Blizzard might have not written the rulebook for the MOBA genre – but their role in providing the ink to those who did is hard to ignore. After all, the original Aeon of Strife and Defense of the Ancients maps for StarCraft and WarCraft 3 defined a lot the foundation for games like League of Legends and DOTA 2.
For many, it earned them a pass when they announced they would be diving into the genre with their own effort: Heroes of the Storm.
In 2012, the MOBA world was undergoing a bit of a boom. It was a time when Call of Duty still wore the crown for multiplayer gaming, they were very much the upstarts. Like MMOs and mascot-platformers before them, the industry latched onto the genre and it wasn’t long before it became saturated. Lord of the Rings got a MOBA. The DC Universe got a MOBA. Hell, even Dead Island got a MOBA.
It’s for the best, then, that Heroes of the Storm came from a more humble place. Well, as humble as you can get when one of the most prestigious names in gaming is involved.Like the original Defense of the Ancients, it started life as a fun experiment for the StarCraft II design team. They were in the grace period between the launch of Wings of Liberty and the development of its first expansion and encouraged to work on side projects using the Starcraft II mod and mapmaking tools.
Senior Designers Matt Gotcher and Peter Nott successfully pitched and prototyped a map called Blizzard All-Stars, which saw Warcraft and Starcraft characters do battle on in a MOBA-like arena.
According to John Hodgson, “The prototype was extremely popular internally… that was the birth of what would eventually become Heroes of the Storm.”
Now lead technical developer on Heroes of the Storm, he says “The first iterations of Blizzard All-Stars were not completely unlike what we see today in Heroes of the Storm, just smaller and without most of the game systems changes.”
“There were a couple of battlegrounds, all just different terrain layouts (no new mechanics) and about 12 Heroes, some of which are still with us today with some of the same abilities (Stitches in particular hasn’t changed much from six years ago). However, there were no Diablo Heroes in the oldest iterations. There was still an item/gold system and the concept of “last-hitting” minions.”
“In short, Heroes of the Storm started by looking and scoping much like the most popular MOBA games of its day.”
“Originally”, Hodgson says, “it was slated to be a ‘value-add’ feature to the Heart of the Swarm expansion, but we quickly realized that just sticking as an add-on to StarCraft wouldn’t be right for the budding game – this was a game that, in order to reach its full potential, would need a different infrastructure (like a new ranked system), art, and technology to really work well.”
As production on StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm began to ramp up, the decision was made to continue to iterate on Blizzard All-Stars.Hodgson says “There wasn’t really much pushback – everyone was excited to make what would eventually become Heroes of the Storm a reality. At the time it was just a question of priorities, and though Heart of the Swarm was getting the lion’s share of the development resources, we always had talented designers and artists contributing to Heroes.”
“When Heroes of the Storm started development in earnest, we weren’t seeing a lot of exploration into new ways of thinking about the game systems and mechanics that were taken as ‘must-haves’ for a game to be considered in the MOBA genre – developers were sticking to what was known, and what was safe.”
“We tried to approach each system that we knew were staples in the genre very critically. We’d ask (and continue to ask) questions like ‘Is this mechanic fun?’, ‘If it is, what exactly is fun about it?’, ‘Okay, it’s fun, but what are the annoying or degenerative aspects that come along with this mechanic?’ and ‘Can we get that same fun by doing something else that minimizes those bad aspects’?”Slowly but surely, Heroes began to build up its roster, both in terms of maps and playable characters. Unlike other MOBAs, the game featured multiple battleground – each with its own quirks and creatures.
However, this aspect of the game started in a very different place to where it ended up.
According to Hodgson, “it used to be that they simply were different terrain layouts, very similar to StarCraft II maps. We knew from StarCraft that changing the layout of maps had some implications on gameplay and we thought that would be interesting, but there was always this nagging thought that they could be something more. We were always interested in making StarCraft maps with mechanics in them – for example, the rising lava from the Redstone mission in the Wings of Liberty campaign – but our experiments found that they weren’t great for StarCraft.”
“After a while, we decided to take a leap and try map mechanics in Heroes of the Storm. Cursed Hollow was our first try and it turned out to be a lot of fun, though it was a safe experiment in that it was just a “standard” three-lane battleground with a twist. Then we decided to go further and built what would become Blackheart’s Bay, and eventually we knew we had a winning formula on our hands.”
A similar process was at work with the design of the playable heroes in the game.
According to Hodgson, “As our design philosophy has developed, we began to also keep in mind how [each] Hero fits into the game as a whole.”
“Sometimes we have a very strong character fantasy we want to hit, like Jaina’s “Frost Mage” fantasy, or Chen’s “drinking-gives-you-power” fantasy – in those cases, the character heavily informs the design. Other times we have cool mechanics we think would be great for the game: everything from multi-Hero control (Lost Vikings), channeled/mobile healing (Lt. Morales), long range/melee range gameplay swapping (Greymane), two players as one Hero (Cho’gall).”
In addition, Hodgson says, “Our characters already have long, histories in other Blizzard games, so players are expecting to see or feel certain things when playing that character – for example, Thrall must play like how players expect Thrall would act, given his history in Warcraft.”
“As with battlegrounds, we try to stick to the core design tenants with Heroes: deliver on player fantasy and character expectations, create compelling mechanics, and provide meaningful choices (both through combat decisions and Talent customization).”
As a long-time fan of Blizzard games, it’s been interesting to watch the company pivot to multiplayer-focused experiences and eschew single player ones. Hodgson asserts the decision to make a Blizzard game without a campaign was a logical one.
“Like any design decision, there are benefits and detractions from being single-player focused versus multi-player focused. For Heroes of the Storm, we knew that one of the reasons that MOBAs were so fun and popular in the first place was that playing with your friends on a team was awesome – we’d be losing that if we focused on single-player for Heroes of the Storm.”
“I think the Overwatch and Hearthstone teams had to tackle that question of focus themselves, and arrived at a very fun conclusion in both cases,” he says.
These days, it’s a brave new world for MOBAs.
According to Hodgson “there’s a lot of newer ideas flying around today than there was back then – developers seem to be getting bolder with unique concepts they want to try for the genre.”
Hopefully some of the better ones in Heroes of the Storm stick and Blizzard is left with a legacy as more than just the stewards of the genre’s early days but as an engineer of the better days still to come.