“We’re always iterating, and we always want to keep people on their toes.” With these words Dave Kosak summed up the motivation behind the newly announced Hearthstone expansion, incorporating a rather dark and inventive premise – ‘what if everyone died?’.

I chatted to Dave Kosak, lead mission designer on Knights of the Frozen Throne, and Jerry Mascho, Senior Concept Artist, during the HCT Spring Championship in Shanghai. Here’s what they had to say about Hearthstone’s upcoming expansion!

Jayden: To start off, how do you see the new expansion as the next step forward for the game?

Dave: We’re always iterating, and we always want to keep people on their toes. Adding the new hero cards opens a lot of design space going forward in the future, but for this particular expansion that fantasy of the nine iconic heroes transformed into Death Knights is huge.

Jerry: When hero cards come into the game they really change the momentum of the game based on these cards.

Jayden: From both an art and narrative perspective, what’s the process of getting started on a new expansion like this?

Jerry: On the art side, we jump in way early on when the narrative team has broad ideas. We see what their mechanics are and see if we can create visuals that really sell those mechanics.

Dave: Early on we just have our concept artists go wild. Here’s the general theme – we’re going to Northrend, Death Knights, heroes are transforming, what do you come up with? Sometimes artists come up with stuff we see and think wow, we’ve gotta design around that and have a lot of fun with it.

From the design standpoint, we look at what the coolest expression of that fantasy is. Lich King, Northrend, Death Knights – what’s the coolest thing that could happen? Pretty early on we settled on ‘what if the nine heroes get corrupted and become death knights and they all get to do really cool DK stuff’. That just lent itself to great gameplay mechanics and storytelling – we just hooked onto that right away and really ran with it.

Jerry: One of our internal concept artists designed all the upgraded Death Knight heroes, and once you see something you know what it is – that really sold what the expansion would be early on.

Jayden: Is that how the shark-bear card came to be? Artists going wild and deciding you need to use that idea?

Dave: We weren’t ‘revealing’ that card but if you freeze-frame the video you get a glimpse. I’m pretty sure that card came from art, and when we saw it we knew it had to happen – a terrifying shark-bear.

Jayden: As Icecrown Citadel is the model for the solo experience, how do you go about reimagining such a classic raid for both an audience familiar to it and new to it? 

Dave: We have two things we’ve got to worry about – one is the fans that have played Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft, players who know who the Lich King is. We have to make sure they’re happy with what they see, and that they get the full experience of what they’d expect from Icecrown Citadel.

A big body of Hearthstone players however have not seen this content, and we have to reintroduce that to them in a way that makes sense. Fortunately the source material we have to work with was so much fun, the characters were just great. We had a lot of fun with it, especially the different bosses you get to fight in Icecrown, if you’ve played the WoW raid you’ll know it’s like a ‘greatest hits’. Now we get to look at them from a Hearthstone mechanic standpoint, and it ends up being a lot of fun. If you’re in either of those camps you’re going to be really happy with what you get.

The real trick for us was the Lich King. I have to say that Hearthstone is rather charming and whimsical game, and those are the last two words I’d use to describe the Lich King. We had to make him work in the Hearthstone world, and that was tricky – at first we were just writing jokes and if he’s just telling jokes he’s not really the Lich King; it didn’t work. We’ll talk more about him later and you’ll get to see more as we ramp up towards the expansion, but he’s still the Lich King. He’s still that egotistical, fallen paladin that you love to hate, but now he’s a Hearthstone villain with his own stuff going on.

Jerry: Once Dave told the art team what his vision was for the new expansion, we thought ‘we’re creating this new board, what if Arthas commissioned his minions to make a board for him?’ – what would that look like. We went back to the original Wrath of the Lich King cinematic where he raises Syndragosa out of the ice, and we wanted Frostmourne somewhere on the board. We also wanted to keep a light hearted tone to it to contrast the dark tone of the Death Knight heroes, so we have a fun little ‘create your own ice sculpture’ there.

Jayden: The hero cards are probably the biggest take away from the announcement and look to shake up play. What was the motivation behind their introduction?

Dave: When you make that transformation, it’s got to be huge to sell that fantasy. Something big mechanically has to happen, for instance with Deathstalker Rexxar, when you make it a hero card you have that hero appear and smash down on the board, then to do something badass. In Rexxar’s case he fans out arrows all over the board, but it also gives us the room to reinvent the hero power and offer a little bit of armour. We just made that moment as big as possible, and we needed a new card type to do that.

Jerry: We’ve been playing these characters for so long now, and we have so many emergent storytelling opportunities by playing them and suddenly you’re playing the dark versions of them. It’s really powerful to see the art coming into play, have those new effects hit the board, and it’s really fun to go through that experience.

Jayden: We’ve only seen one hero card, but from the designs shown, but without spoilers, was there one in particular that you enjoyed the most?

Jerry: I got to work on the hero illustration for Thrall, and I’m a big fan of Thrall. It’s really rewarding to see what he is as a Death Knight and really sell that, plus his mechanics are really fun.”

Dave: We’ve released the key art so you can kind of see the line-up of heroes but i’m excited to see what players think their hero powers will be. For me, I get chills seeing Anduin cloaked completely in shadow, although the other one that’s really fun is the fantasy of Malfurion. What’s a Death Druid, who does he hang out with, what kind of creatures would a Death Druid summon? It’s almost like designing a whole new class that might appear in World of Warcraft or something.

Jayden: How will the missions work this time around? Should we expect any major differences from recent adventures?

Dave: Now that we’re doing mission content associated with full expansions, the goals of the missions can be different. We’re not gating cards behind beating missions, so that gives us a lot more freedom with the difficulty of it. We can create some really challenging and varied opportunities there. Mechanically, it should be familiar to fans cause ultimately you’re going to fight through a series of bosses, but going forward that doesn’t have to be the paradigm, and we have big plans for mission content in the future.

For Icecrown, you’ll be fighting your way up the spire, but where it gets really off the wall is when you get to fight the Lich King – our big, final encounter. He messes with all the classes in different ways, so it’s almost like 9 different encounters, and some of them are really challenging.

Now that the missions have a different goal, it’s about selling the story behind a set, and getting you excited about the card and collecting them. We’re giving you packs for completing the wings, but when you complete the prologue you get that free legendary Death Knight hero which starts off your collection in a real big way.

Jayden: As balance & esports are as key to Hearthstone as the story packs/card design, how do you go about the meshing of esports competitiveness with narrative desires?

Dave: I came to Hearthstone from the World of Warcraft team, and that’s a real narrative experience. In Hearthstone, the players are telling the story so what we’re trying to do is just set up these heroes so they tell a tale with what they’re doing in game. Then you tell your own story with them.

The fantasy of Deathstalker Rexxar stitching together bits of pieces of dead beasts into a horrific monstrosity is really fun, but the stories that emerge from that, taking your vicious fletchling and giving it charge because you stitched it together with another beast is really exciting. That’s what creates great stories in the game, and if we do it well, and time will tell, then those stories persist and work on both an esports and casual level. I think it’s working, Un’Goro had a real great meta and even while we’re talking here in Shanghai you can hear the crowd erupt when crazy things are happening.

Those are all stories that are happening in play, and that’s what we strive for, and what our design team tries to build – stories through gameplay.