that’s Hearthstone’s next expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, has a fast-approaching release date of August 10. But the regular massive updates to Blizzard’s collectible card game are just a part of all the changes that Hearthstone is going through both as it finds its own place in the Warcraft universe and as it defines what kind of experience it wants to provide.
In the lead-up to KofFT’s release I had separate interviews with Matt Place, senior game designer on Hearthstone, and Jason Chayes, Hearthstone’s executive producer, about a wide-range of topics around the game. Rather than post up the full transcript of each, I broke their answers down by the topics we discussed. And for a full rundown of all the new cards revealed so far, check out this Knights of the Frozen Throne card feature here.
Hearthstone’s Story and Lore
Hearthstone is a game, ostensibly set within the Warcraft universe, but it’s also something that offers up its own spin on the stories of Azeroth. While the original cards and expansions from the game hewed more closely to the World of Warcraft source material, subsequent content has expanded Hearthstone’s own lore in new directions. Goblins vs. Gnomes saw Hearthstone introduce unique characters that didn’t previously exist in the Warcraft universe, but Mean Streets of Gadgetzan is where Hearthstone really started to create its own unique narrative.
“We had all these discussions internally about who is the Jade Lotus,” Chayes says, “and who is Don Han’Cho and what does he do and how does he interact with Aya Blackpaw and what’s the back and forth between the two of them? We had a little first pass at that with some of the quests that you had when we first launched it, but you couldn’t go that far into the narrative storytelling. But now, with Knights of the Frozen Throne we have eight missions that help explain who is the Lich King, who are some of the bosses along the way, and how they treat the Lich King.”
Hearthstone now even has its own Knights of the Frozen Throne comic book, which Chayes explains as, “All the Warcraft ‘inception’ layers.” But of course, working at Blizzard the separate game teams collaborate on projects. “We have a good partnership. We definitely talk with the other folks in Blizzard working on the Warcraft universe. We want our own take on what feels right for Hearthstone, so we might treat the Lich King a little differently than what you’ll see if you were playing the WoW raid back in the day. The way we frame that up is Hearthstone is very much a game about ‘What if?’ This isn’t necessarily canonical. This isn’t saying that the definitive story of how Karazhan came into being was because there was this crazy ’70s disco party that Medivh hosted. That’s a ‘What-if?’ scenario.”
The storytelling will also feel familiar because, according to Place, “Dave Kosak, who’s done a lot of writing for World of Warcraft, came over and he’s now the mission lead, and the writing for the Lich King in the missions is amazing.”
Chayes says that the best way to think of Hearthstone’s story is as a type of “tall tale set in the Warcraft universe.”
“We specifically are not trying to link them to be the exact same incarnation,” Chayes says, “If you go check out Icecrown Citadel in Hearthstone, it’s going to feel a little different. You’ll have little things that you remember for sure, and even the boss fights will share some of those mechanics, but the idea is this is a fun, light-hearted, whimsical, charming game.”
Earning Legendaries and Random Quest Rewards
For this expansion, completing the single-player missions will net players a random Legendary Hero card, but what drove the decision to make this a random rather than a fixed draw? Matt Place explains, “We talked about that, it’s how we tend to distribute the cards in the game through boosters and whatnot. People trying out what they get is part of the fun. There’s also logistical challenges like letting you pick from a set of nine; we’ll look at feedback and see what people say. But we wanted to just give people a, ‘Hey, you’re going to get one of these, try them out, see what you think. If you have one you love well, hey, like any Legendary, you can craft it.’ That’s part of the reason why we went that path.”
“How does it compete when it’s only got one sets worth of cards? That’s a big question that we would have to answer.”
And while the team has talked about it in other instances, Place also discussed the increased chance of earning Legendaries through card packs. “In the theme of giving people great value, in the first 10 packs for Knights of the Frozen Throne, you are guaranteed to get a legendary now. We’re upping the drop rate for those source packs, so that people who are using their free-to-play gold or whatnot, they are guaranteed, if they can open 10 packs, to get a legendary. So we’re doing it a couple of ways.
