Interview, December 7, 2017, with Peter Whalen, senior game designer at Blizzard Entertainment. The interview was made at the press event ”Hearthstone celebration in Stockholm dedicated to the soon-the-be-released expansion Kobolds and Catacombs”. Writer Viktor Larsson.
Tell me what you do at Blizzard.
Sure, so I’m one of the game designers on the Hearthstone team. I work on the initial design team. Content design for new sets is broken up into two teams. The initial design team has the set for the first half of its life cycle. We focus on things like ”what is this set?” This is going to be the Kobolds and Catacombs set. It’s about treasure and about dungeon crawling. Then we figure out what the mechanics are. We have spell stones, we have legendary weapons and unidentified items and the recruit mechanic. Once we figure that out we see what the classes are doing. Mages have big spells, Warriors have some armor cards, Paladins have silver hand recruits. Then we design the individual cards. We then end up with about 150 cards that we then hand over to final design. They’ll cut it down to 135 cards and tweak numbers to make sure it’s fun and fair. They’ll tweak text to make sure it’s clear. Cut cards and add cards as they need to.
Ha ha ha! I like the stuff I do. I think it’s awesome! But both teams get to do some fun stuff.
Do you get into fights about cards being cut or cards being changed?
Let’s not call them fights, but sometimes there are passionate disagreements. Everyone cares a lot about the set. Different people have different opinions on what to do because everyone want to do what’s best for the game. People are very passionate. They love the cards we’re making. Every individual card has a story. Where it came from and why someone was passionate about it.
That’s wonderful. You spoke in a recent video about the card Wandering Monster and said that it was one of the cards that made it from initial design to release, basically untouched.
Yeah, that was actually the first card in the set. There is an initial pitch that we do which explains the theme of the set and show maybe ten possible mechanics that we could use to try and get everyone on the same page right at the very beginning. Wandering Monster was actually one of those cards. It was the only one of these initial cards that ended up making it all the way through.
Could you give me an example of a card that went through multiple iterations or a lot of changes from initial to final design?
Some cards get completely changed. It’s less that they get iterated upon but rather that the initial design get replaced while the name and flavor stays the same.
Yeah, sometimes you can see this in a final product. That this card has been changed or tweaked.
Yeah, for sure. Branching Paths is a great example of a card that evolved a number of times. During initial design, it started out as ”pick two of these four things”. So you’d pick two things of the different four options. I think they were draw a card, gain armor, summon a 2/2 and gain a mana crystal.
It sounds similar to the final card.
Yeah, but we played a bunch with it and showed it to a lot of people. There were a lot of questions of whether you could pick the same thing twice, which you couldn’t. Four things is a lot of things to put in a text box. It was also a lot to keep in your head. Picking two out of four was cool. We ended up swapping to allowing players to pick the same thing twice. We liked allowing players to gain armor since it worked well with other parts of the set. We liked card drawing, which is safe and simple. We also liked gaining an empty mana crystal. That went to final design who played with it a lot. We realized that ramp decks are really good after Knights of the Frozen Throne so we couldn’t do “gain an empty mana crystal”. We had to find something pretty interesting so that all these feel like situational choices. That’s where the ”+1 attack” comes from. If your deck is the kind of deck that put a lot of minions on the board or even if you only have two or three guys this kind of buff is really useful. Now Branching Paths is ”Gain 6 armor”, ”Draw a card” or ”Give your minions +1 attack”.
It’s very versatile.
Yes. And every option is very situational. None of the options is crazy powerful, but there are specific situations where one of the options is clearly what you want to do.
I like the card. It’s very reminiscent of the Command cards from Magic.
Yeah, it’s a bit like that. There is a lot of choice to it. It’s pretty interesting to use.
Yes. People don’t appreciate the value of flexibility I think. I should preface by saying that Druid is my least favorite class, but I respect the power of flexibility.
Yeah, flexibility is very valuable and kind of skill testing. Making the right choice with branching paths is very important and it’s not always obvious which the right thing is.
Decision points is what makes games interesting I think. Both Magic and Hearthstone have a lot of decision points and that’s where you get a chance to apply yourself.
Yeah, a lot so. There is a lot of decisions to make in Hearthstone and that’s one of the ways you can express your skill. It’s very important.
Hearthstone is an authentically digital game. Except for randomness, what do you think are some unique opportunities when designing a card game exclusively for digital?
There are other cards that aren’t random that you can’t do in non-digital games, cards like Nozdormu doesn’t really make a lot of sense in the physical world. Even things that make copies, especially when the copies move around and change zones are really hard to do in a physical space.
Tracking is sometimes a problem in Magic. You might have a lot of complicated effects that are invisible on a card. Also remembering properties of a card once it goes into an unknown zone like the library or your hand is just not possible.
For sure, if you’re shuffling in three copies of a card, like with Gang Up. That’s crazy hard to do in a physical game because you just don’t have three extra copies of every card in your deck. That’s the kind of thing that’s really easy to do in the digital space. It’s a lot of fun to try and find designs that work well in the digital space because it makes the cards feel different and unique.
I appreciate how Hearthstone is a digital game but still very much a card game. The combination is wonderful.
Yeah, it feels physical. There’s a lot of physicality to the box. When you move through the menu, your cards feel very physical in your collection. When you play them, they make a very satisfying ”thud!”. It does feel like a card game, but we get to take advantage of all the crazy digital things we can do.
With Kobolds and Catacombs, what has been the biggest design challenges for you and your team?
I think unidentified items was the hardest thing to design. We moved through a lot of different designs to try and capture that spirit of opening a treasure chest and not knowing what’s inside.
