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Dev Talk: Hero Design and Deckard Cain with Matt Villers and Kyle Dates

For my first article in the Dev Talk series, I had the opportunity to interview Lead Hero Designer Matt Villers and Hero Designer Kyle Dates who shed some more light on Deckard Cain and the Hero Design process, enjoy!


For those unfamiliar with hero design, can you briefly describe the process for a hero to go from idea to live in game, and how long this process normally takes?


Kyle - When we decide to work on a Hero, the hero designer will begin with a “paper design”, which is essentially a document outline of the hero’s kit – usually the Q, W, E, and Trait (called the “base kit”) as well as at least one heroic. After the hero design team agrees on the direction, it is implemented into the game and goes through an 8-12 week iteration cycle where we constantly test the hero every day and iterate on the kit until we get it into a place we’re happy with. Once that’s done, the art, sound, and writing teams take over and polish the hero’s visuals, sounds, voice, UI, and more to a state of completion. After a final balance pass by the live design team, the hero is ready for release! From start to finish, this process takes around 8-10 months.


Deckard has a really unique support kit, and the gems give him a lot of ways to customize his Horadric Cube. Were they ever part of his base kit, or what gave you the idea to make them into talents where you would pick and choose which ones you wanted?


Kyle - We knew from the start that Deckard was going to have a Horadric Cube and that he was going to use it to modify his abilities in some way. Though gems were never a part of Deckard’s base kit, he did at one point have a lot of his gameplay heavily focused around gem talents. During some stages of his development cycle, he had 5 gems -- Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, Topaz, and Diamond. At the time, the Horadric Cube was a skillshot that impacted the first enemy Hero. Gems back then worked basically the same way as they do now – once activated it will add an effect to your next Horadric Cube cast. The main difference was that you could activate ALL of the Gems at the same time.


Though activating multiple gems at once was cool, it caused an odd side effect where most players would actually use their gems less, but once they did use them they would always activate all 5 at once. This also led to the side effect of “if I pick one gem talent, I have to pick them all”. At the time, Ruby added damage, Sapphire was slow, Emerald was healing reduction, Topaz was damage reduction, and Diamond made the Cube pierce all enemies.


After we changed the Cube to be a targeted AOE, we replaced the Diamond (previously a level 20) with the Perfect Gems talent and changed the Topaz into “Kanai’s Cube”, simplifying the design and making it a little easier to use. We kept the Sapphire, Ruby, and Emerald gems because they were all unique effects and Red/Green/Blue is a simpler concept to understand.


Deckard’s potion mechanic is a fairly new style of pickup. What gave you the idea to use this type of mechanic, and do you think we could see more Heroes with “pickup” style mechanics in the future?


Kyle - We’re always trying to add unique and interesting mechanics to our heroes and since Deckard isn’t a spell caster, we needed to figure out how he would actually heal his allies. When going through the various ways that Diablo characters restored their health, it just made sense that Deckard would have a stash of healing potions in his satchels – how else did he stay alive throughout all of the difficulties he encountered in his travels?! They are a core part of the Diablo series and it felt like the perfect fit for his kit. Many of us remember the days of pillaging the dungeons of Diablo, spamming potions anytime we were in danger and it just sounded hilariously awesome to bring that element into heroes. As far as being a pickup goes, it was a unique mechanic that we only briefly explored with Alexstrasza’s Lifeblossom talent and we thought it would be cool to bring this mechanic into heroes as a whole. It also just makes sense to pick up the potions, as it’s one of the many items you can acquire in Diablo and is a new way to heal allies in Heroes.


In general we want to be careful when adding more pickup style mechanics to heroes in the future as it is a new concept that heroes other than Deckard have to learn – Deckard knows to throw healing potions, but some players may not realize they need to actually pick them up to get healed. If we add too many of these mechanics, it can become difficult to discern what you can pickup vs. what might hurt you or not do anything.


We’ve seen the support kit style evolve a lot in the last year. What are your main focuses now when building out a support kit (or reworking one) to avoid some of the issues we’ve seen with the double support meta, or the perception that some supports are just “healbots”?


Matt - Double support was challenging for us to address because it was a combination of supports being both too powerful (raw numbers) and too limited (burst vs sustain healing, or lacking self-sustain in Ana’s case) at the same time. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk, but I feel like we’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it. The important thing is to be mindful of all the different types of power we’re giving a support beyond just healing numbers (like damage, CC, waveclear, etc) which allow them to compete with non-support roles for slots on a team, while at the same time making sure they’re versatile enough to do their job without requiring a complimentary support. Ultimately we think strategic diversity is cool and we’re OK with double support being a viable strategy - we just don’t want it to be the most common one.


On the gameplay side, making sure our supports feel powerful goes a long way toward making them fun, but we’ve also begun to put a lot more emphasis on moment-to-moment decision making. We like opportunities to display mastery that go beyond just playing whack-a-mole with HP bars and dropping a timely CC now and then. With new heroes and reworks, we’re trying to ensure our supports have their own interesting “mini game” to play so that you have more interesting things to do and more ways to show off your skill. You can see this with each of our new supports since Stukov, as well as reworks like Malfurion. You can look forward to more of this in the future, and we’re excited to hear player feedback on how this approach works out.


