Disclaimer: really long post incoming! Only a few Britney Spears references.
I heard once that Britney Spears didn’t go to her high school prom because nobody asked her out. The story goes that the teen superstar was so popular/pretty/intimidating that none of the boys at her school had the balls to ask her out, for fear of rejection. This was nothing like that.
Blizzard right now is, for many of us, 1990s Britney Spears. Every time they post a job opening, it’s like nerd-prom. Unfortunately, we aren’t high school boys (except for a few wonderkids like Amnesiac and GeorgeC–sentiments to the latter for just barely, multiple times, missing out on Blizzcon this year). Unlike the boys of Britney’s high school, when Blizzard posted an opening on their Hearthstone design team, we asked the shit out of them. In the end, I didn’t make it (like that astronaut guy in the “Oops, I did it again” video) but it was a fun experience that some of you wanted to hear more about, so here it goes.
I. The Associate Game Designer Job Posting
The position came up a few months ago, before Karazhan was announced and long before any cards were spoiled (the significance of this fact will become apparent shortly). I have an email showing that I applied on June 1, 2016. The posting itself is now taken down, and I don’t think I took a screenshot of it, so excuse my paraphrasing. From what I recall, they requested somebody with experience in card games, especially Hearthstone, and knowledge of Warcraft lore; they requested a resume, cover letter, and proposed card design.
II. My Qualifications
In terms of card games, I felt pretty qualified. More so, at least, than the average applicant. I also figured that the hyper-qualified people would actually be more comfortable doing what they were doing than becoming part of the design team.
My relevant experience, as outlined in the coolest version of my resume I have ever written, included: a dozen years of Magic:the Gathering, online and cardboard, competing at a local level for most of that time; a couple years of experience playing Pokemon before I got priced out by too many expansions too fast; at least minimal experience with just about every TCG/CCG I have ever come across; Hearthstone play since open beta, including a couple legend finishes, 4 golden heroes, and a decent arena average, all while averaging something like only 5 games per day; my hearthstone blawg, instagram, youtube channel, and twitter; and my own game design–a hobby that is crawling at a crippled snail’s pace, but did include a CCG minigame at one point in the design process.
I knew I was weak in the “knowledge of Warcraft lore,” but I recruited a few friends and friends of friends (some of whom work within Blizzard–I’m not sure if it is wise to name names here, so I won’t, but thank you) to help me bone up. I also started playing some Warcraft III and intended to watch the Warcraft movie and play some WOW (somehow, neither of those intentions came to fruition; I’m still looking forward to watching that movie).
In all, I thought my qualifications were good enough to get me in the conversation. With people like Kibler presumably out of the applicant pool, I felt pretty confident that if I knocked the “card design” aspect of the application out of the park, I might have a shot at an interview. I recruited my friend, a Hearthstone player and the biggest all-around Blizzard fan I know, to help me brainstorm ideas.
At first, I thought I could “shore up” the doubts about my Warcraft knowledge by making a lore-friendly legendary. While that was an appealing prospect, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with my Warcraft knowledge just yet, and I didn’t want my friend’s voice to come through more than my own. On top of that, my friend pointed out that many people would likely create legendaries, so perhaps I could stand out by making a non-legendary. Point taken, my next thought was a flashy new feature/keyword/ability for the game. One such idea was a “Geomancer” card that had different effects based on the gameboard. However, when I realized how many boards there were, and how difficult it was to group them in any meaningful way (Horde-Alliance didn’t really work), we decided it might be better to come up with something that could actually see play and make a positive impact on the game as it already existed at the time. Finally, I came up with the idea of an activator to make “discard warlock” a reality (remember, at the time, we didn’t know about Karazhan). It wasn’t as flashy as my other suggestions, but I thought a well-designed card that could be tested and added to the game right away might just be the realistic angle they were looking for in a new assistant game designer. Because I am so proud of what I came up with, I am copying and pasting the entire text of my submission, below.
III. My Card Design Submission
The following is to accompany my application for Hearthstone Associate Game Designer. Recognizing that there are many goals in designing new cards for Hearthstone—including immersion, balance fixes, and new-player acquisition and retention—my goal in designing this card was to make a card that could help create an exciting new way to play the game that is, at the same time, fair to the existing game. In this context, I mean “fair” to mean both “balanced” and “in keeping with the established themes for each class and capabilities of the game overall.” I did not see any page limitation on the job posting page, so I apologize if I got a little carried away. Thank you for your time and consideration.
I. Card Design Submission
Grave Robber, 2cc
Battlecry: Whenever you would discard a minion card this turn, instead put that minion into the battlefield.
Flavor text: It is pronounced “Fronkensteen!”
Entry sound: I will… take you back.
Attack sound: Let me get a piece of ‘im!
Death sound: I already… picked my plot.
II. Design Choice Explanation
As a Hearthstone fan and player, I think the single most important aspect of a card is its power-level: most cards do not see any play if they are underpowered, and an overpowered card can break the game. Accordingly, I tried to match my card’s price and power-level to that of existing cards. After thinking up the cool ability that I wanted to introduce/expand on—playing cards by discarding them—I looked to Fist of Jaraxxus, the only current card with this feature, as my touchstone of value.
