Interview: moonliterhythm

It’s another interview; this time with moonliterhythm, the developer of perSonas/Arkana! I used to share a forum with him many years ago, so this was a surprise reunion. I’ll skip the introductions and get straight to the questions:

Softmints:
So what was your first introduction to mobas/AoS; where did you start?

moonliterhythm:
Let’s see… we started off, I was in college, it must have been 2005, my roomates and I were pretty bored, and we liked playing Warcraft III once and a while to play melee against each other, but that was getting pretty boring because two of us were really good, and two of us really weren’t. We knew there was a huge modding community, so we just started trying out maps. And one of those maps was DotA Allstars.

I remember my first game; it was two of us playing against one, and my hero was Troll Warlord. We had no idea what we were doing at the time; I remember looking through the items and seeing Divine Rapier, and thinking: “this looks like the best item in the game, I’ll try to get that!”. After I finally got it, I died instantly, and there was my item, on the ground. I had no idea it could drop, so I was staring at it in disbelief… The enemy Banehallow picked it up and that was that.

We played LANs for a while, usually 2v1, and eventually figured out that the lone player had an advantage because of the extra gold they got; though it often depended on the hero. We eventually started looking around online for games, trying out new strategies, and we had a lot of fun with that. I remember one of my favourite tactics was taking Troll Warlord and rushing Maelstrom, activating my ultimate, and killing heroes in a few seconds. Most people hadn’t figured out stuff like last hits at this point, so we were winning most games pretty easily.

Later we ended up playing in Clan TDA (an inhouse DotA clan on Battle.net), which was a bit of a mess with its bureaucracy, but we still had a lot of fun. We played themed games sometimes, where everyone would pick a “knight” hero, like Dragon Knight, Rogueknight, Chaos Knight, and we’d roleplay them. Someone would charge up to an enemy creep, and say: “Halt, wench!” in vent, and charge in to use his spell on one creep before backing off. Or we’d pick all invis heroes and get Dagons, and signal our victim using a flying courier. We had a great laugh with that. The Inhouse Leagues was where the real competition was at; the IGS was great. I met a lot of friends there, many of whom are still playing pro League/Dota to this day.

Soft:
So what led to perSonas?

moon:
Well, it was fairly early in my DotA days, before any of the pro stuff got started, and while I really enjoyed DotA, I still had a few gripes with it. For anyone who’s played as long as I have, it probably came as a surprise that DotA is now known as the most unforgiving and difficult game to get into, because that wasn’t our experience back then. But it makes sense; DotA has a lot of unintuitive mechanics. So I had some ideas and was considering making something of my own.

The swapping mechanic was actually inspired by Pandaren Brewmaster’s ultimate. You’d be in a fight, and suddenly there’s this big moment where there’s three of him! Of course it’s kinda messy because now you have to control three units, but that “moment” was what got me thinking. I was talking about it with my friend Bengal_Tigger, and we started theorising a game centred on a mechanic where you change heroes. I had a mac at the time, and the world editor didn’t run on macs, but luckily I was just about to get a new computer, and ended up using that to start working.

PerSonas was a pretty successful map. People came, and tried it, and they liked it. The heroes were all a little bit crazy: that was intentional. Each hero was almost stupidly good at one thing, so at the beginning of the game, you picked the two things you wanted to be good at, and went from there. In one of the versions, I think it was b12, we put a notice on the loading screen saying that we would be hosting the next version at a certain time and date two weeks from now. That’s how maps were distributed back in the day, you’d host them on Battle.net and people would join and download directly.

We worked hard on that version; we added about 12 heroes, and finally the day came, we were ready, and we hosted. The remaining 8 slots filled up instantly! Here we were in a lobby with a bunch of people we’d never met, talking excitedly about our game. We were using alternate accounts, so it was very validating to watch that organic interaction and enthusiasm. It felt like our work was really going to be a success. The stats on mapgnome.org (a stats-tracking site for Warcraft III maps at the time) showed that perSonas was the #2 hosted map, a distant second to DotA of course.

PerSonas was quite unusual in the AoS scene because it was inspired by DotA Allstars, which most developers seemed to want to avoid at the time. I had personal experiece with what was making DotA successful, so that influenced me greatly. That probably helped us when it came to making a game that could become popular.

