With Hearthstone’s Year of the Phoenix ready to kick off, it’s doing so in style – with Blizzard’s competitive card game set in the Warcraft universe getting a truly massive influx of content in the first half of 2020. In addition to Ashes of Outland, the first 135-card expansion that revisits the desolate and iconic location seen in World of Warcraft’s The Burning Crusade, there’s also the addition of a brand-new class and hero to play in the form of Demon Hunter Illidan Stormrage.
And that’s just the opening salvo, there’s also a new and improved ranked system that focuses on matchmaking and rewards, an overhaul to the Priest class, free competitive decks for new and returning players, the log-awaited ‘no duplications’ rule, and a renewed focus on story within the Warcraft universe.
Recently we had the chance to sit down with members of the development team to talk about the past, present, and future of Hearthstone.
The Year of the Phoenix and Building Momentum
“The volume of content that we released during the Year of the Dragon was significantly higher than anything that's been done before,” Hearthstone Game Director Ben Lee tells me. A simple realisation with the equation being, the more you release the more players are having a good time. “That was a big lesson for us, seeing that reflected in player engagement and behaviour. The reality is the more content we make, the happier our players are. Which makes logical sense. We want to try and put out a bunch of content, and we want to make a lot of that free. We don't want things to become expensive.”
“The reality is the more content we make, the happier our players are. Which makes logical sense. We want to try and put out a bunch of content, and we want to make a lot of that free."
For the Hearthstone team at Blizzard, more of the same isn’t the order of the day. Nor is it, if it makes money keep doing it. Experimentation, trying new things, and keeping things fresh is key. This was reflected in last year’s yearlong narrative that injected Hearthstone characters deep into Warcraft lore surrounding dragons and well-known cities. Also, with the release of Battlegrounds -- a new and free-to-play mode inspired by the auto-battler genre. One that presented a new way to play. “We're planning to release more interesting stuff during the Year of the Phoenix too,” Ben confirms, reflecting on the success of Battlegrounds. “We want to give players different things to see and do.”
In terms of the core experience, that is two players on a board with cards in-hand, the arrival of the Demon Hunter six years into Hearthstone presented that ‘something new’ to the development process. “That's something the team hadn't been used to, who have been making a lot of sets in recent years.” Ben explains. “It's been, in a way, the same thing with a different spin on it each time. Alongside new mechanics and things of course. The core fundamentals though have been 135-card expansions so [the Demon Hunter] has really put something big, and new, and different in there. Which for players is awesome, but it's also very cool for the team. It gave them a huge amount of space to experiment and to try new things, try different things.”
“As a player of most card games I wouldn’t expect a new class to emerge,” Nathan Lyons-Smith, Production Director on Hearthstone adds. “I would consider this an outlier and something of a surprise.” And in keeping with the team’s mantra, the Demon Hunter is free for all players and arrives alongside a story-driven prologue campaign to convey the ins and outs of the new class.
The Value Proposition
“One thing I would start with is this -- millions of players play Hearthstone every day,” Nathan continues, when the discussion shifts to the value proposition for players. As a free-to-play game Hearthstone’s monetisation revolves around the purchasing and opening of card packs and building new decks to play with. Something the game’s regular players have been engaging with for some time. “Those people are especially excited to come and play when we release new content,” Nathan adds. “They've bought bundles and we've given them a lot of packs and they're opening those together. Every time that happens though there's a load implication on the server as we’re also getting players into the game and having a stable experience.”
“[The Demon Hunter] has really put something big, and new, and different in there. Which for players is awesome, but it's also very cool for the team. It gave them a huge amount of space to experiment and to try new things, try different things.”
With server load implications and underlying systems in place, we’re discussing the new ‘no duplication’ measure being put in place. “This is something we've been talking about for a while,” Nathan confirms. “So, we put some of our most senior people on it to make sure that it goes out smoothly. It’s not a light endeavour to go and execute that [duplication] check and make sure we still have a stable state of the game. But the upside was just so important.”
With the Year of the Phoenix there has also been special attention placed on new and returning players, where free competitive decks offered in the same hurdle-removal way as putting a stop to duplicates for veterans. “One of the goals with the returning player deck is to give them something they can jump right in and have fun with immediately,” Nathan tells me. “There's no need to go craft anything. There's no need to go to your collection and put a deck together. This deck is ready to go. It's competitive, so just go play and have fun. We give you all the cards as part of that deck, it’s all 30 cards. From there if you open a pack, get a reward, get some gold, get some new cards, you can go edit that deck and get into the cycle of, ‘Oh cool, if I get that card I can pull off this combo and win’.”
The Question of Complexity
Six years in, multiple expansions, new mechanics, a brand-new class, and evolving meta – one can’t help but wonder how the team manages to stay on top of that age-old Blizzard mantra. Easy to learn, hard to master. “A huge challenge is how do we increase depth without increasing complexity? How do we make it so our text boxes on cards aren't 12 lines long?” Hearthstone Lead Designer Dean Ayala responds. “Undoubtedly our game is more complex than it was in year one or year two. That must taper off at some point. That can't increase forever because you're going to end up with a game where you're reading essays on cards.”
“A huge challenge is how do we increase depth without increasing complexity? How do we make it so our text boxes on cards aren't 12 lines long?”
