Interview: Cyclotrutan

Today: a special feature! Martin ‘Cyclotrutan’ Schwesinger, the developer of Darkening of Tirisfal / Crimson Coast (2009) joins us for an interview! Take a look through the review for a quick refresher, and I’m pleased to share that the map has received a substantial update after 7 years! Go check it out!


Softmints:
Martin, good morning! How are you doing?

Cyclotrutan:
Hello, thanks for having me!

Soft:
I’m going to ask a bunch of questions and talk through some things; hopefully have a bit of fun while we’re doing it.

Cyclotrutan:
Yeah, it’s all saved somewhere in the very back of my brain because it was so many years ago, but I’ll try to have something to say about it.

Soft:
To start from a very early stage: when did you first get into gaming? What kind of games were you playing?

Cyclotrutan:
Well, that was mainly shooters at first. I played Counter-Strike, and also used the Worldcraft editor to make maps for the Quake 2 engine. That was the first time I had got into mapping and creating my own games. Before that, when I was 6, 8, 10 years old, I was creating board games: very simple ones and I forced my family to play them with me. So I’ve done this my whole life.

Soft:
When you say you were making board games, would you have got together bits of paper, drawn rules on cards, that kind of thing? Or modeled of existing board games; what was that like?

Cyclotrutan:
I had some cardboard and painted some fields on it: water fields and grass fields in Settlers of Catan style, and iterated on it all the time like a 10-year-old would. You can imagine what a game developed by a 10-year-old would look like.

Soft:
Tell me about your first experience with Warcraft 3.
When did you pick it up, what did you think of it as a game?

Cyclotrutan:
I picked it up when it came out, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I played competitively in 1v1 and was in a clan; we did clan wars back then. I wasn’t the best, but was kind-of decent with Human. I went into mapping very early on, and made my first very crude maps. Later, I enjoyed Free For All a lot in Warcraft 3 because it’s actually very… it can be competitive if you play with good opponents that don’t just kill you out of spite if you attack them; stopping trying to win to just screw you over. So Free for All (with 4 players) was a lot of fun competitively. After that I played mostly custom games because yeah, that was what the game evolved into, mostly. Ladder died out and the custom game section grew.

Soft:
When you started playing custom maps, wh
ich ones were you playing? There’s a huge variety out there.

Cyclotrutan:
Let’s see… so I enjoyed Uther Party – the minigame compilation map. The original DotA, of course. I really enjoyed the Gaia’s Retaliation RPG though that came out a little later – this was one that fascinated me, and inspired me to do the latest iteration of my own map. Element Tower Defence, and some other tower defences… but you know, you play a tower defence 2-3 times and it’s like: okay, I’ve solved it, nothing more to see, but Element TD was a cool map also, you can do a lot of fun strategies and variation in there.

Soft:
Gaia’s is a huge project. But lets go back to that interaction with Eul’s DotA: I would assume that was the first AoS map that you played?

Cyclotrutan:
The first DotA I enjoyed a lot. When DotA Allstars came about, I really lost interest in it and that was mainly because it was too much on the custom maps section; 80%, 90% of the games on the list were DotA Allstars and there was too much of it. The other thing was that it moved into a direction that I didn’t really enjoy: it became much faster and more like a tactical shooter than what I would like in an AoS map. So when DotA Allstars came around, I didn’t play DotA anymore.

Soft:
Were there any other AoS maps that caught your interest around that time?

Cyclotrutan:
I played a few. Tides of Blood I remember, that was a cool map. But none that I really played extensively.

Soft:
At some point, you decided to start your own AoS project. How did that come about?

Cyclotrutan:
Well, it was just me experimenting with the editor at first. Until now I’ve had five different versions with different names of my AoS map: and always because I wanted a new terrain. It started with an ice terrain called the Frozen Blood, and then it was a forest terrain called the Forest of Blood so it was not very creative naming. Then it was Sands of Blood, and I kept improving on the mechanics and introduced new heroes, and made my first attempts at complex abilities with triggers and so on. It was when I did the Crimson Coast version that I decided maybe I should publish it on some website, and I published it on Hive Workshop where it got some good positive feedback.

