Seat of Pants Design

[Blaugust Day 12]

During the past few days of combing the internet for Hearthstone tidbits, I came across and interview from back in May which illuminates the… bold way Blizzard is approaching Hearthstone design. Basically, flying by the seat of their pants:

[…] We always try to add a little bit of craziness to the game and let people discover it. When we put Grim Patron in we didn’t know exactly how good it was going to be. We had a good idea, because we played it a lot. We knew there was going to be some variance once people figured out what the best version was, and what the meta was going to be. I think we’re going to keep making some crazy cards in every set that are dangerous and hopefully going to work out.

This was not the only time they said something like this. Here is an interview from last Saturday:

Several high-level players were recruited to join the team. What effect has this had on your game design?

The balance team makes sure cards are clear, well-designed, and well-balanced. We recently hired people from the tournament circuit to make sure things are more balanced, but we also try to make risky cards that push the limits and scare us. Lock and Load is a good example of a card that is risky and could be unbalanced.

There is something to be said about not being too conservative in these sort of endeavors. All the really cool cards in most CCGs – the ones that set your mind on fire about the possibilities – are typically the least balanced ones. “If I just had this one card, I would turn the game around.” You just never get that sense with cards that, you know, aren’t capable of turning around games by themselves.

Should I play Dr Boom? Is it turn 7? Then yes.

“Should I play Dr Boom?” Is it turn 7? Then yes.

On the other hand, I feel like Blizzard is having their cake and eating it too. Dr. Balanced, aka Dr. Boom, is a joke precisely because of how long it has survived unscathed from a tuning pass. Is Dr Boom warping the metagame? Not necessary. Is Dr Boom far and away one of the most absurdly powerful cards in the game to the point he’s in ~37% of all decks? Yes.

Many point out that that’s only because the other 7-drop creatures are so bad. Well, okay. Now imagine how much stronger the card that replaces (or even just matches) him is going to have to be.

Of course, the cynical part of me realizes that deliberately creating “chase rares” in a CCG is nothing new. Like most everything in this genre, Magic: the Gathering invented it. Chase rares sell packs, which in turn creates every incentive for designers to create more. “This new card is probably completely broken and going to push a million packs.” Yeah, totally scary. Especially when you can ignore the problem and watch players fall all over themselves stuffing their decks with Epic/Legendary cards to counter the shit you just left steaming on the table.

…I might be a little bit bitter.

That aside, it kinda makes me wonder whether Hearthstone is the only place this design philosophy rules. Certainly when I look at some of the WoW design changes in Warlords, I see a team of devs running riot past everything that was remotely successful about all their previous expansions. Look at the raids, and see how it’s all a perfectly linear evolution of what came before. Then look at flying, reputations, crafting, Garrisons, resource gathering, gear rewards, PvP balance, class design. I’m not even sure if those devs were flying with pants on.

Nevertheless, I kinda get it. Being bold is how Blizzard (or anyone for that matter) got anywhere in the first place. Even if that boldness is straight-up stealing all the good shit from everyone around you. Like I said earlier, the craziness is what gets the juices flowing.

So… I’m conflicted.

Or maybe things are a lot simpler than I’m making it out to be. Flying by the seat of your pants is exciting and better than the alternative… provided you stick the landing at the end.

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Posted on August 12, 2015, in Hearthstone, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I find most Hearthstone mechanics to be pretty dull. If MTG got anything right for me, then it was how new packs/expansions/sets often added some pretty fun new mechanics. I think Hearthstone suffers because of its competitive play, rather than excels because of it. The game just isn’t that fun for me, as a casual player, because every card I can easily access seems pretty dull at this point.

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    • MtG is interesting though in that if you still had to have cards from the beginning, there really wouldn’t be the new-expansion mechanics. It’s only because it’s a CCG where cards have inherent value which lead to things like the Moxes and Black Lotus being phased out in ranked play that we get crazy new mechanics, that themselves get phased out as time goes on, all suppressing power creep. So far HS doesn’t seem to have much to limit creep at all, so perhaps they need to be more conservative in design because of that. I dunno, just rambling a bit here.

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      • That’s true too. I would love for them to phase out older cards, but introduce modes where you can still use them.

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      • You’re probably spot on, there. If Hearthstone doesn’t introduce rotations at some point, then that means OP cards/mechanics will remain relevant at every stage of the game. Plus, you know, mechanics that just aren’t all that good in practice. For example, most people (including the devs) consider Clash one of the worst MtG mechanics. It might find more of a home with Hearthstone in the form of Joust, but I have my doubts.

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