“Kel'Thuzad is one of the most requested heroes to date," says Kyle Dates, a hero designer on Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm. I’ve just asked him why Kel’Thuzad is Heroes of the Storm’s newest hero, and his answer is clear.
Still, with so many heroes coming out, it wouldn’t surprise me if his launch was merely he’s ready now, Kel’Thuzad being just one of many heroes the HOTS team are working on. It’s the explanation that makes the most sense: Blizzard’s MOBA is releasing several new champions a year, each of them a well known Blizzard character.
In the past few months alone the game has seen not just Kel'Thuzad, but also seen the addition of Garrosh, Stukov and Malthael to the roster, all big characters in their respective universes of World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo.
Dates admits with a smile that knowing your Blizzard lore is almost as important as knowing MOBA design when it comes to pulling heroes out of Blizzard’s history. “It definitely helps,” Dates enthused. “These heroes, they have so many aspects to them, so being fully in tune with their personalities and the fantasy surrounding them helps when choosing who should be brought to HOTS, and what kit they should have.”
Dates said there’s still plenty of characters to be mined from Blizzard’s headline franchises.
While dealing with already established characters, each with their own pre-existing fanbase, how do Dates and the hero design team go about making sure characters all feel like they have their own personalities while also fitting into the HOTS world?
“We take a look at how each hero, how they are in the game we take them from. What is the fantasy of that hero? What will the player expect when they get to play this hero?”
Dates talks about bringing across the Overwatch characters to Heroes of the Storm. A process he said was easier than you would think, considering Overwatch is a first person shooter existing in a 3D space.
“Overwatch heroes have well designed kits, typically they just work well in a MOBA space. We obviously have to make certain changes to make it fit, because Overwatch has a 3D space and much more emphasis on aiming. For the most part they fit right in really well.”
Not every character is that simple however, and he highlights Kel’Thuzad as a character that was tougher to bring to life. “He was the original lich in Warcraft 3. He brought the scourge and the plague to Lordaeron. He was the Lich King's right-hand man. He brought all this devastation, and became a very powerful lich in his own right, and then he was a raid boss in World of Warcraft.”
“So we want to bring him into the game and make him feel like that's what he's doing. He is that scary raid boss. He has those powerful abilities. He’s scary to play against.
Kel'Thuzad has a very large back story. He has a very large amount of different things that he's done, so in that case it's a little bit harder to work out his abilities, because we're trying to figure out exactly the right thing for this hero to do in our game, and how should we represent that hero best to not only be an interesting and unique gameplay experience, but also fill a unique role in the game, and not overlap with other heroes.”
Dates also mentions that creating an interesting interplay between the heroes is a core part of design, mention that Kel’Thuzad has a lot of early lockdown, meaning in the early game his role is about locking teams down so that other players on your team can give him a kicking.
Later, your power spikes and you can do the lockdown and the kicking yourself like a strong independent Kel’Thuzad.
However, sometimes this can create unexpected combinations that make the game play in abnormal ways. A combination between Varian and Valeera led to a situation where Blizzard had to get involved and unpick a problem in the interaction.
“Varian was added to the game and doing fine, but then we added Valeera to the game a couple of months later and she had her cheap shot ability, which is powerful because she’s an assassin that’s powerful up close, providing she can close the distance.”
Varian has a long range charge and stun ability. Suddenly, Valeera has no issues getting up close and with her stun can chain a disable on an enemy, keeping someone out of the game long enough to kill them without any time to respond.
“This created a negative experience for the enemy team, without any real counter. In that situation we stepped in, we made some changes to stun durations, we nerfed Varian’s charge and stun pretty heavily, so now that it's just mega slow.”
Dates can’t talk about other heroes that might be being worked out at the moment, but surely I’m not the only person hoping for a visit from Kyle Vlaros from SNES platformer Blackthorne, or perhaps even some of Activision’s franchises*, surely?
(*Yes, I’m talking about Tony Hawk)