BlizzCon Interview with Andrew Kinabrew

After the BlizzCon dust settled, our own Bahamut was able to ask Andrew Kinabrew, otherwise known as Brew, a Senior Character Artist with the Heroes of The Storm team, questions about the release of Deathwing, and his experiences working within the gaming industry.

What is your name and job within the development team?

My name is Andrew Kinabrew otherwise known as Brew and I am a Senior Character Artist with the Heroes of the Storm team.

What made you fall in love with Heroes of The Storm? Do you have a memory that sticks out for you?

There are so many memories. The first time I played it I was on the team that would become Overwatch. On our breaks we would play this really cool mod that some of the guys were able to get from Team 1 who were developing Starcraft II at the time. It was a moba they were calling Blizzard Allstars. There were only a handful of characters. Seeing Muradin in his Marauder suit (which I got to finally redo and put in the game later) and A Tauren in power armor was a lot of fun and inspiring. A little bit later I was told that the team was ramping up development on the mod to make it a full game. Samwise Didier, Trevor Jacobs and the crew gave me the opportunity to work on what would become Heroes of the Storm. The entire project would basically allow me to do fan art for almost every game Blizzard had done. I became a part of Team 1. Early on Sammy walked up with a sticky note with a doodle on it. He put it on my desk and said that he wanted me to do this skin. The doodle was of Stitches in a bikini and innertube. Later that sticky note got framed and Sammy gave it to me. It’s one of my prize possessions and if you visited the Arcade at Blizzcon you may have seen it in one of the display cases.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment in Heroes of The Storm?

One of my biggest accomplishments stretches across a few different assets in the game. It all has to do with giving the community what they want. The community wanted Janitor Leoric in the game and I had the pleasure of making the skin. Then there were heroes like Deathwing who I spent a lot of time and effort trying to make sure I got him right with his model. The community had been asking for Deathwing for a really long time. It makes me very happy when I see people geeking out on the characters and skins that I had a part in. Even smaller changes like changing Nova’s eyes from blue to Green in last patch. The community really appreciates it. So much so that they gave me an award for fixing her eyes at Blizzcon. It was a touching moment that they went to that much effort to show their appreciation. It feels really good to see people enjoying those things. I’m grateful for our players. They’re awesome!

We have seen that Deathwing will be joining The Nexus soon, what was the hardest part about designing Deathwing?

From the art perspective the hardest part was making him different from Alexstraza’s trait. The worry was that players wouldn’t be able to tell them apart especially when you start adding skins into the mix. We went to great lengths to create silhouette and animation decisions that would separate them with attitude and aggression. We really wanted him to feel mighty. Everything from the way he stands to how his FX are an extension of his power was scrutinized all to separate the moments you feel from playing Deathwing vs playing Alexstraza and her trait.

How long has Deathwing been in development?

We started Deathwing shortly after Blizzcon last year. Blizzcon heroes who are as epic as Deathwing require a lot of planning. We also give them a little bit more room to fail so we have time to course correct.

What was the most challenging part of designing the hero?

As an artist the hardest part is choosing the right version of that Hero for Heroes of the Storm. We get a lot of great references and inspiration and then we have to determine which parts of those references are the bits and pieces that everyone thinks of when they think about the character we are doing. When you’re talking about millions of people who love a character like Deathwing it can get overwhelming at times. There’s a lot of back and forth. A lot of versions that aren’t so much thrown in the trash but retooled and shaped until we are reasonably satisfied. For me I’m rarely happy with my work but I recognize that it’s good enough to ship. There’s always room to improve.

Image: Destroyer Brightwing skin, coming soon to the Nexus!

Heroes go through many iterations internally, Ragnaros for example had multiple versions of his molten core form tested, were there any of these for Deathwing?

There were a lot of iterations of Deathwing’s unstoppable trait. There was a moment where he was only unstoppable some of the time. The clarity of that was confusing and stumped some of us on how to depict it when and why he was unstoppable only some of the time. It also felt really bad playing against a hero who could be unstoppable part of the time but not others without something predictable like Johanna’s trait. Once we decided that he was unstoppable and to balance that trait we made it so that he couldn’t be healed or buffed by allies things just fell into place.

What was the first hero you worked on for Heroes of The Storm?

The very first skin I did was for Zeratul. I’m not happy about it at all but I’ll let people try to guess what it is. The second skin went better. It was Psycho Stitches and I still like it. I do wish I could redo it though. There are so many things on previous skins that I would change. The first Hero I did from start to finish was The Lost Vikings. They’re a monumental amount of work. They’re basically 3 heroes in one on the art side of things. We learned that making a hero that has 3 unique models plus FX models makes it incredibly hard to make any skins because of the shear time they require. It’s hard to schedule that when next to heroes that have a single model.

What would you say is the biggest inspiration or drive when working on a newhero/concept for the game?

As you know, there are many amazing artists who have done art for Blizzard in the past. Being able to dive into the concepts, illustrations and lore really is a treat. It’s not hard to get inspired by the talent of Blizzard. Samwise Didier, Glenn Rane, Laurel Austin, Peter Lee, Alex Horley, Brom, the list goes on forever. These people are masters at what they do. I work among some of the best artists, the hardest part is living up to how much talent is around me. Once I get surrounded by all this great art it’s pretty easy to come up with ideas. Choosing the right one takes time though.

Do you have any heroes that you design on the side for fun?

I’ve been trying to get the team to do Blackthorne since I got on the team. Sammy, Trev and I have talked about what he would look like and do. We have some really good ideas.

What do you find to be the biggest challenge when designing a hero who is based on established lore? (StarCraft, WoW, Diablo)

The biggest challenge is to stay true to the character. We love these characters and we want to do them justice. Working with the team helps catch some of the lore hits we might miss. Someone will say wouldn’t it be cool if we put this artifact because of this quest line or this part of their story and we’ll do it because it just feels right. These characters are just as important to us as our players. We want to make them proud to play that hero. There are a lot of predefined boundaries that we need to stay in so that we make the best version of that hero we can.

What do you find to be the biggest challenge when designing a nexus based hero?

The biggest challenge for a nexus born hero is that we aren’t unrestrained by predefined boundaries and we can do whatever we want. It’s a lot of responsibility. Doing this means that we can craft visuals, stories and kits that benefit the game and establish parts of the nexus we haven’t explored. It’s a lot of work and love doing it but it’s challenging. We’re really happy with how Orphea and Qhira turned out. I will say There’s a group of players that don’t like Nexus heroes because they prefer lore based heroes which is totally valid. This makes deciding new heroes hard because both Orphea and Qhira are highly played heroes. They’re both in the upper half of most played with Qhira at 17th most played so there are a ton of people who love Nexus born heroes. We want to satisfy both groups for sure. It would be cool to do another one but we have no plans of doing one right now.

For anyone pursuing a similar path what would you recommend to them?

The gaming industry as an artist is super hard to get into. Also, the average career of someone in the gaming industry is 2 years. Making games is hard. It’s not for everyone. It’s stressful but very rewarding. If you still want in, apply and don’t get in don’t let it get you down. Keep working on your art, keep improving. Seek objective feedback from portfolio reviews from industry professionals, forums like polycount and artstation. Be objective about your craft. I’m here, 13 years in the industry and can tell you that I don’t know everything and I have room to improve. If you decide you can make it to 13 years in you probably will be in a similar situation and that’s ok. Making art is challenging. It’s a process that requires growth and continued learning. Good luck!