Soft:
So what happened next? How did Arkana come about?

moon:
Well, Blizzard released a patch that deprecated almost every custom map out there. I think there was an exception made for DotA because it was so big, but it knocked perSonas off the list. And here’s where I made a big mistake. What I should have done was made the necessary fixes and re-released perSonas immediately. But like any creator, you only see the flaws in your work. I’d been planning some big changes for a while, and I felt that now was the opportune time. After all, my previous work had become popular because it was fun. The same would happen again, right?
Sadly, not so. It took me 9 months to release Arkana, and since they couldn’t play perSonas in the mean-time, our old player-base had mostly forgot about it. Battle.net’s population was dwindling after many of people’s other favourite maps were broken as well. There wasn’t much hope for a resurgence.

Soft:
Why change the name?

moon:
Haha, well “personas” is the spanish word for ‘people’. You can’t search for it! But we also wanted to represent some of the changes we’d made. We were toning down the chaotic side of the map, because people would play it, but they’d get bored after a little while. There wasn’t much depth. So we wanted to address that; we focused on balance, on making heroes simpler, easier to learn and use, we removed mana and replaced it with shields to make the game more forgiving and encourage action. Simple heroes can be a great thing; I remember that for the first full release of perSonas I was rushing to get 20 heroes in, because you need 20 heroes for a 5v5. I whipped up basically a copy of Sniper from DotA in about 20 minutes, he had a long-range damage nuke with a long cast time (you could dodge it by swapping), a range increase, a passive crit: really simple spells. I was thinking I’d have to apologise because someone was going to end up with such a dumb hero, but he ended up being the most sought-after hero in the game! I learned from that: simple isn’t necessarily bad.

Part of Arkana was that it was a huge labour of reduction. The reason the abilities were much simpler than they could have been, the items were much simpler than they could have been, was because we needed to make it easy to play. We were worried that the concept of having to learn and play two heroes was already so overbearing that throwing anything else on top would be too much.

Soft:
It’s fairly easy to appreciate the depth having double-heroes adds to the picking phase, but how about in practice? Did it work for the gameplay too?

moon:
Swapping was the key: the fact that it would dodge incoming abilities: that’s what made the game work. If that didn’t happen, I would argue the game sucks. It’s the one thing I’m really stubbon about: you have to switch. It creates pivot points: really important pivot points. Swapping is a pivot point, activating a bkb is a pivot point, Roshan is a pivot point. You might have a plan for what you’ll be doing for the next 8 seconds, but then Spectre uses her ult, and you have to switch gears! That makes the game unpredictable and exciting. We used to battle it a lot initially, we were trying to figure out how to “fix” projectiles missing a hero that had been swapped out. But we eventually realised: this is what makes the game amazing.

Some people didn’t like swapping, and I can kind of see why. They asked: can you make this game again, just without the swapping? You can actually play like that and it’s not terrible, but it’s not the same game.

Sadly, there wasn’t enough feedback at the time to continue developing the game. It’s still a concept I’m very proud of though, and I’d love to see it realised some day.

Soft:
How do you feel about the modern mobas?

moon:
Well, I’ve played most of them. Dota 2 obviously gets a bunch of my time, though actually I play League of Legends more these days. I didn’t like League so much when I was starting out, but after playing it and playing it and playing it, I eventually grew to like it even more than DotA. It’s tough to explain why though; it’d take a while.
Dawngate is nice, they seem to be refining League’s formula, but they’re just not offering anything new. I can understand why they removed mana, since most of League’s new champs don’t have it anyway, and I like their choice to consolidate damage output into ‘Power’ since League doesn’t really offer much choice between AP and AD anyway. You can’t build hybrid; you have to choose one or the other.

Soft:
Right, since AD scales linearly with attack rate. Your sixth AD item adds much more than your fifth. They used to have Master Yi being able to build AD or AP though?

moon:
Yeah, and they removed it. So if you’re not going to offer choice in the first place, might as well call it Power and not have duplicated items. But still, why play Dawngate when League is there with 5 times more champs, and is just overall better?

Strife is interesting; it’s like if HoN and League had a child. I liked that it has some things that League doesn’t, like mana ring and ghost marchers, though after a while it stopped being fun. The out of combat regen mechanic seems like a good idea to begin with, but then you realise you can cycle regenerating on a dual lane. If the game is balanced to allow for solo lanes, then a cycling dual lane is going to crush. Also, there’s too much focus on gpm. It feels like games are about getting and maintaining a gold advantage until you slowly suffocate the other team. If you have better items, you will win. That’s all there is to it. The enchantments on items as well…

Soft:
Those were removed actually, pretty recently. I think that was a positive step.

moon:
Oh, cool. Yeah, I didn’t like those. Still, you have to check every opponent’s item to see what stats they have, which is a pain. Smite I like because it feels very crisp to use. There’s definitely something to be said for a third-person perspective.

