Q: Hearthstone was officially released just over two years ago. Can you tell me how the game and the team has evolved over that time?
Ben Thompson: Oh, it’s so different in so many ways. I mean, Hearthstone still feels like Hearthstone, and I think we've worked very, very tirelessly to make sure that it continues to evolve, but at a pace where it never seems to out-distance itself from what it once was and what we want to be in the future. The team that's making it has gone from what we were when it initially released with roughly 17 people… we're up to 70 now. So, that's a lot of people and a lot of content that's promised to come through over that time. We're still looking at roughly three expansions a year. There's a rotation that will take place at the beginning of every year, roughly first couple months. That helps us keep the game evolving as much as possible – keep it new and as fresh and as interesting as we know it can be. And an expansion like Mean Streets of Gadgetzan in is no exception to that. You know it's going to offer a lot of new things for players in terms of deck and new strategies.
Q: Was the team prepared for the success of Hearthstone?
Ben Thompson: I would like to say yes, but I don't know if that's a hundred percent true. We were certainly very surprised. But we are extremely happy that so many people took to it. We wanted to make a game that really felt like it was for everyone. And I think we were even surprised by how many people grabbed onto the game. We’ve learned that this is a game where for the first time, spouses, or sons and daughters, or fathers and parents are coming to a company like Blizzard for the first time. You know you've got spouses who are learning for the first time why their husband or wife spent so much time in World of Warcraft or StarCraft, and that's a really fulfilling feeling – to think that it found such a place and a chapter in Blizzard’s history so quickly. That was a big part of it. I think at the same time we were very surprised by the Twitch response. You know just within the day. Even beta right. There were so many Twitch streams just streaming the beta of it. And then once it went live the kind of response the streamers had to it and viewers of Twitch streams just constantly finding itself in the top numbers. That was exciting and particularly satisfying.
Q: Hearthstone is your first and only game in he mobile space. Was releasing on mobile a no brainer, or a something the team needed to debate? And is the team happy with the reception the mobile app has received?
Ben Thompson: It's been awesome. Before Hearthstone, I think a lot of people including us were not sure, not 100 percent confident of what kind of game could occupy the mobile space and still feel like a Blizzard experience. There's always a lot of focus at the studio on: what is the Blizzard experience? Does the platform matter? What do our fans want? Can we produce something that feels like us on a platform very different to anything we’ve even attempted before? It was a big ask for the team. Going to something like phone or tablet was a huge risk, but Hearthstone just felt like the right one for that. It felt like the right one when it came to just the scale and scope of the game in terms of just visible assets on the screen at any one time and even just the footprint of the game. But we always needed to be sure about the player experience, and how we can optimise it in such a way that doesn't sacrifice quality. So, it wasn’t a no-brainer, but we did need to think long and hard about if we could do it and keep the experience positive for every player.
Q: One thing that Hearthstone does very well is that it takes the established WoW canon and puts a whimsical twist on it. What is it like for you and the art team to take these iconic characters and creatures and shine them under a different light?
Ben Thompson: I think for me personally – and certainly speaking for the rest of the art team – that's our most fun. That's when we're at our most powerful. The idea that World of Warcraft has such an established, dedicated and strong player base for a good 10 years now really allows as to explore a huge sandbox, it's one of the reasons why we chose it. There's so many stories that can be told. A big goal of my own is to not tell the same stories twice. We all know what it was like to do the Karazhan Raid. It was a beloved raid for players world over. Even to people on staff it’s a favorite. It's a touchstone of what it was to be in the World of Warcraft and have those experiences.
But as strong and as powerful as those experiences were, we didn't want to tell the same story again. So, we started having meetings that evolved quickly into how do we make this different? How did we make this Hearthstone? How we can inject some humour into it? Is that enough? Like, what can we do to make it feel new and really announce itself as something new? And when we started having those kind of broad, open-minded discussions of, "Well, he's a mage he's got this tower it's very powerful. There is an opera house in it. Why is there an opera house in a mage's tower? I don’t know, that's a good question."
So, it evokes the idea of: well maybe when he was younger he just threw parties here. Maybe if he threw parties then gosh, he's like the Great Gatsby, and like oh my god you know that would be so awesome! The most decadent parties across Azeroth. I don't think that's any different when we look at The Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. Everybody knows Gadgetzan – if you played WoW you spent time there, crossing the auction house between Horde and Alliance. There's very specific reasons why in WoW why you were there. We need to give the 'why are you here?' in Hearthstone. How is your experience going to be different? How do we engage established players who think they know what to expect when they get there, and players who never stepped a foot in World of Warcraft? How do we give both groups a very unique and fun experience?
Q: It sounds like the art team has significant input on not only what the game looks like, but the actual content as well.
Ben Thompson: Yeah, it's as far as dev teams go. There's a tendency to believe that most development teams are split into engineering, design, art, and production, and that's it – they don't cross over very much. Oftentimes the influence of design is assumed to be basically handing down bullet lists going to the different teams or different sub teams and that couldn't be further from the truth with Hearthstone. Since day one, a lot of design decisions have been influenced by an art piece, and the teams are constantly reaching over one another to try and grasp at what can be really really an awesome moment, experience, or even just a foundational piece to each and every card set or even a piece of card text. That kind of interaction breeds a lot of ownership in a team. It's not just a sub-group or special echelon within a team that controls the game, but rather the team as a whole all coming together every single time for every set.
