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heroes Heroes of the Storm Interview with Kaeo Milker

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Our Heroes of the Storm interview at GamesCom with Kaeo Milker, Senior Game Producer!

Last week at GamesCom, we had the chance to interview Kaeo Milker, Senior Game Producer for Heroes of the Storm. We discussed the current stage of the alpha test, the vision that Blizzard has for the game as an esport, upcoming features (observer mode, replays, etc.), the artificial intelligence, and how new content is going to be introduced.

Below, you will find the whole transcript of the interview, but first we would like to present you with the main things that we have learnt.
  • Current development is focusing on polishing core gameplay features and making sure that the servers and payment systems are working as intended.
  • Before the game is released, it will have all of the features that can be expected: observer mode, replays, clans, groups, rankings, etc.).
  • It is too early to disclose anything on the ranking system.
  • Blizzard has hopes that Heroes of the Storm will become a popular esport and their esports team is working in this direction.
  • Habitual leavers will end up being matched with other leavers.
  • The AI will eventually be tuned to match the MMR of the player who left.
  • The rejoin feature is going to be improved to allow for faster rejoinds and to maybe allow someone else to take over the player who left.
  • The game will regularly be updated with new Heroes and Battlegrounds.
  • There may be Nexus universes (like the WoW universe from which the game draws its WoW chracter) introduced that are not Blizzard IP. Super Mario against Diablo?

Blizzard Icon Transcript from Interview with Kaeo Milker

Q. A lot of people will agree that the game looks really polished and almost ready to ship, even though it is in alpha. So, what are we looking at in the near future? Is it going to be like balancing and polishing or are there going to be new features?

A. It is kind of a combination of things. Technical alpha was really about us setting up our server infrastructure and payment systems. These are things that we had never done before in this scale. It is really about making that the game is prepared to support a lot of people, because this is a free to play game, and ultimately our hope is that tons of people are going to come in and try it.

We are also still setting up core gameplay. There are mechanics that we are still doing; we are actually still missing a lot of features, like ranked play, especially social features (clans, groups, etc.). That said, the core gameplay is looking really good to us and it is going in the direction that we want it to go, but there is still a long way to go there.

Q. What about more Heroes?

A. Definitely. We are showing 3 new Heroes here at GamesCom, and they will be added to the alpha in 2 upcoming patches. We also added one Battleground since the alpha started, so we now have a total of 5. We have 28 Heroes today. We definitely want to keep layering content in like that and we have been patching alpha every 4 to 6 weeks, adding content and doing a lot of iteration and polish on features. That is going to be an on-going process.

The next phases of this will really be to go from our alpha hardware, well actually our PTR hardware (kind of like when WoW is in PTR) to production hardware. When we enter closed beta, we will actually move everyone in their retail accounts, in the real environment with WoW, Diablo III, Starcraft II, etc.

Q. What are your intentions with the game in regards to being an esport or a competitive game? Do you want to make that happen?

A. Yeah! I think it has a lot of potential for esports. We have kind of gone to this genre and we have really started dissecting it, breaking it apart, and breaking the rules of what people kind of expect from it. Right away, we went in noticed these games are taking 30 minutes, 45 minutes, even 1 hour sometimes, so we said that 15 to 20 minutes is our sweet spot and we tuned the whole game around that. We also did not want to do player leveling, but team leveling, so we really focused everything around the team, how your team cooperates and works together. Finally, instead of doing one dominant map, a kind of rule of thumb for this genre, we decided that we wanted multiple Battlegrounds with unique objectives. We have 5 of those today and we will continue adding more.

So, all these things add up to having a lot more variety and strategic depth for both people playing it and watching it. I think that typically you got like a 15- or 20-minute laning phase in this genre, while our game is over in those 20-minutes and it is basically non stop action from the very beginning. And that is kind of how we intended it. We just wanted you to just get in and you can team fight the second the gate opens.

Q. Right now the focus really is on the team fight and the map objectives. Are you happy with the balance between that and laning? Laning is a really big part of the game in other titles with denying creeps and all that.

