'Strength in randomness': Hearthstone's director on the game's future
The little card game has grown from a tablet gaming hit into an esports sensation. More than 100,000 people watched Kostesich beat China's Wang "Tiddler Celestial" Xieyu in the final. But the next big tournament will look entirely different.
The Goblins and Gnomes are coming.
A day before the finals, Blizzard revealed the first full expansion set for the game at BlizzCon: Goblins vs. Gnomes. Set to release in December (just as the game hits Android tablets), the expansion will give Hearthstone a new look and give players their first taste of a real paradigm shift in the competitive metagame.
It also represents a new set of challenges for Hearthstone's director Eric Dodds, who talked to the Dot about shepherding the game into its next era.
Shock to the system
With 120 new cards coming to Hearthstone, it's an exciting time for the game. But one that's also filled with pitfalls. Goblins vs Gnomes will change the game in ways the designers expect, but it will also introduce a host of new and unpredictable challenges: balance issues, new combos, and even logistical issues.
With Goblins vs Gnomes, the Hearthstone team had a few specific goals for competitive play. They hoped to add more options to the metagame by adding counterplay against certain deck types and increasing the number of viable deck archetypes.
The “Mech” minion category, for example, should open up “mech” style competitive viable decks for many classes. Cards like the Annoy-a-Tron, a cheap one attack and two health minion with taunt and divine shield, and Explosive Sheep, another cheap minion that deals two damage to the board when it dies, are very “reasonable” to add to your deck if you fear early rush, Dodds said.
With just 30 or so cards revealed so far, and even those potentially changing the way the game is played, the Goblins vs Gnomes release next month will be a shock to the system.
The Bomb Lobber
One criticism levelled against the new set is its reliance on random mechanics, though “reliance” may be too harsh a word: According to senior game designer Ben Brode, the sampling of cards revealed from the set so far is a bit skewed. But for any player of a competitive game, random elements are always a worry. A string of critical hits in World of Warcraft can decide the winner of the $250,000 arena championship at BlizzCon, just as Ragnaros hitting the face with a one-in-four chance, or even a lucky card draw, might decide whether Kostesich defends his title next year.
As a card game, Hearthstone already features a lot of randomness in the draw. So why add more?
Dodds believes randomness is an important tool for design, as long as it’s wielded properly.
He uses the new Bomb Lobber minion as an example. It deals four damage to a random enemy minion when it hits the board. A skilled player will play the card in a way that maximizes the value of the effect—that could be when it will only hit a four health minion, or when two high-priority targets are on the board, or against a weakened Spectral Knight, which players can’t actually target with a non-random effect.
In that way, randomness is an avenue for players to show skill. The better players will get more value every time they play a well designed random effect, even if it’s simply by playing the odds better.
“There’s a lot of strength in randomness,” Dodds says.
"If you look at a lot of games that don’t have a lot of randomness, you end up seeing a lot of situations you’ve already seen before and it comes down to memorizing what’s the right thing to do in this play. With more randomness you see more situations you haven’t seen before, which means it sort of becomes rote. It actually in a lot of ways inspires more tactical thought and more thinking behind it."
One other benefit of random cards is that they create moments of suspense for spectators. Instead of seeing a player draw a card and know what the potential outcome will be, random cards force players into unfamiliar situations where they have to react instead of playing by a script.
“It’s also very important for us to create cards that will tell a great story,” Dodds says.
His example is the Bouncing Blade, a new Goblins vs Gnomes Warrior card that deals one damage to a random minion repeatedly until a minion dies.
“It’s going to do something crazy and create a huge moment, just like if a player plays Brawl,” Dodds explains, referring to the Warrior's minion-clearing card. “We like creating cards that are great story cards, that in a lot of cases you can use strategically and tactically.”
Granted, that kind of story isn’t always told through randomness—that’s just the example Dodds gave at the time. But it’s one reason why random effects are part of Hearthstone and likely here to stay.
One thing that sets a digital card game like Hearthstone apart from physical ones like Magic: The Gathering is the power to retroactively change cards in an instant. You can simply push a patch to tweak the attack of a minion across every computer and tablet on the globe, but you can’t mail every player some white out and a pen to fix a broken card in Magic.
This ability to update on the fly is a powerful tool, with a variety of uses. In Goblins vs Gnomes, existing cards like the Harvest Golem will suddenly become “Mech” type minions, giving them powerful synergy with many cards added in the new set. Blizzard also uses this ability for balance, most recently nerfing the Hunter’s powerful Unleash the Hounds and Starving Buzzard. But that’s something Dodds wants to do as little as possible.
