We speak to Hearthstone's designer and director to see how the reaction has been so far.
By Alex Walker on September 12, 2013 at 2:01 pm
Hearthstone might not be the next expansion for World of Warcraft, an upcoming patch for Diablo 3 or the fan’s wet-dream Starcraft: Ghost, but that hasn’t hurt its popularity one bit. Thousands of you flocked to GON for our Hearthstone giveaways alone, and that’s not counting the tens of thousands who tried to get into the beta for Blizzard’s upcoming free-to-play CCG.
To better understand how the beta is panning out, Alex Walker sat down with Hearthstone designer Eric Dodds and the game’s production director, Jason Chayes.
Have you been surprised or impressed with the level of investment players have put into Hearthstone thus far? What were your expectations before the beta became available to the public, and what are they now for launch?
Jason Chayes: With the people who have, at this point, been in the beta now for a few weeks, there’s been a lot of incredible matches that have been watched online from the people who have been streaming the game. That’s something we never really anticipated, just how much a positive response [we would get] from the streaming community right out from the gate. It’s been a lot of fun for us, to kind of watch a lot of the really competitive games that have been going on there and to see the direction it’s started to take.
Eric Dodds: We were kind of hoping this would be a game that would be fun to watch on a large scale, and maybe be an eSport-type game, and to see all the people streaming the game is certainly something we never expected and has been very exciting to see along those lines. Partially for their passion, and partially for future possibilities along those lines.
One of the things when we did the preview event in Sydney, we were told there wouldn’t be any sort of interrupt-style mechanics, because one of the base concepts of Hearthstone was that if you get a really good card you should be able to play it. And we saw later on, that you had interrupts with the secret cards and even the infamous “Counterspell”.
Why did you include the secret cards as a mechanic at all, and how do you balance the concept of interrupts against the idea of being able play anything you get? How do you stop players from getting too frustrated, how do you manage that?
Jason: That’s a great question. We felt it was important to put secret cards in there, because even though we don’t want when you’re taking your turn that you have to wait for your opponent for you to make a choice. We still wanted you to be able to be in a situation where, “I’m attempting to make a plan, I don’t know whether this is going to be the best play or not, but seeing an enemy secret there, I guess I can choose to play around it or not play around it.” There’s just a lot of interesting psychology around it.
Specifically I guess what you’re talking about that in the Counterspell example, if an opponent has a secret down and I see they have a secret down, I absolutely have the ability to play around that. So if I’m worried about them counterspelling my giant creature, I can play a smaller creature to bait that secret out, then play the larger one afterwards. So you’re never really pinned in the same way you would be in a traditional TCG mechanic, where they can sit on that counterspell and make sure that you never really get your cool thing out there.
We have a pretty limited number of ways you can try to control the environment, so I don’t think that making a deck where you just say to your opponent, “You know all that cool stuff you want to do? You don’t get to do it.” It’s not viable, and we intended that it’s not viable. So while that mechanic is there, there isn’t that structure or level of frustration you can face when facing that in a lot of traditional TCGs.
Sure. But there are other kinds of cards that play on the secret mechanic too, such as the Paladin for instance, where any damage dealt to the enemy hero is automatically dealt back to your hero. So if you get a situation later in the game when you’re both low on health, it can create an instance where you can’t attack the enemy because you’ll just lose health no matter what. It’s not the same as a counterspell but it creates a similar kind of problem to deal with.
Eric: It’s possible; I actually have seen that. It’s technically possible that both players could be at one health and you would have to wait until you drew a heal spell or something like that. I think it’s more likely though that you’re both at low health and if I have a big creature and I think you have that secret out, I might wait until I drop a low attack guy, take some minor damage, and then use my big guy to finish you off. I think that certainly, theoretically, it’s possible in that situation, but unlikely but if you have heal spells you can get around that.
Jason: So far the response we’ve seen is that people generally enjoy playing with the secrets, and there is enough added depth that comes from them that it makes sense to keep them in the game. At the same time if you know what you’re doing, you kind of know that you have the ability to play around them, as Eric was saying.
Speaking on the feedback, what kind of response have you got on the value of Hearthstone? I’ve got some friends who are fans of Magic: The Gathering and Vanguard, and they’ve raised concerns about spending money on cards that only exist digitally.
Jason: I really feel like a lot of the response has been that what you’re investing in is a great experience and you’re getting access to cards that expand your collection and give you new ways to experience the various mechanics in the game, the way you sort of play against other people. The thing I would say to those players who have that concern is that, like all of our games here at Blizzard, we intend for Hearthstone to be around for a long time and we intend to keep on supporting this game for months and years to come, making sure that it feels like a great value, that it feels like a great investment, feels like your card collection is something that you have a lot of stock and feels like something you can be proud of and can experience and share with your friends.
