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Hearthstone’s Ben Brode explains how improvisational comedy can aid game design


Fascinating new video outlines the game designer's favourites tools for problem-solving

Hearthstone game director Ben Brode has just released a new video which outlines how his previous experience with improvisational comedy has informed his philosophies as a game designer.

The presentation was made at one of Blizzard‘s internal Design Summits held back in 2015, and you can watch the whole thing right here:

In the presentation, Brode runs through a number of different tools and rulesets from improvisational comedy, which he believes can be used to inform and enhance the game design process.

Yes, and…

He starts by outling the “Yes, and…” approach to improv, where one actor pitches a scene and a proposition to another, who in turn has the option to either accept that position and expand upon it, or reject it outright

Brode explains how he used to believe that a good designer was someone who could shoot holes in ideas in all kind of ways. He’d tear down pitches from Hearthstone colleague Eric Dodds until Dodds eventually threatened to stop presenting his concepts. Instead, Brode takes the position of building on new proposals and exploring them, rather than rejecting them – even if he’s sure they won’t work.

Finding the game

The next concept concerns finding “The Game”, and working out what is fun about any given idea and exploring it in greater details. In improvisational comedy, that’s found in the interplay between actors as they explore each other’s emerging “realities”. In Hearthstone, that means taking the basic premise of an idea and finding the true fun.

At the time of making the presentation, Heathstone’s Grand Tournament expansion was close to being revealed. In “finding the game” with this card set, the team had set out with a simple proposition of serious factional agents sending their champions to the tournament, yet the natural evolution of that theme was that the Murlocs and Pirates would also want their piece of the action, and in their own unique ways!

Associated / Disassociated Lists

Associated Lists allow creative thinkers to break down mental barriers and lose the fear of saying something that might make you look silly. It’s word association, essentially, allowing you to take natural steps from one word, and to a related word and so on and so forth. This allows you to find your mental barriers, recognise them for what they are, and break through them.

A harder version, Disassociated Lists, forces you to find the unrelated words and concepts that might take you in a new and unexpected – but often exciting – direction.

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New choice

Brode ends with a look at the “new choice” rule used frequently in improvisational comedy. Here, a referee can elect to force a participant into a new role instantly. The more extreme the transformation, the more effective it is.

For game design, Brode argues this process is useful for brainstorming your way through a problem. It’s about looking for new ways to find solutions, and sometimes it takes you to a brilliant place. He outlines the original Arena drafting process, where the team were committed to a complex asynchronous draft between many players at the same time.

It had a lot of problems, but by not focusing on polishing their original idea and feeling free to explore radically different ideas, they ended up with a much better solution to their problem.

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