always served us well. In fact, having great games come before us gives us the opportunity to take an established genre and put the Blizzard spin on it.

© Blizzard

How many people are now playing Heroes of the Storm?
Our Technical Alpha began last March with very small numbers of players initially invited as we stood up our core gameplay and server infrastructure, but at this stage in Closed Beta we are consistently bringing in huge numbers of players every week. We’re not diving much into specifics beyond that at this point, but we’ve had over nine million players sign up for our beta and a good chunk of those people have been invited and are already playing the game right now globally.

Which heroes are currently the most popular, and why is that, do you think? Do you have a favourite?
Across all gameplay modes, the top 10 most played heroes currently include Valla, Nova, Raynor, Illidan, Zeratul, Muradin, Tyrael, Tassadar, Tychus and Arthas. In competitive play, other heroes like Stitches and Nazeebo come into the mix as well, though we’re happy to see players discovering new compositions and strategies with every passing week that keep the most-played heroes in constant flux.

I’ve personally brought about half of the hero roster to level 10 across the Alpha and Beta, so there are many heroes that I’ve mained at various times. My current favorite is Sonya, but ask me again tomorrow and I’ll probably have a different answer for you.

Why bring in the Lost Vikings to the game?
The Lost Vikings are Blizzard’s original heroes, and for many people gaming in the early nineties, they were likely their first exposure to a Blizzard game. This history and nostalgia made them the most commonly-requested hero when we announced Heroes of the Storm at BlizzCon 2013, and we had some crazy ideas for making them individually controllable that we just had to get into the game.

Do you plan to bring back any more characters from the Blizzard of the 1990s?
Absolutely! Blackthorne and Rock n’ Roll Racing are ripe for the picking, and in fact, any character, from any Blizzard game – ever – could eventually end up in Heroes of the Storm. That prospect is thrilling to us as Blizzard fans and developers, since we know we’ll get the opportunity to bring our favorites back for people to rediscover in a really fun new way. There is no shortage of iconic characters from 20+ years of Blizzard history to pull from, either. The challenge is instead to settle on the right one for the game at any given time.

Kaéo Milker
Kaéo Milker © Blizzard

Why the name change from Blizzard All-Stars to Heroes of the Storm?
This game has actually had a few names across its development including Blizzard All-Stars, but once we decided to take it out of the StarCraft II custom map and build it as a fully-featured, standalone game, we knew we wanted to dig into the name more. We considered many options along the way, but Heroes of the Storm hit the right notes with us and captured both the theme of the game while maintaining a little nod to the fact that this is a Blizzard game.

Like with previous Blizzard games, will you be opening up the game for fans to tinker around with it? Can we expect to see plenty of fan-made maps?
We would love to release an editor for Heroes of the Storm. Right now, our focus is on getting the game ready for release and setting up our pipeline for continuous content development and release, but we have every intention on turning our attention to an editor in the future when time permits.

Both League of Legends and Dota 2 have big problems with toxic players, likely exacerbated by the heavy focus on teamwork. How are you dealing with these problems in Heroes of the Storm?
This is a very important issue, and it’s something we really take to heart and spend a lot of time talking about across our team. Early on, we made the decision to remove cross-team chat in Heroes of the Storm in order to eliminate one side of the equation, preventing enemy teams from being toxic to each other. That was a decent start, but we all know that your own team-mates are often the most toxic offenders in these games, so we’ve considered a lot of options for combatting things on that end. Along the way, we had to come to terms with the reality that the kind of player who wants to be toxic to their team-mates is going to do so unless we limit their communications options, incentivise them to eliminate toxicity from their behaviour, or make the consequences for their actions severe enough that they either stop being toxic or simply find a different game to be toxic in.

Our first leaning was to disable team chat between players that aren’t partied by default, but we weren’t thrilled about introducing something to combat toxicity that would simultaneously eliminate players’ abilities to make friends and find like-minded team-mates in our game. Instead, we’re going to introduce a Mute All button in an upcoming patch to allow players a quick, easy way to opt out of allied chat at the beginning of the game. This setting will be saved game-to-game and can be easily changed on the fly should you change your mind on your preferred setting, and like everything in our game we’re going to test it out and determine our next course of action based on our experiences with it and player feedback.

Heroes of the Storm
Heroes of the Storm © Blizzard

As far as incentivising good behaviour, we’ve seen some really cool honour-based systems across different kinds of games that encourage players to be good to each other while rewarding them for their positive actions. We’ll be introducing our own spin on these systems in a future update and hope to give positive players a pat on the back while dangling some carrots for those on the verge of being negative. On the punishment end of the spectrum, things on the table currently include auto-silencing toxic players from communicating with anyone that they aren’t friends with, as well as removing toxic players from the regular matchmaking queue and only placing them on teams made up of other toxic players.

On top of all of this, another area we’re exploring is our upcoming Clans and Groups system, which we think will introduce an excellent way to give players the ability to find smaller micro-communities of like-minded people to interact with. These social systems will allow players to pick and choose the crowds they want to be affiliated with, providing safe, player-moderated environments to meet new people and form teams outside of the comparative wilderness of blind matchmaking. These features will be part of an ongoing initiative to curb toxicity in our game and while some will certainly help to win battles for us, the war will wage on for as long as it takes to ensure that Heroes of the Storm is a consistently welcoming environment for great people, strong teams, and fantastic gameplay.

Heroes of the Storm has a lot more focus than its rivals on different maps. How do you come up with the different ideas, and can we expect to see more in time?
Our passion for multiple battlegrounds is firmly rooted in our team’s history building competitive RTS games like StarCraft, Warcraft III, and StarCraft II. In those games, we made dozens of maps and constantly introduced new ones while rotating them seasonally. That map variety always created a welcomed sense of freshness and offered renewed strategic depth that we knew we wanted to bring to Heroes. Initially, we were concerned that players might reject the notion of multiple maps given the tendency for games in the genre to have one dominant map, but with our battleground design offering an extra layer of excitement and variety each with unique themes and mechanics, we quickly found that we all hungered for more.

Thankfully, there’s an endless stream of cool battleground ideas coming in from our team, from Blizzard as a whole, and even from our community, so there is no shortage of compelling ideas to draw from. Players have asked us for battlegrounds more akin to WoW Battlegrounds – and those are certainly possible. Even gameplay modes you’ve seen in other genres of games like shooters could come into play eventually. So far during testing, we’ve introduced six unique battlegrounds, we have several more in development, and many more at various stages of planning, so players can expect to see a steady and varied influx as we get deeper into Beta and beyond.

Want to try Heroes of the Storm for yourself? Enter our competition now for a chance to win a Beta invite code.

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