Hearthstone's expansion announcement at Blizzcon this year may have been expected, after all, updates to the game have started hitting with regularity. But the big difference this time is way the team is changing up its approach to single-player content. At the show, we talked with lead mission designer Dave Kosak and lead UI designer Max Ma to learn how exactly the new Dungeon Run will work, and to get a few early tips for what sounds like a challenging new mode. In addition, we learned the codename for this expansion before it was revealed to the world!
And in case you missed any other Hearthstone announcements at the show, here are all of the cards revealed so far and the new intro trailer. We also have a roundup of all the biggest Blizzcon 2017 news, from Overwatch's new hero to World of Warcraft's next expansion.
The following transcript has been edited for content and clarity.
Is the Blizzcon demo basically how Dungeon Run is going to work in the real world? You'll choose a class, you're given 10 cards, and you just go for it?
Dave Kosak: Basically. We had three classes in the Blizzcon demo; the full Dungeon Run has all nine classes. There are 48 different encounters and every time you play, it deals out eight random encounters. You never know what's next, you don't know what eight it's gonna pick. We have about 40 treasures. I think there are a dozen treasures on the Blizzcon build, but there's 40 total and they really do shape how you play.
Another change in the full Dungeon Run is that you'll get a treasure after every other boss. After the third, the fifth, et cetera. Here at the Blizzcon, we gave you a treasure every time because we wanted to show off more treasures, but that made the Blizzcon demo a little easier. The real run is tricky; it's very difficult. We were going for that rogue-like gameplay where the difficulty is part of the fun and you get these great spikes while you're playing. Occasionally you have the perfect run when all the right cards are landing and it feels really good.
Is the Dungeon Run only tied to this expansion, or is this a permanent addition to the game?
DK: The Kobolds & Catacombs Dungeon Run is just for this expanion, so it's all the cards up to and including the Kobolds & Catacombs expansion. In future expansions we won't go back and add the new cards to it. But, the idea is that every expansion has a full set of cards as well as single-player content. So you might see something like Dungeon Run in future expansions as well.
Max Ma: If our players like this new mode, please tell us because our mission is to make them happy.
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Was this driven by a decision to introduce players to these new cards, and that's why it's not something like Arena where you have to pay an entrance fee and you get the reward out of it at the end?
DK: I'm the lead mission designer for the team so when we decided with Year of the Mammoth to go to this new model of full expansions and free single-player content, we got to redefine what the single-player content could be. With our previous adventures, you paid for them and cards were gated behind it so we had to make them a certain way. We had to make them easy enough that if you bought the adventure, you could earn the card.
Now that the single-player content is free, we can actually have a lot more fun with it. There's a lot more space to play and we can do something that's more repeatable. We can make something that's really difficult like the Lich King. Defeating the Lich King nine times? Super difficult. The Dungeon Run can be really brutal, but we have a reward for players who can defeat it with all nine classes--you get a special card back. But we can make it really difficult because cards aren't gated behind it and it does exactly what you say; it sells the story of the expansion, the feel of the expansion, you get to play with the new mechanics and see how it works and hopefully that encourages you to jump into ranked with what you've learned from the Dungeon Run.
Are there any card rewards for playing through or meeting milestones within it?
HL: If you beat adventure with all the classes, at the end you will get a special card back. That's the reward.
DK: It's tricky because we want to make sure you don't feel obliged to play a mode that you don't want to play. If you're a free-to-play player, we don't want you to feel like you have to do the dungeon. If you don't enjoy the dungeon runs we don't want to make you feel like you have to do them because there's rewards that you really need. We just want it to be fun, and the reward is cosmetic--you don't need a card back but it's so hard to get. There's a lot of prestige when you see someone shuffling that and that's their card back.
HL: The reward moments are the treasures you earn after every boss defeat--you're paid awesome treasure, which is just a completely broken card if you had them in ranked mode. It feels satisfying, and the progression you're making from a really basic deck of ten cards will probably be the strongest deck you've ever gotten your hands on. To me the pressure is huge, and the reward as well.
