Video Games Interview: Art Director Ben Thompson chats about the lore and art of Hearthstone and “The Grand Tournament”

On the eve of the release of the new Hearthstone expansion “The Grand Tournament” – which adds a whopping additional 132 new cards to the game – we chat with the Art Director Ben Thompson about what to expect from the new expansion and the joy of directing the art behind the game.

New Mechanics

The Grand Tournament is set to launch later this month and bring with it a slew of new features. The new Keyword mechanic Inspire promises to change how Heroes interact with the game. “We wanted to celebrate the hero; we wanted the hero and the champions for that hero to take front centre stage for the rest of the game, so you get things like hero powers becoming more important to gameplay. You get heroes themselves actually taking an active part in gameplay rather than just sitting in the back line. All of those things started to feel like the right things for the player to be focusing on and thinking about and the vibe of the tournament and a tournament of champions felt like just the right kit to get it all out there and the reason for being.”


The Inspire mechanic promises to change how matches are approached

With the few cards that have already been revealed Inspire shows a variety of ways in which the hero power can be used and adapted. Whether it be used to buff a characters attack as is the case with Lowly Squire, or to be completely replaced and upgraded by Justicar Trueheart. The new mechanic offers new tools to build decks and promises to shift the meta substantially away from its current state. The recent Gamescon reveal showed an additional new game mechanic by introducing the Joust mechanic.

The Joust mechanic is unique as it offers an additional tool to counter those rush decks – looking at you Face-Hunter – which have become a prevalent in the current meta-game. When a card with the Joust mechanic is played both players reveal a minion from their decks and if the player who initiated the Joust produces a higher value minion it will result in a boost for the card they had played. While he wasn’t able to discuss this mechanic, as it hadn’t been announced yet it fits with the ideology stated by Thompson that “Any time there is something in the game that players are running up against, it could be a deck that is seeing a lot of play or a certain card that is always seeing a certain set of combinations. Eric Dodds (Hearthstone Game Director) always says; it’s always better to provide the player with tools rather than fixing or changing a card in any instance. The Grand Tournament is no different it will come with 130 cards that will provide such tools for possibly such deck, but more importantly for a broad range of instances that any players of the game will find themselves with over the course of the game.”


The Joust mechanic in action from Gamescon

Setting Down the Lore.

Hearthstone draws much of its characters from the history and lore of World of Warcraft (WoW). With the game currently going strong 11 years on there is an abundance of content to draw from and also a lot of history that fans hold dear to their heart. It’s easy to imagine that ideas for numerous future expansions compete simultaneously, but according to Thompson that is simply not the case. “I wish we had as many themes sitting around as people think we do; usually it’s an organic process. We think about what things we really want to highlight, what we want to celebrate and what things we want the players to really spend some time with and dig deeper into be they keywords or playstyle or just vibe of the game and we worked on that… in conjunction with what the theme of the game is going to be.”

The goal here is rather than creating something that reflects back and feeds into the lore of WoW, is to utilise the rich history that Azeroth has developed as a starting point to create something new and unique that will stands on it’s own “I don’t think we ever looked at the game and felt these were stories that we had to retell from WoW. It’s a strong base to build from that we feel certainly a portion of our player base are connected to through their time in Azeroth… but equally because we don’t put such a foundation in and such a reliance upon that history, new players that are coming to the game for the first time need know nothing about WoW and still feel a connection and a familiarity with the simplicity of the characters and the story told through the game”

“The Grand Tournament is a great example of that while it’s based off the Argent Tournament instead we’ve turned it over to The Grand Tournament years in the future and all the circumstances that lead to the WoW part of history are shed away and we are left with a fun tournament atmosphere were heroes and champions are battling for honour and glory. That’s a base understanding of fantasy for even the uninitiated into the WoW to understand. They know knights, they know tournaments and fairs and they don’t have know the presence of Gul’dan or Tirion Fordring or all these different characters that WoW player knows and adores”

Hearthstone uses its own unique and distinguished art style to have it stand out from WoW on its own. Its creation is through a style guide created by Thompson, while the guide helps to ensure a standardised theme for the game a lot of it comes down to the lore being able to attract the right people . “We’re lucky to work with so many artists that find themselves attracted to the style of Hearthstone and the whimsical charming approach to art that speaks to them and feel like they’re producing something that will reach a wider audience and it does so in a very friendly, yet exciting way.”

While the majority of the art is hired out to professionals for completion, it doesn’t mean that some fan art has been completely excluded from the game. The Fen Creeper was a piece of fan art that found itself into the game. “It really hit all the tones and vibes that we were looking to do with the game and initially it had nothing to do with the game, it just felt like a fun card and the art really backs up the idea.” While the work of an Illustrator by the name of Tooth found his way into a substantial part of the Goblins Vs Gnomes expansions, even featuring in the cinematics. “It was just so note perfect for the kind of game that Hearthstone is and has that vibrancy and fun that everyone really responded to”.

Bolvadar Fordragon
The Art For Bolvar Fordragon was created by Tooth

Keeping it Fun for Everyone.

One of the challenges faced when designing a game like Hearthstone, is ensuring that as the game grows bigger and the card base expands, it also grows more complex. This creates a greater buffer to engaging and attracting new players. This is a major task undertaken by the balance team within Hearthstone is the balance team keeps numerical balance between cards they are also “responsible for providing as many different ways to play a deck so there is no one right way to play a deck, but multiple possibilities. That’s the harder one to achieve, but ultimately that very pursuit or the goal that it promises to achieve is keeping the game accessible to new players, so they don’t have to feel that they have to learn this arcane knowledge of the right way to play the game but rather can make the game their own.”

To achieve this task Blizzard have also recently hired a designer whose “whole job is to design and help shape what the new player experience is for Hearthstone. The job is to look at the game with fresh eyes, for the first time and every time we do changes to the game and find ways to make it even more accessible and fresh, than even we did on day 1 if possible.”

By taking these step Blizzard hopes to ensure that its support base continues growing beyond the current 30 million active users. The addition of new game mode such as the Tavern Brawl which offers far more random elements into play also helps to create a more accessible access point to those just joining the game. “It definitely plays into the goal that there is no wrong or right way to play it. For instance you can come into Tavern Brawl a couple of times a week that it’s out and get a different play experience. It’s one that maybe it doesn’t fit the same criteria or the rules are bent, or it’s outright broken; but that’s the fun part of it, it’s off the beaten path and its ok if we take chances there and experiment with the way cards interact because it’s not meant to be there forever and it’s a fun diversion for a number of days, but ultimately might raise some interesting points that you can go and take back to your ranked play, or deck building that you might not have thought of before, because experimenting with your tavern brawl deck might have brought light to new ideas. It also helps convey that friendly charming and accessible quality of the game that is not purely based in ranked play but more importantly a very fulfilling and fun experience.”

With the Grand Tournament ready to drop this month, now is as great a time as any to pick up the game and join in the fun. The announcement at Gamescon has offered more in the way of rewards for players who want to tackle ranked mode and The Grand Tournament offers to shake up how players play the game and approach their deck building, offering a great chance for newer players to get the drop on more established ones. “It will go crazy as people start feverishly trying to throw these in decks to get the best results possible and see what they are thinking of getting and watching their friends playing, there’s going to be streamers who have them in their deck right away all of this stuff is going to be part of what makes the release of a new set exciting and makes what the release of a new set expand the life of and the fun level of a game like Hearthstone.”

For more details on The Grand Tournament, head to the official website!

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