Eric: Our goal is to make this a game that if you want to play for free forever, that we want to fully support, or that we are fully supporting that. And so, it’s sort of on a player by player basis to make that determination: is the value you’re getting, are the cards you’re getting, worth it. And if people don’t want to, don’t feel like it’s worth it to them, that’s fine. We want to support those types of players as well, so it’s sort of on a player-by-player basis [as to whether] you want to jump in and spend money there.
What’s it like balancing Hearthstone, with all the permutations you have across the heroes, and all the cards compared to something like StarCraft 2, which has a limited amount of match-ups, or World of Warcraft itself, which grew over a long period of time?
Eric: It’s certainly a challenge, there’s certainly a lot of different things to look at, but one of the things we’ve been excited to see so far is that the classes are pretty balanced against each other. There’s certainly some that are slightly better or worse, but generally there’s pretty good balance. We have the ability to look at which cards are getting played more or winning more and we’re definitely looking at that and trying to fine-tune the balance, just dial it in.
We’re pretty close, it’s just, will it ever be perfect? Of course it won’t be perfect, because the metagame is evolving over time. There may be a card that we’re looking at that right now is balanced, but somebody discovers some awesome combination with it and it becomes more powerful. That’s just one of those things that’s gonna happen.
What is it like from a balance perspective to not have a sideboard, which is pretty common in a lot of CCGs, especially in something like the Arena? It seems a lot of the Hearthstone metagame hinges on the one match, so if you don’t have a deck that can automatically respond to whatever new combination you’re faced with, you essentially don’t have a way of dealing with it so you just have to take the loss and move on.
Eric: There’s a couple of factors here. Certainly the reason we built it this way is because on the PC, and especially on the iPad, you’re going to want a match that plays very quickly, so it was important for us to not require you to play multiple matches in a row. That being said, we specifically built the game so that there are fewer hard counters that are required, like fewer modes where I went, “Oh, that opponent’s playing super heavy enchantments that unless I run these disenchants I can’t deal with this problem.”
There are still some where you want to have a specific type of card to deal with a specific type of deck, but you make that decision when you’re building the deck: do I want to run that type of card which might be slightly less efficient but if I run into that type of deck then, bam, I can deal with it.
One of the fun things is the amount of interactions you can have with the board and around the battlefield itself. Are there any plans to expand that, add something to the background or maybe add more doodads to play with?
Jason: We’ve definitely had a good response from all those things, from the catapult in Orgrimmar to a lot of the little things you can interact with in Stormwind and the Pandaria board as well. We’d like to keep expanding there absolutely, and we can do that in the context of the beta right now. It’s something that we’re thinking about, we have visions for other things we can do in the future to even go beyond what’s in there so far but nothing we can really speak to today.
Are you looking at adding any sort of statistics for players regarding custom decks in ranked and custom arena — maybe something similar to StarCraft 2 where a player can see their deck does this well against Druids, doesn’t do so well against Mages — something to break down so where you can really see where the strengths and weaknesses lie in your deck?
Jason: That falls under the general category of things that we’re considering as we kind of think about Hearthstone potentially evolving in a more eSports direction. It is something that we feel is the potential for that to keep on growing and to add on features, similar to what you’re describing, to really understand how my deck is competitive in the general metagame and competitive with other types of decks. There’s other features we’ve talked about, there are two that we are considering — a lot of interest has come up through the forums and we’ve even discussed internally about things like a spectator mode or stuff like that.
We’re not really at a position now to committing to doing a thing like that; we’re kind of waiting to see what happens as the game continues to develop and to see what the community is really interested in seeing where Hearthstone is going.
Speaking of where Hearthstone’s going in the weeks and months to come, do you have an idea of where it’s going to play out in the next three, six months or the next year, or is the game changing so much that it’s throwing out your internal projections?
Eric: There’s definitely been surprises throughout the beta, but there’s also been things that, you know, we’ve been anticipating as we’ve got into this stage. We’ve been preparing for this particular phase of development for a while now. What I would say is that all of our focus for the next several weeks and into the months ahead is making sure is that we have as good and strong of a beta as we possibly can.
Really that means making sure we’re prepared with the balance issues we talked about, prepared for system load, making sure we can handle the amount of players that might want to jump on and play Hearthstone as we get ready for release and also all the various features required to bring this to a global audience and all the various ways people play games, in terms of localisation features and payment features and stuff like that.
For my last question, what’s been the most interesting challenge from your perspective throughout the entire beta?
Jason: The most interesting challenge for us has been keeping up with the demand of the beta population, honestly. We feel it’s important to get it out to our players and we feel it’s pretty polished at this point, but there’s a lot of things we want to keep working on and a lot of things we do need to stabilise before it’s ready to go out to a much broader general audience.
From a developer’s standpoint, one of the challenges to some degree is communication, in terms of what we’re trying to get out of the beta, letting everybody know that, “Yes, before this thing is done, everybody who wants to play Hearthstone will be able to play Hearthstone as part of the beta,” but we need to keep to this measured process just so we can make it a good staged release, and frankly, to be able to reach all of our goals in a way that sets up Hearthstone for success in the long-term.
Jason, Eric, thank you very much for your time.