Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Ashes of Outland, was released this week for PC and mobile. With it comes one of the most exciting additions to Blizzard Entertainment’s digital card game since its launch in 2014: a new class.
Demon Hunters enter the Hearthstone melee as an aggressive class, focusing on drawing cards and attacking with your hero. It is a class that has a long history in the tradition of Warcraft, the night elf Illidan (transformed into partial demon by a dark ritual) appears as the first demon hunter in 2002. The demon hunters then became a playable class in World of Warcraft with the Legion Expansion in 2016.
I interviewed Hearthstone game director Ben Lee before the game launched about the challenges of adding a new class to the game, and why the team went with the demon hunter. And if you’d like to learn more about the new class, check out our other recent Hearthstone interview.
Choose a demon hunter
GamesBeat: There are three World of Warcraft classes that are not playable in Hearthstone: death knights, monks, and demon hunters. Why did the demon hunter climb to the top?
Ben Lee: The team had previously commented on the death knights in the Frozen Throne expansion. This ship sailed at least a little for a considerable time. Thinking about the set that we wanted to do, we wanted to do something that we thought was really big, really punchy. Outland and Burning Crusade are among the most popular periods of the Warcraft license. Outland was something we were eager and happy to pursue. The natural fit for this would be the Demon Hunter and Illidan as a character. Illidan is the villainous title of the Burning Crusade expansion. It seemed like the ideal solution. Obviously, the demon hunters themselves, this is a super cool class, really interesting. For many players, this is their favorite class, even going back to the heroes of Warcraft III in the campaign game there. Among the various choices we had, he seemed to be the right one at the right time.
GamesBeat: Are you telling me that the monks will perform before the death knights?
Lee: Who knows?
GamesBeat: Did you want to give Illidan a redemption at Hearthstone? It is a legendary card from the start, but not a super powerful card. Was it nice to make it more prominent?
Lee: Yes of course. For me, I love the Warcraft license. He has been extremely influential in my life and in my career. Doing justice for these great people is important to me and the team. We are happy with the way the Demon Hunter and Illidan turned out. Very soon players will be able to play it, and I hope they enjoy it.
GamesBeat: I know it can be difficult to establish an identity for each of the classes you’ve already had. Was it difficult to find a whole new class identity for a new class?
Lee: Yes and no. Class identity is important, but it largely comes down to the theme of art, effects and sound. There are certain classes that have very specific mechanisms, like Outcast is a demon hunter mechanic only. We can give them something that plays with their agility, their play style based on movement in other games. It’s a mix of different things. When you think of paladins, for example, much of their flavor is reflected in their illustrations. There are many sacred light effects and colors, the yellows in their extension sets.
It’s a great mix of different factors. We are happy with the way it went with the demon hunter. They have many different styles of play that we think will emerge throughout the year. This will likely tend more towards fast play styles at the start, in the first expansion, but throughout the year, we expect them to develop symbolic synergies, great demonic synergies. We are satisfied with it. It also gives us a clean slate. If you look back at Hearthstone, it’s been six years since its launch. Many things have changed. Our current team’s vision of class identities, compared to the original game, may be a little different in some places. It is difficult to retroactively correct all of these different things. With a new class, it was exciting, interesting and fun for the team to be able to do this.
New hero, new tools
GamesBeat: The keyword Outcast, where it depends on whether the card is left or right in your hand, was something you created when you wanted to make demon hunters, or was it a mechanic you worked with before you decide to bring demon hunters to the game?
Lee: At the start of the expansion, the team played with a number of different mechanisms and ideas. It was something they were thinking about – I think originally it was just a general mechanic that we were trying. Then the team felt that it was very thematic for demon hunters. It sounded like a good fit, and we limited it to them. For me personally, sometimes having a very unique mechanic for a class is interesting. If you look at the thugs, the combo mechanism looks like something the thugs would do. The secrets are quite thematic for the hunter and the mage in particular. We are happy to have settled there. It was like the right thing for Illidan and the demon hunter.
GamesBeat: How difficult was it to develop the new hero power? Were there a lot of iterations before you decided on the one we have?
Lee: There was. The power of heroes is perhaps the most difficult we have ever done. For people reading this, it may seem very simple. It’s just 1 mana, 1 attack. The powers of the heroes are however very nuanced. They have a huge impact on the game. We don’t want them to have too much impact on the game, but we want them to have enough impact on the game. We are a card game. We want you to play cards, not just using the power of the hero. We have tried different things. One idea we tried was to make your attacks avoid taunting, which seems absolutely broken, but in practice it turned out to be not very useful. It depends on who you play, but often your enemy’s minions don’t even taunt. It’s just a negligible bonus. In situations where you could use it, it just hurt you to be able to do it all the time on demand. It’s kind of a party or famine idea. This is not where we want the powers of the heroes to be found. We want it to be a consistent extra value if you have excess mana to be able to do it.
However, we wanted to do something with the attack. It was consistent from the start. We wanted the demon hunter to pick up the board, attack enemy minions or attack the enemy hero. If you’ve seen Illidan in Heroes of the Storm or Warcraft III or even World of Warcraft, he’s super agile, hopping. Demon hunters have a huge movement-based kit in their games. We wanted to fulfill this fantasy for the demon hunter. To attack was our allegory for that. The idea of 1 mana is something that came quite late, but it seemed good. This is something you can do often. You can still get to the heart of the matter as a demon hunter. At the start of the battle, you can jump forward and attack before anyone has a chance. It was good, and we are very happy with it.