Video Games Interview: Blizzard’s Kent-Erik Hagman on the past, present and future of Heroes of the Storm

It’s been just over twelve months since Blizzard released Heroes of the Storm, an accessible take on the MOBA genre that features characters from the developer’s legendary back catalogue. In that time, the game has seen multiple updates, new heroes, in-game events and huge e-sporting competitions come and go. How has that been for someone who shipped the game? We spoke to Kent-Erik Hagman, lead hero designer on Heroes of the Storm, to find out.

Kent-Erik is an effusive guy. Talking to me from Blizzard HQ in Irvine, California at around 5pm on a Monday following a day of meetings, his energy seems in no way diminished. He speaks in the breathless, rapid-fire way many creatives do — so much to say and so little time to say it in. He speaks with humour and candour about where he believes the game’s greatest strengths and weaknesses lie and only shies away when there is surprises in the pipeline he genuinely can’t talk about.  It’s clear the moment the conversation begins that Kent-Erik is a big fan of the game on which he works.

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The Iris: Hi Kent-Erik, it’s nice to meet you!

Kent-Erik Hagman: Nice to meet you too, sir!

TI: So with the 12 month anniversary, I thought I’d focus on the game’s past, present and future. What were the core ideas behind Heroes of the Storm when the early stages of development began?

KEH: Oof, that’s a fun one! I gotta dig back in the memory bank. Well, here at Blizzard we try to be really transparent! With what we do, we basically find games and genres that we really like and ask ourselves “What’s the Blizzard version of this?” Jeff Kaplan (game director on Overwatch) said at BlizzCon when he was talking about Overwatch, you know, we love the team shooter genre, so what’s the Blizzard version of that? That’s Overwatch. And for us, you know, we love games. Like DOTA, like WarCraft 3 DOTA, I played that like crazy in college. We love those types of games and so we were like what’s the Blizzard version of that?

And so, it’s such an easy transition for us because we already have the StarCraft II engine, we have all of these awesome characters and games that Blizzard had made over the decades that we saw would translate really easily — though some don’t translate that easily. *hurried* Diablo. But we did have all these great characters we could bring in and so for us it was like “What’s the Blizzard version of this?” which lead to our first step, which was stripping out everything. So we removed an in-game shop. We removed towers. We tried all kinds of crazy stuff — I could honestly spend three hours just talking to you about the history of that — but that’s for another day.

Blizzard has always referred to the game as a Hero Brawler rather than a MOBA. Could you talk a little about the reasoning behind that terminology?

Absolutely, the term MOBA is … it’s a good term! It also means a lot of things. Part of it was that we looked at our game and realised we were doing so many things different. We wanted to move away from concepts like farming and laning phase, and mid-game and late-game. We were like, no, this game is turned up to 11 from the first minute. And we realised we could make our game much more action packed and fast paced. We thought that would be our … the blizzard take on the genre would be less downtime, more crazy intense action. And so that’s why we called it the Hero Brawler genre, where it was more fun to play, more fun to watch.

On that note, the aspect of watching the game — was the competitive and eSports side of Heroes something that the team always had in mind or was that something that emerged during development?

I would definitely say it emerged during development. First and foremost, we set out to make a game that we’d want to play. That’s really all we wanted to stick with right from the get go. And then, from there, after having been out, after having watched our players play the game, and playing the game ourselves … here’s the secret. We can make a game. But that doesn’t mean we understand all the nuances, I mean we’re still learning Heroes of the Storm just like our community. Yeah, we might have a small leg up because we pour hours and hours into it but we’re still learning our game, right?

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Within that process of learning the game during tech alpha or something, it became really obvious that there is a frothing demand to play our game at a competitive level. We had players trying to set up custom games … oh wait, there were no custom games, that’s right! They were trying to queue snipe each other in order to make a tournament work. What they had to do was create a five man party in what was then the only mode available, Quick Match, and be like “Alright, you guys are gonna start your queue in 3 … 2 … 1 … GO! They had to try and trick the matchmaker into matching them together just so they could actually play tourneys. We said, alright, clearly, to quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “Life will find a way” and why stop eSports when our community clearly wants it.

