Design and development of Hearthstone


Initial development

  • Team 5 was created specifically for the development of Hearthstone, with the intention of taking a different approach to game creation than that previously taken by Blizzard in developing its games, with 50+ person teams and multi-year development cycles. Team 5 was created with the intention of working on a smaller scale but at the same level of quality. The mandate for the team was to keep the team very small, and to "think of ways to develop a game that might be non-traditional within Blizzard`s walls". The smaller team required its members to be "old-school" "garage programmers" and able to "wear a lot of different hats", with far less specialization than that typically found in larger teams.
  • The developers and Blizzard in general "have always loved CCGs collectible card games", with some such as Blizzard president Mike Morhaime having played them for more than 20 years.
Hearthstone`s earlier incarnation as Warcraft Legends
  • Hearthstone was initially known as Warcraft Legends. It was a Warcraft Legends build named Fire and Ice that got the game greenlit for development. At the time at which it was greenlit, the game had the rogue and mage classes playable, with warlock a work in progress.
A pre-alpha visual target, rejected due to too much complexity and a lack of life
A prototype World Map
Battling in Kalimdor
  • The rest of the team`s "tour of duty" on Starcraft II also had some impact on the development of Hearthstone, with the balanced yet asymmetrical nature of the game`s different races "definitely carrying over into Hearthstone", according to Dodds.
Finding a seed
  • Other ideas included "Hearthstone in the forest", "adventure books", and 3D or even holographic cards. Reasons for rejecting these early models included too much complexity and a lack of aliveness in the display.
  • When it came to matchmaking, the developers knew they didn`t want to simply have a counter or a `searching for players` message. One prototype involved a representation of Gurubashi Arena, with the two challengers appearing on either side of the arena, while the names of other matches appeared overhead.
"really awful, flat parchment garbage"
An emailE-mail (electronic mail) is the exchange of computer-stored messages by telecommunication from StarCraft II Game Director Dustin Browder to Eric Dodds, complaining that his staff are too busy playing Hearthstone to work on StarCraft
  • Accessibility was a key focus for Hearthstone from the start. Making a game which was quick to learn and fast-paced to play was an early design goal, as was making a game which appealed to a wide audience. This design was conceived in contrast to many well-known CCGs, with their complex rules, long game times and inaccessibility to those unfamiliar with the genre. The designers envisioned a game you could play a quick session or two of within a 20 minute period, such as during a lunch break.
  • The designers also wanted individual cards to be easy to understand even for newer players. This was important so that players gaining new cards could immediately comprehend their function and strategise as to how they might be put into a deck, but also so that players encountering enemy effects during play could immediately understand their abilities and consequences, even if they had never seen the card before. Card text was heavily iterated in order to make cards as easy as possible for players to understand, and in some cases card complexity itself was also toned down, with cards that required too much thought simplified in order to expedite and ease play, both in terms of learning a card`s function and in calculating its outcome.
  • With the desire for accessibility and speed came the eventual removal of concepts and mechanics from other CCGs, such as replacing more elaborate and cumbersome resource generation methods such as land cards with the automatically generated mana crystals. Making the players automatically gain a mana crystal each turn allowed the players to focus on more interesting gameplay decisions, but also allowed the game to more quickly reach its "climax" with powerful minions and cards entering play. This served to reduce each game`s ramping-up period, and also to reduce the overall duration of each match.
A physical minion prototype
  • This same desire also led to the simplification of card representations, especially minions on the field, and it was found that this worked well. This eventually resulted in the modern form of minion portraits, featuring only a picture and Attack and Health numbers.
  • While the developers wanted to make the game accessible, they also wanted make sure it still had depth, giving players a reason to keep playing the game for a long time. With individual cards kept relatively simple, one way they chose to add depth to the game was through the interactions of different cards and effects; though each card was easily understood, the outcome of combining multiple effects could lead to deep and strategic gameplay. The developers worked to build in interesting and strategic interactions between cards.
  • Another design intention was for it to be possible for sequences or combinations of cards to produce spectacular and often unforeseen outcomes. The developers wanted a lot of cards to support "player stories", tales of remarkable events which the Blizzard staff themselves began to trade early in development. The team considered these stories to be a strong and positive part of playing the game, even when the player ended up losing the match, and it was a design goal to include cards capable of generating interesting and memorable stories. The designers created many "story cards" with the potential for spectacular stories, but without specific outcomes in mind, and were often surprised to hear reports of unexpected synergies which they had not foreseen.