And later, inspired by Gaia’s Retaliation RPG; I saw the terrain there and it was so fabulous that I thought: “well maybe I can do this myself”. I tried to do new terrain and then I renamed the map again because it was no longer a coast, and then it was the current version which is Darkening of Tirisfal.

Soft:
Those early versions had a consistent naming trend, which was
Forest of Blood, Sands of Blood… was there a little bit of a Tides of Blood inspiration there, or is that just coincidence?

Cyclotrutan:
I think my map pre-dates Tides of Blood, so it can’t be.

One thing in my map that I think was inspired by Tides of Blood was from one of their heroes: the Blood Mage. It has this huge blood wave and blood explosion, and I made a hero the Blood Lich which also does everything like that. So that was maybe the inspiration I took from Tides of Blood.

Soft:
When you say that your map pre-dates
Tides of Blood, that means it made before the Frozen Throne expansion, right? Were you doing this in the Reign of Chaos editor?

Cyclotrutan:
I think so. When I started there wasn’t even an ability editor in the World Editor, so what I had to do was edit the “.slk” file, this table that’s in the map archive, and it’s still in the map which is something that isn’t very efficient because it takes up a lot of data and makes the map much larger. I wanted to get rid of it, but it’s really difficult because it’s so ingrained in the map that if you take it out it just crashes.

Soft:
For a map that started with
Reign of Chaos (2003), it wasn’t until quite a lot later (2009) that the map ended up in the public. That’s a six year gap! Who was playing the game?

Cyclotrutan:
I played it with friends and my clan and with testers. Of course I don’t remember the exact timeline, but I know WoW came out in 2005 in Europe, and during Burning Crusade we still played Sands of Blood; this was a version that pre-dated Crimson Coast. I don’t put so much focus on publishing stuff I work on; I just enjoy doing it. If someone likes it, of course that’s great but its not something that really drives me towards my creations. I do it just for fun and for creating something.

I’m also quite a perfectionist, and if something isn’t as good as I think it could be, I tend to be very hesitant to publish it because I think it will be critiqued and I can improve on it, and then maybe later I’ll publish it. So I’ll delay until I think it’s perfect. Of course it’s never perfect, but I’m obsessed with perfection I guess.

Soft:
You wouldn’t be the first artist to feel that way! Apart from early
DotA and ToB, were there any other maps that influenced your work, or was this a work that evolved in isolation over this long period of time?

Cyclotrutan:
There were certainly some minor influences from different maps; Gaia’s Retaliation and maybe I had some influences on heroes but I can’t remember the specifics now.

Soft:
One of the things I first noticed when playing
Crimson Coast was that it’s 4v4, rather than 5v5 like most AoS maps. Was there anything behind that choice?

Cyclotrutan:
It started as 4v4 because I think there was a cap on the number of players back then and you couldn’t do 5v5… I don’t know if I’m remembering that correctly. We never played 4v4; we only played 3v3 and the map was balanced around that, though there’s the option of 4v4. Later, someone told me that I should probably increase the cap to 5v5, but there were so many triggers and abilities that were written for 4v4 that making the shift would have been an immense effort.

Soft:
In some senses,
Crimson Coast would feel familiar to any AoS player, because you’ve got three lanes, the regular troops, creep camps, and some recipe items in there as well. One of the things that makes the game a bit different is that every hero starts the game with a Staff of Teleportation item, and it lets you teleport to any allied unit after a 10 second channel time.

Cyclotrutan:
Right. At first it was just an item you could buy at the shop, and it cost gold like anything else. We found that everyone would buy it immediately with their starting gold, so it was really obvious that it should just be a standard item that everyone gets. Then they can buy some other item with the gold they have.

Soft:
Was this because everyone needed to have a
Staff to play effectively?

