Twas' a dark and stormy night...for a game of cards.
With Hearthstone's Year of the Raven kicking off with the launch of the upcoming Witchwood expansion on April 12, fans of Blizzard's wildly popular card battle game are about to experience some of the most sizable changes to the game yet. Compared to the previous expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs--which introduced the Dungeon Run--The Witchwood expansion brings in a slightly spookier experience for its jaunt through the dark and dreary forest. Along with 135 brand new cards, new keywords known as Echo and Rush, special hero characters that can transform into Worgen (Warcraft's take on werewolves), and a new variation to the Dungeon Run called Monster Hunts--the thriller-themed expansion aims to switch up the meta of the game.
During PAX East 2018, we spent some time with Hearthstone's game director Ben Brode, where he showed off new cards and spoke about the big changes happening in the coming weeks. In addition to talking about the Witchwood expansion, he also reflected on the game's impact, how its expanding community keeps the studio on their toes, and why the new content and flow will make it great entry point for new players.
GameSpot: The Year of the Raven roadmap starts with The Witchwood expansion, which looks to change things up a bit. Can you elaborate a bit further on what's ahead?
Ben Brode: With the Hearthstone Zodiac, each year there's a different animal/creature, and it represents three different expansions in the year. The reason we do that is because it's important to--well if you keep releasing new expansions with new cards forever, the burnout rate keeps going up and up. We have a format where you can play all the cards, but we also have a format where our competitive scene is focused on the newer decks--but you can only use the last two years of content. It's to ensure that the barrier for entry stays capped, but it also makes sure that the environment is changing with each set. The percentage of change there that we release is small, so many cards we're adding--135 cards in this expansion--but in the standard [game type], it represents a huge percentage change to the environment so the meta totally changes. It's always very exciting, and because this is the first set of the year, three--the other sets being a bit older now--it's an even bigger change to the environment, and it's the best time all year to come into the game.
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The last expansion for Hearthstone was Kobolds and Catacombs, which brought in a number of big changes such as the dungeon runs. Based on the reactions you got from the community, what was one of the biggest lessons you learned from it?
I'd say one of the biggest lessons we learned was that dungeon runs were way more fun than we actually realized, and the players really loved them. One of the things that's important for us with Hearthstone is that we have to have interesting stuff happen all the time, and so when the new stuff comes out--things get really exciting, and players really like that phase of the meta to tinker and experiment. We also try to have more stuff happen during that phase, like our crazy events, like the loot clash arena for Halloween that we did, and interesting Tavern brawls for people to really sink their teeth into. But one of the things we could be doing is launching our single-player content a little bit later on, so that we stagger the content--because there's already plenty to do in the game when the expansion comes out, so the new content could come out when things get less exciting for players to switch things up. I think stuff like that for when we roll out the Witchwood, and then launch new single-player content shortly after, that might stuff we'll consider doing in the future.
One thing that may put people off when it comes to diving into games that are continually updated is the feeling that people have to play catch up. Not just in terms of finding all their own resources, but also trying to match up to other players. Do you think that this expansion will a bit more lenient towards newcomers?
I actually think right now is the best time [to jump into Hearthstone], because at this point of the rotation, this is the smallest number of cards you have to collect to become competitive in the game. You're not really behind anyone, and there's still a number of ways to figure out how to manage your decks. Oftentime players believe they're behind and that they can't keep up--this is the moment where you're not. I highly recommend coming into the game now at this point. Plus, we also have these super fun single-player modes that are completely free. The dungeon runs from our last set, Kobolds and Catacombs, our players really loved those and had a lot of fun with it, which we continue on with in Witchwood. There's plenty to do in Hearthstone, and you can do so much without spending any money at all. It's the best time to come in.
On the inverse of that, having an expansion that makes a number of new additions and adjustments to the systems can be challenging as well. Especially for players who are comfortable with the flow of the game.
Yeah, that's right. If you're the kind of player that doesn't want change, the Wild [gametype] is actually perfect because it doesn't change that often or frequently, and it's focused on the decks that you fell in love with whatever reason--you can just play them there. So that's an option. But it is complicated because there are 135 new cards and each of those cards interact with each in other interesting ways. We have a really good team--called the final design team--and they play a ton of games, all focusing on balance and clarity in the cards, all to make sure things work and everything is well-balanced.
I guess you can say this expansion offers a really dark and moody atmosphere to it. Can you talk about how it was trying to inject more of a clear narrative and tone, and whether it was challenging to do so within the medium of a card based game?
Yeah, I think it's challenging, but also not really that important. We talked a lot a about story versus vibe among the team, and I think the vibe is critical to get you sold on this idea that you're in this tavern playing a friendly competition against a player--with the background having this background chatter can hit hard for people. I think that vibe, that 'Warcrafty' feel, is critical. And having an actual story plot points don't really matter, and it's also incredibly challenging to have to deliver on that in a satisfying way in the medium we have. Every type of game has a different type of vector of tellings stories in their game. Like I'm too busy trying to micro my units, I don't have time. After an intense RTS match, you kind of want that story to be the reward for a fun mission. So each game has their own kind of strengths and weaknesses in storytelling, and in just the way you have to structure your story for that game type, and I think card games--especially with the nature of this one being quite difficult--tend to focus more on the characters and its setting, as those matter more. People fall in love with Hearthstone more for the vibe it's in.
In terms of switching things up, and offering new ways to play the game, is there one thing in particular about The Witchwood that strikes you as really appealing?
What I'm really excited about is the new keyword Echo. With cards that have Echo, you can play them as many times as you have mana on your turn. For example, we have a card called Phantom Militia, it's a three cost card, it's got two attack and four health and a taunt--so it's a pretty significant defender if you're trying to stop your opponent from overrunning you. You can play it for three mana if you want to start off strong or if you want to stop an aggressive player, but if this match-up is not about staying alive and it's about getting the highest value out of your cards, then you want to wait till it turns six and play it twice, or want to wait till it turns nine and play it three times. As long as you got the mana, you can play every card over and over again. Choosing to wait to get more value out of it is a super interesting decision; there's a lot of types of those cards in this new set. I think this mechanic is something players are going to find really fun.
Hearthstone has been around for four years now, and the game's popularity is still growing rapidly. Do you have any comments about the impact it's had on Blizzard, and just what the general reception to the game means for you?
Well, I think one of the most interesting things about card games is that the way we release cards consistently, it's always exciting for people to see more added to the game. I've always believed that Hearthstone would grow and get bigger and bigger. Though I will say that not everyone was as confident as me [laughs], but I definitely could tell we had something special going on. Not many games can say they've been around like World of Warcraft has. So I think it's a difficult goal to shoot for, but I think we can easily go forever with Hearthstone. There's so many things we're excited about doing, we're actually working on in-game tournaments to allow friends and others online to get together and organize their own events. The game's got an infinitely designed space, and we're way, way far away from tapping out all the cool ideas we have. I can't wait to see what the game looks like in 10 or 20 years.