"We were expecting to be the small project, and it doesn't feel like it's turning out that way."
Given the phenomenal success that Blizzard’s surprise-we’re-making-a-collectible-card-game Hearthstone has enjoyed, we jumped at the chance to sit down with Eric Dodds (Lead Designer) and Ben Thompson (Lead Artist) on the game. Read on for a discussion of how balancing Hearthstone is different from StarCraft, how their success has affected the team, and what this new title means for Blizzard.
GON: Okay. So Hearthstone was born out of a group of employees just sort of spit-balling new ideas. Has the success of Hearthstone, and, you know, it has been phenomenally successful, spawned more groups inside Blizzard, sort of thinking up equally interesting side experiences?
Eric: As the success of Hearthstone is relatively recent, the team was sort of spawned around the idea of maybe we can make a team that could take on slightly smaller projects than, you know, the traditional Blizzard team. And while it’s certainly possible that we’ll do more stuff like this in the future, I think right now we’re, you know, just figuring out what to do with all this excitement and success and all that sort of stuff around the game because we really did go into this game going, okay we’re going to do something a little smaller and it hasn’t turned out that way, which is awesome. But we’re just amping up the team to deal with it and we’re just, I don’t know. I guess mostly what I’m saying is it’s the relatively new so we’re still figuring out how to move with this new direction.
GON: How are the numbers of players in terms of like how many, like what sort of concurrent current players do you get for Diablo versus what sort of concurrent players you get the Hearthstone. I mean, if you can’t give me the exact figures, that’s cool, but is it similar?
Ben: (long pause) We really, yeah, we can’t get into numbers side of things. We’re as excited about this game as we are all of our games and we’re happy to include Hearthstone now in the list of those games that, you know, Blizzard has made and we look forward to its future as much as the others.
GON: You can’t even give me a really vague, overwrought metaphor?
Ben: Other than to say that we continue to be happy. No. Sorry.
Eric: It’s certainly a lot larger than it was when we talked about it back during Blizzcon. So it’s certainly still growing and the excitement about it still seems to be growing.
GON: Okay. Has it changed how Blizzard sees the value of these smaller, less resource-intensive titles? As you said, your track record is sort of like big blockbusters. This is a new smaller thing. Do you think it’s something that we’ll see more of in the future from Blizzard? Especially given that it’s numbers are doing quite well apparently.
Eric: I don’t think that it changed, or I should say, we don’t think that it changed the direction of the company as a whole. I think the company is certainly happy to include smaller, more casual games in its repertoire now. But as a company goal, branching out toward small and more casual experiences, I think it’s just that we’re happier to broaden that spectrum of game types now. And I think we’ll continue to make games that we are excited to make and importantly, excited to play ourselves.
GON: Were you both taken by surprise at just how popular it has become? Especially because there was quite a negative reaction by some very vocal armchair game developers who thought they knew better than you about what would be popular. Were you surprised? When we tried to give away 12 beta keys, we DDOS’d ourselves. So you know that’s just pretty indicative — we literally run the Internet and we couldn’t handle the traffic. So how has it been for you guys?
Eric: I think we’ve been blown away cause when we first started working on this, we’re like… “You know what? We think that more people could be playing online collectible card games.” Then we thought, well if we do a few things we could make a really awesome online collectible card game, but we certainly had no idea how much excitement and demand there was for something like Hearthstone. So as we started to see the numbers be really high on Twitch and all of the people streaming and then the excitement about eSports and just all the general excitement about it, we’ve just been, I don’t know, stunned really. It just was, we were expecting to be the small project and it doesn’t feel like it’s turning out that way, which has been awesome and humbling and just I’m awed.
GON: Have you had to bring in more team members to handle the popularity or is the smaller nature of the game just keeping things the way they are — but you’re now rock stars in the office?
Eric: I think that’s actually one of our big challenge right now because the excitement that everybody has about this game means that everybody, when they’re, certainly I can say when they’re talking for interviews, they’re immediately asking about, what about this feature? How are you going to support eSports? How are you going to get more cards out to the player? How are you going to do all of these things?
GON: Well there goes all my questions.
Eric: (laughs) And we’re a small team. So we are, in fact, growing the team but it’s not something that you can just snap your fingers and have a larger team overnight so we’re trying to grow it very carefully and make sure we have just the right people on the team. So I think that over the next year we’re going to have a lot of people who like a lot of features and we’re going to do our best to get them out there but it’s going to be us slowly trying to throw in to get more of those features out to people with a team that’s maybe not as large as it would have been if we had known two years ago how exciting this game was going to be to everybody.
Ben: And to add onto that, one of the successes of the game and the team is that it maintained its size over such a long period of time. There’s always the want to kind of strike while the hammer’s here, while the metal’s hot and really kind of grab the bull by its horns and go for the ride.