So, the part of Kobolds & Catacombs is gonna end when Year of the Mammoth ends next year right?
DK: The mission mode will be available. Anybody can go into the solo adventures tab and click on Kobolds & Catacombs and they'll be able to play it. It'll still be there, yeah. I'll be playing it for a long time.
HL: I've been playing a long time, and I still haven't defeated it with all eight.
Since this introduces another new card back, do you guys think about giving players a way to show off more of that library of card backs they might have earned over the years?
HL: It's definitely something we have considered, but we don't have anything in the plans to make that. We have tried a few things to make cardbacks show more often, but I think one thing about Hearthstone is that we want to keep relevant information close without any extra things in the way. Card backs are purely aesthetic.
DK: It's important to keep the game as streamlined as possible, and you can see that in the box hasn't changed since the game was launched. Dungeon Run was a real challenge for us because it was a whole new mode, but we wanted to keep it as straightforward as possible. We wanted to keep it clean and elegant. The interface feels very much like the Arena. We talked about whether we should show the dungeon, show a map. We ultimately decided to go with the purest expression of Hearthstone--the dungeon is a deck of eight cards that you gotta go through one card at a time. That felt very good and made the interface very clean.
Related to that aesthetic experience are the Heroes themselves. Going into the store, there are only three skins for sale. There have been a lot of Hero skins available through promotions, but why is that something that's still so limited?
DK: The concern about Heroes is that you want to make sure you're not seeing a million different faces and you have no idea what class you're facing. We want Heroes to feel very, very special. If you unlock Prince Arthas by beating the Lich King, that's super special. There's not a lot of those paladins running around, so when you see one, it's very unique. That's really important to us. We have lots of Hero skins in the pipeline, but it's not something we're going to blast people with.
So with this new expansion, some of the cards just feel scary. Like Azari the Devourer, which destroys your opponent's deck.
DK: With the First Disciple, it's a Warlock legendary. In the set, you bring Rin on the board; she has a deathrattle that starts you on a dangerous path. Her deathrattle gives you the first seal: a spell that summons a demon and give you the second seal, which summons a slightly larger demon, which gets you the third seal. All the way to the fifth, final seal and then you get Azari the Devourer. It ends up being like 38 or 40...it's a lot of mana. You're putting a lot of mana out there over the course of several turns. Your opponent can see it coming, they know what you're doing.
And Azari is a 10-10 demon that destroys your opponent's deck, which is one of the coolest visual effects we have in the game. You just slam it on the board, blast your opponent's deck, and they're out of cards. It's very scary.
HL: I remember glancing over at a designer's computer when I first saw that card, and I was like, "Are you guys out of your mind? This is not an actual card we're releasing, right?"
DK: So that one's really scary but it's an investment. You can see your opponent doing it, and they're committed to that strategy. So we're really curious to see, with cards like that, what kind of decks are built around it to make that happen. I think it's going to be a lot of fun. Did you see the Legendary Weapons?
I got to try the with the Mage's, Vorpal Dagger, which has mega-windfury. It's fun to use that with a character who doesn't normally get a weapon.
DK: Exactly. That was a lot of fun for us, figuring out what kind of weapons casters would have. The other one we showed was Dragon Soul for priests. A huge artifact in World of Warcraft lore if you're familiar. Here, if you cast three spells in a turn, it summons a 5-5 Dragon. Dragon Priest is one of my favorites, so I was delighted to see that one bubble up out of design.
And we're giving away a legendary weapon on the launch of the expansion--everybody will get one of the nine legendary weapons. And next week we're giving away Marin the Fox, he's coming out early. Marin the Fox summons a treasure chest for your opponent, and if you can break it, then you get some pretty crazy cards.
With some of the ridiculous powers that are in here, were there any cards that you were you thought, "This is actually too broken, we have to take it out?" Or just something that seemed like a good idea, but which didn't work out?
