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News Hearthstone's Gadgetzan Expansion: How It'll Help Priests and Kazakus' Origins

News Bot Nov 6, 2016

  1. News Bot

    News Bot Chaos Immortal

    At Blizzcon 2016, Blizzard revealed the next expansion for Hearthstone: The Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. Along with seeing a bunch of new cards (and more reveals to come soon), we also got to chat the Blizzard game designer Dean Ayala about bringing the seedy port town to life.

    Ayala's primarily role on the Hearthstone team is testing and balancing new cards, but he's also made contributions to Adventure design, matchmaking, and bug fixing.

    GameSpot: How long has Gadgetzan been in development?

    Dean Ayala: I feel like it's been so long now, but it depends on what "development" means. It was an idea in someone's head a very long time ago, and then it went through a phase where they were doing very general card concepting and concept art and that sort of thing. And then finally it got to a place afterwards where you're putting cards in the editor and doing play-tests. It's probably at least six or seven months ago we had cards in the editor. But it varies from set to set. Some people are really excited about whatever their idea is: "Oh, what if we did an Illidan expansion?" Any of the designers can just go in and create a bunch of cards, test that, and see what they think about it.


    Gadgetzan in World of Warcraft is not the most interesting place, but it looks like you're flashing forward a little bit in the timeline of the city's history. How did that work?

    We start with the themes that are most exciting to the team. We all played World of Warcraft, some of us a lot, so I think when we looked back to Gadgetzan, we tried to imagine...Gadgetzan is a fort town now, after Deathwing. What is Gadgetzan now? We tried to imagine what that could be like if it was a big, bustling city. And what if these different, other characters were there? I think in the same way that we re-imagined Karazhan, it's really fun to get to explore a new story with something we can create from scratch. Gadgetzan just felt like a cool place to do that. There's a lot of us who remember it and have a lot of history there.

    How did it get that circa 1920s "American gangster" style?

    We were mostly just looking in the Warcraft universe and thinking that a lot of the different zones, a lot of their characters, are dressed a certain way. With a mix of all characters across the entire universe, like in Pandaria and in places like Stormwind, and the ogres from their land--what happens to the ogres when they come to a city? And what happens when the vermin or the rats? They're coming to a city, so what do they look like and what are their characters imagined as? It's really just taking characters from all around the World of Warcraft, basically, and trying to imagine what that looks like in a major city. It's our take on it.

    How did the idea of tri-class cards come about? It's not quite like introducing a new keyword, but it does opens up options for different classes to play class cards that would be outside their purview.

    There's one thing we take very seriously, which is making sure the classes feel different from one another. So a druid feels like a druid. A warrior feels like a warrior, and they're playing a very controlling deck, and they have armor up, and stuff like that. It makes it feel very different from the other classes. The fact that we take each class's identity so seriously, when we're able to splash a little bit of mage in priest or vice versa, I think it's pretty exciting. You can have fireball in priests, or you can get a healing spell for the mage or warlock, I think that's really exciting. The idea of being able to splash a little bit of another class's theme in your class was just a really cool idea to us.

    So this could potentially help dispel the complaints that people have around priest and how it ranks compared to other cards. Especially being able to draw from mage sounds like it could really help tip its power level a higher.

    I think the thing that's going to help priests the most are the cards we're releasing for priests. We have a card called "Potion of Madness," which basically takes a minion with two attack or less and let's you swing it back at your opponent; sort of like "Shadow Madness," but at a much lower cost. I think that's really going to help priests against aggressive decks.

    We're pushing for a style of priest that we think is really popular with players. There are two styles--one is more minion-based, where you're playing dragons and trying to play a creature each turn and building a board against your opponent. There's another style of priest that we think is really important that people really enjoy, it's sort of the same playstyle as rogue, where you hold a bunch of stuff back and being really reactive, then you have turns where you play through four cards at a time. That's a really powerful feeling. People want to do more than play one card a turn, they want to do these powerful combos, and that's something we really wanted to enable.

    With one card, "The Drakonid Operative," which is a 5 mana 5/6 that let's you discover a card from your opponent's deck if you're holding a dragon, that'll really be a proponent of pushing dragon priests forward. And also "Potion of Madness" is more of that style, where you're able to hold some stuff back, be reactive to what your opponent does, and have a successful strategy that way.


