Having brushed aside numerous would-be rivals in the subscription-based MMO space, Blizzard Entertainment now finds itself in a relativity new situation: Playing catch-up.
While MMOs such as Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic failed to replicate the dream-like successes of World of Warcraft, on the other side of the universe something potentially much bigger had been growing. Free-to-play battle arena games, such as League of Legends and Valve's Dota 2, have amassed tens of millions of gamers across the world.
In this space, Blizzard is not leading, it is chasing. And the developer is pitching Heroes of the Storm (which incorporates lore and characters from WoW, Diablo and Starcraft) as its springboard into an entirely new market. We speak to lead software engineer Alan Dabiri to discuss the extent of Blizzard's ambitions.
Meanwhile, there's still more than seven million Warcraft Subscribers to cater for, and the pioneering MMO's fifth expansion - called Warlords of Draenor - is expected to draw in old players who have gone elsewhere. CVG speaks to game designer Helen Cheng and technical director Marco Koegler about the new add-on.
Heroes of the Storm has an interesting history, it started off as just a StarCraft 2 map, right?
Alan Dabiri: Yeah, right after we shipped Wings of Liberty we wanted to show off what the editor could do, and so we made a few of these maps. One was Star Jewelled, another was Left to Die, and we had, at the time, what was called Blizzard Dota.
It really was just to showcase what we could do, but as we started to play it we realised it was really fun and we were digging it. So we started expanding and it grew to the point where it was clear this needed to be its own game, we needed to invest in this.
So we had all these heroes from all these different game worlds, and we wanted to use them to take this idea to the next level. And it is. It's now a standalone product, you don't need any other games to play it, and that speaks for it self.
For Blizzard fans seeing characters from different franchises going toe-to-toe in the same game is an easy sell, but for those that might not be as tied to your different universes what does Heroes of the Storm offer?
Dabiri: I think there's a lot for people that might not be familiar with the lore of Blizzard games too. The characters themselves will pull you in regardless. I'm kind of biased but I've always been incredibly attracted to the artwork we do and the personality the characters have. Even without the background, the heroes themselves are really going to pull in players.
"I'm not concerned about other people on the industry and other players in this space"
But beyond that, I think that Heroes of the Storm is a different take on the genre. We're trying to have fast-paced games, we're trying to have team-oriented games where you want your team to be succeeding instead of going off and do your own thing.
We also have this concept of battlegrounds where it's not just the same game again and again. You can have varied experiences on the different maps, there's map objectives that will really contribute towards defeating the other team.
It seems this feature is what Blizzard is really pushing to define itself from competition like League of Legends and DotaA 2.
Dabiri: I think what we realised is that there's a lot experiences that you can have playing this game, but at the root of the game the core goal is the same: move across the map and defeat your opponent's palace.
But there are a lot of other mechanics we learned from our other games that we can build into the maps themselves to make the game more interesting.
Each of the four Battlegrounds we're showing off today is different from the next, and when you play these maps you're getting different strategies and choices. It's a really different experience.
People have invested a lot of time learning League and Dota, do you think what you're offering is enough to pull people away from games they're dedicated to for a new one?
Dabiri: I think the simple answer is yes. But I'll go deeper and say that pretty much every game we've ever released has been in a space where other people have games of the same type. When we released StarCraft or Warcraft there were plenty of RTS games, World of Warcraft is the same and even Hearthstone, there's plenty of card games out there.
We always take that experience and put a Blizzard flavour on it and I think that people have come to appreciate that. Personally, I think that it's shown through the years that we've been able to succeed at that. So I'm not concerned about other people on the industry and other players in this space. We're just focused on making a fun, great game.
We make the games we enjoy playing and everyone else just comes along for the ride.
Slideshow: Heroes of the Storm images
MOBA games are quite daunting prospects for people that might not be experienced with the genre. What are you doing to help newcomers understand and learn the game?
Dabiri: That is a key focus of ours, we want to make sure that people don't have a rough experience. What I've experienced in the past, especially in regards to these kind of games, is your own team almost dislikes you more than the enemy team.
So we have changes both inside the game and changes that we're making outside the game. We've condensed the game and made it shorter, where there's more action, and added elements like team-levelling. With that you'll never really fall behind the rest of your team, you all progress as a group. That really allows you, as an individual, to go and do other things like map objectives without feeling like you've fallen behind.
The battleground mechanics make you feel like there are no defined roles for every single player; you can actually do different things to help out the team. We're not going to discuss what we're doing out of game right now, but there are a lot of things that we'd like to do to help people really learn the game and walk you through the experience.
"With elements like team-levelling, you'll never really fall behind the rest of your team, you all progress as a group"
The characters in Heroes of the Storm have a rich background, will you be exploring that in game or giving players opportunity to delve deeper into the history of their chosen hero?
Dabiri: Sure, but the great thing about these characters is that you can even do stuff like that without even having the game. There are comic books about these characters, even books. We'll definitely have stuff in the game to let you learn about these characters but there's all of that media that we've created previously too, there's a wealth of content.
Do you plan to expand the game experience onto companion devices?
Dabiri: Right now we're focusing on the PC and Mac, but it's definitely something we're interested in. It's something we're looking at for the future.
Games like this usually require a person to really commit, both to learning it and playing. Is Heroes of the Storm the same, or is it also suited to jumping in and out?
Dabiri: I think the casual style of playing is also suited to playing in addition to really digging in. We've always had this company mantra: "easy to learn, difficult to master".
With these short games and intense fast action experiences, you can jump in during your lunch break, play a few games, and then not have to play for the rest of the day. But if you want to dig into it deeper, want to learn about talents, heroes, abilities, combos between hero abilities and other team mates, there's plenty of opportunity to do that to.
