Kobolds and Catacombs is the newest expansion for Blizzard's Hearthstone. Along with new cards, it introduces Dungeon Run, a single-player, roguelike mode that doesn't require you to bring your own deck--you build it from cards given to you throughout the adventure.
We spoke to longtime Hearthstone designer Dean Ayala about the origins of the new mode, got some in-depth balancing insights, learned about Hearthstone's approach to microtransaction rewards and find out how he views Blizzard's passionately critical fanbase.
GameSpot: Dungeon Run is the big new thing for Hearthstone, so how did the creation of this mode come about? Was it something you had gestating for a while?
Dean Ayala: Oh man, one of the designers, Peter Whalen, and I had been wanting to make a single-player roguelike Dungeon Crawl experience for... ever since he got hired. That was around The League of Explorers expansion, so we'd been talking about wanting to do it forever, and we had a bunch of different versions on paper. But I think the biggest problem that we had early on was that we had a mode that we liked, but it wasn't really Hearthstone. The mechanics didn't work the same, and it wasn't like you just drew your card every turn and then you ran out of cards. It was a sort-of deck-building experience where your cards shuffled back in at the end of the turn, but one of the problems was you would play it, and it didn't feel like a game of Hearthstone; it was a different game basically.
Once we got over that hurdle, we actually ended up hiring an adventure team. There were three guys on that team, and the biggest reason we were able to do Dungeon Run was that those three people are three of the most talented people I've ever worked with. One of those people is named Dave Kosak. He was the lead narrative director on World of Warcraft. So basically all the World of Warcraft stories that you know, like the Dragon Flights, or I don't know specifically what he came up with, but that was all stuff that he wrote and created from his head, which is really impressive to me. So the story of Kobolds and Catacombs, all the lines, all the really polished work that goes into making it a fun and quirky Hearthstone experience, that was all him.
Then another guy named Paul, who is an extremely talented designer, and is also extremely talented technically, which is really important for this project because there was no precedent. You couldn't plug in and play an adventure game, like "Hey, let's toy around with a different version of this thing," it was totally new technology in the background. Being able to prototype really fast with different things, and being able to actually do that in implementation is really important. We have another guy named Giovanni who shares a lot of the same talents with Paul. They were just able to iterate on this so much.
Then Peter and I, and my boss Mike and a bunch of other people gave a bunch of feedback on design, and it was so fun right away that the whole team was invested in it, which is an important thing I think in any project that you're working on. There are 80 people working on this one thing, and from a bunch of different angles--art, effects, design, and UI--everyone bought in because it was one of the most fun things we've ever done in Hearthstone.
Just having solo replayable content in Hearthstone, like a really low key, "I don't know anything about Hearthstone, but I can have a really fun solo experience that's low stress and doesn't require me to have a bunch of new stuff." You can go in and learn Hearthstone. It's one of the coolest things I think we've ever done.
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Totally. As a lapsed player myself who never really got my head completely around deck building, Dungeon Run breaks a lot of those boundaries stopping me from going back.
And because it does feel still like Hearthstone, there's a bunch of crazy stuff that would never happen in a constructed game. You're building a deck along the way, but you don't have to worry about getting crushed by some guy who knows Hearthstone better or who knows all the decks that you don't know.
And as you're doing that, you're learning the game again. Because the whole format of the cards you get is from Wild--every card in Hearthstone--you'll learn about all the cards that you missed, and then learn what it is to play Hearthstone with the base mechanics. I hope that once you've had your fill of Dungeon Run, you'll feel like, "I'm ready to play Hearthstone again. I understand the game more now and I feel like I can get out there."
Going back to what you said about Dungeon Run as a gateway back to regular Hearthstone: One concern that I had was that past the launch quests for a few packs, there aren't any rewards for continuing to play Dungeon Run that might help someone transition back into the main game.
People hate this because it feels like an excuse, but really, there are going to be people that don't like Dungeon Run, and if there's a reward tied to it, it feels like, "I have to do this thing to get my 30 or 40 gold or whatever, and it's just not a mode that appeals to me at all."
I think it's fine when we initially start out. We might have a quest to do arena, and you might not enjoy arena, but it's nice, I think, to be pointed back in a direction in case it's something that you might enjoy now. With Dungeon Run, there are at least six to nine packs that you get for quests almost immediately, and that's a pretty good start. So being able to get all of that stuff for free, like heading in and then relearning the game of Hearthstone through adventure mode if that's the way you want to do it, I think that's enough.
