Dustin Browder is the game director of Blizzard's new MOBA, Heroes of the Storm. He is also a rush character, I think, but one with a very short charge and practically no cooldown. Maybe he's been making multiplayer games for too long; who knows? Regardless of the reasoning, I suspect he has internalised his own hotbar, and his special ability involves getting so enthused about a topic that he starts to have a dialogue with himself. Seriously. He plays both sides.
Here he is on Blackheart's Bay, for example, a Heroes map - or battleground - that tasks each team with collecting scattered doubloons to win the favour of a ghostly seadog:
"We are going to keep introducing more and more battlegrounds, aren't we?" he begins. "Certainly. But certainly, if a battleground becomes stale, okay, bye-bye battleground. I don't care! It doesn't matter. The whole point is for the game to be fun, not that we play Blackheart's Bay for the next 10 years. Who cares about Blackheart's Bay? I love Blackheart's Bay. But if it's not working anymore, it can go."
Follow all that? Interestingly, I wasn't asking if Blackheart's Bay was destined for the chop. Heroes is still in beta, after all. What I'd asked was whether or not the Heroes approach to map design was going to cause certain problems in the long run. Somewhere in the middle of a five-minute answer, Browder's special ability kicked in and the dialogue began.
Seriously, though, these Heroes battlegrounds feel quite risky at first. Like most MOBAs, Blizzard's game plonks you into maps that feature three lanes stretching from one base to the other, broken up with gates to storm and defences to push back. What stands out, though, is that the developers have built each map around a one-shot set-piece that really affects the way you play. In Blackheart's Bay, there's that ghostly pirate, ready to lend his cannons to the highest bidder. Elsewhere you can expect a battleground set above a mine where you can harvest skeletons to boost the power of a golem, or one with a day/night cycle, complete with horrors that only emerge in the dark.
My worry is simple: these things initially feel like amazing novelty treats stuck in the middle of the action. But what happens when the novelty wears off? Browder's answer gets to the heart of Blizzard's plan for its new game: when the novelty wears off, the game will probably have changed anyway.
"Of course, my goal is that these maps are still fun to play even when you absolutely know what to do," Browder begins. "I've been playing a lot of these battlegrounds for over a year, I know what to do, but the variability in my team, in the enemy team, in who's dead and who's alive and who has what mana right now, that changes everything in terms of where to go and what to do.
"But I think one of our goals in this game is to have it keep reinventing itself for years and years and years," he continues. "We have this goal, I'll tell guys: Look, I want you to imagine yourself sitting in the same chair five years from now. Is it still fun? Are you still geeked up to work on this game, or do you think, five years from now, it's going to start to feel stale, and you're like, 'Here we go, another ranged damage class...'
"If you can imagine yourself still having fun five years from now, then we're doing it right. We very much want to communicate to the audience, with every action that we take: you haven't seen anything yet. This game will not be nailed down. At no point will we let this game become stuck in a rut, to become repetitive or predictable. We may fail, don't get me wrong. There's always a possibility that we fail, but that's never the goal. The goal's to be always driving change, driving newness, keeping it fresh."
In fact, this is where the battlegrounds come back in. "They're such a powerful tool to allow us to change the entire play experience just by changing out the terrain and the battleground and the characters on that battleground," says Browder. "Even if we never change another hero again, which of course we'll do, even if we never added more heroes, we could keep changing this experience just through the battlegrounds alone. Then if we add new heroes, that gives us new vectors for change, more vectors for innovation. More vectors for new cool ideas. Then you think of the Talent system that allows you to go back into old heroes and add a new play style, even if we didn't change anything old." He pauses. "So we're trying to create systems here that allow us to keep evolving the game - as we get good ideas, as the community and the audience gets good ideas. We can keep changing the game for years and years to come."
Luckily, Browder has some form in this area. Before working on Heroes, he was game director on StarCraft 2, and he's also putting his MOBA together inside the company that's simultaneously working on Hearthstone. That's two more games defined by their ever-shifting metas, two more games where the ground is never still for very long.
Can you ever hope to stay in front of something like that? "We've designed the game and built it and playtested it for months," Browder laughs. "A lot of what's going to happen we know. But we just have to accept that there are things we don't know. Sometimes we see months into the future and sometimes we're completely blind. You always think you know - you always think you have a handle on it. And then every now and then you just get smacked around and you realise: Okay, I did not know that. I did not see that coming. And those are always really fun moments where you discover something new about the game you've been working on for years.
As an example of this, Browder invokes another battleground. "A while back we introduced Sky Temple, which is this map where you're trying to control these temples across this big deserty environment. And if you control a temple then these monsters spawn and you have to fight the monsters, and if you're inside this big ring, the temples are blasting your enemy's fortresses on your behalf. We did talk about it as a possibility that a character like Gazlowe, the Tinker, a character who is really good at owning ground, would be powerful in this map, but we're seeing him as first pick in ranked play. Gazlowe is never first pick in any version of ranked play ever. But on Sky Temple, he's first pick. So we kind of talked about it, could we foresee it? Are we two minutes up on that one, I don't know. But we wouldn't have predicted it would be this extreme. But it's totally cool. That's exactly what we're going for is an environment where the battlegrounds really do change how you think about the game. They do change the types of heroes and talents you want to play with."
He laughs. "But if you're asking do we ride the meta or does the meta ride us? The meta rides us."