Unidentified items is very classic Blizzard
Yeah, it’s great. It feels like exactly that thing you find inside a dungeon. But finding that design was incredibly hard. We started with a prefix system that you’d recognize from Diablo.
Oh, that would’ve been cool!
It was cool, but completely overwhelming. There were tens of thousands of options for what could come out of it and you really had to read every card your opponent ended up playing. This gave you the feeling of ”Come on! How could I possibly have played around that?!”. It was just overwhelming to get the cards as well. You ended up with cards you had never seen before. It was interesting, creating moments that was different game to game. It was overwhelming. I’m using the word overwhelming a lot because MAN, it was overwhelming.
Mechanically, it sounds almost like the opposite of the flexibility of the druid cards.
Yes, exactly! You were locked into this one inflexible card that you had never seen before. And so, there was this wide, wide range. It was cool in design, but it wasn’t that cool to actually play with. Eventually, they evolved over a lot of iterations to the unidentified cards that you see now.
There has been a lot of discussion about the new player experience in Hearthstone. Was the card ”Bonemare” purposefully made very strong in the common slot on behalf of new players?
Not really. I think cards that are powerful at common are very important. Our philosophy on rarity has nothing to do with power level. Rather rarity is about how complex a card is in general, how weird it is or how unique it is. Commons are the simplest base line cards. Sometimes they’re very powerful. There are a lot of powerful common and basic cards. Fireball is both very powerful and simple. Bonemare is a great example from a recent set. Dire Mole is a super powerful card from Kobolds and Catacombs. It’s a 1 mana 1/3, but it’s a beast that has the potential to be quite strong while being as simple as you possibly get. Commons for us is all about simplicity. Rares are a little more complicated. Cobalt Scalebane is a great example of a rare that is very powerful but a bit more complicated than a common (reds anm: Cobalt Scalebane is a common card). Epics tend to get into very weird and strange things. Strange and wonderful, strange and wacky or just strange and powerful. They do something that tends to be on the unique side. Legendaries can be crazy and powerful, crazy and weak or just very unique.
Speaking of crazy and specific things, one thing for every card game that you have to think about is life span of the game and design space. How do you view the design space of Hearthstone in comparison to a game like Magic: the Gathering that’s been around for over 20 years?
It’s hard to compare Hearthstone to other games, but in the space of Hearthstone, I think we have tons of design space. It’s the kind of question we ask people in interviews. Every time people have SO many ideas. We still fill up white boards when asking the question ”what’s the next expansion we should do?”. I think for Un’Guro and for Kobolds and Catacombs, we had the whole team together and said, ”Let’s pitch ideas! What’s the craziest things you can come up with?” We filled the front of the white board then we filled the back of the white board while writing very, very small.
When designing for Kobolds and Catacombs, we gave up on the idea of a white board because we knew there was no chance it would be enough. We just had sheets of paper where people would fill in tropes for adventures, tropes for treasures, tropes for powerful spells. All the different things people wanted to have in Kobolds and Catacombs. Obviously we couldn’t fit all this on 135 cards plus the dungeon mode so we got as many as we could. There was no shortage of ideas of card or mechanic designs. Every expansion, we go through hundreds, maybe a thousand cards that we cut down to the ones we actually like.
That must be grueling.
Well, it means we can design in an unrestricted way instead of saying ”Oh, is this something we can actually ship?” we just say ”Can we try it? Let’s try it. Maybe it’s gonna work?”. Maybe it’s something we know we can’t ship, but we might still get something out of it. Often the craziest designs lead to something that end up working and is cool. I’m not worried about running out of design space.
The card The Darkness is very reminiscent of the card ”Dark Depths” from Magic in the same way that Violet Wurm is almost identical to the Magic card Symbiotic Wurm. I believe that Mike Donais has had a hand in designing both wurm cards.
Well no, Mike’s response was very tongue in cheek. Violet Wurm came before final design where Mike works. The design actually came super early from the need to have a strong deathrattle for Seeping Oozeling. A hunter card which gains a deathrattle from a minion in your deck. Making seven 1/1s seemed like a strong deathrattle, and putting it on a 7/7 body made a lot of sense.
So do you find inspiration in other games, or borrow some ideas?
Sure we do, but neither of those cards came directly from another game. Violet Wurm was a bottom up card to satisfy a mechanic that we needed. The Darkness is a card where we wanted to tell a specific story. You’re giving you opponent some candles and when the last one is snuffed out, then they have to deal with the darkness.
Is the card intentionally designed to make Raza Priest suffer?
That’s a side effect of it. That it’s a tech card against Raza Priest, which is a fairly powerful deck in the meta game right now, but this was very much a top down design. We had a story we wanted to tell. We wanted to have The Darkness, the things that kobolds fear the most. It’s why they have candles on their heads. Its’ convenient that it fits as an answer to highlander decks.
What’s a legendary card you wish you could go back and redesign?
Oh man! I can’t think of anything on top of my head…
Maybe Illidan? Seems like kind of a waste for such a powerful character.
Illidan always sees fringe play, it’s a possible one though. I wish we would’ve been able to figure out The Voraxx better.
I don’t know what card that is.
Exactly! That’s what I’m talking about. It’s a 4 mana 3/3 that when you cast a spell on it summons a plant that gets the spell as well.
Oh yeah, that guy!
It’s a cool card, but it’s not exactly where you want to be with the buff decks. I wish we would have done a better job to find a card that fit well in buff decks.
Do you think you’ve done so with the new Paladin legendary?
I’m excited about Lynessa. She’s a pretty awesome card and a cool legendary. I love the art and animation for it. Whether or not she’s going to be great in the meta game remains to see, but I think it will lead to people trying out new things.