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Dustin Browder Talks Tracer, Season One, and Much More

by - 3 years ago

Jimmy Blocksom, Samantha Cruse, and I are live at Heroes of the Dorm and we were fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Dustin Browder, Game Director for Heroes of the Storm.

We covered a wide range of topics and he offered some great insight into the game. This was an amazing opportunity and we can’t wait to share what we discussed.

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So Tracer is coming out soon and she has some interesting mechanics as far as her reload and her Ultimate at Level One. Are those going to be design themes that might carry over to future Overwatch Heroes?

It could be. That could totally happen, but I don’t know that it has to. We sort of see each character on a case-by-case basis. If we have opportunities to do stuff with other Overwatch Heroes because it makes sense, we will. We talked to the Overwatch guys quite a bit about whether they had other Ultimate abilities designed for their Heroes that they didn’t use, which we might pull in. For Tracer they had ideas, but they didn’t really work as well in our game, so we didn’t go that route. It’s definitely possible that we use these mechanics again, but we aren’t planning it that way.

The whole goal on Hero design is to try to keep the doors as open as possible for the designers working on the problem so that they can really push the boundaries. We try not to put any boxes on them. It’s weird as designers. Designers are often looking for rules that they can apply so that they know they’ve been successful; so they’ll actually put themselves in a box if you let them. What we will often do is say, “You know, you don’t have to do that”, “But we’ve just done that with the last three Heroes”, “But maybe you just shouldn’t”, “Oh, is that right?”, “Maybe, I don’t know, but think about it.”. We try to get them to blow the doors off of what is required. We often encourage these guys to reconsider, ‘What if you did this, what if you did that?’ It leads to a much more creative environment and they do some really fun things as a result, and everyone hopefully gets different Heroes as a result of pushing them like that.

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Now it’s interesting that you say that, because when the first few Diablo characters came out they all had some type of gathering mechanic, like Butcher with his meat. Is that connected? Do you feel like put yourself in that box and had to break out, or was it just a coincidence?

No, I think it was just a coincidence. It was the nature of a lot of Diablo characters not having a regular mana cost. Characters like Sonya the Barbarian: she should be using Fury. That’s what she should be using.

The Butcher, we were trying to do something to make him feel more selfish. To make him feel like this guy is not really with you 100%, like he’s got his own needs, and so that kind of fell out of that need.

Azmodan has mana, but he obviously has a talent that everybody loves to take [Taste for Blood], but that was also at a time that we didn’t know how popular that talent would be. It didn’t seem like it was core to his kit – it has become that, but that wasn’t really how we set out to make him.

With Tracer it seems like you’ve done a great job of capturing that Overwatch flavor and putting it directly into Heroes. What kind of challenges did the reload mechanic present, balance-wise?

The reload mechanic was actually really good for her, almost right away, because it allowed us to give her this ferocious burst in her auto attack. The way an auto attack naturally works is that it is going to have to dribble [damage] out over time. You can do weird stuff like we did with Tychus, where for a time he had the spin-up mechanic. The reload on Tracer introduced a break in the damage, which means that all of the damage that would have been there during the break gets shoved into that clip so she can just burst and stop. Now her auto attack feels like it synergizes with her Blink and Recall abilities, which felt great. That’s not really what it’s about in Overwatch. Everyone has reload in Overwatch, but for our game it really works, but I don’t know if we would do the same thing for another Hero going forward. I don’t know, if we did Reaper, if you would need a reload mechanic for him. That may not be the case, but for Tracer, because it synergizes so well with the Blink, it really worked well with her kit. It made her feel really natural, like what she wanted to do: hit and run.

One of the big questions from the community involves MMR and Season One. Do you have any updates as far as where we are on those things?

I don’t have a date for you. It is the highest thing on our list at this moment, to get that season rolled on, and we want to do a Ranked Play update as well.

Do you feel like those items are connected, or could we possibly see one before the other?

They are connected for us right now, and I’ll tell you one of the reasons we did that.

