Hearthstone Witchwood Dev’s Mission To “Make Everything Overpowered”

The night is dark and full of terrors in Hearthstone’s next expansion, The Witchwood. Our first look at the next set of new cards coming to the game was in a Blair Witch-style reveal video, but as a pre-cursor to more card reveals happening throughout the coming weeks, Blizzard’s Dave Kozack and Dean Ayala dropped by the GameSpot office to discuss Witchwood’s development.

And for even more Hearthstone talk, check out the video above, where we play through the Kobolds and Catacombs Dungeon Run along with mission designer Dave Kozack while discussing the upcoming Monster Hunter mode. We learned a very valuable lesson in this (embarrassingly unsuccessful) run: never underestimate your opponent.

GameSpot: From a top level, Witchwood of course fits very well in the Hearthstone/World of Warcraft theme, but why is now the time to bring in an expansion like Witchwood?

Dave Kozack: We like to mix it up; sometimes we’ll do very serious expansions. I’d say Knights of the Frozen Throne was a pretty hardcore serious expansion. Our heroes were turning into Death Knights, whereas Kobolds and Catacombs was a little wackier, a little more light-hearted. And so, with Witchwood, we wanted to offset it with a different tone. It’s dark and creepy, but a fun kind of creepy. And it’s mostly about just giving people something every time, something different that you don’t expect, so we have a lot of fun with Witchwood. It’s scary, but it’s not “jump scare” scary. It’s just weird, fun, Halloween-ish spooky stuff.

It seems very fitting that it’s the inaugural expansion for the Year of the Raven. Does the raven itself hint at other things that we’ll see this year, or is that kind of just coincidence?

DK: It’s a little bit of a crossover. We like when the new year lets you know a little bit about the first set, and Raven definitely fits this set but not necessarily the other ones. We’ll see.

How does that yearly animal rotation work? Is there a point when this is gonna come full circle, or is it just a random, “We have no idea where this is going”?

DK: Yeah, well, we make it up as we go. That’s actually, literally what happens. We kind of tended toward magical creatures like the Kraken. I guess the Mammoth is not a magical creature, although the way we depicted it was kind of magical looking. But with the Year of the Raven, a raven is a bird that you can find in real life, but it does have all these creepy associations. So it did feel kind of magical to us, and we felt it really fit our first expansion.

Year of the Raven implies that that zodiac would swing around, but it’s not like we’re gonna re-release old sets again. Or maybe we will! That would be a twist! [laughs]

But we do like being able to refer to groups of sets as, the year of the “blank.” It feels really cool, and people can look back fondly on the Year of the Mammoth as the year of Un’Goro and Kobolds and Catacombs. Now, they can look forward to Year of the Raven and all the weird things that will happen.

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Slightly technical question, but for the new even and odd decks, are zero cost cards even, odd, or both?

Dean Ayala: I love getting to answer this question because we actually have a PHD in Mathematics that works on our team named Peter Whalen, and I asked him myself. He said that zero is even. But it always annoys him when I call him out as a PhD in Math.

Also with this expansion we’ll have a new, not Dungeon Run but a Monster Hunt. Was that something that’s been planned from the beginning?

DK: We always want to have new, single-player content associated with each expansion. So when we were building the Dungeon Run, we were also keeping an eye ahead to whether we could use that format elsewhere in other circumstances. And in this case, being a bounty hunter hunting monsters in the woods fit really well with the theme, so we were able to use it again.

We also had a really good feeling about Dungeon Run while we were developing it; every time we would playtest it, people would go nuts. People wouldn’t want to stop playing. So we were like, “Hey, we’re onto something here.” It fit thematically, so we could do it again here, and we ended up having a lot of fun with it, but that doesn’t mean that every expansion will have something just like that. We’ll keep mixing it up. We like to surprise people. But in this case, it fit really well, and once we started building bosses and creating it, it felt like a really good fit.

And this will have four new heroes that you go through it with?

DK: Yeah, it ends up feeling very different because of the new heroes and that was fun.

And they’ll have their own hero powers as well?

…if you look at every card and you’re like, “Hmm, that’s balanced”…that’s not the most exciting reaction.

DK: Right. They’ll use the class cards from one of the Hearthstone classes, but they’ll have a unique hero power. We’ll talk more about that in a couple of weeks after Witchwood comes out. We have a couple of weeks before the Monster Hunt releases and then we’ll be talking about Monster Hunt and all the details of that.

