Has Blizzard’s Hearthstone taken SEA by storm?

e27 talks to Blizzard Entertainment’s Hamilton Chu on what makes this digital card game for computers and iPads tick

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Within the period between July 22 and the end of August, game company Blizzard Entertainment is releasing bits and pieces of an expansion of its free-to-play digital card game called Hearthstone. The expansion is called The Curse of Naxxramas and it lets players fight against custom-made opponents for the sake of new cards.

For those not in the know, Hearthstone is a one-versus-one turn-based game where players fight each other by casting spells and summoning minions. Players get to pick among nine classes like the Mage and the Hunter that come with specific powers and playstyles, and build a 30-card deck made out of any spell and minion they so choose.

The victor is the first person who reduces his or her opponent’s life to zero and below. Currently, it’s out for the PC, Mac and iPad, with an Android and iPhone version coming out soon.

Those who play card games may notice that it’s similar to another popular card game Magic: The Gathering, though Hearthstone is arguably superior for two reasons. Firstly, it’s streamlined and easier for people to get into it after a game or two. Secondly, it’s using the World of Warcraft brand, which has ingrained itself into popular culture right now. You cannot bring up a talk about mass multiplayer online games without World of Warcraft coming into the picture somehow.

Just like past Blizzard games, Hearthstone has found success worldwide. Professional gamers like Toby “TobiWan” Dawson and YouTube video celebrities like John “TotalBiscuit” Bain showcase their skills in the game on livestream, and there are major and minor tournaments done for the game in events like Dreamhack.

But what about Southeast Asia? Is it trending within the region?

Hot in Asia
Indeed it is, thanks to its addictive gameplay, its simple-yet-colourful production values, and great use of its free-to-play mechanics that placate the most jaded of core gamers. After you’re done with the initial tutorial at the start, you will be playing through each class to unlock their specialised cards, build decks based on what you have and play online to earn more rewards.

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With a clear objective and a multitude of cards that tell you on the spot what they do, along with extra text popping up when you hover your mouse cursor onto them, the game wins people over with its “easy to learn, hard to master” mentality. The ratings on Metacritic and international press have been universally positive. This is moreso in Southeast Asia as the gaming business in spots like Thailand and the Philippines thrive on the model.

In fact, the top player who is ranked number four on the Hearthstone worldwide rankings is a Singaporean player named ShinyPants. Other Asian players include Kurenai from Vietnam (ranked 66) and zzGGLeoz from Singapore (ranked 72).

Region-wise, Blizzard said that all these factors are enough to justify hosting a BlizzCon Community Qualifiers tournament exclusively in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. In respective order, the dates are August 9, August 16, August 23, August 24 and August 30. The weekly tournament is meant to give tournament seeds to each country so that they have a chance to compete in BlizzCon.

For the unwary, BlizzCon is a yearly celebration for the game developer where it announces new projects and have big-scale game tournaments. The highest attendance count for the two-day event has been 26,000. To fans of gaming and all things StarCraft and Diablo, this is a rather big deal as it’s not cheap and efficient to pay for a flight and hotel room just to go to Anaheim for this.

From pen and paper to computer
So what got Hamilton Chu, Executive Producer, Blizzard, and his team of card-floppers to come up with a digital card-playing concept? Like most good things, it was born as one of the company’s pet projects. At Blizzard, team members work on games and concepts that interest them. Chu and Eric Dodds, Lead Designer, Blizzard said on Kotaku that from all the prototypes their team did, they all focussed on one thing: an accessible card game set in the well-known-among-gamers Warcraft universe.

Mid-project, the Hearthstone team (called Team 5) was split off to focus on other major Blizzard releases, leaving only Dodds and Ben Brode, Senior Game Designer, to work on it. “It was actually kind of cool,” said Dodds as this “problem” made it easier to rapidly create prototypes with efficiency, using only pen and paper on a lot of blank pieces of paper. “It was game design in its purest form,” said Dodds. “No politics, no nonsense.”

The first and the last playable prototype ran on multimedia platform Adobe Flash. Dodds said that both of them loaded up the flash version of Hearthstone, pointed at the computer and said that the game was done. The duo’s final words before making the alpha and beta version? — “Just remake that game over there.” In the game design world, it’s very rare that the core game and initial prototype end up almost the same.

