Blizzard developers tackle the MOBA genre problems -- while riding a giant goat.
Last week, Heroes of the Storm's executive producer Chris Sigaty and technical director Alan Dabiri sat down with me in a dimly-lit room to help me playtest a new board game I'm working on.
This is how that went down.
What we’re doing here today is that I’ve created a new board game, and I’d like you guys to help me playtest it because I think you two know a little bit about game design. This game is called “Protection of the Old Ones”, or POO for short, and I’d like you all to play with me and give me some feedback on how my POO is going.
One of you is going to be Good and the other Evil, so if you could make a decision amongst yourselves…
Chris: Well clearly I am Good.
Alan: And I will gladly be Evil.
Well that really speaks for itself, doesn’t it. Chris if you’ll set up at this end, and you Alan at this end, and here are your dice, here.
Now the objective here of course is -- and I want to stress that this game is nothing like any game you have ever played, and it definitely has no resemblance to any video game you’ve ever played -- is to go past the towers, get to the base, and destroy it.
When you get to the base you remove one of the cards from this stack, until you get to the final card, which you can turn over to achieve victory. Excuse the figures, they’re from my D&D collection. Who wants to go first?
(Sounds of rolling dice)
Okay, so Evil goes first. So this way this will work is that you can roll this dice and move up to that many spaces, and when you stop you should draw a card and follow the instructions on the card.
I want your feedback as you play, it’s very important that I make this the finest POO possible. If you have some design feedback or thoughts on how I can improve the gameplay of POO then I want to hear about it.
Alan: “Denied: No XP from that kill. Go back to where you started the turn.” Well, that didn’t work out too well.
Chris: I’ll go top lane -- not that this looks like any game I’ve ever played.
I don’t know why you would say “top lane”.
Chris: Of course not. Let’s see: “The entire enemy team appears out of nowhere and murders you. Go back to the start.”
That is brutal.
Chris: That is brutal.
Alan: I’m sensing a theme here. One, two, three, four, five spaces… “Abused by enemy team over chat. Miss your next turn.” Okay, I’ll take that. That’s not too bad. I’ll report them.
If you encounter another player, you can stop and roll the dice to see who wins the fight. It’s completely random who wins. There’s no skill involved. That’s a deliberate design feature.
Chris: “Your team-mates actually show up to help. Add two to your next die roll.”
So that actually gives you two turns in a row Chris, because Alan was abused and missed his turn.
Chris: Great! Oooh. Eight spaces. I’m closing in on your core. I mean, uh. It’s not a core, is it.
This is an Old One. It has nothing to do with any Ancients you may or may not have Defended. I don’t know why you keep bringing it up.
Chris: Right. Sorry. And I’m drawing a card… “You actually manage to kill an enemy hero. Have another turn.”
Alan: (laughs and groans at the same time)
Chris: Damn. Look at this.
This is very one-sided.
Chris: Okay I’m pulling the top card off his base. “Merry Christmas. Wow, this game has been going on forever. Roll twice on your next turn and use the lowest number.”
Now Chris in your next turn you don’t have to move, you can stay in Alan’s base, but if you do that you’ll need to draw from both his stack and the regular stack just to double the chance of something bad happening.
Alan: “Abused by enemy team…” Okay. Wow, this is… this isn’t fun.
Chris I don’t want to cast aspersions on your team, but they seem like arseholes.
Alan: They keep on abusing me.
Chris: I didn’t do it, though. Okay, it’s my turn. I’m gonna stay here and win this game right away. I’m not going to let this noob come back. This card says “Visit the Item Shop. Draw one item at random from the bag.” I hold up an ALDI brand shopping bag stuffed with random toys and junk from my house.
Close your eyes.
Chris: Nothing is going to… bite me in here, is it?
Everything in here has been thoroughly euthanised.
Chris: Okay. Uhhhhh… this.
Okay, you’ve got a friendly ghost.
Chris: What does this let me do?
Well, it lights up.
So that’s pretty cool.
Chris: Yeah! That’s very cool.
And now for the card from Alan’s base.
Chris: “Happy Birthday! This game has been going on for so long that you’re now one year older. Roll twice on your next turn and use the lowest number.” Right.
Alan: And I missed my turn again, so you go again. Again.
Wow, this really sucks. Seems like one side is winning and it’s just getting worse and worse for the people losing?
Alan: It’s a snowball effect.
