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Game of Champions - Team 5's Ben Thompson Talks Evolving Hearthstone from Vanilla to The Grand Tournament
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 02:33pm 11/08/15 | Comments
We sat down with Blizzard's Ben Thompson who is a part of Team 5 and the ever-popular Hearthstone. He chats about evolving the game with fun at it's absolute core, from vanilla to The Grand Tournament. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: So I guess let’s start with Tavern Brawl: how long had that been brewing before it became an actual greenlit process?

Ben Thompson: Well we’d had for a long time -- since ship, right? -- the were three buttons on the front screen and there was always that fourth space, but I will say when we left that fourth button blank [initially], we really weren’t sure what was going to go there [but] we knew we wanted further content; we knew we wanted other ways to play the game -- hence “a game for everyone” -- everyone can play it in their own pace and style.

When we started talking about different options that could go there, Tavern Brawl as an idea came up and we really latched on to it as an opportunity to play the game in a different way; to play in a fun way; in a light-hearted kind of ‘bend the rules in a crazy way’ and break them, that would come and go every couple of days and give people new opportunities.

It’s hard to say a definitive time [as to] when that all started [and] certainly there was a number of different ideas bouncing around, but that one was really the one everyone on the team tended to gravitate towards because it sounded like the most fun. And not just to make, but as players ourselves: to play.

AusGamers: Do you think it was an important… I mean fun is always important, but Blizzard games tend to build on competitiveness as well, and in a really big way. And so there is a pretty decent split between core eSports-style players and casual players, and I think as the meta has been changing players have been delineating more and more, and so was it more important at this stage now to launch Tavern Brawl as a fun alternative to some players being perpetually stuck on, say, level 18 every season?

Ben: I don’t know how much in the decision-making process it factored into an “or” instead eSports-type of option. It really just felt like not only as a fun way to play, as you say, which is important, but also it kind of purveys the charm of the game, like, the light-heartedness and friendly nature of it. eSports being the thing that it is, Fireside Gathering is kind of leaning into that with the idea that there’s a path to BlizzCon and ultimately World Championships through the Fireside Gathering initiatives. So while it wasn’t really a response to [all of that] it felt like it was something nice to take a break with -- play a couple of games over here, jump back into competitive play (if you wish), try your hand over there… it’s just another outlet for more fun [in that] 10-minute game basis.

AusGamers: You guys at Team 5 are notorious for ignoring the “when it’s done” Blizzard philosophy, because you’re releasing content left, right and centre -- you know, it’s announced and then a couple of weeks later, it’s there…

Ben: It was a key tenet of the team. When the team was formed it was really one of the points of the team was ‘small and scrappy’ -- really try out new things [and] experiment with, you know, different content and different types of play modes and things like that, and the timing is one of those things: we really felt like it was the kind of game we wanted to keep vibrant and approachable at all times. And one of those parts is content at a regular basis that makes the game feel like it never gets a chance to settle or go stale or is always fun and inviting, and coming with that is a pretty aggressive schedule.

AusGamers: That’s where I wanted to lead to. It seems there’s no rhyme or rhythm to what you guys are dropping…

Ben: (Laughs.)

AusGamers: I mean we had the first Adventure in Naxxramas, and then we had GvG, and then we had Blackrock Mountain and when you kind of think of those things as a whole, obviously they’re a part of a larger lore, but they don’t really seem linked. Outside of the fact you made cards out of them, and now you can play them… so, is there a tenet to just [go with] whatever idea is the most fun? And how far ahead are you guys working? Because it feels almost like you’re reactively saying ‘that guy’s idea is the best idea -- everybody swarm on that!’.

