'Hearthstone' Director Ben Brode Talks Surprise Success and Tough Choices

'Hearthstone' Director Ben Brode Talks Surprise Success and Tough Choices

'Hearthstone' game director Ben Brode speaks to his role in the community, the future of competitive play, and the careful thought his team puts into every decision Blizzard Entertainment/Glixel

Keeping 'Hearthstone' healthy and balanced takes every ounce of Brode's seemingly boundless optimism

Keeping 'Hearthstone' healthy and balanced takes every ounce of Brode's seemingly boundless optimism

Blizzard Entertainment’s digital trading card game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft works more like a biological ecosystem than a video game. Expansions – which launch every four months or so – keep competitive play in a state of perpetual motion. The bustling tournament and professional scenes make personality almost as much of a draw as the gameplay itself. Attached to this 10-ton ball of momentum is a card-buying system that players can easily spend hundreds of dollars a year on.

As Hearthstone’s director, Ben Brode has a firm understanding of how much is riding on the game’s complex design. If he and his team tune things to be too random, the competitive scene suffers. Nerf a card too much, and players start to feel like their monetary investments are losing value. With so many moving parts, Brode’s team has to approach every new problem with precision, resolve, and a little of Brode’s signature belly laugh to keep the optimism flowing.

On a phone call with Glixel, Brode talked about his role in Hearthstone’s community, the future of competitive play, and the careful thought that his team puts into every decision it makes.

So what's your story? How'd you get become part of the Hearthstone team?
I started at Blizzard back in 2003 as a night crew game tester, and worked on card games here at Blizzard. We had a card game we were working on called the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game way back in the day, and so I learned a lot about card games through that experience. We spun up a team here to chase down some cool new ideas, and one of the things we wanted to do was check out Blizzard's take on the card game. We were all big fans of the genre for a long time, so I got moved onto that team. I've been on that team ever since 2008.

A lot patch notes for competitive games feel as if they're handed down from on high. Why are you such a visible figure when it comes to talking about the design of Hearthstone, and why do you find it so important to talk about Hearthstone publicly?
The way that I decompress when I get home from work is I go on the internet and I talk to people who play Hearthstone. It's one of my favorite free-time activities – to talk about game design, talk about card game design, talk about Hearthstone, share ideas. It's a passion I personally have, and so that's kind of formed a lot of our – it kind of just became our communication strategy.

I have a belief that, sometimes, you get [into] a vacuum and a void where, if nobody's talking, people sometimes assume the worst. If you don't understand why we're doing "A" versus "B," maybe the only thing you can come up with – the only reason we would do "A" is because we're idiots, or because we have some nefarious reasons. And often, that's not true. Not “often" – [Laughing] we're never nefarious – but that’s just not true!

We have good reasons for a lot of the decisions we make, and so I often feel like if I could just talk to people and explain what's actually going on, I could change people's opinions. I could make them feel better about the game that they're enjoying. And so I have this passion for reaching out to people and trying to explain our point of view and trying to give people a deeper understanding of some of the things that they may not have thought about.

There's a classic example of, once upon a time, we would get feedback saying "You should buff bad cards." I think Kripp had a long video defending the position that we should buff bad cards. There's some reasons to buff cards, but there's a lot of reasons to not, and nobody was talking about the other side of the story. So the first video that our team came out with that had this kind of style – it was talking about why I felt like there were other sides of the story. And then it created a conversation, but it also helped bring people up to speed on some of this philosophy that we've been talking about internally for a long time. If we don't do that, it's just one side of the story. I think it's better if it's a conversation, if you get to hear both sides.

Standard is the place where it's gonna be new every four months, and it's gonna be uncertain what the best deck is. In order for that to happen in a healthy way, we just have to make room for new stuff.

To what extent do you think the community actually affects the final design of Hearthstone?
I would say hugely. Basically everything we work on – at this point, we're serving a community. These are people who are playing the game every day and enjoying the game, and obviously, we're playing the game every day ourselves. We're heavily motivated to make the game more fun.