    Both of those decks are really important, and I think the cards that we've already announced and the cards that we're going to announce in the coming weeks, are going to be really, really helpful to priests. That's something we take very seriously. We all love to play priest and we want other people, too. I think that this expansion is going to be really helpful for that class.

    For the expansion overall, is it geared toward that type of late-game style and building up minions, or are there going to be options for rush decks and people that like to play aggro?

    Yes. There will always be options for aggressive decks and control decks, and hopefully new styles of decks that no one has created yet in every expansion. Having the push and pull of aggressive decks and control decks is really important. We would never want a scenario where you queue into a game and every single game goes to fatigue, and every single game takes twenty minutes. I think one of the things that makes Hearthstone interesting is that you have to build a strategy that can go toe-to-toe with aggressive decks and with mid-range control decks and with super control decks like fatigue warrior. It's about trying to find a strategy that is relatively successful against all of them, and not just saying,"Well, the meta-game is full of control decks because that's what Blizzard decided they wanted to push, so I'm going to make a big control deck. I'll pass for the first eight turns and then play a bunch of 9 and 10 drops. "I think it's really important for us to continue to support aggressive-style decks as well as control decks.

    So far, Kazakus is one of the most interesting cards that's been introduced as far as the number of options it opens up. How did that idea come up, of crafting your own potion? I heard there were over 100 different potions that you're able to concoct?

    Right. Matt sort of mentioned this in the Hearthstone presentation, but it was literally just me and my boss and Matt, and a couple other people were sitting around--we went through a ton of iterations on different designs for legendaries and different designs for Kazakus in particular, and someone mentioned, "What if you could create a spell that can do this or this?" We're were like, "Oh, that sounds cool!" That was the starting point, and then we said, "What if you could create whatever spell you wanted using a discover mechanic?"

    They were like, "Oh, I get to make a potion...what does that even mean?"

    We thought about doing two options or doing five options, but the thing that we landed on was, "You can choose your mana cost, then you can choose a powerful ability, and then you can choose another one." We play tested that for a bit, but even from the first play tests we did,people's reaction after reading the card was so positive. They were like, "Oh, I get to make a potion...what does that even mean?" Then they do it. They weren't really sure how it was going to work, but then they see it come together...after we saw that reaction, it was like, "We definitely have to figure out a way to do this." And making it so that you can't have any duplicates, that was really important for making Kazakus feel like a super high power-level card like Reno Jackson. The custom spell had to be very exciting and very powerful. The downside to running that card is you have to scramble together and get 30 different cards that make sense, and being able to do that in mage and priest and warlock, and trying to figure out what the best version is of a Kazakus-Reno deck for each of those three classes. It'll be fun for players to figure out, and it will be fun for us to watch, as well. We built those decks in all three classes, and they play out very differently. It's going to be fun to find out what is the best Kazakus deck is.

    It's randomized, as well, right? You won't necessarily know, "I chose a 10 mana card, so I will be able to craft this type of card."

    Yeah. If you want some amount of board presence, you'll usually be able to get a resurrect option, or a minion summon option, but it is not guaranteed. All the effects are very powerful, and we designed and tuned them in a way where the hope is, there's not a best potion or a worst potion. You won't feel, "I got a really bad potion," or if you get a couple of the best, most powerful options, like, "Oh, I got the really OP potion." I think all of them have different uses.

    I think the thing that I like most about that particular card is that you can tune your strategy as you go. The one mana potion you create is arguably more powerful than almost any one mana card that you can put in your deck, as it should be, because there's this downside that it's a potion that you create, and then you have to play it after you play Kazakus. There's a lot of downside, there, so it has to be very powerful.

    If you're being rushed down, you can use the one mana card to catch yourself back up. The five mana option is if you're facing something like one or two creatures on board, it's a card that can swing the game back. And if you're playing against a really heavy control deck, you can choose the 10 mana one and plan, "What is this guy going to do in later stages of the game? Do I have a bunch of really strong cards that I want to resurrect? Maybe the resurrect option is good." Basically, in that type of game, you can determine what kind of spell you choose to make, which I think is really cool.

