Interview: We talk Rakastan's Rumble with Hearthstone's Creative Director Ben Thompson

With the arrival of Hearthstone’s latest expansion set, Rakastan’s Rumble, we sat down for a quick chat with the game’s creative director Ben Thompson.

With the departure of former-Hearthstone game director Ben Brode earlier this year and your promotion to creative direction, are you taking over that leadership role within the Hearthstone dev team

“Not so much taking over, to be honest. Ben Brode was the game director on the game at the time of his departure. I’m the creative director, which is actually a new role for Hearthstone that did not exist before. It’s not so much taking over as moving into a new role myself. There’s only two creative directors at the company - three previously. Chris Metzen was the original one. Then, Alex Afrasiabi for World of Warcraft and I’ll be Hearthstone.”

“They’re very different depending on the individual who occupies the role. It’s a what-the-team needs kind of role. In Hearthstone’s case, I oversee art still - though I have a gentlemen who’s moving more into a senior art role as a result of my moving into this one.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“But I still oversee art as a whole and have now added to that design, user interface, audio and a number of other creative sciences as we look at cinematics and a lot of the external things that we work with at the company. It’s a very creative role but it’s one that multi-disciplined and splintered across a bunch of different groups.”

Your background is on the art side. How does that inform your involvement in the other areas of development?

“Well, I’ve always been a little bit weird in my role. Even when in art, I was very involved with Derek Sakamoto and Eric Dodds back in the day when they were initially designing the game on the user interface side. I have a lot of experience and time with user interface and that side of things so I always had a lot of opinions about that and worked with a lot of the gentlemen involved at the time on that.”

“Eric Dodds did a wonderful job when we originally formed the team of instilling a sense that all developers on Hearthstone are designers first. And that meant that everyone was really integrally involved in playing the game and how things worked and were very much a part of the decision making and, more importantly, the solutions to the challenges we faced early on and continue to [face].”

“So a lot of time in design with that, though far less than user interface and art. Then when it comes to audio and cinematics, I approach it from a vibe and consistency field. What feels right for the game? What feels consistent with not just what we’ve done previously but where we want to go? Maintaining an overarching vision so that it all feels part of one and the same. That’s really the best way to describe the whole thing: keeping a sense of consistency and vision to the whole as the pieces come together.”

Is there anything you couldn’t do before that you can now shepherd or push for in this more senior role?

“Not necessarily because it’s not like there was anything that we wanted to do with the art that we’d not been able to do.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“I think that the team’s always been really welcoming of what each individual group within the team wants to see done and is really passionate and excited for. I would say that certainly the initial team - the 15-16 originals - and the team of today certainly recognise that each individual group plays a role - and then more importantly, where their own role ends and the other begins. There’s never really a sense that you’re interrupting or reaching over someone to do their job too as there’s a very clear understanding that everyone wants the game to be the very best version of itself and we all want to see that happen.”

“Anything in specific that I’d like to see done? Not that hasn’t been done already. There are some things we’ve got planned, certainly in 2019 but [also] in the years to come, that we’re super excited to see come into play and the ways that’s going to show for the first time in Hearthstone the things we’re very excited about - but that goes beyond the art, that’s inherent in the audio, all these other disciplines together as well.”

Any plans to change or increase the cadence of set releases?

”There’s certainly all sorts of discussions at all times around what is the right way for Hearthstone, not just as we’ve been doing it but as we’d like to be doing it in the future. We don’t have anything to announce or talk about directly with that today but it is something that we’re always aware of.”

“It is a conversation and I wouldn’t want anyone to think it doesn’t come up and it’s not something that we don’t discuss internally as it relates to specifically how our players relate to the game. How do our players experience Hearthstone and is there a way that is more right today that was previously? All these are ongoing conversations and it’s never really stopped, to be honest.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“We listen to forums, we talk to players, we talk to press. Throughout all of these conversations, we’re always taking notes and understanding that the future will be somewhat different to what it is today and what we do today very much informs the kind of game that people are enjoying playing.”

How far ahead does the roadmap look for Hearthstone?

“We’re the furthest ahead we’ve ever been - that basically puts us a year ahead. And when I say a year ahead, math tells us that’s three sets but it doesn’t mean we're at the same part in all three sets.”

“So, Set 14, we’re very much locked in on a bunch of things. Final balance is taking a look at everything that’s been placed, we’re getting the last of the art and assigning it to cards as we speak, doing last adjustments and casting of VO and getting all the recording done for that as well. We’re working on cinematic pieces that they tie into it.”

“We move [onto] Set 15, we’re a little further back than that. We’re still in the middle of hand-off between the initial and final design. We’re talking about what makes a balanced set there but also what new cards they want to introduce now to further the ideas for the game or that set specifically. We haven’t begun VO yet, we’ve got about half the art in.”

“So that puts you at the end of the year and Set 16 - and that one we’re still very new into. Initial design is talking a lot about it, meeting a lot about it. Cards are getting designed daily. Final design hasn’t seen any of it yet because we’re still very early in its gestation period.”

“And that’s kinda where we sit on all of them, there’s no talk yet on Set 17 - what it is, what it looks like, what it doesn’t have.”

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