Cyclotrutan:
I think it was very necessary. One of the tactical depths of this game is quickly switching lanes and going where the creep wave is currently pushing towards the tower. Battles are much slower in Darkening of Tirisfal, so the computer-controlled creeps need a lot longer to kill the other wave. As a result, they spend more time between the towers before they reach the tower, and when they then finally arrive: more creeps have accumulated at the tower. So you wait for this to happen on a lane where nobody is, teleport there, and use the momentum of that creep wave to push against the tower. The towers are quite far apart, so the teleport is a valuable resource.

You have to really switch quickly between the waves, because as you’re pushing, the other wave you just neglected comes up to your own tower. You have a lot of dynamic gameplay this way.

Soft:
You changed the terrain a number of times over the map’s development, at least in terms of theme and setting. Were you iterating on the layout as well?

Cyclotrutan:
I made one change to the mid lane when I switched from Sands of Blood to Crimson Coast. Previously it was a straight line in the middle with L-shaped lines at the edges. What happened was people would always push the middle lane and the outer lanes had little relevance.

I don’t know how it works differently in DotA or League; a straight mid lane didn’t work for me, and it certainly works for them. I made this S-shaped lane so the overall length of the lanes remains the same and all three lanes have the same relevance in the late-game.

Soft:
Right; the troops tend to bundle up in
Crimson Coast so lane length matters a lot. One of the other features in the game are these special passives called Runes. You can only unlock 1-2 of them during a match. How did they fit into the game?

Cyclotrutan:
This was something I introduced very late. Previously the level cap was just 20, and in a long game you always hit the level cap and there was nowhere to go. The way Runes work is: you can get to level 20, but the experience bar goes to level 21. If you hit level 21, you go back to level 20 and get a rune slot instead. So every time you hit 21 you get another rune. It’s another way to progress.

Soft:
The runes are quite creative: one reduces the channel time on
Staff of Teleportation, another explicitly helps you destroy buildings… did you plan in advance to have them interact with so many mechanics?

Cyclotrutan:
I was just designing on the go. I started with a few runes, to see what different kind of effects I could do. Also, I wanted each hero to have some kind of rune that they can use. That said, often players would say, “I don’t want to spend too much time thinking, I’ll just get this one rune I get for every hero”. That was Rune of Enslavement: it gives you a summon that follows you around and shoots at enemies.

Soft:
Crimson Coast has a number of what I’ve been calling chambered abilities. They’re this type of ability where you have multiple sub-abilities that are tied to the one ability slot. It’s as though you have a gun, and can choose what bullets to load it with: the bullets have different effects but the gun has a single cooldown. The idea gets explored quite a bit: how did you refer to that type of ability, and how did you think about it?

Cyclotrutan:
The first hero with this large number of abilities was the Shapeshifter hero, a wisp that can learn five different transformations. You can go into treant form, wolf form, etc. and they have their own abilities. You can stay in each form for only 30 seconds, and then you must choose a different form with your next transformation.

I had imagined making a hero like Shapeshifter for a long time. It was my first try at a complex hero, and working on it taught me a lot about the trigger editor. Everyone liked the result, and because it was so successful I decided to try another, similar concept.

The second one I did was Avatar of the Elements, which you covered in your review. She’s the hero whose skills have one sub-ability for every element. Some people liked the complexity and would play her from time to time, but for most people it was too much. They couldn’t remember that many abilities!

I didn’t refer to these as ‘chambered abilities’ or anything; I just saw it as ‘complexity’.

For the next hero I made, I decided to have one chambered ability which would be very interesting, and keep the other skills simple. This way, the hero would have less of a learning curve: you can select something at random on your first time playing and it will be good enough, but on the second try you can think about which sub-ability you want.

Soft:
The game demonstrates a lot of variety in how often and where you can switch out your bullets: it really explores the
idea of chambered abilities in depth. It sounds like you were prompted by player feedback: by how willing people were to invest in learning heavily chambered abilities versus lightly chambered abilities.