Fist of Jaraxxus appears to value the ability to play it for free through discarding at around 2 mana. To come to this conclusion, I first valued the cost of the spell’s effect and subtracted that from the cost of the card as printed. Dealing 4 random damage to a minion costs 2 (flamethrower), and being able to hit face instead of a minion is either positive or negative, based on the situation. Therefore, I give that aspect of the effect no positive or negative value in this calculation.
Next, I decided whether the valuation in Fist of Jaraxxus could be transferred to minions. Whereas most classes might be entitled to a reduction in “price” for losing the battlecry effects of neutral and class minions, warlock has several negative battlecry effects, making me think there should be no reduction for that aspect. Therefore, I decided that the cost from Fist of Jaraxxus can be translated into about 2 mana per minion. However, the effect seems more fun and easier to understand if it allows for more than one minion to be played for free. This way, there would be no question of what happens after a Doomguard or Dark Bargain is played. Additionally, Fist of Jaraxxus appears to be slightly underpowered (as it very rarely sees play), so allowing multiple minions to be played through the effect seems acceptable. I like keeping the “activator” cost low, because it must be used in combination with a discarding effect. The “cost” of running, and waiting for, activators should be considered part of the cost of the effect.
To curb the effect from being too easily abused, I made it a battlecry. This means that the 2cc price must be paid to get the effect (unlike if the effect were static, or a deathrattle), and means, in most cases, the effect only lasts for 1 or 2 turns per game. Note, this battlecry is clearly one of the “on/off” sort that does not get a bonus from Brann. I also curbed the power by making the activator a weak minion instead of a spell. By so doing, the player loses one board slot for free minions. As the card would most likely fit into some sort of “discard zoo” build, the body would still be of some value, though it is noticeably below-curve.
I considered making the card only summon class-minions or only demons for free, but decided the card is textually “cleaner” if any minion can be played, and that it can be balanced as such. I also considered making the card a 0/1. I felt, thematically, the Grave Robber could hit someone with his shovel, etc., so it should have 1 attack, but its stats leave a little room to adjust his power, if internal testing proves that to be necessary.
Finally, I decided that the card should be Rare because: 1) I wanted players to be able to build a deck around it, which would be easier if two copies were allowed to be run; 2) the card is too powerful and complex to be a common; and 3) most of the cards with which this would interact are either rare or soulbound (so this card should be accessible for cheap, so that the whole “set” is available to newer players who want to experiment with the play style).
B. Class Designation and Theme:
As the relevant cards are written, this card’s effect could work—possibly even very well—with Druid (Astral Communion) and Hunter (Tracking). Also, the game has expanded to the point that any class has access to any card (among other ways, Saraad into Burgle or Thoughtsteal). Therefore, the question is raised whether the card should just be neutral and readily available to all the classes, or a class card that generally sticks with just one class. As you can see, I think it should be a warlock card.
The “discard” theme fits a lot better with Warlock than the other classes and, although present in the non-warlock cards mentioned, is a warlock class theme. Warlock has several cards that could interact with this card and is the class that frequently sacrifices cards, minions, and the hero’s life, in order to fuel powerful effects. Conversely, the discard effect of Astral Communion is simply to balance one, stand-out card; it is not a class-theme. The “discard” effect of Tracking seems to be the result of simplicity of language as opposed to specificity: in traditional card game parlance, one does not actually “discard” cards that were never in the player’s hand. However, Hearthstone does not have a “discard pile,” “graveyard,” or “removed from game” game space that one could simply “put” or “exile” cards into. Moreover, there are currently no hunter cards that interact with “discard” effects, making it almost irrelevant whether a hunter “discards” cards from the top of its deck instead of the hunter’s hand.
Therefore, if this card were neutral, we would need to decide if we wanted: 1) the card to interact with tracking; 2) the card not to interact with tracking, and to change tracking’s language to reflect as much, which might lead to clunkier language; or 3) the card not to interact with tracking, but for tracking’s language to remain the same. I have not tested the interaction myself, but a little research of hearthstone forums indicates that tracking does not currently trigger Tiny Knight of Evil. I recall that Ben Brode spoke on inconsistent language in Hearthstone and expressed that it is acceptable to the team if it serves a purpose such as simplifying text or accessibility to newer players. While I agree with Ben Brode’s thoughts on the matter (especially in light of the fact that players can “test” interactions in-game to learn the rules, unlike physical-only games), I think card language consistency makes the game predictable and fosters the impression of a “real” card collection and that, as a result, inconsistent language should only be used if there is an affirmative reason to do so. I think the problem in this case could be avoided by amending Tracking to read “destroy,” instead of “discard,” but I that such a change would probably not be necessary if the discard trigger effects are kept in the Warlock class.
Turning the massive downside into a potential massive upside sounds very fun, but would essentially eliminate the downside of astral communion (it would allow the druid to either play astral early, for maximum effect—the traditional astral turn 1 or 2, “god hand”—or play a late grave robber + astral combo for an even bigger effect!). This would, probably, make the card too OP. The possibility of this combo, alone, makes me think that the card should not be neutral.
