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Dev Talk: Whitemane and Supports with Lead Hero Designer Matt Villers

For my second article in the Dev Talk series, I had the opportunity to interview Lead Hero Designer Matt Villers who was kind enough to answer my questions about his newest hero Whitemane, and the state of the support role in general, enjoy!
 

Let’s just go ahead and get this one out of the way *cue dramatic music*, where are Mass Sleep/Resurrect and “Arise My Champion”?

We decided not to do Mass Sleep for a couple of reasons. For one, we recently did Stay A While And Listen with Deckard. Secondly, it’s important to remember that Whitemane only used Mass Sleep in World of Warcraft as a way to set up her Mass Resurrect. Of these two abilities, the Resurrect is definitely the more iconic to her character specifically, and as a long-time WoW player, I was super passionate about trying to make it work—despite the challenges we faced with Auriel’s resurrect Heroic ability.

While "Arise, My Champion!" did make it in as a voice line, players have obviously noticed that she doesn't actually resurrect anyone. This wasn't for lack of trying! We attempted many different variations, and I'll share a few examples:

  • We tried out a heroic ability where Whitemane could designate an ally as a "champion" to give them bonuses, then channel to resurrect them if they died, placing the ability on cooldown. Sort of a hybrid between Auriel's trait and Divine Palm. Having a restriction on the resurrect made it even more situational than normal, and the extra passive bonus didn't feel impactful enough to make up for that.

 

  • Another thing we tried was a level 20 talent that allowed Whitemane to resurrect the "spirits" of fallen allies with timed life and bonus stats, similar to an Abathur clone. This was cool from a flavor perspective, but even at this level of power the outcome was wildly inconsistent. The benefit relied on allies dying, and more specifically dying before Whitemane, in order for her to get any real value out of it. It ended up being something you'd pick at 20 and be left feeling like it hadn’t actually done anything for you most of the time.

 

  • We also experimented with a heroic ability where Whitemane could "resurrect" (summon) an NPC champion to fight for her. Again, this was a nice flavor hit, but it was an awkward fit with the rest of her gameplay, especially as a healer who really wants a high degree of control and reliability. In the absence of a literal "Resurrect" spell, it felt like we'd gotten to a point where we were trying to force the issue and just put whatever we could in to justify the voice line, for the sake of nostalgia. We had to make a decision—were we willing to accept a heroic that didn't fit well for the sake of being able to log in the first week and say "oh look she has Arise my Champion!"? In the end we felt it was more important to have two heroics that fit her kit, offered distinct playstyles choices, and would still feel like distinct and viable options for months to come.

 

Ultimately, I think the big challenge with resurrect as a mechanic in our game is that the action is more strategic, and lethality is relatively low across all matches. In games where you can expect allies to die often, resurrection becomes a consistent and valuable tool, but in our game, the death of a Hero is actually pretty infrequent and is usually a big deal when it happens. So on the one hand, it feels bad when you have a large portion of your power allocated to an ability that you rarely get the opportunity to use, and on the other, it doesn't feel great to play against that because it erases the work you did to bring down the enemy Hero in the first place. It's not even a matter of it being balanced or not—it just isn't much fun for either side.

 

What was it about Whitemane as a character that made the team go, “We have to get her made as a hero?”

Whitemane is hugely iconic for anyone who's played WoW. Scarlet Monastery was a staple of the leveling experience for many years, with Whitemane and her fancy hat as the ultimate boss. To this day, we see cosplayers coming to BlizzCon in awesome Whitemane costumes.

She also gave us the opportunity to bring another "dark" Support to the game. We felt this worked really well with Stukov, and we wanted to explore that space more. Where someone like Uther uses the Light in a warm and comforting way and embraces themes like salvation and redemption, Whitemane's version of wielding the Light is twisted and just a bit uncomfortable. She has themes like punishment, zealotry, fanaticism—a priest she may be, but a nice person she is not.

 

What was the thought process behind her initial design? She seems to play closest to a “Discipline Priest”, doing both damage and healing. Was this the design intent and do you think this still leaves things open to do another type of priest down the road? Were there considerations to be careful with a "damage healer" waveclear?

Although Whitemane is a priest from WoW, we didn't feel like she necessarily had to conform to any specific notion of what that means. In terms of spec inspiration, we discussed ideas for how she could lean more toward Shadow or Holy as the primary inspiration, but we ultimately leaned toward a more Discipline-inspired kit as the best fit for her character. We knew early on that we wanted to explore her design from the perspective of, "What does a priest kit look like through the lens of the Scarlet Crusade?" They’re a group of fanatics who show no mercy and stop at nothing to accomplish their goal, and we saw an opportunity to have her abilities reflect that while still feeling familiar due to their basis in WoW’s priest class. And yes, this does come with the added bonus of leaving plenty of fantasy and mechanical space open for the next time we decide to do a priest Hero =)


As for waveclear, that's something we think about for every healer. It was a concern early on for Whitemane, as the original version of Searing Lash could be manually cast multiple times in succession, but when we changed those repeat casts to require hitting a Hero, the problem kind of took care of itself.


