If there's a face of Blizzard's smash-hit card game Hearthstone, it's Jaina Proudmoore. Coming up in a close second, though, is the game's director Ben Brode, known in the Hearthstone community for his interactions with fans, his booming laugh, and his mad rap skills. He's seen the game evolve over the last three years with new expansions, new modes, and of course, lots and lots of new cards. The latest expansion Kobolds & Catacombs, out tomorrow, adds something completely different: a single-player mode called Dungeon Run.
We spoke to Brode about the new expansion, the changes he's seen in the game, and how that whole rap thing got started.
GamesRadar+: Hearthstone was released in 2014. If players have been away for a while, and are coming back to check out Kobolds & Catacombs, what will be the biggest changes they'll find?
Ben Brode: As far as crazy new stuff, it's the Dungeon Run mode which is coming out with Kobolds & Catacombs. It's totally free - you don't need any cards. So if you felt like you didn't have a very big collection or you're new to the game, you can get the full experience in the Dungeon Run mode, absolutely one-hundred-percent free. It's super replayable; it's kind of like a roguelike where you try a strategy, you delve into the dungeon - and if you die you start all the way at the beginning, try a new strategy and try again. It's very challenging, but a really fun way to play Hearthstone.
And does that come from you wanting to give long-term players a different way to play?
You know, it's funny. We didn't even think at all about what impact this would have on different types of players. We just wanted to make a roguelike. We were such fans of roguelikes internally at the studio, and we had been playing a lot of them, and we said "What would a Hearthstone roguelike look like?" And we've tried a couple of things like this in the studio, like in Tavern Brawl.
This was our dream for a long time: actually executing on a version of Hearthstone where you build your deck on the fly and throw your deck away if you lose, with permadeath and having to do it over and over again with a new strategy. It's always been our vision for a super fun way to play the game, and it just happens to be a great way for new players to jump in and try the game for the first time, or players who have been gone for a while and came back, because you don't need any cards to play. It's just inherent to the way the mode works. I think it's very exciting for all those categories of players, but it wasn't what we were thinking about when we were designing the mode.
I imagine adding anything new to Hearthstone at this point is challenging because any changes spread out and affect everything else. How much planning does it take to implement new content?
There are two categories of change: there are the card themselves, where every card interacts with every other card, and that starts spider-webbing out into a huge amount of different synergies and different opportunities for cards. We have a talented team of super high-level Hearthstone players who are testing that and trying to make that perfect, but we don't always get there. Sometimes we have to nerf cards, but generally we try and get all those synergies to work really well together, resulting in really fun decks to play.
But then the game changes a lot outside of the actual gameplay as well. We have new events that we've been running this year - things like the Fire Festival, the Frost Festival. We had our Hallow's End event for the first time this year where you could play two different classes at once in the arena.
And then every week we introduce new Tavern Brawls, which also totally change the way the game is played. One of the goals of a game like Hearthstone is to keep the game fresh.
One thing that new players can find intimidating is the concept of the ever-changing metagame. Can you talk a little bit about what that actually means, and whether new or returning players need to worry about that kind of thing?
Yeah - they don't, actually. The metagame is what you can expect to play against when you're playing a lot of games of Hearthstone, and you're like "Ok, I keep running into this Rogue deck and my deck is weak to that. Maybe I should make changes to my deck to make it stronger against this Rogue deck so that I win more of my games."
But the best decks kind of concentrate further up the ladder. For example, a deck that might be 15% of all the games that you play at the very top end of the ladder is like 5% of all the games you play at the very low end of the ladder. So if you're coming back to the game, you're just going to see a bunch of other players who are having fun and playing a bunch of different, crazy decks where there isn't really a metagame.
Just build the deck that you like playing the most, or have the most fun with, and play some games. Eventually, if you're winning a lot, you'll start to notice that there are trends, and those trends are stronger the higher up the ladder you go. You just don't have to worry about it when you're coming back to the game for the first time.
What's it been like seeing Hearthstone develop a highly competitive esports scene? Where will that go in 2018?
It's a ton of fun - we love Hearthstone, and seeing people share that love and passion for the game is always exciting for us. The tournaments this year have been even better than in the past. We've had some new things like the Global Games - which is kind of like the Hearthstone Olympics - and we have even crazier plans for 2018. I think we're announcing plans soon for how that's all going to work.
What's the best way for new players to learn and improve their game? Is it watching the tournaments? Is it talking to other players online?
