Former Head of UI, Epic Games
Matt has over 20 years of experience developing free-to-play games. He is the Former Head of UI at Epic Games, where he led a cross-disciplinary team of designers, artists and programmers for five years to build Fortnite. Matt worked closely with product owners to craft the gameplay and in-game services across all Fortnite modes. Prior to Epic, Matt spent 8 years at Blizzard working on StarCraft Heart of the Swarm and then Heroes of the Storm. Matt now runs a studio building a new free-to-play game.Read moreView Profile Page
When you entered the StarCraft team, what exactly was your role?
My position was as a staff level programmer on the editor team. Anyone who has played StarCraft, may have seen the custom games and the editor that goes out with StarCraft; Blizzard has a long history of modding. I was working on the editor team, as a programmer and I started, initially, doing art tools. I was doing things such as the previewer, which was the tool that the artists used to look at their models and animations and things like that. Then I worked on some lighting tools. Eventually, I transitioned to this cut-scene editor, which was a large project that I spent three or four years on, in total.
In Heart of the Swarm, we wanted to really up the level of quality for the cinematics. In particularly, the cut scenes that happened between missions. Not the fully rendered ones that are the start and the end of the game, but all the ones in between, where the characters are talking to each other; briefing and debriefing after missions, and stuff like that. I worked with some of the other artists and tech designers and we built this brand-new cut-scene system, which was really cool and really exciting to work on. It was the tool set and the engine port and so on. That was my initial period of time at Blizzard, that tools period. Then I transitioned to UI after that.
Can we talk about how you thought about recreating the story and using the StarCraft characters to develop Heroes of the Storm?
Heroes of the Storm, of course, is a game that is all about the Blizzard IP. In many ways, it was a game that was for the fans and, for us, as fans ourselves, it was a matter of finding a way to make some sense of all these IPs smashing together. I do need to say that I wasn’t part of the story development, myself, for the role that I played; but I was adjacent to it. Really, I think it came down to the artists wanting to explore some new ideas, some new worlds, some ways that these characters could come together. The whole idea of the Nexus being this world between worlds and the idea that Sanctuary is a planet somewhere and Korhal, in StarCraft, and all these worlds are just out there, floating in this universe, that they can possibly come together.
I think, officially, it’s all considered non-cannon, but it was still a fun exploration. For the part of the team that I was on, on the UI side, a lot of the inspiration we were drawing from was things like eighties cartoons and eighties metal and hyper, over-exaggerated lightning bolts and craziness and bright pinks and blues. Bringing all these things together, in a really fun and irreverent way. Trying not to take itself too seriously and just really being a fun and colorful and wild game.
Do you think it’s easier when you have characters and a narrative, like StarCraft, and what that made of Heroes of the Storm, to create more of an engaging gameplay, versus the likes of Fortnite, which is more of a user-generated game, in a way?
It’s interesting; I think they can be really different. The three games that you just mentioned are all on very different wavelengths, for how they approach stories. StarCraft is a narrative game, in terms of a single player, as obviously, there is the multi-player, as well. The single-player game isn’t narrative; a story was told, starring Raynor and Kerrigan and all that. The Heroes of the Storm was bringing together known characters, known IPs and messing with them a bit, but they were still known characters. You were playing as Kerrigan and when she kills Raynor, she has something to say about it; if she kills Diablo, there’s some interesting things there. That’s the Marvel mashup kind of thing. Fortnite is very much a blank slate, that the players can put their own stories, in a similar way that Minecraft or Roblox might, as well. It’s really all about the UGC and all the events that happen all the time. There is a rough narrative that’s happening, with Fortnite, season over season. A lot of it is really about the players and what they bring to the table and what they’re doing with their friends; they’re hanging out and they’re doing fun things. The story, for them, is really just a backdrop.
I don’t know that I could say that any of them are more or more less engaging; they are just very different styles of story.
How did you look at the defining features of the gameplay of Heroes?
We were entering an established genre of MOBA. One of the things that we looked at, quite a bit on Heroes, was how can we improve the genre. That’s something that I think Blizzard is excellent at and it has always been. They will take a genre, like MMOs or RTS play and say, how can we add charm, make it more approachable, make it more accessible, make it more mainstream? Of course, the MOBA genre, at the time that Heroes was being developed, was very established; League of Legends was out there; Dota 2 was out there. So a lot of it was really about looking at what those games did, what they did well and what they didn’t do well. And trying to figure out how we could make it more approachable, more accessible.
