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Exclusive Developer Interview with Dean Ayala and Alec Dawson

by - 10 months ago

Can’t wait for the launch of Saviors of Uldum tomorrow? You’ve seen the spoilers, read the theorycrafting articles, and cracked open your packs at a pre-release event. You just need a little more to get you through the day until you can play tomorrow… Luckily, we have just the thing!

Last week, Blizzpro sat down with Game Designer Alec Dawson (GW_Alec) and Senior Game Designer Dean Ayala (IksarHS). We asked them about how they developed some of our favorite cards from Saviors of Uldum, the roles of distinct class identities, how to break into game design, and more! It just might be enough to get you through the day.

Notes: This interview took place on Monday, July 29th, so we had not yet seen the last third or so of Saviors of Uldum, so we didn’t know about awesome cards like Zephrys, but there’s still some great stuff in here. It also has been lightly edited for flow, clarity, and readability. The substance of all the questions and answers has remained unchanged.

Blizzpro (“BP”): I’m really excited to get to chat with you guys, thanks so much for this opportunity.

Dean Ayala: Sure, we get to talk about Hearthstone–that’s what we do.

BP: Me, too! I just don’t do it professionally.

Developers: *courtesy laugh*

BP: So, starting from the top. You guys recently put out an blog post talking about class identity, outlining the strengths, limitations, and weaknesses of each class, and it seems like some people in the community are struggling to see how some of the designs from Saviors of Uldum fit within that design thought process going forward. I saw a lot of comments about Hunter’s Pack in particular, and was wondering if you had any comments on it and that blog post generally.

Dean: Sure, yeah. Class identity is really important to us, and the reason is that it’s important that classes feel different over time, and I think that most people in the community, when they read that blog post, they can understand that it’s a reasonable goal to want to attain that it feels a little bit different when you’re playing against Druid than it does when you’re playing against Priest. Specifically, with something like Hunter’s Pack, there’s a reason why we have different categories for the things that we’re doing for a limited time and the stuff we don’t want to do at all. So, like, a thing we don’t want to do at all [in Hunter] is healing. I think it’s really powerful, fantasy wise, when you deal damage to a class and you can kind of depend on them not healing that damage back. It changes the way you’re thinking about playing against that class. So it’s like, if I’m taking them down to 13 life, then I can plan around that for the rest of the game and have a gameplan around that, whereas if I’m playing against something like Priest, and I get them down to 12 life, then you’re not really depending on being able to burn them out with 12 more damage. So it was really important to us that we didn’t want to have healing [in Hunter], because we felt like that was a powerful fantasy-gameplay thing to get across. Whereas we’re willing to do a limited amount of card generation, card draw, that sort of thing.

So, limitation means that we’re going to try to do it as little as possible, but sometimes when the design that we think is fun, but it doesn’t make it feel like this class is really good at card draw now… that’s really the place where it’s most important to us. You shouldn’t feel like Hunter–when you’re playing against them, as an archetype–that this is an archetype that’s really, really good at card draw. It’s dangerous when you add a bunch of individual pieces over time, like say if we made the second version of Hunter’s Pack, and the third version, and the fourth version, then you start to get in the place where you feel like, “well now Hunter is generating a lot of things.” But as long as we’re doing the 1-ofs, when it’s a good flavor fit and it’s not making it feel like Hunter’s really good at card draw now, then we’re in an okay space. It’s in that middle point, where we want to do it at a limited time, but not never, and that’s something that was listed in the class identity blog as well.

BP: Right, that makes sense. I think the problem with that one, at least in terms of how it feels for not fitting into that limitation right now, might actually be the hero card, Zul’jin, more than it is the individual cards, because it brings them all together so well.

Dean: Yeah… I think Zul’jin is one of those cards that, because we have Master’s Call and the Twinspell stuff, that when you play Zul’jin you’re kind of refilling your hand, and that’s the feeling behind having a lot of card draw, when you’re looking at your opponent and their hand is always full, or they’re playing single cards and they’re getting tons of resources as a result of it, that’s the feeling that I think that we kind of want to avoid when you’re playing against Hunter, the feeling that they’re always at max hand size.

I think some of the cards we’ve made in the past, like Zul’jin, [are from] a little bit before we were talking about the class identity stuff. Taking it super seriously, we’re trying to go forward and not make those cards any more. I think some of those cards that we’ve made in the past are a bit in violation of this, and I think that’s kind of the whole point of making the class identity blog in the first place is that, “Okay, we’re taking this pretty seriously now and, going forward, the cards that we print are going to try to adhere to these rules so that, eventually, at least in the Standard environment, you can depend on these class fantasies coming through better than they had been before.”

