From the Bullpen: Heroes and Villains

A couple of weeks ago, I kicked off this blog by emphasizing the importance of matching Hero design with the fantasy behind our characters in Heroes of the Storm. By “fantasy,” we mean the core elements that make a character compelling – what are the players’ expectations? Trying to determine expectations isn’t nearly as clear as it sounds, even though we have a lot of history to reference. After the experiences we’ve had bringing new Heroes into the Nexus, the influx of referential information tends to create one of two problems that we might call “the problem of Heroes” and “the problem of Villains.” A good illustration of both comes from the heroes and villains of the Diablo universe.

A disclaimer before we get started: I’m going to be using the term “Diablo” in italics a lot here, which refers to the series as a whole (Diablo, Diablo II, and Diablo III.)

 

The Problem of Heroes

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The “problem of Heroes” is the challenge of designing a Hero from a playable character in another game. For the Diablo series, this means the character classes: Nazeebo, Sonya, and Valla are all Heroes currently in the Heroes Alpha that are translations of Diablo III’s heroic classes (although, as you may have surmised from this blog or the teaser we showed at BlizzCon, there are certainly more to come!) The Diablo classes come with a wealth of passive and active abilities from which to draw when we build that Hero-defining “kit.” We also may get a good idea for what sort of role the heroic class might fill in Heroes of the Storm. A Crusader or Barbarian might fit as beefy Warriors, for example. These class skills really make brainstorming for Heroes fun and easy, but have historically come with pitfalls we’ve been learning to combat effectively.

The immediately obvious challenge is figuring out how to distill scores of passive and active abilities into four or five abilities to form a coherent kit for Heroes of the Storm. When we’re exploring what abilities would really capture the fantasy for these Heroes, we consistently get the internal feedback that we’ve left out key abilities because “that’s how I build my character in Diablo III” or something similar.

Furthermore, conceptually interesting and iconic abilities of these Diablo classes are often at odds with the play style or role that we want to cultivate for the Hero. In all three Diablo games, playing each class is about striking a balance between dealing insane amounts of damage to hordes of enemies and maybe staying alive (in case you’re playing on Hardcore.) The difference between them is how each class goes about the task. That’s awesome for the Diablo games, but for Heroes of the Storm we’re trying to narrow the focus of those Heroes to roles that will make up a team. Every Diablo ability doesn’t need to deal high damage, and every Diablo Hero doesn’t need to be an Assassin, but, of course, they all need to feel powerful in their own ways.

 

The Problem of Villains

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The “problem of Villains” is a bit different. Unlike with Diablo’s heroic classes, the “problem of villains” is about characters that players don’t directly control – in particular the Diablo series’ bosses. We know a lot about how these characters are supposed to behave when you’re playing against them as boss enemies, but their powers are designed such the player can dodge them, their AI is written so that they follow a combat pattern, and ultimately Diablo players are expected to triumph over them. That isn’t the case for a primarily player-versus-player game like Heroes of the Storm, where we should give the same potency and control to all Heroes because players can take charge of any of them.

The Lord of Terror Diablo himself went through a particularly tumultuous design process as we tried again and again to figure out why he felt so clunky to play with, even though we felt that we were definitely staying true to who Diablo is. It turned out that accuracy to Diablo’s character doesn’t make for very compelling gameplay when playing as Diablo. We realized that while all these spells were cool and seemed very Diablo-esque, they were all built on the expectation of fighting against Diablo, not playing as him.

 

Finding Solutions

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The solution to the design problems of both Heroes and Villains involved taking a step away from the fantasy with concerns to specific abilities. We obviously would like to be as true to the character as possible, but in the end we have to ask: would this Hero stand up on its own even if the source character didn’t exist? Would Diablo as a Hero still be awesome play even if there were no Diablo games? In other words, despite the fantasy, the gameplay must still come first!

We think it’s totally okay that we reimagine the way that characters and their abilities work, or make up some new ones as needed in order to suit the goals of the Hero. For example, we resolved to make Nazeebo feel powerful, but indirectly so, through summoning creatures to do damage for him, focusing on damage over time, and trying to reward methodical play. We felt like indirect damage was what made the Witch Doctor class interesting and different from other Heroes. The abilities we reference from Diablo III were tweaked for a certain playstyle we were going for, not on a particular Diablo III “build.” For Diablo, we turned a corner when one of our designers suggested that he toss people around like The Incredible Hulk, because that’s what Diablo looked like he might do. It made us think of Diablo differently. We got rid of a lot of his “spellcaster” abilities (true to his fantasy, maybe, but didn’t resonate with us when under our control) and turned him into something of a pro wrestler.

Addressing the fantasy of both heroes and villains results in Heroes that are extensions of their characters, rather than piecemeal copies of them based on skills and abilities.

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Diablo fans, what do you think? Do our Diablo Heroes hold up after their journey into the competitive world of the Nexus? What do you imagine the Lord of Terror should feel like in Heroes of the Storm? What about the Butcher, a Necromancer, or Kormac? If you’d like to share any thoughts with us, stop by the Heroes Tech Alpha forums, because we love reading and considering your feedback. If you'd like to keep up with John, make sure to give @BlizzJohnzee a follow on Twitter. Until next time!

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