Continued Success on the Cards for Hearthstone
If you like your card combat video games, chances are you’ve got a copy of Blizzard’s popular title Hearthstone installed on your PC or smart device.
The basic idea of Hearthstone, in case it hasn’t been on your radar, is that it’s a two-player card combat game where each player chooses a hero with a unique power (spellcaster, hunter, brawler, etc) and then plays specialist cards against their opponent to defeat them, not unlike Magic: The Gathering.
Hearthstone is well known for being accessible, enjoyable, easy to play in short bursts, challenging, and ostensibly it’s set in taverns across World of Warcraft universe, so there’s a neat sense of tall tales and fun as well.
So far there are 11 expansions and the newest one, Kobolds and Catacombs, releases on December 8. The vibe is very much one of a Dungeons & Dragons-style old-school RPG, which fits in well with the artistic licence version of World of Warcraft in which Hearthstone is set, and it was unveiled at this year’s BlizzCon, where two of the development team took the time to chat about Hearthstone and what goes into to bringing it all together.
Game designer Dean Ayala said one of the biggest challenges for Hearthstone was creating content at a cadence that had enough depth for the people that were playing four or five hours a day but are also but was still accessible to new gamers or those returning after a long break.
One of the ways this was achieved was by keeping the design simple, which Mr. Ayala said sounded rather obvious but required quite a bit of design work to do effectively.
“Having something that’s really easy to understand, that you can use it immediately but it takes a really long time to understand how to master it the highest level, that’s the kind of stuff we’re constantly thinking about,” he said.
“We’re looking at stuff like card text; we’re trying not to have cards with six lines of text or a paragraph.
“It’s like you can read it and understand it within a short amount of time versus read it and sorta go over it, and maybe you don’t understand the first time but maybe you do the second time. We’re very conscious of first-read understanding.”
Becca Abel is a senior technical artist on Hearthstone and said the team kept a consistent art style across the numerous expansions for the game, even when they had different themes and settings.
“We want to keep things very whimsical and fun,” she said.
“If you look at it in comparison to World of Warcraft it’s definitely a little bit more charming and bubbly.
“For each expansion we do a lot of work up front with our artists to figure out how that set’s going to feel, how we’re going to put that into something like Icecrown and that was pretty dark stuff, so we had to figure out how, artistically, to twist that into something that was zanier and lighter.”
Mr. Ayala said the card art and effects and game designers all get together and had a whole series of meetings and conversations usually talking about how to put together a style guide for all the environments and characters.
“We outsource a lot of our art to external artists so in order for all of that to come back from all of these external sources and have it all feel like it’s part of the same universe,” he said.
“It’s important for us to get together a style guide of characters and environments to say, ‘This is Kobolds’, and ‘This is what a few Kobolds from our internal artists might draw.
“We have a bunch of environments that are like the Kobold Catacomb Dungeon and then we send that out and the idea is that we hopefully get stuff back that all belongs in the same universe.”
It takes about nine to 10 months to develop a Hearthstone expansion, Mr. Ayala said.
“There’s a lot of interchanging hands, too. The first person working on it sometimes moves off of it after four or five months and then it goes into hands of people like me and then into hands of people like Becca, and Sound, and all kinds of different people working on different portions of it and stuff.”
Inspirations for expansions came from a variety of sources, but Ms. Abel said Kobolds and Catacombs had a particular resonance beyond its traditional fantasy RPG inspiration.
“We take experiences that we have. For me, I remember gaming with my husband on our second or third date and he’d never read about fantasy and he took me to his gaming campaign with all his friends and it just blew my mind. I mean like fighting these kinda fantasy creatures and all these traps and treading into the unknown – and that’s really what we’re trying to bring to this expansion,” she said.
Mr. Ayala said community feedback was important to the success of Hearthstone as well.
“In terms of listening to the community, we’re constantly, constantly, constantly doing that. I know Ben and myself I’m sure and a bunch of other people on the team are constantly reading places like Reddit and iOS reviews and talking to our community team about feedback we get from the various regions,” he said.
“I don’t speak Chinese but that doesn’t mean that I can’t listen and hear the feedback from the other regions.
We have a bunch of partners that are bringing that stuff into it. So in terms of listening to the positive and negative feedback from the community, that makes an enormous impact on the decisions that we’re making.
“Not always do we agree with one particular outlet but yeah, absolutely there’s a huge difference.”
Much like other card games, Hearthstone is also played competitively and has its own following as an esport, but Mr. Ayala said the designers wanted to make sure the game offered something for everyone, regardless of whether they were competing internationally or just playing with friends.
“The esports aspect is very important to us because we have a bunch of these esports events that we support every year, but in terms of ‘What were our goals going in?’ it’s something that’s very easy-to-learn and it’s very difficult-to-master it’s part of the design goals from the beginning regardless of whether it turns out to be esports,” he said.
“As it turns out something that’s very difficult to master is great for high-skill intensive players. The goals that we have for the game to have a lot of depth for the players that are playing many hours a day sort of fell in line with the original goals as opposed to having new goals as a result of the goals of playing esports.”
Ms. Abel said Hearthstone had a special appeal to its fans and shared an insight into its popularity.
“I was talking to my mom early on about what this game was that I was working on and I would tell her it combines what you love about card games with everything you love about fantasy,” she said.
Royce Wilson traveled to BlizzCon as a guest of Blizzard Entertainment
With more than 20 years experience as a games reviewer, feature writer and journalist, including at actual newspapers in New Zealand and Australia, Royce somehow combines his love of all things gaming and tech with a strong interest in history. It’s an odd combination, admittedly, but it works.
Primarily a PC gamer – as a gaming rig complements his study with its many leather-bound books and smell of rich mahogany – he leans towards strategy titles, strong narrative games, the quirky or unusual, and likes the peripherals/accessories side of things too.