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Hearthstone made a number of interesting announcements during last month’s BlizzCon Online: a new expansion (Forged in the Barrens), a new mode (Mercenaries), and new mechanics. Now, this is the stuff that excites fans. But something that Hearthstone game director Ben Lee said that February day has stuck with me.
“We really think of Hearthstone as a platform card game,” Lee said, when talking about the growth of new modes within Blizzard’s collectible card game. This statement came after introducing Mercenaries, which blends strategy and role-playing game mechanics as you build teams of warriors; and talking about Battlegrounds, Standard, and Duels.
Hearthstone had over 23.5 million active players in 2020, and they’re playing differently than anyone imagined they would when Hearthstone launched in March 2014. Back then, you had the card game, and you had Arena, the drafting mode. Now you have Standard, Wild, Arena, Battlegrounds, Duels, and Tavern Brawls, with Classic coming out in next week’s patch and Mercenaries sliding into the game sometime this year.
So, Hearthstone is a platform now. But what does that mean? How does that affect development of cards and minions, how Blizzard hires for the team? Curious, I interviewed Lee and production director Nathan Lyons-Smith over Zoom on the seventh anniversary of Hearthstone’s launch (March 11, 2014).
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
What is Hearthstone: The Platform?
GamesBeat: At BlizzCon, you said you think of Hearthstone as a platform card game. What does that mean?
Ben Lee: Throughout the years, even long before I worked on the team, Hearthstone was kind of already doing that, at least to some degree. You look at Arena, it’s similar to Standard, but it’s still different. There was a light foray into this idea of lots of different ways to play with your cards. And obviously, Wild came along, then single-player content. We’ve pushed the envelope on that idea with things like Battlegrounds. Duels is similar to some of our card game formats, but Battlegrounds is something different, a very different way to play a card game, even in the Hearthstone universe. Mercenaries is our next step in that direction. Mercenaries is in many ways a brand-new game within Hearthstone.
We have many millions of players in Hearthstone, and we want to give them interesting, fun, different experiences to keep them excited about the game and about the future. When we think of a platform of games, there are so many different things you can do in the Hearthstone client, however you want to play games. If you want to play something super-easy and relaxing to get into, then you play Battlegrounds. If you want to play something pretty competitive and skill driven, you can play Hearthstone standard. If you love RPG mechanics and character depth, maybe Mercenaries is the right thing for you too.
Nathan Lyons-Smith: We have a number of different types of games within Hearthstone, and we’re adding another with Mercenaries. Ben also mentioned, we’ve got millions of players and they’re playing all different types of modes. With that number of players we want to be able to provide different experiences at offset cadences so there’s always something new to do in Hearthstone. We have players who play all of our modes, regardless of what we release. Every month we aspire to have something meaningful for them to do. But we also have players who stick to one mode. They aren’t looking for brand-new content in that mode all the time. They’re maybe a little less hardcore and are happy with the cadence within a given mode. But folks like myself, we play all the different types, and just slamming new cards into standard every month would destroy that game mode for some of the less hardcore players. And so we have other modes for players to jump into and have fun with.
GamesBeat: When you think about the concept of a “platform,” you think of either a full ecosystem like console, mobile, or PC, or maybe you think about Roblox. Is it odd to use “platform” to describe Hearthstone now, or does it really fit?
Lee: I think it fits. It depends on how big — I mean, platforms can be different sizes. Some can be massive. You touched on Roblox. Minecraft is similar in some ways. They have user-generated content, which we don’t. That’s the biggest difference. In a parallel universe or a different future, maybe Hearthstone embraced user-generated content and that would be something that would compel the game to be quite different from what it is today. We love the idea of creating honed, designed experiences for players.
When we say platform, we’re a moderately sized-to-small platform compared to something like Roblox or Minecraft or some of the other things out there. But there are different ways to play. That’s core to our future for Hearthstone, even beyond Mercenaries. There’s going to be something new and next after that, and beyond that in other years in the future. Hearthstone is going to be around for many years. We want to make sure that there are interesting, exciting things to do for the future.
GamesBeat: How does this change how you develop Hearthstone? When the game first started, in the first couple of years, you made cards to fit Standard, cards to fit Arena, and introductory cards to teach people to play the game. Now, looking at this with all these different modes, how does that change how you make cards?
Lee: One thing that I’ll touch on very lightly: We want to engage small strike teams on making cool and awesome ideas. Getting the team passionate about something is how we go about it.