One of the best ways to do it is to meet with other Hearthstone players in real life. We have the Fireside Gatherings - you can go on our website and we'll list places nearby you where people are playing Hearthstone. We have special game modes, that you can only play in-person with other players, that are super fun. When you meet up with other real Hearthstone players in real life, it's much easier to talk about strategy and what's been going on with the game. [You get a chance to] talk about how to improve your gameplay, and how to get better at the game, and play in some new ways that you've never played before, sitting across the table from somebody who also plays the game. It's the most fun way to play Hearthstone: interacting in a real-life room of players.
What does Hearthstone look like behind the scenes? Are you running multiple versions at the studio? Testing out new things? Do you have secret names so people don't know they're playing against you?
It's actually kind of funny, because there were 24 players who had chosen a BattleTag saying "Ben Brode", so I'd be getting Tweets from people asking if they were playing against me. Obviously I don't use that name for my own account. So yeah, I definitely play under a secret pseudonym.
We have internal builds of the game, where we're often two or three sets ahead of where the players are in the live environment, and we do a lot of playtesting as a team. Every week, we spend at least an hour playing through the new stuff and giving feedback to each other and learning from the internal feedback of what's going to end up being fun. The designers - one of the biggest things they do is playtest new ideas, right? Coming up with a new idea is not that hard, but iterating on that idea, playtesting it, and really understanding those ideas - saying what's good and what's not good - takes a lot of time. So playtesting is a huge part of the design process for us.
We do a lot of testing, both playing the live game and the internal stuff, and we're big fans of Hearthstone. We love Hearthstone, and that's why we really want to work on this team and why we want to make this game. We work on Hearthstone all day and then we go home and we play Hearthstone at night. It's what we love to do.
Do you have a hero or strategy you favor?
I definitely like to experiment with different things. I usually try to pick a strategy when a set comes out and stick with that for a couple of months at a time. Recently, I've been playing Deathrattle Hunter a lot, with Meat Wagons and things like that. In the last set, I played a lot of Murloc Paladin, and before that I was playing Yogg and Load Hunter. I try and play all the decks, but I usually have one strategy that I stick with for a couple of months.
Kobolds and Catacombs is an really interesting direction for you guys to go. How set out is the future of the game as a whole? Do you already know where Hearthstone is going over the next few years, or is it more reactive than that?
We do have plans a long ways out. We're bigger as a team now than we've ever been before; we're getting more and more ambitious as a team. We want to keep doing new stuff, we want to keep surprising players, we want to keep pushing forward - and this Dungeon Run mode is a great example of that.
A year ago, we were just starting the Missions team. Now, they're making new stuff like this, free, that is I think super fun; players are really going to love it. That's the kind of thing that we've been trying to set ourselves up to do better at: continue to keep the game fresh and exciting and awesome. We definitely have exciting things planned for that years out.
How do you find a balance where you're rewarding people that do pay for packs, without making the game too expensive for anyone who's been out of it for a while?
That's tricky. I think it's something we have to be constantly evaluating. One of the things we changed in this last set, Knights of the Frozen Throne, was that for the first time, we eliminated the ability to get duplicate Legendaries. You can't get a Legendary that you already have; we guarantee that you'll get a Legendary in the first ten packs, as well. And we gave out a free Legendary just for beating the prologue of the missions that we released with Knights of the Frozen Throne.
With Kobolds & Catacombs we've gone even further. So everybody gets Marin the Fox, a Legendary card, for free. We're also giving away another free Legendary weapon for logging into the game. We've started giving away more packs in the lead-up to sets with some events. We gave away some Knights of the Frozen Throne packs leading up to the release, and then some more for logging in, and then some more for beating missions. I think we're going to get the opportunity to do that sort of thing again for Kobolds & Catacombs as well.
We're trying to ramp up the amount of stuff we're giving away to players. I think it's just generally important to be doing this kind of thing. The game's evolved a lot since we released it, so we're constantly reevaluating our thoughts.
For anyone not in the know: How did you become a Hearthstone rap star?
We have a history of charming, fun music, so for expansion after expansion Hearthstone had really great songs, like with One Night in Karazhan. For the first time in a long time, our Journey to Un'Goro cinematic didn't have a song. It was just us trying to mix it up and give it a kind of different theme and vibe to the set - but the players really missed having that music associated with a new release.
So someone created a petition to have me sing a song to provide that music that we missed in the cinematic. And I didn't quite sing, but I did do a rap - because I have a lot of history with rap, and I'd done a lot of rapping in my past. It seemed to appease the players who were missing that music, so I did one other rap for The Frozen Throne. But I'm trying not to make it a pattern, so... we'll see how that goes!