Ashes of Outland has brought one of the most lore-packed and nostalgic Hearthstone expansions to Blizzard’s card game. Just last week, the first part of AoO’s single player experience – Trial by Felfire – went live. It tells the story of Illidan and his Demon Hunter apprentice Aranna Starseeker (who is, notably, Elise Starseeker’s sister) trying to free Outland from the Mecha-Jaraxxus and his augmented creations – Rusted Legion.
We had the chance to sit down with Initial Game Designer Chadd “Celestalon” Nervig to ask a couple of in-depth questions about the process of bringing Warcraft lore to Hearthstone, the role of lore in card design, and the origins of everybody’s favorite murloc: Murgur Murgurgle!
Now that most of the content updates and the main story of Ashes of Outland are out, we must talk about Illidan, the Betrayer, Lord of Outland. His return to the Warcraft universe with Ashes of Outland is a special one, to say the least! Did the decision to tell the story of Illidan influence the making of the new Demon Hunter class? How do storytelling and game design depend on each other in the initial development phase of an expansion like Ashes of Outland?
Chadd: Both storytelling and game design are really important, and it’s their combination that we’re looking for. First of all, Illidan is an immensely popular character in the Warcraft universe, and we thought we can tell a really interesting story involving him.
Simultaneously, we also wanted to visit Outland. It is one of the coolest places in Warcraft – so much rich story, so much nostalgia remained there! We were thinking about doing a new class, and Illidan fits in perfectly with that. The combination of Demon Hunter, Illidan, and Outland – all those factors created the perfect opportunity to introduce Hearthstone’s new class.
In terms of storytelling, we wanted to give everyone a condensed Hearthstone version of who Illidan really is, and so the prologue was built to tell his story to give a taste of what the Betrayer is about. We wanted to give that some time to breathe with Illidan as the main focus – because we also wanted to introduce a new Demon Hunter. Classes aren’t limited to just one hero, and we thought we could tell a story that was more of our own, our own Hearthstone character, and that’s Aranna! We wanted to involve Illidan from a different point of view so that you can see the difference between him and Elise’s sister.
Diving deeper into the story of the expansion – in Ashes of Outland and Trial by Felfire in particular, most cards seem perfectly made for what they represent in the lore – Altruis, the biggest Outcast of them all, leads other Outcast cards into battle, while Kayn Sunfury blindly charges through his enemies in zealous Illidari manner.
Are cards initially designed to fit certain characters, or do you take general design ideas and try to make them fit for the lore that is set in place?
Chadd: It really goes from both directions – we call that top-down and bottom-up design. Top-down means we take a character and think: What would be the Hearthstone card version of this character? Bottom-up is the other way round: We have these well-designed cards, and we don’t know what their fantasy will be about, or what characters could fit that – and we apply both techniques.
It’s really important to us that we have a good combination between those two approaches. A lot of the times we can easily customize the non-Legendary cards in particular to fit the design. Legendaries are supposed to be specific characters in lore, and especially in Ashes of Outland we were looking to hit nostalgia really hard with characters like Kael’thas or Lady Vashj. We wanted to have mechanics that fit those characters very well, so the degree to which those are designed vary by the set, but in Ashes of Outland we definitely created a lot of top-down designed Legendary cards. Getting that combination right is really important, as it’s not just the names and the lore itself that matter; it’s the card art, the visual effects, voice lines – everything needs to fit!
You really want to have a cohesive fantasy to each card, and it’s awesome if we can remind people of characters from original Outland, even though we may put a little twist to it like the Prime mechanic.
As you already said, Ashes of Outland is really an homage to the Burning Crusade expansion, the early days of World of Warcraft and the Warcraft story in general.
One of the few Ashes of Outland characters that seem to be exclusive to Hearthstone is Murgur Murgurgle. In Burning Crusade over ten years ago, we learned that murlocs are not native to Outland. Where did he come from? What’s the story behind this murloc?
Chadd: I recently had a Twitter conversation about general character development in Hearthstone. We sometimes develop way more ideas of personality, attitude, and backstory for characters that eventually don’t make it into the game. We typically have lore articles about our major characters – so allow me to tell you the tale of Murgur Murgurgle, a battle-worn murloc with shiny golden scales!
The Sungill tribe of Murlocs were originally from the shores of what is now known as the Blasted Lands.
Things went poorly for them when the Dark Portal opened.
Later, things went even worse. A troll by the name of Witch Doctor Tor’gash abducted their entire clutch of eggs.
The whole tribe was furious, and tracked him all the way to Outland to rescue them.
Luckily, they found them; they had hatched, and released in Zangarmash!
However, the Sungills were now far from home, in an unknown land.
Not knowing how to get back, they decided instead to settle there, and made a new home.
Unfortunately, the twists of fate were not done with the Sungill tribe.
Most of them became corrupted by fel energies, and split off to became the Felfin tribe.
