Blizzard set out to make a StarCraft mod, and instead reinvented gaming's most popular genre

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The team at Blizzard was exhausted. StarCraft 2 had just shipped on July 27, 2010, and they barely had time to take a breath before someone at the studio was asking what they planned to show at the next BlizzCon, Blizzard’s fan-based convention.

"And we said 'Wow guys, we just shipped a game. We're not showing anything at BlizzCon.'" Blizzard's Dustin Browder told Polygon. "And they said, 'Look these guys are gonna pay a bunch of money, and they're gonna come see our games. What are you showing at BlizzCon?'"

There had to be something new for the fans, who didn't really care that a game had just shipped. They paid good money to be entertained at the show, so something had to be done. It turns out this was the first step to the creation of Blizzard's newest game, a title that would try to rethink a formula made monstrously popular by games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends.

And it all happened because they were tired, and had to come up with something that could be made quickly.

It started with the tools

"At that time we had real concerns that the mod making community inside Starcraft 2 would not take off. We had this huge community in Warcraft 3, would they come over, would they use our tools?" Browder asked. "We knew we had more powerful tools, but what if they just didn't show? And that's kind of a developer feeling that happens, you know, what if I make a game and nobody shows up?"

Photo credit: arstechnica.com

They had a few months to work, so they decided what the hell. They would use the mod tools included in StarCraft 2 to create a little game called Blizzard DOTA, a way to show that you could even make a MOBA-type using the built-in tools. DoTA itself began as a Warcraft map, so in some ways this was bringing the genre back to its roots.

They also put together a zombie game and a puzzle game called Star Jewel, just to show fans the flexibility of the toolset.

"This allowed us to test a bunch of our systems that we had put in the game but we never actually tested, because we actually had done a bunch of work to make this type of game because we knew our fans would want to," Browder explained.

There is an arcade machine inside Blizzard's offices that plays a wide variety of emulated games in what has to be a quasi-legal way, and the sides of the cabinet feature art from all of Blizzard's key properties.

That's what they wanted to show at BlizzCon, they decided after looking at the arcade machine with fresh eyes: A game where all these great characters and worlds came together, a way to have their favorite characters from each major property duke it out.

A very early version of what was then called Blizzard DOTA was shown at BlizzCon 2010 and received an enthusiastic reception from fans. The plan was to work on it for a few more months and release it as a free addition to StarCraft 2. It was to be a fun, and free, way to get fans excited about interacting with the game in new ways.

At this point the game was being made by one or two designers with a few artists giving them help in their spare time. Work was also picking up steam on Heart of the Swarm, and everyone was enthusiastic about Blizzard DOTA, so why not give it some more time and resources?

They pushed the release back, and gave it another mission. "Maybe we'll put it in Heart of the Swarm, how about that? We'll put it in Heart of the Swarm, and that will give us another year or something to work on it cause we're not really working on it full time, and it'll be a lot cooler," Browder said.

"We were starting to fall in love with it and we wanted to do more with it," he said.

Blizzard All-Stars

The game went back to BlizzCon the following year and the fans loved it again. It was renamed Blizzard All-Stars after a dense, and confusing, flurry of legal disputes over the ownership of the DoTA trademark.

"At this point, we're starting to get suspicious that we could release it anytime we wanted in the Starcraft engine, we could make it free to play, maybe we could sell some heroes," Browder said. "It would still be part of Starcraft, but maybe we could sell a few things in it, we'll give you a bunch of free heroes and just sell a couple others."

Blizzard DOTA being played at BlizzCon

The team had swelled to four or five designers, and between 10 to 20 artists who were working on it in their free time. They began to look at the StarCraft 2 engine to figure out how to turn Blizzard All-Stars into a game with monetization options.

There was no BlizzCon in 2012, as Blizzard was head-down on too many projects to give time to the show. In fact, the Blizzard All-Stars project was about to get evaluated.

"We have a process here at Blizzard called a strike team where we get a bunch of people who are not on the game teams, well they're not on the game team making the game," Browder explained. Different people come into projects they're not a direct part of, play through the content that has been created, and give their feedback.

"And it's the most brutally honest experience you could possibly have in your life. They'll just look at you point blank and say, 'Well, you're not gonna release this cause it sucks, right?' I mean they'll just tell you whatever."

The strike team loved the game.

