Making of an Adventure: Hearthstone's 'One Night in Karazhan'

With access from Blizzard, we take a special inside look at the making of Hearthstone's latest single-player Adventure, One Night in Karazhan.

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Expansions are the lifeblood of any proper CCG, but Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has found its own unique approach. While it regularly releases large-scale expansions that each inject more than 100 new cards into the mix, it staggers those between "Adventures." These single-player expansions take advantage of the video game medium in a way that physical cards can't, by assuring all players receive the new cards as long as they finish a set of missions. But just what goes into designing an Adventure?

A lot of time and ideas tossed into the wastebin, apparently. Shacknews received a special inside look at the design process from Blizzard's Team 5, and spoke with designer Peter Whalen and art director Ben Thompson about the process. 

The Race, the Thief, the Goblin, and the Chicken

Long before One Night in Karazhan was announced, the team was searching for a way to apply Hearthstone's unique brand of personality to one of the most iconic locations in Azeroth: Medivh's spooky, haunted tower. 

"As a team, we play a ton of World of Warcraft," Whalen said. "We've been playing for a long time and we love that world. Karazhan was one of the first raid encounters that a lot of people did because it was a smaller raid--it wasn't 40 people, it was more accessible--and for a lot of us that really stuck with us. It's got this really cool lore behind it. Medivh is one of the most powerful characters in World of Warcraft. His tower is this magical, dark place, and we really wanted to see it and explore that in the Hearthstone context."

That said, the team shied away from a dark take on the subject, having just come off the relatively grim Whispers of the Old Gods expansion. Instead, it started throwing wacky ideas on its whiteboard. As opposed to cards which get wittled from hundreds down to a hundred or so, adventures start with about 20 concepts and get distilled into just one.

While none of them made it far enough to have art or assets devoted to them, Whalen shared some rejected concepts with Shacknews, along with why most didn't quite make the cut.

The Great Race:

One of its initial concepts would feature a whole host of Azeroth's most famous mages, all competing to win a race to the top of the tower. You'd see Medivh, along with other notable characters like Antonidas. 

"So the idea was that the player was going to take part in this race with all these mages and anybody else who wanted to get involved. It wasn't totally fleshed out. Maybe depending on how you did maybe you could do some achievements, maybe how you fared with the bosses would determine how you ranked up at the end. So that seemed like a lot of fun but it was kind of a lot of crazy in there."

Medivh the Thief:

One darker concept also involved Medivh inviting you to his tower, but as a ruse to steal all of your belongings. This one didn't strike the right tone, or according to Whalen, even make much sense.

"It just wasn't that fun, right? You had the start of the tower, Medivh's making fun of you on the way up. There was some interesting stuff going on there, it just wasn't as upbeat and the story behind it wasn't as cool. Oh, he took all of our items and all of our stuff? Why would Medivh even do that? He's like the most powerful wizard ever."

A Goblin Raider:

Another idea removed Medivh from the tower altogether, by setting itself around the Burning Crusade era. Instead, this would be the familiar spooky Karazhan, with the humorous twist coming from an entirely new character. Ultimately though, the lack of Medivh was the problem.

"This goblin wants to get in and loot the tower, and she's a little bit crazy. She's a goblin apprentice so you get all the kit that goes with that. She wants his spellbook, so she goes up the tower, and you get a fun vibe there. She sees the ghosts and all the creepy stuff, but because she's so upbeat it sells it differently. But we really wanted to get Medivh in the story. It's Medivh's tower, so let's get Medivh in there."

Medivh the Chicken: 

Finally, in one concept, Medivh cast a powerful spell and turned himself into a chicken. Far from the powerful magus as portrayed in World of Warcraft, this would make him a little too hapless.

"We were pretty excited about Chicken Medivh. We had some funny dialogue. There are a couple of problems that we ran into. One is that Medivh is super-powerful, it's kind of weird to turn him into a chicken. We thought about turning Moroes into a chicken, which was also pretty funny. But we were worried that the chicken gag would get tired over four or five weeks. We wanted to get that same silly, crazy vibe, but in a way that we could sell the Karazhan-ness more, and keep Medivh feeling powerful and awesome."