It's important to us to feel like your investment, whether it be time or money, is worth it in Hearthstone. So having a bunch of free stuff when you come back initially, and then also the cadence of getting quests and acquiring gold. It's something that we've been addressing more and more since Knights of the Frozen Throne, so it's not like this is it, this is all there's ever going to be. I think we're continuing to evaluate that every time.
There's been a lot of discussion about randomized reward packs in games lately, which is something that's inherent in CCGs. Hearthstone mitigates some of that by giving you some good basic decks pretty effortlessly, but what are your thoughts on the pack-buying aspect of the game right now?
I think our general philosophy on that is we want to make it so you feel like your investment is worthwhile. So stuff like, you no longer get duplicate legendaries, and you're able to disenchant cards so you can actually get what you want. If you want a Golden Dr. Boom, you don't have to open 1,000 packs in order to get it.
As long as there are enough avenues to get where you want to go without feeling the randomness, I think that's the general space we want to be in. But outside of that, I don't really have a ton of insight into the business end it.
You obviously have an eye on game and card balance all the time. With Hearthstone, players don't necessarily have access to all available cards, and matchups can be infinitely varied. Does that make your job challenging?
The difficulty is making sure all the cards have some use cases. We're not making a bunch of legendary cards much more powerful than everything else. I think that just by having a ton of stuff in the basic set--there are basic cards that are extremely powerful cards you can put in almost any deck like Fireball, and everyone gets those for free. Every time we release a set, there's a bunch of common cards that are very powerful, so even if you open just a very small number of packs or no packs at all, you still are in an environment where you can compete, because we're trying to keep all the cards on some reasonable plane.
The biggest difference between legendary and common cards isn't power level at all, it's mostly complexity. So if you're coming back to the game and you're opening up a pack, and seeing mostly commons, it's not like you don't know what they do. There are some gold cards that are interesting for some given situations, but for common cards in particular, they're understandable. You can come back to the game and understand what they're all about, but it's not really to do with power level at all.
Can you talk about some of the toughest balancing challenges you've had in recent memory?
There are a lot of challenges when it comes to balancing a set. One of the biggest ones is people tend to think of game balance in terms of even win rates and decks. There's not one deck that's way more powerful than all the rest of the decks, and there's not one class that's way less powerful than the rest. While that's part of it, I'd say that's not the biggest part of it. The biggest part of game balance is that there's a balance of fun strategies for different player types. So if you enjoy playing really aggressive decks, there's something out there for you. If you enjoy playing control decks, there's something out there for you. If you're a new player that enjoys playing a pretty easy deck to pilot, there's something out there for you, and if you're a player that's been playing for years, then there's a deck that a new player would do really awful with but you would do really well with, and you can demonstrate your mastery over Hearthstone. So having all of these different archetypes, and making sure there's a balance of them so all different player types can have fun playing Hearthstone, that is, I would say, the biggest challenge.
In terms of particular cards, we actually had a card called Seeping Oozeling. I think now it's a six-mana - 5/4 and it says "Gain the deathrattle of a minion in your deck". I won't go into all the crazy details, but it used to be five mana, and if you did something in the earlier parts of the game, you could play a three-mana card that might end in a draw, and in the right circumstance, it basically ends the game. It's like, you can't do anything against it.
I think people say this a lot about Barnes. Barnes is a four mana - 3/4 that essentially summons a 1/1, and sometimes that 1/1 can have some crazy effect on it because it's from your deck, and you play that on turn four and then sometimes the game basically ends because that 1/1 that you summoned from your deck just has some ability where it summons all the dragons from your hand or something like that.
So it's balancing against that type of thing, where something crazy is happening in the earlier game that you have no control over. It's not to do with power level, it's more to do with, "Can I go into my collection and do something against this? Or does it feel like no matter what I do when that happens I just lose the game?" That's a really bad feeling to have.
There are really cool designs sometimes that encourage you to build an entirely new deck. If it's not too powerful, a lot of players are going to enjoy playing it, and even when you have all of those things, there are still some situations you get into where it's like, "Oh well, you can't really do anything against it when it works." That's when we have to go back to the drawing board and be like, "We have to either increase this guy's mana cost or totally redesign the card and do something more fun." That happens constantly. We go through probably three or four hundred designs in a set, and we end up shipping 135 cards. We're constantly just cutting stuff or redesigning stuff over the course of three or four months.