Prior to release, Heroes went through a substantial beta period. With all the extra playtesting and fan enthusiasm, what was the launch week like for you and the team?

Honestly? To be be brutally honest, *laughing* it was just another week! We set up this pipeline where we’re trying to get heroes released on a regular cadence and get stuff out, so we were we were *laughing* just knee deep in it. Like, “Hey it’s launch week? Oh. Cool.” I mean, launch for me was almost when we went public with tech alpha because that was when our public finally had it and I could go on Twitch and see people playing it. That, to me, was really more of the launch than the launch-launch. Launch felt more like, “okay, we’ve taken the beta tag off and … here you go.”

And even after launch, we still weren’t done with it. You know, we got Grandmasters out and we still have more in store for competitive play, eSports play, community systems, all kinds of other stuff I totally super can’t talk about. We have all this stuff that we’re still working on. That’s why launch, to me, was … I mean, we took a break, we got a keg, we decorated the room. We watched some streams for hours in the UK and we played the game that day, I think, instead of working but we still had a ton of work. You know, for us it’s like, we’re still moving, right, and we are still to this day. We’ve hit this cadence of … we’re here to run a marathon, and we’re on Mile 3. Still lots of road in front of us.

Well, here at Mile 3, what would you say has been the most significant way the game has evolved over the last twelve months?

I think honestly, I’d say our community and the way they are understanding the game. I think that we’re starting to … I think it was out for a good year and a half before we realised how important wave clear is for a team. We don’t have tower aggro, so where is your way to get tower aggro for your team? And so, we didn’t realise how important that was until … that was after Leoric. Shoot, yeah, that was after ship. And that was, what like a year ago? And our community is still  learning the nuances of which heroes to pick for certain maps, like Greymane’s been out for six months now? And they’re just now realising “Oh, always pick Greymane on Battlefield of Eternity because of worgen damage on the Immortal,” right?

That to me is one of the coolest aspects, and the thing that’s going to change our game is watching our community grow smart. But at the same time, you don’t want the design staff to realise “Oh crap, we screwed up and gave them this power we really shouldn’t have and in order to make Heroes better for competitive play, we really to make this change to that rate.” So to watch this maturation as our game becomes more strategically deep … here’s the way I put it: Right now there’s not a lot of known strategies. But what’s great about a known strategy is that, once it gets discovered, you can have known counter-strategies and that’s when the game starts to get really interesting. I think we’re about to see that in the next three-to-six months, and I personally am really excited about it, especially because that falls right into BlizzCon space which is where we hold our major events. I can’t wait for that because that’s here (Los Angeles) and I can actually go that and watch it! So that’ll be fun to see what play is like at that level.

On the subject of strategies, have there been any team builds, strats or even exploits that you’ve seen since launch that have really blown you away? The sort of thing you didn’t have in mind when designing and balancing?

I think the one that I thought was crazy was the Sylvanas/Viking strategy. Oh, it’s so mean. It’s on a relay map, you send the vikings into two of the lanes and then Sylvanas and the other heroes into the third and just hard shove it. Like, how do you deal with four Heroes?! You can’t send four … you either defend against four with three — and by the way, those four have a Sylvanas … I mean, that one is just brutal. That one caught me really off guard.

While developing Sylvanas, we were also making Battlefield of Eternity and Infernal Shrine and so most of our internal playtesting happened on those maps, and at the time we weren’t careful about testing on online maps the way we are now. And so we never *laughing* realised how good she’d be on the old Haunted Mines?  It goes live and we’re like “Oh, crap. Great. *laughing* We didn’t really think of that in amongst all the other stuff.” We’ve gotten a lot better about that, but that was a fun one.

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You guys recently released Gul’Dan as a new playable character, a sustained-damage ranged assassin. Such an interesting combo. What goes into choosing and designing new Heroes like Gul’dan, and has that process changed at all as the roster has grown?

