Interviews can be a bit dry sometimes, even with the chattiest of developers. So at Blizzcon this year, as a way to get staffers on Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Overwatch and more to talk about experiences that we might not ordinarily hear about, I tried something a little different.
Towards the end of each interview — one with the Diablo 4, Overwatch, Hearthstone, WoW and Warcraft 3: Reforged teams — I offered each team the same opportunity. On the table, I'd brought along an iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, and asked them a simple question.
I wanted the developers to draw something from their experience of working on their particular title, or at Blizzard, over the last 12 months. It could be any moment that stuck out to them — the day a feature came together, the moment when they knew they'd nailed the look of a character, or the initial pitch meeting for a game mode — in Procreate with a pencil. Most of the developers were pretty horrified, since they weren't artists — with the exception of Richie Marella, the lead artist on Diablo 4 — but gracefully, everyone was happy to play along.
Many thanks to all the Blizzard developers for giving the drawings a shot.
Overwatch 2: Jeff Kaplan, John Lafleur
Note: Kaplan's image is the top left of the photo, while Lafleur's is in the bottom right.
Jeff Kaplan (Overwatch game director): You gotta draw, John. Here we go.
John Lafleur (Overwatch technical director): You wanna go first?
Kaplan: Sure, I'll go first.
Kaplan: I want to try to draw Winston but I can't do it. Let's see if I can. I'm going to start with the glasses ... I'm doing my best shot.
Lafleur: You're doing a better than I would.
Kaplan: OK, that's all I'm going to do. That person's got their arm up. So what this is, you know, the whole time you're trying to pitch things to the team and get them excited and get them to believe, and very early in the development of Overwatch 2 we got the storyboards for Zero Hour.
The team is incredibly well trained when it comes to be able to watch storyboards and see, like we can all imagine it, [a] Blizzard animation finished animation. And [the storyboard] literally looked like that, you know, it literally looked like that and the team I felt ... I felt it was a very inspired moment where the team saw what that announcement cinematic was going to be and how it just inspired everybody like, "Okay, we're showing up at Blizzcon. And I've gotta carry that extra weight and go that extra mile to really make that day amazing so people play our demo, they know it's going to be the future of Overwatch."
Kotaku Australia: How much practice does that take, just your part in the reveal on stage?
Kaplan: Oh, like me during opening ceremonies? I wing it every year. I'm the only one who doesn't use the teleprompter and it drives everybody crazy. [Lafluer laughs in the background] My whole thing is I feel like you have to be in the moment. And if you're not living in the moment and you're not feeling like what you feel very, because if you practice it a month earlier you didn't know that stuff was going to leak. So I just wing it. Every time you gotta roll with it.
Lafleur: I'm horrible with perspective.
Kaplan: This is like our worst nightmare: "Now you've got to draw something."
Lafleur: Yeah, no-one ever asked this, so this is very exciting for us.
Lafleur: So we have this gameplay pit that we usually go to and if we're going to do a playtest with the directors or anyone else, and I think there's these moments where we go there and we're seeing things as we're developing. Sometimes it's rough and sometimes you don't really know what to expect, but I can recall sitting there and playing through the demo that you see out on the [Blizzcon] floor with Rio when we finally got talents in there and we had items in there and all the heroes were really showing what they could [do] and these missions and the AI was put together.
Those moments where it's actually really, really tough sometimes when you're building those moments: you've got to get all this stuff together and you don't see it for a little while. For weeks after weeks after weeks you're putting your time into it, you're wondering is this the right thing, is this the right thing. And then you have one of these play tests where all of these things suddenly they coalesced, and you're playing and the hair on the back of your neck rises, and everybody sort of looks at each other and we're all like, wow, that was really fun. You know we still have like 1000 things we want to do better but suddenly we're like over this hill where we realised this is awesome, and we can get there from here, we understand the path that we're going down.
Getting to these moments are really tough but when you get there and you pass by it, you suddenly feel this wind behind your back and you think, we can do this now. This was probably not too long ago, because we've been working on it for very long: I would say maybe six to nine months ago we got to this point, and I felt like, "Wow, this finally feels like the game that we're making" and I think that to me was a great moment.
Kaplan: I remember that.
Kotaku Australia: That's the point where people can see into the future.
Lafleur: Yeah, it's the point where we can suddenly visualise for ourselves, "Oh this is the game we're making."
World of Warcraft Shadowlands: Paul Kubit, Danielle Engels
Paul Kubit (senior WoW Shadowlands game designer, content): This is Jeremy Feasel [another World of Warcraft designer], he's one of our developers, he wears a hat, he's a very high energy individual. He was messaging me recently because he got an opportunity to play the Torghast demo that we mentioned a couple of times now, or the team-wide [demo], I should say.
