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Hearthstone is now six years old, and we’re seeing more experimentation and innovation with how Blizzard Entertainment’s development team are approaching how they design, deploy, and sell the digital card game (which remains a leader in the category, making millions a year through the sales of card packs and bundles). That’s paying off for players, who this year have gotten a new mode (Battlegrounds), in-game economy improvements, and other quality-of-life updates.
And now, as we approach a new year of Standard (the game’s competitive mode), Hearthstone’s adding its first new class with Ashes of Outland, the Demon Hunter, which should shake up all modes more than a normal set rotation does. And as this happens, Blizzard continues regular updates to Battlegrounds, such as adding dragons and Illidan the Demon Hunter in recent weeks.
During the Hearthstone Summit in February, I interviewed game director Ben Lee and production director Nathan Lyons-Smith after a presentation about the new Standard year and hands-on time with Demon Hunter and other new cards from Ashes of Outlands. I was interested in how all of these tied into how Hearthstone’s team approaches monetization, six years after launch, how those strategies have changed, what’s happening with the moribund Arena mode, and more.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: How much does the Classic set still limit your design space for expansions?
Ben Lee: It does to some degree. It depends on the class. Every class is different. In some cases, it doesn’t limit it at all. In other cases, it does it to an extreme degree. Priest, as an example, just wasn’t providing players with a good foundation, so we wanted to rework it. We’ve obviously gone to significant effort on that front. Whereas something like rogue, as an example, rogue based on the Classic set is super-amazing, to a degree where a lot of those cards have seen play in every deck since the game began.
We believe that the game is the most fun when people are trying new things and experiencing new ideas. There’s a fine balance to hit there, where we don’t want these cards to be useless, but we also don’t want them to be the only things you play. Some classes feel pretty good on that front, and some feel on the extreme ends. Rogue is probably — they had an awesome set, and priest had too bad a set.
Nathan Lyons-Smith: You see us addressing some of this in the Hall of Fame choices: Leeroy Jenkins, Mountain Giant, and Acolyte of Pain. Those things do still cause us to have to work around them, so pushing them into the Hall of Fame allows us to explore new things.
GamesBeat: I was hoping that Mountain Giant and Leeroy would get in the Hall of Fame, but I was also hoping Edwin VanCleef would, too. It seems like every set, he comes back in some form or another to vex people. It’s time for rogue to do something else.
Lee: Honestly, we feel similarly. Part of it is when it comes to class legendaries, we want there to be a replacement. Edwin fits into a good category for that at the moment. Edwin was definitely on our short list of things to do, and I would not be surprised if he was on our list in the future. We’ll see how things go for this next year, how rogue plays out. But he’s definitely a card that’s been hotly contested. It’s probably — if there would have been one more card on that list, it probably would have been him.
GamesBeat: You said something interesting during the presentation, that Mind Control Tech no longer fits what you want when it comes to randomness in Hearthstone. What does that mean?
Lee: I think that — it’s hard to define what’s good random and bad random. That’s something that’s very personal to most people. But the thing about Mind Control Tech is that it creates so many bad experiences and players remember those. They don’t remember the average result. They don’t remember the beneficial results. They remember the really bad ones. They remember when it took their 8/8, not their 1/1. Even though statistically it probably evens out, it creates a lot of negative feelings. That’s been compounded with the shaman quest, which makes it trigger twice.
If you’re playing the game — at certain points in the game, it’s OK to have big power swings. If you’re at 9 and 10 mana, the cards at that level need to be doing something super impactful to be relevant. But at such a low mana cost, if you can put this thing down and it can steal an 8/8, it just doesn’t feel fun. That’s where everybody was. The point at which that thing occurs in the game in the mana curve, for the result and potential spread of payoffs, it’s just a combination of factors that make it feel pretty negative. We removed it from Arena previously for the same kind of reason. It just doesn’t fit our vision of the future in the game.
GamesBeat: When you talk about randomness, there’s a little control for the player, like with mechanics such as Discovery. You pick one of the three cards it offers. With a spell like Cinder Storm, it does 5 random damage, but you can decide when to play it as a form of control. Mind Control Tech just grabs one of four. There’s nothing you can do besides isolating it to four minions.
