Last week I was part of a round table interview with two of Blizzard’s Team 5 to talk about Hearthstone and the latest changes as well as the new single-player adventure Tombs of Terror, which launched yesterday. Here is a transcript of the interview with lead mission designer Dave Kosak and game designer Alec Dawson, which included everything from balance to lore to other games and battle passes.
Why wasn’t the Warlock class included in the new adventure?
Dave: We portray Rafaam as a Warlock and the League of Explorers is four characters with two classes each, so that covers eight classes. We needed to leave one out and we decided to leave Warlock out because that is what Rafaam is up to and it didn’t seem like any of our heroes would be Warlocks.
Please tell us about the final chapter of this adventure.
Dave: There are five chapters and it is a free chapter, but it is only available if you beat the other four chapters. The big boss fight will bring together all four of the heroes and all of the signature treasures you collect through the adventure you can use during the final fight so it is worth it to spend time with all four of the heroes, unlocking their signature treasures because you are going to need them in the final fight. It is a huge fight with all four heroes combining against a single boss.
Alec: It makes it really fun to go in there and see all the progress you have made throughout the Tombs of Terror. So maybe you get all of Reno’s treasures but then you go back to get some for Elise and grind some of her better treasures. Seeing that progress is really rewarding.
Card games like Slay the Spire have been getting constant updates and content. Compared to that, what is the community’s reaction to the paid single-player content for each expansion? Do you think it is a risk of the community feeling overwhelmed with content behind paywalls?
Dave: We realised after the Kobolds and Catacombs expansion that these build as you go card battlers are really popular and people really enjoy them so we wanted to find a way to put a lot of resources behind creating great content and more of that style of content. With the Rise of Shadows expansion, we experimented with this huge Dalaran adventure and one of the chapters was free and gave you a lot of great content. We wanted to keep doing that and the first chapter is free and allows you to play as Reno Jackson. Reno is a Mage/Rogue character so there are a lot of unusual combos you can do. As a Mage you can play a lot of small spells and those will trigger your combos for your Rogue cards. It is a lot of fun to play small spell, small spell, small spell, [Edwin] VanCleef. You can do some crazy things as a Mage/Rogue.
You can play all of chapter one, unlock all of Reno’s signature treasures and fight the first Plaguelord final boss. We feel like there is a lot to do and if players enjoy it they will invest in the rest of the content.
Alec: It is also important that our free-to-play players can also unlock that content, so you can get wings for 700 gold.
Tell us a bit more about Tombs of Terror.
Dave: It follows the same format as the dungeon run, one of those build as you go adventures so you will be drafting a deck as you play, building up your deck and fighting progressively more difficult monsters. We made a few changes this time in order to really make it feel like the League of Explorers. One of the changes is that the Heroes are dual-class meaning each of the heroes have two classes they can draw cards from which gives you some really fun combos and different ways to play. Another change is what we call signature treasures. Each Hero has six signature treasures that you can unlock and bring with you into battle at the beginning of the game. They get progressively more powerful as you unlock more of the adventure and they are a lot of fun, they give you a lot of progression. The third feature is we tinkered around with the final boss of each chapter. The final bosses have a huge health pool that is persistent from one game to the next. So a boss might have 300 health and take multiple runs to chip away at this giant monster’s health. It is a lot of fun to try to take down something this huge. These bosses also have three different phases in the encounter. So after you do a certain amount of damage to the boss he switches up his tactics and he switches up his deck and changes the way he plays. If you have played World of Warcraft it feels like fighting a giant raid boss that is constantly changing tactics while going through different phases of the fight. They are pretty wild!
Alec: We are always looking to improve the format so we have made some other changes based on feedback from the community. So when you are in a single instance say you are playing Reno’s story with the plague of murlocs: you will see unique bosses to that story the first few times you go through it.
