Feature Article

After Ragnaros, Heroes of the Storm Dev Wants to See "How Far They Can Go"

Things are heating up.

Blizzcon 2016 brought a new set of heroes to Heroes of the Storm as well as the announcement of an intense new Brawl map. Alan Dabiri, the game's technical director, was on-hand to talk us through the changes and explain why Ragnaros is just a sample of how far the dev team plans to push Heroes of the Storm's cast of characters.

GameSpot: We had a lot of exciting announcements for Heroes of the Storm, but I was really surprised by having Ragnaros as a playable character. What went into bringing him to a game like Heroes of the Storm?

Alan Dabiri: First was just the decision of bringing a character like that to the game. We've always been super excited about doing new crazy ideas that go outside of what you normally might find in games in this space. And immediately when we look at our incredible number of heroes and villains in the game, people say, "We've got to do some of those epic raid bosses, right?" The ones that you play in WoW, and you're just in awe of. But immediately you have problem, "Wait, how do we get that into the game? You've got this huge guy in Molten Core, but how do you make that into a character?"

We went through multiple iterations where we were just trying to figure out where to put him? Is he just walking around in the lane? And does he cover the entire lane and break the flow of the game? We went through multiple iterations--at first he started out being at the actual core, and then he was a summonable that could come up, and finally we ended up in this place. I think we're in a good balance here, where you are Ragnaros. You're moving around as Ragnaros, you've got some awesome abilities in the lane that are really destructive: bringing down meteors and all kinds of cool stuff. But then you also have those moments where you can take control of forts. They're not just back at your base, they're out in the field, either yours or an enemy fort. And then you become even more-so that epic raid boss. When that happens, it's funny, the games we play, there's literally that moment of, "Damn, do I stay and fight this?" Or, "No! let's run."

Alan Dabiri
Alan Dabiri

Things are raining from the sky, and he's swinging his hammer. Ragnaros was a bit of a difficult for us to truly get right, but we think we've hit a really fun spot right now. You truly feel like you are Ragnaros, this epic raid boss, and he's a lot of fun to play.

How did you balance against making him too powerful? Making sure this isn't an actual raid boss--you had to scale him down a bit.

That's something we have to do with all our heroes. The first thing we do is try to make them feel epic. People might even think you could translate "epic" as "overpowered." You are heroes, or villains. You are these larger than life people, and you want to feel extremely powerful. That's the first goal, to just dial it up all the way. Then from there you start actually looking at, "How do we bring this back into check?" In a lot of cases there's always a tradeoff.

In Ragnaros' case, when he's moving around in a lane, his escapes aren't that great. Maybe he doesn't have a lot of escapes. He does have some self-sustain with his Q ability, but ultimately if you're out there by yourself you're going to get blown up. Likewise, with his Molten Core trait, where he can take control, he is fixed in place. He does an incredible amount of damage and he's very fearsome, but he's fixed in place. So you can move out of range of that. There's also a time limit, so you'll run out and then you'll pop back out again. Finally, that trait itself has a cooldown.

And I remember seeing the lil' Ragnaros at the end of the main presentation. How does he play into the game?

He's the launch skin for Ragnaros. We love that look so much from World of Warcraft, where it was a pet, that the artists were like, "We've got to make this as a launch skin." So they did it, and it's hilarious. I love the skin.

Did you guys work closely with the Warcraft team on content like this?

We talk very closely with the other teams, we get their feel, we get a lot of reference material from them, obviously and then we start jamming on. What does it mean to take that hero and bring it into Heroes of the Storm? There's always some slight artistic differences, there's always also a decision of where in the timeline do we want to pick that hero. Because someone like, let's say, a Thrall has gone through different kinds of forms as he's gone through the story in World of Warcraft and Warcraft, and so we kind of pick. What do we want the representation to be in Heroes? At the same time, we provide those other time periods through skins, like their master skin or other skins that we make. We work both with the team that's created that character, and then we also do a lot of stuff internally. We really refine the character internally, and ultimately we find that balance between the original character and making it feel like they're in the Nexus.

Talking to that timeline, you're bringing in Varian as kind of a memorial in some ways, after his time in Legion. 

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It was a very, I guess, timely thing to bring him right now, but yeah, that's exactly the same thing, where we kind of want to find out what's the right look for Varian. And even with Varian, we would look at some of those cinematics, and his history and stories, and we then develop abilities and talents based off of those.

Talking with people in the office who don't necessarily play as much Heroes of the Storm, the thing that I think they were most excited about was getting the Genji skin for Overwatch. How do you guys handle, or think about, cross-game perks?

I think one of the amazing things about Blizzard is how much of an ecosystem we have. When people come in and play our games, they actually go and play all of our games. They'll dab around and look into our games. We have this great opportunity that we've done now with many of our games where we can say, "Look, you're a big player of this game. Come check out a game over here, and we'll actually give you benefits on both sides."

In the case of the Genji skin, it was just an awesome skin. It was kind of a no-brainer. We'd actually done cross-promotions with Hearthstone, with World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft's done it with Hearthstone. There's been a lot of cross-promotions across different games. Overwatch is a new game, a lot of excitement, it's an awesome game. It just made sense. Let's make a cool cross-proportion here, and if we can get that awesome skin as well to give as a reward, that's just gravy.

Then the cool thing is we also provide a lot of stuff that's related inside Heroes. The mount is something that has that same thematic style that you get in Heroes, as the skin. We also have portraits that we're going to give out and other kinds of benefits.

