HearthPwn Exclusive - Developer Interview with Mike Donais and Jomaro Kindred

HearthPwn Exclusive - Developer Interview with Mike Donais and Jomaro Kindred

We had a chance to sit down with Mike Donais and Jomaro Kindred at BlizzCon this year to talk about the new expansion. Here's our top takeaways from the interview and the full transcript.

  • If Dungeon Runs go over well they could see themselves doing something similar again or building upon it.
  • The cool part about the Recruit mechanic is that it can create new rules for deckbuilding.
  • Doing two class legendaries each expansion isn't set in stone. It's just worked out that way.
  • Giving classes multiple legendaries is nicer because a lot of neutral legendaries waters down class identities.
  • Mike Donais could see them doing Hero cards (like DKs) again in the future. They went over well with the community.

Thanks to Chimera, Sinti, and Th3D4rkL0rd for transcribing the interview. Interview performed by Molster & Wigen.

Interview Transcript

Mike Donais: My name is Mike Donais, I’m a game designer for Hearthstone.

Jomaro Kindred: And my name is Jomaro Kindred, I’m a concept artist on Hearthstone.

So, can you guys describe, you know, on a daily basis what do you do?

MD: Right, so my job is to make sure the card set goes out the door in good shape and fun and having a lot of cool combos. So, I play cards, I look at the list of cards, we talk about the list of cards, we make sure that everything’s in good shape and the right stuff is in the right classes and things like that.

JK: For me it’s all about visualization and the art with Hearthstone. I can go from the pre-visualization of an expansion theme to the UI, you know. I mean we touch everything, you know, card backs, key art, boards, so we kind of touch a little bit of everything. Our day varies from week to week, but i kind of like the variation.

So a long time ago you actually did some concept art for a Horde and Alliance card back way back in 2014. Have you ever tried to bring that back, actually into the game; do some more concept art on that?

JK: Well with that, that’s actually how i got noticed and actually got my job on the team. I mean, not really, we have kind of themes for card backs and ideas for card backs that are associated with expansions and seasons and things like that, so that’s kind of what guides that.

I know a lot of people probably liked that Horde and Alliance, kind of, showing that off would be cool to see one day if you get that in.

So back on the quickfire questions here, favourite classes?

MD: I play my mage and priest.

JK: Hunter for me.

Alright, favourite tavern brawl?

MD: Hmm, my favourite tavern brawl was the one where you build your deck as you go, so you discover a card, it goes into your deck and for the rest of the time it’s in your deck.

JK: What’s the last one; it wasn’t crossroads really but, there’s so many… so yeah probably the most recent crossroads.

What is your favourite kind of expansion to design? You kind of have your, you know, more easy going, like Un’Goro kind of “light” and then you have your more almost “darker” theme, you know the Old Gods and the last one Icecrown Citadel, so what is your favourite kind?

MD: Well i personally love getting loot, so definitely Kobolds and Catacombs; it’s all about loot. You know, the legendary weapons and the spellstones and the unidentified items. So definitely that.

JK: For me, honestly there’s a lot of whimsy with Hearthsone so, i mean all of them are great. I mean from creating the Lich King versions of all our heroes to, also i love loot as well! So this was a lot of fun, too. Taking kobolds, these little lowly rat creatures, like what does a “king kobold” look like? So it was a lot of fun, there’s always fun, they’ve all been fun.

Well tell me some more about that kobold; how was it to conceptualize the kobolds for this? Because you guys did the “king kobold” and all this kind of stuff, different types.

JK: Actually it’s a lot of fun because, i mean you have your base kobold right, but how do you plus one a kobold? Maybe he’s a little smarter, so you know maybe he uses a lantern instead of a candle. We just explore things like that and make them a little larger, like does he have a weapon? Of course it’d be some type of shovel or mining pick. That was a lot of fun, but while the kobolds are a lot of fun there’s a lot of other cool stuff in that cave that was fun to design too, like sentient fungus creatures and cave monsters and traps, and it was just a ton of fun to explore.

