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Feature Article

Heroes Of The Storm Devs On The Fate Of Hanamura And Balance Changes

Here's what to expect from Blizzard's "hero brawler" over the next year.

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This year at Blizzcon, Blizzard announced that Heroes of the Storm will add two new characters to its roster, Hanzo from Overwatch and Alexstrasza from Warcraft. But what exactly do the new heroes and other upcoming changes mean for the game? Heroes of the Storm production director Kaeo Milker walked us through what to expect from HotS over the next year, including how the matchmaking process is getting a revamp, the fate of Hanamura, and how Alexstrasza's dragon powers will work.

And in case you missed any of the other big Blizzcon 2017 announcements, you can catch up on all of the news and announcements through our roundup here.

The following interview was edited for content and clarity.

GameSpot: I was curious about Alexstraza. It's not the first big character, but I can't imagine that you're just going to be able to switch between dragon form and her human-like form back, at will.

Kaeo Milker: Yeah, for access to her big, old dragon form, you use her trait called Dragon Queen. It's an activatable ability that only stays on for 15 seconds. So it's not like she's in dragon mode all the time; it is a delicate balance in having this gigantic dragon on the battlefield. We have body blocking, and there's a lot of things that she would interfere with. The art and design team spent a long time trying to make sure that she was this imposing force and felt really big and mighty, but didn't break the game.

So there's a balance there between her animation, the poses she's in, and also the fact that she's only in this mode for 15 seconds. But, those are a very powerful 15 seconds. It amps her health and all of her abilities get amplified as well, so you're kind of like in mega-dragon mode when you go into that.

Why was now the time to introduce a character like Alexstraza?

It's interesting. This game, we're pulling from 25-plus years of Blizzard games, and we have this giant list of all the potential heroes we could be making. There are literally hundreds of them, and they're all awesome. So we're always trying to pick, "What does the game need at this moment? What feels good? What is a role, or a niche that we haven't really filled yet, that would be a good addition, and provide players with a new, interesting choice and new strategies?"

So for Alexstraza, we knew we wanted to go with something that was a dragon aspect again. We get asked for Deathwing all the time. Deathwing is something that we'd want to be this big dragon all the time, which is just really, really difficult. So Alexstraza let us get the balance of fulfilling that dragon fantasy, and at the same time introducing a really interesting new support mechanic.

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She's our first percentage-based healer. So, her Q ability takes a percentage of her health, and it gives 150% to the targeted ally. She's basically trading her own health for her ally's health. Then her W ability is an AoE heal that heals everybody who's in it, including herself. So the balance with her is trading her health for an ally's health, and then healing herself and her allies so that she keeps her health up. She can keep doing this dance of healing, losing life, gaining life. But it's a totally different mechanic we haven't had in the game before.

Thinking about adding new characters, is it based on what people are playing, or are you just looking at the overall spread of what's already created?

It's a combination--what does the game offer in general, and then a subset of that is what are people really playing now or what's getting used the most? Then we try to make sure we're just adding new things to it that feel different.

When Hanzo comes out in December, that'll be 75 heroes. It's a lot of heroes, and our goal is to make them all feel different and unique. We're looking for where's a new opportunity, what's an interesting idea we have that would fulfill a cool new fantasy that hasn't existed in the game before?

What about for maps? How do you decide, "Now's the time to introduce a new map with this kind of different mechanic"?

Battlegrounds are something that is interesting for Heroes, because it's something very unique about our game. We have all these different battlegrounds that you get to play on, and each one has totally different mechanics. They drive not only the way you play the game in that match, but it's also dictating things like which heroes are more or less powerful.

So the same thing, really, has come into play. We're balancing, fantasy-wise, creative, visually, all the things we want to bring to the game. So this year, we brought two Overwatch battlegrounds to the game for the first time, joining Diablo and Starcraft. Before that, we were making Nexus-themed battlegrounds that weren't really tied to any Blizzard worlds. But there's definitely a strong desire to bring interesting visuals that look different. And from a design standpoint, we always want the mechanics to be vastly different as well.

Our first Overwatch battleground in the last year was Hanamura, and that one introduced so many things that it was almost too much. We had to pull the battleground. Now we're reworking it, because they were just doing so many different things on it that it got a little confusing. We're taking a step back to clarify what we're doing with that one.

