Interview: Eric Dodds and Yong Woo on The League of Explorers and more
The League of Explorers, Hearthstone‘s latest adventure pack, will release its first wing later this week. At BlizzCon, we had an opportunity to sit down with Hearthstone‘s Game Director Eric Dodds and Senior Game Producer Yong Woo. We talk not only about The League of Explorers, but game balance, the role of RNG, UI design, barrier-to-entry, and more.
Blizzard Watch: The League of Explorers seems like a new type of Adventure pack. It isn’t hearkening back to the history of World of Warcraft as much — we aren’t revisiting an old location like Naxxramas or Blackrock Mountain. You’re telling a brand new Warcraft story. Is this the direction Hearthstone is taking with its expansion packs moving forward, or is this more of a standalone idea?
Yong Woo: Both World of Warcraft and our game live in the same universe, the rich universe of Warcraft lore. We’re very excited to build on that world and exist in that world together with the World of Warcraft team, but we’re not necessarily always synchronizing everything we’re doing. Moving forward we’re really excited to introduce new characters like Elise Starseeker.
Who I love, by the way.
Woo: Yeah, she’s really cool. I love her as a character, I love her as a card, she’s just awesome. We’re looking forward to doing more of this for sure. I think our team has a lot to offer the world of Azeroth.
I love seeing these new stories come in through Hearthstone. Even The Grand Tournament was an evolution of something in Warcraft instead of looking backwards to avoid messing with what the Warcraft team might be doing.
Woo: And we have our own angle, right? We’re more light-hearted, more fun, and that’s something we’re looking forward to injecting in this world.
League of Explorers seems to have some tabletop RPG elements, too. It’s still a card game, but it’s different than let’s beat this boss, or let’s play against this player. The minecart, the tunnel escape…it’s almost like the game has taken on a dungeon master role in those cases. Are you planning to do more content like that? Is it the new standard for adventure packs or are we going to see a mix of this style of gameplay and that of Naxxramas or Blackrock Mountain?
Eric Dodds: It’s going to depend on the needs of the adventure. In this particular case, we wanted to tell a pulp adventure with these awesome characters and it just totally made sense to go traveling on minecarts and escaping collapsing temples and traveling around the world. It just made sense in this case.
Through this adventure pack, it almost feels like Hearthstone now supports completely different types of tabletop games.
Dodds: You can expect us to have more mechanics going forward. We’d like to continue exploring that space. Will it be that specific mechanic? I don’t know. Will it be more space where we go “You know what? You think you know how Hearthstone plays, but we’re going to change it up a little on you.” Whether that’s in League of Explorers and the minecart chase or whether it’s in Tavern Brawl and suddenly you’re playing a co-op game where you didn’t know that was a thing. we’re always trying to change it up.
And the co-op Tavern Brawl this weekend was a real surprise. Are you actively developing a co-op mode or is this one of those things that was just fun to try?
Dodds: We look at Tavern Brawl as our place where we can perform mad science. We have all of these ideas — what if we did this for a Tavern Brawl? And then we go, “it sounds a little crazy, but it’s a Tavern Brawl, so let’s see what happens.” Co-op was that very thing. We thought the idea was very cool and people are certainly interested in it, but I can say we also only put it out about three days ago. The feedback has been very positive, but it’s one of those things where we’ll take that feedback and say where do we go next with it? Sometimes it’s like the Great Summoner Competition where spells summon minions, and in League of Explorers, we have a card that while you have it in play, it works exactly the same.
The delayed Blackheart Brawl’s mechanic sounded a lot like League of Explorer’s Discover mechanic.
Woo: Blackheart is Discover, yeah. In fact, in a way, that was the birth of the Discover mechanic itself. We thought something like that would be really cool. We worked on that in the Tavern Brawl and were like wow, this is really exciting, can we pull that back into the main game? Then you see Discover.
And the Discover mechanic itself seems like a controlled sort of RNG. It’s random, but there’s choice involved, too. Is that a conscious decision? Is moving away from a purely random element the intent?
Woo: It’s definitely intentional the way Discover is designed. When you have randomness, but you have agency to do something about that randomness, it doesn’t feel negative. Randomness is important to Hearthstone as a game. If you play a lot of games every day and you’re a hardcore Hearthstone player, if there were no variability between every game, eventually you’re going to know all of the decks I’m playing and I know all of the decks you’re playing, and all of the games are going to feel more and more same-y. Figuring out a way to add variability helps players feel like every game is fresh. On the other hand, we don’t want to add complete crazy randomness to the point players feel they have no agency.