Do you have big ambitions for Heroes of the Storm as an e-sports title?
Dabiri: Right now our number one priority is just to make a great, fun game. We've always been pretty organic when it comes to e-sports, with the exception of WCS more recently where we've been investing more time in it. But previously we've just been making good games that we want to play, and then e-sports kind of develops.
If the community wants this to become an e-sport and others want to watch it, we're totally there to support it, and we've got the infrastructure to support it.
Is it safe to assume that characters that don't exist in the many Blizzard universes but will appear in the future will be rolled into Heroes of the Storm?
Dabiri: Absolutely. The beauty of this game is that as teams are working on their games and we're just adopting it all.
So yes, as long as we keep making games, we're going to keep creating content for this.
In the current build we have a character called ETC who doesn't exist in any of the game worlds, he's a totally fun and unique character. It doesn't have to be 'this is Warcraft' or 'this is StarCraft', we don't have to follow the lore, we can mix it up and have some crazier skins, maybe put them in crazier battlegrounds, but still have the heart of the Blizzard heroes.
You haven't discussed a business model for the game. How will Heroes of the Storm be sold?
Dabiri: I think we're going to have more on that in the future, but I can say it is going to be a free-to-play game and you are going to get a nice selection of heroes at the start with various experiences you can try.
As you progress through the game you're going to unlock more game features, more heroes, more skins, and all that kind of stuff.
There's probably a fair few lapsed World of Warcraft players that are considering jumping back on the wagon after seeing the reveal of Warlords of Draenor. What would you say to get them off the fence and back in game?
Helen Cheng: One of the big new features for Warlords of Draenor is the boost to level 90 for a single character. The goal with that is to get players like that into the expansion content and get them playing the most exciting, new stuff. It's also to get players to bring their friends or join their friends and play together. That was actually one of the big highlight features of the new expansion.
Marco Koegler: There's also some stuff in the starting experience that helps ease people back into it. We have a starting zone where you learn how to play your characters, since a lot has changed and with the boost to 90 you can take an old character up or make a new one.
Why did you decide you want to go back and re-explore these events from Warcraft's past?
Cheng: Without going into spoiler territory, it actually builds for the future too. We were thinking about the classic Warcraft experience, the original event when the orcs came through the dark portal and invaded Azeroth. We wanted to touch on that feeling of going back to the traditional Warcraft experience.
There's so many big characters, like Grommash Hellscream and all the other orc warchiefs, and the a lot of Warlords of Draenor was born from wanting players today to experience those storylines and characters.
You're also giving the game a big visual overhaul, correct?
Koegler: Yes, we're updating the character models for Warlords. With Mists of Pandaria we introduced the Pandarian as our highest fidelity player models and now seeing some of the vanilla character models next to high-res models made us really want to go back and update it.
It's a huge undertaking and rather than just adding more triangles we're giving them the full new race treatment, which means looking at all the animations, adding a lot more facial detail and giving the characters more expression. But we're also trying to be very careful that we're maintaining the feel of the characters.
We definitely wanted to more than just 'subdivide all the triangles', but it's time-consuming and really exciting to see the crowd go wild for it.
To clarify, the new visuals are just for character models and not the entire game, right?
Koegler: Yes, just the character models. We always do incremental visual updates, like we added shadows for Wrath of the Lich King, updated water for Cataclysm, lighting for Mists, and from an engine perspective we're spending a lot of resources making sure everyone can run around together in this. There's a lot of focus on optimisation and making sure that is a good experience for all players.
"We're working very hard to make sure WoW can still run on low power machines"
WoW has always been able to run on even low-powered machines, will that continue going forward?
Koegler: We're working very hard to make sure that is still the case. In the near term you'll still be able to enable the old character models if there is a problem. For now they are available as options.
Koegler:: We'll see what happens going forward and with player reactions. If there is a big divide, we... we'll keep our options open.
When was Warlords of Draenor green lit as your next step for WoW?
Koegler:: I think only [designer and writer] Chris Metzen really knows when the seed was planted. Look at the events of 5.4 there definitely were a lot of leads into it.
We have one large team working on the expansion, but there is a smaller team always concepting the next one.
The team has ideas for how this expansion will actually impact future events. We're always trying to think beyond what we're currently working on and always trying to create larger story arcs that flow into each other.
How much life is left in the World of Warcraft? Do you foresee this game still being popular and vibrant with content five years from now?
Koegler: I certainly do
Cheng: In terms of where the story will go, only Metzen really knows the grand plans for the future. But I think there's still so many stories to tell and so many adventures to be had. There's definitely a lot more coming in the future.
What kind of input do people that aren't Chris Metzen have in where the story goes?
Koegler: There's always the ability to feedback. Even on the engineering side, the 'non-creative people', Metzen dragged us into a room and said "this is what we're going to do for 6.0" and there was a big Q&A and feedback session that becomes the next iteration of the idea. It's kind of a moving thing and it evolves.
Cheng: Having been in some of the creative meetings with Chris, he's really open to ideas. You let him go and he has idea after idea, he'll start down one thread and then maybe go to another and ultimately he's really good at creating characters with realistic motivations. He can take them and explore them in interesting ways.
I wouldn't say he just comes up with a directive and that's the way it's got to be, it's definitely collaborative and really creative. Ultimately, whatever story direction we go there's always some reason behind it, a theme or kernel that we want to explore. I think that's what's so cool about the creative expression.
Warlords of Draenor was one of two Blizzard trademarks that showed up recently, the other 'The Dark Below', what is that?
Koegler: I have no idea to be honest [laughs].
Cheng: Didn't we also trademark 'Corgis Unleashed'? [Laughs]. I'm still waiting for that.
Are you saying that has nothing to do with Blizzard then?
Cheng: I don't know for sure.
Koegler: I really don't know.