So in this it looks like, you know, was this more work to do, on both sides, when it came to either art or just the design of this where, you know, 48 different encounters here, a lot of these cards have a lot of tokens and stages going into that. Was this more than your normal story expansion? Did it feel like a lot more work in this?

MD: Oh yeah it was a lot more work. There was like an extra hundred pieces of art just in the dungeon crawl mode. We upsized the team; now we have a three person team that just works on the dungeon crawl and they design all the bosses, they design all the treasures and the loot and how it works. They put it all together, they play-test , they iterate, they change drop-rates and things like that and they make sure that it’s a really fun experience. They tell the story at the same time, write the voice lines, there’s a lot, lot more work for something like this but it’s super fun; i think it’s terrific.

JK: Yeah he kind of touched on all the extra art for just the dungeon run, but the UI for the dungeon run had to be created from the ground up so it was a ton of work.

This is probably way too early to know this because you have to see how the players interact with it, but currently do you have any plans to keep adding new encounters to this if it takes off well? Or you know, when the next expansion comes out are you just planning to move on to the next single-player kind of thing.

MD: That’s the thing with Hearthstone; if we ever have something that turns out it works out great and people are enjoying it then we do it again, we do something similar, we build on it and i think that’s, like for example the discover mechanic people enjoyed so we kept doing more discover stuff and, you know, we’ll just see how people react.

JK: So this recruit mechanic, i think they’re gonna love it. I like it.

Speaking of the new recruit mechanic. Do you think that recruit is going to be more featured in this expansion more than lifesteal was in Frozen Throne or it’s going to be about the same?

MD: There’s not too many recruit cards. The great thing about recruit is you build your deck around it. If you’re going to play “recruit a [minion that costs (4) or less]”, the one we showed today [Guild Recruiter], then you’re not going to include like one and two-cost minions or else you might accidentally recruit them. So, what does your deck look like when all the minions cost four, and exactly which fours do you want to get? You want to make sure you have enough that you don’t run out, but also want to have just the best ones. And in different classes there’s different great deals. Like in warlock you can get a free 4 mana 5/6, you know, do you play Injured Blademaster? It’s a 4/7 right, because it doesn’t get injured because it’s battlecry doesn’t trigger, so there’s lots of really cool deck-building ideas there. That’s the cool part of recruit.

So the legendary weapons; They're exciting and everyone’s been wondering about them since they come from all the classes. Zero damage with three durability. So what was the idea, being why three and does it use up it’s durability when they use it’s action?

MD: We’ve only shown you the mage and priest ones so far, but they do happen to both have some durability, but there’s no special use for that durability. I mean if you played a card that did one durability damage to your opponent’s weapon it would survive that, but it never goes down in durability from you doing anything.

Ok, so there’s probably going to be cards that play off that then, that’s what the 3 was kind of balanced around?

MD: It was mostly like a flavour thing, like how hard would it be to break this magical artifact? More than one. (laughter) More than one hard!

So we were wondering, what was the goal behind releasing Marin early? So it’s coming out Monday i guess, so that’s unusual.

MD: Yeah, Marin the Fox is a legendary that we’re giving everybody on Monday. It’s going to be cool for people to just experiment with it while they’re waiting for the, more stuff to be announced and the next expansion to come out, Kobolds and Catacombs. So i think it’s, it’ll be fun, like hey, explore the new adventure. And it’s got a really, a lot of gameplay going on because you want to figure out how you’re going to kill the treasure chest that you summon, and in different classes there’s different tricks to do it, and then what you’re going to do with the treasure is also really fun.

Have you thought about adding more cards like that in between expansions where you just maybe release like three cards just to spice stuff up? Is that something you’ve thought about?

MD: We want to do stuff in between expansions; that’s why we do things like the special events. We did the fire and ice events, we did the dual class [Hallow’s End] arena, two weeks of dual class arena. So I think events like that are more likely, but this, you know, sometimes we’ll keep experimenting, see what people like and then do more of that. Remember four months ago we did that one dinosaur, or eight months ago we gave everybody a dinosaur. So this is, you know, another venture in that direction.

