Kobolds & Catacombs, the latest expansion for Hearthstone, is available now. In addition to bringing new dungeon themed cards to the fold, the expansion also brings perhaps what is the most re-playable single-player mode seen so far in the long-running digital card game. Called Dungeon Run, it's essentially a boss run mode where delving deeper into the dungeon triggers increasingly more difficult boss battles. And of course, better rewards.
Days before the release of Kobolds & Catacombs we caught up with Dean Ayala, one of Hearthstone’s designers. Who, came to the company in the sort of dream come true way that all Blizzard fans tend to spend at least one afternoon every now and then pondering. As a fan of both Warcraft II and World of Warcraft, the at-the-time restaurant consultant Dean Ayala began his career at Blizzard as part of the Quality Assurance team for WoW. It was whilst Hearthstone was still a well-kept secret that he fell in love with the digital card game, and joined the team as a designer. Even now, several years later, this means ensuring that new cards make a difference, whilst balancing the delicate meta.
“Thematically, this one was, I would say, one of the easier ones,” Dean tells me, referring to the old-school dungeon theme of Kobolds & Catacombs. “The idea of diving into a dungeon and getting loot, which is the core fantasy of what the set is, was really inspirational. For some people on the team, it goes back to classic tabletop gaming, where they would play with their friends. For me, specifically, it just reminds me of discovering games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, and going through a dungeon for the first time in a RPG with all of my friends.”
Naturally, it helps that Hearthstone is an extension of Warcraft. In the sense that it takes place in the same universe but as a fun fireside game that an armour-clad Ork and Human might play as they set aside their differences for an evening.
“From playing World of Warcraft for the last 13 years of my life, there's a lot of inspiration to draw on,” Dean adds. “A lot of dungeons that have been run, and a lot of loot's been had. Drawing on that sort of inspiration is where all these cards come from. When you start looking at old bosses, and old pieces of loot and trying to figure out what this means in the Hearthstone card format.”
With every expansion that Hearthstone receives, it’s the theme that drives the creativity and card creation within the team. But it’s a process that involves a lot of vigilance, in that around three or four hundred cards are designed before that number drops down to a more manageable figure. Kobolds & Catacombs introduces 135 new cards to the fold, with the dungeon and loot theme providing more than enough inspiration.
“Designers work in a lot of different ways,” Dean explains. “Some people work from what we would call top-down, which basically means - when you are thinking about the theme of the set and what's cool, what's my favourite old boss or something. Then you think of that boss, and about what they would do. Maybe they will AoE (Area of Effect) the raid, or maybe they put fire on the ground and it damages you. What does that mean to a Hearthstone card? You might then come up with an idea.”
“The opposite way is what we call bottom-up, and that means thinking about mechanically what Hearthstone needs. Maybe you think, ‘Wouldn't it be cool if Hunters had a cool, controlled death rattle deck?’ What card could I make that speaks mechanically to that theme, that fits in with Hunters and that archetype of a deck.”
Like with any new expansion both are true for Kobolds & Catacombs. And rightfully so, as mechanics drive continual change and improvements, keeping the game feel fresh in the mind of players. And themes for expansions also drive fun, delight, and surprise in how something might translate into the world of Hearthstone. And, bring something new, whilst switching things up a bit.
“Spellstones fit the vibe of going through a dungeon, and finding these weird pieces of loot that upgrade themselves. It feels like an item that you might find in some mysterious dungeon, but just the way Spellstones work is they essentially say - do a specific thing, and if you do, be rewarded.” Dean adds. “Warlocks right now, for example, are playing a deck that has a card called Prince Keleseth. It is very aggressive, and they are playing a bunch of minions early on, helping to sort of swarm the board and defeat their opponent. But, their Spellstone is something that gets upgraded when you take damage, or you do damage to yourself. So, we think that if you want to build this Spellstone in your deck, it's not necessarily good in the kind of deck that currently exists on the ladder.”
As with any new content Blizzard is aware that no matter how much playtesting is completed internally that gets trumped within minutes of new content going live. Which naturally leads to players and the audience engaging in unexpected ways. “The whole point of having an evolving meta game, is that there is a lot of depth there,” Dean tells me. “I think if we could figure it out as a group of four over the course of a month, completely, then we probably didn't create a game that's going to have a lot of depth.”
Of course, catering to the existing audience is only part of the story. Even for a game that has existed for a few years, like Hearthstone, when designing new content, mechanics, and cards, a lot needs to be taken into consideration. “That's probably one of the biggest challenges in being a game designer in general, because that is the job.” Dean explains. “The job is essentially to take into account who is the player base. We have new players. We have players coming back after being on a three-year hiatus. We have players that are playing six hours a day. We have players that are playing, you know, an hour a day, but only once a month. The experience for all those people is so much different, so trying to create a card set and a bunch of systems that are good for all of those players is pretty much the goal.”
For new players, Kobolds & Catacombs new Dungeon Run mode represents the perfect entry point. A simple, fun, and easy to follow sequence of boss battles all based around the theme of delving deeper into a mysterious dungeon filled with treasure and danger. As a separate mode to the competitive multiplayer side of Hearthstone, it also leaves room for the team to create fun and exciting new cards specifically for single-player.
“Because we don't really care how the AI feels at the end of the game, we can make cards that are, like, ‘Hey, deal 20 damage to your opponent and discard their hand.’” Dean says. “That's not like an actual card that exists, but it's just the idea of doing crazy, powerful stuff. We don't really have to worry about how it feels to play against. So, we can create these cards that are crazy powerful, that would feel awful to play against if you were a person, but if it's the AI, that's okay.”
For a game like Hearthstone, the team was able to draw from a few years of ideas for Dungeon Run - where the above is true. Cards that would simply not work in the context of a regular game against a human player. But be totally fine against a giant rat boss you’ve stumbled upon in a dungeon. It’s the simplicity and accessibility of something like Dungeon Run that has informed Hearthstone since its launch. Or, been the main reason why just about every Blizzard game has endured after several years.
“Staying determined to keep complexity low, and keeping depth really high,” Dean explains what hasn’t changes for the team even after four years. “My guess is that it's easy to dip into your pocket and be, like, ‘Hey, we've done all of this stuff before,’ and so we needed to do this really, really crazy thing. Staying vigilant on and making sure that you have cards that sometimes just have one or two words on them, and continuing to deliver an experience that is easy for you to understand is important."
"All the players that have been playing for four years, at one point, they had never played a game of Hearthstone before," Dean concludes. "Maybe our most engaged Hearthstone player, maybe the person that wins the World Championship, you know, five years from now, hasn't played a game of Hearthstone yet. In order to get that kind of person into the game, you need to have sort of an easy learning curve for them, and let discover the game at their own pace.”