I think all the existing mobas are bringing something good and new to the table; we’ve seen that the games which don’t die off really quickly. So hopefully we’ll continue to see more of that.

Soft:
It’s been great to hear from you again and see that you’re still a fan. Good luck in your future matches!

moon:
Thanks, it’s been great catching up!

~ fin ~

Interview: erwtenpeller

Today, we have an interview with erwtenpeller, one of the Warcraft modding community’s most established artists. He is well known for his distinctive cartoony style, serving as the art director at the modding site wc3c.net, and his work can be seen in a wide variety of maps.

Softmints:
Hi erwt! To get started, what was your first introduction to the AoS genre?

erwtenpeller:
That would be the first DotA on Warcraft III RoC, and I played that a lot. The first reason why I liked it so much, was because it had all these custom moves in that you just didn’t see in any of the other maps. That really intrigued me; that people could just go into this game and change all these things around and make their own stuff happen. Other maps were less advanced, they didn’t really have custom spells to that degree.

Soft:
The original Eul’s DotA back in the day used imported excel sheets to create those custom abilities, which proved to be a big draw for people: the special effects which looked very different, and it played very different to anything that had been seen before.

erwt:
Exactly, and yeah, the gameplay was also pretty nice. I’ve never been very good at managing an entire army, I’m more of a one character guy. DotA allowed me to enjoy Warcraft III in a way that was more suited to my gameplay preferences. This was before I played any MMOs or anything, it was my first online gaming experience, so it was a pretty eye-opening thing.

Soft:
So moving into TFT, how did you continue with AoS maps?

erwt:
Well, I remember being very disappointed that the DotAs on Frozen Throne were rubbish when it first came out. There were a lot of them because now it was really easy to create DotA, because there was an ability editor now, so everyone and their mother could make their own abilities and their own heroes, and throw them online. So at the start of the Frozen Throne, there were a lot of DotA maps that were just not as good as the first one, until I came across Tides of Blood, which had custom textures and custom graphics. And that felt very next-level for me. It felt like they’d spent a little bit of time and a little bit of thought on that map, and really designed their characters, rather than having skeletons that shoot arrows out of their chest or whatever. They really matched up the abilities with their animation sets and made everything look very smooth, like it belonged. And that attracted me to Tides of Blood, so from that point on I was pretty much playing ToB exclusively. It was seeing those custom skins in Tides of Blood that got me interested in making graphics for games, because I saw those custom things and thought “oh man, you know, I’ve drawn things in my life, this is something that I could actually do!” And then I started researching on how to do that, made a wc3c.net account, and started making textures.

Soft:
You’re quite well known among the Warcraft modding community for your artwork, which has been used in many maps over the years. How did you get started with drawing originally?

erwt:
Oh that’s just something I’ve always done, from ever since I was little. I think pretty much every artist will give you that answer: it’s not something that I deliberately started doing, it’s just something that I’ve always done. Me and my brother have always been giant fans of Warcraft, ever since Warcraft I, Warcraft II, we played them all. I always drew a lot of Warcraft fan-art, especially when I was younger. Making textures for Warcraft III was a natural evolution from that, a step up in creating artwork that was a tribute to Warcraft. Which I still do every now and then.

Soft:
Did you have any formal training at the time?

erwt:
Not at that time, no. I taught myself to use photoshop when I was around 16, I got my first tablet and started playing around with it. I just looked up a tutorial on how to extract the skins, and edit them in photoshop and started doing it. And once you get going, you realise that your stuff doesn’t look as other people’s stuff, and then you start researching how you can make it better. And eventually, I was the one telling other people how to make their stuff better. So that was pretty cool.

Soft:
When you were starting out, were your skins just ideas that were cool, or intended for a particular project, or for practice?

erwt:

Oh no, it was just cool ideas really. What I liked about Warcraft III was that because it’s so low-poly, you can add a lot of character just by changing the skin. You can change the entire look and feel of the model just by swapping around some colours and putting new stuff in. I think those kinds of skins is what got me noticed by people. I did stuff like a reskinning Grom Hellscream to look like a Pandarean Lumberjack. Weird things like that. Just trying to push the edge of the models and see what kind of interesting things I could do with them. I think it was mostly the low polygons really. That helped a lot, and the fact that they were mostly humanoids as well. If you would want to make a texture for say, a Hellion, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You can make a purple Hellion, but it will always be a Hellion! You could paint some skulls on it I suppose?