Dave: In previous adventures we had a large shared boss pool between all the chapters. One thing we discovered was that once a new chapter was released, and you were all excited to play the new chapter it was super disappointing if the first boss was something you had seen before. So this time round with Tombs of Terror each chapter has its own boss pool. Once you defeat that chapter all of the bosses from that chapter will move up into the shared pool and they will start spilling out into the other chapters as well, so you will get that variety of play. Between that and a lot of Easter Eggs we buried in there, there is a lot of replayability in this mode.
Explain the design process of moving to these big bosses with a persistent health pool.
Dave: In our previous dungeon run adventures we had really difficult final bosses and it felt really bad to get all the way to the final boss and just get your butt kicked. With these new bosses even if you lose, you still make some progress. You actually see the boss’ health bar on the chapter page and you can see your progress as you work towards defeating the boss. This gives you a large goal that you can complete in chunks which changes the way you look at the adventure. This helps players of every skill benefit a little more so even if you aren’t a really good Hearthstone player you know you are at least making progress toward beating the boss. And if you are a really good Hearthstone player you have a chance of taking down a Plaguelord in one shot if you are really, really good. We think this is fun for all types of players.
The last adventure made strides to removing cards from your deck or giving cards temporary buffs. Will we see more options for tweaking decks during a run?
We still have the tavern, much like we had in The Dalaran Heist so you will run across the tavern. As a matter of fact, Bartender Bob has been kicked out of Dalaran and you will find him in the desert as Bazaar Bob running his own shop there. We have some more options available in that non-combat encounter to tweak your deck and we even have a special treasure called VIP Membership which gives you even more options in the non-combat encounter and more cards to choose from. So there are a few extra ways to tinker with your deck that I think are a lot of fun.
Sometimes you get to the final boss with a good deck and then you get a bad hand and a poor mulligan and that is the end of that. Any chance of a replay fight option or a way to do the same run from the beginning?
Dave: That’s a good question. Sometimes that is just the nature of Hearthstone if you just don’t have the card draw. What is nice about the final bosses is even if you don’t get the perfect draw you will probably still do some damage to the boss and that damage will carry over into the next game. As for starting a run over, we don’t have that, although this time around we implemented a treasure that we always wanted to implement and that treasure is called the Hearthstone. So if you are having a lot of trouble with a fight you can play the Hearthstone. What is special about this treasure is that once you play it, it is removed from your deck, but the Hearthstone immediately transports you to the non-combat encounter: you go back to the inn, you can tinker with your deck some and replay the fight you just Hearthstoned out of. So it really does give you a second chance there and you can use it against the final boss too.
Are there ever any mechanics that make their way from the adventure path to the competitive card game? There are so many fun mechanics.
Alec: We are always talking to each other as a team so there is definitely some influences. Like when we are looking at the hero powers that are coming around and they’re are like these are some really cool effects and you might see those effects later on but I am trying to think if there is anything particular for this one here.
Dave: What is nice about the single-player is that it does give us some room to experiment with things that maybe might find their way into the collectable set. Like we are experimenting with some dual-class options right now and that is pretty cool and maybe someday we will do a dual-class in the collectable set. A lot of the single-player treasures are kinda intentionally broken in a way that it is super fun when you are playing against the AI but you probably wouldn’t want to play them against another player.
Since you are going for massive, raid style bosses, is there any chance of adding fights that are multiplayer and require multiple players to fight?
Dave: We don’t have anything to announce but we do talk about that all the time because that is one of the fantasies that we love about Hearthstone: the idea of teaming up with other players to defeat a boss. We don’t have anything that we can talk about yet but we love that idea, so that would be fun to work on.
What about 2vs2?
Dave: That is also something we talk about a lot. The idea behind it is super fun. There is a bit of a UI challenge to figure out what you see and what your teammates see but I don’t think those are unsolvable so I would love to work on that it is just uh, yeah, we don’t have anything to announce yet. But we talk about that one a lot, it is really cool.
Do you keep working on the AI?
