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

Is Blizzard looking to smooth out the mid-tier grind for players who fall between between competitive players and newcomers? How do you make the experience better for the players who fall between these two extremes?

“I think all three types of players you mentioned remain important and were a factor in the decision to change the way that ranked play broke down. The adding of new ranks up front to create a better on-boarding experience for new players, top get a little bit of distance between the some of the mid players and new players but certainly the some of the mid players and the late rank players. All of those were a factor in that.”

“Certainly, as we start talking about what are different ways that you can acquire new cards or packs and things like that factors into that as well. It’s not just new players who are looking to fill out that collection from scratch but also that middle section of players who have a good number of cards, they certainly don’t have the largest bulk of them but they have a much better understanding today than they did previous than in months or sets previous.”

“Then for the extended players who are very high up in the ranks or play a lot of Hearthstone, [it’s about] making sure that there's still enough depth and enough interesting changes to the meta and the content therein that they remain engaged and more importantly are having fun. Continuing to find things that they didn’t see before or experimenting with new decks that hadn't given a thought to the first time around or as a new set comes out and new keywords like overkill and relationships between things like spirits and the Loa and how that changes not just the decks they’re making but the decks they’re playing against.”

“Creating, at all times, an interesting and always changing environment benefits all three of those groups simultaneously, so we just really look at the specifics of how to do that in a way that feels even handed for everyone.”

What about lapsed players? How are you looking to bring back in those who have fallen behind on the game?

“Pre-releases [are] a great thing for that but I would say the same thing for new and experiences players too.”

“If we look at pre-releases, that’s an opportunity for everyone to start out on even footing. I think one of the dangers with lapsed players is that they’ve played enough Hearthstone to know that to come back in a little bit later, they may have more of a feeling of having missed out on some stuff or being a little behind.”

“The new player doesn’t necessarily always know how behind they are or aren’t, they just have a feeling. The lapsed player has enough experience with the game to know that there’s some things to overcome here and [they’ve] got to learn and understand a little bit more here around certain keywords that have come into play and deck types [they] haven’t seen before.”

“But the beauty of pre-releases is that everybody is fresh and new right out the gate, coming in and opening up packs together, and discovering things like overkill, looking at these relationships between loa and spirit, how a champion [changes] the way you build a deck around them. Those are all discussions that are taking place there and I would say that a lapsed player has a great opportunity to build on the knowledge that they already have of the game but to do so in a way that takes advantage of all the new stuff that everybody is being hit with at the same time.”

“In general, we always want to make a game that you could jump back into and not feel wildly behind at any one point. Certainly, different parts of the year are arguably better or easier than others. A season roll, that we’re about to experience again come March next year, always tends to be the easiest. That doesn't mean that where we’re at now in 2018 is the hardest, there’s just more sets in play than there is normally.”

Hearthstone is one of the most watched games on Twitch. Do you think the art direction is part of the reason why?

“Certainly, when we initially set out designing the game that was part of the purpose of the art, for sure. We knew that if there’s any way to create a game with what we were calling at the time this sort of ‘over-the-shoulder-appeal’, where people could look at a game, not understand a thing about it but still be attracted by it and see it as something they would like to know more about. Art is right at the forefront of that. Creating something that feels visually appealing. But maybe more importantly and harder to obtain sometimes is that sense of understandability. Like, this looked like a game I could easily get into as opposed to ones that appear outwardly complex. We’ve all played those ones too.”

“As we set about figuring out the aesthetic for the game, there was four pillars for the art team but one of the main ones was’ simple to understand’. Very bare-bones. Not a lot of education necessary up-front. And certainly, we felt that Hearthstone played that up the most.”

“Even taking understandable aesthetics that come from World of Warcraft and simplifying them down. Breaking them down to very simple shapes. Big, soft, rounded shapes from something that previously had a much higher degree of detail or color palette. All that was part and parcel to creating an environment that never distracted from the game in progress but always gave you a sense of place and a sense of joy as you interacted with it or looked at it.”

Diablo: Immortal’s mixed reaction was one of the big stories out of Blizzcon. Hearthstone had a similar reception when it was announced. Do Blizzard internally see that parallel did you have any advice for the team working on the Diablo mobile game?

“I think you’re absolutely correct to point that out. Certainly, that’s something we brought up right away. We talked to Diablo: Immortal team and just reminded them that “look, this is the same reception Hearthstone got in its early days”. We’re now 100 million players in. It’s a game that people fully understand what the game is and what it’s going to be and where it’s headed.”

“And I will say that personally, I’ve played Diablo Immortal for a number of hours and it’s fun. It’s really engaging and the ability to have that on my phone and play at a moments notice, is pretty compelling. I enjoy it quite a bit. I look forward to that game getting into players hands just as Hearthstone did and seeing what players reactions are at that point in time.”

Hearthstone has inspired a lot of competition in the digital card game space. How closely do you look at those games?

“We’re always excited when new games get added to this genre. When we set out to make Hearthstone we did so with the goal to make as broadly accessible as possible a genre that we fully believed in since day one. Everybody on the initial team certainly and everybody since then comes from a love and passion for games obviously but card games specifically.”

“And to bring that genre to the digital space, which Hearthstone had a large part in doing, that sense of purpose is really only strengthened by the introduction of each company and game to that space. It only strengthens [the idea] that this is a space that's ready for a digital revolution of its own and we’re excited to welcome any and all into the space. It just shows that there’s a good-sized future for digital card games coming up.”

Hearthstone’s widespread availability on mobile and tablet has been a major factor behind its success. Are there plans to bring Hearthstone to console audiences or the Switch any time soon?

“I think certainly the want to see a game that you’re passionate about like Hearthstone come to a form-factor or platform that you’re passionate about is a desire - and I completely understand that. Having it on PC, Mac, tablet and on phones has all been a major part of its success and accessibility to people. That said, we never take lightly what it takes to move a game to any new form-factor or any new platform. “

“So it’s something that, while it may have come up, we really don’t have anything to talk about or discuss at this time. Suffice to say, it’s not an overnight journey. It’s not even the work of a couple of years. It takes various long dedicated hours and deliberation on a company-level to make any sort of jump.”

Hearthstone is available on PC, Mac, iOS and Android now. The game’s latest expansion, Rakastan’s Rumble, launched earlier this month.

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