We are always looking to the game down the road. We knew we wanted to update our Ranked play system because a lot of people weren’t happy with it, and we weren’t happy with it either. We agreed with the feedback. We knew that if we did a season roll, and then we changed how ranked worked from top to bottom we would have to maintain both systems in the UI forever – for the next ten or twenty years. You wouldn’t want it to be where Season One or pre-season are no longer visible. “What do you mean it’s not visible?” “We got sick of maintaining both so we just dropped one.” We didn’t want to do that, so they became connected in our minds. Considering how long it has taken us to do the revamp I kind of wish we hadn’t done that, but we did. So we’re in this place now where we are going way too long on the Season One roll, but we are going to do a revamp on the ranked as a result, so those things are married together.

Is there more polish to the draft UI coming? There have been concerns from the community that it’s really hard to differentiate certain Heroes and skins.

I’ve heard the feedback and I don’t disagree with the feedback. I’d have to talk to the UI team, I haven’t gotten an update from them as far as how they would like to address that.

Along those lines, could we potentially see who is in a party on the draft screen?

We could. I haven’t heard that as loudly, but I’m not fundamentally opposed to it.

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I’m curious about how maps will be introduced in the future. Is there any type of schedule, or is it “We are going to make a new map when we have a cool idea,” or around launching of other games? We had the two for Diablo, is there anything coming for Starcraft or Legion?

We definitely want to do some new stuff, we’re definitely going to do more Battlegrounds. We do have more we are working on right now. We are trying to do everything we can to push the boundaries of the Battlegrounds so that you have to think about your Hero and talent picks as differently as you can. It is tough with internal testing to determine what will actually cause that to happen. We have seen these maps like Towers of Doom, where the more different they are from one another the more likely those things are to occur. We find it difficult to actually engineer a specific thing, or at least we haven’t gotten to that point yet. We haven’t said, “Let’s just build a map for Specialists and everyone else is screwed.” We haven’t really done that, but we have done stuff like with Immortals, and skeletons, and Towers of Doom, where we just try to think outside the box. Things to make you think about the game a little differently, and that’s our big goal going forward. I don’t know which maps are coming next exactly, but we have a bunch in the pipe and we are going to keep working.

We will probably go to a rotation system at some point, because we are getting too many [Battlegrounds] now. I’d be interested to get your feedback on it. I’ve heard monthly, I’ve heard weekly, I’ve heard every two weeks. I kind of want to tie it to Hero rotation so that you know that every week things are a little bit different. We’re looking through the maps and trying to identify them as maps of certain types and making sure that there’s a good spread at any given week, or month, or whatever the rotation cycle is. If I’ve got Garden Terror and I’ve got Dragon Shire, those don’t show up in the same week because you have some similarities. Maybe that’s a bad example, but like Sky Temple and Blackheart’s Bay. Maybe those aren’t back to back, so that there’s a lot of variation in experience. I was thinking about six maps; we’ve done tests in the past and six was about right. It felt pretty good, as far as having enough variation over an evening of play: not so few that I know what is coming next, and not so many that we get no value out of rotation. I feel like that’s the way we’re headed.  That’s our thinking right now and I’d love to hear feedback from you guys or from players.

Do you think about revisiting Haunted Mines?

Actually, we have a plan. I don’t know when it is going to happen, but the map guys have a plot. They’re like, “Here’s what we are going to do. We are going to fix it by doing these things.” I’ve actually forgotten what it was, but every time they pitch it too me I’m like, “Yeah, yeah! That sounds great.” So they have a plan and the plan seems sound as to how they are going to fix it, but we’ll have to put it together and test it to see how it goes.

I think there’s a reasonable amount of passion for Haunted Mines specifically, and to see some updates to it that let it return to the game. We’ll take a swing at it one more time and see what happens.

What did you guys learn from Rehgar because he came out with that total rework then for five weeks straight you had to quote unquote nerf him?