Chris: Good will always defeat Evil. Oh wow look at that! A natural six. A natural six.
Now remember to draw from both stacks.
Chris: “Ridiculously OP enemy hero appears out of nowhere and murders you instantly. Go back to the start.”
Chris: That’s brutal. I’ll draw this second card. “The entire enemy team appears out of nowhere and murders you. Go back to the start.” Wow.
Luckily you’re already there.
Chris: This is poo.
This is POO.
Alan: I’ve finally got a turn and I’m coming into his base. I want to kill the enemy. I want to fight him.
Okay. Roll the dice -- now remember he has +1 because he has this friendly ghost.
Alan: Oh damn. That came out of nowhere. Haha! Four. He only got two so I win, right?
He’s dead now. Sorry Chris. Okay, you can start attacking his base now, Alan.
Alan: “Bring down an enemy tower. Have another turn!” Nice. I’ll grab another card… “Murdered by a tower, go back to the start.” (laughs)
Chris: Sorry dude.
Alan: That is harsh.
Chris: Okay. I’m rolling a four. My card says “One of your team is AFK. Remove the top card from your Old One stack.” Uh-oh.
Your defences are down because no-one is around to protect you!
Alan: I get to visit the Item Shop! Alan digs through the shopping bag.
Alan: I don’t know what this is but I’m taking it. It looks like a hat?
If you’ll please equip the item.
Alan: I don’t know if I want to put this on my head. I’ll put it… I’ll put it here.
Chris: My turn. One! “The entire enemy team appears out of nowhere and murders you. Go back to the start.” God bless America.
Alan: (rolls) Have another turn, bring down an enemy tower. One, two, three, four, five… I’m going to fight Chris again. Chris rolls insanely well.
Alan: Oh, damn.
Chris: Get out of there, buddy. Okay, now it’s my turn. Six! Finally. Let’s see what kind of poo is up my sleeve (laughs)... “Abused by your own team over chat. Subtract 2 from your next dice roll.”
Chris: I don’t like the way the chat system works.
Alan: Me either.
You want to improve my chat system? You think you’re better than me?
Chris: Oh, no, no I think your design is fantastic. But I would recommend that I could just indicate what I wanted to do maybe through a ping system.
I’ll think about it.
Alan: Okay I’m in his base and going to fight Chris again. What does this hat do?
It adds +1, but you’re not really wearing it, so…
You’re clearly very reluctant to ruin your excellent hair and I understand that. I’ll give you the bonus anyway.
Chris: Oh no!
Alan: Awesome. Okay so I win and I draw a card… “The metagame just changed. Discard all your items and move back one space.” Oh that sucks. Alan puts his hat back in the bag reluctantly.
Alan: And now for this next card: “Dinner time. Awkwardly try to eat and keep playing at the same time. Roll twice on your next turn and use the lowest number.”
This game is going on for too long, Alan. Now mum wants to give you dinner.
Alan: I can’t stop, mum. I can’t pause the game.
You don’t understand, mum.
Alan: There’s a lot of people, I can’t just… I can’t just stop.
Chris: I rolled another six!
Alan: I think he’s cheating.
Chris: “Visit the item shop.” Yesssss.
Have a dig around in the bag. Chris draws out a small scale model of a goat.
Chris: Is this my mount? Does this mean I can move an extra space now?
No it doesn’t, but it is great isn’t it. Please pose with the goat.
Alan: My turn. I’m going to try to slip past Chris… “Ridiculously OP enemy hero appears out of nowhere and murders you. Go back to the start.”
Chris: This game is rough.
Alan: This is super rough.
Chris: Okay. “Your team-mates actually show up to help.” Neat.
This is going on a lot longer than my playtesting sessions.
Chris: Well, we play a lot of board games.
Alan: One, two, three… “Bring down an enemy tower, have another turn.” Awesome. Uhh… okay someone murdered me. (laughing) Go back to the start.
I designed POO to be very, very unbalanced.
Alan: I can tell.
Chris: Okay I’m heading into Alan’s base and I’m going to try to fight him.
Alan: Oh, I’m dead. He’s got all those items!
Alan: But now it’s my turn right? So I respawn and.. I try to kill Chris.
Chris: Oh no! I only rolled a one. I go back home.
Alan: Get outta there.
Chris: So I’ve got some thoughts on POO.
I often think about POO as well.
Chris: Do you?
In a more general capacity.
Alan: Alright, so I draw this card and get another turn (rolls) and then… then I get another turn!
