Blizzard have certainly had some phenomenal successes, but few have captured the imagination quite like Hearthstone. Since its official launch in 2014, it’s cornered a particularly lucrative corner of the trading card game market, thanks to its accessible nature and well designed interface. As such, it’s organically grown into an eSport that’s heavily contested each year, but also a healthy player base with players of all skill levels able to access not only via PC, but also their mobile devices.
In the days before the latest set – Kobolds & Catacombs – releases to general audiences, we were invited to sit with Ben Thompson, Art Director, and Peter Whalen, Senior Game Designer of Hearthstone, to discuss not only the new set, but also what goes into making a new set, how their design philosophy has changed over the years, and even a little bit about the stellar work of Blizzard’s in-house cinematic team.
TSA: For those who may not have heard about the new expansion, can you explain a bit about Kobolds & Catacombs?
Ben Thompson: Kobolds & Catacombs is essentially our love letter to the fantasy dungeon crawler; recreating that moment of what it feels like to gather with your friends and delve into a dungeon, kicking down doors, beat bosses to a pulp, take their loot, and then find another door to kick down.
So really with all that in mind, it’s the set that celebrates treasure, the set that celebrates the gold, the magical items, and everything in-between. There’s the idea of progression as well, with dungeon crawls being a new introduction to this piece.
So in addition to the 135 cards with the set that goes out, the dungeon crawl experience is our new single player content with the aim to recreate going through dungeons with your friends, that’s new to Hearthstone as a whole and should be a lot of fun!
TSA: It’s no doubt that Hearthstone is phenomenally successful, with each new expansion granting it a new lease of life. Kobolds & Catacombs coming with new modes such as Dungeon Run, as you say. What is the thought process when designing a set?
Peter Whalen: So we talk about a lot of different things. The first question is, “What’s the set we’re going to make?” Are we going to make a set about giant dinosaurs? Are we going to make a set about evil zombies in a frozen wasteland? Are we going to make a set about treasure and dungeon crawls?
So we figure that out and that inspires mechanics. So we’re making a treasure set, what sort of mechanics do we want? Well we want something that captures the feeling of unidentified items. You wander around and find something, not quite knowing what it is. We want items that capture that feeling of levelling up, your character getting better as the game goes on – that’s the Spellstones. We want just awesome treasure – that’s the legendary weapons. We want some adventurers hanging around – that gave us the recruit mechanic.
We’ve talked about the mechanics that have gone into it, now talk about class themes – what are the things classes are excited about in this set? So Warlocks is excited in giant demons, Mages like very powerful spells, Paladins have a bunch of minions that come along with them, Warriors are these armoured hulking brutes. So we figure out how to capture that into the mechanics, talk about the mechanics that make sense for the Warrior in that context, the mechanics that make sense for the Mage in that context.
Once we have that, we then look at the individual cards, like the one-off cards that capture the feel and experience of the set. Things like Rin, The First Disciple – who’s setting up this horrible ritual to summon this massive demon; the Dragon Temporus who’s hanging out in the Kobold dungeons – he’s a time Dragon, what’s he doing there? Why are there so many Dragons in the Kobold Catacombs? It’s because Dragons are core to that fantasy setting and treasure.
TSA: It’s been well over 3 years since the initial betas and release of the game. Have there been any sets or individual cards that looking back you wish you had the opportunity to redesign/tweak?
Peter: Sure, we’re always iterating on our process. We’ve learned a lot in the last 4 years on how to make Hearthstone better and how to better make Hearthstone! We’re releasing better designed sets now than we were years ago, because we levelled up. We’re better at our jobs and better at understanding what makes for fun Hearthstone games, what the community is excited about, what are the things that are good for the game.
At the same time, our processes are better. We’ve learned a lot about how to make Hearthstone. One super simple thing we learned while making Kobolds & Catacombs is that initially we’d do everything all at the same time. People would pick something interesting to work on, but what we do now is, for a week, we would focus on the three classes. This is going to be the week we look at Warrior, Mage, and Priest.
That’s a thing in initial design that makes a lot of sense. We need to get their class themes working against each other, making those decks fun on the whole. Final design doesn’t have that luxury, in that they need to play against everything else, but spending those three weeks focused has made a huge difference. It’s much easier to do our job and better understand what’s going on with each of those classes.
TSA: So for example one of the sets from the Year of the Kraken sets, if you had the opportunity to do something different with those sets, what would it be?
Ben: Process then was very different to the process now. That would be for instance the advent of starting to do concept art for each and every set, with the art team working very closely with the design team more and more closely with each set as it turns out. So we not only get a better understanding of what the set is or should be on paper, but also visually as well.
What we found as early as the Kraken, or even earlier, was the idea that we would leave a meeting thinking everyone’s on the same page, but we get back to our desks and everyone was mostly on the same page, give or take 10%. 10% on 10% on 10% makes 30% off the main point when three different people have three different ideas.
So what we found was that working closely with the concept team to help provide visuals for the set provided more opportunities for discussion. People literally got on the same page and everyone totally stood behind the 135 cards that were going into the set, everyone completely understood the vibe, and as a result it felt like a more cohesive product at the end of the day.
TSA: What’s harder? Retaining veteran Hearthstone players or bringing new players into the fold?
