Q: When you began to think about creating the first expansion to Hearthstone, what was the internal view at Blizzard of the meta game, and where did you want to take it?

Rachelle Davis: Goblins vs Gnomes is very different to the adventure we put out in July, which was The Curse of Naxxramas, and that’s one of the reasons we’re really excited about it. It’s got a lot of different flavour to it, it’s a lot more lighthearted in a lot of ways. Naxxramas is darker and gloomier. It’s a single point in the world. Of course we took some liberties with it, we made it our own, we made it a bit more lighthearted, but Goblins vs Gnomes is lighthearted by nature. That makes it different and exciting because it gives us more to play with. By adding 120 cards there are also a lot more options, whereas Naxxramas was a 30 card set.

Q: How do you decide how many cards is the right number of cards to introduce in an expansion?

We really feel like randomness adds to the level at which your expertise in the game can shine.
Yong Woo, Blizzard
Throwing a spanner into Hearthstone's meta: Goblins vs Gnomes
Yong Woo, senior game programmer, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Yong Woo: Everything since launch has been a big learning experience for us as well. We released our first adventure with 30 cards as singleplayer to see how players would enjoy it, and how much it would affect the meta. Obviously we were really excited by how well received it was and by how dramatically it changed the meta.

With Goblins vs Gnomes we wanted to try a different way to provide new content to our players. Is 120-plus cards the right number? We’ll find out. We feel confident that it provides the right diversity so that no matter how you play the game, you’ll find something really delightful in the set. We’ll get a lot of feedback from the players.

Q: You mention Naxxramas, and it was primarily a singleplayer experience and sense of occasion. There’s no singleplayer component to Goblins vs Gnomes. Was that something you decided on early?

Throwing a spanner into Hearthstone's meta: Goblins vs Gnomes
Rachelle Davis, software engineer, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Rachelle Davis: We’re experimenting still. I think that is exactly why we’re trying these different options. We had a lot of success with Naxxramas, and we personally loved it, but we wanted to try something different. We’re not closing the door on that kind of idea in the future, but we can’t know something else won’t work as well unless we try it.

Q: At the core of Goblins vs Gnomes is a new line of minion units called Mechs. What was the unifying concept that drove their design?

Rachelle Davis: Mechs are wacky and sometimes lethal and dangerous inventions that our goblins and our gnomes have put together. You’ll see them on the battlefield in their own right, and you’ll see them interact with goblins and gnomes, and with each other.

Mechs have a lot of synergy with one another, and a lot of flavour. For example, a key unit is the Mech Warper, and it makes all other mechs cost one less mana crystal to summon. So you can build some very interesting mech decks. In addition to the regular mechanicals there are also piloted mechs, which I’m very excited about. These guys are mechs but they have somebody inside that’s driving them. Once the mech is destroy, the pilot will eject and with a parachute float down to the battlefield and continue the fight. The exciting thing is that you don’t know who got in, who’s driving. There are three of them, the piloted shredder that drops a two-cost minion, the piloted sky golem that drops a four-cost minion, and then the epic grandfather of them all, Sneed’s Old Shredder, which is only pilotable by a legendary minion, who will then continue the fight.

Throwing a spanner into Hearthstone's meta: Goblins vs Gnomes

Q: New animations and ways for minions to enter and interact on the board appears to be a big component in Goblins vs Gnomes. Clearly that’s something you’ve wanted to do for a while?

Yong Woo: That’s really at the core of Hearthstone. Goblins vs Gnomes is really a lot more of what we already love about the game. We’ve really focused on making a game that’s physical, tactile, a world that you want to be in and be delighted by. We’ve had a lot of awesome animations like Ragnaros bursting from the ground and entering the board in an epic way. That’s always been one of the things that we love about Hearthstone, and something that makes it successful. So in Goblins vs Gnomes we went all-out. We have all sorts: a crazy spinning blade that we spent a lot of time animating just the right way, piloted mechs that eject minions – it’s really great to watch. If you like that feel and vibe to Hearthstone you’ll find a lot to like in Goblins vs Gnomes.

Rachelle Davis: I think you can see as well that it’s a labour of love. It can be hard to tell the order of operations: do we want the animation so we come up with the card [or vice versa]? It’s kind of hard to say what comes first, the chicken or the egg. We’re always trying to make it better.