Chris: Did you even shuffle these?
Alan: I’m now I’m heading right into Chris’ base again. Do I have to kill him first?
Alan: (rolls) ...three.
Chris: Get out of here buddy. That’s a five.
I was thinking items might be a bit overpowered. Maybe I should remove items from my game?
Alan: I think it would simplify the game if you removed items, for sure.
Chris: Okay I’ve rolled a five… abused by my own team over chat.
This is because you died in Alan’s base earlier when you could have won the game, you friggin’ noob.
Chris: I know.
Alan: And my card says… abused by your team. (laughs)
And this is because you could have won the game!
Chris: Four! “Your team-mates actually show up to help.”
Alan: Murdered! Go back to start. Damn.
Chris: Okay now I get a bonus on this roll. I’m going to use that in the fight against Alan. I’m cheating. I’m using a hack. Is that okay?
That’s not okay.
Chris: That’s fair.
Alan: Oh damn. He killed me again.
Chris: Ah, but check this out… I have to draw a card. “Denied. Go back to where you started the turn.”
Denying is a great mechanic.
Chris: Denying does… not work for me.
Alan: I’m coming back! I’m gonna kill you this time Chris. Ah… no, I’m dead again. Damn those items.
Chris: Okay! So I blow up his core! And I win.
Chris: I have some feedback. I didn’t like the chat. I really felt like my own team mates were abusing me a lot.
That did happen quite a bit.
Alan: More important than that, the enemy team abused me a lot too.
Chris: There’s no need to even speak to the enemy at all.
Alan: I would mute that enemy chat, right off the bat.
Alan: The items… they went a little bit crazy. Well, mostly I don’t feel like I knew what any of the items did.
They are very mysterious. Actually this one did come from Ikea so it could do anything.
Alan: (laughing) I might have simplified that whole item mechanic. There seemed to be a lot of randomness to the game.
Chris: Too much randomness. I need to show off my personal skill because I’m very good.
Well you did win.
Chris: And Alan is clearly bad. And that’s why he was sending those abusive chat messages to me. He got lucky with a few towers but I was letting him have that.
Alan: Oh yeah?
Chris: Normally I’d want to demonstrate my skill a little more strongly.
And you feel like getting murdered randomly at the whim of fate by cards doesn’t let you demonstrate your skill level? Alan and Chris, together: No.
Right. I’m taking notes.
Chris: Especially when you’re playing at my skill level.
Which as you mentioned before, is very high.
Chris: That’s right.
Alan: This whole denying mechanic… I wasn’t a huge fan of that.
What do you think is the problem with denying as a mechanic?
Alan: It’s kind of strange that I got no XP from a kill. I killed someone, or I contributed to their death, and I got no XP for that. Sooooo.
And what about the layout of the map?
Chris: I didn’t feel like I could be too creative when he was in front of me. I’d like to take some more obtuse paths, head out here (gestures) or through this way.
It’s only a board game, Chris.
Chris: I’m sorry.
Alan: I like the artwork though. Thanks.
So let’s shuffle these cards and have another game. I don’t really feel like I got enough feedback from that one. If you had to design a better POO -- or a bigger POO -- what would some of the changes be? Shuffle your cards please.
Alan: Well if I were to take the example of the game we’re working on right now…
What’s that called?
Alan: It’s called “Heroes of the Storm”.
Never heard of it.
Chris: Well. It’s in beta right now, we’re trying to let people know about it. It’s available right now. I deal three to each side?
That’s right. Get rid of your items, the meta changed while we were talking.
Chris: You can go first Alan. Losers go first.
Chris: I didn’t mean that. I didn’t really mean that in a mean way. I meant that in a nice way.
You meant “loser” in a nice way.
Chris: Uhh so anyway one thing is variety. In Heroes -- which has… some similarities to this game actually, now that I think about it -- one of the things that we’re trying to do is to expect the unexpected through a lot of variety in the game. And so one recommendation I might be is to have multiple different map layouts that could change from game to game. We’re about to kick off into game two and it’s going to be pretty much the same game.
It is, you’re right. Alan did you draw a card?
Alan: Yeah, the entire enemy team appeared out of nowhere and murdered me on turn one.
Chris: That sucks.
Alan: That does suck.
Chris: And my first card is… the metagame just changed. I don’t even have any items to discard!
Alan: And I’m… denied again. There’s that denying mechanic. That’s just no fun.
