At BlizzCon, Hearthhead had a chance to sit down with Game Designer Dean Ayala and Senior Technical Artist Becca Abel from the Hearthstone team to talk a bit about the game and what's to come with Kobolds & Catacombs.
Visual clarity was a big point of focus for this set with so many changing cards (spellstones, unidentified objects).
Ayala thinks Recruit was the hardest thing to balance in this set.
He says it mostly belongs in super-heavy Control decks.
Blizzard really doesn't want these to feel like Barnes does in Big decks (win or lose based on what gets drawn).
Dragon Soul originally cost two mana but was swapped at the last minute to three mana.
Legendary weapons had their own icon, but it felt too much like a new card type when they did that.
Blizzard doesn't want to overload players with the complicated nature of unidentified objects which is why they're limited to three.
I wanted to start with Becca, just because most people know who Dean is since he's always on Twitter and Reddit. So I wanted to talk to you for a bit. Can you just explain what you do for Hearthstone?
Abel: Of course. So I'm a Senior Technical Artist on the Hearthstone game. A tech artist is generally part programming, part art, part mercenary. Whatever needs to be done.
For me in particular, I've worked on gold card animations back in the early days. I've done a bunch of effects for spells, cards, hero skins, and whatnot. Currently, I'm working with the Live Events team on things like Hallow's End to make whatever they need, whether it be effects or some code. Just a little bit of everything.
So if you do a little bit of everything, what's your favorite thing you've done for Hearthstone?
Abel: Oh, that's tough!
I think what I'm most proud of is some of the effects that I did for Kobolds & Catacombs. I had the chance to work on an effect that is a different flavor of beam...There's like a fiery one, a frosty one, and a death one. So to me, that was really challenging to do something that had to be a beam but had to look and feel completely different and communicate what it is it was doing. So I think that one was a lot of fun.
Obviously, this set seems like it's introducing a good number of things that require a good amount of clarity.
Cards like Rin, the First Disciple which has like a billion token and people trying to keep track of where all that came from. Can you just talk about its importance and how you guys go about making sure that everything stays clear visually?
Abel: Yeah, it's something that we're always iterating on. We do a lot of back and forth with the designers to try and make sure that we're visually communicating things. Certainly for spellstones in particular as they start off with little base effects that you get some kind of bonus from. They gradually [upgrade] as you complete some requirements and they get more powerful and then more powerful still.
We want those to feel like they're unified. Like they're the same thing. But we also want the top one to feel amazing. Right? Like you just unleashed something terrible on your opponent.
But by the same measure, we still want the lesser spellstones to feel impactful. It's a matter of scaling these things, looking at what they do and trying to tell the story of what that thing does.
It's actually kind of ironic. Usually, Dean is the first one I talk to about Arena stuff. After you guys announced Dungeon Run exclusive cards, I literally had in my notes to talk about Arena exclusive cards and then here they are in the Q&A panel talking about Arena exclusive cards.
[Ed. note: This interview took place during the Q&A panel as the crowd was voting on the Arena cards]
Ayala: Yeah, actually. Personally, I wasn't super involved in that scenario. But I know basically what they're doing is - it was actually pretty cool for the whole team - Brode sent out a bunch of pictures of artwork. Like, 'Hey, lets all contribute ideas or whatever for what this panel could be.'
So I think that right now they're determining these temporary cards that are going into the Arena and the crowd is choosing one or something like that?
Ayala: So it seems super cool. I don't know a ton about it because there's some amount of winging it on stage, I think. So that's ongoing right now.
I'm curious to see...Brode mentioned that you guys might have to do some tweaking before some of these cards are thrown onto live.
Abel: I can see that. Might want to test that a little bit.
Ayala: Yeah sure. The process of doing it live is really cool, but also, the reason why it takes a while to design a set is so we get to playtest some stuff and make sure that when it goes into the actual environment, it is actually fun.
So we'll see. I'm not really sure what the total output of that thing that they're doing right now is going to be.
It's just really funny hearing people vote. You can already imagine some Arena players being like, 'Oh God, no!'