GON: There’s a lot of metaphors there.
Ben: We’ll take the bull by its horns. How about that? (laughs) That kind of thing. But I think what’s been very pleasing is that the company recognizes that it was due to the small team. It was due to the agility that a team like that is capable of and we are, as Dodds said, growing but also growing carefully. It’s certainly not our want to suddenly blow out the doors and throw out the team size to triple its current. Success doesn’t only apply in bigger numbers there.
GON: True. Well how long do you expect to run the open beta for? It’s essentially sort of just a soft release. So what criteria are you really looking for before you do the full, official release?
Eric: The period of the open beta, or the full of the open beta, is to just fully make sure that we have a stable enough system that, when everybody who wants to play sort of jumps in that everything is really solid for the players. So there’s a couple of additional features that want to get in before we go into open release. We want to make sure that if you get disconnected we have a reconnect system that works really well. We have our reward system going in for ranked play. So you get a card back for participating in seasons. And equally importantly, we want to make sure that we have that ability, so when everybody jumps in, and especially when a whole group of iPad players jump in, cause of course we’re going to be releasing it pretty much right around the time of PC, infact right after it, we’re going to be making it available to new iPad users. So we just want to make sure that we’re really stable, really awesome experience for all those players. Plus of course those additional features that I mentioned.
GON: Sure. Are you working on an Android tablet release at all?
Ben: Absolutely. We discussed that at Blizzcon and that was one of the things that we got out of that, it’s an important facet for the game and the team and the company as a whole. It’s very important to us that people have access to the game and to Blizzard through whatever platforms that we can ultimately support and support at the same quality level as we have on our desktop experience up until now.
GON: So you talked earlier about people asking questions about the eSports scene and such. Are there any lessons that Blizzard can really carry over from the StarCraft 2 eSports scene? For example, when it comes to Hearthstone, in terms of data collection and when to deploy the changes and so on?
Eric: In a lot of ways it’s a different game in that in StarCraft, you don’t feel like you really owned that zergling so that if there needed to be balance changes made to it or balance changes made to something else, that it’s sort of okay to make those balance changes. Whereas our goal with Hearthstone going forward is to make as few changes as possible with the existing card set. That’s sort of why we made a whole bunch of changes just now. We’re hoping now to make those changes and then make very few changes going forward. And going forward, to have the balance be sort of related to additional cards coming in to the environment. So if there’s a strategy or a metagame thing that’s very strong, we have to make sure that when more cards come into the environment we provide a counter to that. So in a lot of ways, it’s pretty different from StarCraft in sort of the nature of how we want to balance these sorts of things.
GON: Sort of a forward thinking balancing rather than editing what you’ve already got?
Eric: Yeah. It’s important for people to know that when they have their powerful card in their hand that it’s going to stay that powerful card and there aren’t things fluctuating beneath their feet. So while it’s possible we will make balance changes, we’re going to make as few as we possibly can so that it’s a very stable and solid environment for players.
GON: Okay. So are there any cards at the moment that you’re eyeing off for balance changes as a result of the influx of new players?
Eric: Right now, the balance is actually looking really good from our point of view. If when we look at the high levels of play the top couple of classes is just varying day-to-day and week to week. So the metagame is still shifting wildly, which is great. It’s exactly where we want it. There really isn’t a class that’s on top and if you, you know, a few weeks ago went to the forums to ask what the top classes are now and presumably a week from now you would find different things being said. So the balance, as far as we can tell right now, is really pretty good. I don’t have any anticipated changes right now but of course, that being said, it’s hard to say for sure because the metagame is shifting and it’s certainly possible with all of these super smart players playing the game they can find some overpowered combos. But right now we don’t see anything like that.
GON: So are there any amazingly overpowered combos that you know of but you haven’t told the public about yet?
Eric: There’s a whole lot more people playing externally then there are here at Blizzard. So I think at this point, with the game out there, the players are going fine them before we are, but right now, again, the balance looks like it’s in pretty good shape. But of course, now that I’ve said that, a week from now there will probably be something exciting happening (laughs).
GON: The tutorial for Hearthstone is probably one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. For someone who hasn’t spent more than an hour on the genre before, it was a great entry to the play style but once I had to build a deck, I felt lost. Are there any plans to expand the tutorial system to cover this?
Eric: So while there aren’t any plans to expand the introductory experience right now, it certainly can be a little overwhelming when you go in to build a deck for the first time. So that’s certainly something we talk about. It’s certainly where a lot of the complexity in collectible card games are. And it’s certainly something we talked about. We don’t really have any changes at this time and also we feel like once you feel like you know how to play the game… the first deck you make, it may not be the best deck in the world, but you have enough comfort with the game to at least try something like that. So I don’t know if I answered that or not.
GON: Thanks guys!
Ben: You bet.