Chris: I’m not rolling very well. I really don’t like the randomness of this. It’s not allowing me to show off any skill.
Alan: I feel like if I’m not under threat I should be able to mount up or something, to move faster. I place a wind-up Easter Egg toy with legs onto the table from the bag.
Alan: Is that my mount? Yes.
Alan: Oh wow. That’s great. Uhh… one of my team is AFK. I have to remove a card from my base stack.
Chris: And for me, I am really bad at positioning apparently. The entire enemy team appears out of nowhere and murders me.
Alan: You’re overextending, man.
Chris: I am.
Alan: May I suggest not overextending as much.
Chris: Thankyou. I give Chris his goat mount back from before.
Chris: Oh neat. Can I move an extra space because I’m mounted?
Actually I was just trying to make you feel better.
Chris: Oh well. Oh.
But why not, let’s implement your real-time changes to the game as we go.
Alan: One… two… three, four five. Five with my egg-mount here.
That actually moves on its own if you wind it up.
That’s a pro-tip.
Chris: Draw your card!
Alan: I bring down an enemy tower! I have another turn.
Chris: I like that. That sense of accomplishment.
Alan: One, two, three… you are dead. I’m going to fight Chris. Roll off! Roll off!
Chris: No, you’re dead buddy. Get out of here.
Alan: Oh no!
Chris: And I’ve rolled a six… and I’ve been murdered by a tower. Go back to start. You know I genuinely do not have any luck in this game.
Alan: I would say that I think there should be less luck in the game… and more skill in the game.
I’m getting that. What would you change about the towers and the constant murdering of you, by them?
Alan: Ohhhhh well I’d be curious to know why the towers keep murdering me. I feel like I would stay out of range of the towers personally.
Well if you were out of range, you wouldn’t have been murdered.
Alan: That’s true. QED.
Alan: I need to control my abilities and stay out of range.
Chris: I’m drawing an item at random.
Alan: Also, one item randomly… I’m not really clear on why it needs to be random. Chris draws out a small NERF gun and points it menacingly at Alan.
Chris: Oooooh yeah.
Please do not fire that at your co-workers!
Chris: I won’t. I won’t do that. This is very special though.
You can fire it if you want.
Chris: I won’t.
Alan: Oh my team is AFK! Again. I need to remove a card.
Chris: See I would work on this as well. My team-mates not being present.
Hard to control that human element, though?
Chris: It’s true.
Alan: That is a rough one. In a team-based game you gotta rely on your team.
Any strategies for dealing with the human element?
Alan: Remove the human element (laughs).
Chris: Let AI play against each other!
Alan: And we just… sit back and watch.
And you charge the robots money.
Alan: (thoughtfully) That sounds interesting.
Chris: Don’t forget to draw your card.
Alan: Murdered by a tower. Go back to the start. I hate this game.
Chris: One, two, three… I bring down a tower! I have another turn. I’m riding my goat right into Alan’s base.
Alan: It feels like your goat is humping my face.
This is a PG-rated POO, guys.
Chris: Sorry. So I gotta fight him first before I can attack the base?
Chris: I’m sorry. I’m sorry Alan, you’re dead again. So now I can attack his base right? Or is my turn over?
Well I’m willing to hear experienced game designer thoughts on this.
Chris: Okay. I think now that I’ve killed the enemy team, there should be a period of time where I can attack his buildings. So I’m going to draw another card… “You actually manage to kill an enemy hero. Have another turn.”
Alan: That doesn’t count! I’m back, I’ve respawned, and you’re dying… now! Read ‘em and weep. That’s a two.
Chris: I rolled a four.
Chris: Get out of here. I’m wrecking his base again. I’m drawing from both stacks. Give me those cards. Uhhhh “The entire enemy team appears out of nowhere and murders you.” Well.
They didn’t really come out of nowhere so much as come out of their base, which you are in fact camping.
Chris: My mount didn’t even protect me.
Alan: Your mount is a pile of [expletive removed]. Damn.
Alan: Okay I’m gonna come back and win this. I’m taking my egg and rolling a six, so that’s a seven. One, two, three, four… seven… read ‘em and weep: “Happy birthday! This game has been going on for so long that you are now one year older.”
Chris: That’s another thing I’d improve, I’d probably make the game a little shorter.
Short games are better?
Chris: Short games are better.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being stuck in a game that goes on for two hours and leaving you wanting to die.