"I remember very distinctly, I went to this design council meeting, with all the game directors in the studio and they said, 'You can't make this part of Starcraft, its gotta have its own UI. Its gotta have its own ladders, it's gotta have its own profiles, all that stuff. You've gotta just do that. You've gotta split it out. It's too cool to be hidden inside Starcraft, and it's not that players won't find it there, they will. It's just that there's all this extra stuff that they're gonna want, Starcraft's not gonna be easily able to support. And it's not gonna be as cool as it could be if you split it out.'"

Suddenly it looked like Blizzard All-Stars would become its own free-to-play, standalone game.

"And, I don't know," Browder said. "Like a dumbass, I was just like, 'Yeah, cool.'"

The standards had to be raised

Every aspect of the game had to be improved to meet the quality standard of a standalone product.

"We had the comment when the strike team was playing, it was fun but it felt like a mod game for Starcraft," Sam Didier, a senior art director at Blizzard, told Polygon. "And as soon as we said this is our own game, we basically tore out every single piece of Starcraft art that we could."

Once Heart of the Swarm shipped in 2013, the team working on the game began to swell considerably.

"It starts growing hand over fist, and now we're adding people like crazy, and now the pressure is really on, right?" Browder said. It also became clear that they're working on an already crowded genre, and both League of Legends and Dota 2 have grown into massive, worldwide successes since the early experiments with Blizzard DOTA.

"And suddenly, with that mod value off, suddenly the standards for the game go through the roof [...] so what are we doing with this game?" Browder asked. "What are we offering fans that is really unique?"

They had a meeting about the item shop, and things began to get interesting.

In most games of this genre you earn currency which is used to buy items, potions and buffs that make your character more powerful. Picking the right items at the right time for your character is a huge part of both League of Legends and Dota 2.

They were discussing the idea of removing the item shop altogether, and one of the game's designers was becoming, as Browder put it "emotionally distressed" at the idea of removing an aspect of the game that's a key part of the genre.

There were people on the team against the idea of an item shop and a gold system, as they just allowed those in the lead to remain in the lead and crush the other side. It added a layer of complexity that may not be welcoming to new players.

"You guys don't get it. Dota is about shitting on people. That's what it's about," designer Justin Klinchuch said.

Browder remembers the moment well. "We look at him and said 'Well that's true, but is that the kind of game we want to make?"

They had spent years working on the item and gold systems. Creating the shop, balancing the items and making sure they all worked together. The item shop was a large part of what made up the genre. It impacted all aspects of the game's design.

"Oh no," Klinchuch said, as remembered by Browder. "I don't want to make that."

The item shop, and the gold economy, were ripped out completely.

Finding the game's heart

"At that point we went nuts. At that point, we started attacking every part of this game. We started looking back at those wild west days of 2002 and 2004 when the genre was really wide open, saying, what is it we want to do? What do we think is gonna be cool? What is the game you want to play?" Browder said.

"And we would argue about it, and fight about it, and struggle with it, and cheer over it when we got a success. And that's when it got, I think the battle really, really began in earnest to separate away from what was Blizzard DOTA to become Heroes of the Storm."

This is the secret of Blizzard's success, they take big-name games that they love, and they remake them, but put their own stamp on it. This wasn't going to be a clone of any existing MOBA games, this was going to be a Blizzard game that started in the same place, but went off course into something a bit more innovative.

"Let's take a game that we all love playing, do what we want to do to make it ours, just like we've done with every single game from the past. Vikings was Lemmings. Rock and Roll Racing, name any of those car games out there. Warcraft came from Dune, so it's the same thing with Heroes of the Storm," Didier stated. "It's like, we take a game that we like and then we make our version of it. If we like it, it turns out that people like it as well."

So they threw out the item shop, but that was just the beginning.

You don't have to worry about last-hitting the creeps to get experience in Heroes of the Storm, in fact experience is shared among the entire team. The turrets have limited ammunition, so if you try to wait out the attacking side they'll be able to roll over you. There are objectives on every map that radically change the flow of battle.

The design goal is to keep each match under 20 minutes of play, and the game all but forces you to be aggressive, to duke it out with the other side. Blizzard has often shunned the MOBA moniker to call it a "team brawler."

"There was a lot of concern on the development team that we were changing too much, that this was too much of a departure and that no one wanted the team-based game," Browder remembered. "No one wanted to be sharing the experience with their allies. Nobody wanted multiple battlegrounds. That was a fear that ran through some folks, and then, we went to BlizzCon and the lines were insane, and the feedback from the fans was highly positive."

