Senior Game Designer Ben Brode talks Hearthstone

Posted by Nico "StoTheX" v. at 18 December 2014 21:15

We talked with Ben Brode about the Goblin vs Gnomes expansion, future plans and some interesting Hearthstone history and design facts.

Photo: Blizzard

I had the pleasure talking to Senior Game Designer Ben Brode about the newest expansion Goblins vs Gnomes, plans for the future and Hearthstone in general.

Can you tell us how and with what kind of mindset you approached each class for the GvG expansion? Did you try to make some classes more competitively viable, like Paladin for example?

Yeah, we definitely want to make each class feel different and we also want to make sure that the classes get mixed up a little with Goblins vs Gnomes. We want to see playstyles change up a little, we added things, for example a bit of a control style for Hunter and a bit more of an early game for Paladin. We looked for things that might be fun for classes, that add some more different playstyles. One of the things we like about Warlock for example is that you can play it in a lot of different ways, you can play Handlock, Zoo, Demonlock and we basically wanted to add more types of deck strategies for all the classes with Goblins vs Gnomes.

I was really surprised how fast you released Goblins vs Gnomes after the initial announcement, are you planning on keeping that kind of pace for all future releases?

We are still trying to figure out the right pacing, I think this gave us a lot of data on the right type of pacing for Hearthstone, i can see us go faster or slower depending on how players respond. So it’s possible that we go a bit faster or if this is a little overwhelming and players want a little more time to explore in kind of a set environment before we move on to the next thing. We are paying really close attention and want to make sure we get the pacing just right.

"One of the things we like about Warlock for example is that you can play it in a lot of different ways, you can play Handlock, Zoo, Demonlock and we basically wanted to add more types of deck strategies for all the classes with Goblins vs Gnomes."

When you designed the random elements for the GvG expansion, did you have the professional Hearthstone scene in mind? And how much did that influence the design process for the expansion?

Yes definitely, we care a lot about the esport scene and it’s really been surprising how big the game has grown so quickly but we care a lot about that and love watching esport and the high level competition. We just had the World Championship at Blizzcon this year and the thing with randomness, it can actually increase the amount of skill required to play the game in some scenarios. When you get into new situations problem solving becomes a bigger component of the game. This type of playskill, the problem solving, is really fun and so we push the games a little more into that space by having you see things you never have seen before more often.

I personally think there is a fine line between the right amount and too much randomness, don’t you think?

I think it is easy to fall into the idea that randomness and skill run opposed to each other and that if the game was less random skill would matter more, but it’s not really like this 2D line, it’s more like a grid were you can have games with low randomness and low skill like Tic Tac Toe and games with very high skill and high randomness like Poker or Hearthstone and in games like that the people who are the best consistently win even though there is a lot of randomness. It’s not really like it takes away from the skill, you can have both things.

In GvG you added Mech as a new tribal, as well as a few new Murloc minions, can you tell us about your future plans for tribals in general?

Well they are pretty cool and obviously we really like the Murlocs, we like Pirates and added more options for Pirate decks in GvG and the Mechs themselves of course. They are just a cool mechanic, we like doing stuff like that, but i don’t know if we have a great picture of where we are going with that, what new races we want explore in the future and how they’ll fit in the game.

Do you want them to be just a cool thing for casual playing, or do you want to be competitively viable?

I think it’s great if there are competitive decks like Murlocs, or Mech decks or anything like that, but I don’t know what we plan for that in the future.

Of all the Goblins vs Gnomes cards, which were your brainchildren? 

I was definitely very involved in designing a lot of the cards, but we are a hyper group oriented team and very collaborative. So a lot of the team would submit ideas and theme ideas and we’d sit in a room and brainstorm stuff and mostly my job is integrate all those into a set that we all agree on. We also have a balancing team and there’s a lot of ideas, testing them, changing them etc. and so everybody pitches a lot of stuff and it’s hard to remember actually which idea someone particular came up with.

