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Interview: Talking Hearthstone with the developers

Dawn Moore

Want to know more about Blizzard's new digital card game, Hearthstone? During PAX East 2013, we spoke with Hearthstone Lead Designer Eric Dodds and Production Director Jason Chayes to learn some additional information about the game.

During the 20-minute interview, I asked the developers several questions, some on behalf of the lore nerds, others for the collectors among us. We discussed some of the game features planned for launch, as well as the possibility of implementing e-sports capabilities later. Also touched upon were the game's visual aspects, like the art work and animated game boards.

And for those of you with a history playing other strategy card games like Magic: The Gathering, I learned a bit more about Hearthstone gameplay and how the Forge works.

Do you plan on adding alternative avatars for the classes? So if you wanted to play as a priest, but didn't want to play as Anduin, could you one day play as Velen or Tyrande?

Chayes: We don't have any plans for that right now. We're focused primarily on the initial set of heroes to represent those particular classes. But that said, one of the things we want to do is be responsive to the community and the fans. If that's a feature that everybody ends up being very excited about, that's something we'd love to hear about.

With most trading card games, there is flavor text on the cards. Do you plan on incorporating Warcraft lore into Hearthstone through flavor text?

Chayes: Yes. We don't have our collection manager here, but if we did you'd see we have flavor text on a bunch of the cards. We're definitely taking a more irreverent tone than Warcraft normally does. We're more light-hearted and whimsical than Warcraft usually is. World of Warcraft is a mix of both epic and funny, and we slide more on the fun side of the scale.

So will lore nerds be able to enjoy this game for its lore, or is it more focused on the gameplay?

Learning more about Hearthstone with the developersChayes: I think the lore nerds will be excited to see all the characters chosen. Our heroes are from all parts of the Warcraft history, so for instance, you mentioned Anduin, who is a sort of new character who hasn't been doing much until recently. That's our priest character, but our warlock character is Gul'dan (who people mostly just know through his skull) and he was around in Warcraft 2.

We're going to have a bunch of characters throughout the lore, and we're playing it fast and loose. So you could have a Jaina deck with a ton of murlocs in it. Does it make sense? No. Is it super fun? Yes.

We already know you're not giving us death knights and monks at launch, but is that a foreshadowing that Hearthstone expansions will be released in the theme of existing World of Warcraft expansions? So a Burning Crusade expansion, and a Mists of Pandaria expansion?

Chayes: At this point we don't really know what the next expansion set is going to look like. We're very committed to Hearthstone for the long term, which means we're going to be rolling out additional content over time and putting in new cards to mix up the meta game. We haven't exactly figured out the frequency of how often that's going to happen but that will probably come out in the beta when we start getting response from players. We're absolutely going to be releasing new content, we just don't know what will bind it together thematically yet.

So what was the reason for not bringing those two classes in for launch?

Dodds: It's not that we had anything against those classes, it's more that nine classes are a lot and once you start to play the game you'll realize those nine classes playing against each other creates a crazy number of combinations. We just felt like that was a lot already, but of course it's hard to say what the future will bring.

Chayes: It's also a scope thing. One of the things about this team is that it's a smaller team than we usually have, and we want to make sure everything we put out feels consistent with the quality of other titles. Managing nine classes was a starting point, but we could definitely imagine expanding in the future. To start with we wanted to make sure the balance felt good for all these classes, and yet at the same time felt unique and differentiated from each another. That's been an important part of the overall design.

Dodds: Because we're a small team, we're initially releasing a game without a huge number of features. Once we do release it we can listen to the community and ask, "is it critical to the community that those two classes are added?" If so, we'll think seriously about it. But if it's critical that any other number of features are added, we'll think about those instead. We're going to listen to the community a lot as far as what we do next.

With most trading card games, there are a variety of artists contributing to the game. Will you be doing that with Hearthstone, or will everything be in-house?

Chayes: We'll definitely have a bunch of artists internally and externally contributing to Hearthstone. We are using some of the same art from the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game. We're also commissioning new art specifically for Hearthstone, as well as having our in-house artists do some. We're pulling from a lot of different sources. We think a lot of that contributes to making the world feel very rich in terms of the breadth of different art styles represented. Our art team back home wants to make sure it feel like a consistent, common style, even though there's a lot of different artists contributing.

Learning more about Hearthstone with the developers

For the animated game boards, we've seen Orgrimmar, Stormwind, and Pandaria. Will you be expanding on that?

Chayes: Definitely. That's one area we think is really cool, adding a lot of personality and charm to the game. So far there's only three that we're showing but we have some in the early stages back at the office. We'll have more ready in time for beta.

