…And a Designer Shall Lead Them
In game dev, senior-level developers generally make high-level decisions. But at Hearthstone, devs at all levels grow by leading new expansions, like the recently released "March of the Lich King"
Five years ago, the Hearthstone leadership team did something few teams would do in the high-stakes world of game dev: It began rotating the job of leading new set expansions to developers of all levels, who take turns proposing a theme and vision for the forthcoming expansion and then supervising it across all stages of development.
“The team wanted to allow other designers to grow into more leadership roles,” says Chadd Nervig, Hearthstone’s features lead designer and the initial design lead for the recent “March of the Lich King” expansion, released in December. “Game design is a ton of making hard decisions and tough trade offs — and different people will go in different directions. Every set lead brings their own touch or style to the table.”
In Hearthstone’s newest expansion, players follow Prince Arthas as he becomes the infamous Lich King and commands an undead army — including the new Death Knight Class — into a ferocious assault on the elven city of Silvermoon. To lead this expansion, Nervig drew on his deep canonical knowledge of World of Warcraft, from which Hearthstone spun off as a standalone virtual card game in 2014.
“One of the Warcraft classes I loved most was Death Knight and the story of the Lich King,” says Nervig, who joined the Hearthstone team in 2015. “Even though Hearthstone and World of Warcraft are very different games—Hearthstone is lighthearted and the Lich King is dark, cold, and serious—it felt right for the Warcraft version of Death Knight to serve as a touchstone, with some adjustments. It was important to me to look back on where this class was built, what the fantasy is and the feelings that it gives you, and stay true to that.”
Today, as Hearthstone’s lead features designer, Nervig leads the team focused on making exciting new features for the game. In 2019, however, Nervig was still a game designer when he led his first expansion, “Rise of Shadows.”
“That was especially exciting for me. As a big World of Warcraft player, I got to make a new expansion set in my favorite city. That set really encouraged me to grow as a developer and a designer, “ says Nervig, who was promoted to Senior Game Designer after the expansion. “Plus, there was a lot of lore development, and one of my strengths is creating new lore that still fits within the World of Warcraft universe.”
Hearthstone leadership encourages set leads to tap into their personal strengths and passions when proposing a new set; a diverse roster of set leads yields a diverse range of themes and decisions. Hearthstone’s culture maintains that someone who is enthusiastic about a set’s theme will make the best version of that set, regardless of seniority.
Last summer, murder mystery fan and Hearthstone Senior Game Designer Cora Georgiou led the game’s Murder at Castle Nathria expansion—complete with a Clue screening for the team during development. “I’d been wanting to do that expansion for years,” says Georgiou. The expansion had one of the most successful launches in the game’s history.
Nervig’s March of the Lich King also made Hearthstone history when it introduced a new character class for only the second time to the game’s 10-year run. The first time, Nervig also led design on the expansion, Ashes of Outland, which introduced the Demon Hunter class in 2020.
“That was a big learning experience for me and the team,” says Nervig, who drew on what he learned from that expansion to fine tune the “Death Knight” class.
Georgiou also led her first set, “Murder at Castle Nathria,” as a game designer. After launch, she ascended to her current position, senior game designer. Now, she's mentoring a broader team of Hearthstone developers.
“To be in this position and know that I can help other people grow and learn and experience the same things that I did as the set lead for ‘Murder at Castle Nathria,’ it's not a responsibility that I take lightly,” Georgiou says. “I’m in a wonderful position to help people succeed.”
“Set lead rotation has had a positive impact for developers. You can see an attainable roadmap of your career in front of you and know what you need to do to get to the next step,” he says. “We also make sure the process accommodates various levels and skill sets. Some people may require a little more assistance developing, but that’s part of helping people grow.”
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About the Author
Marli Guzzetta is the Director of Corporate Content at Activision Blizzard. She creates narrative campaigns to champion the world-class, diverse talent behind games like Call of Duty, Candy Crush, Overwatch 2, World of Warcraft, and more. See some of Marli’s favorite games in bio. 🎮