Lyons-Smith: In general, we’ve grown the team meaningfully over the last couple years. We’re working on multiple things in parallel. Last year we did Duels and the Progression revamp, back-to-back. That whole time we’ve been working on Mercenaries. We have a number of different strike teams working in parallel to make sure we’re building new types of modes and fun gameplay experiences and also adding content to the existing modes. It does take a lot of work on the team to go and set up pipelines to continue to add content in each of these modes we’re creating. A lot of the work to figure out the fun of the mode is done up front, and then once we have the systems in place, the gameplay, how it works, we can pipeline a lot of the asset creation and the new designs for those modes that fit.
If you look at Battlegrounds at launch, it had a lot of cards from traditional Hearthstone. If you look at Battlegrounds today, there are a lot of Battlegrounds-only cards. Part of that has been a recognition that a lot of players like Battlegrounds and we want to serve those players. We’re going to make cards that fit into that. We have a small pod of folks making sure we continue to add cool stuff for battlegrounds.
The other thing we’re tackling in addition to that — right now, when you jump into Hearthstone as a new player, you go through a normal Hearthstone tutorial that takes about 20-30 minutes depending on how familiar you are with card games. There’s some overlap in the mechanics there in terms of needing to know those mechanics for battlegrounds, but not everything overlaps. We think we can do better and streamline that first user experience to help people find the mode they’re looking for and quickly get into it. That’ll be important as we launch Mercenaries here, as another really large mode within Hearthstone. We want players to come in that like the strategy-RPG game we’re making and can quickly get into that gameplay experience, while still understanding how some of the core Hearthstone mechanics and cards work.
GamesBeat: When it comes to having new mechanics and new ideas that you do for an upcoming set since Battlegrounds, and now with Mercenaries in development, do you go through and look at those cards and think, this is going to be something that doesn’t look like it will cross-pollinate into any other mode, but this one looks like it can. Will that go into a bucket that says, this is a card that different strike teams will want to play with as you develop it?
Lee: We don’t really think about it in terms of individual cards. We think about it more in terms of mechanics. There’s a mechanic I was discussing today, which is — I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s about having big things on the board, meaning size. Which is interesting. It’s different than anything we’ve done before, and it may never make it to fruition, but that’s something you can imagine — having different looking minions on the board would be cool to have in Standard, Wild, Battlegrounds, Arena, or Mercenaries.
When it comes to individual cards, a Murloc that buffs your other Murlocs, that’s just something on a case-by-case basis that the team thinks about. The team will look at the cards, and they’re always working together, doing playtests. If the people working on Battlegrounds find a card being made in Standard that they think is awesome and will make sense, they’ll drop it into Battlegrounds. When we think about cross-pollinating, it’s more about mechanics. Mercenaries, we’re doing a lot of interesting mechanics there, and some of it will make it way into other modes in the future, for sure.
Lyons-Smith: We also try to pair the themes we’re creating to match across different gameplay modes that we have. We did the first Battlegrounds content drop — it happened to be Dragons, which followed up pretty nicely from Descent of Dragons, but then there were two others that didn’t match exactly to the theme of the constructed set at the time, because we hadn’t yet gotten into the cadence of building that pipeline. We did Pirates and then Elementals. And then we got back to the Old Gods, who were coming to Battlegrounds at the same time we did Darkmoon Faire. We were trying to hit that thematic cadence. I’m super-excited to have the Quillboar come to battlegrounds. It’s such a memory I had, leveling up a Horde character in the Barrens early on and fighting the Quillboars. I’m proud of the team and how they’ve taken the idea, made a core mechanic, and produced some tremendous art that differentiates different types of Quillboar minions. Looking forward to revealing more of those coming up.
GamesBeat: When it comes to those themes, does the Battlegrounds team look at the theme for the next set? Does the Battlegrounds team say, how do we make something to fit with this? Or is that just the challenge you face?
Lee: It’s definitely more in the latter category. They’re actually part of the same team in essence. The set design team has broken off a part of it to be focused on Battlegrounds. We rotate people between them. Dean [Ayala] heads up the set team as a whole, but both of us believe in variety in experience. It’s important for designers in any workplace to have this variety of learning.
If you’re doing the same thing, for some people that’s OK, but if you’re in the same thing, you’re potentially not going to learn as much as if you try different things. Variety of experience is great. We definitely have that on the team these days because of all these different modes. That’s exciting for the team and their personal development.
