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Talking Hearthstone - Descent of Dragons, Battlegrounds, and a Long Lost Underwater Adventure
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 02:46pm 06/12/19 | Comments
We sit down with Hearthstone’s Lead Designer Dean Ayala and Producer Melissa Corning to discuss the new dragon-themed set, the new Auto Chess inspired Battlegrounds, and more.

“I think the goal with every expansion is to do something new that feels different,” Hearthstone Lead Designer Dean Ayala tell me. We’re discussing the latest expansion set for the long-running competitive card game set in the Warcraft universe. Called Descent of Dragons, it not only closes out the game’s current Year of the Dragon season but also the yearlong narrative that has driven Hearthstone this year. Culminating with a dragon-filled sky battle between the League of Explorers and League of E.V.I.L. The perfect backdrop then, for some winged creature cards.

“When you're playing a new expansion, and you're playing the first five games of on launch day we want you to run into stuff that's a little bit different,” Dean continues. “There's some amount of expectation of that going in, so we want to have cards that are powerful and thematic. For Descent of Dragons we want you to feel that this is the dragon expansion without hearing the name or opening any packs. You just come in and play and you get the vibe that, yeah, there's a lot of dragons.”

The genesis of creating a new mechanic and cards around dragons was born from the story being told, where a big showdown in the sky would serve as the battleground for a grand finale between the forces of good and evil. The idea of head villain Raffaam raising the powerful proto-dragon Galakrond to wreak havoc on the world was born, which the team took as inspiration to drive the design of the new set.

“When you're playing a new expansion, and you're playing the first five games of on launch day we want you to run into stuff that's a little bit different.”

In Descent of Dragons the big new mechanic revolves around Hero Cards for the playable classes that are, well, Galakrond reincarnated. Who can be upgraded throughout a match by playing minions and spells that bear the Invoker keyword. In the process Galakrond’s title will change, alongside his form, offering players more powerful benefits specific to each class.

“Just from a top-level down perspective before even talking about mechanics, we thought that idea was cool,” Dean explains. “Having a cast of characters that are kind of praising Galakrond in different ways was interesting. You might have some Invokers that are Rogues that want a thing from Galakrond and that's why it will work in a specific way with a Rogue. And then with a Warlock, demons might be involved so it’s a different flavour.”

“From a mechanical perspective,” Dean continues. “Building up towards a goal and then achieving that goal, playing these cards in the right order and under the right circumstances, it just makes the games feel different.”

With Hearthstone having released over a dozen expansions since its 2014 debut, the team at Blizzard has a process and method when it comes to designing a new set – but still leaves room for experimentation and ideas to form naturally. In the case of Descent of Dragons, the story and yearlong narrative ambition of 2019 drove a large part of the design – but this isn’t always the case.

“Sometimes we'll get in a room and we'll simply talk about ideas that could work, sometimes it's an overall theme, sometimes it's character, and sometimes it can even be a mechanic,” Dean tells me. “Recently we were sitting in a room and were talking about ideas that might be cool. When we got to mechanics there were ideas thrown around like weather or words like graveyard or even vehicles. What we try and do is then translate that into how it might work in Hearthstone. It’s always a matter of where's the starting point and then we kind of fill in the gaps after that.”

The team at Blizzard has a process and method when it comes to designing a new set – but still leaves room for experimentation and ideas to form naturally.

Arriving alongside Descent of Dragons is a new game mode called Battlegrounds – a new way to play Hearthstone that isn’t tied to a new set or story. “We have Tavern Brawls, which are weekly riffs on Hearthstone game modes,” Hearthstone Producer, Melissa Corning begins when the discussion shift towards the inception of Battlegrounds. “A designer from the Tavern Brawl team who was really into the Auto Chess genre went in to take a shot at what would that might look like in Hearthstone.”

Popularised by the likes of Riot’s Teamfight Tactics and Valve’s DOTA Underlords, the auto chess or auto-battle genre sees players spend time and resources gathering units, upgrading, and then taking a seat as battle ensues without their input. “He made a 1v1 prototype, got some people to play it and everyone felt that there was something there,” Melissa continues. Noting that development on Battlegrounds began in the early parts of 2019. “People then started throwing ideas back and forth and it just kind of built from that initial passion of one designer. And slowly over time we’ve added more people to it.”

