“It's tricky because we have to keep the story simple,” Dave Kosak, Lead Designer on the Hearthstone Missions team tells me. “But what we try to do is have a lot of layers to the story. If you're a casual Hearthstone player, then each expansion in and of itself should tell a straightforward and compelling story.”
Explorers running around a desert running into trouble as they look for ancient artefacts, a group of bad guys looking to capture an entire city.
“These are self-contained stories that you can figure out,” Dave continues. “If you’re a more dedicated Hearthstone player, then there's the narrative that bridges all three expansions. And if you're a really dedicated Hearthstone player, we bury all these little tiny stories into the game. Like the story of George and Carl, the wayward Paladins that you fought against in Dungeon Run from Kobolds and Catacombs. That's been an ongoing, little story, buried in Hearthstone.”
For the team at Blizzard it’s all about finding interesting places within the game to tell a story, something that has been emerging in recent years thanks to a string of excellent and varied Hearthstone Solo Adventures. Over the course of the past year though, perhaps the most ambitious narrative undertaking seen in Hearthstone to date emerged - an ambitious yearlong narrative as part of the game’s Year of the Dragon.
“If you're a casual Hearthstone player, then each expansion in and of itself should tell a straightforward and compelling story.”
Culminating with the recent release of the final Dragon-heavy Solo Adventure – Galakrond’s Awakening – where, in addition to telling a straightforward tale of good versus evil it also puts a cap on a narrative that has seen heroes, villains, and memorable characters emerge over the course of many months. Plus, there be dragons.
For the team, going bigger and bolder brought new challenges to the table. Ways to approach design and looking at Hearthstone as a whole. When it comes to pacing and the competitive nature of a typical match, the benefit of going single-player frees the team to explore and experiment.
“With PVP we're pretty constrained time-wise because we want people to be able to move on with their game,” Hadidjah Chamberlin, Lead VFX Artist on Hearthstone explains. “But effects in a game like Hearthstone are very much about telling a story within that one game. Hitting the different beats of things that can happen. Celebrating big moments and bringing some extra character and uniqueness to Legendaries.”
All the above can describe a typical PVP encounter in Hearthstone, where stories emerge based on player actions, card choices, strategic moves planned, or even the luck of the draw. With Galakrond’s Awakening, scripted events or pre-planned story beats inside individual encounters allow for more creative expression in the narrative. And a shift away from simple bookends to tie everything together.
“For those big story beats, you want to have a huge splashy effect,” Dave confirms. “But we have to kind of pick and choose our battles as there’s limited time to create all that really cool stuff. So, then it becomes a question of what’s really important for the story.” One of those moments, which happens very early-on in the first chapter of Galakrond’s Awakening, is when Explorer and fan-favourite Reno gets kidnapped. A big story beat that also highlights how the mission team and the effects team work together and collaborate. A process that often reflects the vibrant and inviting nature of Hearthstone.
“Effects in a game like Hearthstone are very much about telling a story within that one game. Hitting the different beats of things that can happen.”
“Reno gets kidnapped by a giant sky claw,” Hadidjah recalls. “That was basically the whole description. So, we gave it one of the artists who’s well known for doing, well, weird goofy shit.” The result, an animation that resembles both a flying machine and one of those arcade units where you can win a plush toy. Picking up Reno off the board with an accompanying suction sound sells the sequence whilst capturing the lighter tone of Hearthstone and its place in the Warcraft universe.
“As soon as I saw it, I started laughing,” Hadidjah tells me. “And then I went and gathered up people from around the office to make them watch the sequence. Every single one of them broke down laughing. For a big story moment that you're only going to see once, it’s great that we get to spend time doing this crazy stuff.”
With story and new card design and new mechanics and these individual moments and themes all arriving as part of an expansion, for the team development becomes quite chaotic. “It all has to happen at once,” Dave explains. “So, it can get a little clunky. There's two different ways you can design content for a game like Hearthstone. We say it's either top-down or bottom-up. Top-down design is where you start with the fantasy and then figure out what kind of card mechanics would make sense to deliver that fantasy. The other way to do it is bottom-up where have a cool mechanic and then you try and figure out what kind of card would do that? What should the art look like? In the case of Solo Adventures, it’s very much top-down driven.”
“We're trying to design these fights and find the fun,” Dave continues. “We also write all the dialogue for the voiceover while the card sets are still changing. So, naturally there are last minute adjustments when you try and do it all at once. It's an imperfect process, chaotic, but I think we’ve landed at a really great spot with good stories that are fun to play.”
This process became even more chaotic with Galakrond’s Awakening, which features unique bosses across individual campaigns for both the League of Explorers and the League of E.V.I.L.. Where in addition to presenting missions and match-ups for players to take part-in, continual in-match banter and narrative beats also occur. “We kind of naively thought that with 24 bosses as opposed to the 50 or 75 bosses that go with a non-linear adventure, maybe the work would go a little faster,” Dave admits. “Because we had so many unique story moments and voiceover moments and so many voiceover lines it actually ended up being quite difficult. And we really went right down to the wire to get all that in.”
“There are last minute adjustments when you try and do it all at once. It's an imperfect process, chaotic, but I think we’ve landed at a really great spot with good stories that are fun to play.”.”
Of course, there was also the added pressure of creating a finale, an end point, a conclusion to a yearlong story. In mapping out the year everything fell into place quickly. The opening salvo, a focus on the League of E.V.I.L. and their plans in the middle of a large heist. Next up, the heroes, the League of Explorers. Checking in on the gang, see how they’re doing, whilst playing up the looming dragon threat. The big finale, the third act, a big sky battle with machinery and dragons, the two sides fighting. Elementary stuff – Storytelling 101 even. Except, not quite.
“Saviors of Uldum [the hero-focused middle chapter] was practically done, and at that point we began asking ourselves ‘how does this all actually end?” Dave recalls. “We knew they were going to fight, and we knew it was going to be this big awesome battle, but how does the story actually wrap up? We realised we mapped out the entire year and never figured that part out.” For the team the creative process began anew, looking to the greater Warcraft universe to see what a fitting conclusion might be for both sides. It was during this process that the team looked to the franchise’s roots, Warcraft the real-time strategy series – for inspiration.
“Whenever you played the Warcraft RTS games, way back in the day, you'd play the Alliance campaign and you played the Horde campaign and they had two different endings,” Dave concludes. “And it was fun to play both endings, seeing the same events from both sides. And we really looked at that as a model, why not have both. So, we have both. It was super exciting, and it all just seemed to make sense that each side got their own ending that it was satisfying in its own way.”
Galakrond’s Awakening is available now as part of the current Descent of Dragons expansion. The first chapter is free to all players.