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Dave Kosak on Hearthstone’s mission team, death knights, and writing the Lich King

The Lich King isn't going to be another goofy villain in Hearthstone.

Dave Kosak has been part of the Blizzard family for years, and after clocking significant time outfitting the narrative tendrils of World of Warcraft, he joined the Hearthstone team to head up the solo-play team.

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His first major outing will be the mission content in the forthcoming Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion, where our intrepid decklists will stomp up the side of Icecrown Citadel to eventually face off with the Lich King himself.

Kosak was also in Shanghai for the Spring Championship, where we caught up with him for an interview. We talked about the decision to not add a standalone Death Knight class, the marriage of Hearthstone Adventures and expansions, and why The Lich King won’t be a goofy villain.

We’ve always speculated that you would add a Death Knight class to Hearthstone, so I’m curious to know what the decision was to, instead of adding a new class, giving each of the existing classes an alternative Death Knight-esque hero power.

Adding a new class would create quite a bit of baggage for the game. It’d be something we’d have to carry forward, and there’s already such a nice balance with the nine classes. But more importantly, if we do all the cool with the 10th class, what do the other nine get? So when we sat back and said “what’s the coolest fantasy in Icecrown?” And we said “let’s corrupt the nine heroes, because that’s nine times as fun.” It lets us explore these nine “what-if” fantasies that got everyone on the team excited.

Was something like a new class a thing you talked about more at the beginning of development?

It’s hard to say, because the discussions went for quite a while and we were really hesitant to add a new class, so the question became “is there a way to express this fantasy without adding a new class?”

People are pretty happy with the Un’goro meta, which is a different situation than the Mean Streets meta where people seemed to be pretty unsatisfied with the state of the game. Is it easier or harder to develop a new expansion when you don’t necessarily want to disrupt the nice balance you have?

We’re always looking to make sure that there’s a lot of variety, and a lot of options to build around. It is nice when we’re starting with something like Un’goro, which we feel had a lot of variety, and now we’re adding more options onto that. So ideally if our final designers are on the ball we’ll maintain a lot of that richness, and maybe help Warlock a little bit.

You have a background working on World of Warcraft, and joined the Hearthstone team six months ago. Have you been able to use any of the skills you’ve honed on a game that’s obviously a lot different like Warcraft when it comes to Hearthstone?

The gameplay is very different, but the core skill is the same. You’re trying to tell a story with as few words as possible. You’re trying to let the mechanics [take the lead.] As a designer some of my favorite cards are where the mechanics tell the story. Like the Daring Reporter from Gadgetzan. I love that card because she gains power every time your opponent draws a card—this nosy reporter where every time you get something good she’s on your tail. I love the emotion that card creates, even though it doesn’t mean it’s going to see play in ranked.

This expansion has been a joy to work on, because it focuses on these nine what-if stories, and we’re letting the player tell the stories of these heroes. Deathstalker Rexxar is a great example—stitching together these beasts for the perfect monster for the moment.

There was some concern when you announced you were moving away from the Adventures because people like that single-player content, but obviously you’re reintroducing some of that with Knights of the Frozen Throne. Tell me more about how you intend to do that.

We’re always looking for what is best for the game. It was difficult to fully express the design in the 40 cards in an Adventure, but they were really good at telling stories, and making characters like Reno Jackson pop out. Full expansions let us express a whole design idea, but there wasn’t a lot of storytelling involved. Mean Streets is a great example—the heads of the three families were really interesting characters but you didn’t really get to interact with them.

So let’s take the chocolate and peanut butter, let’s take the best of both of these and mix them together. Let’s take full expansions and free mission content that expresses the fantasies of them.

The way games work now is so interesting. Hearthstone is so not static and it feels like you guys are always evaluating how to deliver content to your players. Do you think you’ll ever come up with a repeatable formula, or will that continue to change in perpetuity?

It’s super exciting how iterative the process is. The fact that Hearthstone has new content releases every three months or so let’s us express a lot of things quickly. I’m super excited about the mission team. We’re growing the mission team. We’re gonna be doing all sorts of crazy stuff, and we’ve got a lot of freedom to explore that space.

When you guys unveiled Knights of the Frozen Throne, it reminded me of the end of the Icecrown Citadel raid, where the Lich King kills everyone and wants to resurrect them as his private army. He was foiled in the canon, but there’s something about this expansion that almost makes me think of a “what if the Lich King won?” kinda thing. Is that something you were thinking about?

Yeah, it’s part of the core fantasy. “What if the Lich King won?” I think Sylvanas was our template, because Sylvanas was an interesting hero when she was alive, and when she was raised by the Lich King she didn’t stop being Sylvanas, but now she was the Banshee Queen and she was twice as cool.

Has it been fun to go back and play with the Lich King again? He was obviously a major part of the Warcraft universe for years, and while he still gets touched on here and there he hasn’t been a major part of the story.

It was super fun revisiting him because he was an iconic character, and such an important character in Blizzard history. It was actually a challenge, because Hearthstone is such a charming and whimsical game, and “charming and whimsical” are the last two words you would use to describe the Lich King. It was tricky trying to make that character fit into Hearthstone—in the beginning we were just writing jokes. You cannot disappoint the community on the Lich King. There are expectations.

You probably won’t tell me, but when Kel’Thuzad showed up in Hearthstone he had a pretty silly demeanor that was different from how he was presented in Warcraft. Safe to say The Lich King won’t be quite as goofy?

Yeah Kel’Thuzad was fun and we could take him so over the top. We felt like we could define Kel’Thuzad [without upsetting] player expectation. If the Lich King clowns around he stops being the Lich King, so that character had to be there.

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