From Mod to MOBA – How Blizzard is Breathing Life into a Stale Genre
Back in 2010, Blizzard’s Dustin Browder recalls what it was like to finish StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. The team was exhausted, but happy with their work. Little did they know that they’d need to bring something to BlizzCon that year to represent the StarCraft franchise. They settled on showing off the map editor and its many tools, the power of what sort of mods players could create. And thus, Blizzard All-Stars was born. That demo would eventually become Heroes of the Storm, but the road from Mod to MOBA wasn’t always a smooth path.
After Wings of Liberty’s launch, Blizzard needed to show something at BlizzCon but there wasn’t any new content for the Heart of the Swarm, no new maps to download… so why not show off the SC2 Arcade and its map editing tools? Game Director on StarCraft II (and eventually Heroes of the Storm) Dustin Browder came up with the idea of showing how a new DOTA mod could be made in the Arcade. After all, it was StarCraft that gave birth the now mega-successful DOTA map all the way back in Aeon of Strife.
Browder thought they’d put it out there, show off the demo in the Arcade, and that’d be it. They’d highlight it using heroes from all of Blizzard’s games, and people would love it and it would help generate buzz in the Arcade for players to make their own games and mods. They shipped the idea around the studio, but everyone thought it was impossible to try and do before BlizzCon which was just months away.
Finally, Dustin convinced designer Matt Gotcher that it could work. They made the demo video for Blizzard DOTA which we saw at BlizzCon 2011 (see video below), and people went nuts for the game. I was there, actually. I played that early prototype, and as a “sort of” fan of most MOBAs, I was blown away. This was a game I could get behind because it had the Blizzard IP. I had built-in interest. But it still felt like “Just another MOBA”, and if Blizzard never intended on working on the idea any more, that’s probably what it would have remained. Just a demo of what a Blizzard MOBA could look like.
After BlizzCon the hype around that little idea was still there. Behind closed doors, a group of developers and designers hammered away at it. Around 2012, before Heart of the Swarm launched, they brought the work on the then still named Blizzard DOTA to the design council – a sort of gathering of the Blizzard Leads that decides how games and projects are coming along and what to do with them. Dustin was amped, nervous, and said “Why don’t we package this with Heart of the Swarm as a bonus game mode?” The answer was not what he expected – the Council had spoken: Blizzard DOTA needed to be its own game.
It was around this same time that the name was changed to Blizzard All-Stars, after the argument between Valve and Blizzard was settled. The team was stoked to be working on All-Stars as its own project, but they didn’t think through what that meant. This was Blizzard. It needed to be a true Blizzard game – refined, iterated upon until it was pitch-perfect, and only then released into the wild. It couldn’t be just another MOBA. In 2013, there was a point where they had to split the code base from StarCraft to its own and that alone took three months. Browder explains that it was like WoW’s Cataclysm. Nothing would ever be the same after that point.
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm was finished and shipped in 2013. If it wasn’t “real” after the design council’s decision to give All-Stars its own spotlight, it certainly was now. But that’s when it became all too apparent – Blizzard All-Stars was too much like every other game in the space. There needed to be something aside from the Blizzard characters to make it stand out from the crowd.
The first thing they did was figure out a name. Browder and Samwise initially lobbied for it to stay as Blizzard All-Stars and to go with the acronym BALS, but apparently in Browder’s words “Only we two were comfortable with our 12 year-old sense of humor”. Altar of Storms? Close but not quite. Tons of name ideas were thrown out, but Heroes of the Storm had the most resonance, made the most thematic sense in a game all about nonsensical fantasy battles between heroes from other dimensions.
The name was picked… but what would give Heroes of the Storm its voice? As Blizzard waded knee-deep into the design of Heroes of the Storm, they learned three core lessons that would shape the entire game’s design.
In August of 2013, Browder and crew made a choice. They needed to showcase a hero that would highlight what HotS is supposed to be about. That’s how they came to design Abathur. His ability to tunnel, to create clones, to send minion swarms, it created a whole new way to play a MOBA. When Dustin said he was to have no items, people panicked. “How can you have a MOBA without items? Where would the meta come from?” But that’s the idea – the meta of Heroes of the Storm would eschew traditional design standards. The best way for it to do that is to let its heroes lead the way. Abathur was just the beginning. He paved the way for heroes like Cho’gall, the Lost Vikings, and more. He also let the team know that it was OK to ditch the items and to go with the talent system.
The second lesson came from a strange place. Dustin was reading a book by renowned basketball coach John Wooden. It’s all about the core values of teamwork, of protecting your people, of making it safe to fail. It’s this message that led the team to make one of the most fundamental design choices in all of Heroes of the Storm – group leveling. In other MOBAs the player is punished if he or she doesn’t look out for number one. Stealing XP and kills from your teammates is actually rewarded. This is completely contradictory to any team sport. It’s like asking Allen Iverson to just keeping tossing up shots with 35% success rate instead of passing the damn ball. As Browder put it, “Your team is your team. No one wins if you all don’t win, so you shouldn’t be competing for resources.” To that end, they got rid of individual levels and made the team succeed or fail together. Because of this, team play, focusing on objectives, and communication are unrivaled in Heroes of the Storm among its competitors.
The last lesson (or two) learned was one owed to StarCraft II’s multiplayer; it’s simply that shorter matches feel better. The twenty minute sweet spot just felt right, and when compared to matches that took you an hour or more, only to lose and get nothing for your time? It may sound funny, but people preferred to lose quickly, and more importantly? Winning or Losing is more fun when you do it on a variety of maps. Where most MOBAs focus on one map with three lanes, Heroes zags in the other direction, giving players a rotation of battlegrounds with different objectives, designs, and goals. People unsurprisingly responded well to having variety in their gameplay. It keeps things fresh, and the HotS community wants more to keep coming, which Browder is keen to give them.
All of this came together in the Summer of 2013. The name, the game, the heroes, the mechanics. It was a collective, team-wide “Oh man, we get it now” moment that made everyone at Blizzard feel comfortable the Heroes of the Storm team was onto something special with their little Mod-turned-MOBA.Games meant to have a long life cannot remain stagnate. They need the room to grow. The maps, the hero designs, the talents, it all gives room for Heroes of the Storm to constantly evolve. Will there be an Overwatch-themed payload map in HotS? It’s not only possible, but plausible! They’ve got a single-lane ARAM map because of popular demand, and it could become its own permanent mode because the game’s inherent design allows for it to do so.
Browder opined near the end of our conversation: “Is there a world in 5 years where it’s all different? Yes, because we have that flexibility. The community gets what we’re about, and they’re with us. They demand we go for the exciting. We want it, they want it. That’s what it’s about. When we started this project it was about safe ambitions, and now we’re in crazy town with a team of 150 guys and gals beating away on the game. We’re always experimental, and loving it.”
We’ll see where the next five years takes Browder and his team, that much is certain as Heroes of the Storm has a rabid and strong fan base to represent it at the company’s annual BlizzCon these days. However, in trying to rush a demo for BlizzCon five years ago, Heroes of the Storm somehow became Blizzard’s most atypical game, and therefore the studio’s biggest triumph.