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Blizzard devs transmogrify the virtual into the tangible with Hearthstone

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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment's collectible card game, went through numerous iterations to ensure that the game felt tangible and had a strong connection to the WoW universe, the game's developers told Polygon, explaining that folding levity into the game was high priority.

Lead artist Ben Thompson said that Hearthstone's levity was achieved by striking a balance between leveraging Warcraft and drawing that lightheartedness out to create something unique.

"Normally the Warcraft universe is two or three parts serious and one part comedy or fun," Thompson told Polygon. "We wanted to put our own twist on it and our own twist was to put a lot more of joy and fun into it. And that made it a lot of fun to work on because we were thinking along those lines, ‘What's the fun or funny thing we could do here?'"

The strengths of expressing their vision lay in the approach of the art department, which lead designer Eric Dodds commended for nailing the style in a simple manner and not taking the art in a serious direction. The developers looked to the design team's principles and applied them to creating the desired physicality of the playing environment.

"We took a lot of cues from design, we wanted to focus on collectables and a hub for all of that to exist in the box," Dodds said. "All of that felt physical, it felt tangible and it felt like that you were a part of that world, which is part of World of Warcraft, but it focuses on the more lighthearted, fun and fancy free [aspect]."

They achieved this by not spending a lot of time down in the dark places of WoW's universe, but rather the streets of Stormwind and even Orgrimmar. According to Dodds, any opportunity to show the familiar WoW to the player was leveraged but with "with a 30 to 50 degree change" on the universe, presenting the world in a new light that is "fun and epic in a lighthearted sort of way."

While a UI should be clean, simple and not confusing for the player, designing a card game based on the intricacies and level of detail expected from WoW fans, it would have been easy to clutter the interface. With an aim to create an interface that felt tangible and compelling, while still letting players view their list of cards in their deck and collection, the team went through several different iterations of the collection manager and interface [shown below]. Not to mention ensuring that the connection to the Warcraft world was maintained.

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft concept screens.

"That was the difficulty of the game, when you consider what sort of game that Hearthtstone is, a game built around UI, rather than a framework that you view the game though. It is the game, it is how you interface with the game," Thompson said. "So we really did our best to make the interface feel more like you are interacting with a box and character hero pieces on the board, and you start to term them as such. Players will refer to them as the board and not the interface which they play pieces against one another. It is a very real-world user interface that is really understandable."

"And that physicality has worked out really well, almost unintentionally when you use it on touch devices like the iPad," Dodds explained. "It really makes you feel like you're not just messing with an interface, you are actually interacting with a physical board that is inside your iPad and what not."

Testing out and implementing the changes for the user interface happened before the beta using a Flash prototype build of the game that allowed them to iterate changes quickly.

"We weren't going to use it at the end so we didn't have to polish it or do any coding practices or anything like that, so it let us iterate through a whole bunch of different board games and a whole bunch of different collection managers," Dodds said. "And there are actually several different collection managers in the Flash version. We made smaller tactical changes on the alpha and beta, but most of the basic UI is based on this earlier Flash prototype."

Thompson explains that in making a physical game like Hearthstone, it was important to make efficient use of the digital space to be informative, entertaining and evocative. With a magic and action-heavy game like WoW, it would have been easy to go overboard with particle effects and suffer from over production.

"All of the effects were seen as characters in their own low light for lack of a better way of putting it," Thompson said. "If you send off a fireball, it should feel like like a fireball and when I send off a fireball that cost 10 mana to cast, that should feel even bigger and more awesome. So there was a lot of discussion as to how these effects carry their personality of their own and even more how they carry the personality of the game."

He went on to further explain that a Rogue class should execute effects that feel like a Rogue effect, not just a generic magic effect. Each class should feel unique and reflect their respective characteristics, Thompson explained, such as a warrior, who is physical, so it should feel physical.

Dodds described how the art team would create magical effects and his team would ask them to condense them down to one second long to hasten the playspeed on the board.

"Time after time they will take take these effects and condense them down into being able to fit into this short time span and still look awesome," he said. "I think that is what really makes the game play the way it does, really fast and at the same time all of these great effects have this great flavor to them."


While Hearthstone expansions are planned in the future, the method for testing the cards and implementing them into the live game is not yet cemented.

"We now have a balance designer, so we have a little balance group that works whenever we are talking about new cards, and figuring out what the right numbers for these things are going to be, and if they're going to be broken," Dodds said. "As to how they are they going to get [live], I really don't know, and it is something that we are talking about internally."

One of Hearthstone's pillars is to ensure that it will be enjoyed by players for months and years to come. Internal Blizzard employees have been playing the game for at least a year with the current set and are still interested in it, an indicator, according to Thompson, that the game carries decent long term depths.

"But that being said, our plan is to introduce new cards and basically add more tools to people's tool kits to deal with different meta game situations," he said. "So it may be that I want to build this type of Hunter deck, ‘How can I do that?' We'll give you some tools to do that. Or, ‘Wow! I'm having a real problem with Murloc Rush.' Well, we better make sure that there are tools to do deal with that.

"So our plan is to add more tools and to make a deeper experience that way and our plan is to definitely not make any major balance changes going forward," Thompson added. "We may make some but not many. Our plan is to introduce changes to the environment through new cards rather than changing the cards on a regular basis."

The developers stated that they are in an interesting situation where the game has been in closed beta for a long period of time — and recently entering open beta — and the release for iPad isn't far off, which will introduce a fresh wave of new players into the game.

"We want to make sure that for the people that have been playing for a long time will get access to new content, and quickly," Thompson said. "And, at the same time, you don't want to overwhelm these players who will be joining us. So we are still talking a lot about it."