Soft:
In those early days, when people started using your work in their maps, how did that feel?

erwt:
Oh that was great. I mean, it’s always great if people are interested in your work and are using it. I eventually started developing my own map because we had all these great graphics; me and my brother were always coming up with ideas and eventually we decided that we wanted to put them in a map. But our own map was never really that good, because we mostly focused on the characters and didn’t have many great gameplay ideas, we just wanted to make these interesting characters happen, and we needed a place to put them!

Soft:
That map started in around 2006, and it was called Blades&Billets?

erwt:
We started with a different one actually, we started with Coast of Conflict: we really like alliteration! Coast of Conflict was the first one; it was a crazy concept that was very specific about Maiev teaming up with the Undead, and the other team was the Illidan bunch with Blood Elves and Satyr and stuff. But we got stuck in map editor pretty fast because both my brother and me had no idea how to program, we just knew that we somehow wanted to express our ideas in the Warcraft III format. We stopped then for a while, and eventually, I had a lot of skins laying around, we decided to look for a programmer and try to get something made.

Soft:
Aside from bringing together an assortment of different characters, was there anything you wanted to bring to the table that maybe hadn’t been seen or done before in an AoS?

erwt:
Not really, we had some ideas that were new at the time like having a shared hero pool, which is something that DotA started doing not long after that. Not that I’m saying that they took the idea from us: anyone would have come up with that eventually. It’s kind of the logical step to being more efficient about your resources. Designing a whole team for two sides is a lot more work than just designing one roster that everyone can pick from. We didn’t want to have a clear divide in the teams, we just wanted two teams and a bunch of fun characters that were duking it out in an arena. One thing that we did do was make use of destructable terrain a lot; we had a lot of walls that were made out of trees, and then we had a lot of units that could destroy or regrow those trees for mobility purposes. But none of this was really radical, we just had a lot of random ideas; we weren’t very experienced in game design.

Soft:
One of the things that I really liked about Blades&Billets is that each hero has its own two colours that are used in the hero select screen, and on all the hero’s tooltips. It’s a subtle thing but it really helped bring out their characters.

erwt:
Well, that’s what you get when you get an artist and a writer to try and design a game. Like I said, we weren’t very good at the game design part, but we were very persistent in trying to make our stuff look as good as possible. That was sort of the main thing that we were good at: the expression of it. All our characters had a very clear theme, and all their abilities had custom graphics that fit that theme. We tried to design nice characters with movesets that fit together and stuff, but for us, the looks and the story of the character were more important than the gameplay behind it.


Autumn colours for an autumn hero.

Soft:
When designing your characters, would theme have usually been the motivator, or would you occasionally think of an ability or a mechanic that brought a theme forward on its own?

erwt:
Sometimes, yeah. We used forums and suggestions a lot, like where people would post their hero ideas and their mechanics and stuff, and we drew a lot of inspiration from that forum, but I feel that the characters that started out as a character idea were always a lot stronger than the characters that started out as a moveset, because then you forcibly have to come up with an idea for a character within those restraints. I feel we worked better if we had a great idea for a character and then started to come up with moves that fit the theme, and then try to make that work gameplay-wise.

Soft:
In the end, you stopped developing Blades&Billets. Is there any particular story behind that?

erwt:
I got invited to start working on the Tides of Blood team! Blades&Billets wasn’t really going anywhere, it had a very loyal but very small fanbase, didn’t get a lot of playtime in custom maps, and Tides of Blood was the reason why I started doing this in the first place, so when they asked me if I could work on their map, I thought: well, yeah! Of course I would work on Tides of Blood! I mean, that was my little dream, at the time.

Soft:
What areas were you working on?

erwt:
Graphics, purely graphics. I did a little bit of character design every now and then, but Cassiel had complete creative control over that, and he deserved it because he designed some very nice characters. I just did the graphics for some things that he wanted to get done, and at that time I also got into modelling, so we did some model editing for Tides of Blood, and really made some things happen that you wouldn’t be able to see in any other map. ToB vO had the Ghost Pirate character in it, that me and Chris completely re-did, we made a new model and we animated it from scratch, the spell effects were all from scratch, the texture was from scratch: that character was completely made by us. That sort of thing, I think, should have given Tides of Blood an edge. But it never really happened that way, unfortunately.