There are cards in the game where you might get anything from any class, but Discover seems more focused. You can get neutral cards, or your class cards. Like you said, there’s more control here than the pure random element we sometimes see.
Dodds: We liked some of the cards that did that in The Grand Tournament, but we felt maybe that was going a little too far. We do like how Discover is slightly more limited.
In terms of the variability in gameplay, Hearthstone has Tavern Brawls and the occasional Challengestone event. I’ve seen a lot of people say they’d love a Tavern Brawl or Challengestone ladder, where the rules are different every week or month and we aren’t constantly playing in the same metagame. Is there any possibility of a ladder where the rules are different from one season to the next?
Woo: I think something like that could be cool. It might be really awesome in the context of a Tavern Brawl. The problem with doing a month long Challengestone-style ladder event is, on the internet, someone would rapidly figure out the puzzle and people would copy/paste solutions.
Dodds: Yeah, and we have a lot of Brawls that are similar to that. They don’t have a prize structure in it, but it’s actually kind of important for us to have a structure that doesn’t lean too heavily on the reward side of things. We realized for a lot of our players, they are going to look at any given Tavern Brawl and either really like it or really not like it. If you love deck construction, you’re going to look at Encounter at the Crossroads and go I wanted to build my own deck, this is kind of dumb. If you’re the kind of player who isn’t really into deckbuilding, you’re going to look at a lot of the other ones and go sure, those are some interesting rules, but I don’t really like it. If you have a reward structure there and a player feels compelled to play it to get those rewards, it’s a little bit tricky.
I’m the guy that loves the Brawls where I’m given a deck, and Matt Low, the Blizzard Watch guy I Brawl with, would much rather play the constructed sorts of Brawls. That’s only two of us and we already see that divide.
Woo: That’s what Brawls are there for. It’s there to let players experience something that maybe we can’t just put into the main game because of these polarizing differences in what people prefer.
I’ve also noticed the Brawls where you’re given a deck are more friendly to new players, the people who can’t necessarily build a deck to conform to certain rules. As it is, I have friends who thought about playing Hearthstone, calculated how much money they need to spend or how long they might need to play to fill out their collection, and decided to not start playing at all. Is the general barrier-to-entry problem on your radar yet? The Hearthstone developers have previously mentioned they see this problem coming, but have we hit that point? Is it still a sometime-in-the-future problem?
Dodds: If I were to say there was one thing we were discussing the most internally as far as problems to solve, that would probably be the one right now. I certainly can’t say — right now — here’s our plan going forward, but I can say internally, we’re talking a lot about that discrepancy between for the serious player, we want to keep releasing content for them, but at the same time, for the new player, they get overwhelmed by the increasing amount of content.
To get down to some card balance questions, the Shredders are considered powerful cards, almost too powerful, and tend to offer great value. There are players who say if you aren’t using Shredders in certain mana slots, you’re doing it wrong. Now Druids have the Mounted Raptor which has a similar effect. Have Shredders become something of a new baseline?
Dodds: I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the baseline. It fit very well within Goblins vs Gnomes specifically because we really wanted mechs and this deathrattle mechanic to be big and I think we were successful there. And we really liked that it has this element of randomness so that when the Shredder dies, something comes out and you have to deal with something you might not be used to dealing with, so you have to think about the game differently. The Mounted Raptor is a Druid class card, so I don’t feel it’s spreading that mechanic broadly, and certainly one of the things we talk about is the difference between neutral minions and what their strength should be versus class cards. We want there to be strong differentiation between the different classes.
The Warsong Commander nerf happened recently. When that happened, it was mentioned a nerf to that card was required to open some design space for Warrior minions. League of Explorers is coming with the Fierce Monkey. Is that the sort of card that’s coming in to fill that design space? Is that an example of something previously restricted?
Dodds: The Fierce Monkey doesn’t play into that, but I will say there are a number of cards we’ve talked about over the last year where we wanted to make a card — were on the verge of making a card — but someone said “Warsong Commander!” and we went “Oh yeah, we’re not making that card.” So it actually has been a limiting factor on our ability to create cool cards, but Fierce Monkey is not one of them.