He was updating me on every single level he got to, he's like "I got to level 11", and I thought OK, it's going to get a lot harder after level 11 in this particular demo you're playing. This is when it starts to get real, real high. He said, "How high has anybody made it?" I said, I think 12 is as high as [anybody's gotten].
So over the next several days he kept his server up and continued going back to it. He's like, "I got to 12. I got some cool new powers I think I can get by." He ended up making it to level 14, he was very proud, and this is him celebrating his achievement of being the best player on the World of Warcraft team at Torghast for that particular playtest.
Danielle Engles (WoW Shadowlands game producer): That's a really good picture of Jeremy too.
Kotaku Australia: A few devs have told me about that moment where everything comes together, when you work on something for so long. How long did it take for that, when you had that day where Torghast just clicked, it was just like, "We've got it, just need to iron it out now."
Kubit: It was a period of several months, and it wasn't a steady climb either. Torghast went through this weird development process where we made something and it was really fun, but broken in a lot of ways so we had to tear it apart and it got less fun and then we added new stuff and then that was slightly more fun, but also had some things that we just weren't able to spread across the amount of gameplay space and distance we needed to make, for lack of a better term.
So we had to tear it apart. We built a bunch of fun things, and then broke them, but then in their ashes arose something even better. So I would say several months.
Kotaku Australia: What broke?
Kubit: It wasn't necessarily breaking so much as just it was built in a way that was very prototype-y. And so it's something that's like, yes this is fun but these powers that we've made are proof of concepts, they actually don't tap directly into actual player spells just behind the scenes — this is technical stuff now, but harder to work with. So we built our proof of concept. It was fun. And then we had to have this sad moment where we ...
Kotaku Australia: It's like taking your mum's recipe and then realising it's not scalable for commercial production.
Diablo 4: Richie Marella, Gavian Whishaw
Richie Marella, (Diablo 4 lead artist): I'll tell the story while I draw. So one of the classes that I really love in Diablo is the barbarian, and I remember it was later on that I came to the team, and Wrath of the Berserker was already kind of done. And I was like, "Man I wish I could have designed that as a concept artist."
And if you look at the demo now, I was actually able to design the Wrath of the Berserker look. And I took some liberties, like adhering to what we did before in the past because I love that super saiyan white hair when he powers up, but I really wanted to push that molten like feel that he had. And I thought it was really cool to be able to take something that I did in the previous games and get it into [Diablo 4] and push the vision of that.
So if you ever play the demo, get in Wrath of the Berserker mode and you can see that.
Kotaku Australia: I've only had the chance to play the Druid so far.
Marella: Yeah, it feels very visceral. He still has a white hair so he has the same colour scheme and aesthetics, but yeah, Wrath of the Berskerer.
Hearthstone: Dean Ayala
Dean Ayala (lead designer): We knew at the beginning we had Rafaam, he's got a really cool hat because he's Rafaam, he's angry because he's an evil guy, and we love Rafaam.
[draws first panel]
Ayala: Rafaam came from pretty early on in Hearthstone and something cool about Rafaam, he's one of the characters from Hearthstone that's kind of our own. We're really lucky to be a part of the Warcraft universe, it's a pretty rich universe, you can look at basically any dungeon or raid and make an entire expansion out of it. That's pretty cool, right?
But it's also nice to have our own distinct characters. Dr. Boom came from Warcraft, but Hearthstone kind of made Dr. Boom our own character so to speak. So when we were looking back at what we wanted to do, we're like, wouldn't it be cool if Rafaam, this character that steals your deck, Hearthstone players really liked him. So we put him in an E.V.I.L. league and we made this setting ... this is a building, this is the setting, it's kinda like indoors. It's Dalaran, there's magic stuff, so that's the setting.
So one of the challenges for a cross-year narrative is that we wanted to tell a story with similar characters, but we don't want it to be one super note. It's Dalaran, it's indoors, it's in the city, so we don't really want to do indoors inner-city magic stuff, but we want to tell the story with the same characters.
So here's the evil set, and then you know, over here, OK what do we do next? [draws second panel] So this guy is happy because he's good, and he has a different hat — this is Reno Jackson, he has hands here, and he's happy, he's in the sandy deserts with pyramids and stuff, the setting is totally different.