    Hearthstone is itself a pretty young game. How have you guys grown as a team in this last year? It feels like things are becoming more structured, in a way, and more cohesive, whereas in the beginning, it felt a little more like the wild west, at least from an audience perspective.

    The hope is that we're still able to surprise people. That's something that's very important to us whenever we're thinking about the next future we're going to create. If we can create something where people think, "I can't believe they did that," or, "That's something I wasn't really expecting." That's important to us, because we really want to be able to go in the game and find something fresh and exciting. Specifically form a card design perspective, we're looking to just create new crazy stuff that people aren't expecting.

    "...we're certainly aware that all of the classes should get some love."

    From a feature perspective, our cycles have gotten a little bit different. We still don't know, exactly, what the right answer is in terms of releasing expansions versus adventures and what the cadence is on those. I think that we're getting a little bit tighter, but we're still experimenting, there.

    In terms of the content releases, like how many cards we release, that's something we're also still evaluating. Nothing is set in stone. It started out as 30 cards, and then went to 45 cards. The cadence right now is around every four months we're releasing some new content. But as far as the best way to do that, we're still certainly in the learning phase. Like you said, Hearthstone's still a very young game, so there's a lot for us to learn. We're doing a lot of testing with stuff in Tavern Brawl and seeing like what the competitive environment bring. Whatever new, crazy stuff that we can do with Tavern Brawl is a cool place for us to test new concepts, new game modes.

    Play mode is going to be there forever. There's going to be some competitive way for you to queue up into ladder. Arena is something we also think is a really awesome, fun game mode that's going to be there forever. So features that are really important going forward are, "How do we improve those two modes?" We're not just looking for the next feature, we look back and figure out what the best thing is for arena and constructed going forward.

    On the cosmetic side, it feels a little lopsided for some hero classes versus others. We've had two mages, but still no Rogue or Druid. What goes into those types of decisions?

    I think that we're really excited about doing a new character. We haven't forgotten all the classes, for sure. Mage has two, now, and all the other classes, I think, will eventually have something of their own. It's something that we're constantly developing and figuring out. Nothing to announce at this time, but we're certainly aware that all of the classes should get some love.

    And what about introducing a new hero entirely? Is that something that you still play around with, or are you just focused on making cards for the classes that we have.

    Of course, we're all designers and we all think about a bunch of crazy ideas. And a thought that crosses our head a lot is, "Hey, what if their was a new class? What would that look like?" I think the answer, at least for now, is, there's so much room to explore within the classes that we already have, and it's so important for all the classes to feel like they have their own identity. The more classes you add on, the chances for them to feel more similar to each other is more and more likely.

    I think nine is a great number, and we have tons of room to explore, we have many expansions ahead, and many years of content where we can add on to those nine classes and still make everything feel different. I think we can add more decks to druid, staying within the bounds of druid, feel different from what druid feels likenow without doing something like adding another class. There's just so much more content to explore. It's not really something we're thinking about right now.

    Going back to Tavern Brawl, because you're able to experiment with really weird ways to play, has there been anything that you were really surprised by from the development side? Something that people really loved that you thought wouldn't catch or conversely, something you found that people really hate?

    I think that a lot of it were things that we expected. But something that I didn't expect was, when we first released Tavern Brawl, we all knew that there were two distinct kinds of players. There are the ones that are really excited by the special rule sets and build their own deck. And there's another set that feel like their collection isn't huge, and they're not the greatest deck builders. They already feel like it's hard to create a deck on ladder, so they really like the pre-constructed ones that just allow them to play and move on.

    I wasn't sure that those pre-constructed decks were going to speak to the competitive-minded people that like to figure things out on their own. A lot of the pre-constructed Tavern Brawls are very popular with the entire audience. Maybe I put to much emphasis on the thought that, if we pre-constructed the decks, then people wouldn't feel ownership over their wins and losses. But I think when make a really fun Tavern Brawl with a really fun ruleset, it doesn't matter as much that you're doing a pre-constructed deck. As long as you're queuing into a really fun mode, that's the important part.