When you release these new cards, is there an active effort to push people toward a certain playstyle? After the demise of the old Grim Patron, do you go out of your way to guide people to play a specific type of deck? Fierce Monkey is a taunt, are you looking for players to play a more defensive warrior?
Woo: There are certain mechanics we think are less healthy for the game. Charge is one of them, and so is direct damage. The way Hearthstone is set up, those two mechanics can create a situation where you could win or lose and feel like you couldn’t do anything about it. Obviously, we aren’t going to push those two mechanics very hard, but every set, designers are excited to create what they call build-around cards. Be it taunts for warriors, or murloc paladin, or even like TGT could be dragons for priests. That’s really exciting, because it allows players to see this setup and go oh wait, these two cards are really cool, what else can I build around it? They try out new concepts.
How much do you look at the changing value of older cards when implementing new ones? For example, Anyfin Can Happen dilutes the pool of Paladin cards you could get from Grand Crusader. If Grand Crusader gives you Anyfin Can Happen, you can’t do anything with it except those specific matchups where someone is running a murloc deck. It’s such a specific scenario in which it works, it could prove completely useless at any other time.
Woo: It’s kind of like getting an Ancient Watcher out of a Shredder.
But specifically when it adds value to, or devalues, something people might have already been running in their decks, do you look at that? Is that a factor?
Woo: This is a different version of the question people ask about the Piloted Shredder. Every time we add a 2 mana cost card, does this make the Shredder weaker or stronger?
Woo: If we think the introduction of a card will have a significant impact, we might consider it. When talking a 2 mana cost card and the Piloted Shredder, if you look at the statistical effect that card is going to have on the performance of the Shredder, it’s quite low to insignificant so we don’t go for every 2 mana cost card, this is good for the Shredder or it isn’t good for the Shredder.
Dodds: And in that specific instance, if occasionally you get the murloc card and it doesn’t do anything, we don’t mind that if it happens very occasionally. And I’ll guarantee you, even more occasionally — and there will be videos made about this — there’ll be the time you get it and you did have a bunch of murlocs and you played it and it was ridiculous because you happened to get it.
Woo: Like you Unstable Portaled a Murloc, which died, then you Grand Crusader, and get Anyfin Can Happen, and…I look forward to that Trolden video.
Hey, anyfin can happen. Now, a staff member asked me specifically to mention spectator mode. When watching tournaments, the default spectator mode will show the hand of the player at the bottom of the screen the right way up, but the player at the top of their screen, their hand is displayed upside-down. Broadcast tournaments tend to do some cropping and editing to make that other player’s hand upright for the viewers’ benefit. Is that something which will be changed?
Woo: That’s something we can look into further enhancing.
Dodds: That improvement seems totally reasonable, it’s just a question of time and priorities.
Woo: Priorities and deciding what we want that to look like. You’ll notice in these tournament overlays you see, people do things like where does a Secret go, and so on. Solvable problems.
During one of the BlizzCon panels, someone asked a question about an in-game display for cards remaining your deck. At the time, that was turned down, but external tools exist which track that information. Reno Jackson is a particular new card that places more importance than ever on tracking what’s left in your deck — potentially making it even more advantageous to use those external tools. Do you see these tools as a problem? Do they make it more likely this information will make its way into the UI? How much of a concern is this?
Woo: Features like that are something we’ll continue to look at and think about, but we do think there comes a point where our UI just becomes too overwhelming for everyone involved. Right now we have some players who are electing to use external tools for something like that, and our positions has always been be very careful with those things. We don’t endorse those because we have no control over them. Whether or not we’ll put it into the build, that’s something we can look into.
Dodds: Various cards we introduce sometimes feels like they come to various points near that line that feels like we have to do that, and I agree that Reno Jackson feels like it comes closer to the line. It’s a totally reasonable question and I do agree it comes close to that line. I also know some people whose brains just work that way, they wouldn’t need a tool because it all works in their head.
And you can make the argument all you need is a piece of paper and a pen.
Dodds: I’d say we’re very unlikely to add something like it to the game because we’re very protective of adding to the UI complexity. That’s something that would impact all of our players. Keeping the game so that it’s straightforward and doesn’t have an overwhelming UI is very high on our list of priorities.
And you need room on your screen for all of the clickable doodads.
Dodds: Of course!
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