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This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Two of Us - Hearthstone BlizzCon Interview

We sat down with game director Tyler Bielman and executive producer Nathan Lyons-Smith at BlizzCon to talk all the exciting things coming to Hearthstone in the lead-up to its 10th anniversary.

Audio transcription

"Hello everyone, I'm here at BlizzCon and I'm here with Nathan Lyons-Smith and Tyler Beelman and we're here talking Hearthstone. Now, not to beat around the bush, but you guys have a big anniversary coming up.
Ten years of Hearthstone. Makes me feel very old to say that, I've been playing since launch."

"What does ten years of Hearthstone mean to you guys and do you have any really fond memories from the time you've had with the game?
Ten years is a long time to have a game and have a live service and somebody who wasn't at Blizzard when the game launched and heard about the announcement, knew Blizzard makes the best online games and they were going to make a game for me, they were going to make a card game."

"Fell in love with it then, played through beta, played every month since.
So as a player and a fan, I am thankful and excited for all the cool content and experiences and features I've played.
As a developer, I'm excited to be celebrating our tenth birthday next year.
Looking forward to looking back at ten years of Hearthstone and the surprises and fun that we've got planned."

"Yeah, so I've been with the team for seven months.
So not super long, I don't have as many fond memories of the development.
But of course as a fan and being able to come at it and be able to step behind the curtain and actually start to see how the team makes the game, the passion the team has for the game and I feel really lucky to be here as we're going to celebrate that tenth anniversary alongside the anniversary of World of Warcraft and the Warcraft franchise in general."

"So it's an exciting time and we have some great surprises planned.
Actually a really good point there, Tyler.
It'll be Hearthstone's tenth anniversary, World of Warcraft's twentieth anniversary and the Warcraft franchise's thirtieth anniversary."

"And as we're all working as part of the Warcraft franchise, figuring out what sort of Easter eggs and references and fun you might find across the Warcraft franchise.
So of course nothing to share now.
We'll do all of that next year."

"But we're excited to go celebrate the various birthdays.
And not to leave Rumble out, they'll be celebrating their first birthday next year.
So it'll be fun.
There's a lot of synergy I guess with the Warcraft universe as you've touched upon there."

"But we also get our own characters within Hearthstone, characters that have been built up over the course of time, namely Reno.
We're getting his origins this time around with Shadow in the Badlands.
Why now for the origin story of the Leaver Explorers and what is going to make this a different expansion from a narrative perspective?
Yeah, Showdown in the Badlands is coming."

"We are very excited to talk about the origins of Reno and Elise.
When thinking about the kind of story we wanted to tell in that environment, we knew we wanted to do a Wild West thing.
We knew we wanted to put it in the Badlands and Blood Rock."

"And we were trying to figure out how to bring players along on that journey and show them a new face with this Wild West component.
It made a lot of sense for us to visit those characters.
But it didn't make sense to go with them as we know them."

"It made sense to go back.
And also just because the Wild West is a historical context, it lined up really nicely to be able to do that.
And then it became a question of asking, what are they doing there and why does it matter?
And so the narrative around the mining company going for the Azerite and the good guy outlaws trying to stop them, it all started to form together into a really nice mix of the narrative."

"So we're excited for players to get to see all the cards, to get to read the flavor text, to see how this all came together.
And then, of course, you never know what the future might hold for our friends Reno and Elise."

"Something that I always love about Hearthstone is you guys are really thematic with the things that you add in as mechanics for the expansion.
So this time around we've got Quickdraw and we've got Excavate."

"Quickdraw I want to touch upon seems like it's going to be a mechanic that's encouraging you to spend your cards quickly, to get more cards quickly, and maybe rushing through your deck which could help certain decks more, help certain classes more."

"Is this something that's intended?
And will we see a quicker format of the game with Quickdraw coming in?
Great point.
I think if you look across the three major mechanical themes of Showdown in the Badlands, you have Quickdraw, as you mentioned."

"I think you will see people drawing and playing to get those bonuses.
A lot of hand manipulation stuff in Hearthstone forces you to look at things a little differently.
This one in particular is very simple, very elegant mechanic."

"Draw it, play it for the bonus.
But if you compare that to Excavate, which you need to excavate, the first time you excavate you get a treasure of a certain quality, the lowest sort of quality, one-cost quality."

"Then the next time, a two-cost quality up to three, and then four if you're in the right class.
That is a more deliberate pace.
That's actually something that's going to take a little time to formulate."

"And if you're really going hard into Excavate, you're not going to realize those benefits for a while.
And then on the third hand, if there's a third hand, you have the singletons that are coming with the outlaws."

