Interview, December 7, 2017, with Ben Thompson, art director at Blizzard Entertainment. The interview was made at the press event ”Hearthstone celebration in Stockholm dedicated to the soon-the-be-released expansion Kobolds and Catacombs”. Writer Viktor Larsson.
Tell me what you do at Blizzard.
I’m art director at Hearthstone. I was one of the first five or six employees at Hearthstone itself. The very first artist, moving up from lead artist to art director as we hired more artists. Now I manage eleven artists on the team as a whole and maintain the sense of familiarity on each set as they come out while also trying to inject new surprises to make the game feel fun.
You still do some of the art for the cards too.
Yes, but rarely for the cards themselves. I have done them in the past.
It was the most recent I believe. I also did the coin and the Rexxar hero.
You are an artist who have moved on to be an art director. Do you miss painting daily?
I know it sounds like the political answer, but both are so rewarding in their own way. I still try to find time to paint as much as possible. I still paint the logos for each of the new expansions. That’s my outlet for the art and stuff. Art direction is equally rewarding in a way. Working to help realize the vision of a team but also pay respect to individual artists and their creativity comes with its own challenges.
The art of the new expansion is different from the grim look of Knights of the Frozen Throne. What are some of the interesting themes of Kobolds and Catacombs in your opinion?
It is very different. It’s quite important to the team that each set has an identity of its own. We don’t want to spend all of our time in the dark and foreboding but we don’t spend too much time in the silly and lighthearted either. Kobolds is definitely a more silly set for us, more lighthearted and fun. We need this after raising the dead. It was definitely time to move to a new chapter. Some of the more interesting things about Kobolds and Catacombs is the homage to the old school dungeon crawl. The kinds of creatures you run into, the interactions and the dungeon crawl as a whole.
That must be a fun theme to work with.
It’s super exciting to get to do that. Everyone on the team has their own stories about spending time with friends, stale pizza and soda pops. Long weekends, spending nights at friends’ houses, playing these games. Getting the chance to replicate this in the game we’ve come to love and adore feels like a real gift.
Stop it! You’re making me nostalgic.
You were also responsible for the art direction on the WoW TCG. How much of the original art do you still have in stock?
I know that early on we used a lot of it. We needed a lot of art very quickly to put the first set together. Starting with Goblins vs Gnomes, we ran out considering we didn’t have a lot of goblin art. We needed to branch out almost immediately. That hasn’t been true for every set, some sets we use more and some less. It depends on how focused that set is. The day will come when there is almost no art left from that resource and that’s where we have taken steps to build relationships with as many freelance artists as possible so we can take on the need for new art all the time.
You’ve created both Hearthstone and Magic: the Gathering cards, how do you think the two games differ art wise?
I think the games differ a lot. The stories we want to tell in Hearthstone differs a lot from Magic. I think Magic does a great job of telling the stories that it tells. Coming from World of Warcraft and Azeroth sets the tone and a foundation for the diversity of the stories but also the world where these stories take place. I think that knowing the two are diverse is more about knowing how far Hearthstone can go and still be in the World of Warcraft universe. It turns out it can go quite far.
Yes, and even influence the World of Warcraft. Tortollans as a race are being added. Maybe the little mushroom dudes will make an appearance in the future?
To be fair, they were working on their own turtle people independent of us. We did work very closely with them for developing the look of corruption for Whispers of the Old Gods. We were working with Tyson Murphy (the lead artist on World of Warcraft) who helped us get that look just right so it felt like it belonged in both worlds. You can walk into inns and taverns in World of Warcraft and see Hearthstone on some of the tables. Of course we’ve pulled a lot of characters into Hearthstone as well. There’s a healthy back and forth.
You seem to prefer the traditional medium of oil on canvas when you paint. Especially when you were doing Magic art. Today, a lot of games are keen on doing digital art to keep pace. What’s your take on traditional vs digital art?
I think they’re totally different. Not only style wise, but in what they can be used to do. Having different tools gives the artists a greater ability to achieve what they want with the given medium. Some of the artists of Hearthstone actually do traditional pieces. Wayne Reynolds does everything in acrylics, Christopher Moeller does acrylics as well, Chris Rahn who does most of his pieces in oils. My own transition came when I started working in a digital environment and with the iterative environment that Blizzard is. There is a need to constantly try new things and oil doesn’t really iterate very well. Maybe the next Hearthstone card I make should be in a traditional medium though.
That would be nice.
I think so too.
So, Magic in the 90s used a lot of classic fantasy art and some were abstract pieces from artists such as Richard Kane Furgeson and Melissa Benson. Are you ever tempted to use this kind of abstract art for Hearthstone?
As long as the style is something that feels like it could be in World of Warcraft and really pays homage to that world and simultaneously fits in the Hearthstone universe as well, I’ll always be open to wide diverse styles. There are however some art styles that are just not going to fit one to one without some work. I think the more abstracted, esoteric approach to the art has a harder time of fitting into something like Hearthstone, but we still offer a lot of variety for the artists to play with. We’ve got people like Matt Dixon who can do the super silly, over-the-top fun stuff and then go directly to Wayne Reynolds for the really epic, awesome mages and dragons. There is a pretty diverse range there without trying to be esoteric or nebulous.
What do you think about the idea of cards with alternate art or full art versions of existing cards as promos?
I think it’s an interesting idea. As an artist, I always like getting to see the full art. That said, recognizing that we want to continue to be a game for everyone, we want to be accessible and understandable at a glance. Variants of existing cards is something we’ve always been very cautious about implementing. A new player can easily become confused about ”what am I looking at?” or ”how is this different?”. It’s important that the new player and the experienced player can have a shared experience.
Do you sometimes hide easter eggs in the game art?
Yeah, there’s a card named Sergeant Sally. If you see her in the frame, she’s got a lot of wanted posters behind her. That was painted by Matt Dixon. All the wanted posters behind her shows pictures of other cards that he’s painted.
And I think Ben Brode is there as well?
Yes, he’s in the top right corner. So when you get to see the full art, you can find him there. Whenever it makes sense to do things like this, I think it’s awesome. People often put stuff in. When John Zwicker was building the boards he had things like The golden radish that showed up on the Pandaria board. It’s also shown up elsewhere. Things like the boot or the red gem.
Yeah. People theorized about the red gem having something to do with red mana crystals.
No, it’s just a fun thing that John Zwicker did in Stranglethorn. Then it started showing up elsewhere, like in the teleporter.
Ah, so it’s more of a red herring than a just a red gem.
Yeah, ha ha ha!
Last question, what’s your favorite piece of art from the new set?
For the whole game, it’s probably Archmage Antonidas, but from the new set… There’s so many good ones. I love them! I think the one that sticks out, that is most memorable to me, is a silly off-handed one. It’s Waxmancer Sturmey. She’s a boss that you encounter during a dungeon run. She is a very interesting character. As a kobold, she’s found ways to bend wax to her will and do stuff with it.
So like Magneto, but with wax?
Yeah, sort of. Ha ha! She can start making copies of any minions on the battlefield. Both yours and hers. So she’s pretty dangerous. The art represents someone who’s maybe having a little bit too much fun with the wax from the candles.