For the Witchwood reveal, it was fun to end it with you guys all running away from a super OP card. Do you think the audience is gonna react like that when they actually see the card?

DK: It might be disappointing that it’s a balanced and interesting card as opposed to one that just breaks the game outright. [laughs]

DA: We have internal core design values at Blizzard, and one of them is “make everything overpowered.” You should be able to look at a lot of cards in Hearthstone, and our intention is to make you think, “Wow. That’s a crazy powerful thing. I can’t believe they’re doing that.” That’s the reaction that we want to get. Sometimes that results in, “What are those balance designers thinking?” That is really the result that we want when people are seeing these cards for the first time, because if you look at every card and you’re like, “Hmm, that’s balanced”…that’s not the most exciting reaction.

DK: You want to get a big reaction, yeah.

Obviously, it’s important to keep the audience engaged, but for you guys as developers, is it solving problems that keeps you excited about working on a game that is getting older?

DA: For me, personally, the thing that keeps me excited to keep developing Hearthstone is that it’s my favorite game; I play it all the time. That’s not a shared experience with everyone that I think that makes games; not everyone gets to work on a game that is their favorite game. So I feel pretty lucky from that perspective. One of the reasons that I worked on Hearthstone is because I was playing all the time and had a pretty good understanding of card balance and that sort of thing, which is why I ended up here. And then three and a half years later, I’m still going home, waking up, playing Hearthstone, and thinking about it. The community is also really engaged. There’s tons of people. You go on Reddit or forums, or read iOS reviews-

DK: Watch streams.

DA: Yeah, watch some streams, and tournaments, and everything. Everyone is so engaged and there’s such a vibrant community to discuss and talk about things with that it’s hard to not be motivated to come in and be psyched to work on whatever the next thing is.

DK: From my perspective as the lead mission designer, it’s just such a great core game. The main Hearthstone rule set is so compelling. There are so many things you can do with it. The Dungeon Run is just one example, and then the Monster Hunt even plays with that formula a little bit more. That shows that even within the framework of Hearthstone, there’s so much more that you can do. There are many things that you can explore. It’s super exciting for us, so I feel like we’re just scratching the surface.

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Hearthstone – The Witchwood Cinematic Trailer

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How do you balance the desires of a community, which can be very vocal versus the data showing how people are actually playing. Specifically when those things diverge?

DK: Looking at the data is always important. There are three main points of feedback for us. There’s internal feedback within Blizzard; we constantly test a game amongst ourselves. There’s team-wide play tests every week, and we bring in other teams from Blizzard or watch teams down the hall. They play Hearthstone, bring them in and get their comments on it. There’s the feedback we get from forums and elsewhere. That’s just a small percentage, but they are vocal, they’re talking about it. And then there’s the data itself. You can sort of compare and contrast the three points of feedback across one another.

If players say something is overpowered, you can look at the data and ask, “Is it actually overpowered, or does it just feel overpowered not fun to play?” And you can tell. If you compare who’s talking versus what the data says, you can sometimes tell, “Oh, this is more of a perception problem than an actual problem.” Or it is a balance problem that we need to fix? You have to keep all that in mind.

And you can’t please everybody. Hearthstone is a game that’s meant to be enjoyed by casual players, meant to be enjoyed single-player and multiplayer. Everybody has a different take on it. And so, you want to keep in mind of where your audience is and make sure you are providing something for both audiences.

DA: I’d say something pretty similar–getting feedback from as many avenues as possible. I read Reddit and official forums. Reading iOS reviews is really funny because it’s so different then basically all the other avenues that you see because you have people that experience the game in a different way and a lot of times connected at all. Sometimes it can be bit hive-mindey when you go on a forum where everyone sort of has a fairly similar or a very loud opinion.

And then we also have regional community teams who all send us feedback from players where there’s a language barrier like in China whey they don’t necessarily communicate with a lot of American media or European media. So getting feedback from all the different regions and what they’re thinking about things is different a lot of the time. In terms of game balance, for me, perception is really the only metric that matters. It doesn’t actually matter if something is over- or under-powered, it’s how players experience and feel that. The data does a good job verifying what actually is going on and what kind of changes that we would need to make, but most of the time it’s just trying to gauge it over the feedback and make changes based on that.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.