In the last couple expansions we’ve started seeing two class legendaries, which removes card slots available for neutral legendaries. Is that something we are going to continue to see going forward?

MD: So with this expansion we have a legendary weapon and a legendary minion in each class, so it kind of made sense. We also did previously a legendary quest and a legendary minion, and then a hero card and a legendary minion; So those all made sense, you know. We’ll keep open minds though to see what we need to do in the future; it might not line up, it might line up.

Was there a reason you guys kind of switched the focus of the class-oriented legendaries?

MD: Yeah, I felt like when you do a lot of neutral cards it kind of waters down the class identities. And then doing legendaries that aren’t good enough to play also makes me sad, so i’d rather do strong legendaries but put them in classes so that if there’s a strong legendary it doesn’t show up in every class, like Dr. Boom for example did. I think this solution of only having like five neutral ones and they are usually situational, you know like good in certain decks but not in others and stuff like that is a good solution for us.

So I know you guys only talked about two, I guess you talked to three, really two of the encounters. Are you guys able to say what your favourite new encounter is from the single player, or is that something you’re not able to…?

MD: Let me think; i like the trap one because it’s very different from the others.

JK: Yeah, I mean I actually like - there’s no one in particular I just like the idea of it. Honestly like I play a lot of WoW. I’m an altoholic. So the fact that i can just jump in there and attack this from different directions, like that’s a lot of fun to me. So i think they all have some love from my perspective.

Have either of you been able to defeat the trap level yet?

MD: (Laughs) I’ve gotten … I’ve played a lot of the adventure and I’ve gotten very good at it, so I can … I know what to do.

JK: You know what to do

MD: I know what to do. I’ve probably played the most.

JK: Well, he has. I can paint really well, so I’ll just … I’ll just stick to the painting … I haven't, no I haven’t beat it, I’ve tried … not yet, I will though I’m determined.

MD: We keep changing the trap level, we built it easier then harder again, so there is a lot of change during our play testing so it’s hard to know like exactly – Can you beat the most recent version with the most recent deck construction rules? - And stuff like that.

I have some other questions that aren’t so much related to this expansion - Is there anything else you guys wanna share specifically about Kobolds and Catacombs?

JK: That it’s free! *haha* I mean, the fact that you can get into this and you can explore different characters and you can run these dungeons. Oh, another cool thing that we haven’t mentioned is that the card back that you get, if you can beat it with all the classes, which is pretty amazing. We expect that you will have a lot of fun with the … definitely all of it, but i’m really excited about the single player dungeon.

MD: Yeah. Dungeon run is super fun, everyone at work has been playing it more than ever, so it’s just a good sign that people will gonna love it. The set itself, you probably know comes out in December and we’re giving everybody Marin the Fox legendary for free. We’re also giving everybody a legendary weapon for free in December when it comes out.

I didn’t hear that, ok.

MD: There you go. Thanks for asking! (Laughs)

Which is very specific. I have something else on the Kobold stuff, so very D&D themed, where I’ve seen going into this, they did the whole story. Then i hear, you know - the song - in the background there is Matt Mercer, he’s been doing all these things … was that Matt Mercer? What did you guys think of that, when you guys saw that, like what was your guys..

MD: Yeah, Matt Mercer. I love all the voice work he does, I even like his D&D games … so yeah, that was Matt and it was great. It really captured the flavor of Kobolds and Catacombs, the tone and the pacing very well.

Cool. So some questions for your there, so on twitter you talked about you did the concept of some of the Death Knight cards and stuff like that. What was your favourite one you did?

JK: Well again, I'm a Hunter, so Rexxar (Laughs). Nah, i enjoyed them all honestly. It was awesome, taking him and making him to that lich, like scary, that was just a ball. They were all a blast.

Were any more difficult than others to do?

