Hearthstone Mercenaries interview: Building an RPG, Diablo, and more

Hearthstone Mercenaries has been out for a week, but before its release, we checked in with Game Director Ben Lee and Lead Producer Ben Lee and Gloria Zhang.


It's been a week since Hearthstone debuted its new Mercenaries mode. It's one that's quite different from anything that's come before it. While there's still a competitive element to it, it's a mode that focuses less on card battling and more on character-based RPG/strategy. It's a shift that caught just as many veterans off guard as it did newcomers, so to learn more about what Mercenaries entails, we recently had a chance to speak with Hearthstone Game Director Ben Lee and Lead Game Producer Gloria Zhang.

Before we dive in, just as Lee does in this interview, we wish to acknowledge the continuing situation at Activision Blizzard. It has been over two months and management has not acknowledged or responded to employees' demands. As a show of respect to those employees, we would like to take a moment to repost those demands that they made public prior to their walkout earlier this summer. Furthermore, we would like to encourage our readers to donate to the following charities: Black Girls CODE, FUTURES, Girls Who Code, RAINN, Women in Animation, and Women in Games International.

Lee discusses how Mercenaries came to be, taking everything that was learned from the old Dungeon Run single-player adventure and applying it towards a game mode that focused more on character progression. Zhang notes that she started with a small team, one that would continue brainstorming and working through the pandemic.

The result wasn't quite one that spoke for itself, not made better by a presentation stream that came across as somewhat vague. While Lee acknowledged that there were plans to ramp up the Mercenaries push and further build on that stream to its eventual release, he noted that certain events needed to take center stage first. (See the note above.) Out of respect to those affected by the current events at Activision Blizzard, Lee noted that the Mercenaries push was shifted somewhat to the side.

While Mercenaries carries on the Hearthstone tradition of using the Warcraft motif, there is a certain guest character that got people's attention. Diablo surprised fans with his appearance and Lee noted it wouldn't be the last time we'd see this character.

"We've got something in the works, not ready to talk about what that is," Lee told Shacknews. "But there are certain licenses that make sense for us to work with more so than others. At the end of the day, Diablo is a demon, so if you're not familiar with who Diablo is, it doesn't really feel alien when you're playing it. Diablo fits into a demon team. It's probably a bit harder to put [StarCraft's] Jim Raynor or a battlecruiser into Mercenaries, although battle cruiser would be cool. So certain licenses lend themselves better to it, because they're kind of similar to the source material. We want to try and experiment with different things, but it's probably just about picking the right things and Diablo, for us, felt like something that made sense and also celebrated a bunch of the work that other talented people at Activision Blizzard have been doing to release Diablo 2: Resurrected."

(Editor's note: It looks like Diablo is indeed returning to Hearthstone, just days after this interview was conducted.)

Lee and Zhang also discussed the various Mercenaries units, the free-to-play element, the confusion around pre-order bundles, optimizing Hearthstone on mobile devices, and more. Hearthstone Mercenaries is available now and you can check out our hands-on preview with the new game mode. For more interviews like this, be sure to check out Shacknews and GamerHubTV on YouTube.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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