Creating a digital CCG has its own set of unique challenges. At the final day of GDC 2014, Hearthstone director Eric Dodds explains the traps Blizzard faced when making its own.
By Patrick Stafford on March 23, 2014 at 7:08 pm
A year on from Hearthstone’s announcement, and just weeks into public availability, the digital card game has managed to create quite a stir online – but it took the design team plenty of attempts to get it right.
In a talk during the final day of GDC late last week, Hearthstone game director Eric Dodds outlined several design lessons the company learned while making the game – including some lessons from other card games it chose to either emulate or abandon.
“We had tons of bad ideas,” Dodds said. “We had to just try and not do them, and that quick iteration helped us get through those ideas quickly.”
Being a card game, Dodds said it was important for the team to spend a while working with a paper version of the game to make sure Hearthstone fulfilled the characteristics of a traditional card game. From there, the team discovered a number of ways to keep players hooked.
Dodds said the team followed a number of definitive pieces of advice, or “stakes in the ground”, to keep everything focused. One of those was making sure the game was “immediate fun for the new player”.
Dodds said Hearthstone was all about keeping players focused on the cooler aspects of collective card games, but making them accessible. This meant questioning the basics of CCGs in general.
For instance, the concept of “phases”, in which players can only make certain moves during the appropriate phase, were abandoned. The same went for managing resources as part of a deck. (This lack of resources also helped speed up play, Dodds said.) Players were able to make whatever moves they wanted, in whatever order they liked.
“We wanted to remove exhaustion,” he said. “But whenever we removed complexity, we also wanted to still have depth.”
This meant having to put some mechanics back in, like the concept of “summoning sickness” – a penalty stopping minions from attacking on the turn they are played.
“We removed that, and it was really bad. We tried to simplify the game but we just lost too much depth.”
All of these elements supported the idea of “immediate fun”, Dodds said. If a card was too complicated and couldn’t be understood at first glance, it was considered too complex for play.
“The conundrum here is that learning is normally fun,” Dodds said. “We talked a lot about the experience of being 10 seconds into the game, and then 30 seconds in, and so on, and how to make sure players understand everything.”
Embracing the medium
Since Dodds’ goal was to make the best CCG possible, the team didn’t want to get stuck on traditions that didn’t work in the digital realm.
This meant the concept of “counters”, had to be done away with in favour of Hearthstone’s “secrets” mechanic. A typical card game allows players to “counter” a card played by an opponent. In Hearthstone, this is done away with, in favour of having players put “secrets” on the board – which are triggered by the opposing player unknowingly.
“An awful lot of card games use this response concept – this works great in physical games because of the nature of the interaction. But in the digital space it causes a lot of problems,” he said, saying visual communication of the opposing player is a large reason for why they work.
Embracing the medium also meant having to use terms people know, such as “health”. Dodds criticised some games which tend to use original terms for traditional mechanics, making it harder for the player to understand what’s happening.
“Names matter,” he said.
Finally, Dodds said Hearthstone is designed to focus on emergent, player-created stories. “It’s not about the narrative,” he said.
“It’s important for us to embrace player stories, especially as a game trying to keep scope down, we want to focus on the player story and not focus much on the narrative story at all.