A lot of times, different people want different things out of the game, and that's an inherently challenging thing when you're trying to decide what to do next and who it's gonna serve. But we're all fans, we're all playing the game, and there are features we made. Nobody, I think, expected the level of success we saw with Hearthstone, nor the amount of interest involved in watching other people play Hearthstone. We were not planning on adding a spectator mode as one of our first features coming out of the gate, but seeing the community response and what people wanted, that was one of our first features we added. That's true going forward – everything from, "Hey, we don't like playing against these types of cards, we do like these types of decks or whatever it is" – we're always listening to that feedback, and it has made a difference in the direction we take the game over time.

Do you think there are any drawbacks to being this active in the community and being this high-visibility?
Uh, no. It's great. For me, it's personally satisfying to be involved in the community. It's satisfying to be involved in these kinds of discussions.

Let’s talk about the future of Hearthstone. What, to you, does the ideal metagame and playing experience look like?
First, I'll say that I think there's different tastes there. I don't think we can say that there's a "perfect" for everybody. Some players like opportunity to try new things and explore unexplored space. Any metagame in which you don't know what the best deck is – and it feels like there's opportunities to come out with a new deck that might be very powerful – that's gonna appeal to players who enjoy deck building and enjoy trying new things and being creative. For some players, learning all the matchups very in-depth, really understanding every detail – just a little more stability is more fun as long as the gameplay is fun and it's not just one deck that everyone's playing all the time. In general, variety is a pretty fun aspect of card games. We didn't just release one one expansion and say, "That's it, you're just gonna play the same decks forever."

New sets shake things up, and variety is fun. Trying different classes is fun. Seeing different decks when you queue up is fun. But there are some players who really feel comfortable, and who really like playing [for instance] Control Paladin. "I just want to play Control Paladin, it's so fun, don't make me play anything else," and so formats like Wild, where they get to keep the same deck forever, is exactly what they want.

I think there's just a broad variety in the types of things that players are looking for in a meta, and some of them require more work on our part. Keeping a meta fresh and evolving takes a lot of design work, to create new cards at a pace that we can get them out to affect the meta and have a change. So I guess what I'm saying is, I think there are lots of types of metas that appeal to different players – or features about a meta that we're looking at – but there's no perfect meta for everybody.

Well, it does seem like your team has had some trial and error when it comes to getting rid of aspects of the metagame that you don't like, like when you took cards like "Conceal" out of Standard play and nerfed the Druid combo. Have there been any elements of the meta that you specifically don't want to see in the metagame of Hearthstone?
With "Conceal" specifically, it wasn't a problem with the meta. I think that the decks that Conceal was run in were great for the game – really skill-testing, very interesting decks. The reason... we didn't nerf Conceal, we just said it's gonna be exclusive to Wild. Really, that was us trying to make sure that the Standard metagame was changing every year because we'd seen Conceal-based Miracle Rogue decks for years in high-level tournaments. Same with Freeze Mage – these are decks that we've just seen again and again and again. And they're fine, they're balanced. They're good, they're powerful decks. We didn't want to delete them from the game necessarily, we wanted them to still be playable in one of the formats, but it's kind of going back to that thing I said about variety – some players really want new challenges, and I think Standard is the place for that. Standard is the place where it's gonna be new every four months, there's gonna be new challenges to pursue, and it's gonna be uncertain what the best deck is. In order for that to happen in a healthy way, we just have to make room for new stuff.

What, to you, does the ideal Hearthstone competitive scene look like?
So I'll say some things, but it is very hard to create an ideal for a competitive scene because this is the razor's edge. The difference between a 53% win deck and a 52.9% win deck means one of the decks gets played and the other one doesn't. So it's hard for us to design a top-level competitive metagame. What we can do is create lots of tools and lots of cards that we think will appeal to players who like to show their dominance over other players – really skill-testing cards.

In general in these environments, I'd like to see a variety of decks feel viable. We definitely positioned some cards to be very skill-testing, like Raven Idol, and we should make those cards powerful like Raven Idol. I think that that was a success for us, because it's got a ton of difficult decisions to be made, and it's a very playable card.

