Blizzard devs talk translating physical cards to digital play with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Blizzard devs talk translating physical cards to digital play with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

The first thing you'll do in Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, the upcoming digital collectible card game from Blizzard, is pick a class. The nine available are based on the vanilla WoW classes of Paladin, Priest, Hunter, Druid, Shaman, Warrior, Rogue, Mage, and Warlock.

Each class is represented by a major player in the Warcraft universe. Warcraft lore fans will be happy to see familiar faces: the game has characters pulled not just from Warcraft's present, but past as well. Everyone from Thrall and Anduin to Garrosh and Gul'dan make an appearance.

Each class also has a special ability that should make playing as it feel familiar to anyone who's played WoW. Shamans, for example, can lay down a random totem, while Hunters get Arcane Shot, an ability that allows them to deal 2 damage straight to the other player. I enjoyed that latter ability quite a bit; I figured if I could knock my opponent off balance early on, make them panic and start making mistakes sooner rather than later, I stood a better chance of winning.

Once you're out on the battlefield, you'll have to choose three cards to start with. The game randomly deals you a hand, and you can choose which of the three you'd like to keep, and which you'd like to trade with the deck for. If you trade, you don't know what you're getting, so I'd suggest you only trade if the cards you have are no good for starters; don't gamble and hope for something better if you have something adequate.

How can you tell if something's good or adequate? Each card has three numbers associated with it: its attack damage, health, and mana cost to play. Attack damage and health are pretty self-explanatory, so let me break down how cost works: On your first round, you can only spend one point to play a card, so high-cost cards aren't worth keeping in your hand unless they're rare and will give you a significant late-game boost. On your second round, you can spend two points, on your third you can spend three, and so on. Your special ability also costs points to use, so plan accordingly.

Cards have their own special abilities, as well, and like with the game's classes, the idea is to take inspiration from World of Warcraft. For example, a Razorfen Hunter – a mob you can encounter in WoW – summons its pet when played, just like it would in WoW.

The game even takes into account things like crowd control; one minion I saw had Taunt as a special ability. In WoW, Taunt is used to manage aggro, and in Hearthstone, the end result is very much the same: if you attempt to attack an enemy who has a minion with Taunt played, your attack will automatically be redirected to that minion.

When the game was first announced, I admit that I was skeptical of its complexity, partly due to the simple nature and cartoonish looks, but also because the Blizzard representative presenting it might have said “accessibility” over a dozen times. Having played a couple rounds, I'm not sure it's as complex as something like Magic: The Gathering, but it doesn't seem like it will be possible to win if you throw out cards willy-nilly.

The game surprised me with how fun it was. Just one problem: Didn't Blizzard already have a card game? A Warcraft-themed card game nonetheless?

Designing for the digital space

I asked Hearthstone's Lead Designer, Eric Dodds, and Blizzard CCO, Rob Pardo, to explain why I should be interested in this digital card game when there was already a physical one available. “We designed this more or less from the ground up to be online-only, so all of the decisions we made – how you acquire resources, how the cards work, how responses work – all of those things were designed specifically for the online space,” Dodds told me.

Pardo said that moving into an online space allowed the team to escape the trappings of an old genre that asked a lot from its players, and allowed the development team to start looking at the game from a fresh perspective. The physical card game's rules, Pardo said, were “really good for the hardcore audience, but they're also the things that are trapping it, from really becoming that next order of magnitude success.”

So does that mean Hearthstone will be replacing the WoW trading card game? I asked Pardo if I should call Hearthstone the physical game's companion or successor. “I don't know that I would use either of those terms. The term I would use is it's 'inspired by,'” Pardo said. He talked of how the physical game gave the designers a boost in terms of visual assets, since the two games share so much artwork for the cards and characters.

It may sound like Blizzard is simply copying itself, but not everything has been taken from the physical card game. Dodds explained that, for example, the “trading” part of the WoW TCG didn't translate well into digital, online format. “Trading cards has a bunch of upsides and a bunch of downsides,” Dodds said. “When we looked at what players want, what they really want is to be able to get the specific card that they're excited about.”

Enter the crafting system. If you have too may cards, or just have a digital pile of cards you don't like, you can disenchant them, which will give you some Arcane Dust. Accumulate enough Arcane Dust, and you'll be able to craft the card you want. If you look at the amount of Dust it requires to create a given card as a form of currency or value, you could almost see this system as a way of trading with the computer. It's not quite the same as what you can do with physical cards, but it's also not completely restrictive.

Other changes made for the digital space are more superficial: animated spell effects, sounds when a minion or beast attacks, watching a card fly forward to strike its opponent, etc. I've never played the World of Warcraft trading card game so I can't personally comment as to how big an impact such visual flair makes, but I asked several people in the crowd if they had, and those who answered yes said that the differences felt significant enough that they were able to see the games as two separate entities.

I'd tap that

I'm not sure anyone was expecting Blizzard to announce a card game as their next project, and I don't recall anyone jumping up in applause once Hearthstone was announced. It's a strange pitch from a studio so deeply embedded in the hardcore, old-school, PC crowd.

The crazy thing is though, it seems to be working. Hearthstone is fun and easy to get into, without so much complexity that the game gets bogged down under its own weight. It's very difficult to picture someone pulling out a stack of WoW TCG cards to play while they wait for the bus, but it's very easy to imagine pulling out the iPad at the doctor's office, getting a quick game or two in, and putting the game away. Since the game will be free-to-play, without any need to ever buy a card, what would you have to lose? Of course, you can buy cards, and though they're unsure of the final price, they're testing a $1 booster with five cards.

We don't have any kind of time window for a release date, but a slide given during the initial reveal stated the game would be coming “not Blizzard soon, but IRL soon.” It'll be out for PC first, with an iPad version to follow shortly thereafter.