“In this very room, we sit around and try and pitch ideas for the next expansion.” That’s Hearthstone Game Director Ben Brode talking about the decision to go prehistoric with Journey to Un'Goro. The room in question is the real-world Hearthstone Tavern, a large digital-fireplace and glass-stained window equipped room at Blizzard that sits a few doors down from the hard at work Hearthstone team. Where, a passionate group of people are not only closely monitoring how the game is being played each and every day, but also simultaneously working on the next two to three expansions.
And it’s here they meet up regularly to talk about all things Hearthstone. “We write on the board, often something like ‘trolls’ and then one of the guys on the team is like, ‘I don't really like trolls,’” Ben says. “Which is cool because then somebody writes ‘dinosaurs’. So, then it's like, ‘I like dinosaurs, can we just do dinosaurs?’ Un'Goro Crater was a location in classic World of Warcraft that was very focused on that and we felt like that was a good match to do a set exclusively based around dinosaurs.”
Set in the Warcraft universe one might think that, creatively speaking, the options for where a card game set there could go -- would be limited. Turns out that isn’t the case, and since its debut Blizzard’s Warcraft-themed collectible card game Hearthstone has continued to grow -- not only in terms of popularity and scope, but in creativity too. Simply looking at the last two expansions and adventures for the game, we’ve seen both a ‘70s-inspired disco party and a gritty back street crime story. Both set in the Warcraft universe.
“It kind of depends where we're inspired,” Ben continues. “Sometimes we're inspired by mechanics, sometimes it's by the flavour of the world. Honestly, we're just huge World of Warcraft fans. We've played Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft and all the expansions, and we love the universe. And every once in a while, something will pop out and we'll say, ‘Oh, we've got to explore that next.’” As mentioned in the opening paragraph, at any given time the Hearthstone team is not only working on the next expansion but the one after that. And the one after that.
“There's a couple ways that we think about new expansions and worlds and ideas,” Ben explains. “We call them top-down and bottom-up. So, a top-down design is, ‘Hey, dinosaurs.’ What would a set about dinosaurs be like? What kind of things happen in that set? What kind of mechanics make sense for dinosaurs? A bottom-up design is where we come up with mechanics first and then come up with the thematic wrapping around that. An example of that was The Grand Tournament, where we knew we wanted to do a set about hero powers. And then we felt like this setting of World of Warcraft was the perfect mapping to focus on heroism and hero powers.”
In most of its incarnations, from humble beginnings as a real-time strategy game to the continuously expanding World of Warcraft, the Warcraft name usually results in stuff that carries with it a somewhat serious tone. The sort of tone that implies the fate of the entire world depends on what a ragtag group of elves, humans, orcs, and so forth, end up doing. People with die, and sacrifices will be made. One of the key factors in Hearthstone’s appeal, even after three years, is the playful side of the Warcraft universe that it highlights. Something that the team were quick to grab onto.
“The Argent Tournament in World of Warcraft was a much darker foreboding ‘Everybody's gonna die, we’ve got to somehow get it together to save everybody’ affair,” Ben recalls. “So, let's put a tournament on and get the best ten people to go take down Arthas. Because we're going to need more than one, he's just going to raise his undead army. It's kind of a dark thing, but in Hearthstone the core of it that we really liked was, ‘Let's get together and have a fun knight's tournament.’ Forget all the, ‘We're all gonna die,’ stuff. Let's just not worry about that.”
Taking a look at the universe and picking out moments, locations, or even variations on a theme means that there are currently several ideas for potential Hearthstone expansions still sitting on a board somewhere. “I don't want to tell you about the ones that have hung around for a while in case we actually do them,” Ben cautiously takes a moment to reflect on some of the more outlandish ideas shared by the team. “Litch King versus Battle Pets was one that we had rejected completely. Warcraft Babies is another one that we briefly considered. I think it's trying to figure out where the line is for charming and fun but also [something that] still feels Warcraft-y. And the funny thing is, sometimes we'll discount an idea and then realise, there’s another version of that, there's something fun about it, let's go back and explore that one piece of it.”
