Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is accessible yet brutal at the same time. VG247’s card noob Dave Cook plays the beta and interviews Blizzard on how it nailed such a fine balance.
Back in my uni days I shared a flat with three guys who loved collectible card games. They’d host a game night every Wednesday and I could heard them from my room, shouting and laughing over the sound of Killer7 on my PS2. I really wanted to take part but these were some hardcore folk. Their rooms held a great stash of carefully constructed Magic: The Gathering decks and in one flatmate’s case, a trophy from a local Magic tournament. They were really good.
I asked them if I could be involved one day and they gladly offered to show me the ropes, acting out a number of turns while quickly going over the rules. Confused, I asked them to back up and repeat everything again slowly, but I still couldn’t get it, and I’m pretty sure bits of brain actually leaked out of my ear. Regardless, I tried to play against my trophy-winning friend and he slaughtered me so fast I couldn’t figure out where I went wrong. I felt stupid.
“We wanted to make a game that pretty much everybody could jump into so within a few minutes your friends and family are playing the game, having a good time and they’re not worrying about all of the turn phases or complexities that are traditionally associated with these games.”
With great respect for the skill required to play the game well, I backed off and never returned to Magic. I almost did the same thing recently while playing the closed beta of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, which is Blizzard’s take on the card-battler. The opening tutorial does a great job of having you play out some basic scenarios slowly to make sure you know how all of the mechanics and rules fit. Once you’re unleashed on PvP and against tougher AI opponents however, it becomes a potentially savage arena.
To set the scene for you, I spoke with Hearthstone’s lead designer Eric Dodds and production director Jason Chayes. They’re members of what Blizzard refers to internally as ‘Team 5.’ It’s a new collective within the company aimed at taking an ‘indie’ approach to new projects, and to experiment with ideas the Californian outfit might not typically greenlight. This autonomy gave rise to the game as we know it today, but first and foremost it came from the team’s genuine passion for card battlers. As it happens, they’re all big Magic: The Gathering fans.
“Hearthstone really came from the same place as all of our other games have here at Blizzard,” Chayes explained. “which is to say it really starts with, ‘What are the games we love to play on our lunch breaks or when we go home after work?’ For a very long time now Blizzard has been a collectible card game shop. We love playing these types of games going back more than a decade now, and we just didn’t have the right timing and opportunity to look at a game like this.
“What happened a number of years back was we decided to do a different type of team here. Kind of a small, scrappy, opportunistic team that really was charged with figuring out how we could be a little more experimental. How can we try to jump into different genres from what we’ve done in the past? That team – which ultimately became referred to as ‘Team 5’ – when it got rolling we looked back and said, ‘we’ve always loved collectible card games, so why don’t we take our stab at doing one of those for the online space?’ The interest in the genre and the birth of Team 5 is what got us started on Hearthstone.”
Dodds explained that Team 5 decided to keep its independent way of thinking and refrain from looking at other card battlers while designing Hearthstone’s rule-set. Key to the concept was the digital space. The team knew it was going to make an online battler and to pitch the experience to existing fans of the Warcraft IP, but it also wanted to open doors for newcomers who had never played the MMO. To do this Hearthstone needed to be fluid, understandable and expertly designed, but deep and engaging to the core.
After playing the beta for a few weeks I definitely felt that Team 5 had nailed these areas. As I said earlier, the tutorial is superb. It really made the trauma of my short-lived Magic career subside, and I gradually began to understand the basics. Deck building and balancing were perhaps the hardest aspects beyond that point, but the game’s ‘Suggest a Card’ feature is a brilliant tool in helping you cover all bases.
For starters, you really need a healthy stock of low and high level cards. As each turn passes you earn an extra point to your mana pool, so you really should be using your initial turns in summoning low-level cards to fill your front line. Some cards offer a taunt ability which means all of the enemy’s cards are unable to directly hit your hero until they dispatch the taunting units first. Low-level cards can also heal, buff, summon pets and freeze units. They’re easily killed, but if you get a full row established quickly, you can easily overwhelm opponents.