Lee: That’s very true. There are some cards that hit on this that we’re OK with. The Warrior’s Brawl would be a parallel to some degree. Brawl can end up in a situation where they lose everything, and you end up with your one minion, even though they have seven and you have one. But I think part of that more is that it’s a class card first of all, so it’s not something you can see across every build, so prevalence is generally lower. Warrior is about control, about board clears, so Brawl makes sense. In that case it’s often used at a point where they’re down in the game, whereas Mind Control can be used — they need to have a bunch of minions, but it’s not necessarily something you use to catch up all the time. It can be a “win more” sometimes as well. There are some things in the game that are similar, but I think even then, those — I would classify most of them as different to some degree.
GamesBeat: Has Battlegrounds cannibalized from your daily players in Standard or wild? Or are you finding that for your daily players, they’re playing both modes?
Lee: A huge amount of our players engage in multiple modes. Our biggest modes are Standard and Battlegrounds. When it comes to [new] PvE content, for a short period of time that’s really big and loads of people play it, which I think you would expect. A new drop of PvE content, you play it, you’re done with it, and you move back to different modes. We’re really happy generally with seeing a lot of players playing both battleground and Standard. Where I personally play it, which is what we see happening a lot, is that people engage in some Standard, and then sometimes, just because of the nature of card games and decks, you might have a frustrating experience. You might lose a game. People don’t like to lose, shockingly. Then you might go play a game of Battlegrounds. The same is true the other way as well. You might have a game in Battlegrounds and lose, and then you just play Standard. We see people moving and mixing between them.
Also, it depends on what we’re updating in the game as well. When we drop the new cards from the single player, a bunch of people go play Standard because there’s something new there. Obviously, when we release an expansion, that happens even more so.
We’ve seen a lot of deep winback from players that churned out of the game two, three, even four years ago. That’s the biggest thing we’ve seen. We see a lot of people who played a lot of Hearthstone, and they’ve come back to check out this new way to play. That’s part of our strategy moving forward, providing these new different ways to play. Honestly, some of these people have played Hearthstone for 1,000, 2,000 hours. At this point they want something new, and that’s OK. We want to try to provide that.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you say it’s bringing back people. My main question there is, are you finding that they’re just playing Battlegrounds, or are they getting back to Standard and Wild as well?
Lee: We’ve seen a lot of people come back and just play Battlegrounds, yes. It’s not super-common that someone will come back to the game, play Battlegrounds, and then go to Arena. Arena has an upfront cost to enter, whereas Standard, you have a deck, and you probably have some cards or currency left over to make one. Not everyone has the specific amount of gold required for Arena tickets.
Arena is honestly a pretty challenging mode to get into at this point in the game flow cycle. Generally, we see — we want people to come back and play Battlegrounds. It’s totally free and easy to get into. Some of those people have gone on to play Standard, and we think with the launch of demon hunter and the big revamp to our rank system, a bunch of people will do the same thing for Standard.
Selling packs, 6 years in
GamesBeat: For some time, your release tempo has been: Dungeon Run-based expansions, then adventure, and now back to another different type of single-player mode. Do you find, as you jump through these different single-player modes, do your monetization strategies change quarter-by-quarter, release-by-release, or is consistent with what you’re offering in single-player?
Lee: We’ve tried to hit the same price point. With Tombs of Terror we did a bit lower, because we wanted to make the last chapter free. It was this special boss encounter. It didn’t feel right charging extra for that. While it’s a cool fun encounter, it didn’t feel the same as a full chapter. That’s the only exception to that. We generally wanted that experience to be $20.
With the Dalaran Heist, we massively overprovided on value. If you add it up to get all the achievements and checkmarks, it’s around 1,000 hours of content. It’s huge. Even as a normal player, it’s hundreds of hours. You get a bunch of card packs and card backs and the Golden Zayle. We were super-happy with the value for money offering from that. Same with Tombs of Terror and with the latest Galakrond’s Awakening. Some players might see it as a paywall for cards, but the dollar value that you get in terms of cards, it’s one of the best value propositions you can have in Hearthstone. You get something like $50 or more worth of card value for $20, plus you get all the content. Generally we want to provide good value for money, and that’s why we’ve done the card pack changes as well. We want players to feel happy with what they’re purchasing, feel like they got good value for money.
GamesBeat: Have you found that with some people playing more Battlegrounds than Standard, that it’s hurting individual pack sales?
Lee: No. We’re actually quite happy with where the game is at the moment. We had a recent investor call where we showed positive results first thing. We’re happy with where the game is at at the moment.
GamesBeat: When it comes to monetization, what is more important to the company right now? Monetizing off expansions or pack sales?
