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GDC 2014: The Design Secrets of Blizzard's Hearthstone

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GDC 2014 Blog Header

We attended two pannels about Blizzard's hit collectible card game (CCG) Hearthstone at GDC 2014, and got to see some of Blizzard's finest share some of their design secrets.

The first talk, Ben Thompson's The Art of Hearthstone: Playing the Cards you're Dealt, focused primarily on the game's art design, which Ben was responsible for. The team had four main values for Hearthstone during its creation:

  • Create the sensation that the cards are a valuable collectible
  • Keep the design simple and clean
  • Make sure the cards feel real and physical
  • Keep the charming and whimsical feel of other Warcraft games


Real & Physical

Hearthstone Splash Image

Hearthstone Design Ideas

One of the main problems the team encountered was that a digital CCG lacks the physical sensation one gets from playing a traditional card game. The feel of the cards, the sensation of slapping one down on the table, the worn edges, these were all important considerations. Ben explained that while collectibles can be uniform, a lot of the owner's enjoyment stems from the little differences between each one. Scuffs, creases, slight misprints, all of these things add a sense of ownership to the item.

The burly, sturdy look of the cards also fit in well with the Warcraft universe: “We wanted for players to feel like this is a game that the citizens and denizens of Azeroth themselves play.” The pub setting is a nice part of that as well, and hearing the constant chatter in the background adds to feel.

Ben also elaborated on how their design extends to the game's store as well. A lot of consideration was put into the booster packs' appearance, how the pack opened, and even how the cards were displayed once the pack was open. When the player opens a pack, there's a small scale explosion as the 5 cards emerge, and float face down in front of the player, heightening the tension of finding out what you've just received. Players can even mouse over the cards, with a special under lighting effects preemptively revealing if the card is legendary. Ben explained that “[...]pack opening is a very important part of the experience.”, and if executed properly, will encourage players to purchase.

Charming & Whimsical

Hearthstone Early Card Design

Early non-card prototypes

Blizzard's Warcraft games are well known for their sense of humor, and unique, lighthearted take on the fantasy genre. Somewhat surprisingly, the team's two biggest inspirations for Hearthstone's look and feel were Peggle and Playmobil. Ben praised Peggle's ability to reward the player for simple actions, while Playmobil's ability to simplify and round off complicated shapes and designs heavily influenced Hearthstone.

At a very early stage, the team even considered scrapping the card idea entirely, instead having minions and items represented by miniature versions of what they were, a small totem for a totem, for example.



Simple & Clean

Hearthstone early victory screen

Early victory screen concept

Ben explained that a problem a lot of designers, especially in games, can fall into is information overload. While it may seem like the right move to contain all the info a player may need on a card, it hints at an underlying problem; if the design is simple and straightforward the player should be able to figure it out or remember the meaning of a term on their own. By only giving the player the information they immediately need, you reduce confusion and messiness.

This idea also influenced the game's simple tutorial, after the basics are explained, it's left to the players to figure out some of the other strategies, like freezing and windfury. Visual shorthand was also used to keep the playspace uncluttered, as cards with special effects on them generally have their own special colored aura to indicate that something special is happening.

A Valuable Collectible

Hearthstone custom card backs

Custom card backs

This ties back into the real & physical idea, but the team was sure to replicate the feel and look of real materials as best they could. The keys the player earns in Arena mode are based off of various different metals and jewels in order to add a sense of value to them.

Foil cards have special animations on the artwork, special colored gems and feel "sexy". The team even added customizable card backs in order to replicate the fact that many players use custom sleeves to protect their cards.




Hearthstone: 10 Bits of Design Wisdom

Later in the show we also checked out Hearthstone Game Director Eric Dodd's talk, Hearthstone: 10 Bits of Design Wisdom where he explained some of the decisions the team made. We'll highlight some of the more interesting points below:

  • The team originally made a physical version of the game in order to playtest it.
Hearthstone Paper Card
  • Original game plan involved players having to first break through each other's fortress walls before fighting a major hero/villain they had been upgrading over the course of the game.
  • Allowing non-competitive players to thrive was an essential design decision.
  • Removing the complicated turn order of games like Magic: The Gathering, drastically simplified the process, reduced player confusion, and sped up gameplay.
  • There was also a functional Flash version of the game used for testing that was extremely close to the final product.
Hearthstone Flash Prototype
  • Automating resources by having the player gain a mana crystal each turn made sure that every card the player played was something cool, a creature or spell, instead of a boring land card.
  • Because a digital card game lacks the natural back and forth conversation of a traditional card games, interrupt cards like counterspell were altered into secret cards that don't drastically interrupt game flow.
  • Enemy minions tend not to have manually usable abilities as it clutters up the card and UI.
  • The game originally featured tapping or exhaustion as in M:TG, but it was scrapped in favor of using taunt system after a bug during a playtest actually worked rather well.
  • They tried removing summoning sickness, but it was a disaster, and was immediately changed back.
  • Simple cards, complex interactions. The team was committed to the idea that if a player did not immediately understand a card's function it was too complicated and needed to be parsed down.
  • "As long as the player is confident, all is well."
  • Being a digital card game, the team experimented with cards like Thoughtsteal and Nozdormu, both cards that would be difficult if not impossible to use in a physical play space.
Hearthstone Digital Cards
  • “We Are all Vibe and no story, we want players to share their stories”
  • Hearthstone is all about "little victories" you may not win the match, but you will have at least one or two moments to be proud of regardless.
  • The team is not interested in supporting counterspell and resource destruction decks as they feel they are too emotionally negative for players who are made to feel helpless.
  • The team has been "very seriously" looking at One turn Kill decks, as they feel they are too emotionally negative and against the game's inclusive design.

Conclusion

Hopefully all this information will give you a deeper appreciation of Hearthstone next time you fire it up! It takes a huge amount of effort to make something this simple and polished, and Blizzard's games aren't big successes by chance.


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