Cyclotrutan:
The first heroes I made were very heavy on chambered abilities; these were too much for most players. But I had a variety of players in my playgroup, and some players just wanted to play one hero every time, and it was one of the simplest heroes.

I wanted to give them all a chambered ability and make them a bit more complex (and in my estimation more interesting) but there were players who just liked these very simple heroes. I added a bit of variation, but kept them simple so that those players would have a hero they could enjoy. And then there was the Avatar of the Elements and the Shapeshifter that were very complex, and all subsequent ones were at a middle level of complexity.

Soft:
You were a player of
WoW for a number of years, and that’s a game where you have access to quite a lot of abilities. Would you consider that to be an influence on the relatively large number of abilities your heroes ended up with in Darkening of Tirisfal?

Cyclotrutan:
Sure; there were certainly some heroes that were heavily inspired by WoW. The Death Knight, the Shaman, and the Dark Naaru. The Dark Naaru was a very controversial hero: every time I played a game this became the main focus in the chat: it overshadowed everything else.

I wrote in the hero description that “this hero is the most difficult to play that you will probably find in any AoS map”. Still, some people who played the map for the first time would just slam the Dark Naaru and complain that it’s impossible to play and they’re dying all the time. On other hand, when I was playing the Dark Naaru, I made mistakes, but I got it under control fairly well and people were complaining that it was too powerful. It was very funny.

What the hero does is: it cannot move, and cannot attack. It can summon two voidwalkers; they can move and attack, and scale with the stats of the Dark Naaru. They have an ability called ‘Recall‘, and can teleport the Dark Naaru to their current location. You move around using them, but the Naaru itself just sits somewhere on the battlefield shooting its spells. It wants to be in the center of the battlefield, and just unleash its storm ability. If you made one mistake, you couldn’t move and would just die. So you had to be very careful.

One of the things I just cannot wrap my head around is how people played against it. Again, when I was playing the hero the complaint was always that it was too powerful. For example, if I was pushing a tower with Naaru, the opposing team might teleport in to deflect the wave. At that point I say: “okay, I have to retreat” and order my voidwalkers to back up. Every other hero could have just walked away, but because I was playing the Dark Naaru I was forced to sit there while the voidwalkers did the walking. Then, the enemy finishes with the wave and starts attacking me, but now I can Recall because my voidwalkers had a 10 second head-start.

The best way for the opposing team to look at that is “he got away”, but they don’t: they chase right across the map even though I already have a lead. Then they complain that this was imbalanced.

It’s something you have to keep in mind while testing; people are not always thinking rationally. If you want to test how people react to it, their emotions are very important. You don’t only want the game to be balanced, you also want it to be fun. If people feel that way, you have to keep that in mind: “what can you do to make them less frustrated?”. But when it comes to balance, people are very irrational.

Soft:
Did you feel that the better players would pick the heavily chambered heroes and Naaru more often?

Cyclotrutan:
Sure. The Dark Naaru was either picked by me, or someone who had never played it and complained all game. There was nobody else. The other heroes were played quite often. There were ones that were more popular, but that just has to do with how the chambered abilities work. On some it’s a bit clunky, and for others it’s a bit better.

Soft:
It’s still
fascinating to see that type of ability explored in so much depth. Were there any heroes you wanted to try but never got around to?

Cyclotrutan:
I don’t think so. I have one hero still left in my file; maybe I’ll finish it. I explored most of the very “out there” ideas.

I’m not an expert on the trigger editor or with the Jass language used in Warcraft 3. Every time I wanted to make a hero, I had to build workarounds and learn the things I needed to make it work. I think many designers fall into the trap that they’re doing stuff just because they can. “I have the ability to make this very complicated ability trigger, and change the terrain and have an explosion here and stuff”; all of these things happen because they’re so adept at the trigger editor and I think it has no gameplay value. It’s something that I found with many of the later AoS maps.

