Blizzard is a developer that likes to pride itself on making some epic games.
World of Warcraft, Diablo, Starcraft... the studio's biggest IP are giants in their genres, with triple-A production values.
Hearthstone, the firm's first free-to-play foray, is different. It's a collectible card game that doesn't require any high-end processor or graphics card. It even plays perfectly well on tablets.
Yet Hearthstone, in many ways, is the quintessential Blizzard game.
I look at this one picture to remind myself of why we are making Hearthstone,” says Yong Woo, the senior producer on the game, which launched in March to much critical acclaim.
It's a picture from 15 years ago of our CEO Mike Morhaime and Bob Fitch, Heartstone's lead engineer. They're sitting on the carpet playing a collectible card game on the floor.
When we created the Hearthstone team, our vision was to prove that a small team could still make epic
Blizzard-quality games. Maybe not in terms of scale, but in terms of fun. When we thought about what game we wanted to make, we asked ourselves: What games do we enjoy?” and as that picture suggests, that genre is collectible card games.”
Collectible Card Games, or CCGs, are mostly associated with the ber-nerdy. They are deep, complex, strategic and not for the casual player. But Blizzard has a reputation of creating games in complex genres and redeveloping them for a broader audience.
CCG is a misunderstood genre,” he adds. A lot of people think about CCGs and go: ‘Oh, that's too complicated.' We wanted to have a shot at changing that, whilst maintaining the strategic core, and apply very intuitive and visceral art and effects to make the game easy to understand and fun to watch.”
A lot of people think about CCGs and go:
‘Oh, that's too complicated.'
We wanted to have a shot at changing that."
- Yong Woo, Blizzard
The ‘fun to watch' aspect turned out to be crucial. The firm felt the title was going to be successful, but they were shocked at how fast it spread. This, says Woo, was largely down to livestreamers.
Whenever any of us would play Hearthstone, the entire team would gather around to watch,” says Woo.
It had this social element to it. But we didn't know what would happen once this game made contact with the internet. When streaming exploded with Twitch, we were surprised. Streaming is really just you playing in the office, with all your mates behind you watching, multiplied by the internet. In retrospect, we shouldn't have been so surprised that it got picked up so well and really exploded into a streaming and eSports phenomenon.”
Blizzard is actively supporting its dedicated card battlers. It is giving away $250,000 in an eSports event at this weekend's Blizzcon. It has also released an expansion called Curse of Naxxramas to offer new ways for existing fans to play.
"In retrospect, we shouldn't have been so
surprised that it got picked up so well and
really exploded into a streaming and eSports phenomenon."
- Yong Woo, Blizzard
Yet Hearthstone wasn't a game built purely for hardcore card enthusiasts. The company wanted to make a card game for everyone. That's part of the reason why it's free-to-play. Woo says the game didn't start off as a free title, Blizzard, he says, only thinks about business models after a game is finished. But free-to-play was the most sensible option when trying to attract non-seasoned CCG fans.
And it's worked. Hearthstone received widespread coverage. Woo and his team appear to have done the impossible thing that Blizzard has built its reputation on: making a nerdy genre more accessible, whilst not alienating the hardcore.
There is a false notion that a game needs to be really complicated to be strategically interesting,” he concludes.
We often bring up the example of chess. Chess is an elegantly simple game, but its strategic depth is enduring centuries of mastery. That's been our approach with Hearthstone, take away unnecessary complexity so it is easy to understand, but retain the depth. I think that is what makes Hearthstone different from the other CCGs that are out there.”