At Blizzcon a couple weekends ago, Blizzard’s Hearthstone team rolled out several announcements for the upcoming expansion Kobolds and Catacombs, which included a new single-player “dungeon run” mode and a new core card mechanic called “recruit.”
Amidst all this, the game industry has been having a conversation about free-to-play mechanics like loot boxes and card packs, which is a core part of Hearthstone’s business model. Since Blizzard likes to tout its “players first” business philosophy, we wanted to know how the Hearthstone team is able to develop these updates while considering the possible negative impact on players.
Luckily, we were able to sit down with Hearthstone designer Dean Ayala and producer Eric Del Priore for a conversation about this subject, and other development insights from the upcoming expansion.
Card packs and cash machines
When we quizzed Ayala and Del Priore about the fine art of balancing Hearthstone card pack design, the first thing they wanted to make clear was that when designing new card expansions, the design team is largely free to work on its own without any pressure from Blizzard’s business managers. “I can't really speak about working with other companies, because I've only worked as a developer at Blizzard, but my only goal…is to make the most fun experience,” says Ayala. “There's never a looming presence where it's like ‘you have to make money.’”
"It's not like you have to buy 1,000 card packs in order to roll the one legendary you want. You always have the opportunity to disenchant anything you want and craft any card you want."
According to Del Priore, this strategy works because Hearthstone is supposedly able to sustain itself without relying on so-called “whales” (high-spenders who effectively subsidize non-spending players by purchasing large amounts of in-game transactions).
“A big difference we have I think is that you can spend some amount of money or some amount of free time, and get a reasonable amount of cards in the set," Del Priore says. “You can disenchant anything you want. You can craft anything you want. It's not like you have to buy 1,000 card packs in order to roll the one legendary you want because you always have the opportunity to disenchant anything you want and craft any card you want.”
Del Priore points out that earlier this year, Hearthstone also implemented a change to its loot system that prevented players from earning duplicate drops on Legendary cards, lowering the time needed to get the best cards in a loot set. Choices like that, he says, are part of the complex calculus needed to make sure free-to-play games feel fun and not predatory. “I sort of think having a reasonable amount of cards in a set and a reasonable point for dust values helps a lot to make it a fair place to play in.”
Both Del Priore and Ayala talked about the need to make opening digital card packs feel as good as opening a physical one, so it’s interesting that they took advantage of a way to improve on that physical model as opposed to being slavishly devoted to it.
Educating players about new game mechanics
"We try to avoid what people call 'TCG speak,' where you have a bunch of very complicated terms."
One of the big new changes in Kobolds and Catacombs is a mechanic called “recruit” that joins Taunt, Windfury, and Deathrattle as “core verbs” that players need to strategize around. Like those other mechanics, it’s a verb that doesn’t automatically signal its intent on word alone, so we asked Ayala and Del Priore about educating players on new rules like this.
“We try to avoid what people call 'TCG speak,' where you have a bunch of very complicated terms,” says Del Priore. “Keywords are a very interesting point that we tend to spend a lot of time discussing because keywords are kind of an enemy to that.”
“If you see a ‘Windfury’ on a card, you have no idea what it means until you tap it once and take a look at the tool tip or if you've used it before. And so we have a lot of effort trying to figure out what things make sense to condense into keywords and which ones don't.”
"We don't want you to read the cards and have there be an easy answer. Having some things to figure out is part of the whole community experience over time"
Ayala talks about there’s sort of two states of player interaction with these cards. The first is before learning the mechanic, when they have to rely on extended explanation to understand its effect, and after they learn it, when they’re more concerned with extrapolating its effects on the game. “The whole point of having them is to make things easier to understand,” says Ayal. “So you can eventually learn what this word means and then you can identify that, see the one word and not have to read a paragraph of information. You can just immediately understand what that means.”
What’s interesting about this design space is, per Ayala and Del Priore’s arguments, it’s a good thing to some information unexplained for players, while being absolutely clear about a mechanic’s immediate impact. As Ayala puts it, “we don't want you to read the cards and have there be an easy answer. Having some things to figure out is part of the whole community experience over time. over two months really, there's new decks being figured out because the questions are more open-ended.”
The line between confusion and curiosity can sometimes be thin in-game tutorials, so any developers interested in incorporating new mechanics to their competitive games may benefit from keeping an eye on how mechanics like “recruit” are integrated into Hearthstone.
Producers can help players too (through time management)
"Del Priore argues that strong project management can help refocus the team when a change that will help players needs a quick turnaround."
Let’s say you’re a producer at a game company, and right now you’re focused on schedules and team morale and similar concerns. How does Blizzard’s “players-first” priority work for that role?
Del Priore has an answer, at least in regards to his work. Since it’s his job to help the Hearthstone team manage their schedules and meet submission deadlines, he argues that strong project management can help developers refocus the team’s work when a change that will help players needs a quick turnaround.
He gives the example of the “Year of the Mammoth,” a change to standard Hearthstone that rewrote which cards would be playable in competitive play and which ones would be relegated to “wild” play. During production, the decision to implement this set rotation came at the end of a patch cycle, during a time when the team was only scheduled to be fixing bugs, not adding new content.
Because of the groundwork Del Priore and his producing colleagues had laid, they were able to push the set change in at the last minute, because “we think our players will love it. We think it's important to us. We just went ahead and pulled the trigger on it.”
“The only reason we could to that is because our production staff understood exactly what was happening on the team at such a low level that we were able to figure out, like, ‘okay we can pivot and add this even though we only have a couple days left in the release and you just need to focus on that instead of doing other things.’”
Just like other companies, Blizzard’s “players-first” philosophy needs to be held up to scrutiny if it’s actually going to mean anything, but it’s fortunate that Hearthstone’s developers are able to articulate how it affects their day-to-day lives.