That’s not the case with the original DotA; it’s very focused on combat-oriented straightforward abilities. Some heroes have a special ability that makes them very unique, but it’s not something that is ever “just for show”. It really has some purpose.

Soft:
I think it’s something that shows up in a number of AoS maps: you build this experience working with the trigger editor, you have this sandbox in which you can play, and
trying out “new tech” is exciting. Darkening of Tirisfal is a very refined map; the level of ‘superfluous’ is quite low compared to other games.

One thing I’m curious about is: you did indulge a bit by having Naaru in the game, because as you say: it was a hero you mostly played yourself. How do you feel about having such extreme designs in the game? Is it a good thing?

Cyclotrutan:
Sure, I mean you’re not forced to play it. If it’s too complex for you, pick another hero.

Of course, if you’re a professional developer you have to ask: “do you want to spend time on something that only a few players will play?” But if you’ve already spent the development and creative time on that hero and someone asks you to change it, you could just do another hero and leave the extreme one as it is.

People who like to play it can play it, and other people get a new hero that they would like to play. It’s not the case that it’s too powerful or too toxic for the game. You have to try it for like an hour offline and get used to it, and then you can maybe play it. I don’t know how it is in other play groups, because the map got played a bit by other players and I don’t know if the Dark Naaru was ever used by them.

Soft:
Could you describe what was going on towards the end of
Darkening of Tirisfal‘s development? Did any other projects spring up to fill in the void?

Cyclotrutan:
Well, our play group slowly fell apart. That was at the end of Wrath of the Lich King, so around 2009-2010. At that time, I didn’t have any players to test what I did, so I lost interest in continuing the map.

I’ve since got into card games. I currently play Magic: the Gathering; I played Hearthstone when it came out. I still watch but don’t play. I’m currently working on my own card game called Conquest of Orion. I’ve done this for probably longer than I worked on my moba map… since 2008 almost? It’s the same style of design I described before. I have a new version, brainstorm on it, create, let it rest, and then get some distance to it so I can re-evaluate all of the core mechanics in a few months. Then I say: “Now that I have clarity on this, is this really worth it? Do I have to change this completely because this doesn’t work?” I have it in a state that I’m very happy with, and I’m still testing it but it needs a lot of work.

Soft:
Nice! It sounds like people have a lot to look forward to in terms of this card game and a new version of Darkening of Tirisfal!

Around 2009, we started to see the first commercial mobas kicking off, such as League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. What was your opinion of them at the start?

Cyclotrutan:
I never got into them very well, because I think they’re doing a bad job at being accessible to new users. When I watch a League of Legends or Dota2 stream, it’s hard for me to see what is actually happening there. I don’t enjoy this very fast gameplay.

Basically in esports right now you have two different games: there is Hearthstone and then there are variations of CS:GO. Of course the variations are quite different games, but they all test for the same skills. The skills that you need to be good at CS:GO for example are the same skills you need to be good at Dota2: team coordination, alertness, and motor skills. Across the entire genre, these are the things that are being tested. It seems that this is the thing that people want to see.

I think this is one of the reasons that Starcraft 2 failed: it didn’t include the teamwork component. It was just everything except teamwork. What I dislike about the new mobas is that they ask players to do something that is not very intuitive. I want to pick a hero and I want to start brawling. I want to attack the creeps on the opponents side and battle with the heroes, but that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to strafe around, wait for the last hit, and then you attack. In some games I heard that they’ve removed this, but you’re also supposed to attack your own creeps.

This is something that seems to me to be a big game design flaw, because for example in Magic: the Gathering, they had a problem for a long time where the cards wanted to play intuitively weren’t very good. People want to smash in the opponent’s face with giant dragons, and for a long time dragons sucked. Newer players would play their dragons and would get obliterated by their opponent playing counterspells and control and “you discard your hand and I gain 10 new cards”. What they had to do was change the game so that dragons are actually good, so a new player wanting to smash in the face of the opponent with a dragon could really do it.