But it’s also exciting for players, because they get to see all these different things we’re doing. In terms of the sets that are happening this year, obviously we revealed the Barrens and Quillboars. There are some pretty straightforward themes that are easy to tie to the expansions coming this year. Some of our players have already been theorizing what some of that might be. And there’s some pretty easy tie-ins with battlegrounds that are already being planned as well.
GamesBeat: At what point did you and the other team leaders realize that Hearthstone was becoming a platform? Or was that something that goes back to even before you?
Lee: I don’t think the old leadership team thought about the game in that way. I could be wrong. We’ve definitely been thinking about it that way. We’re also thinking about what Hearthstone is 5 and 10 years from now as well. The game’s been going through a transition. We released a lot of content today. We want to make sure that players always have something exciting to do. One of the game’s strategic choices was, have an expansion and just let it go. That’s OK. I actually think that was the right strategy for Hearthstone in the first couple of years: getting people into the game.
Games reach different points in their life cycle. Hearthstone is 7 years old today [we did the interview 7 years to the day of Hearthstone’s launch –Ed.] Seven years is a long time. If I think about my own life, seven years ago, where I was, I was living in different countries, doing different things. Hearthstone has been around a long time, and we want to make sure it’s around for another 7 years or 10 years or 15 years. The way to do that is to have exciting new experiences. It is just human nature to grow bored of some things to some degree.
Some people are always going to be excited by the same thing, but even myself, I go through patches where different parts of Hearthstone are more interesting to me. The fact that those different parts exist means that I’m excited about the game, and we see that in our players. If there was only Hearthstone Standard today, would the same amount of people play Hearthstone? The answer is categorically no, they wouldn’t. We love players playing our game and having fun. Hopefully that’s having a positive impact on their life.
Lyons-Smith: Ben touched on the game sort of organically evolving and becoming more of a platform for card games. The original Dungeon Run provided a new gameplay experience. People were rabid about that. That was awesome. We then embarked on making a number of other single player experiences two years ago. When Battlegrounds hit, we had a bunch of playtests and the team kept playing Battlegrounds playtests instead of making Battlegrounds, instead of making other things they needed to do. We knew we had something cool here. It’s pretty different than anything else we’ve done. The validation of the strategy of providing different types of gameplay experiences with cards comes when the community embraces and has a great time with what we put out. You see that with Battlegrounds. There are so many players that are really happy and enjoying the mode. That’s a point where we said, okay, there’s probably other things like this we should aspire to create. Let’s go big. Let’s see what else we can do. That’s about the time that Mercenaries got kicked off. We started brainstorming about what the next big thing could be in Hearthstone.
GamesBeat: Does adding a core set that rotates every year make working with the other modes easier or more difficult?
Lee: It doesn’t necessarily affect them in lots of ways. It depends on what you consider to be modes. For the way I’ve been thinking about things, a lot of our traditional card games are more formats. Even things like Duels and Arena, they’re obviously not specifically formats, but they kind of are when you compare it to something like Battlegrounds and Mercenaries. The core set is just great for everyone. It’s free and gives a great way to get into the game or come back to the game. It’s going to definitely give excitement to every year, which cards come in and which cards come out. I don’t think it has much impact in terms of modes when you think about Battlegrounds or Mercenaries.
But in terms of formats, it has a bunch of effects. We’re super-interested to see how those go, how people react. If you look at something like Duels, core is going to be in Duels, in Wild, in Standard, and also any single-player content that allows you to deck-build, like Tavern Brawls. It’ll have a large and hopefully positive impact. But in terms of those other different modes, it probably doesn’t affect them.
GamesBeat: Is it weird or odd or silly that in some ways, Hearthstone itself has become a launcher, even though it lives inside another launcher, Battle.net?
Lee: I’m not sure if it’s weird? It’s interesting. We’re not the only game that’s done that. A bunch of games out there, especially the larger MMOs — even World of Warcraft, there’s many ways to play World of Warcraft. We’re not unique in this. I think it’s just, if your game is big and you have a certain audience size, it makes sense for you to embrace different ways to play, different activities that players can do. That’s the point our game is at.
GamesBeat: Do you now look at new hires who can look not only in an environment where you’re developing cards and card sets, but also these other modes? That have the skills to work on more than one team?
