Interview with Hearthstone’s Jason Chayes

We spoke with Hearthstone’s Production Director, Jason Chayes, at San Diego Comic Con about the recently released Hearthstone Expansion, Knights of The Frozen Throne. Listen to the interview, or read the transcription below.

Quick overview of Knights of the Frozen Throne will be bringing?

So Knights of The Frozen Throne is our next expansion and this is the first time we will be taking all of our players into Northrend which is this kind of frozen continent of the north. It is one of these classic places in Warcraft lore and mythology because at the center of it sits Icecrown Citadel which is a very dark and brooding tower. And at the very top of the Citadel is the Frozen Throne and inside the Frozen Throne is the Lich King. This is a sort of very well known, tragic character from Warcraft history and lore. So we are bringing him into Hearthstone, trying to find a way to be true to his dark essence and his power, but also bringing the Hearthstone whimsical flare and sense of humor as well. That was one of our challenges in development and I think we found a good balance there.

Someone like me who has never played WOW not really a big gamer, what is something for people like me to sort of jump into this and give it a shot?

 When we first set out to make Hearthstone we talked to a lot of people like you. The way we sort of start thinking about games at blizzard is being super passionate about something we are playing on our lunch break and over the weekends with our buddies. We talk about how this game is so fun and why people aren’t playing it. So, we will gravitate towards a game like that and think; what are the things we can to do polish it up, just to shave off some of the rough edges and make it the best version we are excited about. That is kind of how we got to where we are with WOW and did a similar thing with RTS and when Hearthstone came around, we were big fans of Collectible Card Games. We got a lot of feedback saying it is kind of intimidating and there’s a lot of math looking stuff and they look like Tarot cards, and what is this thing? So we took that as a big challenge of how can we make these fun compulsions with a card game and make it more accessible so that anybody can, within five minutes, can pick it up and start having fun. And, that’s sort of how we started with the game.

 So, you are brought into Hearthstone from the very beginning assuming you’ve never played the genre before. There are a set of introductory missions which kind of helps you walk through the various core mechanics of the game. We really didn’t want to make it too much of a tutorial feeling, so it kind of more feels like you are thrown right in, fighting some interesting characters, and along the way, introduce you slowly to new ways to play,  like how does something like the taunt mechanic work and it kind of walks you through this hour long experience so you can get a feel for it before you are thrown into it with other players. We actually have a dedicated designer on our team and all she focuses on is the new player experience. How can we kind of keep this as accessible as we could possibly make it and lead into the charm side and we know, if given the change, that people who might not have ever played this genre, we think they could love it.

With all the lore that is in Warcraft, how do you decide what to include?

 We usually have a meeting with a lot of the designers and team leadership. Where al the ideas are; where do you want to take the game for the next year or so? And we kind of pencil in key beats we think are important. We’ve known we wanted to go to Northrend and Icecrown Citadel for a long time now, but a lot of it comes down to what is the next beat we think makes sense for the game. Sometimes it is the mechanics. For example, when we released, the very first adventure, that was The Curse of Naxxramas. We knew we were really excited about this mechanic called Death Rattle, it was part of the core set, but we didn’t really use it as much as we would have liked. So, we really wanted to do a death rattle themed set, so that’s the best place to set that.

 So it turns out, that there is this raid, this sort of dark dungeon in the Warcraft Universe called Naxxramas, and it is full of these insect creatures, full of the undead, and spiders and all kinds of nasty stuff. So, we kind of linked up that theme with this mechanic we wanted to build around and that became the curse of Naxxramas. So we kind of are constantly doing that process, so when it came to Knights of the Frozen Throne, we were very excited about introducing this next kind of card called the Hero Card, which turns you into Death Knights. So thematically, it connected pretty well.

How do you think changing them into death knights is going to change the meta that is going on in competitive and casual play.  