Oh absolutely, it’s even changed post-Gul’dan. With Gul’dan, we knew the Warcraft movie was coming out — this was like a year-and-a-half ago — so we knew we wanted to do something to kind of line up with the movie. And we worked out, well, we don’t want any more summoners in the game because Azmodan and Zagara have added enough health bars to the game, we don’t want that UI clutter. So how can we get the warlock fantasy without doing summons?

We knew we wanted to do Life Tap, it’s basically our version of a trait or hero power is Life Tap. It’s so perfect for warlock, it speaks to the mentality of “Give me power now, I’ll deal with the consequences later.” You know? That’s so warlock fantasy. So we built around Life Tap, which lead to this whole queue which started out really complicated like “Oh, if you keep casting it, it gets stronger, it costs more mana,” it was really complicated and after playing it for a while, and the toolset was like two paragraphs long, we thought “Wait, what if you just made it a really low cool down and a really high mana cost?” So we did that and it was like “Wow, it’s the exact same gameplay with a fifth of the rules!” And from there it was like, well okay, if you’re gonna have a low cooldown, spammable thing, obviously it’s going to be insanely bursty, so you can kind of keep doing it all the time. And that’s where he became the sustained damage mage. Just off of that interaction right there, the trait and the queue … the Drain Life, that’s very warlocky, fed right into the trait as well.

Where do you see Heroes going as it moves into Year Two? What are the major goals for the team right now?

I would say right now, one of our major goals is finding a unique slot for each Hero. If we’re going to make another burst mage, we need to look at our other burst mages and see if there’s any draft implications, if there’s a reason why you picked Mage X over Mage Y or Tank X over Tank Y. These are the discussions we’re having like literally today.

That’s something we’re very conscious of, and we’re keeping that in mind as we make new heroes. We don’t wanna just make new heroes that replace old heroes, or heroes that can’t find a home because there’s already another hero doing what they do better. If two heroes are kind of the same, then its like “well who’s slightly more balanced? Or balanced higher?” Then that sucks because then we just have a rotating door of nerfs and buffs, nerfs and buffs and we can never get to a happy spot. Every hero has a unique role — they work with against certain allies, or against certain enemies, or they work good on certain battlegrounds or they have certain weaknesses that make you wanna not draft them. Like if everyone has a unique role, then we can find a unique home for every hero, and every hero can find a reason to be picked at a competitive level and that’s where we want to head towards.

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Aside from ongoing game balancing, (in general terms) do you envisage any future changes to gameplay, particularly as the competitive scene continues to mature? New modes? Events?

We’re still discussing all of that. Nothing that comes to mind that I can publicly say about competitive, but here’s what I can say about competitive: we’re looking at what we describe as “The Deathball.” Post-level 10, if you play at a Masters or higher level, you really don’t ever want to not be with your team. And that, of course, is a gross oversimplification. Of course there are times when you want to be away from your team, but in a general sense, that tends to be better.

So we’re looking at “How can we provide incentives for players to split up? Or how can we mitigate the risks of splitting up?” Because the risk/reward ratio is just out of whack and that’s why we see teams at higher levels just kind of mob up as five post-level 10. And so we’re look at that as “Is that a balance issue? Is that a game design issue? Is that a game system issue?” We’re trying to tackle that problem. We don’t think we’ll have a silver bullet, we do think it’ll be the sort of thing that dies by a thousand cuts. I think Matt Cooper (senior game designer) was posting that that’s why we’re looking at healing globes and healing wells, wondering if we can update some of these core systems, if a few number changes here and there will slowly nudge the balance. Or maybe it’s deleting some bushes on a map. Maybe it’s adding some bushes on a map. Maybe it’s a layout tweak. There are lots of smaller things we can do to nudge the high-end competitive play to make it as lively as possible.

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We’d like to thank Kent-Erik Hagman for taking the time to talk to us about the game! We love you, sir. Heroes of the Storm is available now on Windows PC and Mac, and just announced its newest hero, Diablo 3‘s Auriel.