“We’ve found, when we’re talking about balance, our preference is for putting new cards into the metagame that will allow players to balance the game themselves,” Dodds said.
The community outcry for nerfs is constant. Dozens of threads complaining about the most popular decks litter various forums at any given time. There’s constant pressure on Blizzard to wield its power. But there are plenty of reasons not to.
The team will often consider a change for a current problem, Dodds says, but by the time it’s ready, the community has already figured out how to counter the offending strategies,
Another reason is a bit more cynical: money.
“As a player, I have either spent money or gold, which is basically my time, to get these awesome cards because they mean something to me,” Dodds explains. “It’s this very physical, tangible thing. We really, as much as we can, want to make it so that awesome thing we got stays that awesome thing we got.”
That said, Dodds admits they’ll inevitably need to make changes in the future. But that may not apply to one of the cards currently taking heat in the community—Loatheb.
Legendaries and Loatheb
When my girlfriend plays Hearthstone, she feels like she’s playing an uphill battle against other players who fill their deck with legendary cards. She’s winning until Sylvanas or Ragnaros hits the board, and then she’s throwing her hands up in frustration. “Whoever gets the legendary first wins,” she says. She’s spent $50 buying packs but only managed to pick up a Hogger.
In the pro game, where every player has a full set of cards, that obviously isn’t a problem. But as neutral cards that usually carry more value or more powerful specific effects than less rare cards, the introduction of more and more legendaries through new sets and card additions could take some of the choice out of deck building.
We saw it pre-Curse of Naxxramas with Sylvanas and Cairne Bloodhoof, powerful minions appearing in decks of all types due to their powerful board presence. Sylvanas suffered a nerf due to her popularity.
The new poster-boy for this effect on deck homogeneity? Loatheb. Appearing in 59 of 64 decks at BlizzCon, Loatheb turned deck building into “what 29 cards do I take?” instead of 30. Introduced as a counter to spell-based play like the popular Miracle Rogue, the powerful 5/5 minion offers good value for a 5-drop and an effect that potentially wins games against a large subset of decks. Even against minion heavy rush decks, Loatheb often blocks the kill card for one more turn.
“Loatheb is a pretty recent card, which makes it exciting, and also it’s a pretty effective card against spell decks, and right now there’s a lot of decks that rely on spells for their big turn,” Dodds said. (It's worth noting that, at this point, neither of us had any idea just how popular Loatheb would be at BlizzCon). “I don’t know for sure what we’ll see in the future but I think that there will be more minion heavy decks and Loatheb is actually a pretty bad card against a deck that is more minion heavy.”
With Goblins vs Gnomes hitting soon, it’s quite possible Loatheb sees a drop in usage, though it’s hard to see where that might come from. More powerful five-drop minions would certainly cut into his viability in decks, as right now there are very few options for that slot.
Loatheb looks more like an exception to the rule, which could mean it really might be a nerf candidate in the future. But for now, the fungal monster will remain a deck staple.
As for my girlfriend’s critique, Dodds says the power of legendaries is a bit overrated. Part of it's probably perception—the gold border and impressive visuals and unique effects lend them a certain aura, even if they don’t provide more value than a Spectral Knight. Many are also finishers like Ragnaros, leading directly to losses once they hit the board.
“Decks that have a lot of legendaries in them have been tried and usually don’t do all that well. They kind of get stomped,” Dodds says. “As we put in more legendaries, I actually expect there to be more diversity rather than less.”
Legendaries and the addition of more powerful cards through expansions leads to one of the great discussions in collectible card gaming—power creep.
Every set brings new cards and some are inevitably better than previous iterations, leading to a metagame with ever increasing power. Depending on the type of game, that has ramifications for future sets. Plus, with new cards entering on a regular cycle, the card universe becomes massive and bloated, especially when newer options are sometimes strictly better than previous cards. Games like Magic: the Gathering deal with this by using competition blocks, releasing a series of sets that make up the current card universe and cycling them out every so often.
Hearthstone is still a game in its infancy. So, as Dodds puts it, these are problems for “future me.”
“I just prefer to let future me be much wiser than present me,” he says. Of course, Dodds adds, “present Dodds” often curses "past Dodds."
But so far, things are working out pretty well for present Dodds. Hearthstone is one of the hottest games on the planet less than one year after its launch. It will be available on every platform by the end of 2015 (Dodds was excited about how they managed to fit the game on the smaller phone screen, something he was skeptical they could accomplish when development started). Goblins vs Gnomes, drops next month. Spectator mode is coming soon, a feature that should allow friends to spectate their friend’s games, akin to hovering over a pair playing Magic.
Future Dodds should be just fine. Even if he does curse himself for something. We're guessing it'll be Loatheb.