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The new cards from Hearthstone’s first-ever expansion. Deathrattle is the key mechanic being powered up here. Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

An adventure in the dark
For Curse of Naxxramas, Chu said to e27 that he and his team took the lore of the Floating Necropolis and its horde of undead and necromancers because it stood out to them. “There’s just so much great stuff in World of Warcraft, so if there’s some huge reason why Naxxramas (in the game’s lore) stood out, that doesn’t mean that every major story and area in the game is less important. A bunch of us had a lot of fond memories at this cool location ruled by the archlich Kel’Thuzad and his undead horde in World of Warcraft,” he said.

Chu added that the more he thought about it, it translated to Hearthstone in this cool, whimsical and charming way. “We made (the usually serious) Kel’Thuzad a funnier character with snarky voice-over lines,” he said.

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In addition, the undead theme also was an opportunity for the Hearthstone team to expand on one of the game’s mechanic: deathrattle. Long story short: any card with deathrattle that gets killed will have its deathrattle effect play instantly which is usually beneficial; extra cards, a bigger minion, and so forth. Thematically, the expansion features spiders that release itty bitty spider spawns when they expire (Haunted Creeper), a few undead hordes that are cheap to play, but have severe penalties if they die (Deathlord), and two zombies that will summon a really big game-ending creature if they both died in the same game (Stalagg and Feugen).

The expansion has been getting a good response despite only parts of it being out, said Chu who added that the experiment is a grand adventure into the unknown. “The idea is to provide a different and fun way to experience Hearthstone with cool bosses and funny voice-overs. But to play it, experience it, and to take the cards earned from that, integrate it back to your deck-building: that’s the heart of it,” he said. Chu added that it’s up to community feedback and requests to determine new Hearthstone adventures and updates, so readers, if you want that Starcraft or Diablo crossover, just keep writing and chiming in loudly.

The F2P philosophy
Chu sees positive growth in the free-to-play market, as he hopes everyone comes into terms with the model’s viable existence.

“With Hearthstone, it was important from the very beginning that the game is for everyone. Both in terms of how we designed the game, to make sure the game was acceptable and enjoyable for people right from the start. The model was part of that too, and it was really important to make Hearthstone genuinely a great F2P experience. You can really get all the cards and they aren’t behind paygates,” he explained.

That is true: players with very ample time will eventually get all of the in-game cards. Others who do not have that much time to spare can choose to pay for booster packs that net players eight random cards. Cards they don’t need can be exchanged into another currency called arcane dust, which is used to purchase any card you want.

The economics go like this: playing a lot of games online and completing challenges net you gold. That gold is used to buy booster packs and also participate in Arena mode where you’re guaranteed at least one pack. Cards you get that you wish to scrap can be exchanged for arcane dust to buy specific cards you want for your deck. It’s a fair use of the F2P model that other game companies should learn from.

The method worked out well for Blizzard, said Chu as a lot of Hearthstone players who have played it without shelling out a cent have given positive feedback about the model. “A lot of feedback and appreciation come from players showing support by buying packs. They feel the respect and care that we take in making sure everyone who plays Hearthstone feels great and rewarded, no matter how they choose to invest their time and resources into it,” he noted.

Speaking of which, what’s the most common criticism Blizzard got? Card tweaks to class-specific cards, said Chu. “It’s a good sign of engagement when people have passionate and fiery feedback for you. People get attached to their classes and the specific cards that work in those classes; (said feedback) is targeted along those lines,” he added. He brought up tweaks to previously powerful cards like Unleash The Hounds and Eaglehorn Bow as examples of fans being critical.

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No, Blizzard won’t let you play as the Curse of Naxxramas bosses against other online players. Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Keeping busy
Apart from working on Hearthstone so that it remains fun, Blizzard’s other main challenge in keeping Hearthstone relevant is studying the community around it. Chu said that it’s the main thing that keeps the game going around. “There are wonderful streamers talking about the game with their communities and fans, and eSports activities springing up to reach players in a different and top-level way. There are also the fansites and fireside gatherings we had, so the community experience is getting better as a result,” he added.

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It’s hard for Blizzard to pick which Southeast Asian country is leading in numbers for Hearthstone, as people are still learning and playing the game as well as checking out the Curse of Naxxramas expansion. Chu said that it’s just how the game is: evolving to a point where it’s hard to say which region or country is pulling ahead. “The really creative strategies out there have been changing. There are decks created within the last couple of weeks that are new to the scene. The meta-game is going to change; Naxxramas is going to stir the pot even more,” he said.

As long as the feedback and fanfare keeps coming and the company doesn’t jeopardise its already-set F2P model, digital card-playing fever will still be at an all-time high. Especially with the aforementioned community qualifiers that will bring out the best Asia has to offer.

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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