Collectible card games have long been a niche field in the gaming world, but Blizzard Entertainment brought the genre a mainstream hit with its game Hearthstone.
Not only has Hearthstone attracted the hardcore fans of both CCGs and of the long-running World of Warcraft franchise, but it resonated with people who wouldn’t have imagined themselves being interested in either. That was a driving force behind many of their choices in building Hearthstone: make it a game for the newbies and the veterans alike. Game Director Eric Dodds told Mashable how he and his team used the potential of a digital platform to reach out to a new audience and get them hooked on this type of play.
Dodds and several other colleagues at Blizzard were long-time fans of the CCG genre, spanning the well-known Magic: The Gathering to many obscure more titles. The idea for Hearthstone began with a question. “Why isn’t everybody playing collectible card games?” Dodds asked. “They’re ridiculous, they’re super fun!”
So he and his team embarked on a mission to make the genre less intimidating for new players, while at the same time offering a compelling and unique experience for the serious fans.
The advantage of digital
One way that the team planned to accomplish their goals was by putting the whole game into a computer.
“It was always a digital game,” Dodds said. “It really gave us a whole lot options and new ways of looking at the genre.”
Dodds explained how, for instance, Hearthstone changed the need for players to be the rule-keepers by allowing the game itself to take responsibility for understanding and executing the rules.
“Collectible card games are awesome, but they’re a little bit opaque to get into, a little bit hard to jump into them,” he said. “The high-level thinking was that with the right user interface we could dramatically improve that.”
Outsourcing some of the mental lifting to the computer also freed the designers to change how they presented information on the cards.
“We could write it in a way that actually felt like it was in normal English rather than in collectable card game English,’ Dodds said. “We don’t want you to go back and have to read it several times and go ‘I don’t get it.'”
The digital approach also meant the possibility for a vastly improved approach to one of the most time-consuming tasks outside of playing the game: managing your cards.
“When I’m playing a physical collectible card game and I want to build a deck,” Dodds explained, “for me that normally means bringing out multiple large boxes of cards and having to sort through them and remember what all the cards are.” Rather than spending hours assembling 30 complementary cards, the manager in Hearthstone streamlines the process to just a few minutes. “I can’t tell you the number of times we revamped the collection manager to try to improve it, to try to make it easier to use, to try to make it easier to understand,” Dodds said.
Something for the veterans
Even though the team put so many of its resources toward streamlining the experience for the new converts, that doesn’t mean that the old guard hasn’t gotten some love. Along with attracting new players, the Hearthstone team has also worked to create something truly original within the genre. “One of the things that we’re always thinking about is, ‘How can we provide the player with a little bit of a different experience than they’ve had before?’” Dodds said.
The upcoming expansion, The Curse of Naxxramas, does that by incorporating an idea not usually associated with these games: single-player adventure. Players will challenge bosses to unlock a small number of new cards.
“We feel like players are looking for new cards, they’re looking for new content, but at the same time, we don’t want to put so many cards out there that if you are a relatively new player you’re totally overwhelmed,” he said. This was a way to give veteran players something new and unusual without shutting out all those new faces.
This fresh take on a genre shows one way game creators can appeal to the broadest player base. As more people join the ranks of gamers, it’s critical to have titles available that they can learn with and enjoy, while still offering new ideas to experienced players. That balance is what Dodds says is one of Hearthstone’s most valuable elements. He explained that in addition to attracting those new gamers, professionals and other skilled players have been jumping on the Hearthstone bandwagon.
“We view it like an onion,” he explained, with Hearthstone offering extra layers of depth as each player learns and improves.
Hearthstone is free-to-play and out now for PC, Mac and iPad.