BP: Yeah, okay… that makes sense. Moving on to another topic. I saw in the Q&A that Plague of Madness went through some late revisions and part of the revision for that was that actual blog post, and it was explained that you guys were taking another look at how Rogue’s class identity is supposed to work, so I was wondering if you guys could tell us a little bit more about the development of that card in particular, and when those changes happened.

Alec: Yeah, Plague of Madness, I actually like where we ended up… you still get to affect the board, you still get to take out big threats, things of that nature. That card in particular, we had something that was a bit more wide, and a bit more affecting the entire board, and we wanted to do our best job of–if we’re going to create these identities, let’s find ways where we can stick to them. And find ways that we can make it so that we are creating a play experience where, when you’re playing against a Rogue, you know they’re not going to easily clear your board. I think that was part of the reason why the spell Vanish rotated as well, so Plague of Madness definitely changed, partially because of our class identity and sticking to it, I’m pretty happy, though, with where we ended up.

[I]f we’re going to create these [class] identities, let’s find ways where we can stick to them.

Dean: Yeah, you’ve actually inverted the order a bit. We had a bunch of conversations around “what should Rogue do?” and “the cards that we’re making, do they violate the kind of fantasy that we want Rogue to actually have?” And because of these conversations as to Plague of Madness and a bunch of other cards, the blog is written. Not, like, the blog is written and then we torch a bunch of cards that we think are really fun. It’s like, as a result of all these conversations that we’re having, that’s kind of how the blog ended up happening in the first place.

BP: That’s interesting. Did any other cards that have been revealed so far fall into that same kind of category, where they made you kind of–as you were developing them–make you reassess what you wanted those class identities to be?

Dean: I think, for the most part, they’re cards that don’t exist in the set, right? Because the conversations that we would have around them are, “Okay, here’s a Shaman thing and… it’s generating a whole bunch of resources. Let’s change the design to something that’s more in-line with their class identity, or what they’re supposed to do.” So I think most of the designs that we shifted away from are generally the kind of designs like Plague of Madness where… it fit really flavorfully with the rest of the plagues, but it wasn’t something that we wanted Rogue to do mechanically. So, I think, for almost all of those designs, the examples of them, are just not designs that we ended up shipping.

BP: Makes sense. Moving on… one of the things that I found interesting about this concept for this whole year, of doing it as a year-long narrative, was that, traditionally in storytelling you would kind of link the story together by having the same characters appear throughout, but when you have this set structure, where the sets are played together, that seems like that might lead to problems. We’ve seen enough cards now to see that you decided not to put the same characters in every set–and end up in a situation where you would’ve had four Dr. Booms in Standard–but I wanted to see if there was anything there in your thought process for how you were developing, and if you felt like there was ever an issue there.

Alec: Yeah, that could definitely create a confusing situation, but one of the things we look for are opportunities to talk about the world that we are creating and talk about the narrative that we are developing throughout the Year of the Dragon and what you’ll see in Saviors of Uldum is that the art on each of the quests has the leader of that class, so you’ll see Finley on the Paladin art and Dr. Boom on Hack the System, right? So that’s an opportunity that we saw for putting more story into our cards and you’ll see that throughout the year in spell cards, minions that you’ll see, creating more flavor and adding to it in that respect.

The members of the League of E.V.I.L. don’t have additional devoted cards in this set, like a second Lazul or a third Boom or Hagatha, but they do make prominent appearances in set card art.

BP: Yeah, I did notice that. I like it.

BP: Okay, preamble question: What do you guys internally refer to the decks that used to be called “Reno” decks as? Do you call them “Highlander,” “Singleton,” something else?

Dean: “No Duplicates” decks is how we refer to them.

BP: “No Duplicates,” alright… doesn’t really have a ring to it, but I’ll let that pass.

Developers: *genuine laugh*

Dean: I have to agree with you, it doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

Blizzpro Note: Peter Whalen referred to these same decks as “Reno decks” on the final card reveal stream. While in all likelihood, the different developers refer to them in different ways, or in a number of ways, depending on the context, we at Blizzpro like to pretend that the team had an emergency meeting after this interview to address the issue and come up with a name that rolls off the tongue better.

BP: Okay, so, talking about those cards–the Explorers–you’ve mentioned before that the Quests were kind of had smaller effects, but were easier to pull off, so they felt more like a second phase of the game, as opposed to an “all or nothing” type thing. Were the No Duplicates cards also intended to be a little bit less powerful than the original Reno, or do you think the community is underestimating them?