Fan bases can be pretty ruthless these days, especially Blizzard fan bases.
Everyone's fan bases. In fact, the most ruthless fan bases are the ones that are most passionate about the game, so the last thing you want is to go to your Reddit and be like, "I don't really care about what they're doing. I'm not really passionate about this," that's way worse.
So what's it like trawling through your Reddit and reading everything, if you do that?
One of the reasons I wanted to be a game designer in the first place is because I looked up to two people in particular. One of the guys is Greg Street and the other one is Jeff Kaplan. They both were interacting with the community a ton, like going on forums, explaining design decisions, and they were getting yelled at like crazy or praised because they came out and said something, but I thought it was really cool. That was when I learned game design is kind of challenging, they have all these different factors that they're trying to design against and all these different player archetypes. So when I went into game design, I really thought that that was important.
I used to talk on Reddit, but like I just said, there's a bunch of people that have pretty strong opinions about how things are, how they should be, and that's great, you know? Most of the time when I read something where people say something rude, I just read that and my mind translates that into, "I didn't like this thing. I think that you should do this thing instead," and when you read enough of those things, I think you can at least gain some insight: "Here's this particular community of people and this is generally what they're looking for."
If you're a game developer, or when you work in PR, community, and you're going to Reddit, you're being like, "This is what our players want." But you have to go to Reddit, you have to go to your official forums, you have to read all the iOS reviews, you have to talk to the community teams across the globe and be like, "Hey, what's going on in China? What's going on in Australia? What's going on in Japan? What is everyone really talking about?"
Then also talk to your colleagues and then play the game yourself and take all of these opinions into account and then try to make the best decision. So going on all of these places, it's really necessary. You're making a game, and you have a bunch of people that you're making the game for that are really passionate about telling you what they think about it. Everyone will give you different opinions on this, but I feel really lucky to be able to do that. I can go on Reddit and there are100 new threads from probably when I woke up this morning about people having opinions about particular things, and that's really awesome; it's helpful. I just feel really lucky to be able to do that and work on a game where people will do that.
Does it ever get you down? Does it affect your work sometimes?
I wouldn't say it gets me down. Sometimes I don't know what to say in some circumstances. One of the biggest challenges is if there's a topic about game balance or some other thing, and I know that someone has an opinion, it's a really strong opinion about something, and then I know that our philosophy on whatever this particular topic might be is different than how this person thinks it is. When you go in and you try to explain something and give context to why a decision is made, and you know it's not going to really make that person happy, or this group of people happy, trying to find the right words or the right context to do that is somewhat difficult, and sometimes it backfires. But if you're engaging with the community a lot, there's always going to be circumstances where you're going to say something and it's going to generate some negative response, and a lot of times that's the fault of the person writing it, like me, in whatever circumstances, where there are words I could have used or there are decisions that were made that were not the right ones, but the answer to that has to keep coming back. Sometimes it's frustrating, but more on a personal level. It's like, "I wish that I could have done something to improve that situation," more so than, "Oh, people were mean to me."
You have a background in QA, and now you've been a designer for a long while, so you know how to give good constructive criticism. Do you have any advice for people who think they might see something wrong with a game and want to give you that feedback? Is there a good way to go about it?
I think the best way to give feedback is from your own perspective. A lot of times people will be like, "I think this thing is wrong, not for me, I think it's fine, but based on this other group of people that I think exist." Whenever I hear feedback from really experienced people about how the new player experience is really awful for a bunch of reasons that they know about that new players probably don't, it's hard to take that feedback into account and make any reasonable decisions off of it. Whereas it's really hard to be wrong about, " This is how I feel about this thing, and that's how I feel about it. So this is my opinion that I'm giving you."
I think to give your opinion from your own personal state of mind is super useful. It doesn't matter if it's correct from a game design perspective, if you're a really experienced player and something makes you upset from a decision that we made, but you know maybe in the back of your head we did it for a new player, it's still fine, give the feedback, that's really important because that's the true and honest feedback. Like I said before, if we're reading all this stuff on Reddit, and iOS reviews, and official forums, and we're kind of like taking it all into account, then that really helps when we're getting all of this actual, real feedback, as opposed to, "I think that this group of people might think this way," because maybe that's not true. It's hard to understand if that's a true statement or not.
Kobolds and Catacombs is available as part of Hearthstone now.