What would be your advice for those looking to start playing her?


Managing Whitemane's buff and debuff effects (Zeal and Desperation) is core to everything you want to do as her. Take some time to really read through their effects, and don't be afraid to practice in Try Mode until you get the hang of it. Being comfortable with these effects will greatly reduce your risk of running out of mana in a real game.

For players new to Whitemane, I'd recommend trying the talents that affect Desperate Plea first, as this playstyle is relatively forgiving and effective. The cost reduction from Unwavering Faith in particular reduces the penalty of running out of Desperation stacks, so you don't have to worry as much about hitting your Q button too many times, and Zealous Spirit can allow you to gain Zeal for yourself passively while healing allies—handy if you're a healer who's prone to forgetting to heal yourself.


Whitemane seems to have a fairly high skill ceiling, and this seems to be a trend with more Heroes lately. Is this intended/a new design philosophy for Heroes in general?

In general, our goal is "easy to learn, difficult to master," and we try to reflect that with the Heroes we bring into the game. Sometimes, a more complex Hero (like Abathur) will by necessity be more difficult to play, and we feel like that's OK, but we generally want most of our Heroes to feel like they're not overly difficult to understand of and have fun with. The important thing in the long-term isn't how hard a Hero is to pick up, but how much room you have to grow in skill as you continue to play them.
 

Going a bit more specific, being the second support Hero to come out this year, how has your design philosophy for supports in general evolved and do you intend to apply this thinking to the rest of the older supports like in the Malfurion and the smaller Rehgar reworks?

When it comes to support Heroes specifically, we've gotten pretty consistent feedback from our players that they want opportunities to show off their mastery and make decisions that have a meaningful impact on the outcome of a fight, beyond just playing "whack-a-mole" with HP bars. This is something we've been chasing pretty aggressively with our supports over the past year or so, and you can expect to see it reflected both in future support Heroes as well as reworks.


From a Hero Design perspective, we’ve seen a lot of back and forth over the years with the teams stance on cleanse as a support tool. Deckard’s kit didn’t include a cleanse but Whitemane’s did. What is the current stance on that ability?

We like that Cleanse enables supports to make plays and show mastery, but we don't like its historical tendency to shut out a talent tier and remove all other choices from the equation. We value meaningful choice and variety in talents very highly, and Cleanse is something that often works against that, so we try to position it on a talent tier against things we feel confident it can compete with it, and we also try to create meaningful alternatives in cases where it doesn't feel like that standard Cleanse will fit. We've also seen suggestions like, "Hey, just put Cleanse on every support's 1 key", but that would still come at the cost of talent power and make the entire roster feel more homogenized, so we see that as something of a nuclear option. Given that we've now got several competitive and, more importantly, fun supports who don't have Cleanse, I feel like we've shown that we have other options to make support Heroes feel interesting and impactful.

 

To end things on the topic of supports, we’re seeing several quests removed from Stukov with his upcoming talent adjustments. This is one of the first times we’ve ever seen quest talents removed instead of given. What is the thinking now about questing talents (in this situation and in general) especially considering Whitemane has none?

When we first started doing quests, we got super excited for the possibilities and there was this period where eeeeverybody had to have a quest. Looking back after about two years of quest talents, we realized in hindsight that, while quests can be super fun and add a lot to the game, there have also been a few cases where we made something a quest just for the sake of having one. As we revisit Heroes for reworks, we're taking a very critical eye to questions like, "Does this talent really need to be a quest?” or “Are we just giving you busy work that's gating a fun mechanic?" And in some cases even, "Is this actually detrimental to how the Hero plays?".

At this point, our focus is on quality over quantity—we want the quests we do have in the game to reward skill and alter gameplay in ways that feel meaningful and healthy, and if that means going back and cutting quests in some cases, we're OK with doing that. For Whitemane, it felt like she had plenty of goals to focus on already without the added layer of trying to complete a quest, so we didn't think it was necessary to add any. In the future, you'll see other Heroes who do have quests, as well as Heroes who don't, depending on what feels right for each one.


A big thanks to Matt for taking time to answer questions. If you’re looking for more content, you can find my previous articles and map concepts here on HeroesHearth and I also appear weekly on the Heroes podcast, Lords of the Storm.
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Great interview! While some of these items have been addressed in other places, it’s nice to see it all in a cohesive conversation. Especially interesting to see things they tried with Whitemane for her iconic ability and why they chose to leave it out.