John Gillooly talks balancing and focusing on a game’s strengths with Blizzard’s many game dev teams.

Wyatt Cheng keep coming back to one item. “Aether Walker, a Wand for the wizard, [that] allows you to teleport as much as you want. We didn't add that item for a long time, because if one day we do PVP, you’re not going to want to fight against an infinitely teleporting wizard. It’s just not fun.

The Senior Technical Designer on the Diablo 3 team is talking about buffing items in the wake of a few key decisions made over the game’s short history. The first was the removal of the game’’s real money trading system, the second a decision by the team to abandon any plans for PVP modes (at least, anything beyond duelling).

Diablo 3 is enjoying a great run in the wake of this year’s Reaper of Souls expansion. It’s release marked the final excision of the Real Money Auction house, a system of buying and selling rare in game items for actual cash. It certainly made a decent turnover, but as time went on it provided too heavy handed a control over the game, and more importantly over the rate at which fancy items dropped.

Considering that Diablo franchise is largely about collecting loot and throwing on slightly more spangly gear, the auction house loomed as a constant source of pressure when it came to designing items for the game, and it made actually buffing or nerfing items near impossible.

“People ask for PVP. I’m saying. no, I don’t think we are going to do PVP.” is Wyatt’s surprising response when asked about balancing loot after balancing for the Auction House. “In order to do that [PVP] we'd probably have to get rid of the item game”

“At the end of the day what’s more important. awesome items or PVP?”, poses Wyatt, clearly a proponent for the awesome side of the equation. He then points us to Heroes of the Storm, which he calls a “highly balanced game that has a whole amazing, talented team behind it trying to make the best PVP they can”.

That is the way things work in a post-Titan world, where the whole company seems to be loving working on smaller, focused projects. Becoming more than just the WoW developer is a clear goal of a developer that was for many years engulfed by World of Warcraft’s runaway success.

There’s seemingly something for everyone, PVE, ladder based competition in DIablo 3, serious RTS combat with Starcraft and soon Six on Six first person shooting with Overwatch. The biggest hit of all is Hearthstone, which has brought the card game back to an audience of 20 million players.

And then there is Heroes of the Storm, the game due to act as a followup to Hearthstone’s success. Currently moving from fairly open Alpha to closed beta, it is a Hero Brawler, an attempt to smooth off the rough edges currently keeping a lot of people away from the MOBA craze.

Dustin Browder spends most of our interview slot coaching me through a game, playing as one of the new heroes on show, Thrall. I'd shied away from the really fascinating inclusion, the definitely advanced level The Lost Vikings, who could fight as one or split into three heroes. Something to keep the short attention span types happy.

“Easy to learn, difficult to master is always our value” he tells us. “We want to make sure it has enough ways to come back from losing situations.”

There is a spread of heroes available already, ranging quite wildly in difficult to master. Its something needed when catering for such a wide audience. This is one of the ways that Blizzard hopes to smooth the learning curve in a game where, as Browder tells us “you absolutely work together as a team or die alone.”

“Balance is really serious for us. we’ve got multiple guys on the team whose sole job is just game balance.”

“They have a strong voice in the game design. they can come to us and say. We know what you are going for but there aren’t enough hooks in here. A cooldown’s not enough to control the ability. It’s going to be terrible or it’ll be ridiculous. i need some more options.” They should know, too, as the same team is also responsible for Starcraft 2, whose cut throat gameplay is notoriously balanced on a knife edge.

“A game like starcraft is a little tighter in that respect” Browder points out. “In Starcraft we won’t add something even if it’s the coolest thing in the world if we feel it won’t be balanced”. With Heroes of the Storm “We are definitely more flexible”.

Balancing is a big deal at Blizzard, be it loot showering in Diablo, deck building in Hearthstone or high end eSport demands in Starcraft, the company takes tweaking character abilities pretty seriously.

Blizzard is also a place filled with gamers, which means that feedback can come thick and fast from colleagues. According to Scott Mercer, principal designer on the Overwatch team “we certainly get emails saying it’s like ‘those TorBjorn turrets, they are like super powerful...’ we get those kind of emails because there’s fans all across the company. I play WoW, and I know who to go to to complain about a class”

The Overwatch guys were itching to see feedback from players on the show floor. The challenge that they are facing is that unlike most of Blizzard’s other titles, Scott points out that “There are abilities that are very subtle, not direct damage abilities”

“One of the most powerful ultimate abilities is Black widow’s Infrasight. It doesn't even do any damage but what it does is give your entire team knowledge of the location of the enemy, see through walls and everything else, and that’s super-powerful.” According to Senior Technical Director on Overwatch, Michael Elliot “Is it going to be hard to balance, yeah, but that is what beta is about. Getting that massive amount of feedback, getting people into the game”

Perhaps the antithesis of Overwatch’s un-mathematic skills, Hearthstone is a game heavily underpinned with math, which is about to be infused with a major dose of randomness with its first Expansion pack, Goblin’s vs Gnomes. In keeping with the traditions of the two engineering fixated races in WoW, the pack throws a pretty serious amount of chaos into the every changing Hearthstone metagame.

The metagame a term summarising the general trends blowing through the titles, fueled by discussion boards, theorycrafting websites and web based builders for everything from skill trees to card decks. While it usually ebbs and flows, occasionally games will tip too far in one direction or another, and the developers will have to step in and wield the dreaded nerfbat to even things out again.

“I really like the mechs. Sneed’s Old Shredder is one of my favourites. The idea of having a mech come into play when destroyed brings into play a random legendary minion. That will be really fun to play,” says Jason Chayes, Production Director for Hearthstone. The expansion is heavy on mechs and cards that do stuff to mechs.

A lot of the new cards are high risk/reward, which should stir the metagame up a lot and quieten some of the more enduring archetypes in the current ‘metagame’ of favoured decks.

“[We are] dealing with Rush decks. Out there right now is a lot of rush. We have cards like the Explosive sheep, which blows up and does 2 damage to everything.”
The developers will have to step in and wield the dreaded nerfbat
Though it isn't all crazy ideas. “We have to mitigate the randomness”. By providing  counters to players, the power of these cards can be tempered, and that’s part of the fun of the metagame. “Players will be working on ways to build decks to understand the possibilities of what could happen.” When faced with the new cards, another round of popularity will begin.

Ultimately balance seems to always be this way, despite the name. It is constantly shifting according to the metagame, the flavour of the month characters and builds that determine what dominates what at any given point in time.

But the company also knows its limits too, and that’s where the fun happens. As Wyatt points out “there’s one exception, that is if you are playing a witch doctor that has a DOT of infinite duration. Which we also put into the game (D3) because we are not doing PVP”.

Josh [Mosqueira, the game director for Diablo 3] found himself in a meeting with the executives including Mike Morhiome, Frank Pearce, our development director, and they were talking about the Auction house. They were talking about something unrelated to Diablo at the time” “Morhime turned to Josh and said ‘what do you want to do?’ And Josh looked at Mike and said, I think we could shut down the auction house. This is the fi rst time the idea has been fl oated around that room. It all happened so fast once that idea was on the table.” Is how Wyatt tells the story of how the AH was closed.. He is reassured by it though. “Do what’s best for the game is not just something that the team aspires to. It’s a philosophy embraced all the way up to the top of the chain.”

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