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From Warcraft III to Heroes of the Storm, Talking Art and Blizzard's Long History with Samwise Didier
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:36pm 30/11/16 | Comments
The MOBA genre began as player-created custom game for Warcraft III. Since then it has grown from strength to strength, with Blizzard itself releasing it's own take on the genre with Heroes of the Storm. We sat down with Blizzard Senior Art Director Samwise Didier to discuss all things Blizzard.

As part of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne’s release in 2003, Blizzard included a detailed world editor that would give players the ability to create their own custom games utilising Warcraft III assets. A clear step up from the simple map editor that shipped with Warcraft II in the ‘90s. And with this new detailed editor it wasn’t long before players were deviating from the real-time strategy of traditional Warcraft to create their own role-playing adventures, arena style battles, and tower defense games.

“It was cool that people who were not necessarily a part of Blizzard were creating games that people loved. Out of something that we made.” Blizzard Senior Art Director Samwise Didier, who led the art team on Warcraft III, remembers the impact that giving players a detailed editor had on the enduring success of the game. “Especially when seeing that they could take something and spin it another way, or they would put characters and settings in different contexts or combinations.”

The sheer number of different gameplay styles on offer was impressive, especially for 2003, as was the fact that you could fire up a game like Warcraft III and be presented with countless little experiments to play with. But none stood out more so that a very specific custom game, simply called Defense of the Ancients. The first Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (or MOBA), made its debut in Warcraft III. In it players selected from a variety of different heroes (broken down into several classes), leveled up in-game, with the goal being to infiltrate and destroy the opposing team’s base. There were three lanes to attack and defend, and depending on the version, shops to purchase powerful items and other secrets to find.

Defense of the Ancients, or DOTA, as it looked as a custom game for Warcraft III

With the release of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty in 2011, Blizzard would once again include a detailed editor. One that would put an even bigger focus on custom games and player creativity. To showcase the expanded tools, Blizzard announced in 2010 that it would spend the time to create its own version of Defense of the Ancients (or DOTA) with what it was calling ‘Blizzard DOTA’. And time they would spend, with the project evolving and changing numerous times over the course of the next few years. During this time the MOBA genre would grow from strength to strength, and become a worldwide phenomenon thanks to the efforts of studios like Riot Games and Valve.

After a name change to Blizzard All-Stars, and several fundamental changes made to the MOBA formula to better suit Blizzard’s focus on streamlining gameplay experiences without sacrificing depth, Heroes of the Storm would become a standalone free-to-play title when it was finally released in 2015. Since its debut, Heroes of the Storm has continued to grow with new heroes, arenas, modes, and seasons, introduced at regular intervals. Drawing on over 25 years of history, Heroes of the Storm has seen locations and heroes from all of Blizzard franchises -- Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft, and the most recent addition to the Blizzard family, Overwatch.

As part of the StarCraft II Arcade, Blizzard announces Blizzard DOTA which would later become Heroes of the Storm

During the opening ceremony at this year’s annual BlizzCon event, when it came time for Heroes of the Storm to get its moment in the spotlight it wasn’t long before it was referred to as BlizzCon: The Game. As a convention where Blizzard fans from all walks of life gather to celebrate a singular love for franchises that feature large-scale sci-fi battles, fantasy warriors wielding large swords, and futuristic cartoon heroes fighting each other, it’s impressive that throughout all of this diversity there’s still a strong sense of connectivity across each franchise. And it takes an event like BlizzCon, or a property like Heroes of the Storm, to really bring this idea home. Heroes of the Storm is as much a celebration of Blizzard’s franchises and history, as it is a great multiplayer MOBA that can be enjoyed alone or with friends.

Naturally, wrangling all the different heroes from properties like Diablo, Warcraft, Overwatch, and making them play nice together is no easy feat. And heading up the task of making sure that each hero looks like they belong in the same game is Blizzard’s Senior Art Director, Samwise Didier. A name that is no doubt familiar to many Blizzard fans, Samwise joined the company in 1991, responding to an ad in a local paper looking for artists to create art for videogames. At the time, he was working as the head usher at a local movie theater, and without any professional experience or a portfolio he simply took art that was hanging on his wall at home, and made the trek to the small development studio that was then known as Silicon & Synapse – later renamed, Blizzard Entertainment.

The first game that he would work on for the still relatively small developer was a game called Lost Vikings for the Super Nintendo. “Back when we first started it was twenty little Lost Vikings as it was based on Lemmings, an old PC game from the time,” Samwise tells me. “And over the course of the development, which was probably a few months, it went from 20 to 10 to 5 to 3 Vikings.” Fast forward over twenty years, and Blizzard announce the latest hero added to the Heroes of the Storm line-up, the very same Lost Vikings from the Super Nintendo. “I can’t tell you how cool it was when we introduced Lost Vikings as our newest Hero. Here was Heroes of the Storm, our newest game, featuring the oldest characters that I worked on.” Samwise recalls, “It was cool to see that these little Viking guys could manage to make their way from 1991 all the way to today. The oldest art that I worked on was now becoming the newest art that I was working on.”

From Super Nintendo to modern PC the Lost Vikings in Heroes of the Storm

And bringing characters that old into the modern era proved to be a lot easier than one might expect. For one thing, Blizzard has archived and kept all the concept art, assets, and work done from its early days as a developer of Super Nintendo games through to today. But aside from this tangible history to draw from, it was the tone of Lost Vikings that lent itself to Heroes of the Storm’s specific visual aesthetic. Sam explains, “The Vikings were very easy to update because they were already so full of character, mainly because the game was a lot more comical than some of our other efforts. Also, I’ve been drawing Dwarves for a long time, and the Lost Vikings look like a series of small, medium, and large Dwarves, so it was easy for me to bring them into the new universe.”