Recently Hearthstone hit a rather impressive milestone, 70 million players and counting. A number that almost throws out the idea that that the more complicated or involved the game gets, the lesser its appeal would be. But this idea of an easy to get into card game was a huge part of Hearthstone’s initial appeal. Since that time, in terms of raw numbers, we’re talking about an increase from about 200 cards to now well over 1000. This increased complexity, led to a split last year with only core and recent card additions being available for play in Standard Mode. And a new everything goes mode called Wild. It’s still the same Hearthstone, but now there’s a lot more to it.
“Every time we create a new set, we do a lot of testing,” Ben tells me. “This is one of the most exciting times for Hearthstone, because really everything is out the window as far as what kinds of cards are playable and which kinds of cards aren't. In this case, we knew what was rotating in and out of Standard when we were working on Journey to Un'Goro. So, we did all our testing for the expansion knowing what cards would be part of the rotation at that point.” Ben’s referring to the new Year of the Mammoth event, which sees several popular cards from the Blackrock Mountain, The Grand Tournament, and The League of Explorers sets become Wild.
But new cards in, old cards out is only one part of the recent Journey to Un'Goro expansion and ushering in of the Year of the Mammoth. A lot is riding on the introduction of quest cards. Where each class sets out during a match to achieve certain objectives, and if they succeed, are rewarded with some of the most powerful cards in the game. “The quests were a challenge for balance,” Ben adds. “They are very powerful, they have huge effects, the rewards are, you know, the best cards we've ever made. And that is predicated on, okay well I take one of the cards of the opening hand, start the quest, and dedicate a lot of my deck potentially to achieving this quest. The percentage of the time that I complete the quest and how much I've taken a hit with the rest of my deck, these are all factors in how fair a quest ends up being."
“We spent a lot of time trying to nail the balance on quests and I wouldn't be surprised if we missed 10 percent up or down with one of them and needed to come back later and look at it.” Now, taking a look for a game that lives online is par for the course for Hearthstone, and something that Blizzard are renown for. Continual updates, balance changes, community feedback. “We have a team dedicated to live operations, who is monitoring very closely things like server load, database stuff, and trying to figure out where we need to divert resources and fix problems that come up. When millions of players are playing the same game at the same time that’s very hard to test internally. So, we are monitoring that stuff.”
One problem that introducing new cards and decks into the mix solves is the overall feeling that the Hearthstone meta has reached a point where a lot of what occurs game-to-game might start to feel familiar. Which also ties into the appearance of certain decks and what the community might perceive as overpowered or an easy way to win. “It's complicated,” Ben tells me. “There's several different things that we're paying attention to. One of them is just how many people are playing a deck. The more you see it, the less fun Hearthstone is because you're not getting new experiences all the time. And that's one of the things that is enjoyable about the game. If there are reasonable counters, then the meta should change on its own. People are playing a lot of this deck? Well then I'm going to have a really, really high win rate by taking my personal deck against that deck and I'll just win a lot of the games that I play against.”
“Often adding new cards will solve the, ‘Hey, I'm playing. It's the same thing over and over again, it's not fun,’ problem for us by changing the environment and putting new counters or new powerful decks.” But relying on that alone is never the goal. “If we feel like either the next set's not going to have enough impact, or it's a little too far away, or the balance is too out of skew, that's when we come in and make a change.”
With Journey to Un’Goro and the Year of the Mammoth in full swing it’s clear that the future is bright for Blizzard’s continuously charming card game Hearthstone. Wherever the next expansion takes us here’s hoping that the always fun Ben Brode gives us another rap song like Un'Goro: The Journey, his YouTube reaction
to a fan complaining that the cinematic reveal trailer for the latest expansion didn't feature a song. A matter that was brought up in our conversation and one that Ben, or Brode, is certainly conscious of. "I’ve got some rhymes on the backlog that I'm excited about. I want to do a rap about Ragneros The Fire Lord where Majordomo Executus sings the chorus. But he keeps coming in too soon. I'll get there."