That’s a good question.  What we always try to do with every set is put out a bunch of different tools. A bunch of things our players can connect to and maybe they will build a deck around it, or maybe they will tinker in a couple cards in here or there. In this case what I think we are trying to do is kind of put in cards that leads to some interesting mid-game and late game as well. We have cards that will allow for different type of deck building strategies than what we might have seen before in the past. One example is, there is a card called Prince Keleseth, and he is a two mana card.  And when you put him into play, the way his power reads is, if you have no other cards in your deck that costs two mana; then he basically buffs your entire deck with +1/+1 so they become more powerful. So the strategy there is, can I come up with an interesting deck a powerful deck with no two cost cards, which is a meaningful restriction, but there’s a pretty big reward if you can pull it off. That’s one way that our designers try to come up with tools that our players can think about to build new deck types that can push the meta in a new direction.

How do you go about balancing with so many new cards being introduced in expansions and adventures? It seems like it would be such a huge task to think about beforehand, and have you guys ever thought something was perfectly balanced and then just through people playing comp of casual, you think wow, we need to change that?

 For the first part of your question, on how do we do that; we actually have a dedicated balance team. These are all guys that are excellent, excellent Hearthstone players, and can try to get a feel for what are the types of decks people will try to make out of this. How did this sort of get out of control. What are the types of things and other ways we can forecast that and plan around it. We also have the team really playtesting a lot to try to help those guys out and give them some more perspective on it. Beyond that, we will sometimes bring people in from the community to look at the various cards and give us their perspective as well. That said, to your point, has it ever happened that we haven’t perfectly mastered the balance, that kind of happens all the time. We do our best to sort of have a good sense of where this is going to end up and forecast it, but you know, we have a lot of people that are really excited about Hearthstone and we tried different combinations.

 Even though we have brilliant balance team, they are really smart guys, there’s only so much a handful of guys can do versus having millions of players trying things day in and day out on different ways to play. So what we do is, we will kind of see how that evolves over time and if need be, we can kind of come in and make changes to cards if it gets too far into a place where it is just negatively affecting the meta. In general, we want to give a little time there to see if the community can kind of self correct. We will pull in some new tools to push it in different directions, but it definitely happens. It just happened recently, the Quest Rogue Deck , because it was just such a dominant deck type that it was just getting too much play and it wasn’t allowing for a healthy meta.

Speaking of how big the game is, it is always on the top 4 or 5 on twitch, why do you thinks it’s still been so well received by so many people?

 I think it goes back to what I mentioned earlier. We try to make a very accessible and charming game, we try to make it so anyone can come in and have a lot of fun very quickly. We also put a lot of time sort of crafting the interactions with the cards so it just feels really good when you actually play a Twisted Nether card you actually see this big vortex spinning around the board. Or, opening a new pack and it just feels good, there’s flashes of light and there’s particles and effects and it is just this visceral kind of thing so I think that’s a big part of what the attraction is initially, but there is a lot of depth to it too. There are a ton of different ways to play your deck. A lot of people who are competing at a very, very high level that just shows how far you can take it. So i just think whether you are a brand new player or have been playing for years, like a pro player, there’s a lot there for you.

 So I think a lot of legs comes from that. As for the eSports stuff you mentioned, I think it is a game that is very easy to watch. It can be hard to watch some of the esport because the action is very fast and hard to really track it. But, this is the case where you can look at what is in your hand for a minute and go, “What would I do in this situation?” And does the streamer do the same thing? Oh, they did something different, so you kind of learn something, and it gives you a chance to have the twitch chat commentary going back and forth with the streamer as well so there can be a dialogue as they are playing the game. To kind of talk about what strategies make sense. I think that is really that makes Hearthstone great to watch competitively.

Do you ever notice someone play a card that you never would have thought of?

Absolutely, it happens all the time. We are always surprised by our community and the stuff they come up with. There is a pretty classic match, i’ll aside really quick. Reynad, who is a pretty well known influencer in our community. There was a match where he was playing competitively, and he was looking at his options and trying to figure out how I was going to get out of the situation, and the casters were sort of watching him and like “i don’t know, i’m not sure how he is going to do this,” and he actually ended up using a damage spell, I think it was a frost bolt at the time,  to frostbolt one of his own minions which sort of splintered into two other minions and then that gave him the edge he needed to pull out the match. There’s these little things where the very top end players can see things, that nobody else will see. And, every time you see that, it kind of expands your perspective. Or what’s possible in the game and it will show you the difference from a good player and a truly great player.

