What do you get when you mix a professional gamer from the future, energy drinks, a huge mech, and tabletop roleplaying game archetypes? According to David Warner, senior game designer on the Heroes of the Storm team, the outcome of this amalgamation is the brand-new D.Va rework, releasing with Heroes of the Storm’s upcoming patch.
We caught up with Warner to hear more about everyone’s favorite MEKA pilot and what it’s like to rework heroes.
For Warner, game design is like a constantly-changing jigsaw puzzle with an unknown number of parts. Trying to suss out the best direction to take a design is a point of frustration, but when all of the pieces seamlessly connect, it brings him an unparalleled feeling of fulfillment.
“Personally,” Warner says, “the best feeling is when you finally get all the segments of a particular build in place and you start getting feedback about how fun and cool it is from people that don’t normally play that character. Nothing means more than getting an email after a rework talking about how cool X and Y were and how they can’t wait to try Z next game!”
The team carefully considers each piece of the hero rework puzzle as they flesh out a character to have more diversity and synergy while preserving their core gameplay. After they decide which hero to revamp, the team digs in to identify which areas need the most TLC. While it’s easy enough to look at the pick-win rates of heroes’ talents and their success with various matchups to pinpoint issues, what is and isn’t working about a hero’s fulfillment of player fantasies and their identity as a unique character is harder to recognize and define than the ones and zeros of statistical game data.
“While I consider both data and hero identity for a rework, I usually start by digging into lore, which almost always yields some gameplay angles to pursue,” says Warner. “For example: with D.Va it was obvious there needed to be a talent that involved shooting your pistol at your Mech with Big Shot because that was an unforgettable moment from her Overwatch cinematic. This cool lore moment became the Nuclear Option talent at level 4, which drastically changed the availability of Self-Destruct, effectively creating a whole new build path by itself.”
Warner also looks at what he calls the memetic identity of the game’s heroes, looking at how they’re perceived by the community to see what sorts of reactions they elicit and memes they generate. “D.Va is a pro gamer, but she’s also got this over-the-top ‘gremlin’ meme identity that took on a life of its own where she’s hopped up on energy drinks and Doritos,” says Warner. “It might sound stupid, but all of the ridiculous memes I saw led to the Liquid Cooling and Timing Attack talents and levels 1 and 20 respectively because I thought to myself, ‘If this meme were a talent, what would it look like?’”
While exploring the memes D.Va spawned provided valuable insight and aided the team in reworking her identity and skills to give them unique flavor, the extreme gamer energy and empty drink cans comprise only a part of who she is. To figure out other aspects of her character and gameplay, Warner swapped his perspective to that of a Dungeon Master.
“Pen-and-paper game archetypes have been explored and iterated upon for decades, and I find them tried and true,” says Warner. “I view D.Va as an amalgam of the Berserker and Knight archetype. She wants to get in your face and expend health for bursts of offensive power like a Berserker while also being a defensively oriented anchor point for your team, like an archetypical Knight would. So how does that translate, gameplay-wise? An example is the Full Metal talent at level 1 being more of a Berserker option, since it expands and rewards your ability to get in close melee, while Pro Moves is more of a Knight option because it encourages you to stick close to the team and soak damage. That line of thought continues throughout the talent tree, allowing D.Va to flex or sharpen either of these roles as she sees fit.”
The team approached D.Va’s rework with three main goals in mind: to make her talent choices more compelling and meaningful, to help her become a traditional ‘bruiser’ and give her more of an edge against solo laners, and to avoid pigeonholing players into having to choose either a Mech or Pilot Heroic. Some of the goals proved more difficult than others to accomplish, leading to rounds of tinkering and design iteration that made D.Va a bigger project than most other hero reworks.
“The hardest part was balancing the relationship between her offensive strength and defensive strength,” says Warner. “It’s very easy for D.Va to hit the ‘salt wall’ and make other players angry because of the combination of being highly mobile, having massive damage reduction, and having multiple regenerating health bars. All of these things are easy to exploit by D.Va players and have low potential for counter-play by many other Heroes in the roster. It took a lot of tinkering to balance these vectors.”
Now, with her rework complete, D.Va emerges from her Dorito-dusted chrysalis and takes flight once more in her refurbished Mech, ready to mow down enemies and flaunt her KDA in style.
As one of the least played Heroes in the roster, Warner hopes that her rework will change players’ perceptions of her being a “wasted” pick. “She’s got a unique playstyle and has more versatility talentwise, so I hope she’ll find a permanent place in the meta,” says Warner. “I think die-hard D.va fans are going to enjoy finally having multiple builds to choose from as well as new tools that increase her skill ceiling.”