Lee: Not dodging the question, though I sound like it, but the most important thing to us is actually engagement. The reality is that if people are playing our game and enjoying it, they’re probably going to purchase something, and we want that thing to be something that’s fair and good to them, so they don’t feel like they regret purchasing. I think the key thing for us is we want to make cool expansions, make cool content. Going into the future with other game modes, one of the core things we want to do, and it’s really hard, is we want it to use your collection in a very positive way. You pay let’s say $80 for the preorder for the expansion, you can play the cards in Standard, and there are other game modes we release throughout the next year that will leverage your collection in a positive way. Not where you feel like, oh, I need to buy more cards. It’s more like, month one, you have Standard, month two you have something else that uses your cards in an inventive and fun way, the ones you already have.
Does Arena matter?
GamesBeat: When it comes to Arena, it’s starting to feel like an afterthought. Is this because it’s not monetizing anymore, or is it because it doesn’t have an internal champion at Blizzard?
Lee: Both of those things are not true. It does monetize. We have a very dedicated core player base for Arena. Vocally, people posting may not be happy about that, but we see in our data that a bunch of people are very happy playing Arena. Also, there are people on our design team who are very involved in the Arena work that happens. We tried some changes with bucket stuff in various different ways. The reality of that is that stuff’s really complicated and difficult to get right. It’s also very challenging to test. You need to do massive testing and figure out how all those decks work and how they generate. The core things that are missing from Arena — if Arena had a simple rating system like Battleground, it would add a huge amount to the game. It’s one thing we think about doing. We just have to weigh all the different costs of all the development stuff we’re doing. It’s something we may do at some time, but we also have other things we definitely need to do as well.
GamesBeat: Since Demon Hunter is coming to Arena, that means you’re not killing the mode.
Lee: No! If we were going to do anything with Arena, it would probably — rather than kill it, we would reinvigorate and rework it in some way. There are a bunch of people — let’s say there is a core player base. This isn’t 10 or 15 people. It’s a large amount of people. There are millions of people playing Hearthstone every day, and Arena, off the top of my head I can’t remember a specific number, but it’s hundreds of thousands. It’s not our biggest game mode, but there are lots of — the reality is the number is a large amount. It’s not 10,000 or 5,000, it’s hundreds of thousands. It’s a huge amount of people, but that’s not close to the number of people that play Standard and so on.
(Season) pass plays and other strategies
GamesBeat: Have you given any serious thought to implementing a season pass or monthly pass for Hearthstone?
Lee: Yes. I think that the way that we — we’ve talked about it a bunch. There’s a bunch of positives, and also negatives. One of the negatives is you introduce a treadmill, the player promotions you need to complete it. If you don’t complete it, what we’ve seen in a lot of other games is people actually drop out. We don’t want Hearthstone to feel like a job, something you have to come to and fill this bar. We do have a plan to reward some progression right now, one of the things we detailed in the road map. That isn’t a battle pass or something, it’s more our own envisaging of a reward system. It’s not like, this month you need to do these things or you don’t get this stuff. It’s probably more of a permanent thing, where you can take your time and achieve things in your own way. That’s how we want people to play Hearthstone. We don’t want them to feel like they’re under pressure to do this thing in this way. You can do things your way in your own time and feel good about it.
GamesBeat: Other games are selling far more cosmetics than Hearthstone does. Have you thought about ramping this up?
Lee: Vanity is hard to do well in a card game. The biggest thing that we can do — some of the biggest things we can possibly do are heroes and card backs. We want to do those, and this past year we launched our thousand-win hero portraits. Those are kind of light hero skins compared to the ones that come with the prepurchases. I’m really happy with those. A lot of players are using them. Everyone has their own favorites. Some people don’t like certain artwork. That’s always going to be the feedback. But we see them being used a lot, which to us means that a lot of people care about them. I could definitely see us introducing more things in that vein, on that front.
In terms of a holistic huge cosmetic system, the reality for me, I worked on a game previously called Gwent, and we invested a lot into vanity and customization. Players, in reality, I think the choices — you can spend your money on card packs and get cards, or you can spend it on vanity. You’re probably going to get card packs.
GamesBeat: You’re doing something new when it comes with the mage bundle. Why did you decide to do class-specific cards as bundles, and why start with mage?
