Hearthstone’s Eric Dodds and Jason Chayes on the Naxxramas single-player expansion, balance and eSports

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By on April 28, 2014 at 4:32 pm

We’ve talked about Hearthstone and its soul-destroying, life-consuming qualities more than a few times on games.on.net. The little team that could within Blizzard have produced one of the most addictive CCGs in living memory, thanks to a clever understanding of the genre, its frustrations and its strengths, and adapting them in a way that fits the Warcraft universe perfectly.

With the game’s full release and its subsequent launch on iPads around the world, production director Jason Chayes and game director Eric Dodds hit the media rounds once more. The main theme of the day was the game’s release on iPad – an Android release is in the offing later this year – although there was a tonne of metagame shifts, the single-player expansion, Curse of Naxxramas, and whether we might see a Hearthstone tournament rear its head down under.

“For a long time here we’ve been big fans of the collectible card game genre and that took it through the development on PC,” Chayes began. “When it came to the mobile release, a lot of the games that Eric and myself and a lot of the people the team are playing now are on mobile devices.”

It’s not an unnatural gravitation; CCGs, particularly the free-to-play kind, have been big business on mobiles for years now. Their nature makes them particularly playable on the smaller screens and touch controls. The largest coup, however, has been integrating Hearthstone on mobiles into the overall Battle.net universe and all of the cross-play benefits that it affords.

An added benefit of Hearthstone’s development has been the way, at least from a gamer’s perspective, that it’s opened up Blizzard to the potential of free-to-play models. I wondered out loud whether the Little Experiment That Could had effected a permanent change within Blizzard, but Chayes was much more circumspect.

“Ultimately I think it comes down to what is best suited to the individual game, what we feel like we’re trying to do with the release of the title, how we’re going to be releasing content and factor that into the overall structure,” he replied. “What I can say at a higher level is that there are a number of different viable business models other there.”

He did admit that free-to-play was definitely something we’re thinking about as it relates to “our game and future free-to-play games here”, although there was no word on whether he was referring to other projects besides Heroes of the Storm, or Heroes of the Storm itself.

The discussion then moved on to the Curse of Naxxramas, Hearthstone’s first, but certainly not the last, single-player expansion. Adopting much of the aura from the raid fights involving Naxxramas in World of Warcraft, players will fight off against a series of bosses to unlock up to 30 new cards.

I asked about the design philosophy around the new cards, remembering the early days of Magic: The Gathering and how complicated things became until the Standard format was introduced, which retired entire expansions, mechanics and keywords with it. “With Naxxramas we didn’t want to introduce any more keywords, like Taunt or Divine Shield or anything of the things you had to memorise,” Dodds said.

It’s a tight line to walk for the team, having to balance the level of depth required for engaging competitive play without raising the barrier for entry too high. “The idea is we can take a mechanic that you already know the base idea of how it works and then just play around with the ideas and explore it in ways that it hasn’t be explored before,” Dodds continued.

“So as a player you still read one of these cards, and when the card says it’s a 0/2 creature Deathrattle that summons a 4/4 Nerubian I know exactly what that means, or when the card says “Deathrattle effects twice”, I know exactly what that means. But they’re still cool and interesting and change up the way you play the game and the way you think about decks and the way you think about the metagame. It’s like having our cake and eating it too by taking [ideas] you already know and exploring it in different ways.”

With my mind fully absorbed in the history of CCGs, I couldn’t help but ask a cheeky question as to whether some of the more casual multiplayer formats would make an appearance. Two-Headed Giant, for instance, is highly popular in Magic: The Gathering, and some form of co-operative play, surely, would be a major coup to have in Hearthstone, but Chayes brought me back down to earth.

“Those co-operative modes definitely are a huge amount of fun and something that teams of people have gotten excited about the possibility of doing with Hearthstone,” Chayes admitted. But he went on to counsel that “the readability and clarity and accessibility of the interface” was also one of the core goals, which is directly challenged when you have more than two players. “That’s one of the big challenges we have there to do something like that, is how can we build in something like that without introducing a lot of complexity or having to make things very small on the screen.”

But while a co-op mode might eventuate in the future, Hearthstone tournaments are very much a thing of the present. Out of curiosity, I wondered whether Hearthstone might make an appearance at PAX Australia, remembering the dominating presence eSports had last year with League of Legends, World of Tanks, Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering. The reply, sadly, was hopeful, but noncommittal.

“We’re still figuring out our overall eSports strategy. We didn’t really know how far eSports was going to go when we were in the early stages of beta for Hearthstone and one of the biggest surprises that’s come up for us,” Chayes said. “We’ve been working over the last few months to develop a formal tournament plan and kind of start to build a relationship with some partners as to what that would look like, with a more sanctioned style tournament format.”

“We’d love to come to Australia and we’d love to be a part of the eSports scene down there and if that’s something our players are looking for we’d love to come down and join you for it.”

With our 15 minute session coming to a close, I wrapped up proceedings by asking if the pair had any stories or tales about the route Hearthstone’s meta had taken over the last year. Dodds chimed up excitedly and began telling me how he was perplexed by the initial lack of love for the Warrior amongst the top deckers.

“A specific story I have is that early on that the Warrior is really strong and for a number of months and that it wasn’t really seeing any play at higher levels and I was just sort of baffled,” he reflected. “Suddenly it took off and became a strong class and people sort of discovered it. There’s been this kind of fun, I don’t know, sense of discovery and pattern that people have been discovering things that took a path that I didn’t expect.”

“The metagame shifts in other areas very, very quickly because of the way people stream decks and all that takes is one of the top streamers to stream a deck and suddenly it feels like all of our top players are playing that deck two days later. If you look at the metagame of a paper game, it takes weeks or months for these metagame shifts to happen. So sometimes it’s been happening in ways a little more slowly than I expected and in some ways it’s been happening lightning fast and it’s been fascinating to watch that process.”

Streaming has changed the meta within every game, although in a game without a best-of-three or double-elimination structure like Hearthstone, its effects are felt much more severely. Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly contributed to the game’s popularity.

With its worldwide release on iOS,an Android version to ship soon, and the seamless integration of cross-platform play, it’s not hard to envision many more shifts in the meta before the year is out. The Little Experiment That Could within Blizzard has certainly made its mark.

One comment (Leave your own)

good article

 
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