Q: That sounds like fun way to make a game.
Ben Thompson: It is super fun. It's certainly exciting. There are really no egos on Hearthstone. It really is a bunch of people who want to make a game we want to play.
Q: So how long does it take to design an expansion or card set?
Ben Thompson: It's hard to say – it's a kind of on a per-set basis, or even a per-card basis. If you look at the sets, there's always the “what's the next set going to be?”. And that's very much influenced by what the last set was. If you look at Whispers of the Old Gods, that had the propensity to be our darkest set ever in terms of tone. I mean, the Old Gods are coming back to Azeroth. As a result, something like the Karazhan Adventure is a response that is a very whimsical party driven atmosphere to kind of offset the scales if you will. Hence, Mean Streets of Gadgetzan is somewhere in between. There are gangs and there are these dark streets and alleyways, but it's very tongue-in-cheek and it's very self-referential, and knows what it is.
The team as a whole is constantly working to look at the individual sets of cards, the decks that are likely to be made with that. Playing them against one another so we know what the right thing is. A good example of that was a card like that is finally making its appearance in The Mean Streets of Gadgetzan; Patches. Patches is the ultimate pirate, a many-eyed type of creature who wears patches on more than a couple of those eyes. His first iteration was as far back as The Grand Tournament, but he just didn't find a home there. It didn't fit. The synergy of those cards with him wasn't quite right. So we looked at him for a couple more sets until finally the one that made sense for him was the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. We do this on a regular basis. We may keep an idea for a card for months, or even longer.
Q: Speaking of Mean Streets, is there any central mechanic or theme you’re attempting to push with the expansion?
Ben Thompson: We have some ideas we want players to explore: new mechanics, and new card types in the form of tri-class cards. Simultaneously, is the story and the vibe of the setting. The idea that we're going to break the rules by being in this kind of back alley illicit trade kind of dark streets of Gadgetzan. They would likely not play by the rules either. So introducing something that breaks the rules by combining classes gave us plenty of room for awesome new deck types to emerge. Where previously a Priest or a Warlock or a Mage were locked into their own class cards, we are now giving them a chance to play with each other’s cards. In some instances we look at the trade closed cards and see how each of those classes come into their own. Those are going to be very important when it comes to making new deck types.
What is also cool about it is for a player like myself who is a little bit more story-driven (which is why I am as bad of a player as I am), it's better place to focus more on story and vibe. You know, to build a deck that can almost tell a story about who’s playing the deck. I get something too, because I get to think about sticking with the Cabal for a second. Something like the idea we've got Priests, Mages and Warlocks, their magics couldn't be more different. And yet the way that they come together here in Gadgetzan having been kicked out of their individual schools of magic for creative differences allows for an opportunity to think about : what if as a Warlock player for the first time I get to heal him? My hero card becomes a lot more viable and useful now. What if as a Mage I get access to things like Warlock power which is trading a little bit of myself for something, which I'm not usually able to do. Those kind of interactions are super interesting, and then when you open them up to the other two families and the idea of the Grimy Goons and the Jade Lotus. What kind of interactions are going to happen there for the first time? That would be super interesting to see.
Q: As always happens with a new card pool, the meta will change. Have you tailored this set to address some of the concerns raised by players regarding both ranked and arena play? Especially around dominant classes, the rise of tempo, and the loss of combo, OTK, and other specialist decks?
Ben Thompson: We are always aware of the concerns that specific, and even ones that are more general. We are always looking at the arena player and looking at the standard player, and the wild player. We're also very aware that a key tenant that we started with is: it is a game meant for everyone, but it doesn't mean everybody will play the game the same way. It doesn't mean that they will play it like everyone else does. So we always take into consideration those players, and what we're doing to really attune cards and certain decks for those players. So looking at things like arena for instance: we are looking at which cards are the best to include in a set, and what makes the most sense making sure that you're not putting cards in that end up being dead in your hand. We are hoping to give the players the tools they need to play the game the way they want to, but also allowing for a level of discovery.
For the standard players, we wanted something to keep the game fresh and challenging. That is part of the reason we brought in seasons and card rotation. This way, we plan to stop the meta stagnating, asking players to find new interactions and new deck types and new styles of play. We know that people will miss cards, and we will try and find new takes on things. So while you might lose a tool, we give you something that might work in that spot but in a way that is new and exciting. We don't ever want to get to a point where all we're doing is really just renaming a card and putting it in with a new piece of art. We want Hearthstone to be surprising, and we want people to be making new decks. But we are also aware that we need to be sure we are not removing elements that players want. So while I can’t give specifics, I can say we are aware of the concerns and will continue to listen and evolve our content to address those concerns. We don’t always get it right, but as we’ve shown with recent arena changes nothing is set in stone, and player feedback is an important design tool for us. We do feel that Mean Streets will add a lot of new tools to shake things up, and with a new season starting sometime early next year, there will be plenty of opportunity for all of us to try something new. New as a design team, and new as a player.
◆ Chris travelled to BlizzCon courtesy of Blizzard.