Blizzard, clearly excited of the prospect of Battlegrounds has released it in beta form post-BlizzCon 2019 to get the community involved in its continued development. “There's a whole list of features that we want for Battlegrounds and we made the choice to release it now without all of that so we can get feedback from players,” Dean adds. “Battlegrounds is an opportunity for players to tell us what they enjoy, what features they want to see, and what kind of changes they would like to see. We're listening.”

Since making its debut the Hearthstone team has been addressing feedback and adding new features at a steady pace. Melissa notes, “We'll keep supporting it and we'll keep improving it and adding features to it as long as people want to play.”

"There's a whole list of features that we want for Battlegrounds, but we made the choice to release it now without all of that so we can get feedback from players.”

A different approach to expansions, which sees the team react constructively to potential balance issues and how cards and mechanics might be performing. Rarely, if ever, are features or thematic elements altered based on feedback. Which makes sense once you realise that for a typical Hearthstone expansion, like Descent of Dragons, that side of development was completed long ago.

“We're about a year ahead in terms of just card design,” Dean confirms. “Right now, it's about the eighth week in the expansion that's going to launch around the time of next BlizzCon. We're far ahead in that sense. The things that we can react to; of course, we can react to game balance, it would be silly to say that we’re technically done with a set. In terms of the theme, that would be a lot harder because we've already done like all kinds of art and everything else. But we’ve found those things also are not likely to change. Let’s say this time last year, we found out that people don't like dragons. It's unlikely that something like that's going to happen.”

With that in mind it’s safe to say that the Hearthstone team has 2020 mapped out in terms of expansions, with the prospect of another yearlong story most likely not on the table.

“We’ll probably take a bit of a break when it comes to the yearlong narrative stuff,” Dean responds. “Because telling individual stories in an expansion is also really cool. One of the advantages to doing a longer story is that you get to work on these characters, and Hearthstone doesn't really have the advantage of being a game with a tonne of text so it can be difficult to tell a traditional story. If you're using the same characters over the course of the year, that can help a lot with that. You can get more invested in each character.”

“We enjoyed doing it,” Melissa adds, in relation to the Year of the Dragon’s narrative arc. “I don't think we would say this is what it is going to be moving forward. If we had another idea that would make sense for it again, we would be open to it.”

"We’ll probably take a bit of a break when it comes to the yearlong narrative stuff, because telling individual stories in an expansion is also really cool.”

So then, where to next. Of course, getting specific answers in this regard or a detailed roadmap from Blizzard was out of the question – so the discussion then shifted towards ideas or themes that the team has for one reason or another not progressed beyond the brainstorming phase.

“It's kind of strange to talk about,” Dean responds. “The ones that linger on are the ones I think that we're going to do. One that we haven't ever fleshed out is the idea of an underwater expansion. I feel comfortable talking about that because I know it's not on the horizon. That idea of the Naga and going underwater and then there's some like cool, fancy tropes of Atlantis and underwater treasure in cities, pirates, and all that kind of stuff. That seems like it would be a fun theme to explore. We're always looking at it too and wondering if there's something there. There's a bunch of themes like that though, and we're lucky to work in the Warcraft universe which has such a rich history.”

“We’ve even talked about doing a true classic Warcraft aesthetic around Warcraft III with Night Elves and Humans and that sort of theme,” Dean concludes. “We could use any real point in history because Hearthstone’s kind of like an alternate universe party, so we're open to interpreting different themes and landscapes and Warcraft in different ways. So long as it feels like it fits in.”

On that note with Warcraft celebrating its 25th anniversary, and the still popular World of Warcraft its 15th anniversary, running out of ideas isn’t a concern for the Hearthstone team. In fact, the idea-board that sits in middle of their studio continues to grow with the release of each new expansion. The latest of which, powered by dragons, is out December 10.

Thanks to Blizzard for taking the time to make this interview possible.

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