Hearthstone's (opens in new tab) second single-player adventure, Blackrock Mountain (opens in new tab), has been out in its entirety for nearly two weeks now. We spoke to Team 5's Senior Producer Yong Woo and Senior Game Designer Mike Donais about the launch, the unstoppable rise of Grim Patron, recent lag issues, Arena rewards, the state of Shaman, the Druid combo and, of course, Dr. Balanced.
PC Gamer: So you recently announced on Twitter that Hearthstone had 30 million players. How many of those are active in a typical month?
Yong Woo: We don’t really talk about those type of specific numbers unfortunately, but we’re really excited about a lot of new players that were coming in from the release on mobile and a lot of returning players as well, so it’s been really exciting.
So is that number just registered accounts then? What does that number mean?
YW: Those are 30 million players that have played Hearthstone.
There’s obviously been a huge influx of new people with the phone versions rolling out. What's been the feedback in terms of people using the user interface? I think you’ve done a great job of cramming it onto phone screens, but I did notice a Hunter who Quick Shot-ed his own face last night who I think was probably on phone. I mean he had it coming obviously...
Mike Donais: That was a karma thing. We have that built into the game.
YW: The feedback has been really great. I think a lot of people just pick it up and are like “wow, at first I didn't even notice a difference because everything just felt right,” but then you look at it side-by-side with the PC version and it’s dramatically different in some regards. I’m very proud of our UI team in making it natural and easy to use on phone, but at the same time maintaining that same look and feel and that physical charm.
Since the phone version came out there have been days where there seemed to be severe lag, even on desktop. Is that something related to the phone version, and are you confident it’s fixed now?
YW: We’re continuing to invest in our infrastructure. We did have some hiccups, but our team has been working really hard. At this point, all the known issues that we’re aware of are off the plate. Obviously, if any new issues pop up we’re going to continue to take care of them as well.
[Since our interview Blizzard has given two free packs to EU players to compensate for the spotty connection. Nonetheless, there has been more EU downtime this week - Ed]
So the big theme of Blackrock Mountain was the Dragons. How do you think those cards have bedded in versus the Mechs of Goblins vs Gnomes? Because I feel like they haven’t quite taken off in the same way.
MD: Goblins vs Gnomes was a big set, so there was a lot more different Mechs to work with. Actually the most popular deck at first was the Paladin control deck, but within the first month people did experiment with Mechs in a lot of different classes, like Druids and Warriors. All kinds. Now we've finally got all the Dragon cards, people are starting to experiment with different Dragon decks. We've seen Dragon Warrior, Dragon Paladin, Dragon Priest... even Dragon Warlock. People are learning about which one works and which doesn't. Some people need to see a Dragon deck show up in a tournament before they’re comfortable running it, because they’re not confident deck builders themselves. but I've seen a lot of experimentation and every day there’s a new version or new tweaks. Within a month or so people will have a bit more of an understanding of what’s out there and how good it is.
I tried to get Dragon Druid to work last night but I think it might be bad.
MD: Yeah, Druids don’t have any specific Dragons, but they have the mana to play expensive cards so I think with Innervate and Wild Growth they could turn out to be a good Dragon deck.
I talked myself into thinking Blackwing Corrupter might be the card Druid needs because it gives you removal and a body, but…
MD: Yeah, Corrupter sounds fantastic in Druid.
It’s a work in progress. Now that we’re a bit further away from Goblins vs Gnomes, have you got any plans to change the way Arena rewards work so that players can choose to get Classic packs or Goblins vs Gnomes?
YW: You know, we've been getting a lot of feedback on that. Feedback is really important to us, so we've been discussing that a lot. We don’t have anything to announce, but we do intend to look into that.
Another piece of feedback that’s been quite prevalent in the community recently is the discussion of the way ladder works. I’ve seen a few threads on the Hearthstone subreddit and Noxious and Kripp both did videos about how they felt ladder was intrinsically unrewarding. Do you have any plans to rework ladder so that there are more tiers of rewards between rank 20 and Legend, or perhaps extending the season?
MD: We definitely talked about both of those options—the idea of changing how the reward structure works, or extending the seasons—and they’re both reasonable options. We’re trying to find out which we think is best, and maybe there’s something else that hasn't been mentioned yet. One of the things we care a lot about is intrinsic rewards versus extrinsic rewards. So, like, are you playing a game for fun and you don’t feel like “oh I have to play, and now that I played and hit so-and-so number and got X reward, I’m done playing.” A lot of people just play Hearthstone because they enjoy playing Hearthstone, not because they need any reward. That mindset is the kind of mindset we’d like to maintain, whatever changes we do make.
Do you think one option might be to have players shed fewer ranks [at reset]? Because you plunge right back down, and then there’s that mad rush at the start of the season where everyone’s playing Zoo and Face Hunter to climb as quickly as they can.
MD: It’s very possible that the amount of stars that you keep versus how many you lose is not quite right yet. It’s something we’ve also discussed. At the same time, though, we do see a surge of activity both at the end of seasons and the beginning, so that points to the reset having some value for players because they feel more inclined to play at the end or at the start. So we have to keep an eye on that. That’s a vote in favor of keeping the short seasons.
Post-Blackrock Mountain I’m definitely seeing a lot of different classes and decks represented, but before the release there were a couple months in which Face Hunter and Mech Mage were really dominant. The biggest complaint from players was that unless you teched against those decks, you didn't really stand a chance. Do you think it’s just a case that there will always be aggro decks and people will always moan about them, or do you get concerned about how fast and aggressive the meta can be?
MD: Yeah, we definitely keep an eye on that. One of the things is the cheaper decks are often aggressive, so you’ll see a higher percentage of them even if they’re not more powerful. Also, obviously, they get quick games in, so that’s another reason you see a lot of people leaning towards them. But, like you said, the meta is fairly healthy. You see a lot of different classes, and even in those classes sometimes you’ll see two or three different decks, so that’s been really cool for us. We want to keep maintaining the variety of classes and the variety of decks within each class. The other thing that’s important is just giving people room to experiment. As long as people are excited about trying new things, and they’re not quite sure what the best version of something is, it’s really good for us because that’s one of the most fun parts of Hearthstone. Just trying out new deck ideas and seeing how they do and feeling like you own that version of the deck.
[There’s an interesting article here on Liquid Hearth which argues aggro decks are actually important to the health of the game - Ed]
On the next page: Casual not being casual, and whether Grim Patron or Dr. Boom needs a nerf.