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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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.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“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.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“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.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“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.”

Credit: Valve

“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.