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How Heroes of the Storm plucks new characters from Blizzard’s massive stable

Tracer in Heroes of the Storm.

We need a hero. Dozens, actually. That’s why Blizzard doesn’t stop churning them out.

The company behind hits like World of Warcraft supports its free-to-play MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) with a steady stream new characters. Sometimes they are famous heroes and villains, like Medihv from Warcraft or The Butcher from Diablo. Or Blizzard will add a name and personality to someone who was just a unit in a previous game, like the Siege Tank from StarCraft II.

We interviewed Heroes of the Storm senior producer Kaeo Milker about the game’s process for creating new characters, which heroes the community requests the most, and if more characters from Overwatch will be coming soon.

Heroes of the Storm

Above: The dryad Lunara (left) was just a nonplayer character in the Warcraft games.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

GamesBeat: Talking about specific heroes in the game, at first some of the choices were obvious. You had to have Illidan and Kerrigan, people like that. But it’s interesting how you take some characters who weren’t really specifically full-on singular characters, like the siege unit from StarCraft II that became Sergeant Hammer. What’s it like adding personality to these characters that didn’t really have an identity that strong before?

Kaeo Milker: That’s been a fun process. Obviously we have this pantheon of all these amazing iconic characters. All the A-listers people know. We have this massive list, a spreadsheet we work off, that has hundreds of hero ideas on it. They’re all sorted by various fields so we can find areas of focus while we’re working. But we like bringing in this mixture of big iconic A-list people and then trying to add personality to something like the siege tank. It’s a unit in StarCraft. You know the portrait and the voice. We add a lot of character to those little RTS units.

That’s always been something we’re good at, taking this little thing on the battlefield and between the portrait and the voice acting we really give that thing a personality. You get to know them. If you click on them enough and hear them respond enough, they become these entities to you. They’re not just pixels anymore. For us, being able to take that and say, cool, we like the functionality of a siege tank, we think that’s a cool iconic shape, but there’s not really a super iconic siege tank character outside of the actual unit in the game. So how can we bring that to Heroes and have fun with it and give it a new personality that everyone can enjoy and get into? That’s kind of where Sergeant Hammer came from.

Sgt. Hammer Heroes of the Storm

Above: Sergeant Bama “the Hammer” Kowalski.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Originally, the siege tank unit in Heroes started off as Horace Warfield from StarCraft II, the general. He was basically sticking — he was half robotic, half tank sticking out of it. But as we went deeper, we just wanted to explore the siege tank vibe and not mix Warfield with it. We ended up settling on just giving a personality to a siege tank that we hadn’t experienced before. That’s a fun process. We all have our expectations of what is a siege tank, things we want to bring to it, but we also get to introduce some new ideas as well. Part of the fun of Heroes of the Storm is that it’s this interesting playground where we have this rare opportunity to bring anything from any Blizzard IP ever together.

We also have license to do weird things with them. We literally are handwaving about this whole Nexus thing. This interdimensional storm, crazy stuff’s going to happen, roll with it, have fun! This game is about fun. We can be really serious at times and we can have a lot of fun at other times. But there’s not really rules. There’s nothing about canon or timeline holding things together. We can take bits and pieces of everything that we think is important and fun and put them together in a way we think is right for Heroes of the Storm as a game. We’ve had so much fun with this process. Like I said, it’s been really hard to get here and learn how to do this, but the team is really getting good at it now. It’s so fun to see this work and see us execute on new heroes every three to four weeks now. It’s just a cool process to be a part of.

GamesBeat: When you go to these characters, like Sergeant Hammer or Lieutenant Morrell, is it because you’re looking for something specific? 

Milker: That’s our process, very much so. We’re always looking at the game and saying, what are we missing from the various game worlds? What are we missing from roles? What are we missing in gameplay and mechanics? What are we missing in difficulty of play? We’re trying to balance all those things at any given moment and decide what’s the next hero we want in the game. What are those itches we want to scratch with that unit? And then what’s cool is we have this crazy list of things to pull from, some of which, again, are these big-name things, and some of them are one little character, one little unit you saw once that we get to explore in a way we never have before.

Tracer from Overwatch.

Above: Tracer from Overwatch.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

GamesBeat: With recent launch and the immediate success of Overwatch, are you planning on adding some of its characters? And has players’ massive response to your team shooter acelerated this process?

Milker: We’re all really excited about Overwatch. We’ve said this before publicly, but originally we were super stoked to do Overwatch characters. We were playing early versions of it. Obviously, so many of them lend themselves to coming over to Heroes. Their kits are leaning that way already. But early on, we were told, hey guys, let’s just let this team release their game and set the tone for their own world and their characters before we come in and create our Heroes versions of them and explore them that way. So we were all kind of bummed. Let’s cool our jets for a while and let them have their moment and then we’ll come in later and we’ll start thinking about this.

But then they started getting excited as they played Heroes more. They actually came to us early on and said, hey, you guys should do Tracer before we come out. And we’re like, yes! Sweet! We got so excited about that. Our lead time on doing heroes is something like six to nine months. It takes a very long time for us to go from a paper design to a fully vetted, implemented, playtested hero that’s ready for release. We’re really excited now. We’ve opened the door and the floodgates are open in terms of us being able to explore more Overwatch characters. We definitely have a lot of things percolating and more Overwatch characters on the way. I wouldn’t say at this point that we’ve abandoned other things in favor of Overwatch, but there are conversations every day about Overwatch characters. It’s really cool to have them in the mix now.

Wrecking buildings in Heroes of the Storm.

Above: Wrecking buildings in Heroes of the Storm.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

GamesBeat: I’m sure you guys get requests for characters a lot. Is there one that players ask for more than anyone else?

Milker: At any moment there’s always the one people are talking about. Right now, Kel’thuzad is the one I get the most. If you go back a little ways, when we first started showing the game, everybody wanted the Lost Vikings. That was one we had to prioritize and get in early on. We really did something interesting with them as three unique independently controlled characters in the game. There’s always that next hero, I think, that people are waiting for. We obviously have a lot of really big name characters that we haven’t done yet. People push for some of those. Kel’thuzad is one of them.

But it’s interesting how — because there are so many different Blizzard games and so many playable characters or non-playable characters that have resonated with people, everyone has their thing they want to get in the game. On the team and off the team, elsewhere in the company. We hear it from the public all the time. It’s so cool to have this space to play in where we kind of get to make Blizzard: The Game. We can pull from all of that stuff and bring it together. We’re trying hard to make our version of them in a way that fits Heroes of the Storm, while paying a cool nod to what all know and love about them.

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The same goes for Them, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Its focus is narrow, centering on a young couple living in a cavernous farmhouse, terrorized over the course of a night by unseen horrors. The camera never quite gives away who (or what) the perpetrators are, and revealing the twist would be a sin. As with Raw, its atmosphere and overall creepiness won me over straightaway. The scariest part? Realizing that I've probably driven past a shot like the final scene countless times and not thought twice about it. If you're willing to read subtitles, both of these should make you shiver and scream more than The Conjuring 2 on HBO Go could ever hope to.

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"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.