"And that is a deck-building constraint that forces you to think creatively about how to accomplish your victory condition.
What are you trying to do?
Maybe without the depth of tools that you would get if you were able to do the two ofs in every case."

"So it is a pretty nice stew of different things.
I don't think the format will look especially faster just as a result of Quickdraw, but I do think you'll see aggro, combo, and control all sort of having different flavors of these three mechanics woven through them."

"And the classes we picked for each of these is a very deliberate sort of leaning into whether it be the singletons or whether it be the Excavates.
And just sort of following up while we're on Quickdraw and Excavate, are the rewards for Excavate going to be more RNG or will we know what we're getting every single time and being able to sort of plan our game ahead through it?
There is a pool at each quality level."

"And then at the highest level, it is class-themed.
And so there is a small amount of RNG in the sense that the one cost is a pool of, I want to say five or six, I don't remember exactly."

"And they're all very utility-focused.
They're things you'd kind of want at any moment.
And then it gets more and more specific and more and more powerful as you go."

"And so if your deck is really relying on those deeper Excavates, you're going to have to sort of really lean in.
So there is an element of RNG to it that will be there.
But at the lower rarity levels, it's not, I wouldn't say it's punishing because they're very utility-focused items."

"In the What's Next panel that we did yesterday, if you want to take a look or point people at it, they did a great job of showing, I think we showed all of the Excavate cards at each level."

"And so you can kind of get a picture of it from that.
Do you guys have any sort of personal favorites, maybe cards that have been revealed as yet, that's coming out in the expansion?
So any sort of card that you're really excited to see?
Early on, as we were looking at art, I saw the Ma and Pa art."

"Tyler here is wearing a shirt.
One of the things that I work on in my role, it's actually passionate about helping the team have good morale.
And so I work with the Culture Club and SWAG."

"And so I had an ask from, I think, the BlizzCon group, hey, what art piece should we use to make a shirt?
And I had seen that one.
I'm like, we should obviously make the American Gothic version that we have of Ma and Pa into the shirt."

"And so we did that for the team.
Tyler's wearing the Dev Team shirt.
I think these are available on the Gear Store.
But that in particular, the art, it takes a thing in the real world, puts Hearthstone spin on it, makes it fun, them being the undead characters here."

"It just really felt so Hearthstone to me.
It was like, yeah, that's the art piece we should choose.
Saw a bunch of folks wearing it from the team, and it feels awesome."

"The card also, I think, is a lot of fun, playing on corpses and whatnot.
And so I think I have at least a few more wins to get to my 500 for Death Knight."

"And so I'll be excited to go and try that with Ma and Pa.
We showed off the 1616 Slumbering Slagmaw yesterday at the panel.
The reason I'm bringing it up is because it's one of our signature cards."

"And so you get the full-bleed piece of art in addition to the fact that it's just this behemoth that literally the crowd gasped when they saw the stats on it.
So there's some things for everybody."

"There's things for people who want the big numbers and the big stats.
There's things for the more combo-y players.
There's some stuff with the elementals that allow you to split elementals into two pieces."

"And there's just a lot going on for all the different types of players.
We think we had a lot of success in Titans sort of by every measure, and our preliminary indicators shown on the Badlands is going to be even better."

"So we're really happy with the expansion.
Moving on from that then, and going with the theme of card designs, how do you guys always keep up with something fresh?
And do you look back at what's been done in previous expansions to maybe help move on?
And do you have a list of things that maybe you've got that we haven't done that yet?
Let's get that one ready for the next expansion."

"First thing is shout out the design team.
The card set design team is incredible.
We have a relatively young team who sort of are like, I think we figured out like the third generation of sort of design teams over the 10 years."

"And they're native sort of card gamers from birth in a lot of ways.
And so they have tons of excitement and passion for the game."

"They're very in touch with the community.
So they're a great barometer of what will work and what won't work.
There is a repository of ideas that sort of floats around and exists, but it's never that we mandate, hey, you have to use something off this list or you have to do that."

"The process is a little bit more organic than that.
It has a lot to do with the theme.
The theme gets decided as the first thing.
And once the theme is decided, then we figure out what mechanically do we want to do that really expresses the theme as well as we can."

"And then what are the secondary mechanics that will sort of reinforce that and build it out?
So what also happens is as we go, a lot changes.
We spend quite a bit of time in what we call a blue sky phase where we're just trying things."

"And the team is really good at rapidly prototyping ideas.
So even if they're things we've never done before, they're able to leverage the engine and be able to try different things."

"And if you can't get all the way there, you can at least get a flavor of whether it's there.
So they're throwing away stuff very rapidly.
They're trying things and throwing away trying it and then something will stick and that will sort of form the nucleus of it."