The moment you start a game of League of Legends or Dota2, the thing that you want to do is not something that you’re supposed to do. That seems like a design flaw to me. I’m a bit confused that this isn’t picked up in the community. I think it has to do with that in Warcraft 3, the DotA community became very elitist. Maybe it’s some remnant of it; they don’t care about it… it’s very competitive so for competitive players it’s a very good game, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not very accessible; that’s my take on it. You could have the best of both worlds.

Soft:
One of the things that many people like about
Dota 2 and League of Legends is that you have a large cast of heroes. That seems to have become the standard in mobas: aim for 100+ heroes, and then you have a drafting phase to produce a lot of dynamics. How do you feel about the idea of such a large cast?

Cyclotrutan:
I think it’s quite astounding that… I think 100 heroes were played in one Dota 2 tournament. I think it’s just astounding that they managed to do that: to get the balance so right and make the draft so tactical. I can see that this is something that’s very compelling to watch and play if you’re an expert on the game. I don’t think I could do such a large draft of heroes on my map because it would take too much time!

For Dota 2, I think the heroes are just a vessel to experience this very competitive environment with many different choices, and they’re all designed to fill a specific role. For me, I wanted to do the heroes as just an exploration into flavour and mechanics, so I didn’t have too much focus on the metagame. I think that’s just a different approach.

Soft:
Have you tried any of the more recent mobas, like
HotS/SMITE/Paragon?

Cyclotrutan:
I have to stress: my days of playing mobas were 7 years ago. I played a bit of HotS when it came out but it didn’t spark anything, so I lost interest in it. It’s partly because I think it’s a bit silly. The idea that you smash everything together is something that I don’t like; I would like a game more focused on flavour. You get more immersion that way.

For me, games are just a vessel to explore worlds and flavour and so on. Of course I cared about gameplay, but not in a competitive sense: more the experience of this hero and the flavour of everything coming together. When I, for example, design a card game, that’s a perfect opportunity to design a new world and translate it into a game, and let the players experience the world first-hand. It’s something that excites me about game design.

Soft:
Has your work over the years with
Darkening of Tirisfal and its predecessors had any impact on your career or what you do now? You certainly put a lot of time into it!

Cyclotrutan:
I went to university at the time and studied physics, and I think my affinity for game design and my affinity for physics come from the same character traits that I have: I’m a very creative and analytical person. For example, I’m not as good at writing as some other people, but at game design there comes together this creativity with also this very mathy style.

Another thing is that… I’m a perfectionist type. I think the two components of perfection are striving for perfection which is positive, and there’s obsession with perfection which is negative. I think I’m extremely high in striving, and moderately high in obsession. Striving means you’re trying your best to get it right, but obsession is when you’re writing your thesis but you can’t sleep because you have one comma wrong or something. With my thesis, the day I got it printed, I saw that there was a grammar error in the very first sentence of the introduction. I had to get back there and fix it and call up again and say “NO! I NEED A NEW VERSION!”.

I think this perfectionism is something I see in my maps and I hope that other people see it: being very careful to the details. It’s something that fascinates me with Blizzard games. They are very good at it; they’re very good at having a… the saying in german is “aus einem Guß”. It means “Everything fits together perfectly”. You get the idea that everything works together in harmony; nothing seems out of place.

In general, my time mapping hasn’t affected me. I’ve never been in a professional position as a game designer, though I’m still pursuing it as a hobby and it’s something that I want to do more seriously at some point in my life.

Soft:
Thanks so much for your time Martin! Where can we find you and Conquest of Orion?

Cyclotrutan:
I don’t have social media right now. I have a small web page at antaresdesigns.com where you can find the card game. You can also find some of my fanmade MtG sets on there, and some of my paintings (but I’m a very novice painter). I am currently trying to focus on Conquest of Orion, and want to have a new site up for it in the near future.

Softmints:
All right. Best of luck with your projects going forward!

Cyclotrutan:
Cheers!

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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