One of the biggest announcements at BlizzCon 2017, Blizzard's annual big convention held over the weekend, was a new Hearthstone expansion called Kobolds and Catacombs. But on top of the new cards coming to Hearthstone was another announcement. The arrival of a new single-player mode called 'Dungeon Run.'
Styled after roguelikes and dungeon crawlers, Dungeon Run starts by giving players a basic deck and eight randomly generated bosses. Beating each boss nets you more cards for your deck and a powerful treasure card too—one that's too wild for regular competitive play, but perfect for the Dungeon Run experience. Be warned though, if you lose once you'll have to start all over again with nothing.
At BlizzCon, I sat down with Hearthstone's lead producer Yong Woo and game designer Dan Emmons, who works on events like Tavern Brawls and Hallow's End, to talk about the new Dungeon Run mode. They also filled me in on the status of Fireside Gatherings, public fan-organized events, which have sparked some controversy about how Blizzard should handle them going forward.
Okay, let's talk. My favorite part of the Kobolds and Catacombs expansion is the Dungeon Run.
Dan Emmons: It's also my favorite part! [laughs]
I have a feeling it might be a lot of people's favorites when it comes out. What was the inspiration behind the idea of a dungeon crawling solo mode?
DE: I think that when we when we were deciding what set we wanted to do, one of the themes that came up from our big brainstorms was this idea of a fantasy dungeon crawl, and doing a Hearthstone version of that. Like we want to make it a little bit more charming, [a] little more whimsical. For [Dungeon Run, it] felt like just a slam dunk.
Yong Woo: One of the things that we think that makes collectible card games really fun is when you start out with kind of a basic deck. Then you open your packs, you get cards [and] you're like, "Wow, what can I add to my deck to make it more powerful?" That kind of organic growth is really fun.
So with Dungeon Run we want to give that experience to all players regardless of their play level. [...] So we really liked this idea that everybody—regardless of if they're new, they're returning players who haven't played in a while, or somebody who's really advanced [and has] been playing forever—they all have this awesome collectible card game experience. Having a deck, winning, making a better deck, and then keep playing. And then if you lose, you can try again and have that experience again.
So was this cooked up in Hearthstone's R&D Department?
YW: You know, I like to think of the entire Hearthstone team as an R&D department. For us it's always been important—one of our core tenants is "delightful surprise." So if you notice, every expansion we ship we always do something slightly different. Even like on really basic things like, "Do we or do we not have a musical on our opening cinematic?" You know, one time I guess we supplemented that with Ben Brode's rapping.
So the Hearthstone team has become Blizzard's de facto whimsy factory?
DE: We like to think so. Self-attributed.
YW: I mean I think all the game teams you know generally feel that way but that's definitely a core part of our identity.
DE: Every game designer wants to surprise. Hearthstone makes it a mission to do it every time.
YW: And it's a challenge because I'm a producer, so I'm very focused on, "Hey what do we want to build? What do we need to build it? How long is it going to take? What's dangerous, what's safe, what's cost effective?"
We have missions man, like they work. People love it. [But sometimes] you just want to set it all on fire and do this other crazy thing, [and someone else is] like really? And if I learned one thing working with Hearthstone over the last four years it's [this]: Hell yes you have to do that. And that's how we move forward.
DE: My favorite stuff was that people came out and were like, "I didn't really play that much Hearthstone but I played this new mode and I love it." It's a mode that works really well for our free-to-play players who don't have that big a collection or are just getting in.
YW: There's still players out there who are like, "Yeah but you know Hearthstone's been around for so long, there's so many cards and I don't want to join now. I'm going to feel disadvantaged. It really stresses me out to play against other players. I don't want to lose to other guys or girls." [But] with a Dungeon Run mode, [they can] forget all that. Get cards, put it in your deck, try out a different strategy and lose and then try all over again in a safe environment against the AI.
So unlike other single-player modes from previous expansions which offered booster packs for defeating boss wings, Dungeon Run offers a card back for beating a run?
DE: So if you finish an eight-boss Dungeon Run with all nine classes, you get the card back. The card back is like the super cool "You did the super hard achievement!" for this mode. We took a lot of the rewards that we had originally tied to the adventures and we're just giving them to you on login. So one of the legendary weapons you get for free on login. We're gonna give a booster pack on login [also].
So those are rewards aren't tied to the adventure. If you don't want to play the Dungeon Run you don't have to.
YW: Yeah, I mean it goes to a core philosophy that you should play Hearthstone because it's fun. Not because we're giving you stuff. This isn't work. If it's ever work then I think there are issues.
