We recently caught up with Hi-Rez Studios advanced game designer Evelyn Fredericksen. Fredericksen is known for the universes she’s helped create, working on World of Warcraft, StarCraft 2, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Diablo III, and Dreadnought. Currently she’s hard at work building the world of Rogue Company, Hi-Rez’s upcoming team shooter.
Daily Esports: What goes into your character design, and are there certain archetypes you like to have?
Evelyn Fredericksen: Motley crews are a running theme for me. Families of choice. Both at Blizzard and Six Foot, and now with Hi-Rez. The mercenaries of Rogue Company are professionals who take missions all over the world, and a lot of times they work together with people they’ve worked with before. They are all completely different and they give each other crap, and they still have each other’s backs when the chips are down. I like to see diversity that works. Diversity makes you stronger, makes you work better as a team. It’s better dramatically when characters are different too, and not, like, eight guys running around with guns, but they are really just the same guy.
What do you play to unwind?
I have played a lot of Overwatch and Destiny 2. Lately I’ve been playing Modern Warfare. I love it; they did a great job. Multiplayer’s a little hit and miss; it really mostly comes down to map issues.
Competitive players can be difficult. What is your take on balancing games for esports?
A player’s mindset is so different from a designer’s. It’s fundamentally about “what’s good for me,” you know? It’s the old joke, the player says: “Well, I am rock, and clearly scissors are perfectly fine as they are. But paper is very overpowered, and we need to talk about it.” As a designer, you know what you like – I enjoy crowd control, I love stunning people, for example. But then you have to ask yourself: Is it fun to be stunned? Is it fun to be slowed and stunned repeatedly? Of course not. Balance is very important, and you need to do things very carefully and watch how things stack up. Otherwise a few years from now, we might end up having to cut all these crowd control things way down across the board, which may or may not have happened in a previous project. Oh wait, of course it did.
With Rogue Company, we are aiming from the get-go to promote players to try different things and different characters and maps. But ultimately we are working with our players. We had to learn that at Blizzard over time – about player feedback and stuff.
You were with Blizzard for 15 years. How does working with Hi-Rez Studios compare?
Bigger studios like Blizzard have more money, of course. More people to take on a problem, and they also have more specialists. Hi-Rez is smaller, which means we have to be stricter with ourselves, in our development process, and in setting up goals. People who work at Hi-Rez and its development studios need to wear multiple hats too, so we can get work done.
Blizzard and companies like them, they are so – you know – big, that they’re slower to act in general, whether that’s to release a new game, or something new for an existing game, or updating their overall development process. So innovation isn’t so much of a priority for them as maintaining their brand is. Let’s face it — if you are Blizzard and your process has gotten you a lot of success, it’s understandable if they are wary of changing. But smaller studios, they tend to experiment more with their games, and they also rely on community ties more for feedback, and innovation is a priority for them because they’re still carving out their process. Anything like the Smite Olympians and Paladins Assembly of Champions, these advocacy groups are made up of players elected by their game’s community. We need them to provide that community’s feedback to the game developers.
Bigger studios and smaller studios come with their own sets of pluses and minuses. And I definitely think they can learn from each other and can benefit from reevaluating their priorities every so often. At Blizzard, we used to tease each other and the higher-ups all the time. “Can you imagine if we had ever gotten around to releasing the games that defined the (MOBA) genre, that spawned out of the Warcraft III editor? Oh my god, the missed opportunities.”
So you think the fact that Blizzard failed to pull the trigger on these things is an outcome of them being monolithic and focused on maintaining their existing titles rather than looking elsewhere and trying to innovate on a smaller scale?
I do. Their thing is their quality. We used to drive each other crazy – and no doubt they still do – with demands for higher quality. And that’s awesome. But of course, it slows down development, it hampers releasing new things. As a result, as Blizzard, we sometimes missed out. But again, it’s that famous dedication to quality. That’s their big thing. If they took a creative risk and ended up releasing something that wasn’t that great in quality, it would hurt their brand tremendously.
At smaller studios, we take those risks. People understand we are not Blizzard, we don’t have oodles or money, we don’t have oodles of people, but we can do things and try things. Sometimes experiments work; sometimes they need more iterations.
Are there any projects you didn’t get to finish with Blizzard or Six Foot that you are still looking forward to completing?
I did so much work at Blizzard and pretty much all of it has come out by now, which is awesome. I don’t get quizzed anymore. People used to be like, “So, is there a new expansion coming out soon? Tell us about it.” That’s no longer happening, which is awesome. Now I just get to see what new things come out (of Blizzard), and it’s really interesting to see what direction they go in.
As far as Six Foot, I made tons of design documents; I wrote all kinds of story stuff that probably won’t see the light of day. I feel for the potential that was there. It’s sad that the layoffs happened. Near the end of my time with Six Foot, I got an invite from a university in Paris to talk about narrative design, and specifically World of Warcraft as a “case study.” That sounded fun and interesting, talking to young students trying to get into the industry. That’s awesome, right? And then the layoffs stuck, but I was like — I’m still doing this talk! I showed up, did the talk, and it was so awesome. Even though I was bummed out about the layoffs, it made me feel joy, and it reminded me: We get to work with computer games! That’s what we do, we make them, reevaluate them, and try to make them better next time. To me that’s the main lesson: You can learn even when things aren’t perfect, and in fact, when things go wrong — you learn from that. Taking no risks is not something to be admired.
Daily Esports thanks Evelyn Fredericksen for her time! Stay tuned for our follow-up, providing new details about Rogue Company.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.