The funny thing is, in order for us to ship a set, we have to work on it for many, many months before the shipping of the set, we have to commission art, golden animations, spell effects and there’s a ton of work that happens after the cards have been designed. So for Goblins vs Gnomes I actually stopped working on it many, many month ago and it’s kind of nostalgic, because the designs for these cards are kind of my distant memory already.

On the topic of animations, you really, really need to change the animation of Shieldmaiden, her animation looks like the tidal wave from Warcraft 3 funmap Castle Fight and does not really have anything to do with shields in my opinion.

*laughs* I will let the guys know.

While we are on the Warrior class, can you tell us why golden Warriors don’t have golden armor?

That is a good question. We did have golden tauntshields for minions that have taunts. I’ll tell you that originally the concern was confusion. Like do players feel like this is some different kind of armor if it’s gold? Once upon a time we were actually experimenting with different kind of taunts, so we had like the normal type of taunt and we had also a different kind of taunt that used a gold shield. And by giving golden minions a golden frame and golden taunts therefore a golden shield we took away that option for ourselves at the expense of cards looking better when they are in play.

Turned out we didn’t really want to do that other kind of taunt so it didn’t matter in the end, but we were at least worried a little bit at the time if players might wonder “is that the same thing”, “is that a normal taunt”, “does it work the same way”, especially if you’re new to the game. That was one of the concerns with golden heroes having a different looking armor. It’s probably not that big of a deal and something we could look at, but that was definitely was one of the things we look at when we make decisions like that.

You’re probably in the middle of designing the next set of cards to come out, can you tell us something about that? Will it be another expansion like GvG or an adventure like Naxxramas?

I can’t say just yet what our plans are, but we are trying to figure out whether we want to do something like having a cadence and if, what the cadence will be, like for example expansion, adventure, expansion or like expansion, expansion, adventure or if there’s maybe a new type we could be exploring that is none of those things. I think right now we are in that discovery phase, where we release one adventure and one expansion, so how did that feel, what’s the right pacing and that kind of determines the mix of those things as well as what other kind of things we should explore.

While we are on future projects, are there any new features planned you could talk about? Maybe my personal favorite in TCGs, the 2 vs 2? Or maybe chatrooms and player profiles with players personal stats? I loved those in Warcraft 3 and it would be pretty neat to see that in Hearthstone!

Along with content new features are something we are excited about, we have a lot of great things planned, both for the near and long-term future. Right now the features we are working on the hardest are the android tablets that are coming out in December (authors note: Blizzard actually released the Android game client shortly after the interview) and the iphone & android phone versions coming out early next year. These are kind of our biggest features we are looking at in the short term, but we also have a lot of other cool stuff planned after than and throughout the next year but a lot of that stuff is still secret so i can’t tell you anything about that at this time.

With TiddlerCelestial at BlizzCon. Photo: LiquidHearth

Did Team 5 finally found out who the best Hearthstone player on the team is?

*laughs* I think there is a lot of contention for that title, so I’m not sure we know exactly who the best is. We have played many tournaments, but not everyone was involved in them and we didn’t get to finish the tournament that we had recently, so i don’t know if we have a definite answer. We have a lot of people who are very, very good on the team though.

This always bothered me a lot so I’m actually quite happy to finally get to ask this: Why do Paladins have Secrets while Rogues do not? I mean aren’t Rogues those badasses lurking in the shadows, backstabbing people and stuff like that? I’m pretty sure they have a lot of secret techniques to offer!

The funny thing is, they actually did have secrets once upon a time, they were a secret class. We actually felt like Paladins could use them to their better advantage, Rogue has a ton a sneaky things they were doing already with Backstab, Stealth and Combo which gave them a lot of class identity. Also we were struggling with what the Paladin class identity was at the time, it just was something we didn’t really have a great picture of. It was fun to play, but it didn’t really has something that was their own thing and so we changed Secrets to be a Paladin mechanic instead of a Rogue mechanic. That gave both Rogue a clearer picture in things that it wanted to do and it gave Paladin a little bit more clear picture of what it could do. And i think that actually worked out pretty well for us.

