We caught up with Hearthstone lead designer Eric Dodds at this year’s PAX Prime to discuss the recently released Naxxramas adventure mode, game balance, and what lies ahead for Blizzard’s wildly successful digital card game.
MMORPG.com: Give us a postmortem on Naxxramas now that it’s out. What were your goals in delivering an adventure mode like this to Hearthstone and do you feel those goals were met with the way players have responded to the new content?
Eric Dodds: Absolutely! I mean, our goal was to change up the meta game and we definitely changed up the meta game. It’s exciting because not only did it change now, we feel like it’s still shifting, people are still figuring out what some of the power cards and combinations are, so we figure it’s going to be shifting for a while to come, which is exactly what we wanted.
We also wanted to give people a different way to play Hearthstone. With Naxxramas we wanted to make you play a different way to be successful, leading to players discovering they may like a class or play style that they didn’t play much before.
MMORPG.com: Did Naxxramas fall short of your expectations in any way? How would you do things better in the next adventure mode release?
Eric Dodds: That’s a fair question. Certainly there were a couple of difficulty bumps that we’re even now looking at. There were a couple of class challenges that, we wanted there to be sort of a bumpy road, but there were a couple that were too far outliers, so that’s certainly the sort of thing we’ll be looking at.
One thing we’re always paying attention to is the overall complexity of the game and there were certainly some interactions with Deathrattle that can get a bit crazy, so it’s something we’ll be watching going forward as far as how much complexity we’re putting into the game.
MMORPG.com: What are some of the most surprising ways you’ve seen the meta shift with the new cards?
Eric Dodds: I certainly didn’t expect Hunter to be as big as it is at the moment. It’s not entirely clear to us if this is just going to be a blip or it’s the next that’s going to get discovered and it’s going to go into that cycle again. It’s certainly something we’re paying attention to.
There were also some interesting things that we probably should have expected or slightly surprised by. We put in a card that was intended to deal with certain types of spell decks, Loatheb, and it was interesting that these are running it. Even when you see games where both decks are running it, it makes for really interesting sort of cat and mouse game about when are you going to drop it. So even though we didn’t entirely expect it in that environment, it actually makes it a lot more fun anyway, or a lot more interesting.
MMORPG.com: Do you feel like cards like Loatheb or Mad Scientist are in a good place or do you foresee any changes to these cards?
Eric Dodds: We’re always paying attention to it, but really we’re not going to know for sure where everything falls out until the meta game sort of settles in a couple of months from now. Is this secret Hunter thing going to continue to be really strong? I don’t know for sure.
I think they’re all pretty close, and we’re always paying attention to them, and if we feel that there are outliers we certainly always talk about if we’re going to put cards in in the future to help players deal with these circumstances and as a last resort, but we do expect to do it from time to time, change cards.
MMORPG.com: What’s your take on decks like Zoolock? Reynad’s said that as long as Warlock has such a strong hero power, there will always be cards that will fit into a Zoolock style deck. Do you find Zoolocks problematic? Or do you feel players have sufficient tools at this point to counter it?
Eric Dodds: That’s a great question! Zoolock is a deck that you’ll see at certain tiers, but we haven’t seen very much of it at sort of the highest level play. You don’t see a whole lot of Zoolock at top levels, and yet there is an awful lot of Zoolock at mid levels, so it’s something that we’re definitely paying attention to, because we do like diversity of decks and classes there.
Certainly internally, we do talk about the Warlock; we have no plans right now to change the hero power, because the hero power has ramifications, but after we do additional investigation, nothing is off the table, it’s just that we’re always, our first step to try to make balance right is introducing new cards and our second more extreme set would be changing something.
Like, changing a hero power is kind of crazy talk, but on the other hand, it’s certainly, to make the game great, we’re not taking everything or anything off the table. Some things, like, for Zoo, I expect it to be strong for a while, it’s been kind of a staple for a while, so we’re probably going to have to poke at it some more, but we certainly want to let it run for a while and then talk about do we need to add additional cards in the meta game and then we’ll talk about more extreme things. So, we’re still talking about it.