It’s not quote unquote, a nerf is a nerf (laughter). You’d really have to get a balance designer for that, I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you. I know they’re always getting a lot of knowledge out of these Heroes.

Nova has been in a similar boat. We thought we maybe made her too powerful, but that wasn’t the case, and she’s received some buffs since then.

We’re always getting more information as far as what works. We aren’t in a position where we’re giving the balance team the same kind of time we give the Starcraft 2 balance team to do their jobs. There’s simply too much content coming too quickly, and they don’t have quite that level of authority. On Starcraft we would kill great ideas because we were concerned about balance; like really fun things, but we would be like, ‘Nope.’ And Starcraft is small; it was built to be tight and it’s built around that. Heroes is a little bit more built to be like, “Yeah!…and keep it balanced.” We make their lives very difficult as a result. We’re still open to feedback on it. At the same time I’ve been encouraging them that the community wants to see changes to these Heroes a little more frequently than we have been able to do. To wait seven months for a Gazlowe update isn’t right. You’re going to have to put things out a little bit live and see what happens, and they’ve been doing that more.

Along those lines, is there a concern of balance between changing Heroes quickly enough and kind of punishing players who have to relearn that Hero?

Brightwing is the best example of that I think. I think Brightwing players are still mad!

It’s definitely a concern. We do have Heroes that we feel are badly designed. The game has evolved and we just know so much more about Hero design than we knew back when we created them. The balance designers are like, “There is no number that I can put on that talent that will be remotely fun for anybody to take. You’re going to have to give me a new talent there.” When we get to those places we need to give them the freedom to make those fixes and if it makes players angry we have to suffer through that. Not because we want to make players angry, but because the overall health of the game has to be there. There is certainly a cost. I do not want to trivialize the cost in any way. I’ve had Heroes change under me and it’s not a great feeling. If the Hero is, long term, more part of the experience as a result, I think it is a risk we have to take. We just have to be very careful about it and know going in that we are about to do this. Should we message it early? What can we do to minimize the cost to the player who has really mastered this Hero?

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How does the Dev team balance the concern of making the changes that you feel you need to make in what you feel is a timely fashion with the different eSports events, since they come up so frequently?

Some things we can do. We can ban out a Hero if we feel like something has gone off the rails and just say, “I’m sorry, this one’s off the table for all,” like we are going to do with Kael’thas today. Sometimes we are on a slightly older build, like we were in Korea, and that gives benefits.

I would like to see us have more tools in this area. I don’t feel like we have all the tools we need for a fully thriving eSport and a game that is changing as fast as this game is. I would love to see us have a tournament environment that we’re in that is fire-walled off and is on some much older version of the game that we all know is safe and viable – or something. I don’t even know if that’s the right answer. It’s the go-to answer in my head, but there may be a better answer than that. Something that gets the tournament scene out of this state of insanity, because it is going very quickly.

We also say that a brand new Hero can’t be played for two weeks in the pro scene. We could extend that if we needed to. We could say, “No, I’m sorry, it’s a month.” I don’t have any problem with that. We are not using the pro scene to sell Heroes. We can delay them as much as we need to. We feel like that is a reasonable time right now, but I am on board with extending it if that’s the feedback. If we see something happen with a new Hero that is disruptive, we could boot it further. I’d be interested in hearing from the pros. The last time we talked to them they felt like two weeks was fine, but that could change.

There is a tool out now that lets you display MMR on the loading screen. Is that something that you are concerned about, or what are your thoughts on it? Is it against the Terms of Service?

It’s a really difficult question because I don’t actually know what that is really doing. I haven’t decoded it.

If it is doing anything bad at all it could be against our ULA, and if you are modifying the game it could be against our ULA. Am I personally angry if all it’s doing is showing the MMR from HOTSlogs? I don’t care, it’s fine. But I don’t know exactly what it’s doing so I can’t say if you use that tool you won’t get banned, because I don’t actually know what is going on. I am not upset at having MMR on the screen because what’s the difference between that and a second monitor? It’s exactly the same. But again I don’t actually know what is going on under the hood and if we found out that program was modifying game data or something else then, yeah you might be in a bad spot running that tool. If it’s really doing nothing like that then we don’t care. It’s fine, just be careful and don’t download #@%.