  • The developers wanted to make the game fun to play regardless of whether the player won or lost. In addition to making games faster and shorter, some more frustrating elements from other CCGs were also discarded in favour of a lighter and more fun game. For instance, mechanics which the player was unable to actively counter, such as the ability to destroy the opponent`s resources, or force them to discard their cards, were removed due to being non-participatory and not fun to lose to. The developers also wanted players to enjoy a number of "little victories" each game regardless of the ultimate outcome, such as successfully countering a cunning play by the opponent, and to enjoy the `puzzle` of tackling the state of the board each turn.
An earlier layout to the game board
  • Early prototyping allowed for experimentation with and ultimately rejection of numerous gameplay styles, including the use of "fortresses". In addition to equipping the hero with weapons and armor, players were able to shelter their hero in a fortress with 20 Health. Players had to destroy the fortress before the enemy hero would "pop out" and they could attack them. Be that as it may, the element was eventually discarded due to strategic issues. The developers even tried a version of the game without minions, but this was quickly discarded.
  • Damage over time effects were also considered during prototyping. "Many" of these effects were tried, but ultimately it "just didn`t feel right in Hearthstone.
  • Despite the online focus of the game, making the game feel physical was an early goal, later implemented mostly through art, animation and sound design. The developers wanted to ensure that the tangible feeling of collecting cards and opening new packs found in CCGs was also present in Hearthstone, despite the game being digital.
An earlier layout, with the battleground depicted as an actual tavern table
  • The game was initially experimented with in the form of a physical game. Be that as it may, after this initial phase the game was moved onto a web interface. This would go on to define much of the Hearthstone playing style, with simplicity of display and interactions key to the design.
  • The team tried various conceptualisations of what the game itself represented, before hitting upon the idea of the players controlling pieces on a board, with the game taking place in a tavern within the world of Warcraft itself. This went on to affect game board and interface design.
  • Hearthstone was initially conceived as a PCPersonal Computer game, due to Blizzard being primarily focused on this platform. Be that as it may, fairly early in development, in response to the growing popularity of games on mobile devices, the team realised that the game could work well on a mobile platform, and later committed to this as a specific goal. For information on the eventual releaseAnnounce and adaptation of Hearthstone for mobile devices, see below.
  • Once the team had decided that the game would be released for mobile devices such as iPad, the developers were forced to assess aspects such as interface design with this eventual goal in mind. For instance, featuresSpecial attraction intended to be discovered through mouse-over had to made with an alternate mobile-friendly interaction in mind, in order to ensure that it was possible to later make a mobile version of the game that was intuitive and easy to use, while still matching the game`s PC version. Because this goal was kept in mind through the development process, relatively little redesign was necessary for mobile release.
  • The developers explored various ways of speeding up the game, including players drawing a card from their deck at the end of their turn, instead of at the beginning. This meant player could spend their opponent`s turn planning how to act next turn, allowing them to make their play more quickly when their turn came around. Be that as it may, in tough situations this system often led to a feeling of powerlessness, since the player would know in advance that they were not going to draw next turn a card that was capable of dealing with the state of the board. Alternatively, the player might know in advance that they would have access to the card they needed,thus taking "the drama and excitement" out of the game.
  • In most cases, several possible characters were considered before the final hero for each class was decided. This can be seen in development screenshots (see sections above), with heroes such as Tyrande Whisperwind as priest, Kael`thas Sunstrider as mage, Tirion Fordring as paladin, and Edwin VanCleef as the original rogue. On selecting the right character to represent each class, Ben Brode states "In general it’s hard to find a perfect fit."
  • Faction, race and gender representation were also factors in the selection of each class` hero. The original selection of heroes features 7 males and 2 females; 3 humans, 3 1/2 orcs (Rexxar being half-orc, half-ogre), 1 night elf and 1 blood elf; and ties roughly evenly for faction balance. Valeera was chosen for rogue partly due to being a blood elf female, as opposed to options such as Matthias Shaw or Edwin VanCleef (human male, already represented by both Anduin and Uther), or Garona Halforcen (a female half-orc, making the fifth orc hero), specifically in order to add more diversity to the cast of characters.