Also, I am aware that forcing one’s opponent to discard cards is against Hearthstone’s design policy as an “un-fun” mechanic. Having played Magic for half my life, I agree that resource deprivation is not fun to play against. Because of this policy, it seems unlikely that this card will have much value as any sort of “counter” or “tech” card, and would therefore not be missed as a neutral.
Finally, the card’s internal theme and flavor seems to work better as a warlock card. The card is taking minions that would have been discarded (“died”) and using them. My thought in imagining this is towards the macabre and right up Gul’dan’s alley. While I could see an alternative reading: the card is “saving” minions that are about to die, or “resurrecting” minions immediately after they die, paladin and priest do not match the discard theme like Warlock does. Therefore, the card effect feels like it should be warlock.
C. Card Wording/Text:
I used the wording from Voidcaller as my example for “put [a minion] into the battlefield.” This is in keeping with the language of other similar cards. I’ve noticed that the word “put” applies to cards that are placed somewhere or created (Desert Camel and Mysterious Challenger put cards that are in your deck onto the field; Duplicate, Echo, and Thoughtsteal create cards that go into your hand; Ancestor’s Call puts a card from each player’s hand into play, etc.). Conversely, I’ve noticed that the word “summon” tends to apply to minions that were not initially cards from the person who gets the new minion’s perspective, at least (see: all the tokens; mirror entity, faceless summoner). The notable exception, however, is that “summon” applies to minions that are “revived” (see: N’Zoth, Kel’Thuzad, Ancestral Spirit, Resurrect, Anyfin Can Happen). “Summon” is also used on Dreadsteed, which has the “flavor” of being revived.
Between the two words, “put” seems like the better choice, given the similarity of the card—gameplay wise—to Voidcaller, and the fact that we are talking about cards from hand. Unfortunately, the second use of “summon” seems to match the card better thematically (in that, one would think, a “Grave Robber” would be stealing corpses, jewelry, etc. from people who are already in the grave, so the minions in question would be “revived”). I think an alternative reading can merge the gameplay with the flavor —the idea that the discarded minions are not dying and being resurrected, but being snatched away before they “count” as dead. Death is being “robbed” of a soul. With that understanding, the story of the card can better match the game mechanics, and “put” is the correct word.
The flavor text is a famous line from the classic movie “Young Frankenstein,” being a nod to the famous grave robber, but with more of the classic Hearthstone jocular tone than the serious Frankenstein sources. The entrance phrase is a reference to when Bill and Ted defeated Death to win their way back to the living. The attack sound is a double entendre of the term one would say when attacking somebody and when taking body parts—again, a reference to that particular famous grave robber. The death sound is another double meaning: a) the grave robber has decided where he should be buried, and b) the grave robber has already stolen from said spot (“picked it clean”).
IV. The Result
When the Karazhan Warlock cards were revealed, I was stoked. Surely, if the design team and I were on such similar pages with Malchezaar’s Imp and Silverware Golem, I had to have made at least a decent impression.Regardless of whether my application was read before or after they decided to make DiscoZoo a thing, I would have to get some credit for the similar wavelength. My friend was convinced I’d get an interview; my wife was convinced they had concocted the position just to get free design ideas from suckers like me. I tried my best to be only cautiously optimistic.
You see, just about a year ago now I applied to a paralegal position with Blizzard, and I never made it past the first round. As an attorney, I was sure that I would get at least an interview for the position I was objectively over-qualified for, but, alas, that was not the case (turns out that many companies don’t like to hire attorneys for paralegal positions, but this was one of the first I tried applying for).
So this time, I was prepared. I knew that no matter how good my chances seemed, there was only one spot and almost certainly thousands of applicants. The paralegal position at least had some objective barriers to entry (a paralegal certificate or equivalent), but this position could be filled by a myriad of people. I needed them to be too scared to ask, but I did not expect them to be. After all, Reddit is filled with people who think they understand Hearthstone better than Team 5. Twitter is almost as bad. It’s possible there’s some merit to at least some of their claims.
So, I braced myself. Still, it was a sad day when I received word that I had not been selected. There’s a special type of disappointment that comes from seeing your dream job (apparently) just outside your grasp. It’s an emotional gut-punch that knocks the wind right out of your heart. But, (to bring my title full-circle) I’m going to keep letting Blizzard hit me, one more time, two more times… As long as there are openings, I will keep applying, because that’s what you do for your dreams.
As a final note, I want to emphasize that Blizzard is an amazing company to get rejected by. As a two-time rejectee, I’ve started to see a pattern of respect to all applicants. They send you a “thanks, but no thanks” email. Not all companies do that. Not even all big companies do that. It takes a while for them to get back to you, but that, to me, indicates that they actually read and consider all (or, at least, many) applications. The typo at the end of the first paragraph (see rejection email, below) gives it an even more personal touch. In short, this whole process makes me want to work there more. Hopefully next time my email will look a bit different. Thanks for reading.