"So there is a repository of ideas.
There's a repository of technology that we've built that we can lean into.
But the team generally finds it as sort of its own unique snowflake every time."

"They're able to get there faster because there's a lot of inherent knowledge in the team.
They do a lot of play testing and sharing of information, quite a lot."

"And so the process is very hardened in the steps that we take, but the magic that happens inside the steps is great.
And that process has allowed us to put out three high-quality card sets a year for a long time that are going to continue to be amazing in the future."

"We talked about how we'll come up with an idea, make a prototype, play test it, see if it's fun.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
We put it back in and then pull things out later and try them further."

"A good example of that actually is a year ago for Murder at Castle Nathorea, we shipped the first location-type card.
And locations went through a lot of iteration internally on the team."

"The first thought was that you would put a minion in the location and mechanically from the design side, like, okay, that's cool.
I can imagine what we would do there."

"But one of the best parts about Hearthstone is the intuitiveness of the UI and the low complexity of this is how the game should be played.
And it turns out putting a minion inside of something else on the board actually got very complicated."

"Like, what are you representing?
How are you doing it?
How are you showing all the information you need to the player?
And they went through some iteration there and didn't quite land on a thing, and so it went on the shelf."

"And then it got dusted off again as we got into, again, Murder at Castle Nathorea.
And they're like, okay, what if this is just like a thing on the board and then you can use to activate it and it needs some amount of charges?
And so we ended up shipping that version of it."

"And so, yeah, there's kind of like that blue sky ideation iteration happens on, we'll say, paper, and then there's the, oh, how do we partner with the UI UX team to really bring that to life in such a way that feels so intuitive and correct to players?
And when we hit on both of those, we know we've got something really awesome."

"And so a lot goes into this.
It certainly is not a, like, okay, time to do expansion, go figure out a thing and go ship it.
No, there's like a lot of constant iteration such that we can always come up with something so cool and flavorful and thematic, tying in, again, Quick Draw and Excavate, I think really hitting both the flavor and the mechanic of how they work."

"Just feel totally right.
Just, yeah, feels like it's gonna be really easy for players to come back in and understand.
Something else that I personally really like about Hearthstone and something that keeps me going is that it feels like you can just sort of come back in at any point."

"And we're seeing this now more than ever with catch-up packs.
Could you speak a bit more about sort of maybe for someone who might just notice the word catch-up pack and think about coming back, how will those allow you to sort of build a viable deck quite easily?
And will they be sort of, how accessible will they be for maybe new players as well as current players?
We're constantly looking at feedback from player community, surveying players, getting them, having them answer like, hey, what do you want to come back?
Or what are you thinking you maybe need to get a friend in the game?
And one of the things we hear is the, oh, there's so many expansions, I need cards from all of them even though maybe I'm excited about the new theme that you've got, right?
So concretely, if you're really into Westerns and card games, you're like, showdown in the Badlands sounds awesome, heck yeah."

"I played a Western card game, by the way.
Anyways, like, so I'm into that, that sounds great.
Oh, but I got to go get cards, you know, all the way from April of 2022."

"Like, oh, shoot, that's a lot of stuff.
No, maybe I won't come back.
And so we understood this is like a pretty important player problem, and I tasked the team about a year ago, hey, this is a problem, let's go figure out some really awesome solutions that players can easily understand and we'll excite them to come back to the game."

"And so brainstormed, came up with a bunch of ideas, went through some modeling on how do we think this will affect player engagement, how do we think this will affect players coming into the game, how do we think this will affect our business, and came up with a few ideas, did some testing of surveys with actual players."

"Shout out to our community for finding those and posting their commentary on it, and it's interesting and fun to read all those ideas, because behind the scenes we know we're actually just trying to solve this player problem."

"And then maybe March this year, I don't actually remember when, we were like, hey, what if we did something related to packs, right?
We have packs already, and we then brainstormed a bunch of things related to, you know, packs."

"And so like an early example was, well, if you open a pack from the current expansion, we also open another pack for you from other past expansions.
And like, okay, how do we communicate that with UI?
Like, oh, actually that seems kind of complicated, right?
So that sort of UI intuitiveness matters a lot to us too, and so then we went further, and like, what if it was just a pack that had a bunch of cards in it?
And like, oh, okay, like what would that look like, and how do we communicate which sets and whatnot?
And I think the team's done a really good job of highlighting, you know, this type of catch-a-pack, these five icons rotating through it."