That brings me to my next question, will all classes get secrets eventually, or do you want to keep that more class exclusively?

For right now they are exclusive for their classes, but I don’t know if that is something we will see forever and if there’s room to experiment there, so I’m not sure.

So the same probably applies to weapons as well?

Yeah weapons are kind of the same thing, they are exclusive right now with the exception of Blingtron. It’s important that we make sure the classes feel unique and special. There will be times when we will break those rules and give classes things they normally don’t have, but right now it’s pretty early on in Hearthstone’s development, so it’s possible we will see weapons in other classes, secrets in other classes, it’s just a little too early to tell yet, so we will have to wait and see.

Another thing I’m curious about, right now Warrior and Druid are the only classes that can, through armor, get more than 30 life points consistently. Why did you decide against overhealing as a mechanic to the game?

We did feel like just the idea of overhealing didn’t make a lot of thematic sense for Hearthstone. Just the concept of it is just weird, it isn’t what you expect healing to do, so Armor felt like a way to kind of bring that overhealing concept to some classes, but it is cool I think that some classes have different ways to deal with healing or like do healing differently.

On the topic of designing, doesn’t the design of Warlock’s hero power restrict you a lot in designing cards and new mechanics?

I don’t think that it does, there is a lot of room to explore Warlock cards, even with the Warlock hero power there. I think the hero power does have a significant effect on the way you can play Warlock, but that’s true for really all the hero powers. They all kind of allow you a different strategy. The funny thing about Warlock’s hero power and actually all the hero powers is that you look at the hero power through a different lens depending on what kind of deck you play. You could for example use the raw draw power to play a deck that is kind of low on the manacurve and can easily run out of steam and fill your hand back up with it, or you could fill it up early to empower cards like Molten Giant, Mountain Giant and Twilight Drake. And so the different flavors of that hero power are really interesting. That is also true for other hero powers, like the Hunter one for example, because it is both good to give you a little reach in an aggro deck and it also keeps the pressure up in a long control matchup.

"It’s pretty early on in Hearthstone’s development, so it’s possible we will see weapons in other classes, secrets in other classes, it’s just a little too early to tell yet, so we will have to wait and see."

I just thought that being able to draw cards without having to occupy deck slots with card draw is a very powerful mechanic.

It is very powerful, that’s why we have the damage attached to it as well, but so far our balance numbers seem to indicate that it’s not excessively overpowering and Goblin vs Gnomes is really going to shake up the meta and we will see how that will effect everything.

When you initially designed Hearthstone you designed the Hearthstone classes after the 9 classic World of Warcraft one, can you elaborate why you chose to just use those and not go for all eleven? Especially the Death Knight class seems to be very important to the lore thanks to Arthas and the Warcraft 3 storyline.

Yeah we really like all those classes, my main in World of Warcraft is actually a Monk, so I too feel like all the classes are important. The thing about choosing the initial nine classes is back when we started the development of Hearthstone Monks weren’t even out yet, because Mists of Pandaria wasn’t even released. We didn't want to set the expectation that we will do every class that WoW does, because we didn’t want the game to end up with like 30 classes or whatever number WoW will add over its lifetime. That would just be too many for Hearthstone.

For the initial release at least we felt like the more classes we added the less likely it will be that the players will open a card for the class they want in a booster pack. So restricting it to nine classes gave us a lot of space to play with and making all the classes feel unique. We also felt like maybe some day we will do the Deathknight class and Monk class and so on but at least for the Hearthstone launch we felt like nine classes were just the right number. Also I’m not sure if we need more classes, but we certainly could add more someday.

This is not much of a question and more like a suggestion, but I think it would be amazing if the World Champions would be allowed to design a playable card for the game. 

