It's almost surprising that it took the games industry this long, but the spring of the digital collectible card game is finally upon us. For years, the industry has been converting board games, translating movies, and toying with adaptations of tabletop wargaming, and yet the humble collectible card game, seemingly ready-made for digitisation, has remained tethered to the physical world.
The arrival of the microstransaction payment model has certainly helped the shift. There have been numerous Kickstarters for digital collectible card games, and even Mojang, the studio behind indie behemoth Minecraft is trying its hand at the genre. Then there are also the annual Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers games, and even if these are intended as introduction into the physical version of the game, they remain a formidable entry.
But none currently have the talkability or the hype of Hearthstone, Blizzard's in-beta digital collectible card game based on the Warcraft universe. Hearthstone has taken over a huge number of Twitch feeds. We recently ran a give-away of 10 beta keys, and were blown away by the number of responses, which was in excess of some competitions with prize packs valued in the thousands.
We sat down with developers Eric Dodds and Jason Chayes to discover how the Hearthstone beta is progressing, and to learn what changes we can expect before the game is released later this year.
Q: What have you learned from the beta so far?
Jason Chayes: Overall, the response to Hearthstone has been far beyond what we were expecting. It’s been a very positive response. One of the things I think we’ve been most happy about is the range of responses we’ve been getting. Coming into the beta, we had some good initial response from PAX East, we had just finished up Gamescom in Europe, and I think we had very high hopes for how the game would do, but we didn’t really know how the game was going to play with all the various broad audiences we were looking at. That includes collectible card game aficionados who have been playing the genre for a while, hardcore gamers, and then a very casual audience too.
All three of those groups have responded very well to Hearthstone, so that’s awesome and we’ve been really happy with that.
We’ve definitely learned some areas where we still need to put in a little more work. I think there’s a range of things we’d like to continue to put polish on and improve, and some bug fixing before we’re ready to release the game, but overall, the response has been beyond our expectations.
Eric Dodds: One thing that has been fantastic is all the great balance feedback we’ve been getting. We’re certainly still balancing and tweaking the game and its been fantastic to both see all of those responses, and then from our end see data on how people are playing, and really start to dial in exactly on how we want the cards to be balanced. We think we’re close but the beta is getting us the rest of the way there.
Q: And what are some of the key balance issues you’ve come across?
Dodds: There are specific classes that are slightly stronger than others, we’ve certainly been looking at the Rogue, who in certain environments is slightly stronger. Actually, one of the things that has been interesting to us balance-wise, is that it depends on the skill of the player as to which class is more powerful than which class. You can look at really skilled players and say, ‘Wow, the Rogue is slightly too strong, we’re definitely going to have to look at that.’ Or you can look at players who are newer to the game, and go, ‘Wow, the Hunter is pretty strong.’
So we’re looking a specific cards and I can’t tell you exactly what we’re going to be changing – we’re still going back and forth on a lot of those details – but we’re definitely looking at making changes to those classes and trying to bring them all into line.
Q: Would you say players have behaved in ways that met your expectations, or have they surprised you?
Dodds: I was certainly surprised by how quickly the streaming and Twitch community fired up, in terms of people showing off the game, and people being excited about watching it. One of the things that we’ve always talked about internally is, we think it would be cool if this game was an eSport and a game that people watched a lot, and we didn’t know how far along that path we could be. After watching all these streams, it looks like there’s at least some interest in that. I certainly wasn’t expecting so many streams to pop up so quickly.
Chayes: I think it’s great for us to see the areas that players are responding to. Looking through some of the responses we’ve seen on our forums, interesting things like, ‘Pick your favourite voice-over on a legendary minion’. There’s a whole thread and discussion on that which is really cool, and not something I’d anticipated getting a lot of interest around at the launch of the beta. That’s been a great thing for us and for the team, who have put a great deal of time into ensuring that all of the cards feel like they have a lot of personality and flavour.
Q: Thinking about Hearthstone as a prospective eSport: are you starting to make plans now for BlizzCon?
Chayes: We’ve been making plans for BlizzCon for a little while now, even prior to the beta. In terms of what we’re showing, we have some ideas that we’re locking down. We’re definitely excited about the potential of Hearthstone as an eSport, and we’re looking forward to finding ways to showcase that at BlizzCon and beyond.