“New Player ranks is a pretty safe environment for a pretty long time,” Ben
explains, highlighting the fact that Hearthstone has an almost game-within-the-game for new players to balance the learning curve. For a game focused primarily on competition, the range of skill varies wildly. “That's a system that was implemented about two and a half years ago and has been very successful. The new Ranked System keeps that in place but takes some of the great things about it and makes it better. If a player has been highly engaged with each new expansion, then we feel they're pretty well educated about the state of the game and our data definitely supports that.”
“Internally, we were actually quite worried about the complexity of Galakrond,” Ben admits, noting the involved mechanic as part of the most recent dragon-filled expansion was borderline in terms of complexity. An interesting case study because the team saw new and returning players jump in to enjoy the new expansion and mechanics without issue. “We didn’t see any real feedback about it feeling overly complicated or complex. And bunches of people came back to the game that hadn't been playing for a while just to see Descent of Dragons. One of the core fundamentals of Hearthstone and one of the original taglines is that it's deceptively simple and insanely fun. And I think that holds true today.”
“We want to keep doing new and fun and exciting stuff,” Dean adds, in relation to creating new mechanics and ways to interact in Hearthstone that will by their very nature add complexity. “We'll keep doing that, but it’s a challenge. I've been on the card design team for five and a half years now and I love designing cards. For the next expansion which we decided on not that long ago, I’m thinking about mechanics at home. I'm still super excited to do it.”
Previously, on Warcraft
“There are times to lean into our own stuff and there are times to lean into Warcraft lore,” Ben responds when asked about Ashes of Outland, Illidan Stormrage, and the vast expanse that is the Warcraft universe. “We also just did a full year of Hearthstone’s own new thing and it was a good time to do that. We were happy with that year and the story and the characters that we created and built. For this next year we want to do something that’s a little more in between. Ashes of Outland is heavy on the Warcraft lore and inspiration. The next couple of expansions after that are milder, but still have those leanings into it.”
Hearthstone’s identity can be summed up as light-hearted, whimsical. A vibrant Saturday morning cartoon to complement the grit found elsewhere. Going even further than that, Hearthstone is Warcraft.
Take one look at Hearthstone and you’ll immediately get the sense that it has its own flavour, its own feel, especially when sitting next to World of Warcraft or even the strategy roots of the series going back to the 1990s. Hearthstone’s identity can be summed up as light-hearted, whimsical. A vibrant Saturday morning cartoon to complement the grit found elsewhere. Going even further than that, Hearthstone is Warcraft. It sits right there, in the universe.
“I think that’s always the question, how do we stay Warcraft and stay Hearthstone,” Dean explains. “We’re lucky to be a Warcraft universe game. And I think we've done some expansions in the past where we've maybe gone a little bit too far on changing what that universe is. Mean Streets of Gadgetzan was fun to develop but maybe the pin-stripe suits were a step too far. How do you pick a place that screams Warcraft and feels like Warcraft, so when you're looking at all the characters they could exist in World of Warcraft or any other Warcraft game. But also feel like Hearthstone, so it fits in with the personality and tone.”
With Ashes of Outland the setting and tone strikes that balance of old, new, and Hearthstone. Iconic characters and landscapes that blend with an over-the-top Mad Max vibe that is entirely Hearthstone. A side of the expansion that will be explored in full once the first Solo Adventure for the year arrives. And a juxtaposition that bleeds into the design of new mechanics and cards. “The new Lady Vashj card is very true to the lore,” Ben adds. “Whereas the Demon Hunter’s Merloc is something that you’d only do in Hearthstone.”
On the Horizon
The release of Battlegrounds last year, in a way, served as a milestone for the Hearthstone team. And it was something that wasn’t taken for granted. With the Demon Hunter, Outland, and the many overhauls coming the team also wants to ensure that this level of creativity continues throughout the Year of the Phoenix and beyond.
“Things were a little more rigid in the past, with this team is doing this and that team doing that,” Dean admits. “Battlegrounds was born out of an internal survey to our team. What do you want to make, what do you want to do, what does the next year look like? It was like, there's something here so we should prototype it. And then we built out a strike team, which is a bunch of people from different disciplines like UI, Engineering, and they were free to just be their own boss. A lot of the time you're working on an expansion, and even though there's a lot of creative freedom in that, there are bounds or limits.”
“Battlegrounds was born out of an internal survey to our team. What do you want to make, what do you want to do, what does the next year look like?"
“These strike teams take talented people and put them on a project they're passionate about,” Dean continues. “And sometimes something very successful comes out of it. It's not always going to work out, but it will bring the team to a happier place. And that’s always the goal when you're working on any project.”
“We want to experiment with new modes where your collection matters,” Ben adds, noting that the team is leaning into the fact that the game has been around for six years and should be celebrated as it explores new territory. “Let's say you bought the Goblins vs. Gnomes set and you still love those cards. We want those cards to have a use, but we also don't want to have players feel like they need to go and buy older content. There's a delicate balance there trying to make new game modes where we leverage some of the older stuff in addition to the newer more relevant stuff. We can't punish players for not having one or the other, and that’s one of the biggest challenges.”
“We're not quite ready to give specific details about new ways to play,” Ben concludes, when asked if there were any specific strike team projects in the pipeline. “But, one of our core aims is that we want your investment in Hearthstone to matter.” A sentiment that summarises the excitement surrounding the incoming wave of Hearthstone goodness coming as part of the Year of the Phoenix.
For a deep dive into the Demon Hunter and the story behind bringing a new class into Hearthstone be sure to check out our dedicated Demon Hunter in Hearthstone Feature.