An example of a card that I feel like was bad for the top-level competitive scene was Yogg-Saron, which is exactly why we nerfed it. For a lot of players, the most fun card we've ever made is Yogg-Saron – their favorite card. I've seen people with Yogg-Saron tattoos. It was very beloved. But for the competitive scene, it was frustrating. And we didn't like what it was doing there, so we nerfed it. And that's the kind of thing where I feel like it was not adding a lot of very highly-skilled moments. Some randomness does. I think Raven Idol is a good example of a card that is pretty random, but there's a lot of very skill-testing decisions. Yogg wasn't that kind of randomness.

So those are some of the things we look at. It's not just randomness – some kinds of decks or strategies can feel more skill-testing than others. 

How about the competitive scene itself? Compared to other esports, it seems much more common for Hearthstone pros to rotate in and out of popularity. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, we could have less change by adding more invitational-style formats. Currently, the amount of consistency we are seeing is really high. You're seeing people make it very deep in tournaments again and again and again. Some of the names just keep popping up. If you look at Pavel's win rate across multiple tournaments – I checked a few months ago, and it was like 70% win rate in tournaments, very high. There is consistency, and there's also new challengers. We have big tournaments, and sometimes people can correctly anticipate a meta and bring in new deck types people weren't expecting, and make it real deep. I think right now, it's a good combination.

But Hearthstone's pretty young. We've only ever had three World Championship events, and I think we'll continue to see people – we've already seen people make back to back championship events, like Kranich. But it's still a developing scene. So I'm not sure where it's gonna go from here.

Hearthstone has always had this experimental quality to it, and there’s an extent to which you seem to be designing reactively, solving problems as you go along. Do you have any guiding design principles that you stick to no matter what the situation is?
We do have design principles that are overall... important for the game. But a lot of the things you're talking about have to do with [how we approach] systems – “Okay, here's a system we designed, it's working or it's not. Now, it's time to take a look at it.” A good example, I think, is our ranked play system. Some parts of our ranked play system work well. It's very clear how it works, it's very clear what the goal is and how to get to the goal. But it's very bad at matchmaking for new players, and it feels like a grind for high-level players. So I think it's important, in general, to reevaluate the decisions we've made, or to really think about the lessons we've learned from the decisions we've already made, and analyze where our game can be improved, and how we can make everything more fun.

The important part of a live game like Hearthstone is [to] keep thinking about where can improve things, and how we can make things better.

I think the storytelling and the challenge of single-player content in Hearthstone is pretty great. We're gonna make them free so that players who are interested in the new set can just get in and start playing.

I saw a Tweet from [professional Hearthstone player] Strifecro the other day that criticized the crucial importance of tempo in the game, and I've noticed that a lot of Hearthstone critics ultimately end up concluding that there's something wrong with the core gameplay. Do you think there’s anything wrong with the fundamental rules of Hearthstone?
I don't. Over time, we've heard kind of different feedback about, you know, "Overload's an inherently bad mechanic, it'll never be powerful." Then one of the most powerful decks was an Overload-based deck. In general, it's hard to figure out whether a problem is tactical or strategic – is this something that's a problem with just one card, or something that's wrong with the whole mechanic?

I'd say maybe most of the top-level tournament decks have not been famously tempo-based. A lot of them are very combo-focused: Freeze Mage, Miracle Rogue, Patron Warrior – none of those were tempo-based decks. Tempo, or midrange decks, are a strategy. I do think we have to support aggressive decks and midrange decks and combo decks and control decks – I think all those are interesting, and hopefully they're played in all different amounts.

I think that there's some things that we'll learn about strengths and weaknesses of the mechanics of Hearthstone. Charge, I think, is not as fun to play against in some of the ways we had been using it in the past. So we've been leaning away from Charge effects, or using them in new ways that are less likely to be frustrating to play against. Those are some things that we've been changing, but that's more of a tactical thing rather than a system-wide thing that is unable to be worked around.