Dave: We haven’t done a complete overhaul of the AI system but we are tinkering with it to try and make sure that the bosses play properly. The interesting thing about Hearthstone AI is not that you are trying necessarily to beat the player you’re just trying to create a really fun challenge for the player. We spend a lot of time making sure the AI isn’t making really obvious mistakes because that takes you out of the fun. Mostly we just want the AI to create a really fun challenge. I think they do a great job, but we want to keep improving on it.
The Battle Pass model is really popular in other games, from battle royale to Magic The Gathering Arena, have you thought of implementing the system in Hearthstone?
Dave: The Battle Pass system is really interesting and if you ask people what they expect to get from a Battle Pass you will get a lot of different answers. It is something we talk about internally and I am actually curious what kind of features you guys would like to see in a Battle Pass. That would be interesting to talk about. We don’t have anything to announce, obviously.
Have you considered a mode between Wild and Standard that uses a few years worth of sets instead of all of them?
Alec: Our live team is focusing on Brawl blocks at the moment which are an experiment with different set combinations and other sorts of formats to take that in a competitive nature. That is something they have been doing a lot of work on and we have seen some good responses on that and we are going to continue to experiment on that front with different formats and different modes in the live events and tavern brawls to see how players respond to that.
The latest Tavern Brawl serves as a prologue to the upcoming adventure. Will there be a chance to replay that or is it gone forever?
Dave: There are no plans to let you replay them so for the moment they will be gone forever. Maybe after the end of the year we will have a recap where you can play some of the events. I think part of those Tavern Brawls is they are here and they are special events and then they go away. That gives everyone a reason to check in and see what is going on in Hearthstone. We are quite happy with that, it is a neat little prequel leading up to the single-player.
Alec: If you haven’t played it, go play the one this week. It is very good. As Dave said it is sort of a nice refresher before you dive into Tombs of Terror.
Dave: One of our goals for Hearthstone here in the Year of the Dragon is that we have an overall narrative arc throughout the year with all three expansions being connected but we also wanted to have the time in-between expansions that there is a lot more going on. More events like this. More short story moments like these that fill in the gaps so that all year something exciting is happening.
Can you tell us more about the new balance changes in PVP?
Alec: So we did a few changes recently, and there were a few specific cards that we needed to touch. Luna’s Pocket Galaxy was a card that we buffed previously, bringing it from 7 mana to 5 mana. There were some games that just felt too oppressive when you play it on five and the game would get kinda out of hand. I think back at 7 is better. It was fun to see that deck flourish and come to life but we didn’t like the gameplay pattern that was going on. With Conjurer’s Calling we had that Conjurers Giants Mage deck that was very popular and very powerful and we wanted to create a deck that wasn’t creating a board full of giants as early as turn five in combination with Khadgar. With Extra Arms we still see Priests doing really really well on ladder. Combo Priest is doing really good and if was also part of the buff patch, one we wanted to go back on. Finally Dr Boom: we got a lot of feedback from the community, a lot of feedback from a bunch of our players and we felt that a 9 mana Dr Boom still does a lot of things that you want to do as that Warrior deck. It gets you into a different phase of the game at 9 mana. At 7 mana it was a little too early so reducing the power of that deck overall was something that we wanted to do. In Wild we made changes to Barnes. Barnes is a card we had a ton of feedback on over the last few years. It is played a lot in Resurrect Priest and it is a deck that is really strong and that some people really like to play. So we have been talking about it for a while and we came to the decision that we want that moment where Big Priest has this big turn with Barnes but we just wanted it pushed back just a little bit later so we thought five. A turn three Coin + Barnes into a Y’Shaarj [Rage Unbound], what do you do against that? It is pretty difficult, so we wanted to push that back and make the deck feel better to play against.
We got the Death Knights in Knights of the Frozen Throne, what about Monks and Demon Hunters?
Alec: We are pretty happy with the game now and the nine heroes and their unique identities. One of the things we have been focussing on is making sure that all of the classes really feel unique, making sure their identity is really strong. When you are going up against a Druid you know you aren’t going to get AOE’d down, things like that. There were changes a few months ago with that in mind. There are themes in the World of Warcraft universe that we always want to explore so at hopefully one day we will at least explore that.