Like Magic, the game is over once your hero loses all of their HP, so keeping a well-stocked row of units in play is the key to surviving longer. Your hero can also sling magic and unleash weapons directly at cards or the opposing hero but this also detracts from your card mana pool. It’s like chess in that you need to think several steps ahead and try to second-guess your foe. It’s a tricky game to win, but it’s damn satisfying when you do.
“If you’re the kind of person who wants to come in and never put a dime in and basically accumulate the cards, try the various classes, find ways to be competitive – that’s a perfectly viable strategy in Hearthstone. You’re never going to hit a paywall that requires you to put more money in to keep playing.”
“We wanted to make a game that pretty much everybody could jump into,” Chayes continued. “so within a few minutes your friends and family are playing the game, having a good time and they’re not worrying about all of the turn phases or complexities that are traditionally associated with these games. And of course, along those lines it was important for us to keep the depth of these collectible card games, because that’s one of the reasons why we love them.”
“Balancing has been an iterative process,” he continued when I asked him how Team 5 ensured all of the games many cards were created. “As a company we have a balance strike team that I get together with regularly, we have a whole bunch of metrics about what cards are powerful and not. We look at it that way. I take lots of feedback from the community telling them how cards make them feel, because for us emotional feedback is as important as the actual balance of the game. If it feels terrible to play against a certain card then we’re going to look at that.”
This emotional angle – weirdly – makes perfect sense once you start playing Hearthstone. I explained to Chayes and Dodds how I won my first PvP victory by using two Polymorph cards to turn a pair of my opponent’s strongest units into sheep one after an other. The guy got pissed and then forfeited. It felt brilliant. I added that I’m playing the game on my touch-screen laptop, which actually works wonderfully, especially when you drag spells over to cards and watch them explode. The game would work insanely well on a tablet too.
Over time you’ll earn currency to buy new cards, and defeating new AI opponents will unlock extra class-specific decks. There’s also a store that sells new card packs for both in-game and real money. I asked Chayes and Dodds for their thoughts on Hearthstone’s monetisation efforts. Dodds replied, “If you’re the kind of person who wants to come in and never put a dime in and basically accumulate the cards, try the various classes, find ways to be competitive – that’s a perfectly viable strategy in Hearthstone. You’re never going to hit a paywall that requires you to put more money in to keep playing.
“Now that said, if you want to get access to all the various cards faster and have a range of different strategies at an accelerated pace, if you want to keep jumping back into the [PvP] Arena at a faster pace, then those are examples of where players might want to put money down in the game and actually accumulate their options and strategies a little bit faster than the way they might be able to if they were just playing for free. It all comes down to how you want to play the game.”
I asked the pair if they would ever consider offering cards from other Blizzard properties such as StarCraft and Diablo, but they explained that Hearthstone is a game played by the inhabitants of Azeroth, and as such it would break the canon if suddenly cards for Kerrigan and Deckard Cain started showing up in the store. That said, Team 5 is looking at cross-game promotions between World of Warcraft and the card battler that make sense.
Chayes added, “There’s definitely some interesting ideas in that space that we think could be cool because they both share the same IP. That all said, it was really important for us that Hearthstone is a standalone game; that you can come to it and enjoy it without having any experience of World of Warcraft or even the other Warcraft games that have come before that.”
When asked if WoW players could expect to buy Hearthstone tables for their avatar and launch the game from within the MMO, Chayes continued, “That’s actually a cool idea that has come up here in terms of our internal discussions. I think the whole lore and mythology of Hearthstone is that it’s a game played inside the universe of World of Warcraft like, this is a game that – as a Dwarf – you may sit down in a tavern and have a duel with the Gnomes sat across the table from you.
“It’s also played by both factions – Horde and Alliance – so you can definitely imagine characters inside WoW carrying around these boxes to duel against one another when they’ve downed arms. It’s not something in the short term we have plans to integrate fully into the World of Warcraft game now. It’s something we’re thinking about but have no real announcements in regard to it quite yet.”
I’d love to see it happen, so I’ll be sure to ask Team 5 about this if I get another chance down the line. For now though I’m going to stop writing this article and challenge Pat to a match. He’ll probably beat me though, he’s much better than me.
Wish me luck.