When you first started creating hearthstone, did you have any expectation for how big it would get? And, what do you see it looking like the next 10 years?

 We generally focus just on making the best game we can make. You know, we always want other people to get out and check it out and get excited about it the same way we are; but we try to as we are developing it, sort of focus our energy on doing all the things we can to make it truly satisfying and compelling. Instead of having very specific goals on how many people will play it. We are happy that as many people have picked it as have played it, and I think with that comes a lot of obligations and responsibility on the dev team to make sure we are putting out new content and making sure we are keeping it exciting for all those players. So, one of the implications is we’ve grown the team a lot. This sort of speaks to the other part of your question, how are we kind of evolving. When we shipped Hearthstone, we had about 15 people on the team, now we have about 80 and we are continuing to grow to just to sort of have new content and new things to see at faster paces. Dovetailing on that to where are we going the next 10 years. 10 years is a long time out, it is kind of hard to even think the next five years out. But, one of the things we are doing now is looking for ways to help players who love the game to come together and find each other and celebrate their love for Hearthstone. I think one of the best ways to experience Hearthstone is across the table just like this.

 We are here at Comic Con just sharing our love and geeking out about something that is a passion. So we are building into the game support for that. We have this program called Fireside Gatherings. This sort of comes from a rich history of, you know, getting together at a hobby shop and playing a game with your buddies. And, what we did, is we built a system where people can go and register an event to come together at a local cafe or bar or something like that to play Hearthstone and we launched that two or three years ago. The thing that’s changing now is we are building support into the game itself, to unlock new capabilities when you are playing from a fireside gathering. So the new thing we have is this new technology that identifies that I am playing , let’s say from this Starbucks on the street on Thursday night at 9 o clock, and if i go there at that time with my buddies, a new game will be released within the game itself called a Fireside Brawl. You can only play that in that setting. There are a lot of other features like that that we are going to be introducing; that are designed specifically for in person meetups like that that kind of celebrates the experience. So, that is a big part of our roadmap for the next few years.

Blizzard often takes heroes from other franchises, do you see that happening with Hearthstone?

You know, I think we’ve got so much still let to explore in the Warcraft universe, there’s so many characters, locations, narratives that we haven’t even really scratched the surface yet; we’ve got a lot of room there to grow. We want to keep it sort of in that vein stylistically consistent. There are cases though where other franchises will sort of bleed in as little cameos or easter eggs here and there. There is an Overwatch card back you can get, we have done some brawls at some point. The one sort of brawl celebrating diablo’s anniversary that we did it had a little play on the secret cow level thing. So, that was sort of part of that event, so if you knew what we were referring to it’s like awe, I know what they are doing there. Without going too far into like the characters themselves in the game.

Lastly, favorite character from this expansion and overall

So, it is kind of the obvious answer, but it is hard not to like where we ended up with the Lich King. He just plays such a big role in this particular set and he’s got this great sense of sarcasm when you you are talking the sense of humor that sort of makes it fun to interact with him. We actually did this thing for the first time with this release where you actually fight him in the last mission. We have eight free missions that you can play through as you are going into this release, and you’ll have all these different bosses you are working your way up through. You have Professor Putricide who is like this crazy mad scientist you have to fight. There is this blood queen Lana’thel who is this vampire you have to fight, and at the very end, is the Lich King himself. The thing we did with him is that there are 9 classes in Hearthstone; You’ve got Rexxar as a hunter, Jaina as the mage, depending on which class you come to him with, he will come up with a different sort of approach to react to your class and the mechanics that that class brings to the table. So he is kind of like a different experience each time. We are really excited about that.

A huge thanks to Blizzard for letting us stop by during SDCC!

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Joey Lampe

Joey Lampe

I am passionate about games and the gaming industry as a whole and am excited to be able to share it with all of you. So let's have some fun! Feel free to add me on psn.
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