Alan: Take this last game for example -- he had me on the ropes, and it just got dragged out. Too long. I’d probably cut down the length so that a nice, I dunno, say 20 minutes. That’s a good time.
Chris: Three! One, two… we’re fighting. Get away from my base Alan.
Alan: Nope! You’re dead.
Chris: Now he’s all up in my base. Can I respawn? His mount is all up in my face.
Alan: It’s just a pair of eggs.
Chris: I’m back. Get out of here. That’s a six!
Alan: Goddammit. This game is just dragging. It’s dragging for me. I feel like there’s no way to come back from this.
A lot of people say they don’t want to come back to my games. It’s very frustrating.
Alan: Another ridiculously OP enemy hero has murdered me. I have the most takedowns in this entire game. I keep on getting killed.
I feel like the great part about this game is that when you die, you get worse, and the enemy gets stronger. So the gap gets bigger. That’s what I really like. It’s really important to make that gap wider and wider so the game is less fun over time.
Chris: I’m not a fan of that if I’m being totally honest.
I am sick of your criticisms.
Chris: (laughing) Oh! Three. Uhhh this card says Merry Christmas. It’s happening again.
Alan: And mine says that my team is abusing me. I’ve been dying so much that they’re calling me a noob.
They finally noticed!
Chris: Visit the item shop again!
Alan: You have too many items. Chris draws out the Ikea ghost again.
A feel like having an esoteric combination of items that nobody can possibly understand is really important to my game.
Alan: I think it’s kinda confusing. Okay here we go… I draw “Your team mates actually show up and help!” Great.
Chris: You are dominating at this game.
Alan: I know, right? Noobs.
Chris: I’d say you fall into the noobs category.
That seems like a very polite and formal insult there, Chris. Chris (laughing): Well…
“Just if I had to categorise you on a broad skill level, Alan, I’d say you don’t have any.”
Chris: Well in real life it’s the opposite. Alan is actually much better at games than me. He is a lot better.
Well we are running short on time, so if neither of you have any more feedback for me at this point, I’m probably going to turn it into a F2P game and just sell it off.
Alan: How do you intend to make it free to play?
I’m... not going to charge anything for it.
Innovative, I know.
Alan: What are you thinking of selling?
I was thinking of charging $20 each for skins.
Chris: As long as I can get this mount.
Chris: You want me to pay $20 for heroes that randomly do damage?
Alan: Well he doesn’t even have any heroes in the game! We’re both the same.
Chris: It looks like there’s a lot of stuff you’re missing. I don’t think this is ready for release.
Alan: Different characters would be a start.
Different characters from different franchises?
Alan: Well it helps if you have some great franchises. A deep set of characters that players have played with a for a long, long time.
Chris: That would be fantastic.
What if you just have a bucket of crappy D&D miniatures?
Chris: That’s.. a little bit rougher.
Alright, so I’m making notes: add more characters, get rid of all the bad stuff…
Alan: Get rid of it (laughs)
...and get rid of all the players because they’re abusive.
Alan: I don’t know.
You’re divided on the robot overlord issue.
Alan: I’m waiting for our robot overlords to arrive.
It sounds like you’re trying to make them arrive.
Chris: And I think the final thing we would say is to add a little variety, with the map, the different routes, the objectives…
Alan: How many times did you playtest this?
Including this? Four. My wife helped me playtest it before this interview, and she had some great feedback: she said that it wasn’t fun at all, and she hated it. Chris (laughs): She sounds like she’s very straightforward and honest.
It’s one of her character traits I value the most. But it sounds like all three of you are of one mind on this: it wasn’t very fun.
Alan: It wasn’t.
Chris: It really wasn’t. And one of things that you could do, for example, is playtest it a hell of a lot more than four times. Get some feedback. Make changes.
I don’t know about you guys, but I just like to rush games out before they’re finished.
Alan: No, no no. That’s not gonna go far.
When I announce a release date, I stick to it. I never let it slip. I like to arbitrarily announce release dates for products, and then I meet them. End of story.
Chris: That’s certainly… an approach. That you could take.
Alan: But that’s gonna tie your hands.
Chris: What is the, I guess, the essence that you’re after? With this game?
Really I just wanted to make a poo joke.
Chris: Well, you succeeded.
Thankyou to Chris and Alan for being such good sports and to Blizzard for letting me get away with this kind of nonsense.
Originally published on games.on.net on June 9, 2015.