"Right now we only have one, so it's really clear catch-a-packs comes with the five expansions in standard before Showdown in the Badlands.
But it should be a really easy-to-grok and easy-to-understand experience of get these, open them, and then it's going to fill in your collection, right?
It's going to look at your collection completion from each of those past five expansions and give you between one and ten cards to help you get caught up and really fill in your collection in each of those expansions, which is great because that's what players need to combine with the new Showdown in the Badlands content to go have fun right now."

"When we go live on the 14th, we're giving everybody a couple.
If you're at BlizzCon or hit the virtual ticket, you get a few more.
We're running a free event."

"I think you can get five more just participating in the event.
Of course, if you pre-purchase, we put some in there.
Some players saw that as soon as we launched the pre-purchase.
And so, yeah, that's a spoiler."

"That's what it was.
And glad to have that be known there.
And then as we do typically when we launch new content, there's like a, hey, new expansion."

"Here's the new bundle.
And we're going to bundle those together with Badlands packs because that's their purpose, right?
You're excited about Badlands."

"Come get the Badlands content.
But you also need to fill in this collection.
And it's great for new players.
It's great for lapsed players that have missed some of those expansions because they're going to fill in the expansions that they missed."

"We don't know exactly what other forms this will exist.
I think there's a bundle with gold, but we're not going to have these infinitely purchasable at expansion or release because we don't know exactly how they're going to be used yet."

"So think of this as like version one of this new experiment to see if we can get a lot of players to come in and check out the game and make it easy for them to come back by offering this type of product."

"And then we're going to take that information, player sentiment, the community feedback, probably another set of surveys, and then our internal data say, okay, what do we want to do and tweak for next year?
We're in the business of getting a lot of players in and having fun in Hearthstone."

"And so always trying new, unique, innovative ways to make that easy, especially leaning in on the digital space of our ability to say, you're missing this expansion, but not this expansion, so we'll give you content from the expansion you're missing."

"It really allows us to help fulfill that player goal of collecting the cards they're missing and then go have fun in the new expansion.
We've talked a lot about Shadow in the Badlands, the new expansion for regular Hearthstone, but there's also been a big information drop on Battlegrounds, the fact that we've now got Battlegrounds duos."

"What was the design choice behind that and why is now the best time for Battleground duos, basically?
So we, as game makers, and especially at Blizzard, are interested in connecting players together in ways that are new and interesting and allow you to make new friends, make lifelong friends."

"That is part of the Blizzard design values and culture.
Hearthstone has been looking for a while to figure out how can we allow people a more purely competitive, sorry, more purely cooperative, the opposite, a more purely cooperative experience supported by the game itself, where there's no workarounds, no hacks, no anything that you can partner up with someone that you know or someone you don't."

"We do allow you to queue up by yourself.
We'll pair you with someone else who's also in the queue and allow you to play together, strategize together, share cards, or minions in this case, and sort of try to be successful."

"So the time was right because it's been an ongoing strategy that the team has been trying to satisfy because we believe in it.
We believe in the power of bringing people together."

"And there's prototyping kind of always happening on the team.
It's a culture where there's lots of opportunities for folks to just try stuff, to just hack things together.
And so this particular effort the team brought to the leadership team, the Battlegrounds team had hacked together a version of this and said, we think that this could be fun to play together."

"This was not the first time the team had seen stuff, but it was one that when it came to us, we were like, oh, it was very immediately apparent that there's something magical here."

"There's something great here.
And it's something we can add to the genre.
It's something we can add to Battlegrounds that allows you to relate to each other in a new way, make new friends."

"We're so thrilled that we were able to bring it to the floor here at BlizzCon to get even more feedback because we're still a little ways from launch.
So we're going to be able to get feedback from people about does the communication system, we have a ping system that lets you ping stuff on the other board."

"Say, I want that, I don't want this.
Is that sufficient for players to be able to communicate to each other?
How does it feel to get what you want from your partner or not get what you want from your partner?
So we're going to have the chance to iterate and make it even better."

"So I think the next time a great mode comes across our doorstep, we will figure out how to invest in it and make it.
You see that in Hearthstone a lot."

"So the time is now because the team brought it to us and we're so thankful that they did.
And then they really busted it to get it here and make it to quality."

"They worked really hard.
I can't think of a good word to say other than what I'm trying to say.
Anyway, the time is now because they brought it to us and it was great and we invested in it."

"Shout out to the team for ideating, prototyping, making the fun thing, and then working their butts off to make sure there was a demo."

"Make sure there's a demo at BlizzCon.
Don't have a concrete ship for this next year again, Tyler pointed out.
The interaction between players is important to make sure we get right."

"So excited to have the demo, get the feedback, and then figure out how to get all that incorporated such that when it launches, there's a really great experience for players."

"Guys, thank you so much for your time."

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