Soft:
Was the feeling in the team that Tides of Blood was going to be a big hit?

erwt:
Not really, we weren’t really concerned with being a big hit that much. We were mostly just trying to make it the best we could. When we’re talking about hits, I think that was our biggest problem; it took us a year and a half I think, to get the version done. It just didn’t go very smoothly. I like to think we created a very fine product in the end, but there were so few people playing ToB by that time that there wasn’t enough player feedback from the community to really make it great, gameplay-wise. All the systems were in place, but we never really got the chance to perfect them and make the balance work.

Soft:
As maps go, Tides of Blood has probably inspired more successors over the years than any other AoS aside from Eul’s DotA. What do you think ToB was doing right that people bought into so much?

erwt:
I think it did two things very very right. One of those was the attention to detail. I mostly mean the visual aspect of the attention to detail, that means that they had fewer characters, but the characters that they had were very well designed. I remember when I was playing a lot of Tides of Blood, at some point I tried out the new DotA that was gaining in popularity. I picked a character and it had three passive abilities, and one active ability that shot a spear from its chest without any animation. It just looked like rubbish to me, a completely random design. I think that’s something that Tides of Blood did very well: create interesting characters that had a very complete design, in which everything they did made sense, and all their moves were choreographed to make sense, they made very good use of the animation sets of the units themselves.

The other thing that ToB did that I thought was more interesting than DotA is that it focused more on the teamplay aspect of it, that’s the impression that I always got from the game. Because those teams were so finely tuned, they could really decide where to put the crowd control abilities and where to put the big damage dealers, and because they could tune that so finely, they had a lot of control over how teamwork played out in that map. When you saw what team the opponent had, you knew what tactics to expect and how to respond to that. From my personal experience, it’s mostly the fantastic graphics that did it for me at least.

Soft:
How do you feel about ToB years later?

erwt:
I have very fond memories of playing the game, I have very fond memories of the community; I don’t really speak to any of them anymore, but at the time it was a really nice place to be on the internet. We had a nice forum, and knew each other: that was good stuff. As far as the creation goes, work on Tides of Blood was what made me decide to drop my subject of study at the time which was illustration, and move to game design. So for me, it played a huge part in my life and how I decided to continue my life. It made me want to make games.

There’s sort of a duality in there, because while I really enjoyed working on that map, and enjoyed the community and the team, it’s always sort of left me sour that DotA won. I mean, let’s be honest, they won you know? We had better quality and they won because they had more updates basically. There were more factors at play, but if you cut it down to brass tacks, I think the biggest edge that they had over everyone else was that DotA made a lot of updates. They made updates for quantity, not necessarily quality, and at the end they had over 100 characters? We always used to say that DotA has heroes, we have characters. We used that as a slogan to say, we’re going for quality, they’re going for quantity. But quantity won in the end, and that is something you see a lot in the games industry. That was a tough lesson to learn.

Soft:
Have you had any interest in the commercial games?

erwt:
I’m reading very nice reviews of Heroes of the Storm, that might just be a reason to revisit the… they call it moba these days? When DotA 1 and ToB got forgotten, I got a bit bitter on the whole thing, but then I played League of Legends and figured out that it was actually a good game. I think they did a pretty good job on that one. Valve DotA, honestly I have no idea how they’re getting away with this without getting their pants sued off, because they are literally stealing everything.

Soft:
Well, they re-themed all the characters, and don’t use any trademarked names, so they’re winging it, but they’re doing it in a fairly tasteful way.

erwt:
I disagree, I think it’s very distasteful. I think they should have… I mean they called it Dota 2, fuck off, just make your own stuff. It just irritates me. I like to see new things that are creative and nice. DotA was a thing, let it be its thing and create something new! That’s why I’ve come to respect the League of Legends guys a lot more, because they took a chance and actually created something new. They added a lot of stuff as well.

There’s a lot of features in competitive Dota that became a feature because people were playing it so much that they discovered all these exploits. I lost interest in DotA when they started doing those deny things. That was an exploit, and it really bugs me that it is being perpetuated. I’m very glad that League of Legends recognised that it was an exploit. The thing that bugs me most about it, as someone who designs from an artist’s standpoint, is that it’s very unflattering narrative design to be killing your own guys to get an edge. If they would have made it somehow a part of the story, that killing your own dudes is somehow a good thing, then I could sort-of tolerate it, but it’s a purely a mechanical exploit. That’s just sloppy design in my opinion.

