Interview with Hearthstone Executive Producer Chris Sigaty and Senior Game Designer Dean Ayala

ChanManV and Tiago Taparelli from the team got a chance to interview Chris Sigaty, the new Executive Producer of Hearthstone and Dean Ayala, Senior Game Designer on the Hearthstone team last week during BlizzCon.

Over the course of this interview they shared some insights about Sigaty joining the Hearthstone team, recent balance changes, competition in the card game space and the upcoming expansion: Rastakhan's Rumble! Let's start off with the elephant in the room, you Chris being the new Executive Producer. You’re a legend in StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm…

Chris Sigaty: (laughs) I don’t think I’m a legend. Talk about that, coming into Hearthstone and especially it not being a brand new title which is what you’re probably used to. How has this experience been for you?

Chris Sigaty: It’s been awesome. Joining the team is actually very humbling to me because I watched Hearthstone from afar since inception. Hearthstone went through some trying times initially. Before we knew we were gonna launch it, the team was exploring lots of ideas and not everybody thought it was going to be a big opportunity. I was part of the folks saying ‘what are you talking about? Just go touch it and play it for five minutes and you’ll see the wonderful game that it is’.

Once it launched, it was really cool to see that a lot of people felt the same way. Even as I was working in StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm, I was constantly playing Hearthstone. I was really good friends with the leadership of the team and I just loved watching how much care that team was putting in the amazing cards and sets they were doing. So when the opportunity came up to join the team, the only question I had was about the team I was on and not about joining or not. Strategy is something that I love being around and I’ve been in Real Time Strategy (RTS) in the past, but I love the difference of being able to take time to think about your next move between turns. It’s amazing to be part of the team and having joined only four and a half months ago. So it’s already been four months?

Chris Sigaty: Yes, it’s been since June. And just having the opportunity to see the team in action. It’s a wonderful team so it’s really really cool to be part of it. Dean, what's the impact of having someone like Chris now on the team?

Dean Ayala: It’s obviously super positive to have someone that’s been around for such a long time in the company. We all kind of knew Chris coming in, but it was nice having someone really familiar. In terms of the leadership that’s been on the team, still a lot of the same people are executing on the cards and systems and that sort of thing. We’re super happy to have Chris and we also have a consistency with the people working on the team as well.

Chris Sigaty: That’s been the thing, the card sets, the decision around design and those things, there’s just an amazing team that’s already established so me arriving didn’t do anything (laughs). The team was already this machine that is really great at what they do and for me it’s just awesome to be unpacking myself and understanding more in-depth because it’s all still new. Switching gears to the somewhat recent balance patch and more specifically the changes to Giggling Inventor, it seems that very few cards from Boomsday have influenced the meta as the community had hoped for.

With Rastakhan’s Rumble being the Year of the Raven's last expansion, how do you see the new cards in terms of power level compared to previous expansions? And how do you approach the power level of sets during a Standard year?

Dean Ayala: Hopefully they will make a big impact, right? That’s the goal with every expansion, that we create a bunch of new archetypes and also support some stuff from the past. I think when you look back at cards like Baku the Mooneater and Genn Greymane, even though they’re single cards, they made such an enormous impact on how each class plays. When you look at something like Paladin, the class plays totally differently than it did before, but if you’re looking from the angle of percentage of cards used maybe it’s a little below average. So the thing that we try to do is make the game feel different when you log in, more so than the percentage of new cards that are being used. Supporting previous expansions is also something we try to do as well.

In terms of Rastakhan’s Rumble, having all the spirits and Loas sort of work together and have that be an archetype that hasn’t been explored as much is interesting. For example Warlock, they have been doing a lot of hand buff synergy with cards like Soul Infusion but the deck itself hasn’t really come on as an archetype. So we hope having all these build-around cards in each individual class will help create new decks for all classes. Circling back to the recent balance changes, the community was surprised that no Druid cards were being changed. Was nerfing some of the Druid cards on the table at the time?

Dean Ayala: We talked a lot about various cards. Cards like Spreading Plague was obviously part of the conversation when we were talking about things that we might have to change. Some of the things we really have to think about when making a balance change is not only if there is an issue, but also if it's something that we think it’s going to get worse over time or it's going to get better over time, and that’s when looking at statistic is really helpful usually. But looking at statistics doesn’t tell you whether something is unfun, right? You can’t just look at numbers and balance the game that way. But what it can tell you sometimes is how likely something is to continue.

If you have something that players are upset about, commenting on and it is absolutely one of the most powerful things statistically and is the most popular thing statistically, you can make some assumptions that this isn’t something that’s gonna blow over. This isn’t going to be something you can build against, because it has no weaknesses, right? So when we were looking at Druid, statistically the strongest Druid deck wasn’t even that popular, it was maybe the 4th most played one at the time and there were like several decks above it with various skill levels. Right. The reason we asked that is because looking at our data, Druid has several cards included in over 95% of all decks on ranks 5 to Legend. More specifically cards like Wild Growth, Nourish, Swipe, Branching Paths and the Spellstone. There are like four really great Druid decks right now and so collectively speaking that’s probably why the community feels that way.