Hearthstone is making its own lore in recent expansions rather than focus on World of Warcraft, that don’t mention big events and happenings in WoW, is this done to purposely distance Hearthstone from World of Warcraft?
Dave: We want to create a certain feel and a certain vibe for the Hearthstone universe. It definitely takes place in the Warcraft universe. Often I tell people that the stories in Hearthstone are the stories that people who live in World of Warcraft tell one another. Sometimes they are made canon, you might have seen the League of Explorers appear in World of Warcraft. They are definitely connected but we try to create our own stories so that players can enjoy something uniquely Hearthstone. The stories we are telling in the Year of the Dragon we have taken a few years to build up these characters and stories of Rafaam and Dr Boom so this year is a celebration of some of those Hearthstone characters that we created.
Alec: We got to flesh them out a little bit, dig into their stories and who they are. When we create such interesting characters people want to know more about them and that is something we want to explore as well.
Have you considered adding other cosmetics to the game, like being able to make your side of the board as beautiful as Togwaggle?
Dave: (Laughs) Well said. That is a really cool idea. We don’t have anything to announce but great idea.
How does the team feel about the reception to Year of the Dragon’s connected narrative and will we see this going forward?
Dave: Year of the Dragon is a big experiment for us. We’re excited to tell a year-long story. One of the things we had to be cautious of is we had to make sure that each expansion by itself had a very interesting theme and story of its own so that you didn’t feel like if you weren’t interested in the story you would stop playing for the year. We didn’t want that to happen. We try and make sure that even if you are not following the year-long narrative that each expansion has something really interesting going on. All of our explorers running around the deserts of Uldum, finding treasures, that kind of thing. As we write it we try to figure out ways that it has layers so that players that are super engaged know what the whole story is and players that are more casual can kind of jump in and just enjoy each expansion on its own as its own story of for those that are really, really invested in the story we try to bury little bits of narrative deep into the game. One example that I love that a lot of players caught onto is that we had characters in Kobolds and Catacombs: a pair of paladins named George and Karl and George became one of the bad guys, he joined the League of EVIL in Rise of Shadows and everyone asks: what happened to Karl? Maybe we will see Karl in the Tombs of Terror. We have been having a lot of fun with it. Whether or not we do it again next year or the year after we haven’t decided yet. We will see how the Year of the Dragon goes but it has been a lot of fun so far. I hope you guys have been enjoying it.
There don’t appear to be that many dragons in Year of the Dragon, what is that about?
Dave: There’s been three dragons!
Alec: Is that not enough? One thing in particular that I would say is that we call it the Year of the Dragon for a reason. I think that says enough.
Expansions seem to be getting more powerful. Do you plan to strengthen older cards?
Alec: I wouldn’t say that each expansion crushes the previous one in terms of power. It is something we are always looking at: making sure the metagame is healthy. If we went on a continuous ramp of power creep and making each expansion more powerful we would reach this state that the game wouldn’t be playable and all the old cards would be completely useless, right? That isn’t something we want. The buffs in the Rise of the Mechs event was some of the team experimenting. I think players responded to that rather well and it might be something we look at again in the future, to do another event that shakes things up and that is positive for players that they might enjoy.
Overwatch is heading to Nintendo Switch, any possibility for Hearthstone?
Dave: We don’t have any plans to announce right now.
There are certain cards with a permanent effect after play, so removing a minion doesn’t stop it. Are there plans to add a UI area that shows those effects or maybe even a way to one day destroy them?
Alec: That is an interesting idea. It is really important to us during the gameplay experience to not have to remember too many things and if we made a lot of cards that did that there would be a whole bunch of different UI elements. I think it is up to us to make sure that at one time there aren’t 10s or like 50 different persistent effects that you had to remember that probably isn’t the best play experience. I think it is important for those cards in particular for those cards to stand out and to be these big moments that have big effects so that it is obvious to you during gameplay to notice that this is the way the game has changed since that card has been played.