Ben: (Laughing.) We do try to get a little bit ahead… I know we’d like to be a little bit further ahead than we even are, but we are always thinking of what the next idea could be. And what makes for the best idea and the most fun idea for it. There is something to the… whatever sounds like the most fun; whatever’s going to celebrate a new style of gameplay -- a new keyword: something like The Curse of Naxxramas pushing out more of a Deathrattle idea -- which was there in the shipping game -- but was kind of celebrated and factored in more cohesively in the form of that Adventure, to introducing a new keyword like Inspire for the Grand Tournament which is going to bring your hero back into the game, at the forefront, and [make them] less of a punching bag with a score attached to it. An active participant.

All of these kinds of things we talk with design and art and everybody on the team is [saying] ‘we wanna see more heroes involved and what’s involved in that -- how does that come about?’. Well maybe that’s an idea about champions and all of that stuff kind of organically falls into ‘well it sounds like a tournament, maybe that leads into the Argent Tournament’, [but] maybe it’s not the Argent Tournament because that’s such a WoW idea, maybe we wanna do the more ‘Hearthstone’ version which is champions from all over Azeroth coming together in this fun, light-hearted manner...

And over the course of many, many conversations and months or whatever it takes to get through that idea, it may come up that the next expansion is the Grand Tournament, we’ve got these new keywords: Inspired, like, bring the heroes in to a greater level… does that help us at all to what the next idea’s gonna be? Not at all, the next idea could be something totally different that we feel, while simultaneously offering new tools to players to play the game in a different way, or to help them form decks that to combat other types of decks that become popular, largely it’s just ‘here’s a new way to look at how this game is played’, and ‘here’s a new, friendly way to approach a class you may have never approached before’. [We’re] always just trying to have fun and turn the game on its head.

AusGamers: With ‘the next big thing’ in mind then, what comes first: the art, or the emphasis on a design input or differential to what’s currently there? Because it seems like, with Naxx and Blackrock Mountain it was just the art team saying ‘look at these doodles we’ve been doing, these guys are cool, maybe we should put them on a card?’.

Ben: (Laughing.) God I wish it was that easy. It makes our jobs sound so fun…

It really is design first. Blizzard is a ‘design first’ company, it really is about ‘how well the game plays’, ‘how much longevity is there?’, ‘is it a game you can come back to and play often?’, ‘is there an eSports component?’ is somewhat factored in, sometimes earlier, many, many times later -- it really just comes down to ‘is it fun?’ first and foremost.

But after that design is really sussed out for an expansion or a game as a whole -- whatever it may be, then art gets involved in really putting together the vibe and the style and the feel that best personifies that. And Grand Tournament is no different than Blackrock Mountain or any of these other expansions or adventures in that, that helped provide a visual for the player to really kind of see where we’re wanting to put them -- it’s a creepy necropolis with the undead, it’s a mountain with two warring friends vying for control. Or in the Grand Tournament it’s a light-hearted festival with knights from all over the realm, you know, coming to fight for glory and honour.

So the art plays a large factor early on. The key art, gets done as soon as possible so that we have that piece to real gel everybody around the same idea. So seeing the key art done by Matt Dickson for the Grand Tournament really helps gel the idea of ‘oh wow, it really is this diverse, crazy bunch of champions from all over the land… that’s kind of cool -- what if...’ and then it starts to spread all kinds of crazy ideas. And that’s where the back and forth starts to happen between design and art throughout.

AusGamers: Is there a limit to how far you can take inclusions to the game? So obviously the last two expansions have 130+ cards each, and the two Adventures have roughly 30 cards each… so that’s a lot of new cards being introduced to the vanilla product. Is there an internal ceiling as to how much more you can bring in before certain cards will start needing to be nerfed or the like?

Ben: We don’t have any numbers to determine what a ceiling like that would look like. We’re certainly looking at gameplay at all times, which is ‘are our players still able to build viable decks?’, ‘what are the choices that they’re being faced with?’, ‘are they realistic choices? Or are they very complex choices that stunt any kind of growth for them to try new things because they’re hesitant to add too many cards to decks that they haven’t tried before?’.

