Jason McMaster spoke with Dustin Browder about Heroes of the Storm, his career, and that damn murlock.
After the jump, one MOBA to rule them all?
Jason McMaster: Lets start at the beginning. What got you into gaming? Can you point to a specific moment that pushed you into design?
Dustin Browder: I got Dungeons and Dragons as a Christmas present in 1980. I think my parents got it hoping I would make some friends. I actually didn’t own a personal computer until 1992 when I used an insanely high-interest rate credit card to buy a 486-33 IBM with 4 megs of RAM. Until then, I had played Wing Commander, Sim City, Civilization, Dune II, Warlords, Mechwarrior, Bards Tale and a variety of other games on other peoples machines. Now that I had purchased my own computer, I could sit and play non-stop without having to stay in someones dorm room overnight.
JM: When did you discover MOBAs?
DB: I first played Aeon of Strife and a variety of the early games back in 2004 or 2005 when they were all WarCraft III maps. I didn’t start with Defense of the Ancients since it wasn’t as dominant back then. I remember how important Ankhs were since in some of the games you could actually be eliminated from the game if you died without certain magic items in your inventory. Once Defense of the Ancients became a thing I played a lot more of that. I always loved the enthusiasm and fearlessness of the game design in those early games. They would do anything they could think of with a hero, the weirder the better.
JM: Jumping to HOTS and overall design, you guys have the Blizzard universe to work with but have you considered making a unique character to the HOTS world?
DB: The artists would certainly love to. I think we are on board with something like this down the road, but right now were still working hard on bringing some of the more iconic Blizzard characters into the Nexus.
JM: Any chance well see something from Rock n Roll Racing?
DB: Snake Sanders is something I have been lobbying for since 2013. Thanks for reminding me.
JM: Most of the other MOBAs have multiple maps, but the Aeon of Strife layout is really the only one that sticks. Then theres HOTS, which has managed to not only use more than one map, but to have a map rotation fully accepted by the community. What special considerations were taken when designing and balancing these maps to allow for enough familiarity of play to allow for a pro scene?
DB: We never felt like the genre required all of the things that were on the one map in so many of these games. The one map limitation came about because Warcraft III only allowed you to associate a single map with a mod. In essence your game could only be one map. Our learning from StarCraft II was that the community could and would accept multiple maps if given the choice and even come to demand multiple maps once they saw how much better the experience can be with a variety of Battlegrounds.
We always focused on creating Battlegrounds that encouraged players to fight and had some concept of a Core. Initially our values were around You can ignore the mechanic if you want to and just push to win, but you are playing wrong if you do that. We felt that made it easy for people to understand. Kill the enemy core! is the objective and you can do it with your hero or you can do it by using map objectives. With Towers of Doom we wanted to see if we could push some boundaries a little bit. Initially the map was a Capture Point map much like you would find in first person shooters. But players became confused about tickets and score and so we ended up creating a conceit around a Core that was under attack by these ghostly towers. In the end its still a territories style game mechanic, but it has the very surface level look of a game with a core.
JM: With that in mind, do you have any plans for more mold-breaking maps? For instance, a map with an extended laning phase?
DB: We are always happy to break the mold in this game. Some of our Battlegrounds already have a lot of small 1v1 and 2v2 battles (Dragon Shire), which feel more like a laning phase and we would love to do more of that. With so many Battlegrounds pushing 5v5 fights (Cursed Hollow, Sky Temple) or being small (Tomb of the Spider Queen) we think there is space for us to do larger Battlegrounds that encourage people to have frequent smaller duels.
JM: Have you considered forcing party composition? Such as forcing each team to have a healer and tank?
DB: We have talked about it frequently and are opposed to the idea. Forcing a meta really limits how the game is played and limits player creativity. Our game is not yet even a year old and we have seen high-level play where three Warriors is normal and high-level play where Illidan serves as the only Warrior. We have seen other games really jump on board in forcing or suggesting a meta to their players and we didn’t like what that did to those games over time. We are going to resist this idea until we hear something that makes us want to really reevaluate our position.
JM: MMR seems to be the preferred method for most matchmaking games. How do you feel about the current system and what would like to see changed?
DB: MMR works great in a 1v1 game and reasonably well in a team game so long as you play a ton of games. Some players don’t have the patience for the hundreds of games required for a win/loss based MMR system to be accurate for them (which is perfectly reasonable). I have not worked on a game that used individual player performance as a way to more quickly adjust MMR, but I would love to see what we can do in that area. In addition, I think we could be using information across multiple game modes to better tune your MMR more quickly.
JM: The matchmaking system is sometimes weird. While duoing with a friend in Quick Match, we often go up against premade 4-man teams. Our last 3 duos in QM have been like this. In Ranked, Im consistently put against much lower ranked heroes thanks to duo queue. Obviously, being stomped by a low-rank player isn’t that fun. A common reason for duo queue in games is for people to play with their friends, but it seems that its mainly used to boost players. Has this been a problem and are you guys looking at it going forward?
DB: We have decided (for now) to not overly emphasize team size in putting together games. We know some of our players want only equal party sizes on both sides of the map, but our statistics show that party size is not a dominant factor in determining the winning team. Based on that, we decided to relax this rule in favor of skill factors. We are focused (currently) on trying to get matches of equal skill, without hero collisions, with some reasonable rules around equality when it comes to supports, melee and ranged characters. Were also investigating what we can do to remove too many weird heroes from a single team.
We have talked about limiting the difference in MMR between two players in a party. This would ultimately lead to a game where more and more people cannot play together, but some games would be more balanced. We have already removed groups of threes and fours from Hero League, which was a decision we were not enthusiastic about, but we needed to do it to help the Matchmaker. I dont know what the future holds in this area. There is a difference in opinion between people who play alone and dont want to see a mix of MMRs on their team (or the enemy team) and players who want to play with their friends regardless of skill.
JM: Have you considered having a solo only queue for ranked?
DB: We have talked about it. It would make matchmaking worse for all players due to the fact that we would start to divide up our community. The more we split people into separate queues the fewer people at any given time in each queue, the weaker matchmaking will be across the game. Right now we are not eager to add any more queues to the game.
JM: With HOTS being pretty new, are their concerns about adding bans to draft? With a smaller hero pool, the impact could be greater.
DB: We came up with a ban system we were excited about last year and tested it through the last half of 2015 at our e-sports events. It seemed to work for us there and we got a lot of positive feedback from pro players and e-sports fans of our game. We have been adding more heroes since we first introduced that system so we think we are good to go here.
JM: On a personal note, is there a way I can bribe you guys to stop putting Murky in the free rotation? I’m asking for a, uh, friend.
DB: We do limit how often heroes like Murky come into rotation. We also put him in the last hero rotation slot you unlock so really new players should not easily get a hold of him. He should be pretty rare? But no, we cannot take him out completely. Sorry!
JM: Hell, can’t fault a man for trying.