Will we see new Hero Cards in the future?
Alec: I think our philosophy on how we make new Hero cards has changed. Look at something like Zul’jin that fits the bill. The Battlecry is where we want to put a lot of value in that Hero card instead of the Hero Power itself. One thing we learned a lot from Knights of the Frozen Throne and some of those Hero cards and even Dr Boom to some extent. If you put a lot of power into that Hero Power it can make the game drag on and feel a bit repetitive towards the end of the game where we would love to have this big moment when the battle cry happens. While Zul’Jin has a better Hero Power, if you can get past that big Battlecry moment you don’t feel like you are constantly falling behind like you would have against Frost Lich Jaina, for example.
Can you discuss the changes to Discover mechanics (Class cards bonus)?
Alec: It was never a decision to nerf a certain class or a certain deck. To talk about our decision process a little bit there were two points that mainly stood out. One of them was the repetitive nature of discovering the same card over and over and over again when you had a more limited pool, say with Omega Devastator and being able to get it off of things like Omega Assembly and then you see this 6 Omega Devastator and we didn’t feel that was the most fun experience. The second point is that it was one of those rules that if you came into Hearthstone it wasn’t taught to you. You had to learn it and it was a hidden rule and that was something that we wanted to remove. Things should be clear and easier to understand and we thought making this change that the classes don’t have the bonus actually makes it a lot easier to understand Discover and what it does.
Have you considered a rotation of the classic/basic cards?
Alec: It is something that we always look at, especially in terms of what you saw earlier this year in terms of our class identity and doing more work on that. There are definitely some cards that players have commented on saying why hasn’t this been rotated yet. It is something that is on our radar, we always want to make sure that our classes are set up for success and in terms of their identity and we will look at what changes we need to make to make sure both of those things happen.
What are your favourite keywords?
Alec: I really love Discover as well as having no duplicates. I have a ton of fun playing Reno Mage on ladder. I’ve actually been playing a Zephrys Paladin [Zephyrus the Great] which is a bit odd, people don’t expect that one on the ladder. What we were able to do with Zephyrus and no duplicates in Saviours of Uldum is some of the most fun things we have done in a while.
Dave: I will also say the Discover mechanic. One thing I love about the Discover mechanic is that it is something you can do easily in a digital card game that would be very hard to duplicate in a physical card game. It creates interesting choices and interesting gameplay and it is super fun. We introduced that with the initial League of Explorers and it has been consistent since then.
Have you ever regretted a card or mechanic that you released?
Alec: I wouldn’t say we ever regretted a card. Whenever we add new content we have to be a little bit scared too because that could just be really good. We know we are never going to break Hearthstone entirely, but we know that sometimes something will be a tiny bit better than we expect. If you look at recent changes we didn’t have any cards that broke the game, they just made for really exciting decks.
Dave: Even/Odd we rotated early because we thought the impact was so great.
Alec: Yeah the impact was very strong for Even/Odd decks and we got a lot of really good feedback from the community about those decks and it was something that we were looking at internally and we were like ‘oh, okay players feel a similar way, this is lining up rather well’ and that was part of the reason that we made that decision at the time.
Dave: I wouldn’t use the term regret because if you are not pushing it, if you are not taking risks then the game would be pretty boring. We prefer to take some risks and then worst case we would have to roll it back like we did with Even/Odd and rotate those early. They are still fun cards and we would rather have the game always be fresh and dangerous and interesting than not.
Alec: One example personally was Shadowreaper Anduin and look at how strong that deck was. You were able to reduce the Hero Power down to 0 and eventually we nerfed one of the cards in that deck so that the Hero Power was 1, but I wouldn’t say that was a regret. It made for a very exciting time with a very exciting Priest Deck that had a high skill ceiling and the deck had its time to shine. When we nerf cards we never regret it, the card has had its powerful moments and we want to change things up