Looking at the reaction from the audience, it's always a mix between people who are really excited about the influx of new people that something like this brings in, and the people who are worried that it's going to be all these casuals coming in, and they're just going to leave immediately. How do you guys approach that from the audience perspective--making hardcore players not feel neglected?

Right off the bat, getting people to play the game is always awesome, and we want that. We want to keep on growing the game. We actually have some great matchmaking right now for new users, and so when new users come into the game, we're going to match them against other new users. It's not necessarily that the hardcore are going to get matched up against these newer players who haven't learned the game yet. Instead you have a lot of new players who are playing the game together, learning together, and growing.

We picked the number of games at, right around starting to get some sweet spots, as far as when people start to really understand the game. If people come over and they just play one or two games, sometimes you don't have a chance to really get a feel for the game. If you play a few games, the way we've designed out this promotion is that it gives you a couple of reward spots. For the players coming from Overwatch, you've got that 15 games where you get that skin. At that point you're probably starting to get a feel for Heroes, you're actually seeing what a fun game it is, and you've got that secondary promotion. Now if you go to 30, we actually give you a ton of free heroes, a stimpack, a mount, all kinds of other stuff. It's almost a no-brainer to keep on playing, to go the next step.

We're already seeing a ton of buzz on the internet right now. The players are all geeked up about this promotion, so I think it's going to be really good.

As far as keeping players engaged, you also have Blackheart's Revenge incoming.

It's a brawl for a new game mode that we released recently called Heroes Brawl, and it's a place where we have these rotating brawls and maps. Heroes by itself is already this game where the design and philosophy behind it is to try to be different and break the mold of what other games in the genre provide. We try to really defy the expectations and do new things that are really compelling in this space. Heroes Brawl is kind of a way that we can then break Heroes of the Storm itself. We even go further, which is, rather than having the existing rules of a normal game, we start doing all kinds of wacky stuff. You might have all players on the team play as the exact same hero. You might change their abilities. We might take you to new maps. That's an example of what we're doing with Blackheart's Revenge.

Blackheart's Revenge, what's unique about it is, the rules behind it and the win conditions are completely different than what we've done before. Only one side has a core that is trying to be destroyed. The other side is trying to attack while one side is trying to defend. And you've got Blackheart moving his ship down the docks there, trying to fire his cannons off and blow up the core, while the defenders, their job is to basically take out that ship. The way they do that is, there's a bunch of cannons around the map, and they're spread out on the top and on the bottom. They pick those cannons up, the cannonballs rather, put them in the cannons, and fire off at the ship. As a defender you have to try to get the cannonballs, load them in the ship, and fire, while as an attacker, you're basically trying to defend those cannons from firing while also taking out the opposing team. It's a completely different take on the normal game rules that we have, and we think it'll just be a really fun experience for people.

One of the nice things about Brawl, is it's a place for us to try things out like this, and then if we really like them, maybe we explore it more, try other things, and even bring them into the full game. If they didn't actually work out, or maybe it wasn't as compelling, we either can make tweaks to it or we can just decide, "That was a good run."

The Blackheart Brawl seem particularly intense, from a design perspective. How oftend do you feel like you can turn experiences like this around on a weekly basis?

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There's all kinds of experiences we're doing right now in our Hero Brawl space. Some of them take a long time. Blackheart's Revenge took quite a while to do. It's basically a new map, it has new game systems, all that. We're probably not going to roll something like that out every single week. That one's quite a bit more involved. But it speaks to the varying experiences we want in the Brawl space. Some of them will be these full-on maps that are a new experience, and other ones might be really simple things where we just change the hero selection, make them random, or we have all one hero type. We had a recent one we just did on Towers of Doom, which is an existing map, but all of the heroes were Sergeant Hammer, and she always had her thruster on. There were all these Sergeant Hammers just zooming around the map, and everyone's just laying siege on the opposing bases, and shooting off their cannons and everything. It's just this chaotic, super fun mode. Some of them will be a little simpler, and other ones, like a Blackheart's Revenge, will be more involved.

Heroes of the Storm is a huge part of Blizzard's push into esports. How have you felt about Heroes' growth and trajectory in that space?

We're super happy. We had an awesome 2016, culminating with the awesome games going on here, and there's already been some amazing games going on between the different regions. I think today's going to be awesome, and I'm super excited to actually go and watch those games later on today. Next year we're even leveling it up even more. It's getting even more epic. That's because we're creating this entire HGC organized league, where we're contracting with the players. There's stability, there's consistency. Viewers can understand what exactly they're getting, and what they can watch, and what the storylines are. We allow these teams to form these great rivalries between other teams and create these storylines, and obviously there's these check-in points between the regions where you'll be able to have other regions getting together to see how they match up against each other. Once again, culminating with BlizzCon. I think that is going to be even bigger than what we've done. We've already had an amazing number of tournaments this year, given out a ton of prize money. We have some amazing teams playing in Heroes. Next year we level that up even more, and so it just keeps growing.

Last questions, before Ragnaros was announced, I would've thought that was an impossible kind of hero. I'm sure you guys get here requests all the time. But is there anybody who is completely off the table, where you're like, "No, there's no way that would work?"

If you asked me that when we started this game I would've said, "Yeah, there's some guys we wouldn't be able to do." Then we did something like a Cho'Gall, and now we have Ragnaros. And we have Abathur and Lost Vikings and all those. I'm not sure that we have limitations right now, and really at this point our goal is to see how far we can go. Obviously, we still want to make the thing fun and compelling and fair and balanced, but we've been able to succeed at that. As of right now, I don't think we're putting any restrictions on ourself. That's what's awesome about this game, it let's us see how far we can go, how far we can push it.

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