The second battleground we introduced was Volskaya Foundry, and that one's been awesome. It's feeling really good. It's much more focused on some core mechanics of holding a capture point, taking over a two-player boss vehicle that you get to control and wreak havoc with. It also introduced conveyor belts to the game around our capture points, and they really create some interesting moments in team fights.

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What is the status of Hanamura now? Is that something you're still kind of tweaking and working on?

Yeah, we're doing a major rework on it. When it comes back, it will be dramatically different than it was. Visually a lot of the elements will still be there, but the map design, the layout, the way we're interacting with mechanics--we really liked the payload mechanic, but we had lot of other things going on in the battleground that were just causing it to take longer than we wanted it to. It just wasn't as clean as we would like it to be. So when it comes back it will be some familiar elements but distilled down to the coolest parts of what we liked about that battleground before.

For Volskaya Foundry, what's the reaction been to that, from the community?

That one's been great. I think that has a lot going for it. Structure-wise, it feels familiar enough that I think even new players can get into it and understand what they're doing. It does borrow from some things, like the capture point and holding mechanics in Overwatch, so there's something there that I think parallels really nicely and that players can understand.

Then that two-player vehicle that you get to drive is interesting because anyone who's played Cho'gall has been in this vein a little bit, but if they haven't, it actually is a good training ground for Cho'gall as well. It's like this collaboration between a driver and a gunner inside the vehicle, and it's been awesome. I think we've gotten a lot of great feedback on it.

It was really nice to follow up Hanamura with that one, and say, "All right, this one's awesome." Because at the same time that came in, we pulled out Hanamura. So we gave a little Overwatch, we took a little Overwatch; but Hanamura will be back better than ever.

Ideally we're letting each map have its identity and its own special features that are unique to it. Sometimes we do things, and we think, "Wow, that's really awesome." I think our instinct is let's put that on all the battlegrounds. But, that starts to water them all down. Something we love about the game right now is that diversity. Being able to have unique, calling-card kind of moments. Anytime we start spreading something around, it takes away from that. So, generally we try not to do it.

Thinking about dedicated events, like the Diablo Eternal Conflict, content that's focused around a single game--is that something that you've thought about bringing back?

We talk about it. We're in a world now where we really like bringing together groups of things that are related, whether it's IP specific, like Eternal Conflict, or we did Machines of War, for Starcraft. Or even events like Hallow's End, and Wintervale's coming up here pretty soon. This game's usually about all this wild diversity and crazy stuff happening, but when we take little moment focus on, we're like, "Oh cool, this is where I get to dive in deeper to this one thing that I like a lot." We really enjoy that. The team loves working on things where it's like, "We get to make Christmas skins across all the heroes! Who are we bringing into the mix?" It's a pretty fun process.

Speaking of skins, it's interesting how you have very different Overwatch skins from what we have in the Overwatch game. I was wondering how that design process works--deciding the Heroes of the Storm take on Tracer or D.Va. Do you talk to that team at all? Is it kind of a separate thing where you're like, "No, no, this is now our version of this character. We're going to do what we want"?

With a lot of the games, with Warcraft and Starcraft and Diablo, we have some interaction with the other teams, but we've largely taken them, reinterpreted them, and done what we will. Overwatch is Blizzard's newest IP, and I think it's still developing. People are still forming their opinions and knowledge of who these characters are and what they do. We've been a lot more sensitive with Overwatch about trying to really communicate a lot with the Overwatch team. They've had input on everything from the character design, the models specifically, to our abilities. We're adding a secondary heroic that they don't have in their game, and that's creating something new that hasn't existed before.

So there's a lot of back and forth with them to get that right and make sure that we're not doing anything that's veering from the course they're already trying to establish for their characters in their world. That's been a really fun process too, getting to work so closely with that team and this amazing universe that they're creating right now and still building on.

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2018 is, overall, going to be another big year for Heroes of the Storm. What are some of the changes that we'll see coming to the game?

In addition to the heroes, we also introduced the 2018 Game Play Update. This is a collection of changes that are really focused in-game. Before, we were doing out-of-game stuff; this is really core game play. We're changing the way you interact with and play the game. A lot of them are really built around changing the initial phase of the game.