“On top of that, we’re also doing no duplicates. Until you have a full set of Legendaries you will not overlap on Legendaries you get. We’re doing a bunch of things to give people a chance to explore more of the set and get some of the higher rarity cards, which is the focus of the set here with Death Knight. We want to give people a chance to participate and play with those cards without spending any money.”
Death Knight Heroes
The biggest new addition with this expansion are the Legendary Hero cards. But the addition of those Hero cards means that there isn’t a new, permanent Hero class. According to Place, the team did consider creating a standalone hero, but that type of addition presents its own formidable set of challenges. “How does it compete when it’s only got one sets worth of cards?” Place asked. “That’s a big question that we would have to answer. There’s also, ‘Do we support it in the future?’ Because, if we don’t, that doesn’t feel right. So, it’s a permanent commitment potentially.”
That took the dev team down its current path: creating Death Knight-themed Hero cards for every class. “With that, we get to take our Heroes of Warcraft and blow them out in cool new ways that people haven’t seen before, and they follow that same story that the Lich King follows where you’re going down the dark path because you desire power, like you see in the cinematic.”
And, although it seems obvious how the mechanic will work with alternate heroes, Place clarified that the Hero cards just replace your current Hero; the cards don’t change depending on the hero you’re playing as. “As Anduin, you could steal Rexxar from your opponent’s deck and that would turn you into Deathstalker Rexxar. So mechanically you just become Deathstalker Rexxar.”
RNG vs. Skill-based Play
Any card game is going to have some amount of RNG, but how does the dev team strike that balance in making random chance moments feel like you still have some control?
“It’s something that our philosophy on evolves,” Place explained. “Something we’ve applied to Knights of the Frozen Throne is where can we apply RNG so it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding me? You’ve got the luckiest hand!’ I think Deathstalker Rexxar is a great example of this. It’s random in terms of what beasts you’re presented with in his build-a-beast Hero power. Basically you get to combine two beasts together to make your own beast zombie creation.
“There’s a lot of skill in that while also being random with what you’re presented with. To me, that’s the perfect marriage, where skill is a big piece of this, but it’s super fun and it’s a different experience each time. That’s what random does for us; it gives us that, ‘Okay, you haven’t done this before. These three beasts are going to be presented,’ so what do you do at that time is actually very skill testing. It’s a great example of RNG adding to the skill.
“Then you have to pay for the beast so it’s not an effect like Ram Wrangler, where something can happen along the lines of “Oh, wow you just got very lucky. You got King Crush!’ With Rexxar’s mechanic, whatever you’re dealt, you then have to pay for. It’s fair in that way too. So it’s skill, RNG, and fairness all combined.
Accessibility for Newcomers
“We always felt like if we could make a collectible card game just a little bit more accessible and dial some more charm in it, we could turn people onto a genre that they have never really been connected to it in the past,” say Chayas. “That remains a core part of our philosophy.”
And Hearthstone is, for the most part, a beginner-friendly game. But the difficulty and complexity can ramp up quickly for someone that might not be as familiar with the mechanics of deck building. Providing an experience that works no matter when you start playing is something that the developers are constantly refining; deck-creating tools have gotten better, and the ceiling for not losing stars at set levels in ranked matches has helped open more deck variety in Standard play. But there are other behind-the-scenes forces at work as well.
According to Place, “We have the newbie pool, which we changed in pretty significant ways. That happened a while ago, I think it was six months ago. But it actually affected the win rate of new players in a dramatic way.”
While Place doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts of how that system works, he says, “Basically, we have some rules for what it means to be a new player, and when you’re a new player you face people who are more appropriate for you.”
And according to Chayes, the dev team works to ensure the game has all of the features and nuance of a deep deck-building experience, but without overwhelming newcomers. “The way we’ve approached that is that the starting experience,” Chayes says, “the core experience going into the game is very simple and accessible and intuitive and then when you’re ready for it, different features unlock or make themselves available down the road.
“A good example of that is Wild. Wild is not available to new players. There’s no connection to Wild from right out of the gate and that was very conscious because there’s a vast number of cards that are in Wild that are not part of the standard rotation. That’s going to grow over time as more and more sets are produced. We don’t want players to have to necessarily digest all that as their first experience.”