Hearthstone launched as a free game, but there are reports that Hearthstone is now very costly to play for some fans, is Dungeon Run a kind of course-correction so that fans won't have to treat Hearthstone like work?
YW: It's always been important to us that you can play Hearthstone the way you want to play. You can either decide to invest your time into the game and unlock cards that way, or you can choose to accelerate that progress by investing money into the game. Obviously if you want like every card in the game, or you want every golden card game in the game, that's going to be a tremendous amount of investment—time wise or money wise.
Frankly for some of our players they want that kind of deep avenue [and] should be able to invest in the game.
DE: I think one of the big points is we want you to have a good deck to play for awhile. That's why we're giving away the legendary weapons. All of these legendary weapons are high impact. The hope is that those cards will lead to very cool deck creation.
If you look at it from the standpoint of "I want to be able to build every deck in Hearthstone forever," [then] yes, that's a tough ask. We want to get people to the point where they're having fun playing Hearthstone with a low barrier of entry.
Changing gears for a moment. Hearthstone recently set up Fireside Gathering events which are these live, in-person events that offered a rare reward with the Nemsy skin. There were some safety concerns that rose out of the Fireside Gathering as a result, like fake events or some located at private residences.
DE: So I think one of the biggest things for us is we highly encourage people to use the report feature. If there is a bad Fireside Gathering that you come across, definitely report it. We're doing a lot more vetting of Fireside Gatherings.
I think that when we first launched the system it was an explosion. People were super excited about Nemsy [and] people really wanted to [start] Fireside Gatherings. The communication around the best way to do it or how to make a gathering in a way that works for everybody, we probably could have, we wanted to communicate that a little bit better.
So I think that it was a huge initial wave where we weren't exactly prepared for it. But I think that going forward we have a lot more tools in place to sort of vet locations, respond to reports of erroneous Fireside Gatherings, and just in general create a better environment for that.
YW: An important thing to note is a Fireside Gathering isn't new. It's a grassroots effort. It's a community driven effort and we support this effort because we genuinely believe that one of the most fun ways to play Hearthstone is to be with other players who love the game.
So Nemsy's really all about giving these people who are really trying to do Fireside Gatherings that extra juice so that they can get people to participate. And then now we get more people in the system to understand the value and grow it out from there. Our vision is that eventually we get this rolling enough that no matter where you are in the world, like within a 20 minute drive on a Friday night [you can] go to a Fireside Gathering and meet other people [who] want to hang out with you.
Okay, but other collectible card game companies partner with local game shops to host events and that helps take away some safety concerns like private locations. Is that something Blizzard is looking into as well?
YW: I think venues [are] one of challenges to doing Fireside Gatherings. We're actively working on making it smoother to partner with some kind of a venue. That would be helpful for this grassroots movement. That's definitely something we're looking into.
Just like any other kind of event creation, be it through Facebook or Meetup—like Facebook or Meetup isn't going and checking events being made on their website. I do think we need to give these tools to our players, like reporting features and guidelines for how to identify the right ones to go to. But ultimately I think we need to work with the community to educate the innkeepers to do a better job of signaling that they are a safe place to be and then the attendees [need] to be aware of what they should be looking for. I don't think blindly showing up to a random address without really checking out the description and looking into situations would be good. Just like if you were to go to a random Facebook page and go to an event posted there without thinking about it, that could also be problematic.
DE: If the answer is, "Hey there isn't a Fireside Gathering around me," the answer should be [that] you can start one with minimal effort and not wait for Blizzard to come give you a Fireside Gathering.
YW: In a safe way.
DE: We want to give people the tools to make those gatherings on their own in a way that works best for them.
By encouraging these kind of events [and] helping spread the game to a bigger audience, even with things like reporting features and educating Fireside members, isn't that putting too much onus onto the players for an initiative that ultimately Blizzard wants to encourage and grow?
YW: I agree with you. I totally agree with you. It's a partnership. I think both sides need to be working together. I totally agree with Dan, like the kind of reception we got to the Nemsy promotion was slightly shocking and we definitely need to do better. But the way we're going to go about doing it is by partnering with the community.
Editor's note: I asked a question about how powerful the music department must be if even if the Hearthstone team feels they don't need to have a musical with every expansion announcement, they still announced Kobolds and Catapaults with a new song. However, my recording device cut off right before I could finish.
Emmons did however explain that the cinematic music team practically put together the Kobolds and Catacombs ballad on the spot.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.