Interview: Hearthstone executive producer Hamilton Chu

Hamilton Chu

Hearthstone recently scooped two gongs at the Golden Joystick Awards, taking home Best Mobile Game and Best Online Game. PC Gamer editor Samuel Roberts managed to squeeze in a chat with the game’s executive producer, Hamilton Chu, before both went wild with the Champagne. Here you’ll find his thoughts on the forthcoming phone versions, potential new features, and how cards get created…

PC Gamer: Blizzard recently announced that Hearthstone had 20 million players. I assume that’s client downloads rather than active players. Based on the number of Legend players each season per region, and the stat that 0.5% of players reach Legend, Reddit users extrapolated that the active player base was more like 2-3 million. Is that about right?

Hamilton Chu: I don’t believe we’re commenting on that… I believe it’s accounts.

PC Gamer: When the iPhone and Android phone versions arrive next year, will those players be able to play against PC and Android tablet users?

HC: Yes. I think it’s been really great that it’s been one big player base. I think it makes for obviously better communication with one another. It makes it one big community, which I think is really nice. Like when you play you have no idea if you’re playing somebody on PC or iPad—because it doesn’t matter, right? It doesn’t matter for the game and it doesn’t matter for you guys individually.

We need to make sure that Priest as a whole feels Priesty, so what kind of cards do we need for that?

PC Gamer: I think one of the triumphs of the game is the way you built that UI to be platform agnostic. It’s a real achievement that Hearthstone is a bit underrated for. You’ve taken the complexity out of it for all kinds of players.

HC: For sure. That’s been such a huge, huge focus for us and our UI designers are amazing. We really do scrutinise every single button, tab or page, just to make it as simple and user-friendly as possible.

PC Gamer: Has it been quite a challenge to port that to a phone screen?

HC: Yeah we’re working hard on that, but there’s definitely challenges for sure—smaller screen, it still needs to be readable, both in terms of the card text and the UI and what’s going on in the game. Lots of challenges but we’re committed to making that a great experience.

PC Gamer: When the new card expansion arrives, I understand you will get them from different booster packs to the existing Expert ones. But will you be able to use your existing magic dust to craft the new cards? If not it seems a bit harsh on people who’ve been stockpiling dust in anticipation.

HC: I don’t think we’re announcing that yet.

PC Gamer: Do you think the runaway success of Hearthstone ultimately made it easier for Blizzard to stop work on Titan? Does the development of one project affect another at Blizzard in terms of the way resources are managed?

HC: Blizzard is just fully committed to making sure that each project is successful—that we can make the best game that we can, independent of other decisions that might be happening.

PC Gamer: There seems to be quite a gulf in terms of the rewards for playing ladder between getting a card back for hitting rank 20, getting a card back for making Legend, and then nothing in between. Have you thought about introducing more tiers of achievement to keep people interested?

HC: This is something we actually thought a lot about. I think it would have been very natural to have the card backs based solely on achievement, but with our philosophy about Hearthstone we really wanted to make it accessible and friendly. For most people we wanted to have it be just about participating and playing and enjoying themselves. At [rank] 20 it’s more less if you just play enough, you can have the card back and feel good about yourself. So we wanted it to feel more democratic than exclusive.

PC Gamer: Would it really destabilise the Hearthstone economy if you enabled some limited card trading? How about a system whereby you can swap one card of equal rarity with someone on your friends list?

HC: That’s a good question. We definitely thought a lot about various forms of trading or an auction house at the beginning. But what it really came down to was what we wanted Hearthstone to be, and we wanted the game to be about collecting cards and playing the game. And when you have a system like trading or the auction house—obviously our other games have had such systems—that’s a real system. One, it’s a lot of work. Two, more importantly, it’s a part of the game which we didn’t necessarily want for Hearthstone. It introduces this whole ‘Oh, which card’s more valuable?’ and ‘Is this a good price or is this not a good price?’ element into the game. That’s not what we wanted to focus on.

PC Gamer: Did the reaction to the [Diablo III] auction house scare you off a little bit?

HC: No, not at all. At Blizzard it’s very much ‘do what’s best for your game’. So we figured out was best for our game, and we think we ended up with the right choice.

PC Gamer: Can you talk me through the birth process of a new card. Do you begin with the baseline stats? Or an ability you want it to have? What iterations does it go through?

HC: There’s a lot of factors that go into what a card is, and it could be birthed from a number of those places. There’s a very mechanical direction, which might be ‘we want to make sure there’s a three-drop for Hunters. What’s a good three-drop? Here are the mechanics that would make it good, and so on and so forth...’ There’s the lore direction, where we go ‘Rogue has got to have Eviscerate, right? That’s just part of being a Rogue. So how does that work?’ You can see that in a lot of the Naxxramas bosses, which aren’t specific cards but it’s the same concept. Maexxna is such a cool character, so how do we embody the feel of that in very simple mechanics? There’s another direction that is just thinking about the whole set. We need to make sure the whole set is interesting and has cards that interact in different ways. We need to make sure that Priest as a whole feels Priesty, so what kind of cards do we need for that? So there’s a lot of different directions which end up creating all the individual cards.

PC Gamer: It must be incredibly difficult to reconcile all those different things. I guess there’s a balancing concern, and reconciling the WoW lore with the systems you already have in place. It can’t be a simple process.

HC: Not at all. Not at all. We have some very talented designers, but it’s all interrelated too—you add in your 300th card and it has to be balanced against 299 other ones. Each one makes that more complicated, but yeah, making sure the full set is not only balanced but interesting is no easy challenge.

Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.