In 2013 there were between 80 and 90 developers inside Blizzard working on the game. As of this writing, there are about 140 people working on Heroes of the Storm.

Brawling with your friends

The design changes to the game not only make play faster and more aggressive, but easier for new players to come into the game and begin playing. The trick is to focus on your team, to share victories and experience and to work together to own the map and use every asset to your advantage.

"Work together with your allies, work together with your allies," Browder explained. "You're not competing with your allies, your allies are not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy. Work with your buddy and try to destroy the competition."

This gets into the map selection as well, which is a major differentiator between Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends or Dota 2. The maps completely change the flow of battle, and each one asks you to do something different.

In the "Cursed Hollows" map each team is trying to capture Tributes that will ultimately curse the other team, reducing the opposing side's minions to one health and removing the ability of the enemy fortress to attack.

There is a map called "Blackheart's Bay" where you have to collect and deliver doubloons from the map to the pirate, and if you give him 10 doubloons he'll use his ship to attack the enemy base. This causes both sides to scramble for the coins and attack players who are holding the coins to steal them back.

The "Dragon Shire" map tasks each side with controlling two obelisks to open an altar that has the power to turn a player into a powerful Dragon Knight.

If you control the map, you control the match. These objectives can give one side a huge advantage, and they all change the basic strategy for play. Or you could use the enemy's scramble for each objective against them.

"I would say, easily, four out of five times going for the map objective is correct, and that one time that it's not correct, you better have a plan," Browder said. "That better not be 'Eh, we're gonna ignore the objective and then fiddle around for awhile.' That's suicide."

The game still runs on the StarCraft 2 engine, complete with the tools created to get the game to this level. So will fans be able to create their own maps?

"I certainly hope so. We have a few challenges to do it in a free-to-play environment with that," Browder said. "It's not a Herculean problem. It's a little problem we need to solve that we just haven't solved yet."

There are also UI issues with surfacing that content, and they need to be able to shut down maps that are offensive or infringe on someone's copyrights. These are all solvable problems, but it's going to be a process.

Browder stressed that it's something they care about, as Blizzard fans have communicated with the team, and in fact improved Blizzard games, through editing tools. The original idea behind StarCraft 2 maps was to keep them within a certain size. The design team kept the map sizes "moderate," so players couldn't just hide bases. The community was, as Browder said, "annoyed."

"They ended up making a bunch of maps, we ended up taking those maps and putting them into the game, and honestly it improved the game fairly substantially," he explained. "And we saw that, we were like, "Oh boy, we were wrong.'"

They want the same back and forth with Heroes of the Storm. "I don't see a world where we don't [allow user-crated maps]. But the team is extremely passionate about that part of gaming and that part of game creation, providing those tools to the community. So I think you can definitely expect this, I just can't promise you a date," Browder said.

Ongoing development

The game is currently in the pre-alpha stage, and a large incoming update will drastically improve the user interface. It will be easier to see your cool downs, and the minimap will be enlarged to be easier to see. You will use hot keys to select your talents if you don't want to read the text. Team leveling will now be at the top middle of the screen so you can tell at a glance how well each side is doing.

It will be easier to see how many enemies are alive or dead so you know when to press your advantage. Now that they know what the game is, and it has its own personality and flow, the UI will change to reflect the information that's most important to the players.

In a few months they'll move the game from the test hardware serving North America to the server architecture that holds games like World of Warcraft and Hearthstone. This is another step towards an open beta and, eventually, release. They have a multi-year plan for more heroes, more maps and more game modes, but that depends on player reaction.

Heroes of the Storm is fast, it's easy to pick up, but hard to master. It stresses teamwork and adapting your strategy to each map. It may have started as a tiny project by a few people, but it's turned into a major focus for Blizzard. All because a few tired developers wanted to create a fun version of DOTA to show at BlizzCon.

"We usually just make the games where we're having fun making them, and that's really the main thing. We're not necessarily thinking too much about how are we gonna go in and conquer this sort of thing or how are we gonna crush this sort of thing," Didier said.

"We go, 'Hey, this would be fun.' We've made that with pretty much every game we've ever made. 'Oh hey guys, man, we love Everquest, we should do something,'" he continued. "That was World of Warcraft, and that was the whole thing."

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