Lee: I’ve been with the team just over two years, two years and a few months now. I’ve always wanted people who have broad skill sets. I’m a firm believer in people having varied and flexible skills. Obviously, it’s great to have people that are specialists. We hired both George [Webb] and Edward [Goodwin], two of the ex-Grandmasters from Hearthstone’s competitive scene. It’s fantastic to have super-specialized people to do some very specific roles. The game-balance side, the mathematical nature of that, is incredibly high level. It’s very challenging. But when it comes to more normal and broad development, if you have a very wide skillset, it’s great, because you might be working on the achievement system this month, and then in three months’ time you might be working on a progression system or a new game mode or whatever the case. A varied experience, skill set, and ability to be passionate about different things is super-important for designers.
Lyons-Smith: It’s pretty similar for my team. At Blizzard we make games that all the disciplines are passionate about making. A number of people on the team, myself included, loved collectible card games, and we were eventually able to make our way to the Hearthstone team so that we could make Blizzard’s collectible card game.
With the expansion in terms of the genres of Hearthstone, we are able to expand that a bit in terms of just organically getting people who are interested in our game. Somebody might have not been into Hearthstone for the CCG side, but they were into it for Battlegrounds. They love Battlegrounds and they come to us and say, I want to work on Battlegrounds. Great, we have a bunch of things to work on in Battlegrounds. Same thing upcoming with Mercenaries, a strategy-RPG. We expect our players out there that will be interested in the mode and like it will want to come work on it. By that nature, we’ve sort of expanded what players’ thoughts of Hearthstone are. That’s organically given us a bit more talent.
But in general we’re looking for skill across different disciplines and capabilities. One of those ends up being the mobile and live ops element. If you want to ship a big boxed game every five years, that’s probably not a good fit for what Hearthstone is doing. We’re trying to ship a meaningful content update across one of our modes every four weeks.
GamesBeat: When it comes to conceptualizing and the math and the balance that goes into it, is there a much of a difference between making, say, a piece of gear in Diablo, and making a card?
Lee: I think it depends on whether things are PvP- or PvE-natured. In PvE, balance is less important. Fun is the way you index there. Obviously, balance is still a concern, but if you’re fighting the AI, does it matter if you have something unfair that could feel bad to the computer? Probably not. If that happens to other players, there’s a fine line to walk. What feels too bad to be on the receiving end of? We’re very mindful of that. It depends on the context of how the thing is used. But in essence, cards are part of your deck, which is part of your character.
If you think about it in an abstract way, in Mercenaries items and abilities are also part of your character, and your characters make up your deck. There’s obviously similarities, but it’s the PvP nature and the back and forth between players that’s incredibly challenging. Fun is also subjective in the sense of what’s fun to be on the receiving end of. If you play an action-RPG and you smash all the enemies and deal a billion damage and there’s explosions and you feel great, that’s awesome. You don’t have to think about the repercussions of that. Unless of course it breaks the progression of the game, but that’s something you can tell by playing.
GamesBeat: In the earlier days of Hearthstone, client load, especially on mobile, was a problem. But that doesn’t seem to be a big problem anymore, even though the game is bigger and has all this other stuff to do. How has that happened?
Lyons-Smith: Phones have gotten more memory and more space. The rate at which that expands, thankfully, is much faster than the rate at which the Hearthstone client expands. It’s also been a deliberate effort on the team, where possible, to go pick low-hanging fruit and improve that. Adopting incremental patching through the Apple and Google platforms has helped reduce download size of patches. Every now and then we have to do a bigger download because we re-architected something for the long term health of the game, and so that means you have to go and get 3-or-4 gigs now.
But in general, also, seven years ago, or six years ago when Hearthstone mobile launched, there weren’t as many big mobile games. Phones weren’t as advanced. Now you have a lot of really fancy 3D world games on mobile that are bigger in size, hungrier for power. We still think it’s important for us to deliver a high-quality mobile experience, and we want to continue to work on achieving that while still adding, like you said, a bunch of new modes, a bunch of new content all the time. It’s something we keep in mind and staff do work toward it. But the awesome expansion of making this thing into a computer over and over, smaller and faster, has allowed us to change the perception.
GamesBeat: Now that you’re thinking about it more as a platform, and you have modes that aren’t as finicky as it is when you deal with cards and building decks, is there any desire to put Hearthstone on consoles?
Lee: It’s something we’ve talked about, but we don’t have any plans for that at this time. There’s a lot of complexities that come with that. Putting a game out on console, it’s important to hit when a new console generation happens. That’s already come and gone. It’s probably not the right moment for us. But who knows what the future holds?
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