Party Time

Sharing the whiteboard with all of these concepts was one idea that took a deeper examination of the nature of Karazhan itself.

"We started really looking at the raid, not from a player's perspective, but from a 'What kind of tower has an opera house in it?' and 'Why would you have this giant chess set? What is happening here?' We started asking a lot of questions like: 'Why would this be? Why did it have this?' It was not always decrepit or haunted or infested with ghosts and those from the afterlife, so obviously there was some sort of life that was had at this tower."

The answer to all those questions, obviously, was that the tower was once a bustling and vibrant atmosphere, full of life. And what kind of personality would feel at home there?

"[Medivh] wasn't always old, right? He wasn't always the most powerful mage, and if he was, and in his twenties, what kind of mage would he be? We didn't think that he was going to be interested in the greater saving of Azeroth at that point or even see Azeroth as needing saving, but maybe thinks Azeroth just needs an all-out shindig of a party and he's just the man to throw it. So diving into that and going into the kind of story that would weave itself around the tower. If you got your own opera house and party environment, things like The Great Gatsby come up. What was an era that we felt just encapsulated one big party? The 70s and disco just came to mind in a flash."

All the pieces fit. Medivh would be a central focus, a young and brash bon vivant who uses his powerful magic to throw a rad party with the help of his long-suffering butler, Moroes. Medivh would go missing, putting you as the player into the adventuring position without his powerful magic behind you. And Moroes would be your guide, attempting to save the party and his master at once.

"There was a little balancing of Moroes versus Barnes versus Curator," Whalen said. "We had discussed maybe Moroes on the first wing, Barnes on the second wing, Curator on the third, and then they all come together for the fourth. There was some discussion of that but it became just Moroes pretty early on."

"That and his personality is such a perfect foil for 20s party Medivh," Thompson added. "He's the straight-man, they work well together. Even when Medivh's not on screen you generally have an idea of how that relationship works. 'My master's kind of an idiot but I love him dearly.'"

Life of the Party

With the concept solidified, it came down to Thompson's art department to flesh out the idea with visual elements. This is the fourth of Hearthstone's adventures, so to a certain extent, Thompson said he knows some of the key elements to start right away.

"There are things that don't change. There's going to be card backs, there's going to be a board, there's going to be key art. There's going to be a lot of supporting pieces in an adventure's case, a la the postcards from League of Explorers but this time they're selfies. So we start to provide artistic framework around those things."

In League of Explorers, Thompson's team illustrated a globe-trotting adventure by knocking out the back of the adventure selection screen and showing imagery of different settings. Karazhan allowed them to take a similar step, by showing pieces of a tower to convey the message that you were slowly climbing up toward Medivh's study. They also created three card backs, and then matched them to their intended purposes. 

"Which one do we think fits best with the motif of what we're doing? So the seasonal one became the invitational card back, because that was exactly it. We're inviting you into this adventure. Heroic is when you make it to the top of the tower and close the portal. And the whole thing is a party so that's what you get for pre-purchasing. Things like that don't sound artistic on their face, but they're informing it artistically."

Hearthstone expansions have also become known for their musical trailers, and with a 70s disco theme, it was clear they needed to continue that tradition. Thompson said they got their sound engineer, Andy Brock, involved fairly early while it was still in the pitching phase, so the artwork was created alongside the music as the two fused together. He can't promise this tradition will remain forever, though.

"How long will we do it? No telling. I think it's fun, it serves that purpose very well for delightful surprise. It's charming. But like any decision in the game we don't want to just repeat ourselves," he said.

The Card Shuffle

Of course, Hearthstone is at its core a collectible card game. Given the departure in tone from anything traditional in World of Warcraft, the team had to discuss early on how much of the 70s disco vibe would even be present in the cards themselves.