How has your philosophy for creating hero kits and talents evolved? We’ve gone from generic talents, to fleshing out unique talents, to the initial implementation of quests, to quest bloat (culminating in Thrall), to now more specific use of them with multiple completion points.


Matt - I think a full outline of how our philosophy has evolved could fill an entire book, but there are a few big ones in the past year or so that I’ll call out:

  • On the talent front, we really got excited about the potential of quests and went wild with them (as you pointed out), and have since taken a step back and recognized that we need to be a lot more considerate of how they can impact a hero’s gameplay. We’ve realized that not every hero *needs* to have a quest just for the sake of having one, and that in some cases unnecessary quests can detract from gameplay more than they add. You will see some new heroes this year with no quests at all, and possibly more reworks like Li Li that remove quests. That’s not to say we think quests are bad now, just that we want to take a more “quality over quantity” approach to them going forward.

  • We’ve reached a similar point in our thinking with level 20 Heroic ability upgrades, as you saw with Maiev and Fenix. We don’t plan to stop doing them, but we’ve decided not to force Heroic upgrades just for the sake of having them, especially where we can offer more compelling alternatives.

  • As far as hero kits go, I already talked a lot about how our approach to supports has evolved, but we’ve also been focusing a lot of attention on warriors and specialists recently.

  • For warriors, this means being more mindful early in the development process of whether their design is trending more toward the tank or bruiser side of the equation. On the one hand we want to remain flexible in our designs and emphasize fun and hero fantasy, but on the other we want to make sure we’re introducing enough of each type to keep the game fresh and avoid stagnation.

  • For specialists, in some cases we may look to boost their team fight capability at the cost of some of their split-pushing power. This doesn’t mean we’re looking to kill their uniqueness, but rather make them a little less frustrating to play around and easier to fit into different team comps and strategies.


We recently saw a nerf to Sylvanas’s trait. Is this something that has been being pushed down by map design because of its massive effect on battlegrounds? What do you see as the main issue with traits like this and how can you design around issues like this trait in the future (you could also apply this to mule as well which has been almost completely removed from the game at this point)?


Matt - This is actually part of a broader initiative to address heroes who can feel frustrating to play against (which has also resulted in changes to Tracer and Genji, and we’re not done yet). The intent wasn’t so much to remove this unique aspect of Sylvanas, but rather to introduce more risk and counterplay so that it feels more fair as an opponent. Mechanics like this that really mess with the rules of the game are exciting, but there are always trade-offs. Our goal when pursuing them is to make sure they’re not only fun to use, but also fun to play against.


Mule is a slightly different animal because it has the direct effect of making games take longer, which is a bit of a concern in a world where we want most games to end at around 20 minutes. Though again this is a matter of trade-offs – you could argue that Molten Core and Lava Wave have a similar effect, but they also create exciting moments and compelling gameplay that I’m not sure we’re getting from something like Mule.


With the new role system that was talked about in the AMA (and specialist and multi class roles seemingly going away) do you think this will limit your ability to make certain unique heroes (Murky, Abathur, Cho’gall, Medivh) because of role perception (as it’s been awhile since we’ve seen a specialist type), matchmaking, or other reasons, or do you see those as more a loose guideline and fitting in those special heroes to the “closest” matching role will still be fine?


Matt - We plan to make our updated role system robust enough to account for our current specialists, as well as other unique heroes like Varian and Cho’Gall. As you mention, this is important to us both to ensure all of our existing heroes remain playable, and to keep design space open for things we’d like to explore in the future.


Speaking of Multi-class, the recent rework to Varian seems to have been fairly successful and well received. What are your plans for future multi class type heroes, and what are your lessons learned from Varian that you would apply to the next one that you design?


Matt - We definitely learned a lot from Varian, and the big takeaway is that it was a mistake to lock so much of the hero’s role and identity behind reaching later talent tiers. If we were to apply those learnings to another multi-class hero in the future, we’d have them make their role choice much earlier (maybe even Level 1), then allow talents to enhance or diversify their role in more subtle ways, so they don’t have to reach level 10 or 13 to feel like a “complete” hero.


Another lesson is that while the choice between Twin Blades and Colossus Smash is fairly flexible and interesting, the choice of whether to take Taunt is much more sharply determined by team comp. If your team needs a tank, you’re basically expected to fill that role which is a bit unfortunate. That’s something we wouldn’t want to forget about when building another multi-class kit.


To finish off, what are some stories of cool hero abilities (for Deckard or others) you really wanted to make work, but it just didn’t fit, was too overpowered, or didn’t work from a technical level?


Kyle - We really wanted to get Town Portal in some capacity as part of Deckard’s kit. However, the power of being able to portal allies (or himself) across the map from the base was just too difficult to tune properly without taking too much power out of his other abilities. At the end of the day, using Town Portal wasn’t *that* exciting for Deckard so we decided to just make it a flavor hit on his hearthstone. :)


A big thanks to Matt and Kyle for taking time to answer questions. If you’re looking for more content, you can find my previous articles here on HeroesHearth and I also appear weekly on the Heroes podcast, Lords of the Storm.

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Really cool to hear that they did try a Town Portal ability/talent, sounding much like the way it did when I submitted a design after the public call last year. Yeah, it probably would be overpowered, but I'm just biased because Deckard is the man. XD
Moar pls. Actually super awesome to read