A. Laning can be really significant. The way our XP gathering works across the team is that as long as there is a Hero in each lane, getting XP there, the whole team benefits from that. If you abandon that and you just group up right away, even if you are trying to go out and defeat people as a group, you are actually going to fall significantly behind in team experience. So, the laning is significant, but there are choices to be made about how you want to balance that. There are not a wide array of choices typically in this genre. I think that we really like the fact that you have your map objectives, you have your team fights, you have your laning, and there is always a choice to be made, which can significantly affect the tide of the battle. We like that. As players, we like the depth in that and I think from an esports perspective, it is going to offer a lot of variety.

Q. With your intention, or at least hope, of Heroes of the Storm becoming competitively strong, what are your thoughts about the fact that there are at least two really heavy hitters on that market, Dota 2 and League of Legends? And in the case of Dota 2, Valve is really backing their game to be an esport. Do you have plans to organize tournaments and give prize money?

A. Sure! We have a decicated esports team at Blizzard. Obviously, Starcraft II has a very big esports scene, like Warcraft III did before it, and Starcraft did before that. So, our esports team is completely focused on esports, building esports, and supporting third-party sponsors, tournament organizers, and our own development needs for esports. So, we have that group that is going to help foster that and they are just getting started with Heroes of the Storm.

The game is still in alpha, so it is pretty early, but just in the last few weeks, they started announcing that major esports teams are already forming Heroes of the Storm teams that are going to start getting together. They are preparing for BlizzCon and doing initial rounds of exhibition-type matches. As we get deeper into alpha and beta, then we will get deeper into what the actual esports support is going to look like. From a development standpoint, we have been making games that are esports for a really long time and we are clearly going to do all the support we need to do on the game side: observer mode, overlays, replays, all of the things that we have already done in the past.

I think the game is really well suited for esports. There may already be other big games, but I think that there is room for great games to be played, for great games to be watched. We really are in the business of making fun games and having fun and enjoying ourselves. The community has come along for that kind of ride in the past and we are hoping that they will join us again for this one.

Q. Right now, when a player leaves your team, it is pretty detrimental. Do you have any plans to discourage that behavior strongly?

A. At the moment, we have the beginnings of that are in right now. So, we have a thing where people who are AFK get kicked and forbidden to join another game until the game they were in is over. Same for people who leave. There is a rejoin functionality right now where like if you crashed or something or your computer died, you can get back into the game, although right now it is an early version of it and it actually takes a really long time to rejoin, especially if you were later in the game. It is not like you can just leave and go play another game, you are basically stuck until that game is over.

Q. What about bans?

A. We are going to watch you. We are discussing things like "Hey, if you leave all the time or are a habitual leaver, let's match you with other leavers. Go to leaver jail, go hang out with those guys, you guys can all live together and enjoy yourselves.".

Q. Any chance of having someone join a game in progress, after someone else left?

A. With our rejoin, we basically have the beginnings of that and we will continue to look at it, as we go deeper into development. Right now, it is not something that we have lined up, but this is definitely something that we are talking about.

Q. What about the AI? Are there any plans to make it more intelligent, so that it can help players complete map objectives, team up to fight players from the other team?

A. This is not very apparent right now in the game. We are not honestly doing anything to tell people about it. The AI actually has the beginnings of that already. Like if you ping objectives and the AI is around you, it will do it. If you ping on an AI, it will follow you and it will do what you do. So, there are the beginnings of that, but we obviously have a long way to go on. Right now, the difficulty levels of the AI are intentionally tuned way down, so they are not as effective as they will be later on.

So, we expect to give much stronger functionality, both in terms of "Hey! Listen to me AI, drop whatever you are doing, and come help me!" and in terms of difficulty level. The difficulty spectrum will be tuned to be much more specific, so in the case of someone leaving, they get replaced with what we are calling the Elite AI, which is one of the high of the higher difficulties, but later on it will be like whatever your MMR was, an AI of equivalent skill will come in. It will be very distinctly at that guy's level in terms of abilities and the way they are executed, skill shots and stuff. It is really nice. There are times when humans do not listen to you, so having an AI that does listen to you is kind of nice. There are some times when some guy left and I am like "He was not cooperating anyway and now the AI is there and will be helpful to me.". We will keep working on that, but I think we have a long way to go on it. We are excited about it and we have dedicated AI engineers and data people working on that stuff.