JK: You know? Honestly? Yes. So let’s take.. anything that’s a paladin will feel already death knight-y or you know … it depends on what you can say is difficult.

What you consider difficult?

JK: Well challenge, I face challenge all the time in art and those are what’s kinda fun, so … none of them were too difficult, it was just a lot of fun to turn them into these death knights. I enjoyed the whole process, i wouldn’t consider any of them more difficult than the others.

Are there any stylistic restrictions that you need to do when you work on an art for a particular class or something like that or is there anything you have to kinda keep in mind for a class or you guys kinda go wild based on per expansion?

JK: You mean in regards … oh yeah, you always have to because there are certain things that are attributed to a certain class, right, like you take a shaman and you know, what is it, what do the totems look like, the armor looks specifically .. and then it depends, I mean you throw them, i mean you make them into a death knights that’s gonna kinda change that, that’s gonna kinda deviate that a little bit. You can just apply those deviations to what are you creating. I mean there are certain guidelines that help you know that this is this class, I mean when whether you wear cloth, plate, or what have you. So there is definitely standards.

And last one and so during the presentation they were talking about kinda the fun of designing the cards as they go leveling up as you activate it. How was that to do?

JK: That was actually a lot of fun and I’ll be honest with you, we outsourced a lot of that, but I got to see it all happen and for me to have something power up and to see that happen and to see the art show that, that was just great for me. You know, I liked it.

MD: Also the golden animations on the upgraded ones were like bigger and more spectacular so that was really cool.

How about the design on that cause that's a lot more .. that’s not just this card is designed, now we have all this variations of it - how does it scale, how was that to design?

MD: We thought of them as like mini-quests, that you have to do while the quest is in your hand and that’s really cool, because they’re all build-around. At first we only had about five of them in the set and we liked that they each had a build-around and they had a really cool mini-quest to them, so we ended up going with one in each class because of that and some of them are super powerful outputs like we said and some of them just little outputs, but they are all like, oh yeah I did it, and you feel good each time you do it and you build your deck a little bit differently, you play a little bit differently and you're like, oh, if I draw the spellstone now, then i wanna save this card, so I’m gonna hold off for a turn or two - and things like that. It’s really cool.

Yeah it might not be a spellstone, but that warlock card - wow, that’s something (Laughs)

MD: Yeah, Rin is awesome! It’s total of 41 mana to do the whole process, but once you do it, you’re pretty happy about it. At least one guy’s happy.

And animation looks fantastic too!

JK: Animation was amazing, a lot of good work went into that.

So, when you’re designing new cards, do you more often build the effects around a particular character you want to include in the set, or do you do it the opposite way where you build the character around the effect?

MD: It’s definitely both.  One of my favorite things we do is the designers and artists get together in the very early days of the set and we brainstorm, like what could some things look like, you know?  Like, Jomaro’s a really fast sketcher, so he’ll sketch some ideas and he’ll have ‘like we could look at this, or this, or this’, and it ends up there’s like a whole bunch of different crazy ideas, and then we’re like, okay, how can we work those into cards, and then we tell the artist ‘here’s some other ideas we had’, you know, and they’ll sketch those things, and it’s a really cool two-way process that ends us up with a whole bunch of ideas and a much better idea of ‘oh, here’s what the set is going to look like, here’s the style that it’s going to look like’.

JK: Collaboration is imperative, absolutely.  And the fact that we talk about it so early on, so many crazy ideas.

That goes into a question, so when you’re making the sets, how do you go about balance?  Do you come up with, just think about all the ideas and say ‘screw balance right now, screw all the design, this is what’s cool’ or when you’re doing this, are you thinking about balance and all that kind of stuff in there at the same time?

MD: So, we do design in two four month steps.  The first step is called initial design, that’s very much about getting ideas together and, you know, putting them on cards, play-testing them, seeing what’s fun, and just putting as many fun things as possible in, maybe build around things as possible.  The second four month period we call final design, and that’s where we start nailing down the numbers, making sure that it’s clean enough, and making sure that it plays well, and during the second four months, we focus a lot more on balance, because that’s when you have to actually get the cards out of the door at the end of that.