*Dean and Becca laugh*
The Shaman one they chose was Deal 12 damage to all minions. Overload (10) or something. Obviously, it's going to be balanced and stuff, but I can still imagine people being like, 'Oh, please...'
Ayala: Yeah, you did this to yourself. *laughs*
Abel: Well if you saw in the opening ceremony everybody chose certain death. So their choices are...
Obviously, you don't have to speak in specifics or anything. How has this upcoming set been as far as balance goes? Are any of those new mechanics particularly difficult?
For instance, I think there's a fine line for cards like the Shaman spellstone (Lesser Sapphire Spellstone) which is pretty much useless until you get it to 2 and then it's all right, and then three it's great. Right?
Ayala: Yeah. I think that with any set there's a bunch of challenges that we have. Especially with stuff like Recruit...we've had some issues...Barnes has a similar Recruit-ish wording to him where he summons a 1/1 of something from your deck. So finding all of the right circumstances for something like Recruit...I think with [Gather Your Party at] six mana as a Warrior card, on Turn 6 it's starting to feel like late-game. It's not like when you summon a giant minion on Turn Two, even if there's a 5% chance of happening when it actually does happen it feels pretty bad. Whereas on Turn Six that's when you're sort of starting to scale towards late-game and the kind of cards you want to summon are generally cards like Ysera or other 8-, 9-, 10-drops. And it's a super control deck as opposed to the Hunter deck that used to play Barnes. It wasn't actually trying to play a Control deck, you just wanted to play something on Turn Four and then end the game which isn't exactly the most fun experience for people.
So I think the Recruit stuff is going in super-hyper Control decks and ends up being a pretty fun experience. But finding the balance of Recruiting a big thing out early and still having that be fun was a challenge. Not necessarily on like - is this going to be a 50% win rate - it was mostly are these games still fun? Do they feel like you either Recruited the huge thing or you didn't or you won or lost because of that? We didn't want that feeling.
I think we got to a place where it's still super fun. We made the other card, the Guild Recruiter, which is Recruit a four or less cost minion which is also different deck building restrictions. I think that we got there with that card, but I think that was probably the biggest challenge. Just figuring out Recruit. What decks that goes in.
Yeah, you don't just want to make a more consistent Barnes because that would probably be bad.
Ayala: Right. Yeah, yeah.
Specifically, I remember I was in the group interview yesterday. I was talking to Brode about this and just how the caster Legendary weapons are in the interesting situation where they have 0 Attack and 3 Durability, so unless you have a way of getting rid of it yourself - especially with the Mage one you can mill or fatigue yourself.
Ayala: Yeah, it's was a real, real challenge.
Can you just talk a bit about those caster weapons from a balance perspective?
It was one of those things where you're summoning 5/5 Dragons for the entire game, one a turn or every other turn -
Abel: It's a little much.
Ayala: Turns out that's worth two mana and in some cases, three mana is totally fine for it.
The choice to do 0 Attack and 3 Durability for some of them, or just the idea of having an Attack and Durability at all - it kind of doesn't matter, right? Because they don't lose their ability and they can't attack, so why have it at all?
Originally we had - maybe Becca can speak to this too - but originally we had a symbol that was to signify that this is not a weapon that attacks. But it started to feel like it wasn't really a weapon, it [felt] like a new card type and when the expectation is that it's a new card type you start asking yourself a bunch of questions about what does this new card do? A bunch of questions that don't really have answers.
So we wanted it to be like, this is a weapon, there's not a bunch of unanswered questions that you need to figure out. It just has 0 Attack. It had 1 Durability, but then for whatever reason, that didn't feel right to us. The idea that this is a Legendary weapon and it has some amount of durability...it was more of a feeling thing than it was that it needed 3 Durability because of Bloodsail Corsair or something like that. It wasn't a balance concern on that end. It was more about us wanting it to feel like a Legendary badass weapon. So we ended up with 0/3 as the best way to communicate that.
Abel: Visually speaking I can touch on that a little bit.
Just as with new keywords where you don't just want to throw out a bunch of new keywords for people to learn and digest. It's kind of the same thing with visuals. When you're designing a new icon, that's something that people now have to understand. What that is and what it means. And it also can't look like other things, right? For instance, the icon for Poisonous. It would be unlikely [for us] to do another icon that looks like a little potion bottle because that would be very similar.
