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We Chat to Blizzard About the New Mecha Heroes of the Storm Skins
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:20pm 17/01/18 | Comments
Turning iconic Blizzard heroes into anime inspired robots isn't as easy as it sounds.

Today Blizzard unleashed a batch of new skins for its popular Blizzard-verse MOBA Heroes of the Storm. With the update called Mecha Storm you can probably guess where the team drew its inspiration from. The original Transformers cartoon series from the 1980s, the entire robo-anime genre, figurines with bulky and movable parts. And in not quite being able to draw a direct connection to one single property, Mecha Rehgar, Xenotech Abathur, and Mecha Tyrael feel like more than just a pale imitation of something already out there.

Speaking to Michael Cuevas, Senior 3D Animator on the Heroes of the Storm team, he reminds me that working at Blizzard is like visiting a hobby shop. Inspiration everywhere. “A lot of the team collects figures and model kits from various giant (and not so giant) robot anime, so I really can’t say it’s one thing or another. As artists and creators, you build a ‘meta representation’ out of the things that you like or are inspired by with some elements dominating over others.”

It’s a thematic switch previously not seen or only hinted at across the various Blizzard properties. As Heroes of the Storm takes place in the Nexus, where all universes including Warcraft, StarCraft, Overwatch, and Diablo converge this opens the door for the sort of over-the-top robo anime style seen in the new Mecha Storm skins.

More than just fresh coats of paint, re-imagining iconic characters in this style led to checking and going back to make sure each element worked as it should. “One small example is that a lot of the limbs are a little bulkier and some accessories were added to keep with the mecha style,” Michael explains. “As a result, a lot of animations had to be adjusted and some new rigging solutions were made to automate some parts of the character. In an effort to speed up development time. We’re lucky though, our Tech Art team gave us tremendous support.”

Transforming a character like Tyrael, the angelic force of power from the Diablo franchise was not as simple turning his wings into shiny pieces of metal. “[Tyrael] was actually more challenging and his look was one of the things that wasn’t a one-to-one transition,” Michael tells me. “The wings on Tyrael are programmatically animated in the engine (via ribbon FX) and there are only two organic wings on Seraphim which behaved completely different. On top of that, there’s a total of six wings on Mecha Tyrael that had to be considered. Iterations ranged from “did absolutely nothing” to “always in the way”. In the end I think we found a good balance.”

Doubling down on the fact that these skins are more than just new colours or different hair-styles, the team at Blizzard went that extra step (or ten) to redo just about all aspects of the character to live up to the Mecha-ideal. “From the asset creation side, Mecha Tyrael is a new model, new rig, new animations, new VFX, new sound effects, and new voice lines.” Michael continues, “Rhegar and Abathur were given similar treatment except we felt that most of the existing animations worked well so we only added a few enhancements here and there (shout out to Mike Higgins).”

From there Mecha Tyrael, Mecha Rehgar, and Xenotech Abathur were then treated as new heroes. Scrutinized for errors and little faults, testing and more testing. Which for three heroes simultaneously was a lot of work. “As an example, Tyrael’s upper body is angled closer to 45 degrees but when we tried that on Mecha Tyrael, the wings didn’t give the look we wanted.” Michael adds. “So his body is then re-angled to be more square shouldered on almost every animation.”

“We also used this an opportunity to add new animation technology that we developed previously for Genji and Hanzo (shout out to Josh Brinson and Matt Ferguson),” Micheal tells me in relation to the fact that Heroes of the Storm has seen several improvements over the years. “The auto attacks and spell abilities have been revamped so that the animations blend more cleanly and it’s more apparent who or what your target or focus is. Overall, we think it feels better for a small cosmetic change but still had to be evaluated by design to ensure that there was no detrimental change to gameplay.”

Going that extra mile, a hallmark of Blizzard titles extends to something as seemingly simple as a new skin. Development and testing is extensive, with alterations, changes, made throughout the process to either accommodate the original goal of the skin or make a compromise. “At some point we wanted to change Rhegar’s biped walk animation to make him seem as though he was hovering and skating along the ground a la certain anime bad guys, but decided to cut it since it would break a few things.” Michael recalls. “There was also an idea to make Mecha Tyrael launch from the hanger of a command ship and speed through space before landing in the Nexus but we couldn’t figure out a good spot to plug that in where it made sense.”

Okay, that would have been awesome.

With the new Mecha Storm update drawing positive feedback both internally and within the Heroes community, one could assume that a Mecha Storm 2.0 update is on the cards for the future. And with a large number of characters we’d love to see given the robo-anime treatment we decided to ask Michael Cuevas one final question. That being, which hero or heroes would be the hardest to give a mecha transformation? Just so we can both disappoint fans and look forward to seeing those later than others.

The answer was not that surprising. “I’m going to put on my producer hat and say Lost Vikings are a challenge,” Michael concludes. “That’s at least five models that need to be created including Longboat Raid and Play It Again.”

Perhaps that’s the large amount of work that went into today’s update for three classic Heroes of the Storm characters talking.

Thanks to Blizzard ANZ and Michael Cuevas for his time

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