With Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Blizzard is tapping into a burgeoning market: free-to-play collectible card games. For the company behind World of Warcraft, it’s the merging of two of the most lucrative game types around. Digital versions of CCGs consistently rank among the top-grossing apps on iTunes and Google Play, while browser-based titles like Card Hunter have been able to take the best of physical games and translate them to the web. Hearthstone has been in closed beta for a few weeks now, available on both Windows and Mac (an iPad version is also in the works). In traditional Blizzard fashion, it's a game that manages to blend accessibility and depth into a frightfully addictive package — and a lot of that has to do with the move away from the physical constraints of a typical card game.
"In some ways it was actually freeing," says lead designer Eric Dodds, "because we took a step back and, instead of taking a physical game and creating a digital game based on it, we weren't tethered by any of those things that work wonderfully in the physical space but don't work so great in a digital space."
Hearthstone plays similarly to classic CCGs like Magic: The Gathering, only it's been streamlined to the point that matches usually take 10 minutes or less to complete. A long game of Hearthstone is speedy by MTG standards. This quick gameplay is what makes the game so addictive: it's so easy to play just one more game, and before you know it the sun has gone down and your laptop's battery is nearly dead. Each match is a one-on-one battle, with both players taking control of one of nine different hero characters, each with their own unique cards. You earn mana each turn, and can spend it on playing cards from your hand (a new card is drawn each round). You start out earning one mana per turn, and that number increases each round until you hit 10. In practice this means that you'll only be able to play lower, weaker cards initially, before you get enough mana to start using your big guns.
"Accessibility is one of the cornerstones."
"Whenever we're looking at the design of the game as a whole — whether it be how a specific card is designed, or the key words we're using — accessibility is one of the cornerstones," says Dodds. Hearthstone is designed to be picked up by anyone, but at the same time there's a lot of depth to the experience; you can't just spam a bunch of powerful cards and expect to win, since you won't even be able to play them until a few rounds into each match. A balanced deck is key to success, and that's where much of the strategy comes from. Of course, considering it comes from the same company behind games like Starcraft, it shouldn't be too surprising that beneath its approachable surface is a great deal of depth. "It's also super important that this is a Blizzard game and people are able to play this game for weeks and months and years," says Dodds.
The cards you play include attacks and spells, all based on lore from the Warcraft universe, but the most common are minions, essentially characters that do all of the dirty work for you. They can attack and be killed, and some can perform special actions, like a healing spell, that make them even more useful. In order to win you'll need to destroy your opponent's hero character, and so the game becomes a balancing act between attacking the hero and their minions. You'll need to kill the hero to win, but if you ignore the minions they can quickly overwhelm you. It may sound complicated, but the beauty of Hearthstone is how easy it is to understand once you start playing. After the tutorial, which lasts just a handful of matches, you'll have the basics down, and the rest is just learning the nuances of each hero type and all of the different cards in your deck.
In order to build the deck of your dreams, though, you'll need to spend money. Hearthstone is a free-to-play title, and while you don't ever need to spend anything to play, you won't be able to purchase very many booster packs if you don't. You can earn gold in Hearthstone by completing daily challenges, but it's slow-going to actually earn enough to buy something. "One of the key points that's always important for us," says production designer Jason Chayes, "is we want to make it so that people, even if they didn't want to go through the process of spending money, could also expand their collection."
The matchmaking in Hearthstone alleviates this somewhat — it's a multiplayer-focused game, though you can play against bots in a practice mode — as, at least in my experience, you're always matched up against human players whom you can compete against. Virtually all of my games so far were tense and competitive down to the last moments, and I've yet to spend any real money. So even if you don’t have many high-level cards you can still have fun.
"We've spent an awful lot of time designing how the packs of cards open."
For many gamers, in-app purchases are an immediate turnoff, but CCGs seem to be one of the few genres that can get away with it, perhaps because that's how the genre works in its physical incarnation. "We felt like it was a pretty good match with this particular business model and the game that we're building," says Chayes. On the plus side, when you do spend some gold, the process of buying and opening a new pack of cards is incredibly satisfying, mirroring the feeling of buying a pack in real life. "We've spent an awful lot of time designing how the packs of cards open and how they flip over," says Dodds.
Hearthstone is currently in closed beta and is expected to release to everyone sometime later this year. And it's perhaps Blizzard's most accessible game yet — you can play and enjoy it whether or not you know anything about CCGs or even Warcraft. The latter fact could even make for some potentially interesting content updates in the future, as the game would lend itself well to new cards based on other Blizzard franchises. But while it may sound like a good idea, don't expect to see Diablo booster packs or Zerg Rush cards anytime soon. "It's very important for us to have that connection to the Warcraft universe," says Chayes.