Hearthstone is an interesting game because the way that you monetize and release content actually affects the meta. Lots of people play aggro decks, for instance, because they’re easy to ladder with and cheap to build. How does your team consider things like rarity and release schedules and pricing during the design process?
First, I'll say that we're not getting rid of Adventures – we're gonna keep all the single-player missions, [and we're] ramping up a team to do more and more of that starting next expansion. I think the storytelling and the challenge of single-player content in Hearthstone is pretty great. We're gonna make them free so that players who are interested in the new set can just get in and start playing. We're gonna give out packs of cards for playing that single-player content. So I think that's cool.

Mostly, we're considering – "What's gonna make Hearthstone more fun?" That's our top-level concern. Almost nothing else comes into the conversation. We want to make Hearthstone as fun as possible for as many players as possible. And I think the decisions that we're making are all to maximize fun. So we've been talking about all the feedback we've been getting about Un'Goro – and I think, awesomely, the feedback is that Un'Goro is super fun. We've been getting feedback on some of the other stuff, like the pricing, and we have some discussing to do internally about that, but it comes from this place which is: "Make sure Hearthstone is fun, make sure that it's fresh and exciting and the meta is good." That's the thing we have to get right.

Everybody has had an equally powerful cultural impact on the team, but in a lot of ways, I consider myself the morale officer of Team 5.

Recently, Dean Ayala on the Hearthstone design team revealed that Stonetusk Boar is a bit of a red flag in playtesting because it’s often a sign that a deck is overpowered. Do you have any more weird tales about adventures in playtesting?

Design is very iterative, always. You have an idea, you try it out. Some huge number of them fail. And card games especially, one of the cool things about them is that every card interacts with every other card. So it's impossible to think of a card and understand every possible interaction when you're first designing it, and then you play some games, and our awesome quality assurance team starts banging on it, and we learn, "Oh, that's really not gonna work."

There's this concept of design space, which I think is an oft-misunderstood term, but it's basically: if you imagine every "vanilla" minion: a one mana 1/1, a two mana 2/2, a two mana 1/3, a two mana 3/1 – all the way down to a 10-mana 10/10, a 10-mana 9/11, or whatever. That's all the design space there is for vanilla minions. You can't make any other vanilla minions. You've used all the space for vanilla minions.

Then once you start putting words on cards, there's a lot more space. Let's say I made a card that said: All your 1/1 minions get +29/+29. Stonetusk Boar makes it so that you cannot make that card. It's just game over. Stonetusk Boar has reduced some design space. Every card both uses some design space and restricts some design space for the future, and often, what happens during playtesting is that we try some new thing and then realize it totally does not work with this other combo that we've got in the game, and so we have to cut it.

There's a couple famous examples of that, and both were issues with class cards. The first one was Dreadsteed in The Grand Tournament. It's a card that, when it dies, it comes back. With the old Warsong Commander design, that card could just mow down every card on the board, because it had Charge, you'd attack right away, it would die, it would come back with Charge, and so on, and so you could just kill every one of their minions every turn.

The other one was Animated Armor from League of Explorers, which made it so that you can't take more than one damage at a time. That card with the Rogue card that used to give stealth to a minion permanently, Master of Disguise, it just made it so that the Rogue was basically never able to be killed. You play Animated Armor, stealth it up, and that's game. So Animated Armor became a Mage card so it couldn't be combo'ed with that Rogue card, and Dreadsteed became a Warlock card so it couldn't be combo'ed with the Warrior card. So those are some cases where we had cool ideas that, initially, people thought were interesting, but in playtests, someone finds a really broken combo and that really ruins a day of playtesting for everybody.

What, if anything, has been your specific influence on Hearthstone?
Honestly, if I had to say one thing that was my biggest influence – I don't like talking about myself like this – it's been my cultural influence on the team. Everybody has had an equally powerful cultural impact on the team, but in a lot of ways, I consider myself the morale officer of Team 5. I'm a positive person, I'm an optimistic person, I'm a really silly person. We have a lot of silly people on the team. It makes for an incredible work environment, but I'm proud of my personal contribution to that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.