Inside Battle.net: Meet the sound team behind Hearthstone’s harmonic design
Every other month, we sit down with one studio to explore how the passionate people behind our games work to craft legendary entertainment experiences for millions of players on Battle.net.
A jaunty guitar riff, the gentle hum of conversation, and a hearty voice that beckons you back like an old friend. Each visitor that crosses the threshold of Hearthstone’s Tavern is greeted by this sequence of sounds, an arrangement that was composed with “attention and love” by the game’s talented sound crew, says Principal Sound Designer Andy Brock.
The team sits packed into Zoom’s video grid, a gallery of faces flanked by instruments, soundproofing panels, and an array of Hearthstone-themed backdrops. Their conversation flows with the comfortable ease of a chat amongst friends. “We all complement each other as designers,” continues Brock. “We’re all in sync—how everyone works with each other and how we approach our design.”
That synergy is fundamental to their daily work. Each team member is responsible for shaping the different parts that comprise the whole of Hearthstone’s audio identity—something that has grown exponentially in the last two expansions with the release of a new class in March of the Lich King and a music-heavy experience in Festival of Legends.
We caught up with the team to talk about their latest releases, how they jam during the design process, and the sick concoctions they’ve created in their endeavors to capture the perfect spell sounds.
What did your personal and professional journey to Hearthstone’s sound team look like?
Brian Farr, Sound Supervisor: I started out playing music professionally full-time in various rock bands. During that time, I began recording and producing music, primarily contemporary rock. However, I always had a passion for video games. I eventually got a job at Blizzard as a QA [Quality Assurance] tester; during my interview, I learned that Blizzard had a sound department. Shortly after [starting] in QA, I met Glenn Stafford, who was the audio director. I was given a chance to intern as a sound designer. After a few months, Glenn hired me for the job. That was 22 years ago. Time certainly flies.
Andy Brock, Principal Sound Designer: I started as a composer 30 years ago, back in the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis era. Back then, being a composer meant you did everything sound-related—the music, sound effects, voices, and implementation. I did that for a few years before focusing exclusively on sound design, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.
In 2012, I saw a sound designer opening at Blizzard for an unannounced game. I applied and took the job without actually knowing what the game was because it was still a closely guarded secret. The most they could tell me was that it was a ‘whimsical, casual game.' Then, on my first day, I was shown the alpha version of what would eventually become Hearthstone, and thought, ‘Okay, this is already a great game, and it has a ton of potential for sound.’
Dan Johnson, Technical Sound Designer: I wanted to be a game designer when I was a kid, so I went to college for that and found out that I actually hated how design works in practice. While there, I found that I really liked the sound aspect of games, and switched majors to audio. After grad school, I got a job at an audio house, worked at Skywalker [Sound], and then came here.
Rosalie Kofsky, Audio Producer: I was in school to get a BFA [Bachelor of Fine Arts] in Acting, and I started doing voiceovers for video games. I was doing voiceovers for Magic the Gathering, and they asked me to join QA.
I had no idea how to test software, but they said, “Come in, we’ll teach you.” That was 25 years ago. When I heard from a friend that Blizzard had an audio opening, I jumped on it. Forget acting; it doesn’t pay! [Laughs]
Jon Graves, Senior Sound Designer II: I was always a musician, and the band I used to be in—we learned how to use recording gear and recorded our own album. I started in Blizzard QA because I needed to support my music, and that’s when I met Brian [Farr]. Eventually, I took an internship opportunity, and I’ve been in sound ever since. Twenty years at Blizzard, 15 in sound.
Olivia Lauletta, Voice Designer: I went to school for sound design and then had an internship at Nickelodeon that led to me becoming a recording engineer. In the meantime, I was playing video games and thinking about how I’d like to make a transition from TV to games. When I saw this position open up, it ended up being a great fit for me.
Since some of you have been at Blizzard working on Hearthstone since its inception as a World of Warcraft spinoff, what was your approach to utilizing existing sounds from WoW? How have you tried to differentiate the audio identities to make the new sounds similar yet distinct?
Farr: The first project I worked on as a sound designer was Warcraft III, and I was extremely fortunate to have been mentored by some very talented composers and sound designers. Working in the video game industry in the early 2000s, composers wore multiple hats and did a lot of sound design in games; I noticed many of the spell effects in Warcraft had an atonal musical element to them. It made them instantly recognizable.
After moving on to World of Warcraft, I eventually became the lead sound designer. The spells you hear today, both in WoW and Hearthstone, have maintained a similar design approach. However, Hearthstone has a whimsical personality and is much more light-hearted.
Brock: The initial approach was to do a higher resolution, stereo remaster of sounds for cards that matched or were similar to WoW sounds, like the Holy Light spell, Taunt keyword, or Murloc Scout minion. Over time, this morphed into Hearthstone’s own style, but we still give nods to audio in WoW whenever the opportunity presents itself. Legendary stingers—reusing legacy WoW music to tie legendary characters from WoW to Hearthstone—are a great example of this.
What differentiates Hearthstone the most from WoW is the more rhythmic and musical approach to sound design in terms of pacing. Our gameplay is turn-based and has so many elements where the timing is fixed, like when you drag a card out of your hand and drop it into play, and you can design the sound around that particular gameplay pacing so it feels right.
What about the sound design process itself? Is there anything in particular that sets Hearthstone apart from WoW?
