Dustin Browder is the Game Director for both Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft 2. We got a chance to talk to him about Heroes of the Storm's place in the MOBA world, its content release schedule, the possibility of a map editor, e-sports, and more.
PC Gamer: There are a lot of MOBAs out there already and there are a lot more coming. What part of the MOBA market are you trying to carve yourself a place in?
Dustin Browder: We kind of view it a little differently. I know it’s gonna seem dumb, but we don’t really view it from a business perspective like that. We decide if we want to make a game or if we can make a cool game. We have confidence that if we do something that’s cool then we can find an audience. We’ve been accused of all kinds of things that we’re going after on this game, like we’re going after the casual market or we’re going after the e-sport market or whatever. We’re just making the coolest game we know how and we’ll find an audience.
[...] We were all big fans of Aeon of Strife, Defense of the Ancients, and all these games that were created by our community in Warcraft 3 and even a little bit in StarCraft back in the day. We all played these games for many many years, and some of us a bunch of League and some of us played a bunch of Dota 2, some of us are playing Strife and all these other games in the genre. But we went back and started looking at this game and wanting to make a game like this—we went back to the source, we went back to the Aeon of Strife maps that we were playing back in the early 2000s in Warcraft 3 and we imagined “what would we develop if we were thinking about where those games were going?” As opposed to starting with what’s out there today, we started with what we imagined the genre was doing ten years ago, and it took us to a very different place.
PCG: Was simplicity on your mind while you were thinking about all this stuff, or was simplicity just what you arrived at after going back to those old gameplay ideas?
DB: Simplicity is always on our mind at Blizzard game design and Blizzard art and Blizzard engineering. We know that great games come from very simple gameplay pieces that are stacked fifty on fifty on top of one another. The cards in Hearthstone are very simple in the design, but when they start interacting it gets insane. It gets really deep and really interesting. So it wasn’t just this game, StarCraft has a core value of simplicity of design. Trying to keep the pieces clean and clear and as crisp as possible.
This does a couple of things; first of all, it makes the game easier for everybody to get into, which is very exciting. Second of all, it makes it easier to balance and deal with when we’re building the game. It also still makes for an incredibly deep experience because, with the gameplay pieces being simple, everybody can focus on higher levels of strategy. [...] We don’t believe that simple means lack of strategy, or simple means lack of depth. We think “easy to learn, difficult to master,” and part of “easy to learn” is clean game pieces. And in many ways even “difficult to master” can be about clean game pieces, so we’re always shooting for that for all of our games.
PCG: Are you worried the simplicity is going to discourage fans of Dota or LoL? I could imagine a lot of the things I love about Heroes of the Storm being the same things a Dota 2 fan hates.
DB: It’s really interesting. I mean, I don’t know the answer to your question, but I’ve met many people like you and they always say the same thing to me, which is “Well I like it, but I imagine that other people will not.” I’ve never found the guy who likes things really complicated. He’s probably out there and he’s just not talking to me, but most people are in your camp where they’re like “I really enjoy this. I love Hearthstone, and I love that I can get into it and understand it, but I love all the tactical depth that it provides.” They’ll often say the same things about heroes if they’ve had a chance to play. At the end of the day, I don’t know. I mean, yeah, maybe they don’t come. Not up to me, right? Not up to me whether the ten year DOTA veteran likes Heroes of the Storm or not, or maybe he likes it in a different way or maybe he doesn’t like it at all, who knows? All we can do is make the best game we know how, the game we’re excited to play.
PCG: From my experience with it, the game seems very polished. Why go from alpha to a closed beta and how much longer do you think it will be closed for?
DB: It really depends on a lot of factors. There’s some things that you’re seeing going on now that are features we feel like we should have when we launch the game. We feel like we should have ranked play modes. We think we want a profile screen, I’d love to have a profile screen [laughs] How about a score screen? A score screen would be nice—a good one, not the placeholder one we have now. So there’s some basic features that just aren’t in.
I think one of the misconceptions people have about Blizzard—I certainly had it before I came to work here—was that Blizzard takes an extra six months, maybe a year, maybe two years to make a game and they do all that as polish, they polish on the back end. But that’s not actually what we do, we polish as we go. There’s no reason why we shouldn't be looking at the most polished version of the game we can accomplish everyday. So it takes us longer to make games, but we’re polishing everyday. So when you see the game, by our standards three-quarters done, you’ll say “well, it looks like it’s polished,” and there’s truth to that. It is polished in many ways, but there’s still lots of features not in the game.
The second thing that’s also happening that I don’t understand maybe as well as you would like, but I can represent it for you, is just the amount of technology and server infrastructure that’s at stake here. We’ve seen many games in the industry, even our games, launch with challenges, with problems, with bad day one experiences for players.
PCG: Those are nice ways to put it.
DB: Highly uncool, right? Highly uncool. Not what we want, not what anyone in the business wants, and certainly not how we want to represent ourselves. We’re taking a more measured approach into standing up these servers and then getting people into the game and trying to feel out where we’re having problems. At Blizzard, all of our games are connected through Battle.net to one another so you can chat with your friends in Hearthstone, you can chat with your friends in WoW, or whatever it is you want to do. We’ve had challenges where we’ve done something in one game that could potentially crash another game or could cause problems elsewhere. So there’s a possibility that we could do something in Heroes that brings down WoW, Diablo, StarCraft, or Hearthstone. That doesn’t sound fun. We’re taking what to some people might be an overly cautious approach. We don’t agree. We owe it to our players to do our best and to do everything we can to prevent those things from occurring, so we’re taking a cautious approach to who we let in and how many we let in.
PCG: You currently have 6 maps in the game, and how many heroes?
DB: It’s hard for me to remember because I have so many more internally. 34, I want to say? Something like that. [It currently has 33 heroes.]
PCG: Well, I’m sure you’ve got a number you’re not allowed to tell me about.
DB: It’s just I have like another six that are being tested internally, and I get confused because I play that at the office and I play a different version at home. [...] We’re just going to keep adding heroes forever until we get sick of it and stop at this point. There’s no secret number and there’s no number that determines when we launch. I’ve had that asked many many times like “so, how many heroes do you need to launch?” and then they’re doing the math and counting like “you do about about one a month...That’s six months! Gotcha!” Unfortunately, I would launch today with the number of heroes we have. I’m good. The heroes are cool. We’re ready to go.
PCG: How about maps?
DB: We’re good. We’re ready to go. We’re gonna keep adding more, definitely the rate of growth on maps is not gonna slow or stop until we say so. Until somebody tells us “dude, too many maps” or whatever. We’re adding them as frequently as we can, and we’re going to keep adding them as frequently as we can, even after launch. What you’re seeing now is not a burst of speed prior to launch. This is the pace that we’re hoping to continue developing at going forward. We’re gonna add game modes, we’re gonna add new heroes, we’re gonna add new battlegrounds. Our goal for this game is to communicate with our audience to the best of our ability that you haven’t seen anything yet. We don’t want this game to become stale. We do not want this game to become repetitive. We want this game to constantly evolve.