    The pre-constructed decks being so popular with the complete audience was something that surprised me a little bit. But we know going in that some Tavern Brawls are for a special subset of the audience, like the Heroic Tavern Brawl, where I that speaks to some of our more competitive players and less so to the more casual audience. That's okay, because we're doing that for a week. And the competitive, super-engaged community is genuinely important to us, so it's really cool to have a mode where we can say, "This is for you, it's for a week." It's going to be super important to us forever to have Hearthstone be one of the most accessible games there is. It has to be accessible to everyone. For this one mode, for one week, I think it's okay for us to do something where we say, "This is directed toward you guys, you guys are really important to us."

    When you are make those constructed decks, how do you go about balancing them? You wouldn't want one to be too overpowering, but you also want people to feel that they can win with the deck they're given.

    Specifically with the Tavern Brawls, like Ragnaros versus Nefarian or Boom Bot versus Annoy-o-Tron, we just do a ton of play-testing. The first thing is always, "What is the most fun thing that we can do? Are these cards fun to play? Does it feel different from constructed?" We've made a lot of different modes where we have a special rule set, or it's a little bit restrictive and you queue in, and think, "This is fun, but it feels a lot like constructed." Those are ones that we tend to get rid of pretty quickly.

    The ones where, let's say Boom Bot versus Annoy-o-Tron, we just do a ton of play-testing. A lot of the people on the team are playing. We play Hearthstone all day and we're playing Hearthstone all night, and we're very passionate about the game, so I think that getting to a place of balance where both decks feel powerful but both decks feel like they have a chance to win is a result of playtesting.Sometimes when people ask me about balance design in particular, a lot of people tend to think that there's some amount of data and simulations where we can go, "Hey, we created these five cards and then we ran it through the simulator and now everything's balanced." There's an amount of data, and we're always looking at the data we have to gain some sort of insight from, but it's never what makes the decisions. A lot of it is just by feel, by what feels right, especially for Tavern Brawl. It's about asking, "What's the most fun experience?" and then we'll do some tuning after the fact.

    One rule I don't think I've seen in Tavern Brawl deals with the number of cards in your deck. Is raising the number of starting cards something you guys have ever thought about, or is 30 just the perfect number of cards for Hearthstone?

    We have the option to make your deck extremely large, so we can do something like that in the future. Off the top of my head, just having a large deck, maybe there's something that we could do where maybe you have a 100 card deck and you draw 5 cards a time and your hand size is 20. And you'd have other restrictions, there. But certainly not; 30 is not always the perfect number, especially if there's something like tavern brawls. That's space that we can explore.

    Going back to Gadgetzan, when you're thinking about putting together an expansion like this, does it come from cards that you want to use first, or do the cards come from the world and story you create around them?

    I think in general, the story. The story, the location, the theme, that's stuff that we have to figure out early. When we're thinking of a new expansion, basically, all of the designers go into a room with a white board, and everyone just starts saying, "Hey, what are some cool idea that we can do?" Since the beginning of time, there's always, "Illidan's cool!" and "The Lich King's cool!" And then someone else is like, "Gadgetzan! That sounds awesome." Then we start fleshing out those ideas a little bit more, and a lot of them are thematic

    But there are others that are less thematic and more mechanical. Along the lines of "What if hero powers matter?" I think that was some of the inspiration for the Grand Tournament, where something went to the whiteboard and said, "What if we did an expansion about hero powers? Hero powers are a very mechanical part of our game, and they're very important to us and all our classes. They really contribute to their identity. So what if we did something around that?" That's where the idea for Inspire comes from

    But in general, it's mostly thematic, at least in the early stages. For Karazhan, all of us wanted to do Karazhan. Karazhan is awesome. We all played Karazhan, and getting to explore that once you decide that it's a magical haunted castle, getting to think about, "What is that?" Ideas spawn off of one another, and then all of a sudden you have Medivh in his twenties, throwing a party. I honestly don't even remember how we got all the way there, but I'm glad that we did. Cinematically, it's one of my favorite ones. And I love the Gadgetzan cinematic, as well.

    For Gadgetzan, it definitely came from the theme. "What if Gadgetzan was a big, bustling city?" Then comes the different families that have these different creatures, and the classes that are oriented to them. Once you have that flavor design, it made sense for us to have cards that go in those specific families that are tied to the classes. So I would say it was mostly thematic.

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