Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has taken PC gaming by storm. It's almost inescapable.
At the time of writing, it's one of the most popular games on Twitch TV, pulling in crowds larger than those for entertainment blockbuster Call of Duty: Ghosts, indie darling Minecraft, or digital zombie phenomenon DayZ. According to Twitch at least, Hearthstone is the most popular game Blizzard currently has on the market.
Small wonder it beat out more than 50 other heavy-hitting titles to feature prominently in the top 10 of Gameplanet's 65 most anticipated of 2014.
We've been enthusing about Hearthstone since we first got our hands on it in July last year. We've been playing it ever since. It's impeccably balanced and engaging. It's fast. It's backed by the rich Warcraft universe. It's everything we want in a quick pick-up-and-play game, and it's available right now, free of charge.
This morning, we put down our decks and got on the line with Hearthstone lead designer Eric Dodds and lead artist Ben Thompson to learn more about how a small team came together to build one of the best games you'll play this year.
Q: When did you first consider creating a card game?
Eric Dodds: We started a small team at Blizzard with the idea of pursuing projects that were a little less epic than World of Warcraft and Diablo. With that team we looked at games we love to play, and collectible card games are definitely one of those kinds of games.
Collectible card games are great, and there are some great physical ones, but we felt we could make a great digital collectible card game that lots more people could be playing than are currently playing existing digital card games. So that’s where the initial idea came from.
Q: How is what we’re playing now in open beta different to what you first conceptualised?
Ben Thompson: Oh my God… [laughs] So many ways!
Dodds: For a while we were working with physical paper prototypes, and every week we were trying something entirely different. We had all kinds of different ideas that worked and didn’t work on the art side, the number of different versions of what the board looks like, what the physicality of the game was, tonnes of different versions of that.
Eventually we took all of that and built this Flash prototype that brought them all together. By the time we were finished with that we had something that definitely resembled what you see now. But there were a lot of wild ideas along the way. But I think without those wild ideas, without those early failures, without those cool things, you definitely wouldn’t have had the cool game you have now.
Q: How has Hearthstone differed from other games you've worked on as an artist?
Thompson: It was really great to work outside of my own personal comfort zone. Typically, my own work was very realistic, very nitty-gritty detail, and in some cases, a very dark fantasy kind of feel. The best thing about Hearthstone was that when we started exploring all the different routes we could take it, the one that garnered the most response was the lighthearted, very whimsical, very broad, chunky shapes, which couldn’t have been more opposite [to my own style]. What was really cool about that, was that I got to stretch muscles I never got to stretch before, and to do so in an environment that was very welcoming of the experimentation that involved.
That extended out from the art to the design. They informed one another, really on a weekly basis where I would take something and design would do something with it, or design would do something and we’d respond to it. It really is a very freeing environment for an artist or creative people to work with. You get to really create something from a place of passion rather than from dictated roles or wants for the game.
Q: And how is it different to other properties in the Blizzard stable?
Thompson: The first is that the size of the team was vastly smaller compared to other teams. We really did the bulk of this game with roughly 15 developers, and that’s across all disciplines: production, art, engineering and design.
That comes with a certain set of challenges, but it also comes with the awesome quality of each person having three or four different paths or duties on the team. That give people a number of opportunities to have their input be quadrupled. I would ask for feedback not just from artists, but from designers, and from everybody on the team.
It’s a very collaborative atmosphere. I’ve made the analogy before: we’re really a garage band that gets to work in the confines of a successful, larger band. So we get to make those failures early on, we get to take those chances without as much of the overhead or the risk involved.
Dodds: Yeah, we joked a lot about the “art department” early on, because the “art department” was Ben Thompson-
Dodds: Ben was all the artists on the team. So when we’re talking about the art department being small, it was very small!
Thompson: Yeah, very schizophrenic conversations between the concept artist, the lead artist, the art director and the implementer!
Q: You say you finally decided on the lighthearted and whimsical look we all know today, what were some other directions you looked at and decided to put aside?
Thompson: World of Warcraft, as a license, offers multiple directions in which you can take it. You can be very serious, you can be very lighthearted, and any number of degrees in between. A lot of our early forays were exploring where we wanted to fall on that meter. We really at some point or another hit every point on that meter.