Soon, war broke out between the Sungill and the Felfin.
The Sungill fought hard, but the Felfin were winning.
They had the Sungill under siege, trapped in the peninsula where their village was located.
The Sungill Chieftain was paralyzed with indecision – fight their way out, killing many of their previous brethren? Or stay and die as the Felfin closed in?
One particularly hardy tidehunter of the Sungill, survivor of numerous skirmishes with the Felfin, saw what needed to be done.
He staged a coup, deposing the previous Chieftain by force, and led his remaining people on a daring attack to burst through the Felfin lines, and escape to the open lands of Outland.
For this, his people thanked him. He did not want to be a Chieftain, but his people insisted he stay on as a military leader at least, and gave him the title of Murgur.
When he later fell to the Rusted Legion, Mecha-Jaraxxus took note; he was the fiercest murloc he had ever seen. And so, Mecha-Jaraxxus rebuilt him, as Murgurgle Prime.
That is a brilliant bit of Hearthstone lore! Did you write this yourself?
Chadd: Yes, with some pointers from Dave Kosak, our Lead Narrative Designer!
There’s also one more thing about Murgur: Talking general character development, I also mentioned on Twitter that the personality of one of the Primes was, at least in my head, based on a character from Mass Effect. A ton of people guessed what prime and what character, but nobody got it right. I can now reveal that Murgur Murgurgle’s grizzled attitude is actually inspired by Zaeed Massani!
Interesting! We have seen the origins of more obvious character traits such as the broken Baduu, who definitely comes off as some sort of Terminator-like creature – but that inspiration is definitely a lot more sophisticated!
Talking about characters in Ashes of Outland, we didn’t mention Mecha-Jaraxxus yet. In the trailer we have seen a crazy take on Outland’s history in “Mad Max” fashion – however, I have always wondered why exactly Mecha-Jaraxxu has been picked as the main villain. Similar to Dr. Boom, his history in WoW is pretty much straight-forward and not that deep, especially in combination with Outland’s lore as we know it.
Was this an attempt to create a bridge between mech-heavy Year of the Dragon content from last year, or are you having more plans with Mecha-Jaraxxus in the future?
Chadd: The decision of including Mecha-Jaraxxus was really just an evolution based on the underlying storyline trio – Demon Hunters, Illidan, and Outland. The natural opponents for Demon Hunters are demons, of course! We wanted to keep it Hearthstone-centric though, and in Hearthstone we like to take Warcraft settings, stories, and characters and put a twist on them – more light-hearted, more silly, more unexpected.
And so we thought: Okay, what’s the twist on the fight between Demon Hunters and Demons? Maybe it’s mecha-demons featuring Mecha-Jaraxxus as the main villains! Admittedly though, the lore depth that we go into with Mecha-Jaraxxus is not a whole lot – there is more to Mecha-Jaraxxus, but he is not the focus of the main story. All eyes should lie on Illidan and Aranna and their evolving story. Mecha-Jaraxxus and the Rusted Legion set the stage and the “main problem” for the player and the protagonists, giving the development team the main twist to Outland that is needed to not just have a plain copy of WoW’s setting – including the “Mad Max” vibe or the Outcast storyline of different characters getting on a survival adventure.
On the topic of Trial by Felfire’s Outcast characters – Hearthstone loves to play with unusual race-class combinations, and the outcast Mag’har orc priest Karnuk shows that.
Could this hint towards that the pure Mag’har Orcs will be able to become Priests in WoW, just like Zandalari Paladins did back in Rastakhan’s Rumble – and shortly after in World of Warcraft?
Chadd: No, we are not trying to hint at future developments in World of Warcraft. The Zandalari had paladins back in Mists of Pandaria, and we wanted to see different Troll culture directions unfold in Rastakhan’s Rumble through cards depicting Zandalari paladins.
We’re playing fast and loose with the race-class combinations in Hearthstone – we got Shivarra Demon Hunters, Murloc Paladins, Kobold Druids -, so nothing is really off-limits for us. In general, we live in an “off-shoot” universe of Warcraft which is not canon.
Last but not least, we have prepared a special rhyme question about Karnuk and his surprising transformation into a Demon Hunter in full Ashes of Outland manner, and we hope you can answer it in rhyme as well!
When Karnuk, Mag’har, pure and brown,
who once was priest in Hellsreach town,
turns into Vengeance, skin all red –
that bit me like a copperhead!
Should Karnuk not be deep, deep green,
after corruption hit the scene?
I know that Fel Orcs, soaked in blood,
are red because they drank a lot
of life juice from Magtheridon,
when Illidan said: “Bring it on!”
But why is Karnuk red, not green?
Like other orcs, corrupt and mean?
The difference of green and red,
when both corrupted, hurts my head!
His inner demon, horned and red
Not from the blood that Mag’ done bled
But for the battles he would wage
His is the fury: Red, red rage!