Stats for Advanced Players
Like World of Warcraft, accessibility is a process of constant refinement for a game that’s regularly expanding. But also like World of Warcraft, some players have had to take the nitty gritty of stat-tracking and mod-making into their own hands. Unlike a game like Overwatch, which gives players detailed stats for how much you play every hero character, there’s not a lot of data available to you in Hearthstone for how you play or how successful you are with each Hero.
Chayes explains, “There’s always a balance there of: how much information do we present the player with? Initially, our goal was to make sure we had a very clean user interface just because we know a lot of new players were coming in for the first time. So we’ve been a little hesitant to go too far with putting in a lot of those stats and metrics. But the reality is there’s other ways to do that. You could do that on the web, for example, and actually have a lot of things there that you can click through that don’t necessarily go to new players. But if you want it it’s there.
“How we’re thinking about it from the team perspective is: How can we build systems that unpack that extra information for the players who are ready for it and excited about it without changing the core of the Hearthstone beginning experience? Yes, I think there’s a move for features like that, player profiles and stuff like that, down the road. We’re not really yet at a point where we’ve talked about a timeframe, but it’s definitely an active conversation. And there are a lot of community sites that are up there that provide that context as well, and we think that’s awesome. It’s the kind of thing where, down the road, we’ll see if there’s a way to get that in.”
Events and Festivals
With the popularity, and increasing frequency of events like the Frost and Flame Festivals, Chayes, says they’ll be a regular part of the Hearthstone experience, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be on a fixed, predictable schedule. “We definitely want to do more of it,” Chayes adds, “We had a little bit of a Winter Vale event that we did about a year and a half ago, and that was kind of the first time we did an event inside Hearthstone, where there was a custom card back you could get that week in the brawl and these presents that you could open up during the gameplay. The Frost Festival is a larger event we’re doing that dovetails the Fire Festival into the Frost Festival. Now you have Ahune welcome you and he’s messing with the Arena a little bit.
“We want to do more, so our hope is that between expansions and coinciding with expansions to do really cool stuff that mixes up the way you play Hearthstone a little bit and gives you some new things to see. It always feels like it’s dynamic and changing and helps emphasize the themes of where we’re going with the future of the game.
“We always want these events to also feel like delightful surprise…”
Chayes further explains, “There will probably be some events that are recurring. We haven’t figured out which ones necessarily. We actually have these posters when you walk into the Team 5 area in Blizzard Headquarters that speak to what are some of the guiding principles that are shaping up how we came up with Hearthstone to begin with. One of them is this idea of delightful surprise. We talk a lot about delightful surprise on the team.
“The experience of opening a pack is a surprise. We always want these events to also feel like delightful surprise, so I don’t think we’ll get to a world where it’s just the same, expected events year after year. We always want to have something new to see and something you weren’t expecting. I think that’s what’s really the core of the game identity. But for sure you can expect to see more things like that and then maybe intermixed with some things that’ll really tie into these events and traditions that players have come to love.”
Chayes also shared some thoughts on esports, which he considers a “big part” of Hearthstone. “It’s something that, initially when we first shipped, we were a little bit surprised by. We didn’t necessarily design Hearthstone to be an esport from the very beginning. What we saw in the very early days of the beta was that players loved to stream their matches when they were playing against other players. We also saw a lot of very competitive players who looked to see how far they could take their particular deck. So in response to that, we fleshed out in more detail the esports features of the game, really put a big focus on, ‘How can we build programs around that?’
“From the beginning we wanted Hearthstone to be a game with a lot of depth, so even though it wasn’t necessarily designed as an esport from the beginning, we always knew that the competitive aspect was super important. We wanted to have the ability to be a very high-skill game and testing how people play it. As the game has evolved we’ve done things like introduce more features to support esports. We now have things like the Hearthstone Global Games, which is reaching its conclusion coming up with Gamescom.
“We have other programs in mind. We did our first Wild Open, where it’s going to be using the older cards and a chance to revisit some old deck types that maybe you haven’t seen in awhile. For us, that’s still just the beginning. We have a lot of ideas where we can go from there.”