Soft:
One criticism of the commercial games was that they all had very similar artstyles, obviously following Warcraft’s fantasy aesthetic. Do you think that it’s a valid criticism?

erwt:
I’m personally a big fan of the artstyle, I mean, that’s why I got into this stuff in the first place: because I adore what Blizzard does so much. I understand it as a criticism, but I’ve worked on a bunch of games by now, and studied game art, so I’ve had some time to meditate on it at a professional level. From that point of view, it’s very logical that you would go for a more cartoony style, because often there is a lot going on on your screen, and if you try to do that with realistic graphics: imagine an archer character with “realistic graphics”. I think you often wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on, because it would be shooting these tiny little arrows that you can barely see on your screen. So that’s why they all use cartoony graphics: because they need to communicate to the user what’s going on on the screen, and if you can’t see what’s going on, you can’t play the game. So while it might be a valid criticism, I think it’s a little bit ignorant of the professional side of designing visuals for games.

Soft:
Final question: Have you ever been pleasantly surprised to see your work pop up somewhere?

erwt:
No. The thing is, I was an administrator of wc3c.net, which at that time was one of the leading websites on Warcraft 3 modding, so I knew most projects that used my work before they ever came to completion. So I think it’s only happened once that a friend pointed a random map out to me that used some of my skins. The rest of the time, I already knew that they were going to use them for something. I controlled our downloads section: it was up to me to decide what stuff to upload to our downloads section and what stuff we rejected. Through those forums you got a lot of information about what people were intending to use your stuff for.

Soft:
Thanks for your time, erwt! Any last words?

erwt:
I think it’s important to remember that I’m giving the answers from an artist’s perspective, and I know that some programmers or even my brother who was primarily a writer, had a very different experience with what makes a game good for them. It was quite nice to reminisce and catch up on things. It’s been fun!

fin

Interview: Rising_Dusk

Today we have a special feature: an interview with Rising_Dusk! Dusk is a veteran Warcraft modder, known particularly for his two AoS projects: Advent of the Zenith (AotZ) and Desert of Exile (DoE), as well as his infamously difficult dungeon crawler Obsidian Depths. His maps have had a dedicated following over the years in the form of Clan VZ, and are easily some of the most polished AoS around.

Below we discuss some of his design influences and goals, as well as his perspective on the genre today.

Softmints:
Hi Dusk. Tell us a bit about yourself and your history with Warcraft III.

Rising_Dusk:
Hiya Soft. Hrmmm… Well, when I started playing WC3, it was back in high school, so I was a very different person. I didn’t really start developing the map I first became known for until I had just gotten into college as a freshman, so that’s when that began. The motivation really came from a friend of mine who really loved the lore of my world and who convinced me to translate it into an arena-style game. I had always loved the AoS genre, and ToB was an exceptional example of the way I felt the genre should go, so I followed in its footsteps and used it as inspiration for the pace of my game.

The game I refer to, of course, being AotZ.

Clan VZ started very early on in my WC3 days, when I was playing Legacies: Tides of the Serpent, and ended up being the platform around which I had a player base for AotZ and beyond.

Soft:
Cool. Were there any other games (inside or outside Warcraft) which were inspirational for AotZ?

Dusk:
Yes, actually: Dynasty Warriors on the console systems. I always liked the way it felt that you were in charge and killed troves of creatures in swift strokes.

Soft:
I often hear it cited that the number of troops on the lanes in AotZ feels “just right”, so I guess that’s part of where that came from?

Dusk:
Yeah. Dynasty Warriors as a series has had 8 to 12 games to get the feel right for how many things you’re fighting at once of non-player characters, so I used the way it generates that feel to try and construct one of my own in the game scale of WC3 (specifically AotZ).

Speaking of “feel”, that’s one of the things about the AoS genre I’ve always been adamant about supporting. You get players (new players) by having a unique feel to your game, which can be accomplished in many ways. Additionally, ‘feel’ is what makes games in the genre complement each other rather than compete with each other, which is also very important.

Soft:
One of the really unique things about AotZ is how well the lore is intergrated, even compared to today’s commercial mobas. Despite being symmetric, the bases look and feel totally different, there are context-sensitive battle-cries and retorts, and each team’s heroes follow different colour schemes.

One thing I’m curious about is how much influence lore had on the actual gameplay?

Dusk:
WC3 supports a lot of flexibility in how you can make things look and feel, and playing to the strengths of the game is a big deal. Making things look and feel different is one of the key points of the game because there is an actual story behind it all. And yeah, the story influences the gameplay a lot.

I will say that I wanted each hero to feel distinct as a gameplay mechanism, but I also desperately wanted you to feel like you were that character, and part of making that possible is making each team feel different, like a whole different experience. It is for this reason that I have been adamantly against ‘all random’ as a mode in my AoS games, because it completely desecrates the way a team “feels” when you mix and match. Not only as a gameplay experience, but also as a lore experience.