So, onto balance then.  So, when new cards are created, what kind of attention is given to cards in the arena mode, especially now that, you know, you can exclude cards from the arena?  Are you really concerned about that more now, in arena, or do you kind of not worry about that and say ‘oh, we can just exclude it’?

MD: We have a lot of different things going on for arena.  Obviously, we have the Oktoberfest things, where you can have the dual-class arena, and that’s an experiment that’s been getting a lot of positive feedback.  We also have behind the scenes, like, lowered rates on powerful cards in the powerful classes to try to get them closer together, and we’re seeing that work.  As far as new cards, we try to make them as fun as possible in constructed, and then when we’re done with that we start thinking about ‘okay, would this make sense in arena?’  Like the quests, for example, didn’t make sense in arena, so all the Un’Goro quests just don’t drop in arena.  And that’s the kind of thing we talk about as far as arena balance, because we have all these other tools going on we don’t necessarily need to change them, but we will move them around in rarity, for sure, based on like how they will affect the arena.

I know there was a balance patch that went out during the Frozen Throne that we seemed to really enjoy.  Are there still more cards that you kind of have your eyes on right now?  Do you think those will be a problem when the expansion comes out?

MD: Yeah, basically, whenever people are excited about a card being, you know, too prominent, or too powerful, we’ll watch it, we’ll check our stats every week to make sure it’s not being played by too many, or winning too much.  And then, in addition to stats, we also care about community feeling.  If people are really upset, it doesn’t matter what the actual numbers say, you know, how people feel matters a lot to us.  So we always look at that.  Druid and Rogue are both great.  A lot of people complain about Priest, so we watch priest, even though Priest is not, numbers wise, as good as, say, Druid and Rogue.  But I think that everything is pretty flat right now.  There’s a lot of different classes and decks that are viable, so it’s in a really good place.  One of the better decks is Paladin, but it’s like at the bottom of the play-rate, so like you’ll see that sometimes.  It’s kind of cool that there are so many option.

So, last time you guys kind of introduced the Hall of Fame, for taking cards out of standard, and kind of put them in the Hall of Fame so they’re not there.  Do you think you’ll maybe rotate some of those cards back in one day, with others taken out?  Do you have future plans for how that’s going to work?

MD: Yeah, the idea with Hall of Fame is to make it so that when new expansions come out they’re exciting, because those cards matter.  And, originally, classic was at too high of a percentage, so we want to get classic down a little bit on the percentage of cards going into those decks, the most powerful cards you would never take out, but we don’t want to get it too low, because that would be bad for new players.  So we want to make sure it’s, you know, at 35% or so, of decks, or 30%, we don’t know exactly, we’ll have to wait and see.  So we’re not going to forever keep taking cards and moving them to wild, but for a little while we’ll keep moving in that direction, cards that people are tired of, cards that shouldn’t be around forever because they have too much of an impact on the game.  Yeah, that’s our strategy.

So, I guess there was talk earlier in the year about Mage, Rogue, and Warlock each losing a basic card from their set.  Are there any plans to kind of introduce something else to that set for the new players?

MD: Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.  I think eventually we’d like to, like, bolster that up.  We’re not in a big rush to do that, because it’s not like ‘oh yeah, they really need that for some reason’, but eventually we’ll do something like that.  A common card, maybe.

So, I guess I’ll go with this for the last question, since it’s kind of interesting.  So, you guys introduced the Death Knight cards, you know, one for each of the classes there.  Are there any, you know, not necessarily that we’re going to get any more Death Knight cards down the road, but were there thoughts about introducing like a Monk Death Knight, or one of these other classes from WoW that don’t have a class, but could still become a hero.  Is that in consideration for something you could do?

MD: We got a lot of positive feedback on the hero cards, in general, so I can imagine us coming back and doing hero cards again in the future.

That’s about it.  Thank you guys so much!

Thank you guys!

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