How Blizzard rebuilds Overwatch characters for Heroes of the Storm

As Genji leaps into the fray in Heroes of the Storm, we chat with game director Alan Dabiri about the challenges behind importing new characters from other Blizzard games.

A few weeks ago, while we were chatting with Heroes of the Storm creative director Alan Dabiri about the game’s 2.0 update, we also got to quiz him about the news that Overwatch hero Genji would be joining the Blizzard-themed MOBA. 

While Genji’s not the first Overwatch hero to make the transition (That was Tracer, although Zarya and Lucio made the switch too), it was a good opportunity to ask Dabiri about how he and his team think about adapting characters into their game, especially ones who don’t have any roots in the strategy or RPG genres that MOBAs typically draw on. 

Going from first-person to top-down

According to Dabiri, there’s a good-faith effort made to keep these characters’ gameplay as close to their Overwatch moveset as possible, but there’s a challenge in translating some mechanics without concepts like verticality or even first-person animation available to them. In Genji’s case, Dabiri says there were a few technical hurdles to let him keep his double-jump that helps him stand out in Overwatch (seen below).

In Heroes, the way that double-jump works is to allow Genji to traverse any obstacle with a single button press, translating his usual height advantage into a two-dimensional-traversal one. This of course, invites a game programming problem that everyone from Riot to Valve deals with, which is when you let characters move more places across the map, you have to make sure the map is okay with them moving there. 

“Whenever you introduce a move that lets a character move across terrain, there's always edge cases,” Daibri explains. “We always run into these situations where it's ‘what if he jumps on this one weird spot, and this one guy pushes him,’ and the way those two abilities interact.” 

What’s the “Heroes Look?”

As Genji joins the fray in Heroes of the Storm, he’s also bringing one of Overwatch’s maps with him. Hanamura, the home to both Genji and his archer brother Hanzo, is a new map type for Heroes of the Storm that attempts to translate Overwatch’s payload mechanic to the traditional MOBA formula. 

As Blizzard showed off how one of Overwatch’s maps (which actually doesn’t use the payload mechanic) was translated into Heroes of the Storm, it was worth noting that the Payload Dabiri’s team envisioned, along with some new mercenary units that scattered the map, didn’t resemble anything seen in Overwatch

When chatting with Dabiri about this difference, he made mention of a “Heroes Look,” which led us to quiz him about how you create a unifying art style for a game that draws on 4-5 other art styles, depending on how you count it. 

Dabiri says there’s not one particular way to describe Heroes of the Storm’s own aesthetic, but he does agree that there’s a specific, consistent look that’s emerged whenever his team needs to make new characters or assets that go alongside these varied characters. “There's a specific look, whether it's the graphics system itself, from the way the shaders are represented to kind of something that fits in from the [isometric] perspective,” he explains. 

And when a character like Genji makes that jump, that isometric perspective actually forces proportional changes to his character model, to make sure he can do everything from ride a horse to stand toe-to-toe with a talking panda. 

What are the limitations without a central fiction? 

Genji’s introduction to Heroes of the Storm was also a good chance to ask Dabiri about the advantages and disadvantages of not being able to have an original, internal fiction to draw new characters, abilities, and maps from. This has actually been an interesting topic in MOBA design in recent history, since Riot Games has recently put effort into revamping its League of Legends characters, partly by rearranging their fictional backgrounds in order to help justify new character abilities. 

Dabiri was quick to praise the fact that Heroes gets to draw characters who already have a fanbase in Blizzard games, and from a designer’s perspective, it’s worth noting that he sees those games as a resource for design inspiration. “It's a thing that makes it easy for us, because if you bring [a character like] Thrall into the game, you have years of story, years of looks, and years of abilities we [you] draw on,” he says. 

However, he did point out that Heroes of the Storm has been experimenting with its map design to introduce characters and locations that don’t belong to any Blizzard game, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if a more cohesive identity emerged around those elements. 

For more analysis of Heroes of the Storm, be sure to check out our reporting on how the 2.0 update shows some improvements to progression systems that build on the success of other Blizzard games. 

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