Farr: When I joined the team, one of the things that I'd never experienced working in sound was the creative freedom of designing sounds for minions, primarily beasts. Instead, I was used to designing sounds bound to an animation state, such as an attack or when a creature is wounded. In Hearthstone, we have the creative freedom to create sound based on the card art.
Brock: It’s called “subjective sound design,” where you’re not tied to actual physical footsteps on a character coming in. It’s more like—what’s the emotional impact of this card? That’s what we focus on. Things like spells have key beats—the cast, the hit—and we have a lot of freedom to put our emotional sound design on display with those.
Materials used to record some sound effects in March of the Lich King.
A new class in Hearthstone means tons of new cards, and—like you said—each one needs to give players an idea of what’s happening. When you learned that Death Knights would be added to the game in March of the Lich King, how did your team go about the sound design?
Farr: We used dry ice to resonate metal objects for the Death Knight frost spells. If you put metal on dry ice, it makes crazy noises. Chains hiss and sheet metal groans, which work well for magical and ambient source. The sounds can either be obnoxious or amazing when dry ice causes metal to resonate.
Graves: I came from WoW, and in one of the expansions, we did a combat revamp and updated the sounds of all the classes. So I had a whole bunch of that sourced still and wanted to blend the Death Knight audio that Brian had originally made for Wrath of the Lich King with the newer stuff we did. We did some sessions and recorded a whole bunch of—it was basically a gore kit.
How do you record a gore kit?
Graves: A lot of it is trial and error. I went to the store and walked down every aisle looking for anything that seemed like it could sound squishy. I was also trying to think about the smell because I didn’t want my entire studio to stink, which has happened before. We’ve made some really nasty concoctions.
I think I spent like 40-50 bucks on just squishy things. Then I got one of my kids’ mini pools and put a bunch of tarps down in the recording studio and just started cutting stuff, stabbing stuff, whatever.
And I remember at one point when I was trying to mix stuff together, I grabbed soda so I could get some fizz, and I wasn’t thinking when I poured it in. I had cream in there, and it curdled everything. So then I'm trying to hurry up and record that, but then I thought—crap, this might sound good with a plunger, so I grabbed a plunger, and it was kind of spur of the moment, but I did it as fast as I could before my entire studio reeked.
Farr: It came out really good in-game. Very detailed. And one awesome thing about sound is that—sometimes the effects team will be like, “Ohh, we can’t get away with this because it’s too gory,” and I’m like, yeah, but we can make it sound gory. We have the ability to take it over the edge and make it sound disgusting.
Graves in the process of recording a gore kit.
Were there any other moments during development or after the expansion’s release that were particularly memorable for you?
Brock: Speaking generally, the game board corner interactions are always fun to work on. There are usually some secret things we hide, like on the March of the Lich King board, if you click all the ice away in the top right corner, you’ll see and hear something special. It’s always fun to see player reactions to these online.
Some of them are so secret that they remain hidden for a long time. For example, there are two interactions on the Ashes of Outland board that were only just discovered recently. The Fel Reaver in the bottom left corner and the Dark Portal in the top right have secret sequences if you click their parts in a certain order
Johnson: I remember working on a particularly tough creature, Blightfang. It's a giant spider, so there's nothing I can go record for that. I ended up taking an 'alien screech' sound from our sound libraries and putting it through an EQ [equalization, adjusting the volume of a frequency within a sound] and a tremolo [rapidly adjusting the volume to create a shuddering effect] to make it sound like it coming from behind clacking pincers. Then, I added a layer of pitched hissing that I adjusted to give it some weight and finished it off with some gore and sounds for pincers rattling. I think it turned out pretty good.
Kofsky: Reading Reddit is the best. Just reading all of the lovely things people say—it’s
rewarding. We have some loyal fans, and they’re really lovely.
Lauletta: Like everyone has said, our game is different because of its speed, and because we need intelligibility. So, for me, the most memorable is usually working with the team to come up with a way to make sure people know what’s going on, while also making it epic and impactful.
Kofsky: Sometimes hearing Olivia [Lauletta] talk about what she’s combining—she’ll be like, “OK, I’m doing a banshee who has a parrot, and a Death Knight.” And it’s just, like, the combination of things she has to do to make it sound unique is remarkable.
Lauletta: It’s fun, though. When they throw those curveballs, it’s exciting.
Johnson's iterations of Blightfang's audio.
What else about your job and the sound design process as a whole—curveballs and otherwise—makes you excited to get up in the morning and start working?
Kofsky: Listening to everybody’s sounds. Watching my daughter play the game is such a joy. It’s such a silly, sweet game, and just listening to everything everybody has put in is amazing.
Brock: There’s always some new challenge. The newest set [Festival of Legends] was very music-centric, and it threw a curveball at us. It was a challenge to create sounds with musical elements that worked in conjunction with the existing tavern audio without sounding like a mess. There is a case of having too much sound in the game, and it comes down to making the right decisions about what should be heard when, or even not at all.
Generally speaking, Hearthstone is a joy to work on. I love that you can be working on some cutesy little robot one minute and then a giant colossal minion the next. There’s a huge dynamic emotional range of what you're going be working on, and it all changes every four months when the theme of the expansion changes!
Lauletta: I love how collaborative it is. A lot of the time I'm taking notes from our writers and also trying to stay true to the wonderful audio sound designers have created in the past. Getting to play within those parameters and making someone's idea come to life in a way that fits our world is fun for me.
Farr: Being someone who has always loved the fantasy genre, whether it's movies, games, or books, it's incredible to wake up and do something you love daily. I also feel fortunate to work with so many talented people. It's truly inspiring.