Right now, the game's always designed to have three phases. The initial laning phase; then this big, objective, team fight phase; and then a finale where you get to the point where one team is ready to end it all and win. The laning phase has all been really small in Heroes of the Storm. I've gotten a lot of praise for that, because there's been some who've been like, "In other games you might spend 20 minutes laning, and you're just basically waiting for the game to begin." So that's something that we were very passionate about. We didn't want this long, drawn-out laning phase. We wanted you to get to action very quickly, and I think we've succeeded with that.

But at the same time, our current laning phase was sometimes as short as one minute before an objective was spawned and everyone goes into a team fight. There was just no impact to that, so we're making changes that are really about making that initial laning phase meaningful. It's still going to be fast, it's still going to get you to the action very quickly, but it's going to allow opportunities for players initially, in 1V1 and 2V2 situations, to show their skill and be able to dominate the lane. Or, win in a way that the successes you have in that initial phase are actually to set you up for further success later on as well.

And we're excited to bring in changes where we're making adjustments to mercenaries; we removed ammo from towers. Everything's really built around just changing up that initial phase and making it feel better.

And looking ahead we're going to keep trying to make amazing heroes. Sometimes we pick a hero that might resonate with somebody who hasn't tried Heroes or even a Blizzard game in years, could be decades, and they say, "They have The Lost Vikings in Heroes of the Storm? Awesome, I want to check that out."

Is there anything else you wanted to hit on?

A lot of the changes are really focused on improving stuff that's already in the game. So, something that's big that I talked about at Opening Ceremonies, and they covered a little bit yesterday in our panel, is performance-based matchmaking.

Matchmaking is one of these eternal problems in video games. A perfect matchmaking system is ultimately going to make you lose half your games. So I think a lot of people are very critical of matchmaking systems. It's something that you're always trying to improve, but there's no such thing as perfection.

But for Heroes, we've had a lot of feedback from people about, "We're in this team-based game, and your matchmaking system basically says if I lose, my rating goes down, if I win, my rating goes up. It goes up more if I'm playing against people that are more skilled than me. It goes down more if I lose against people who are less skilled than me. But, I feel like I'm awesome. My team wasn't awesome, and I'm getting punished for it."

Performance-based matchmaking is really taking a different look at the way we do our matchmaking adjustments, and it's allowing people's performance in-game to directly influence the rating as it's changing. So, if they're an amazing Li-Ming, and we're actually going to compare their stats in the game against all of the other Li-Mings that are playing the game and be able to determine, "How good are they? Are they an upper echelon person?" We'll be able to adjust their rating accordingly. So, even if they lose, they're not going to be losing as many points as they were losing before. We're going to offset that based on their performance and give them credit for being really good. That's going to allow them to move up faster, and not move down as quickly if they're losing in certain situations. So it'll get them to where their actual skill is a lot faster.

It will also allow them to be matched up against people, both on their team and on the enemy team, that are the right skill with them. This feeling of "Why am I being matched with people who aren't as good as me?" You're very quickly going to be getting matched with people that are as good as you, and we're going to know that definitively now, based on this comparison of your personal stats.

It's an exciting thing. Players have been crying out for it saying, "Hey, I'm awesome. My team's not. What's happening here?" So, here's a really cool solution for that.

Related to that you also have the way the game deals with player toxicity. How are you guys addressing that part of the community?

So much of this game has been about trying to make decisions that minimize that in the first place, and I think we have been successful. It's always challenging with multi-player games, PVP games, and games where it's team-based. So there's always finger pointing. There's always people who have a bad day and bring it into the game and decide to bring everyone else down with them. But a lot of these changes have been about trying to create situations where people can feel good.

Right now, voice chat's coming into the game. Voice chat is something that, it's really critical in a game like this to have good communication so that you can collaborate with your team. There have been challenges with communication, and voice chat is one. And it's an opt-in system, so if you don't ever want to participate in voice chat, you don't have to. If you're in a party with friends, you're going to be automatically in it, but if you just join and are playing a game with people you don't know, you have a choice of whether or not you use it.

But I think the people who are going to use it well, and the way it's intended to be use, are going to be much better prepared to succeed in the game. Of course, if someone is not being good in there, just like everything else in our game, you'll be able to mute, report, and get them off, then not talk to them anymore.

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Justin Haywald

GameSpot's Managing Editor and part-time stunt double for Elijah Wood.
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