Q: Beyond data, what kind of anecdotal feedback have you been receiving?
Chayes: There have been a lot of responses about the overall progression and reward system. That’s something right now that we’re spending a lot of time talking about. One of the things we’re looking at is ways to further incentivise the player to getting involved in Play mode. There has been a lot of feedback from players about the social features, and trying to find ways to continue to enrich the sense that you’re playing with players at the same time. So those are all things that in general we agree with, and we’re looking for ways to continue to improve those throughout the course of the beta and into the release of the game.
Q: Chat has obviously been one feature that many players are clamouring for. Personally, I love the fact you can’t directly chat with your competition. It makes it a much cleaner, friendlier experience. Are you holding firm there, or is that something you’re looking at implementing?
Chayes: We consciously made that decision. That was not an accident that you couldn’t chat with your opponent. Part of the reason for that is that we really, strongly believe that Hearthstone is a game that should be acceptable to anyone, from all types of backgrounds. If you look at the kinds of conversations that people get into when they engage with strangers online, it’s obviously not always the most wholesome experience, and it’s important to us that people can come in and not feel like they’re getting bullied or intimidated while they’re playing. That’s something we feel strongly about.
That said, like I mentioned earlier, there can be moments where you don’t feel as much like you’re a part of a living community when you’re playing Hearthstone. So we’re looking for ways to resolve that, but I don’t think that will be resolved by going back on the decision we made about being able to chat with your opponent.
Dodds: The feedback we’ve gotten about not having chat by default when players are playing against each other has been very positive, and I certainly don’t think we’re going to change that basic tenet.
Q: How do you rank or judge player performance in Hearthstone?
Dodds: Behind the scenes, we know your relative skill, and then we throw you into a pool with a whole bunch of people around the same skill. It means that when you’re playing the game, you’re playing against somebody who is a worthy opponent.
Chayes: There’s always a tension between the quality of the rating by the matchmaker, and how long you’re willing to wait in the matchmaker. That’s one of the things we’re continuing to tune throughout the beta, but also recognising that players don’t want to be stuck on that spinner forever. So what we want to do is try to get people into as good a match as possible within a fixed amount of time. That’s a sweet spot that we’re continuing to tune.
Q: Going further, in determining a player’s skill, is that about when they’re playing particular cards? There must be a really complex algorithm running in the background?
Chayes: Yeah, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Your skill level and your past record plays into that. We can’t go into too much detail on that right now, but we can tell you that it is using the Battle.Net matchmaking system, and it’s something that we expect to evolve over time as we get feedback on the beta.
Q: Are you satisfied with the quests and in-game gold versus real-money ratio?
Chayes: I don’t think we came up with a whole lot of expectations as to how people were converting versus not converting. Our goal here has always been to make a very accessible game they could engage in any way they so chose. If they want to buy packs, great, if they want to play for free, awesome, and that’s supported by the game. We definitely want it to feel like it’s good value when you choose to buy a pack, so we put a lot of time and energy into that, but I think overall and in all ways, I think the response to the beta has been very positive.
Q: Are you satisfied with the crafting system as it stands? For me personally - with the positive and negative values - I find it quite abstract and difficult to understand.
Dodds: That’s feedback we’ve gotten from other sources as well, and even just earlier today I was looking at some changes we’re making to that interface. We want to make sure that you really understand how to use the crafting system, and it was a little bit trickier to understand than we would like, so our new version should be easier to use. It’s very important that people engage with it, because that’s your primary tool for either building up a class, or just getting rid of extra cards. We’re definitely moving on that specific issue.
Q: How has the beta affected the release timing of Hearthstone?
Chayes: Our top priority right now is getting more people into the beta without compromising some of the goals we have for the beta. Balance, polish, bug-fixing, and also making sure that for people all around the world, we’re meeting their different requirements for languages, payment methods, all of that is being factored in as well.
So that’s the first step, and then from there, we want to continue to gauge the player response and make sure the game is in good shape to release. Obviously we don’t have anything to communicate today, but we’re feeling good about our goal of getting the game out by the end of the year.