DK: We had a lot of discussions, but it usually ended with, "Let's just go over the top with it." For instance, there's the Potion of Vitality, a passive treasure that doubles your starting health. What happens if you get two during a Dungeon Run? Do they stack? We thought, "Sure why not?" How often are you going to be able to get two? And if you do get two of these, you have quadruple health, which is crazy but that's what makes rougelikes fun.
Where did the idea for this particular adventure come from?
DK: It really started with the theme of the set. For Kobolds & Catacombs, the earliest theme was doing a treasure set. We wanted to do tons of loot. In fact, the code name for the expansion early on was Lootapolooza. And then we said, "Okay, how do we give people loot?" That's when we settled on doing dungeons, because there's the classic fantasy of running a dungeon and getting loot. Then we had to make decisions about whether or not it was a specific dungeon. Is it going to be the Dead Mines? But what we really wanted was not a specific dungeon but the idea of running a dungeon. The idea of the classic role-playing experience, the classic computer RPG, pen-and-paper game of fighting monsters and powering up your character. Once we had that core fantasy down, it was expressing that in single-player--that's where Dungeon Run was born.
HL: It all comes together after our team playtests. Every week we get together, and we're all Hearthstone players on the team, we all play our products early and give feedback. I remember after our first Dungeon Run playtest, everybody kept playing for hours. We didn't even work that much that day. I was like, "Dave, we have to build this. If this means a complete change to UI, I'm up for it."
DK: It really sold everybody. In our earliest prototypes to Dungeon Run the interface was terrible and it was super janky and the last boss was Jaraxxus. He just started summoning infernals immediately, and it was impossible. Even though it was really janky, it was so much fun. It proved that this was going to be fun, building a deck and fighting more monsters just felt fun, and we were committed to it.
For the difficulty balnce, it did feel like the first battle was much easier, and then things ramped up slightly, but is it random? Could you start with a Jaraxxus-level fight as my first battle and then end with something much simpler, kind of like the Munchkin board game?
DK: The 48 encounters are of varying difficulty and they're stratified. For the first couple of bosses, there's only a subset that you can get for your first boss, and there are five final bosses for the end. In between, they're kind of stratified so it does ramp up in difficulty predictably. The only thing is, you don't know which of the mid-level bosses you're going to find in the dungeon and which of the high-end bosses you're gonna find at the hardest parts of the dungeon. You can't predict it, and that's what makes it so much fun.
It's less about what the bosses do and more about what kind of deck you're building. You have to build something that can withstand any number of challenges and that ends up being the fun part.
Early on--I'm giving you strategy tips now--the bosses have very little health, so aggro-decks are really powerful. If you can get out there right out of the gate and burn the boss down, the bosses are relatively weak. You think that aggro is the strategy to go with, but once you get to the middle of the dungeon, the strategy starts to change. Some of the bosses have a lot of health, and sometimes they have ways of countering an aggro-deck. So you have to have a backup plan, you have to have some other way. You almost have to build a deck and then pivot toward the middle of the dungeon to whatever your endgame deck is gonna be. Learning that and learning to cope with all the different challenges you'll find ends up being the really fun part of the mode.
That's hard to tell from the Blizzcon demo because you only get a taste, you only get three bosses. But I think the final version is gonna really be exciting.
HL: I had the same example early on; I was building an aggro-deck, and then I encountered Candle Beard. His hero power is to give all his minions charge, so he basically out-aggro'd me. And I have no heals, I had no taunt]. I learned my lesson. In a way, playing Dungeon Run helped me get better at deck building.
It does feel like, if you're not someone who's used to creating your own deck, this will teach you through example, how to build your own. Was that one of your goals originally?
DK: It wasn't one of the goals, but we discovered it really early on. I lead our mission team but I myself, am not a really good Hearthstone player. I'm not very competitive, and I actually learned quite a bit about deck building from this because the game helps you build a synergized deck. It'll put cards in there that you wouldn't have thought about using in your frost deck, but that are a good combo. Then you start building these decks, and it got me more excited to build a deck like this and go on the ranked ladder and play. It actually does teach you. So that was just something we discovered along the way.