Lee: Mage is the first class that people play. It felt like a good jumping-off point for that. Also, we released Khadgar with it as well, so it just made sense. The class packs are something we’re really interested to see how people feel about them. We think it’s another way to make the game cheaper and more approachable for people. Not everyone, but a lot of players — the average classes played is about 2.3. Obviously that’s an average. Class packs are a great way to — if you’re super-invested in that class, those class packs are a great value for money deal to you. As a player, you have limited amounts of resources, and you have a choice. You can buy this 20-card pack bundle of cards that might give you nothing that’s useful to you, or you might choose this mage card pack, because you play mage and it’s your favorite class. Every card, with the card pack changes and no duplicates as well, in theory every card’s going to be useful for you.
GamesBeat: Was this change based on feedback from players, or was it just something you came up with internally?
Lee: My perception, from the conversations I’ve had — the way we’ve worked on some features is we have a kind of strike team that’s responsible for things. Battlegrounds, we pushed a lot of responsibility and decision-making down to the team. They worked really passionately on it, and they cared a lot about it, and that’s super awesome. We did the same thing with the new shop feature. It’s not as exciting a project to talk about as Battlegrounds, which is super-awesome amazing gameplay, but the team that worked on the shop had a really awesome job. We empowered them to think of, what products would you like to sell? What do you think would be good for players? One suggestion was class packs. That’s where it came from. Also, another thing that we wanted to do that we felt was important was giving the ability to get wild content from there as well, especially thinking about that future where that wild content is potentially something that could be relevant for a bunch of different game modes. It’s also just a bad player experience if you want to buy wild content. You’d go to the web shop and do it, and that’s not a good player experience.
Lyons-Smith: Class packs, to Ben’s point — it was totally, hey, strike team, come up with cool things you want to do. They identified a bunch of different types of packs they’d like. You’ve actually seen two of them now. Year of the Dragon packs, using this new pack to define what should be in this type of packs, give it more art assets and different content there. Mage packs are another one, and you can imagine we’re going to create different types of that. Add some variety and interest to what we’re offering to different types of players.
Zephrys, retooling, and reloading
GamesBeat: How much work goes into teaching Zephrys how to deal with a new class? Note to readers here that Nathan is scratching his forehead.
Lee: A lot. Generally, there are times to invest in a card that’s worthwhile because it’s the tentpole of the set. Zephrys was that. Therefore the investment was worthwhile. We can’t do that for every card, obviously. In terms of the specific days, I’m not sure, but it was — making Zephrys work in general, making him pretty good — there are situations where he’s not perfect, but we’re generally happy with how he’s worked out. We’ve seen good positive feedback about him. He’s very useful. He also is a great counter card in many ways. I’m a big fan of counter cards. Personally, I think the game is a back-and-forth, and if you can’t interact with your opponent’s strategy, that’s not the most exciting gameplay. Zephrys definitely gives a window to interact with each other.
Lyon: Zephrys is looking at the board state to analyze what’s going on, so it does need to understand the mechanics of what’s on the board, but it doesn’t know anything about what’s in their hand. It doesn’t do anything with what’s in your hand either. It did need to learn a few mechanics. We taught it those to be successful.
GamesBeat: In hindsight, was it good to introduce all these new priest cards and retooling that class along with demon hunter, a new expansion, and teaching Zephrys all at once?
Lee: We can’t be beholden to something that exists in the game with what we want to do. It’s totally worth it. That’s more of a thing about, was Zephrys worth the time and effort? I think he was. It was cool. But we wouldn’t want to hamstring ourselves with future stuff because of something in the past like that. We’re trying to make the best fun things for our players. I wouldn’t want to not do the priest stuff or whatever the case may be.
GamesBeat: After the 2019 layoffs, there was talk from Activision Blizzard about hiring a bunch of new people for its team, for reinvesting into development. Then we get Battlegrounds and the rank refresh and the priest refresh and a new class. Is all of this the fruit of those extra people that have come in?
Lyons-Smith: I don’t know that there’s a one-to-one mapping there. I don’t remember all the talking points for the layoffs from a year ago, in terms of how resources were being shifted around. But generally, yes, dev was more of a focus at that point. It had to do with other games coming in the future as well, not just Hearthstone. At that point last year I don’t think we’d announced Overwatch 2 or Diablo IV, and as you can imagine, resources were going to those teams to build them up as well.
Lee: More of it is just, we’ve tried to get the team passionately engaged about making content and doing these different things. Strike teams is a way to do that. It’s been super effective. Our leadership team and the team in general — the game is at a point in its age where we have to try new things. We love this game and we want it to continue to be awesome and successful. Therefore, making sure we do cool things for players is the way forward. That’s been our big push. We hope players will be happy with it.