Some earlier versions tended to be slightly more serious, literal translations of the world. We had a Darkmoon Faire-themed board whereupon your first interaction with the game was at Darkmoon Faire. Another one was much more abstract. I’d call it really cartoon-y, really simplified.
Where we ended up was the best of all worlds. We get the tongue-and-cheek, we get the lighthearted, but it’s realistic and detailed enough that you get the sensation of physicality and the tangibility of all the pieces. That was important, because we wanted it to be a game that you felt you were playing in the world of Azeroth, a world that you’ve known for years previous to this as a player.
We wanted a game that built on all of those most exciting and evocative parts of that world. To play to the fantasy that I’m sitting in my favourite inn in my favourite city in Azeroth and that for a brief moment, I’m Jaina doing battle with Garrosh, and even though I may not have beaten him out on the battlefield in an earlier raid, I’m gonna beat him in this card game with some new spells and a different class.
Q: Were the classes always represented by these heroes of Azeroth?
Dodds: That was not always the case and there was definitely debate about it. What we decided is that we really wanted there to be really strong personalities and characters that you as a Warcraft player know and can have a relationship with. You know where they’re coming from and who they are. Initially we talked a lot about that and the personality you get, the flavour and interaction you get - even in the introduction when Jaina is doing battle with Hogger - is really worth a whole lot. Once we latched onto it and found it, we never looked back!
Q: Can you speak further to how each class was designed to be visually distinctive?
Thompson: There was a lot of discussion around it, and it wasn’t just limited to art. As I alluded to previously, it was really a team effort to make the game, and in those discussions, design and engineering would talk about all their experiences. Something important for design was that when you’re playing a class, you feel very much anchored to that class. If you’re a mage, you want to feel like a mage casting these powerful spells. If you’re a rogue you want what you’re doing to feel sneaky and a little underhanded and backstabby.
We’ve all played World of Warcraft, we’ve all experienced a range of emotions that have come from interacting with that world. For me as an artist, I’d go to other members of the team and ask, ‘Hey, I’ve never played rogue. When you’re playing as a rogue in Stranglethorn Vale for the first time, what’s that like? How did that feel, and what were your go-to abilities for certain activities?’
From those discussions, we really started to hit on all the major points for each class. Then when we actually created the effects themselves, continuous revisions: is that enough? Is it powerful enough? How does it feel to cast the five cost fireball versus the 10 cost fireball? Does that rogue spell feel like a backstabbing physical spell, and as if it came out of nowhere?
It’s also very important that these things don’t all feel like spells. If you’re a warrior, you don’t want to feel like you’re casting spells, you want to feel like you’re jumping in there and making a physical, tanking difference. As a result, those abilities have a very visceral, board-shaking, powerful slamming sounding hit, as opposed to something magical.
Q: You mentioned the Hogger encounter earlier. Are you looking at exploring other encounters and other ways to play that aren’t just head to head?
Dodds: The game at its heart is a one on one, player versus player game. That said, the next thing we’ll be releasing is an adventure of some sort. The idea is that I can play against bosses and by playing against those bosses, earn cards. So we are going to be venturing into that territory a little more, but even so, at its heart, Hearthstone is a PvP, one on one game.
Q: How would you describe the week since you been in open beta?
Thompson: A whirlwind! It has been really interesting to see the community response. As a developer, that’s the first place you look. This is who you’ve spent all your time making the game for. We say we make the games for ourselves, and while that’s true during the development process, eventually the game comes out, and the community gets a chance to start interacting in their own way. It has been very exciting to see, and educational as well. We’re looking forward to hearing more from the community, and what that means with regards to things like eSports.
Q: What’s next for Hearthstone?
Dodds: Next is watching the game, getting it out in release mode, getting it out on iPad. The exciting thing what we’re going to get to jump into next is getting to respond to all the stuff the community wants us to do. We’re in a position right now where people say things like, ‘Hearthstone is great! What about observer mode?’ Then there’s another group of people shouting out, ‘We wanna see more cards!’ Or, ‘Can you give us more ways to connect socially?’
So there are all these things people want from us, and we really want to work on giving those to the players, but its been very difficult for us because we’re a very small team, and right now we’re really focused on getting this game out. So what’s next is getting around to doing all these cool things that we actually get to do, rather than just saying, ‘Well, we’d love to do that but we’ve got to ship the game.’
Now we actually get to do that stuff, which is going to be great.