Soft:
Were there any other choices you made in the name of lore which might have been unpopular with players? Do you feel it would still be viable to prioritise lore in today’s climate?

Dusk:
Yeah, I feel that there were a few other decisions I made that might have been unpopular. I wanted a lot of things to be lore-driven, so items weren’t a big deal. It was more about the hero. In a similar vein, I have a lot of esoteric heroes, which I wasn’t sure would be popular with players or not. I wanted them to be who they were in the story, regardless of what that entailed for the game. I feel with the heroes at least, they turned out to be much better received than I’d expected. People seemed to really feel what I was going for.

Soft:
The commercial games seem to have caught onto the attraction of lore in mobas, as we’ve recently seen with DotA 2’s contextual voice acting, or League’s heroes being released with videos to sell us on the character. In hindsight it’s no surprise your approach was a success!

To my knowledge, you’re the only AoS developer to have completed two distinct AoS maps. It seems most of us get very attached to our earlier ideas! What inspired you to start working on DoE and its “back to basics” philosophy?

Dusk:
Yeah, I think I am the only AoS developer to make two maps. Or well, that I know of.

I felt that what I wanted to create couldn’t be encapsulated in AotZ, and I also wanted both maps to maintain their differences. I didn’t want to make AotZ into what DoE would eventually become, and I knew that DoE and AotZ fans might not be one in the same. They carry vastly different paces and accomplish things in very different ways.

It was mainly because I, as a player of the genre, could appreciate things both ways. I sometimes like the big buildups where heroes make the biggest difference (as in AotZ), but I also wanted a game where the creeps meant the most and it felt like a real siege.

I also appreciate uniformity, clean combat, and an easy learning curve. These are things I really wanted to play at in DoE. So I took another battle from the lore that decided key parts of the story. And I made another map.

Soft:
Were there any particular lessons you’d learned from developing AotZ which influenced DoE’s design?

Dusk:
There were a lot of lessons I learned from developing AotZ that would return to help me in DoE. The most important of those lessons was in code maintenance and upkeep. AotZ was among my first programming projects ever and so it was all over the place. Once I got things under control and some experience under my belt with it, I could design things much more modularly and usefully for DoE.

I also had a much better feel for game design on the whole, making every part fit and be important to the whole, and keeping things simple and yet complex enough to be interesting. I learned a lot of very valuable design skills from AotZ that would carry over to the streamlined project that became DoE.

Soft:
Yeah, it’s evident that you were using a more object oriented approach with your coding, particularly for features like conditions and physical/magickal damage.

How did those features fit into your overall design goal for the game?

Dusk:
Those features were defining for the design goals I had in mind for DoE. When I made AotZ I couldn’t have conceivably made DoE because the developer requirements were much higher than I could satisfy at the time. As I became more skilled, however, I saw the eventuality of DoE as a reality, and it made it possible. I believed that things such as debuffs and buffs should be unified under uniform banners because by doing so, they become interaction pivot points for everything else in the game, which creates a genre-bending experience that could be offered nowhere else.

The physical/magickal split was another key point that I wanted in DoE because it meant that players had access to different types of damage. In most AoS maps you do “hero” damage which is predictable and nothing special. Or sometimes its split into some rock-paper-scissors trifecta, but even that lacks the interaction possibility that the physical/magickal split offered, where you could have magickal damage inflict burn, or deal bonus magickal damage against burning foes, or what-not.

These are things that are easy to wrap your mind around as a player, but offer intricate interactions that keep experienced players coming back for more. You can invoke incredibly cool interactions between heroes in DoE in such ways that really skilled players really crave, all the while having simple enough mechanics for a new player to grasp.

That, to me, was a crux of the development for DoE.

Soft:
I think the items in DoE really reflect that, with stuff like the Power Inverter to flip your damage from physical to magickal and vice versa: there’s lots of direct interaction with those systems.

The hero design really played into it as well, with some heroes being focused on a particular condition or damage type. Do you feel your hero design had matured for DoE, or was it simply different (because heroes were now interacting with those systems)?

Dusk:
I feel like hero design had matured a lot in DoE yes. It was especially meaningful because not only were they lore-based designs, but they were also vessels by which the condition and other interactions would propagate to the players. The items were as much an important part of that as anything else, as they would enable players to do things that might not otherwise be possible.