So anytime we're introducing a new visual that's very specific to something like that we've got to be kind of careful with how we're displaying that.
I think it's interesting with where that line gets drawn with each set. Obviously, for Gadgetzan, tri-class cards were a huge thing, right? For this set, Recruit is a new keyword, but there's only a limited number of cards that use that. I think it's interesting to see where that line gets drawn between that and inanimate objects. People saw that in the press release and people were like, 'Oh, that's a major feature of the set!' But it's not really, it's just kind of there.
Abel: Yeah it's supposed to be that feeling of finding an inanimate object while you're adventuring and it's maybe just what you needed?
So what do you consider things like this? Is it just part of the set? I guess that's what I'm trying to ask. For Gadgetzan it was tri-class cards. For this set what is the big thing for you? Is it the Legendary weapons, Recruit, the inanimate objects, and that kind of stuff? Or are those just smaller features?
Ayala: So I think that they all contribute in a big way to one facet of something that we want. Legendary weapons don't contribute in terms of [there bring] a card type or mechanic that you've never seen before. We have stuff like Sword of Justice that has durability loss, but it's a way that your weapon is powerful without swinging your weapon. But thematically, the idea that you're going into a dungeon and you're fighting badass monsters and why you're doing that. Of course, the whole fantasy of dungeon is going to a dungeon to get loot. And what's the coolest loot you can get? A lot of times it's your crazy caster staff, your two-headed axe, a giant sword, or something like that. Thematically the idea of getting a Legendary weapon as a reward makes sense and contributes on that level.
Whereas a mechanic like Recruit contributes on a different level. It's cool that you can imagine recruiting your friends to go on a dungeon adventure with you. I think it fits, but I think where it fits the most for us - whenever we're making a new expansion we want to add a bunch of new archetypes of decks because when you queue into Hearthstone it's important that you're having different experiences. In Mean Streets, you had Jade decks which were a totally new archetype that no one had ever really seen before. While Recruit is not as crazy different as Jade was at the time, I think having decks built around that mechanic is going to be...they're different types of decks than you've seen before.
Recruit really contributes on a mechanical level to the meta whereas Legendary weapons really contribute on a fantasy level to what Kobolds & Catacombs core experience is.
Right, so it's less about having the one thing of the set and more about having everything in the set build towards the theme?
Ayala: Right. There's a bunch of pieces of the set that are really important to hit. Different mechanics, Legendary weapons, Recruit, and spellstones can all be really important to their own piece...
Abel: Whether it be mechanics or thematically like with Legendary weapons, we want you to feel like a powerful adventurer and that's one of the ways that we feel like we can best make that happen. That's part of the reason we're giving away one Legendary weapon for free. We want everyone to go into a dungeon feeling like I've got this in hand, I'm well equipped!
That's part of the fantasy of progressing your character.
Ayala: There's a fine line too as to how many we include. With unidentified items we didn't want to make it [so there's] ten of these and then you feel like you've got [all these] unidentified items, I really have to understand how they interact with all the individual classes. But if you only make one of them it doesn't feel like a theme. So I think making three unidentified items or a set of nine Legendary weapons, it starts to feel like you can hit on these points when you're talking about the set.
Or you're talking to your friend. What is Kobolds & Catacombs about? To your friends, there should be three or four things to talk about. Even though there may [only] be three unidentified items, I think that's still something cool to talk about that is new to the set even though it doesn't contribute on a...[it's not] like every single class is changed in every way because of these cards, [but] it still contributes.
Yeah, I think that's definitely important. We're pretty early into the expansion and already there's a huge number of tokens. Rin adds 11 alone. There's just a lot of tokens to keep track of that aren't the card itself. So I guess it doesn't make sense to do a ton more of those things and overload players with so many different versions of the same mechanic.
Abel: I see that as an opportunity for golden cards. One card, 11 golden cards.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview where Dean and Becca discuss the creation of and success of Hallow's End, Dungeon Run, Arena drafts, and having two class legendaries per set.