"Consciously, it was not in the card art," Thompson said. "The cinematic is the first thing you're gonna see, so that really needed to come out swinging. Full on partying, swinging, 70s, disco to the nines, as it were. Once we got into the adventure, the wings helped continue that, you see the wings--a little bit of the disco lights, certainly getting the idea that there's some sort of a party--but even in the static state, it's not very 70s in that look.

"We wanted to keep it out of the cards. Early on we decided that these cards, like all cards in Hearthstone that you get, have to have a life beyond the adventure that they initially occupy. That being true, we don't want the weirdness of a 70s disco oufitted card showing up in another set down the road. So they do still have to feel like they follow a baseline."

Comparing it to The Grand Tournament, Whalen added, "At the end of the day it's a fantasy world. Knights on horseback totally works. A disco ball? Not so much."

Adventures are also unique in that many of the cards have to fit not only within a particular tone, but within the context of the story and their missions. Whalen said this aspect of adventure design is always combination of different design approaches. Sometimes the team has a mechanic in mind and then mixes in some flavor, and sometimes a very flavorful idea needs some mechanics added to it. 

To illustrate the idea, Whalen picked two Warlock cards. Malchezaar's Imp was targeted directly at Discard Warlock, since the team wanted to make it happen, and the flavor was added later. Kara Kazham, a Warlock spell, was borne more out of the story. Since the adventure involves Medivh using his magic to animate things in his tower, the spell has Gul'dan performing a similar magical feat by summoning some hostile dishware. The Hunter card, Kindly Grandmother, is a direct callback to World of Warcraft. He said "the dream" is to get a card that fits a mechanical purpose and also has a lot of flavor, like Babbling Book.

Sometimes, a story character and a card design just unexpectedly fit together. Whalen said Barnes, a neutral Legendary in the Karazhan adventure, is a perfect example. 

"The medium-sized minion, summon a 1/1 copy from your deck--that was floating around for a while," he said. "It was a lot of fun, it made for interesting deck-building decisions, and interesting gameplay, it's good with a bunch of different things. It's a really interesting neutral legendary. And we knew we wanted to do Barnes in the set. Barnes is very important to Karazhan, he's one of the major story characters. So we looked at these two designs and thought, wait, the 1/1 we're summoning is just an actor. It's just representing a minion from your deck. This is a perfect fit for Barnes. We made that connection and we got that animation running for Barnes with the spotlight, it really comes together and sells that story."

On a Mission

Adventures aren't mere card expansions with random packs. Instead, they take advantage of Hearthstone's video game roots by offering single-player quests with powerful cards as the rewards. Creating the missions is a lot like the iterative process of creating cards.

"We try a lot of things that are awful, we play the ones that are not awful and iterate a bunch to make them great," Whalen said.

Some of those so-called awful ideas don't work out as an expansion, but they live on in other ways. The race concept that was ultimately rejected as the story backbone was also attempted as a single mission within this adventure. Whalen said they couldn't figure out how to pull it off, but some of its ideas turned into the "Storming Stormwind" Tavern Brawl. Similarly, Thompson noted that the Medivas--Medivh's pollyester-clad party groupies--began as some simple 70s flavor, but took on so much personality that they started to become distracting to the adventure as a whole. Rather than dropping them completely, they live on in the cinematics, and boogied their way to the "Party Portals" Tavern Brawl.

For a key illustration of mission design, though, Whalen and Thompson point to two of Karazhan's missions that are similarly designed but feel entirely different: The Crone, and Netherspite. Both grant special abilities based on positioning, but subtle differences stand out.

"We had both of those for a long time. And they seem pretty similar, in that sort of core fundamental mechanic of positioning on the board. But they feel very different. With [the Crone] you're trying to get different advantages, and in Netherspite, you're trying to prevent your opponent from getting advantages, and stealing them for yourself. That 'positioning matters' space is interesting, it's a cool direction to go, and we're exploring different ways to make them feel very different."

"I think that is when key words for mechanics are at their strongest," Thompson added. "When they're very similar, very familiar, and you inherently know what you're supposed to do with it, but they're presented in such a way that they feel vastly different from one another, and you're challenged in an entirely unique way. That's a strong mechanic when you can do it a couple different ways."

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