Soft:
How do AotZ and DoE compare when you look back on them? Was one more ‘successful’ in your mind than the other?

Dusk:
That depends entirely on how one views success. I think in hindsight, more people have an attachment to AotZ than to DoE because it came out sooner and was therefore earlier in their list of experiences (there is a lot to be said about the only thing better than being best is being first), but also because they just enjoy the eccentricity of the heroes and the entire lack of items and such. It’s a lot more like a hero arena. That said, DoE is a much more intricate game with much better general game design (and hero design) and affords players an experience the likes of which they can’t really get anywhere else. That’s really cool in its own right.

I think from a technical standpoint, DoE is far more successful than AotZ (and also doesn’t suffer from any of AotZ’ notorious bugs). I also think that if you’re looking for fast-paced combat, DoE is more successful at giving players that than AotZ ever was. If you’re also looking for a better paced game, DoE’s ripe 30-45 minute length does much better than AotZ’s potential 2 hour stalemates. Still, it’s tough to say one is objectively better than the other given how different they are from one another and how vastly different my goals for both were when I made them.

If you’re asking which I enjoy playing more as a player of the genre, I’d say without a doubt DoE.

Soft:
Okay then. We’ll move on to the commercial mobas. Are there any that you’re playing?

Dusk:
I’ve tried a few, but I could never enjoy any of them, so no I do not. It’s worth saying that I made maps the way I like my games, and unfortunately, nothing from the actual commercial MOBA list actually comes even remotely close to any of the games I made to me. So if I want that genre, I hop back on WC3.

Soft:
A sentiment echoed by many a Warcraft modder I’m sure! What are your expectations for the future of mobas, based on your experience of the last decade of watching them grow in Warcraft?

Dusk:
I imagine that LoL and DotA 2 will inspire indie game developers to try variants of them, and maybe we’ll see something like the expansion of innovation seen in WC3. That said, I imagine it will go much slower, and may not happen at all given the time investment a standalone game comes with. That said, I’m sure we’ll see one or two oddball MOBAs that will succeed and be hailed as wonderful, and I’d be willing to bet a lot of what those eventual success stories do are echoed in the WC3 maps of old.
Other than that, I trust that big names will keep it close to home much in the vein of how FPS games do with a new version of the same thing every year or so.

Soft:
Is there anything in particular that interested you about how the commercial mobas are doing business? The transition from a lone map file to fully featured games with tightly integrated business models, shifting meta-games, and competitive scenes is far from what one would expect playing Warcraft 8 years ago.

Dusk:
Yeah it’s a pretty wild shift. The commercial MOBAs have to make money somehow, and they definitely are making a ton. I’m glad they’re doing business but I feel like there is room for a more traditional business model in there as well, perhaps a B2P style as opposed to the cash shop style of LoL (for instance). I also think that the games are a little too hooked to the MOBA itself and don’t allow flexibility beyond that. Wouldn’t it be cool if one of these popular MOBAs had a mapmaking tool in itself that we could build stuff in? I think that’d tap into a whole other source of revenue that no one’s taking advantage of right now.

Soft:
Imagine Blizzard’s pockets if Warcraft had been able to monetize its editor!

Dusk:
Yeah, no kidding. Although to be fair, I think because they hadn’t been able to is part of why it succeeded as well as it did. Just look at SC2’s modding scene, if it can even be called that.

Soft:
Okay, I have one last question. Have you any personal favourites among your hero concepts? I’ve always liked Myriad, though I’m terrible at micro.

Dusk:
First, I’m surprised your last question isn’t “When are you going to finish AotZ 3.00?” :P

Second, it’s tough to say which my favorites are! Part of my requirements for even making them is that they have to be something I enjoy thoroughly, which puts a very specific set of critiques into play. My favorites to play are probably the more supporty, quirky heroes. I love Vertejaune from DoE, I’m a huge fan of Glasse as well for his tanky-caster style, I really enjoy the skillshot style of Hanzaemon in AotZ, and I think Grayl is one of the coolest heroes ever. As far as my favorite “quirky” hero I’ve made, I’d without a doubt have to say Sozen… There’s just something special to me about having your life bar be your mana, and to use your mana both to charge spells and to stay alive. There’s a pressure balance you have to maintain there, and it puts a lot of mana pressure on the opponents who try to take you down. I like that teeter-totter feeling.

Soft:
It’s so hard to get designers to pick one :D
Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed, it’s been a blast.

Dusk:
It really has. It’s been a real trip down memory lane for me, and I’m probably going to have to hop on later and play a round or two. :P

fin