At Blizzard the team working on Heroes of the Storm is the same group responsible for all of the Warcraft games up until the release of World of Warcraft, and the StarCraft games. And Heroes of the Storm itself was built using a version of the same engine that gave us the very first fan-made Defense of the Ancients custom game. “With Warcraft and StarCraft, there’s already two of the IPs that we knew the look of, and we knew what we needed to do to keep them consistent with each other,” Samwise tells me. “Warcraft is a little bit more heroic and super fantastical, and we brought that down just a little to suit Heroes. StarCraft on the other hand was already right in that middle ground of big proportions and everything, and it had more advanced texturing than the old Warcraft III so we sort of just blended those two. Diablo was the only that was a bit tricky. We didn’t really struggle with it, but there are not a lot of jokes in Diablo.”

For those that know their Blizzard Lore, Diablo was originally developed by a separate studio called Blizzard North. As one of the pioneers of the action-RPG genre Diablo became hugely successful, simultaneously creating a new genre and providing countless hours of dungeon crawling fun. Even though the world it presented was dark and full of demonic imagery. In terms of tone Diablo was a far cry from Blizzard’s other fantasy offering – Warcraft. “We had to figure out a way to bring that into the realm where StarCraft and Warcraft were.” Samwise explains, “And we worked it out, even though a lot of our Diablo characters are still a bit more on the serious side, like Xul the Necromancer and Johanna the Crusader. It really wasn’t difficult it was more that team had been working on Warcraft and StarCraft for so many years that we kind of just had to figure out Diablo. But every once in a while we’ll do something like put Azmodan into a pair of basketball shorts. To add a sense of humour to the franchise.”

Zarya's look and abilities make an almost seamless jump from Overwatch to the Nexus

In the hypothetical made-for-TV Blizzard movie, 2016 will represent the year of Overwatch. Where Blizzard decided to put its own spin on the team-based competitive shooter genre, and in the process, create a global phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing down. At BlizzCon there was a clear sense that Blizzard fans were just as in love with this new world and set of characters as they were with some of their favourite Blizzard properties from years past. Walking around the Anaheim Convention Center, if you were to stop and remind yourself that Overwatch had only been out for six months, you’d be contradicted at every turn with evidence pointing to it being a franchise as old as anything else at the show.

Overwatch is now very much a part of Blizzard, and with Heroes of the Storm being a representation of the company’s history, Overwatch characters like Zarya and Tracer have already joined the ranks of Nexus heroes. But unlike Warcraft, StarCraft, or Diablo, Overwatch presents an almost Pixar-like version of the future, where sci-fi meets Utopia by the way of global conflict. So then, one would think that having these characters sit comfortably next to an Orc or a Space Marine could prove to be quite the challenge for the art team working on Heroes of the Storm. “Not really, no.” Samwise continues, “In terms of Zarya, slap a pair of shoulder pads on her and she has the silhouette of a Space Marine. So, there’s that StarCraft fit helping. With Tracer, instead of the orange tights, put her into a white suit and she’s kind of a Ghost with small pistols. So, all we had to do was keep the essence of who those characters were and then nudge it a little bit to make it fit with the other characters.”

Like other popular MOBAs on the market, Heroes of the Storm’s stable of heroes will continue to grow, and in the process, bolster even stronger bonds with its audience. At all times the team are looking at which character they should add next, what role could they fill, and continuously ask themselves if the next will hero tick off another checkbox in the seemingly never ending list of heroes and characters that the community would love to see in the game. It’s this aspect, among others, that has also kept MOBAs like League of Legends, SMITE, and DOTA 2 immensely popular. In speaking with Samwise Didier, whose concept art not only helped shape the look of Warcraft and StarCraft, but also modern fantasy, it was great to learn that he took immense pride in how the rise of the MOBA and the look and feel of the genre still retains the same visual style first seen in Warcraft III.

The look and feel of MOBAs can trace their history back to Warcraft III

“I actually take huge pride in how it all turned out. And the fact that there is a DOTA and a League of Legends, because it was all based off what some talented people could do with the Warcraft III editor. And the art that was in there influenced those games, and then those games invented an entire genre. I see that, and I see our art’s influence on other stuff like movies, and our influence on comic book art, and it makes me happy. Blizzard itself really helped push this, we didn’t invent it, we just made it a little bit more graspable in people to embrace a bit of humour in fantasy.” In many ways, it’s a look that feels quintessentially Blizzard. And one that has found its way into many fantasy-based games on PC, console, and even mobile. It’s a bright, colourful, and inviting aesthetic that can be seen throughout Heroes of the Storm.

And it’s this sense of Blizzard history, that elevates Heroes of the Storm above many of its competitors. It’s also a little bit silly, with characters from different universes meeting up in a mysterious Nexus to battle it out on maps that feature interactive and often comical elements. But then again, Blizzard games have always focused on having fun, a philosophy that was born from what its founders would do in their spare time that would find its way into everything from design, to art, to creating online multiplayer worlds. As Samwise sums up, “It pleases me that something that started 25 years ago, with a few guys that were really just into Dungeons and Dragons and videogames and creating artwork and these stories, could put our little stamp on pop culture."