I think that’s cool too, having more community involvement with card design is a fun idea. Already a lot of people involved in the community designing cards as a fun exercise to think about game design and a lot of those are really awesome! In fact once we had finished up our initial design of GvG i actually went looking at a bunch of custom card designs that i saw for Hearthstone and there were a lot of cards that were exactly the same as cards we designed internally. So a lot of people kind of think along the line with us and there are even a lot of inspiring designs that could be inspiring on our ends, so i think partnership with the community as far as card design goes is really cool and exciting!

With Young Woo. Photo: Twitter

"We felt like nine classes were just the right number. Also I'm not sure if we need more classes."

We were talking about hero powers a bit earlier, so when you initially designed the hero powers, how did you come up with them? And how did you balance them?

This was kind of back in the early days of development, where we tried a lot of things to increase the number of things you had to weigh against for your options. We all felt like the cards in hand are all important options but we wanted a little bit more than just that. And we also wanted to have a way to solve a problem we felt we had at the time, which was if you don’t draw a 1 drop or a 2 drop you feel like you’re way behind, so we wanted something to deal with that.

We tried a lot of things in that area actually, we had a system where all the leftover mana you haven’t spend was turned into XP and your hero would level up with it over the course of the game. But that actually caused a lot of problems that we hadn’t anticipated and so we tried this thing called hero power. It helped make the hero feel important and exciting and it solved the problem of what you do when you didn’t draw a 2 drop, what otherwise would be devastating to your gameplay. It also gave the classes a lot of Hero identity, which is really cool. The tricky thing for us was balance, because we didn’t want you to always use your hero power on turn two, so it basically had to be worse than any 2 drop you might play. We didn’t want you to always play this card on turn two, or always use your hero power on turn two, because we wanted your gameplay to be determined by the cards you draw, because then every game feels different and exciting.

So we had to hit that perfect balance spot of worse than a two drop for two mana, that doesn’t leave a lot of space there and they all had to be perfectly balanced against each other. That was a really challenging balance problem and we also had to make them very simple because they are always there and for a new player to read a paragraph of text wasn’t okay at all, so we wanted them to be very simple and in a very thin range for balance and to be balanced against each other. It was one of the more challenging balance problems we had for Hearthstone.

Let’s talk a bit about the newly added spectator mode. You developed Spectator mode with the tournament scene in mind, but don’t you think that having one player with an upside down hand and cards flipping around when drawn and played is killing a lot of the viewer enjoyment?

It’s possible, I really consider this to be Spectator mode 1.0 and we have a lot of ways in terms of feedback we got to make Spectator mode better. We mostly wanted it to get out there and test our ideas out like “is this the right direction” etc. I think there’s a lot of awesome stuff about Spectator mode, but we also got a lot of feedback about the upside down hand and I think we could do some things to make it better, like not having to re-spectate a game after a game finishes and so on. So we are gonna look at these types of things, but I’m not sure when we will get all those things as a polished version into the game. We really appreciate all the feedback we got and we’ll continue to make Spectator mode and the game as a whole better.

You added over 120 cards with GvG, which makes it harder for newer players to play competitively, especially those interested in tournament play and not just ladder play. Did you ever consider giving players the option to copy their collection onto other servers? 

The server thing is challenging one for us and there are a lot of technical limitations that have to do with real world hardware stuff, but the main point, that new card releases make it harder for player is a concern. But on the other hand we really want to release new cards and have exciting new stuff, new metas and decks to explore. We have some ideas to continue to make the game more accessible to new players and we want the game to feel free to play, because that’s very important to us, so we’ll continue to monitor this and see how that’s doing and if we feel like we need to do things to make the game more accessible, we will take steps to do so.

We just had the very first Hearthstone World Championship at Blizzcon 2014, so I’m curious, will the qualifier for Blizzcon 2015 be the same Top 16 legend qualifying system as it was year or do you have other plans?

I believe we have some other adjustments to make but I don’t know for sure what those are. The esports team is working really hard at analyzing how the last season went, like what was really good about it, what we could do better, but i don’t know exactly about how far we are in the planning for the next season, but I assume they will be announcing something relatively soon. So just stay tuned for more information about that.