I've been playing Hearthstone now for more than four years, since the days of its closed beta, but I can still remember every update to the game and how well it stuck with me, and how, generally, it was received by the game's talkative community. This time last year, I was put off by Mean Streets of Gadgetzan's influx of new cards, and surprised when, this spring, Blizzard promised three more big card dumps over the course of this year.
2017 will see more Hearthstone cards released than any year before it, with three fully-fledged expansions instead of a smaller, snappier single-player Adventure. And yet the latest expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, has been well received. It included Death Knight versions of Hearthstone's heroes and free single-player missions of the kind Adventures used to offer.
After four years, and with a community of ever-fluctuating interest, perhaps it is good Hearthstone is experimenting with its format. I was keen to ask Hearthstone's executive producer Hamilton Chu and game director Ben Brode for their thoughts when I talked to them back at Gamescom, and to pick their brains on other topics such as cross-platform play and consoles, following Microsoft and Nintendo's announcements they were opening up their networks to play across rival machines and PC.
This year has more cards released than any before it with three major expansions. Why did you choose to do that? Does it risk players getting swamped with cards they feel they need to collect?
Chu: We think super hard to that and pay really close attention. It's one of the biggest things we philosophise about - we want to keep Hearthstone dynamic and interesting and this is one of the best ways to do that. This period is really fun for a lot of people - there's chaos, the meta is up in the air, people do crazy things. We want to have those times.
At the same time we do have to balance against - is it still accessible for new players? is it still accessible for people coming back into the game? It's really important to us people aren't overwhelmed. We think about it on the design side with complexity, new card types, new heroes we might add. We want it to be fun for people who might not have the whole collection, or who might just have Basic or Classic cards, even as we create new expansions.
Brode: We made some changes recently - you can't get duplicate legendaries in a pack, your first 10 packs contain a legendary, and you get a free Death Knight if you play the prologue so you get a chance to play with him.
Yeah, those were good changes. This is also the first year in a while without an Adventure, though - even with the story missions in this latest expansion. Will this be the model going forward?
Chu: Not necessarily. We were looking forward to getting these free missions out there, we wanted to draw people more into the lore, have them fight cool bosses and give them something free to play. So we think it's a great pairing with expansions. We expect to do more of that but we're always continually thinking about the best ways to use the content we create.
Something you have mentioned in the past is bringing back older monthly card backs for those who missed them...
Brode: We will but we need to balance it for the people who already have them and earned them, so they feel it was still something special for them - we wouldn't just give them out like crazy.
Maybe make them available for some gold?
Brode: We'd want to figure something out which was accessible enough but not easy enough so those players who have them already feel bad. We don't have any plans currently but it's a desire we have.
You brought back the old Adventures recently which had been removed from the store. I was really pleased to see them back - they are some of my favourite, most character-filled stuff in the game. What was thinking of bringing them back?
Chu: A lot of it was hearing feedback like that. People had such a good time and maybe they had friends they're bringing into Hearthstone and they wanted to show those friends them. One of the reasons they left is we wanted to keep the store pretty trim for new players. It could get confusing with this giant laundry list of things, and we came to this conclusion where you can still get them on the web store. If you have friends and they link you there, but if you're a new player coming in it's not too confusing - you can get the current expansions before going further in.
Do you have plans to sell more Heroes outright? Three launched for sale at quite a fair price - but others since have launched via quests or promotions.
Chu: We try different things. We've gotten a really good response to them being connected to an activity, place or time, or partnership. Just them being a special experience has been better for players. We'll continue to look at it in the future.
Some more murloc heroes? Can you do a murloc expansion where instead of Death Knights all the heroes turn into murlocs?
Brode: That sounds f***ing great. [laughs] I'm writing that down.
We've got one expansion yet to come this year, in the Year of the Mammoth. What can you say about it?
Brode: We left a clue in the picture which shows the Year of the Mammoth sets.... we've basically spoiled it.
Surely reddit has figured it out...
Brode: [laughs] I don't think even they have it figured out yet. What else can we say?
Chu: There will be more single-player content, as previously announced. A non-zero amount of murlocs.
Brode: Between zero and a number more than zero murlocs.
That's my favourite number. Do you have a murloc guy? Is it just one murloc voice actor who does them all?
Brode: [laughs] No. Every Blizzard hire has to do a murloc sound to get hired. So we can all slot in as needed.
Are you still thinking about bringing Hearthstone to console? Nintendo Switch would be perfect for it, as a touchscreen handheld.
Chu: It's something we genuinely think about a lot - we want to get Hearthstone out to as many people as possible. When we launched on tablet and phone - that was really hard to do - we wanted to have the experience on a new platform be just as good. So if we did think about consoles it would be as similarly serious a task. We have to weigh up how much of that are we accomplishing.
One good thing is that the majority [who have a console] also have a smartphone who can play Hearthstone. So, how many people would we be incrementally reaching who couldn't play Hearthstone right now that makes it worth it? [We'd need to] take our incredibly precious development resources and do that rather than pushing Hearthstone forward.
Today, most people have a way to play Hearthstone if they want to, but we will keep looking at it.
Microsoft and Nintendo are teaming up to enable cross-network play with each other, PCs and mobiles. Has that encouraged you at all, seeing those walled gardens open up?
Chu: It's definitely a step in the right direction. Something that's been really important for us is having Hearthstone feel like one experience. I love that when people meet and you find out the other plays Hearthstone, you never ask "so which platform do you play on?" It's just irrelevant, and that's due to our designers, especially our UI designers, who make it all feel like the same interface, and then technically those platforms not being walled gardens, allowing cross-platform play.
That would be table stakes for us, so it makes it more of a possibility, for sure. But those other factors I talked about are still there too.
If you could just get two guys to work on it in the corner of the office, I'm sure it'd get done eventually. I know nothing about game development but I'm sure that's how it works.