Tweaking the card economy
GamesBeat: The economy is going to get a huge change with the way you’re doing duplicate protection. Does this mean you’ll see more pack purchases, or does it mean people will be getting the cards they want?
Lee: Overall, if you add everything up, it’s cheaper, if you want to get everything. In general we want people to have useful options. There are some extreme examples that sound silly, but our game has so many players that it exists. It’s not small numbers that they exist. I’ll give you a couple of examples. There are players out there who, when they do their prepurchase — let’s say they get eight epics, and four of them are the same thing. They just massively miss out on economy. Even though you get value for dusting, you get a poorer return than if you got a card you would use. We are trying to shave off the probability ends that are really unfair and bad for people. There’s a famous video of Bolf Ramshield legendary, which you may have seen — how many copies does he get?
Lyon: It’s either five or seven. [It’s six — ed.]
Lee: Some guy opens a lot of packs and he gets [six] copies of the same legendary. This is before the legendary drop change. We want to eliminate scenarios like that across all rarities. We also just want the game to be more approachable and easy to get into. As an average player, when you open a card pack, if you get something new, we think that’s more fun and exciting and engaging. We talk about this average of 2.3 classes. We want people to have choice, and giving them cards that they don’t have in theory means they’re more likely to have things they want.
GamesBeat: Isn’t this also a huge move when it comes to the goodwill of your players? This is something people have asked for for a long time.
Lee: Hopefully. We hope players will be happy with it. We passionately think it’s the right thing to do for the game.
GamesBeat: Why do the rank refresh now, adding tiers like what we had early in Hearthstone’s beta days?
Lee: For me personally, I think that — things like ranking systems, they generally want to be refreshed. It’s hard to determine a good time, but some period of time. Let’s say every two or three years or whatever the case may be. Change can be healthy. It can be good and engaging and fun. A lot of games out there, they refresh the systems after a certain period of time, and that’s where we’re at at the moment. Hearthstone’s rank system has done a lot of good for us. There’s definitely some elements that we want to improve on, and also add new flavor. Who knows? Maybe three years from now we’ll revamp the rank system again. Change, evolution, updating, and improving: It’s something we as a team very much believe in now and want. That’s how we’re looking at it in the future. It’s about giving players something new and exciting and engaging to do. Again, coming back to how easy the game is to get into financially, we’ve added first time rewards for all the rank floors. If you’re playing through the system, the first time you reach a rank floor, you’ll get a pretty generous reward, and those compound over time. It’s not just monthly. There are also special first time rewards.
GamesBeat: Do these new tiers take away what appears to be some of the work from laddering? For example, going from bronze to silver probably feels better than just going from 20 to 15.
Lee: Absolutely. Phrasing and terminology-wise — something we think about a lot, your rank — I can’t remember the exact numbers, but if you’re ranked 3, that’s the top 1 percent of Hearthstone. Rank 15 is probably top 75 percent. Rank 15 sounds pretty bad, but you’re actually really pretty good if you’re at rank 15 in reality. Part of the medal tiers, assigning the way they work, it’s really about our players feeling good about the rank. If you’re Gold 1, it sounds better than if you’re rank 13. We want players to feel better about where they are, but also we wanted the system to be — it’s more progressive. The idea is you should be moving forward a lot of the time until you reach the point you’re supposed to be at, and then it should be more of a challenge and you have to fight the way to get up there.
GamesBeat: A number of people — fans, media, and such — have said this has been the best year for Hearthstone: in Standard, the addition of Battlegrounds, the game feels really good in many different ways. From what you showed us today, it looks like you’re going to probably make it better next year, this next Standard year. Do you see the potential for that, and do you agree that this past year was Hearthstone’s best?
Lee: It’s hard to say. The first year was awesome, because everything was fresh and new. The reality is that we’re a little bit standing on the shoulders of giants that created the original game, Eric Dodds and Ben Brode and Derek Sakamoto and a bunch of other people. They were super-instrumental in making that happen. There was definitely a period of time in between then and now where the game could have maybe used a few more features and additions. We’re at a point now where we think that’s important for players. We want to give them new things to do. There’s been a few missteps in Year of the Dragon, definitely some things to learn from. We’re happy with a lot of what happened too. For Year of the Phoenix we hope we can deliver some awesome experiences. There’s something on the road map that we haven’t talked about yet, that we hope can deliver, that will be a cool surprise as well. We want there to be lots of stuff for players to do and engage with. We hope they’ll be happy.
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