Will the game automatically cycle through them, or will we have to unlock them?

Chayes: Don't know yet. That's something we're still toying with to figure out what's the right criteria to get access to different boards. You'll see more on that soon.

Aside from achievements and additional card packs, will there be any other rewards inside the game like titles or trophies?

Chayes: We think the golden cards will appeal to different groups of players, whether they're collectors or not. It's a cosmetic version of the other cards in the game but has a golden frame, an animated background, and different sound effects. It feels cool to get one in a card pack, and especially when you play one, it looks awesome. Essentially they're a reward that builds on top of the other cards that you get.

So would we be able to view other player's collections, and show off our own?

Chayes: No plans for that currently.

We've already heard in your interview with Polygon that you're open to embracing e-sports if the scene develops in the community, have you left yourself room to easily build in e-sports features like observation mode, replays, and chat channels?

Chayes: Yeah, absolutely. Technically, the way it's been implemented definitely gives us that flexibility. The real question, in terms of maybe answering what you're asking as well, is do we have the capacity on the team to do this? I think that's sort of a big open question, we kind of want to see what the response looks like from the community as we move through the next two phases of finishing up our internal alpha, going to a closed beta, and then out to the public.

We have the ability to go down an e-sports path but we need to make sure that's the set of features that we think the players are looking for. There's a lot of different things we could do and we want to make sure the things we're choosing feel like the right ones to add to the game. We'd love to go down the e-sports path, we think Hearthstone really speaks well to e-sports, but we want to see how things evolve before we do that.

Learning more about Hearthstone with the developers

The Forge feels like your answer to draft play, is that your approach with it?

Dodds: It's similar to draft in a number of ways, it's also similar to sealed deck environments in a lot of ways. For us the exciting thing about the Forge is that you can play it in whatever time frame you want to play it in. With a lot of those other formats you have to commit yourself to a large block of time, whereas with the Forge I can go in, start to forge my deck, choose my first 10 cards, and walk away. Then I can come back three days later, finish the other 20 cards, walk away, come back in another three days, and play my first match.

So I have the ability to play the way I want to and not have to be committed to large blocks of time. It can be tough for people to find that kind of time to commit, especially when they're playing on the iPad and likely want to play on the go.

Chayes: It really eliminates the dependency of a traditional draft where you have to have everyone there at the same time. So you pick that card, I pick this card, he picks that card ... That's no longer a requirement with the forge. It decouples that requirement for both building your deck and starting your games.

And with the Forge, is it only designed for online matchmaking, or can you play with a select group of people?

Chayes: The design for the Forge is that you're only using matchmaking.

How does Hearthstone affect your relationship with Cryptozoic and the WoW TCG?

Jason: So basically this is a very different game than the WoW TCG. We love playing the WoW TCG, it's an awesome game, but our focus right now is on Hearthstone. We think they can coexist for sure because they are two separate games.

So nothing is changing on their side?

Dodds: It's a great physical game, we're a great online game.

I understand the cards on the PAX East 2013 demo are basic, pre-constructed sets, but once we get into rarer cards will we be able to do things like interrupts and counter spells?

Dodds: So that's speaking directly to us making a game that's designed for online play. So for the games that have responses, that's a great mechanic for a physical game, but in online play it leads to a number of problems as far as game flow. Like I try to do something and you have to go back and forth ... It leads to some issues. So while we didn't want to have that response system, we did want a way to interrupt your opponent and have them be surprised. So we have something called secrets.

A secret is a card that you play into the play field that is hidden from your opponent and will trigger based on a certain set of circumstances. A simple version of that would be a card that says, "Counterspell: when your opponent plays a spell it's countered." It would sit there as a question mark in front of your opponent and they'd think, "I wonder if that's Counterspell, or Ice Block, or maybe Ice Armor?"

Is that what the Snake Trap card in the press kit was?

Learning more about Hearthstone with the developersDodds: Yes. What happens with Snake Trap is that when your minion is attacked, you get three 1/1 snakes that instantly come into play. Your opponent may not be expecting that and the hunter has a number of interesting ways to combo that with some of their other cards to become really powerful.

We're running out of time, so what would you like readers to take away from this interview?

Chayes: Because Hearthstone is different than what Blizzard normally does, one reaction we've had at the show is that this is not what people expected -- we even heard that internally when we first told other development teams that this is what we'd be doing. But what we've seen once people start playing the game, whether or not they've played WoW, or Warcraft, or any card games in the past, is that they're huge fans of Hearthstone.

The biggest thing to take away here is that even if you don't think Hearthstone will be a game you're interested in, you should give it a shot. You might be surprised.

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