Dean Ayala: Sure. The other side of the coin when we’re thinking of making a change is… Is the change going to result in people having more fun? So we actually did a bunch of playtesting, like what if Druid was at a weak power level? And we were actually going through what that metagame might turn out to be and it was like, it was… Druid is kind of one of those linchpins right now that is basically stopping an all aggro meta. So we talked about it and if we made this change to Druid the meta might turn into a place that might actually be pretty negative.

So ultimately we were thinking of what kinds of decks people are going to be playing and what’s the variance on the different archetypes and class populations. And we actually thought the ones that we changed were resulting in the best metagame, and right now it seems relatively positive. So I think we’re pretty happy. About the new keyword Overkill. We had seen something similar to it with the Mage secret Explosion Runes. Did the team use any kind of player feedback from that card specifically to design Overkill? And will that keyword be expansion-specific like Echo from Witchwood or are there plans to print more cards with Overkill in the future?

Dean Ayala: In terms of the keyword itself, I think that we tend to do expansion-specific keywords because it’s important that you log in to Hearthstone and don’t have to learn a hundred new mechanics. So we tend to introduce keywords at around the same pace that they rotate out of Standard. All of these keywords obviously exist in Wild, but Wild has generally more experienced players that are able to learn new things a little bit more over time. So I would guess that one will probably rotate along with the set, but of course player feedback plays a big part in that. If Overkill turns out to be the most well received keyword ever maybe we might move some things around for it.

You mentioned Explosive Runes and that was actually the first version of Overkill we had. It was essentially 'if you Overkill something, the excess damage goes to the hero' and that was it. There was no Overkill and do a thing. That was interesting but it lead to it going into the same archetypes, the kind of decks that want to kill you pretty quickly (everyone laughs). So having something like ‘Overkill and draw a card’, ‘Overkill and you can attack again’ and other effects makes the individual cards go into a bunch of different decks, which we thought was really interesting. And of course thematically as well having Overkill in the more gladiatorial set sort of fits from both a gameplay and thematic perspective.

Chris Sigaty: The other thing you talked about that I think is important, is how the team evolved Overkill so that it leads to much more interesting decision-making. Having excess damage just go through to the hero is cool, but now (with the current design) you really need to consider how to spend your attacks to get a different type of proc from your cards. And I think that’s a key component about Hearthstone, tough decision making. The whole design of just going and doing additional damage to the hero didn’t require quite as much out of you, and I think that makes it much more interesting. Definitely. It goes against a lot of player's natural instinct to be as efficient as possible.

Chris Sigaty: Yes, exactly. It makes you think. Lately there’s been a lot of talk about some Hearthstone competitors, two in particular. Hearthstone had competitors in the past, but there never really was much talk about them. How do you view competition in the card game space? Does it affect your strategy at all? Do you think of them as competitors?

Chris Sigaty: Well I mean, they’re certainly in the same category so there will be some level of competing there. But I think for me, I look at it as reassurance that what Hearthstone set out to do was accomplished, which is demonstrate to the world that this previously rather niche thing (card games) could become something of significance. The team really wanted to broaden the availability and interest in collectible card games and strategy games of the type and they really did that. So I think it’s a really awesome sort of vote of confidence that Hearthstone has been really successful, and that’s great to see.

As far as competitors coming up in any other games that we do, I think it’s a good thing for us because it keeps us on our toes and makes us think about how we can continue to improve and that we can’t rest on our laurels. So it’s a good thing. If nothing ever came up we could easily fall in too much of a similar pattern over and over again and we want to make sure we’re always just pushing ourselves, and this helps us do that. Is there any more focus on the casual demographic versus more of the pro, hardcore player?

Chris Sigaty: You know, Hearthstone has really walked this line for a long time. Easy to learn, difficult to master has been a mantra at Blizzard forever and Hearthstone lives that. Deceptively simple, insanely fun was the tagline when the game came out and I think that really nails it. We definitely want to continue to walk that line and be able to be broad while we continue to live up to the needs of the people who are really expert-level players. One last question. How is being the Executive Producer for a game like Hearthstone different than StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm?

Chris Sigaty: I became an Executive Producer probably like four years ago now, and that was a much bigger change than I anticipated. I remember when they said 'hey we’re gonna create this new position of Executive Producer' and I told the team 'don’t worry guys, nothing is changing' and of course everything changed (laughs). It might be better to start by explaining what is an Executive Producer versus a Production Director, because I was a Production Director before. My whole career before was always inwardly looking at the development of the game, managing things like what the artists are doing, what the designers are doing, making sure they have all the right information etc. Basically how we are going to get it done.

I give this comparison about Baseball. You’ve got the coaches on the team which are your Production Directors and Game Directors and all of the Design leaders that are actually determining what’s the batting order for the day, who’s pitching, what pitch should go in right now, who do we want to acquire for certain positions etc. The Executive Producer is akin to the General Manager of a baseball organization, and they’re worried about how ticket sales go for the stadium in a particular day, if beer and hot dog sales are going well and how much money are we spending on new players that are gonna come in. So it’s a much broader view.

There’s a lot of similarities in looking at things, not just about Hearthstone the game but Hearthstone as kind of a franchise overall and what we are doing in the space. For me, there’s just been lots of learning. I definitely know the game, but nowhere near the level that Dean knows it (laughs). But it’s similar in that I’m looking at the broader picture in that way. That's great. Thanks as always for your time, guys!

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