Dean: I think that… well, there’s a lot of room to be less powerful than the original Reno and still be a pretty powerful card, first of all. But the intention was more that No Duplicates cards kind of present this issue that we want you to construct your deck in a totally different way, and the only way that we’re going to reward you is by allowing you to put these one, or two, or three cards in your deck, so in order to do that, these cards obviously, in order to make up in that gap in power from you being able to build any deck you want, those cards need to be very powerful. So how do we get around the feeling of, “well, sometimes I don’t draw them,” or “when I do draw them, and play them on curve, how does that not feel like a total blow out for my opponent, but still feel like something that’s powerful for the person who’s playing that card?” That’s sort of a challenge.

So, what we wanted to do this time around was have the cards still be extremely powerful, because they need to be extremely powerful in order to motivate you to actually build this deck, but not necessarily be so powerful that– you have Elise for example, and Elise is five mana, but you don’t, necessarily, want to jam Elise on five every single game. You’re waiting for the right opportunity to play that card, and even though you might just want to play it one five and get yourself some resources, it doesn’t necessarily feel to your opponent that, “Well, they played their No Duplicates card, on curve, and therefore I lose the game.”

There’s some amount of that with Finley, where you probably do want to draw it as early as possible, but even Finley doesn’t create that feeling of, “oh, they played their card on 2 and now, and because they drew it, now the rest of the game is this huge, overwhelming undertaking for me,” whereas, I think cards like Keleseth were a little bit more in that vein and something like Reno Jackson, the original Reno, if you’re playing an aggressive deck against Reno and they played Reno on six, that was probably going to be a game that you lost, like right then and there. This time, we tried to avoid making cards like that, while still making them extremely powerful. So when you’re looking at the cards and you’re thinking about “what does that turn feel like?,” that specific moment in the game, I think that in a lot of cases, these cards are a little bit less powerful in that circumstance, but they’re able to be used in a wider variety of matchups and situations, and I think the power in those cards is more centered around, “how do I use them, and what is the best opportunity to use them?”

Alec: Yeah, and I think, going off that, there was another intention of making sure these decks all felt different. We look at Reno in the past and it was always about that one giant moment. Now, we get to create a midrange-type archetype in Paladin, our new Reno might fit more in a control Mage, Dinotamer Brann is an aggressive card, possibly, and then we get to the combo-oriented card, in Elise. So I think part of our intention was to create different experiences around No Duplicates cards that you haven’t seen before.

BP: Yeah, we can definitely see that with Elise in particular, where a lot of people are saying that you don’t even run her in a No Duplicates deck, really, you just draw most of your deck and then you do some sort of combo with it because, by the time you’re at the bottom of your deck, there are no cards left to be duplicates, so that’s really interesting.

BP: Finley got a lot of attention in the community as well. You brought up the Keleseth comparison and then, because it’s giving you the upgraded Hero Powers, it’s also giving some people Baku flashbacks. Were there any special challenges in Finley’s development?

Alec: It was the first card in the set, actually. We thought about how we could “level up” our explorers and I think that Finley’s upgrade here is quite obvious: as you said, we went from discovering a Hero Power to discovering an upgraded Hero Power. So that was a story that we wanted to tell from the beginning. I think that it didn’t really change across versions of the set.

Dean: Yeah, it was something that we were pretty comfortable with in playtesting. We were concerned early on that it might have that Keleseth feel of, “I played this card and, when I play it early, it feels like there’s no way I can lose and my opponent feels like it’s too overwhelming to overcome.” I think that because of the randomness of the Hero Power, and being able to kind of choose, it’s going to make the game play out differently every time, which I think makes it a lot more palatable and makes games a lot more enjoyable… And, of course, that’s a huge difference from Baku and Genn in that it’s not that the same thing is happening every single game and, not only that, but because the Hero Power you get is not consistent, you can’t really build your deck in a way that’s really depending on getting a specific upgraded Hero Power. You have to play a No Duplicates deck, which is usually some sort of resource generation and hedging against all the possible combinations that you could get, and then trying to make the best out of the upgraded Hero Power that you end up with. So, the experience of playing against it is really, really fun. The downside of being really powerful and wanting to draw it… it ended up just being a really, really fun card to play and play against, with all the different situations that came up as a result of playing it.

[Finley] ended up being a really fun card to play and play against, with all the different situations that came up as a result of playing it.

Alec: Yeah, and even if you draw the card a bit later, you’re going to have the experience where the match has played out in a certain way to that point, and the hero power that you might have valued on turn 2, maybe you want a different one by the time you’ve reached turn 10.

BP: That’s a good point.