Ben: Both are important and both come with their inherent challenges. Certainly veteran Hearthstone players always want a new challenge and want to challenge themselves, seeing continued depth added to the game. We in turn want to provide that at all times.
There comes the pitfall though that by focusing so much on depth and complexity, you can often at times leave new players in the cold. They don’t have as many opportunities to love the game at that level, if they feel the complexity is so great out of the gate.
By association, we need to always feel that Hearthstone is an inviting place and that there remains opportunities for new players to learn the game and come to it much in the same way experienced players did, but taking the new sets that came in with the idea of rotation – they’re still playing with great, current sets, but there’s a smaller sub-set of things in addition to that. When do we expose them to things like the Arena? When do we say it’s the right time for them to start taking part in more organised play, if that’s something that’s done in the confines of Hearthstone? Maybe their first Fireside Gathering?
TSA: There’s a lot of competition out there now compared to three years ago, including the Elder Scrolls game and a new Magic the Gathering game, which I read that Ben used to be a Card Artist for.
Ben: Yeah, I was an artist for Magic the Gathering for 10 years!
TSA: Why do you think Hearthstone has endured?
Ben: I can’t speak for my competitors, but I definitely believe with Hearthstone, the point about it being a game for everybody, has shown through for the past 3+ years of development and release of the game.
We love an open space where there are as many people out there as there are making cards games. We believe in the genre, believe that card games have a lot to offer, and are a lot of fun. There’s room for more than one game out there and we’re happy to see as many people making them as there are!
TSA: One of the major things that keeps me invested are the Tavern Brawls. Around a year ago, or maybe more, we had a tie in between Hearthstone and Diablo where the player fought a wanderer – that one stuck in my mind so much! Will we see more crossover events like this, perhaps relating to say Overwatch?
Ben: We were able to do something like the Diablo related one because they both occupy fantasy worlds and it makes a sort of sense. It was also very tongue-in-cheek as to what was being referred to. It was never, “Hey guys! It’s Diablo!” It was a fantasy trope pulled through into the World of Warcraft setting that Hearthstone enjoys.
I think that’s harder when we go through to something like, say, Overwatch or Starcraft. There’s never really been a want to pull the other genre’s in to that extent, we believe that Heroes of the Storm does that amazingly, but that’s their thing and that’s what makes them strong. Where we are strongest is where we are focusing on the kind of game that Heartstone benefits from.
TSA: Just thinking on the fly, you could probably do something with Tracer maybe?
Ben: Possibly? Who knows!
Peter: It was for the 20th anniversary for Diablo, so maybe for the 20th anniversary for Overwatch!
Ben: I would love to celebrate that!
TSA: I did have one other question lined up, but I wanted to talk first about the animations. When is Blizzard going to make a Feature Length Animation like Disney or Pixar?
Ben: I love our cinematic team! I think they’re one of the best in the business. Frankly the kind of passion in their work and the effort they put into each and every cinematic, regardless of the game, but certainly speaking for Hearthstone, has been nothing short of stellar.
TSA: Love that musical trailer!
Ben: That was beautiful.
Peter: It’s so good!
Ben: It’s one of my favourite things they’ve done. I like each and every cinematic we’ve come up with for each and every expansion, but the Hearth and Home trailer has a special place in my heart and certainly in the heart of the team in that it represents better than anything to date the feeling of being in the game. The idea that there’s players just like you in Azeroth, just like you are there virtually, in their favourite Tavern with their friends playing the game. To continue doing shorts like that with those characters, evolving and telling their stories, is certainly something we intend to do.
TSA: Finally, if you could get three people into a Fireside Gathering, who would they be and why?
Ben: Oh goodness, great question! Holy cow! Give me a second…
TSA: That’s okay, take your time.
Ben: Well you see I have one out of the gate. Elon Musk [CEO of Tesla and SpaceX], because I bet that guy has some crazy combos and thoughts I wouldn’t even imagine. He definitely plays with his kids, so I know he has some thoughts as to what he could end up doing. I think he’d be really good!
I’d better put another artist or somebody like that, who is less gaming inclined so that I might have a chance at winning, so I would name any of the artists externally who are responsible for the art on the cards, so I’ll say Matt Dixon because he’s a personal favourite. He loves the game and can play the game, but I think I have a chance at winning, so I’ll put him there.
And the last one I think I’ll say Mike Morhaime would be fun to play, because I know he has proximity to the game and really enjoys it, loves playing it, but I haven’t actually got to play the game against Mike. That would be really fun.
TSA: What about you Peter? You don’t have to think of three.
Peter: It’s tough. I’d love to play against other designers of other games, the greats from totally different genres, like John Carmack. There’s so many other great game designers from shooters or other card games, so I’d really like to see what they think of Hearthstone – that’d be pretty awesome.
Once again I’d really like to thank Ben Thompson and Peter Whalen for taking the time to speak to us. Images from the event were taken at the event by Gareth Dutton Photography and kindly provided by Indigo Pearl PR.
You can pre-order 50 Booster Packs for the Kobolds & Catacombs set via the Battle.net app or within the Hearthstone app for either PC or mobile devices. Kobolds & Catacombs will be released officially 8th December 2017 and we will most certainly be bringing you impressions of the cards soon.