As an example, the shared XP was something that we explored and that was something that was intended to make the game easier for players who, maybe, aren’t as familiar with the genre or where they are trying to be really fiddly with getting last hits and things like that. It also helped the game break out of its restrictions, in that you could have more interesting or unique characters that are doing different roles. For example, Lost Vikings can be in multiple lanes or Murky doesn’t really need to be in a lane much or Abathur can just hang out back in the base. It was the idea that XP had a different set of rules and it was, basically, more forgiving in a lot of ways. It allowed for more wild characters to be developed, where you’re not worried about the economy of the game – how much XP you’re getting and how much gold you’re getting – being dependent on your presence in the lane.
I think there were quite a number of features like that that we looked at. The other thing was, there was a lot of emphasis on multiple maps and having unique game mechanics on each map. That was something that was intended to really shake up the genre, as well. You could go and have a map where, yes, of course, you are trying to destroy towers and get to the core and do the main objective. But there’s also some interesting gameplay around the idea of collecting coins, to turn into a pirate or cursing the enemy team or things like that, which I thought was really interesting. Some of the maps were more successful than others but I really liked the idea of being able to experiment and go wild and fun and crazy with the genre.
How important are the maps in the free-to-play games?
There was a really big debate, around the time that Heroes was being developed, about is the MOBA map something that needs to be standardized, across all games in the genre, and should never change, or should the game have lots of different kinds of maps? The argument was akin to basketball or football, where people would say, you don’t change your basketball court every single time you play a different game; the rules of basketball don’t change. As a sport, it’s very fixed and there’s very specific rules on the size of the ball and the heights of the baskets. Whereas, Heroes is taking it and trying to mix it up and say, actually, no, every time you play, you could be playing with a bouncy ball, you could be playing with a medicine ball, you could be playing with five baskets; you could just wildly change the game, every time. The objective of that was to increase the fun of the game, to shake up the meta, so that the game doesn’t get too stale, which is something that happens a lot in this genre; the games are very calcified.
I think what was learned, after the fact, was that there is a certain comfort that players have, in keeping the map static. It’s not another thing that they have to worry about. These games are very complicated; there’s a lot to worry about. You’re worrying about your character and all of your abilities and what equipment you’re buying, what talents you are choosing, in Heroes. You’re worried about what your enemies are doing; you’re worried about your team composition. There are a lot of variables. Then you throw in another vector of variable, which is the map itself and it can be really overwhelming for players. That’s something that was an interesting lesson that I had learned, watching how players reacted to the space.
While I don’t think it was wrong; I think we did the right thing to experiment and try different maps and wild gameplay. But I think the unintended side effect of players becoming even more overwhelmed, was unfortunate.
How did you approach building the in-game services, for Heroes?
This wasn’t the first free-to-play game that Blizzard had done. Obviously, Blizzard had a really long and excellent history in live-service games, going all the way back to Battle.net in the nineties. We had a lot of built-in, institutional experience, in the idea of, what are the kinds of services and things that we’ll need. Things like matchmaking and parties and friends; all that stuff that Battle.net really provided. There is a lot on that side of things that we didn’t really have to worry about. They were known solutions and things were already built.
Then on the other side, there was a new set of challenges, around the free-to-play aspects that are unique to MOBAs, such as Hero rotations, collecting gold, levelling up your character, purchasing skins, unlocking characters and all that kind of stuff. We looked at other games in the space and we wanted to make sure that, no matter what, the game was always true to the Blizzard values of being player-centric, being really good for the players and not worrying at all about nickel and diming players or things like that. We always took the approach of, what’s best for the game. There was this series of events that occurred that was very public – it was during the beta of the game, I believe – where we had built this artefact system that was very briefly released. The artefact system looked a lot like a free-to-play mechanic you’d find in mobile games. Actually, it had a lot in common with some of the other games in the space, as well, in terms of having these items that actually have power, that you unlock over time, that you can possibly purchase, to speed how quickly you can unlock them. Not very different from things that you find in League of Legends or some of these other games.