We’ve had questing talents live now for a couple of weeks. You were very excited to roll them out. How do you feel like they are progressing with all this new data and are they something you are still excited to roll out to new Heroes? Can we expect Tracer to have questing ttalents?

I don’t know that I’ve seen all the data on them yet and I don’t know if I would take that data seriously after the first couple of weeks. We are still excited about questing talents, though.

I don’t remember how many questing talents Tracer has, I was mostly playing against her in play testing.

We will do more questing talents in Heroes going forward. We’re looking at doing some improvements to the questing talent UI, so that it is a little more obvious and you can see what’s going on – so you can see what’s going on with enemy Hero talents. We feel like it adds a lot of bumps in the road towards player power level and adds more uncertainly. I don’t just have to look at the top of the screen and go, “Seventeen, I know everything.”

I feel like questing talents, if done properly, can do quite a bit for the game and we are going to continue to invest in them in terms of UI and across the system. We’re going to keep watching them for sure.

How are Arenas progressing?

We’re still working on it. We want to move more towards a Tavern Brawl style with it, where there is a lot of different stuff in there, and there are rotations in there, and we’re doing different things.

We put out the ARAM map with the last patch. We feel like that was cool. It was really fun; I really enjoyed playing on it. That was a really great example where the community was already doing that on Cursed Hollow. One of the map designers, John DeShazer, came in and said, “They are doing this thing, and I can do this in a week.” I’m like, “Nothing on this team happens in a week. You’re crazy.” He went around to all of the art guys and negotiated this really quick launch of this Battleground. There were some concerns, but we decided we were just going to do it, and it was going to be awesome. I felt like it was a really good collaboration from the community and this one developer and the people he rallied behind him.

Will we add a matchmaker to it at some point? I certainly hope so. I hope it can go into Arena or go somewhere into the game that is more formal. Maybe what we have is enough, but I don’t think so. I think we can do better, but we got it into people’s hands and they’re getting to play with it and have a good time. We’re trying to do that a little more often.

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In these eSports events, the Heroes trailers are often used as commercials. Are those still in the process of being developed?

We’re still going to do them, we just aren’t going to do as many as we did. The Hero Overviews were way more watched that the Hero Trailers were, and they were also easier to make and players liked them better. We are going to do a lot more Hero Overviews but we will definitely do some lore pieces too. We’re just not going to do one for every Hero. We’re going to do them when it feels like it makes sense.

Are there any changes coming to Lost Vikings? I’m concerned about their win rate on HOTSlogs.

(For context, this question was asked as we were leaving the room by a player who loves The Lost Vikings. I included it because I felt the answer was interesting. Without context, I can see how people could read it as a request for nerfs, but the reality was exactly the opposite. The high win rate was mentioned because that was why they were nerfed previously.)

You think it’s too high? I don’t know that we’re going to nerf them, because they’re so hard to play.

There is a goal that we’ve talked about, which I think is interesting: can we make a version of the Vikings which is not a three-split Vikings? So that we set it up so that you have to play Vikings in one lane and it works, and you’re not allowed to split. Like, you can split, but only Baelog collects experience or only Olaf collects experience. So you have to keep them together and there’s no reason to split. If we can make a version where you keep them together that’s fun, then more players will be able to play them.

We don’t think they see enough play to warrant a nerf.

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Big thanks to Mr. Browder for taking the time to talk to us, and to you for making your way through this very long article. We know it was extensive, but we wanted to share with you every single bit of information that he gave us.


Lee Vaughn

Lee has been playing Blizzard games since the 90's and Heroes of the Storm since the Tech Alpha. If he isn't playing a Blizzard game he is probably tweeting about one.