We have evil, we have the good guys, and Reno Jackson and his crew, they're all from League of Explorers originally. So we have the bad guys and the good guys, and there's kind of a similar story is going on there, and we explained through the adventure that there's some evil plan, and the good guys are here and they're trying to fix that. But the settings are totally different, we have cities and indoors, and then one of the most outdoorsy things we can do.
So now that we have these two different settings where we knew at a high level from very early on that we wanted to have the EVIL dude, we wanted to have the heroes, and then we wanted to like fight, a culmination of the entire year. We need to end the story somehow. So when we're thinking OK, we've already done this city, we've done outdoors, what else is there?
I don't know how to draw a dragon. [everyone laughs]
I just don't even—this is going to be so embarrassing. Oh man, this is like a flying turtle. I'm not a dragon person. It's a fine turtle. This is a dragon.
But the point is, it's a sky battle, right? Because that's the setting that is really really different again: outdoors, on the ground and deserty, and then you have the building city vibe, and we're thinking, 'How do we make the setting a lot different?' And I think dragons is just a core, cool theme that we wanted to do. We wanted to do dragons and the Sky Battle just sort of made sense.
And then we have Rafaam and we have Reno over here, and they're both kind of in the sky, flying on their dragons, and environment-wise we just try to make the settings a lot different, even the colour palette is a lot different. When you're looking at the cards, say the Old Gods. If you really look at the background, it should feel a lot like Old Gods cards right? It's a kinda like dark and dreary and a little bit creepy, kind of purples and blacks. And I think if you do that colour palette over the course of the year, all the cards start to feel a little a bit samey.
So that's why we wanted to do city, desert, sky battle. And that's the story of the environments in the cross-year narrative.
Warcraft 3 Reforged: Kaeo Milker, Keith Sizemore
To get an understanding of what this shot is referring to, see the video below.
Keith Sizemore (W3 Reforged senior animator): I would say for me, it was the Arthas/Illidan fight scene, that opening shot. It's the first one that I did and it's the first image I had when I started working on this was, how do I sync this fight scene? Because in the original one, it just started a fight scene. And I wanted to make sure when the campaign ends, that last mission where he has to act with the last obelisk to open the gate, I want to sync that into the campaign and cut scene originally.
And so I have this moment where Arthas is sitting there and he kind of enters frame. And we showed it at the panel, where he's looking at the gate, and he's got such a distance between him in it. And it doesn't seem that long, but we do know what's coming is a very big challenge to him. So that's at least my moment for me.
Kotaku Australia: How long did it take to get the sync, when you were rebuilding that together, how long does that process take?
The process usually doing cut scenes takes plenty of time. I can't give an exact number on it, because there's plenty of other things I'm doing at the same time while working on the game, so it takes some time to make sure that it's right. And it also takes some time to pick other people's brains to make sure I'm getting all the right information on it, like talking to Trevor Jacobs who originally animated it. So there's some exploratory leeway into that, it's very flexible.
[iPad passes over]
Kaeo Milker (W3 Reforged production director): For me, this is the moment that we keep having happen, and it just happened yesterday. When we announce something new, and we show that cinematic for the first time, and it's really something specific to Blizzcon today — and this is a Blizzcon moment for me too — that moment when we show the cinematic for the first time, and you're in the room with all the people, the energy swells and you hear it? You can feel their reaction to it, their excitement, every little noise, you multiply that times 12,000 people when you're in the mythic stage.
There's this thing where we've been really excited, and we haven't been able to talk about something, and that's that moment where everyone now knows that it's real. You feel that energy, and there's no better audience than the Blizzcon audience and the excitement they have for it.
So this moment for me is when we first showed the trailer for Heroes for the Storm. We'd been showing the game at Blizzcon for a while [it was previously called Blizzard All-Stars], but we'd renamed it to Heroes for the Storm, and we showed that announce trailer where it was the fight sequence between the lineup of the two sets of heroes. There was this excitement, and we built this game for Blizzard players, and seeing their excitement for that.
But this moment happens over and over again, and each time it happens ti doesn't matter if its the game I work on, or seeing Diablo 4's reaction yesterday, or Overwatch 2's like, that's the thing like where it completely energises me. It reminds me why we all do this. And then we go back to the office and it's like, let's go. Let's do this.
So, we had that last year with Warcraft 3. This moment with Heroes was really important to me because the Blizzcon audience basically made Heroes of the Storm. We showed them versions of the game and they kept empowering us and giving us all this energy and excitement, but those moments are just so powerful and so much work goes into this stuff, but it's all worthwhile when you have that moment to connect with the players to do it and just feel it.
The author travelled to Blizzcon 2019 as a guest of Blizzard. The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil was provided by Apple on a long-term loan prior to Blizzcon.