Q. Once the game is launched, how do you intend to introduce new contnet? Is it just going to be news Battlegrounds, new Heroes?

A. We have not gotten too deep into that, but we know we want to do regular updates. Historically, we have been a team that makes box products. Our team has made Starcraft II, Warcraft III, etc. and we basically are used to working on a game for a couple of years, releasing it and a couple of years later there is an expansion, and in between there are a few patches that are largely about balance, maintenance, and occasionally features. Heroes of the Storm is something that we think is going to be in a constant state of evolution. Right now, we have a patch every 4 to 6 weeks with content being introduced and we want to stay on something similar to that. We think that, on regular intervals as well, we will introduce new Battlegrounds and Heroes.

Also, right now the Nexus is this transdimensional storm that is basically allowing all those Blizzard universes to collide. We think that we will be bringing in more Blizzard IP. We will go to Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft, but also to Nexus realms, which have nothing to do with Blizzard IP. We will be introducing all this stuff, and along with them will be Battlegrounds, Heroes, Mounts, Skins, etc. As we progress in that, it will just be like there is always something new coming into the game, offering again more choice for players and more strategy.

We are kind of excited that we are in a world where we can just develop a game like that and react to the needs of the players, because usually we are off spending significant of time off in the corner and then we deliver it and then we go away again. So, it is kind of cool as a development team to be in this feedback loop where we are like "What is happening right now in the game?" or "What should we do next?". It is pretty fun.

Q. Any plans to integrate with Twitch, like it is done in Steam for Counter Strike: Global Offensive, for example?

A. We have not talked too much about that stuff. I would definitely think that we would explore it as we get deeper into development. Things like Twitch integration and all that kind of things are things that we will talk about. Right now, our focus really is on the core gameplay,on our server infrastructure, on all our payment systems, and the things that kind of stand up the way the game functions. Definitely, as we get deeper into alpha, beta, and beyond, I think we will talk a lot more about that kind of stuff.

Q. What kind of balance between the talents of a single Hero do you plan to have? Do you plan to have them all balanced, so that they are theoretically viable?

A. We really want for talents to be always be situationally viable, like there is not only one way to go that eventually becomes THE way. So, right now, let's say across the Hero spectrum, we are not always fully executing it on that, but we are in a constant state of iterations on the talents that are in there today. When we made talents, we looked at the item systems, because everyone uses that, but item systems were genericized across all the Heroes, so that left really limited options in terms of what we could do with it. We could not have chosen an item that had a certain bonus intended for a certain Hero, because it could have blown the balance for the other Heroes.

So we went for talents, we can do whatever we want, they are so catered to a particular Hero. We can individually augment their abilities, we can change them fundamentally and get choices to players. So today, what we do is we watch player behaviors, because we get data on everything that is happening in the game. If there is a dominant talent choice per Hero, we start looking at the talents that chosen less often. We analyze them and see what we can do to make them more viable. We are continually switching talents in and out. We definitely do not want to be in a world where there are bad talents. I think that there are Heroes that have that today, but we will continue to fix that.

Recently, when we did the artifact system, one of the things we asked people to do was to give feedback on talents, because were are doing this gradual unlocking of the talents right now. Like in versus games, it takes 2 to 3 games to get access to your full talent system. People were saying that they do not like that, because the good talents are unlocked later and they want to be powerful right away. So, we are looking at that and asking people for feedback, to tell us which Heroes they think have bad talents and stuff like that, so we can fix them.

Q. Do you know what the ranking system is going to be like?

A. We are really into the early discussions about how it will be, so nothing really to go into detail on. I think that as we get a little deeper in it, we will probably expose what we are thinking to the community and get more feedback on it. And again, like everything else, the first version we put in will be open for further iterations. I think that it is going to be something that we will do a couple of passes on. And then we will see where it lands. It is obviously a really important thing to us, but right now it is about core gameplay and the ranking system will be the next layer of that. Like, where do you go when you are a really invested high level played and you want to go really up the competitive aspect of the game.

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