Q: Randomness, or RNG, is a huge element in Goblins vs Gnomes. Did you feel this was something Hearthstone needed more of?

Yong Woo: I wouldn’t say it’s in response to anything specific. When we set out to make Hearthstone we had a core vision for what we wanted the game to be. One pillar was that it should be a delightful surprise. On the one hand we feel like these random elements can really create sitautions that are shocking and surprising, and are a wonderful way to create user stories: ‘Oh my god, you remember that time I ran my Sneed into your minion, and Baron Geddon leaped out then I ended my turn and he hit all your dudes?’ Those unexpected wonderful events are really what sticks in your mind, and it’s what motives you to be excited and talk to your friends. We really enjoy that, and we really feel like randomness adds to the level at which your expertise in the game can shine.

In many ways Hearthstone is about solving interesting problems.
Yong Woo, Blizzard

When you’re forced into a situation you’ve never seen before – let’s say the piloted mechs – one of the things we love about it is that there are minions in the game that maybe you didn’t think about putting in your deck but they suddenly leap out. Then you’re thinking about new synergies and you really need to focus and think about what it means to find the tactical advantage. To us, that’s really exciting. It’s really going to give players more opportunities to flex their skill.

Q: You’re finally introducing a spectator mode.

Throwing a spanner into Hearthstone's meta: Goblins vs Gnomes
Throwing a spanner into Hearthstone's meta: Goblins vs Gnomes

Rachelle Davis: Yes! The community has asked for spectator mode for a long time, and we’ve seen on our team that people spectate but they spectate in person. We decided to bring that to all the people who want to do the same when they’re not in the same room as their friends.

The way it works is, you can decide whether or not you’d like to have spectators. Assuming that you do, you can have up to 10 of your friends watch your game. You’ll see who’s watching, and maybe they’re goading you on, giving you advice - which you should never listen to because they won’t have your best interests in mind!

As a spectator you can see everything on the board, as well as other things on the board that you may not have the ability to tell your friend about. So if a card is played and you’ve never seen it before, you can mouse over it and see all those details in your own time, at your own speed. Same thing with the histories. You have a lot more flexibility, you can drive it, and you can learn along with your friend who is playing.

Also, it’ll extend nicely into the tournament setting where it’ll provide the tools that organisers have been needing for a while to make things smoother. So that’ll be great as well.

Q: So you can only view your friend’s hand, is that right?

Rachelle Davis: Yes. If both players are your friend you could ask permission watch both friends, and then you could see both of their hands. Now of course you must be friends with them and they must approve you being in the game. You could imagine how that might sometimes be unwanted, so you’re good there, you’re safe.

Yong Woo: I think that’s one point we can be super clear about, because I’ve been asked a couple of times: you can only spectate a game that’s being played by a friend. If I’m spectating your game, I can’t see your opponent’s cards unless he’s also my friend and you guys both let me see both your hands. It won’t lead to any weird cheating situations.

If you were competing in a tournament, like Rachelle said, you can turn it off, and no one can spectate your game so you have your privacy there are well.

Q: Clearly you guys get screeds of data through on what’s working and what’s not working. Were there any cards that sprang to mind as ones that were over-performing or under-performing?

Yong Woo: What’s interesting is that even the most powerful cards that emotionally you feel like, ‘If only I could draw this card, I’d win 90 percent of the time!’ Or, ‘If only he didn’t get that card, it’s so over-powered!’, if you actually look at the stats, the card that gives you the most amount of edge under certain circumstances are like 56 percent win percentage. The margin of advantage that the cards you draw give you is actually super slim. One of the things that [Hearthstone lead designer] Eric Dodds always talks about is creating a game that’s not only perfectly designed in a vacuum but a game that’s also perfectly designed emotionally. So obviously if there are cards that feel over-powered or feel bad when you lose to it, we pay good attention to that.

But right now we feel that the meta is really healthy, and especially with Goblins vs Gnomes coming up with 120 crazy new inventions, we feel the meta will really explode. I think there are a lot of things that will happen that we can’t really predict right now.

Hearthstone: Goblins vs Gnomes is coming this December.
James Cullinane travelled to BlizzCon courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.