BP: You’ve talked a bit about how this set, just inherent in it, has some interactions with Wild in that there are some cards that relate to Quests, and there’s obviously the prior set of Quests in Wild. Similarly, there are already a couple No Duplicates cards in Wild, and now you’re adding more tools to those decks. So, the question is whether you design specifically with Wild in mind, or if that was more of a happy side-effect of bringing back these old mechanics that you liked? And how do you balance your considerations for Wild while you’re designing Standard sets?

Dean: One of the biggest considerations for Wild, honestly, is that there are so many tools in Wild, so many different things you can do, that we have to be pretty vigilant about not creating cards that are going to break the format in some way or, you know, where you’re winning on turn 3 or turn 2, or some insane combo that’s really consistent to get, so you always have to be pretty careful designing new cards, to make sure that the Wild format is still fun and interesting. So yeah, I would say that we design for it to some degree. It’s cool to think about the No Duplicates cards adding power to those decks. There’s certainly room for the No Duplicates decks in Wild to get more powerful. I remember in one of our meetings, reading a bunch of commentary complaining about how people already play these decks, but I think statistically, both in terms of winrate and popularity, and in terms of how people think about those decks, there’s some room for people to play them more. So I’m actually pretty happy that they’re going to get played more.

Dean (cont’d): The biggest thing when people talk about when it comes to concerns about Wild versus Standard, it’s whether we need balance changes specifically aiming towards Wild. I think that mostly has to do with how Wild players have this vast toolkit to work with, so we don’t as quickly need to jump in to make changes–players have more tools to react on their own. A lot of times when we make balance changes in Standard, it’s because we don’t think the toolkit’s there for players to interact with the problem.

BP: What about esports? Do you guys talk to esports at all? Do you design with esports in mind? How much do you guys know about upcoming esports changes as you’re designing, and how much do they know about what you’re doing?

Dean: We work pretty closely together. We know any changes that are upcoming for esports; esports is pretty aware of the stuff that we’re making. Most of the players that are playing Hearthstone are playing from their client at home, so we’re pretty aware of that when it comes to designing for a fun experience, but in terms of esports considerations, such as format, we talk to each other a bunch about what are the things that are going to create fun experiences for people, what is a really fun thing to watch, and, specifically, when we’re talking about something like Elysiana, I think we probably wouldn’t have changed Elysiana specifically, because a lot of the esports considerations didn’t exist at the time we were developing her.

Elysiana had to get nerfed a few months ago because her 8-mana casting cost allowed her to be played and then either bounced or copied (via Youthful Brewmaster or Baleful Banker, respectively), allowing players to add 20+ cards to their decks for fatigue battles. This became a particularly pronounced problem in Masters Qualifiers events, both because the Swiss tournament structure meant that delays to even just one match held up the entire tournament, and because the Specialist format made it very easy for players to create a sideboard specifically designed to abuse Elysiana with several bounce effects.

Dean (cont’d): There’s some amount of impact there when we’re thinking about what changes to make, and what mechanics we’re making and stuff, but for the most part, I would say that for the most part, esports kind of molds around the sets and the ways we build our classes out and stuff, rather than us changing a lot that we do based on esports.

BP: Cool. And one last question before I have to let you guys go: do you guys have any tips for aspiring designers?

Alec: Yeah, I would say make stuff. Make games. Just get out there and start figuring out ideas you have over in Unity or something like that, where you’re just able to create. I think that’s the thing: you’ve got to make that jump and start putting your ideas into something that people can see, and then sharing that with everyone you can.

Dean: Yeah, I mean, that’s basically it. The tip that I give everyone is to just go out there and make stuff. There’s a lot of resources out there… you can go to Unity, you can go to Unreal, you can go to Udemy–there’s a bunch of really cool websites with really cool tutorials and classes to take… the GDC website has a whole bunch of free and awesome talks for you to go listen to… When I talk to aspiring designers, I question sometimes whether they really understand what it means to actually be a designer, like what are the problems that you face. I think that by watching a lot of talks and listening to designers, listening to the way that they think, is really helpful, at the very least in terms of understanding whether this is the thing that you’re going to get very passionate about. Because one of the most important things is understanding that thing that you want, because once you’ve found your passion, and you understand that this is the thing that you want to do, and you listen to somebody talk about it, and you get really hyped about–then it becomes easy to do the work. So if you can find the thing that you love by listening to other people, then I think that makes it easy. Jumping in and making games is something you’re really motivated to do after that.

BP: Great, thanks so much guys, I appreciate you taking the time.


Nicholas Weiss

Is a lawyer by day and a cardslinger by night. He's decent at both. He's been playing Hearthstone since open beta and writing about it for a few years now.

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