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Blizzard: With Discover, we wanted to create more skill-testing options

Posted by Radoslav "Nydra" Kolev at 22 November 2015 18:30

Senior balance designer Mike Donais spoke to GosuGamers about designing League of Explorers and the new Discover mechanic that came with it.


Hearthstone players have been enjoying the League of Explorers – Hearthstone’s latest expansion – for two weeks now, but when we got to first play and talk about it at Blizzcon, it was still days away. Looking forward to many new cards and a daisy fresh mechanic, I found myself in a room with senior developers on Team 5 Mike Donais and Derek Sakamoto. I decided to fire some questions at them.

“Where’s Icecrown Citadel?”, is the first one that rolls out of my mouth. During the weeks leading up to Blizzcon 2015 and the big Hearthstone reveal, a large portion of the community, myself included, was looking forward to fighting the Lich King in an epic battle. The foreshadowing was certainly there: It was winter time, we just had The Grand Tournament – Hearthstone’s adaptation of The Argent Tournament, or the event leading up to Icecrown Citadel in World of WarCraft. We even got a card back teaser all painted in blue, icy colors. Plus, we all knew this was going to be an adventure expansion and both previous adventures have been modelled after classic WoW raids.
 

Exploring new alleys


The elaborate ruse of Blizzard worked. None of the thousands of people watching the ceremony live or at their homes expected League of Explorers. It was all a curve ball – a well-planned, and surprisingly well-designed one.

“It’s another way to keep the game fresh and keep people wondering what’s coming,” says Donais. “It was also something more fun for us to explore, without necessarily sticking to classic raid environments.”

For Donais and his team, League of Explorers was much more than just escaping an established formula. The expansion in their eyes is about revisiting the things they love which are not necessarily connected to the WoW universe: movies, video games, board games, and the likes are powerful inspiration tools. They are also an opportunity to reach wider audiences. Not everyone might be familiar with the significance of the Naxxramas raid, but adventure movies and Indiana Jones-esque characters are almost universally loved. This is far from the first time that a Blizzard game creates a bridge between its universe and other pop-culture phenomena and in the case of League of Explorers it’s, as Donais puts it, “a chance to be something very different while being in the same universe.”
 

Enter Discover


In card games, new sets are usually all about new mechanics more than certain cards. Although the actual minions or spells are what leave an immediate impression in the player (in the end, they are the toys we get to play with), the mechanics are the building blocks of every TCG. In a game like Hearthstone where format rotation does not exist, creating a sound mechanic opens a lot of design opportunities not just for the current set, but for future ones as well.

Mechanics are the building blocks of every TCG, opening design opportunities for the future.


LoE’s Discover has all the potential to be one such mechanic. When triggered, the player is presented with three options which depend on the discover condition and he or she has to choose one. While my first impression of discover was somewhat underwhelming, the conversation with Donais and Sakamoto as well as hours I eventually put into playing LoE after launch were eye-openers.

“One thing a lot of pro players ask is having more cards in their hands so they can have more meaningful choices each turn,” Donais says as we open the Discover topic. “This is how a deck becomes skill intensive and the better player stands out.”

The senior is quite on point with this one. Traditionally, control and combo decks have been the most difficult ones to play in Hearthstone, due to the necessity of finding the optimal play when presented with a full hand of options. Handlock, Freeze Mage, Patron Warrior and Combo Rogues often operate on the edge of a razor where one bad decision or one premature board clear could mean the end of the game. At the same time, however, when played perfectly they are extremely powerful and hence preferred by those players who make few mistakes.

Discover aims to take card advantage to new levels.  Even the aforementioned control/combo decks suffer from the “drawback” of always drawing from the same pool of cards, making match-ups normalized or streamlined. Not the case with LoE’s new mechanic, which follows the core design philosophies of Hearthstone: To make players adapt to situations they’re not prepared for.

   

Unlike Arcane Intellect, Discover cards like Museum Curator and Jeweled Scarab generate card advantage that's more unpredictable.
 

By drawing cards through the discover you do get more options in your hand but they're not always the same cards. That’s a really good way to create skill-testing options and the choices you make on the discover shows how well you understand a certain match-up. Those decisions can be fun and skill-intensive at the same time.


Discover’s biggest asset, however, is its biggest weakness in my eyes. In the past, Blizzard devs have used the same logic to defend the effect of other RNG cards but there are often occasions where a lucky Piloted Shredder drop or Unstable Portal summon decides the game and there’s not much room for adapting or playing around in these cases. Cards and mechanics with random outcomes are something to always look at with a skeptical eye. Sometimes, they will end up fantastic – even more so than intended – while other times they will be underwhelming due to the high variance and lack of consistency. The Joust mechanic is a prime example of the latter. I bring up this issue to Donais and he responds:


Something I've noticed is there should be fairness in the randomization. If we look at Webspinner, you get a random beast but you still have to pay the mana for that beast. If it put it directly into play, that would be very swingy and unhealthy. Same with Discover: If you do get a giant beast, you have to still pay its mana cost. 

Even Unstable Portal is a card I don't mind - if you get a 10-drop, you're still paying a total of 9 mana for it. 


 

Hearthstone, PvE and the “Tavern Brawl” drawing board


Me, Donais and Sakamoto stay on the adventure topic a while longer as I steer the conversation towards PvE talks. I recall for them the first time I set foot in Curse of Naxxramas and got to design decks to beat a certain challenge. For someone who was getting tired of grinding constructed, that was a much needed breath of fresh air, a feature very reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering’s arch-enemy mode or some of the deck-building board games I tend to play with friends.

Yet while fun at first, Hearthstone’s PvE content got repetitive and boring as it lacked incentive for replaying it over and over again. For a large part of the Hearthstone community, the “Solo Adventures” button ceases to exist after the last boss of the adventure is defeated. The content goes dormant until a new expansion is released a year later. According to Donais, however, not much will change in the future, as Team 5 wants to keep the adventures as a strictly fun-once-in-a-while feature.


We will release new expansions every once in a while but we think the best part about Hearthstone is playing against other people, because that's very repeatable and the challenges are very different. I understand we have a lot of different players and we have to keep thinking about catering to them, whether through arena, or adventures. We get a lot of feedback from people saying "we want these to be replayable, too” so maybe we can do something like achievements which might be something we do to get you back there.


I wrap up the first fifteen minutes of my Hearthstone dev chat with a topic that’s been on my mind for a long time: the untapped potential of Tavern Brawl. Since the feature’s release and up to the Mechazoid brawl, I felt that there’s a lot more to be done with the Tavern Brawl in terms of exploring possibilities. In the end, TB is all about breaking the rules of the game, providing unusual challenges. Having an all Webspinner decks Brawl or Unstable Portal fiesta while fun was a missed opportunity to test something daring that could later be potentially adopted into the game.

I am delighted to hear that Tavern Brawls are indeed looked at as a drawing board for future concepts.
 

We do want to find new ways to play the game and the Tavern Brawls are perfect for that because with the large audience it’s like having a beta weekend and we're going to take advantage of that. 

We learned a lot from the Tavern Brawls. Designs made for them turned into actual cards. For example, a year ago we designed a Brawl where instead of drawing a card, you get to choose from three options, which then became the discover mechanic. And the "Great Summoner Competition" became Summoning Stone.


Expect part two of my chat with Mike Donais and Derek Sakamoto covering the competitive aspect of Hearthstone, tournament mode and the UI challenges Team 5 is facing tomorrow!

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