MMORPG.com: It was recently revealed that the next set of cards will come out as part of a new booster pack. How many cards are we looking at? What sort of breakout can we expect in terms of new class cards vs. neutral cards? Anything you’re willing to spoil at this point?
Eric Dodds: Still working on the details of that. I mean, it’s going to be over 100 cards and it’s certainly going to be very different from Naxxramas, which was designed to put a smaller number of cards into play, because we don’t want to create this large number of cards, not overwhelm players, but at the same time, with this new expansion, we want to provide a large number of cards with additional options for the hardcore. So, exactly what those cards are and exactly what those ratios are, partially we’re still working on ‘em, and partially we’ll be talking about that in the future.
MMORPG.com: Does the notion of adding so many new cards at once scare you guys at all given the game’s relative stability over the last few months?
Eric Dodds: Certainly the game right now is great and when you introduce new cards into an environment it always makes you a little bit nervous. It’s sort of my job to be a little bit nervous about this sort of thing. On the other hand, we have an awesome balance team who are phenomenally good at the game, so I have complete faith in them to continually deliver a game that’s going to continue to have this balance cyclical meta game and have decks and classes and cards that are pretty easy to understand and not be too complicated. Because still one of our core goals is to make sure that when we are adding new cards into the game, that it’s a card that you read it and immediately understand what it does. That’s still a key and important feature to us.
MMORPG.com: Monk and Death Knight are absent from Hearthstone and fans of the game have been hoping to see the class list rounded out with these two. Recently, it was said that Blizzard is not actually working on new classes at this point. Can you talk about this decision? Can players ever expect to see these classes?
Eric Dodds: It’s actually a question of how many different classes we have. Right now we have nine different classes and if you look at the combinatorics, it’s actually huge, especially when you look at the types of cards that can be in these decks, so we’re actually really happy with that number of combinatorics.
While World of Warcraft players are excited about these classes and we like these classes too, it’s not something that we feel like is necessary to add to Hearthstone because of the way it would continue to blow out that sort of combinatorics of sort of class vs. class and understanding of classes. So we’re not working on it specifically because of that.
Nine classes is a huge number of classes and the number of matchups is enormous. It mostly has something to do with that rather than anything to do with the classes themselves. You should not look in the near future. Anything’s possible from now on, because it’s a game that’s evolving over time. We’re always paying attention to what’s happening in the game, who’s playing, what people are excited about, and what we feel like is necessary for the game. But certainly in no time in the near future and we’re certainly not working on those things right now.
MMORPG.com: What about ‘skins’ for existing classes? This was hinted at a few months back. Can we expect to see anything along these lines in the near to not too distant future?
Eric Dodds: It’s an exciting idea. We’ve certainly heard from the fans that they like, may not all be huge fans of Garrosh, in fact, some might think he’s a bit of a jerk, which seems entirely reasonable, so it’s certainly the type of thing that we’ve talked about and it’s an interesting idea for sure.
MMORPG.com: Spectator mode. Any updates there?
Eric Dodds: It’s something that we’re working on. It’s something that’s very important to us and one of the things that’s very important to us is making the game more social in a bunch of ways and we’re excited about the possibilities of spectator mode adding more ability for social stuff. So it’s something that we’re definitely looking at. We don’t have structural stuff to announce about it yet, but spectator mode is super important to us.
MMORPG.com: Blizzard stated they were going to take a wait-and-see approach on how things played out with Hearthstone in terms of eSports. Interest in Hearthstone eSports seems to be particularly high these days, is Blizzard now committed to really driving this scene?
Eric Dodds: It’s pretty clear that eSports is something players are excited about getting behind and sort of our way of getting behind it is announcing our quarter million dollar finals at BlizzCon and we expect to both be doing a lot of eSports stuff and working with all of our partners around the world, so it’s something that we’re pretty committed to at this point. Count on seeing us involved in more eSports stuff going forward.