The Golden Wisp podcast recently had Game Designer Peter Whalen on to talk about Whispers of the Old Gods, Hearthstone, and the design process behind everyone's favorite online card game. Haven't heard of Peter before? Probably because he's not normally in the limelight, just looking at his Twitter for example, he only has two tweets and 41 followers. But you can really ignore all that because despite not being the one to normally do this, he's very well spoken and has a ton to say (and reveal) about the production of Old Gods.

Note: We'll be bolding particularly interesting points.

Interview Notes

  • Because of how unfamiliar some folks were with the Old Gods, they needed to make sure to ground the set with corrupted versions of other Hearthstone cards.
  • Peter is very happy with the reception of Old Gods, particularly with Yogg-Saron, Hope's End.
  • Cards that they didn't think were going to be competitive like Shifter Zerus and Renounce Darkness have really found a home in the casual community.
  • Every designer on the team made lists of cards they wanted to change in the round of nerfs and there up being "a ton." But they cut them down to the group that went live.
  • The team definitely thought about nerfing Ice Block and Alexstrasza as most of the community says, but they also thought about tackling Sylvanas Windrunner. Peter says these cards that completely change the way you're playing in the middle of the game are what they looked at.
  • "[Will] we change them ever, well we'll see. We're always evaluating how things are going..."
  • They don't necessarily think they have to change basic cards for popular archetypes like Miracle Rogue and Freeze Mage. Peter cites the popularity of Face Hunter as an example of fixing the issue simply by releasing more cards rather than changing old ones.
  • Keeper of the Grove's nerf originally upped it to five mana before they settled on making it a 2/2.
  • "We tried some crazy things with Blade Flurry to try and keep it intact in what it used to do, or in versions of what it used to do. We tried doing a single target version where you just threw your dagger at a thing instead of having it do an AoE and making it cheaper. A little bit like Savagery except it destroyed [the weapon] so we could make it even cheaper and put it in a class like Rogue that's very, very good at buffing their weapon."
  • The Ancient of Lore nerf was a bit rough, but they wanted to make sure Druid feels different each year.

Direct Quotes

Why don't you introduce yourself?

"I'm one of the initial designers on the Hearthstone team. And so what that means is we start with the set and a concept, and we flesh out the vibe and the theme of the set, design the basic mechanics and a lot of the first passes at the cards. So the craziest cards you see come from initial design and then the final design team takes it over and gets the set through to the end."

Peter designed a card game called Dream Quest which is what ended up getting him hired when members of the Hearthstone team found the game.

How did you arrive at the Old Gods theme?

"So we have a similar process for most of our expansions for how we pick the initial vibe. A bunch of the designers and some people from around the team sit down and we throw out every idea we can come up with for all of the crazy places that Hearthstone could go. And for this one, we refined it down, we got three or four candidates and everybody picked their favorite one which was Old Gods vs. The Titans. We were going to do another combat - good versus evil - the most powerful things in Warcraft history fighting each other. And then we actually started designing cards and we realized [that] Titans are an awesome kit on their own and there's so much stuff there and Old Gods are an awesome kit. We just couldn't figure out how to keep that conflict in 130 cards, so we had to settle on which one was cooler. Titans are an awesome, epic fantasy flavor, but we wanted to go with something creepy and spooky and just do something different with Hearthstone. So we went with Old Gods instead."

When did you realize when you wanted to do something different with this set?

"So that was pretty early on. We don't want to set to be super scary or creepy. It's not Lovecraft, it's Hearthstone. [Like] Spawn of N'Zoth or Shifter Zerus with cute little tentacles. There are some creepy cards in the set, but a lot of it is the Hearthstone spine tingling flavor rather than the super dark, scary vibe.

"I think it's actually kind of fun to have some scary things along with all the fun silliness to kind of push it in a different direction."

Why no new mechanics?

"We definitely feel like there are new mechanics in the set - the Forbidden thing (spend all your mana to do a thing) or give C'Thun buffs wherever it is - those are definitely mechanics in a sense, but they're not new keywords. Keywords specifically, we talk about a lot when we go to add one or not to add one. For a long time the C'Thun mechanic was a keyword: we called it Ritual or Ritualist or some form of that as time went on. It's not so much that Hearthstone can't take a certain number of keywords it's just that there's a cost to it. Every time we add a new keyword it's harder for a new person to pick up the game and play it so we try to figure out if there's value when we add a new keyword. And in this case it made the cards read better just to say, 'Buff C'Thun wherever it is,' rather than, 'Ritual +1/+1.' You had to have a mouseover to figure out what's going on. The first time you read the card it was confusing rather than simple and so we just ended up not going with a keyword for it.

Some thing like Discover where the sentence reads really nicely with the word 'Discover,' you know, 'Discover a spell. Discover a new hero power.' Those are places where it's much better to use a keyword rather than, 'Look at three random cards do thing, thing, thing, thing,' and then you kind of get lost reading it. So a keyword made a lot of sense there, for this we just didn't think it did."

Do you think you ever want to limit the number of keywords you're introducing?

"It's definitely possible to have too many keywords. I don't think we're there and I'm not sure if we had an awesome mechanic we'd ever say, 'Okay, one more keyword is too many, we can't do that.' I just don't think we'd go into that space, instead I think that introducing new mechanics and keywords is really important for Hearthstone to keep pushing it forward. And as time goes on, especially with the new Standard format, we can keep the number of keywords that are in Standard in check."

Any awesome stories from coming up with the cards in Old Gods?

"Nothing as last minute as Sir Finley Mrrgglton. There were definitely a bunch of cards that changed as time went on. The Old Gods in particular went through a ton of iteration. I think N'Zoth, the Corruptor is one of the only ones that we basically had for a long time. C'Thun we had reasonably early, but we iterated so much on the cultists, on the things that buff C'Thun, that it feels like we iterated on C'Thun a lot. Yogg-Saron, there's a cool ShackNews article that Mike Donais and I gave an interview for and that was pretty entertaining. So Yogg-Saron had a ton of iteration where we went through crazy stuff. Y'Shaarj, Rage Unbound as well we went through a ton of iteration. We had versions that ate your hero at the start of the game and gave you a new hero power. We had a version that when you played it, it replaced your hero power with 'Do one damage (doubles every use).' That was actually not that much fun. We had versions that totally replaced your whole deck, so you could replace your deck with a bunch of tentacles. It was a little bit like Elise, but you didn't have to jump through as many hoops to get there and the final deck wasn't legendary.

Herald Volazj actually changed a ton. The initial design for that was 'Become a copy of your opponent.' And so your hero portrait, all of your minions, all of your cards in hand and in your deck would become exact mirrors of your opponent. Which meant you could make different decisions than them and [it] was sort of interesting since you knew what they had access to, but the final gameplay wasn't that fun. It was just a little too similar. And so we tried to find the mirroring and ended up where we are now.

There's nothing as crazy as Sir Finley where we had a design until the very last second and we changed it, but yeah, a lot of these Old Gods, they went through a lot of steps."