And always at the core of this is the New Player Experience, you know, it’s an easy experience to overlook especially in a complex game where there is an eSport element and there is a lot of tournamentised play (he made that word up, not me). [So] the New Player Experience is a key and important one for Hearthstone -- we have a designer who was hired months ago whose whole job is working out what that New Player Experience is. And working with individuals like this both within the team and talking with individuals outside the team as to where something like that ceiling lies, what’s too many cards? Is there such a thing? What’s too few? Where does that lie? It’s [all] something that we actively speak about and try to figure out what that looks like so we can maintain the most informed decision that’s best for the player.

AusGamers: It’s seemed for a long time that Pirates was actually going to be the next big thing…

Ben:(Laughing.) It would be a fun next thing…

AusGamers: You guys tend to drop in subtle card-types baked into the larger drops -- is that a design principle where you say ‘you know what, we might do this down the track, let’s put some cards in there and see how that permeates amidst everyone’s decks and how people kind of react to them’.

Ben: I don’t think it’s so much a design principle as it’s a nice additive, right? To have something like Pirates in there and to kind of lean on that. I mean we’ve never had a Murloc set but there is a Murloc deck that kind of plays to that idea of the fantasy of having a deck full of these rushing Murlocs that are gonna wreak havoc on a board. Or we did have a Goblins versus Gnomes expansion and there are Mech decks because of it -- sometimes the set or the expansion or adventure may lean into one idea or another. Sometimes it’s just about including enough so that the people who wanna make a dragon deck, can make a dragon deck, even though there hasn’t been an expansion to fully solidify or perform a foundation for it. There’s enough there that you can play with it and try new things and then embrace different types of things outside of that.

I don’t think any of us wants to find ourselves in a position -- as game developers -- where we have to form a set around an idea to play with it. It feels very limiting at that point and I think the players want to have as many options as possible, even under the umbrella of a single idea like GvG or Naxxramas.

AusGamers: So going back to the number of cards released with each addition to the game: do you normally start with high number and then whittle away, and then is that really frustrating as an artists because you’ve done all this work and then…

Ben: There’s always a broad number at the beginning -- it’s the funnel, right? Like, you throw everything in there and you start to find out what rises to the top and what’s going to sink right away and so we’re not gonna go with it. Sometimes cards get put on hold and we say ‘that’s not gonna work right now, but I bet there will be a time where that might be something viable’. There’s always ideas that sound cool and we want to explore and flesh out but maybe now’s not the right time, or maybe it’s going to set us up for something we’re not ready to absorb yet in a meta or any number of different things. You know, the design team works together to do that. [And] yes, sometimes we get the descriptions for cards that are set in the game and the art description changes because the powers on the card change, or you know what ‘we’re gonna cut that card’, because the balance team has found that it’s causing more problems than actually helping [so] it’s something we maybe want to come back to once we’ve found a better way to handle it -- there’s all sorts of options for that. As long as the card has got a home and a place and can be made more fun by attaching art to it, we always as an art team look forward to doing that.

AusGamers: How big is Team 5 now?

Ben: We shipped with just shy of 17 people, and we’re just short of 48 now. So [we’ve] little over doubled the size of the team and at the same time, if you consider while it is over double the size, that’s still a relatively small team for, as you pointed out earlier, the cadence of release. It’s very quick in some cases, new play modes like the Tavern Brawl stuff, the new heroes coming out -- all of these other things definitely occupy large portions of the team at any one point. So we continue to be a team of generalists, there’s really no specialisations in the team. I mean my specialisation ‘may’ be 2D illustration, but I can also do a lot of graphic design work, and hence I do: I do a lot of user-interface work. Likewise we have [another] 2D artist who does a lot of 3D who also does textures and [so] we really get to kind of reach over one another and do all of these things at once and it really feels like a cohesive effort at that point rather than a handoff. It’s not a timeline at that point.

Which is, frankly, more fun.

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