Eric Dodds describes it as a rumble. Hamilton Chu thinks it was more like a ‘murmur’.
Blizzard had just announced the existence of Hearthstone to a packed out room at PAX East to hundreds of fans, and amidst the polite applause, a general confusion. When it was rumoured that Blizzard would be revealing a new product in Boston many speculated the debut of a new MMO, perhaps new DLC for World of Warcraft or any one of Blizzard’s major franchises. No-one expected a digital card game.
No-one really wanted a card game.
A familiar feeling. Eric and Hamilton had experienced this reaction before. A year or so earlier Blizzard brought together a small like-minded group of developers and bestowed upon them the moniker ‘Team 5’. Team 5 had one single mission: be flexible, be agile, identify the opportunities that massive lumbering teams cannot and attack them with gusto.
So when Eric Dodds came back to his superiors with the Hearthstone concept, the reaction was not unlike the reaction Blizzard would receive a year later at PAX East in April of 2013. Not rejection, more like apprehension.
And a smattering of confusion.
“When we announced the game a lot of people went, ‘wow, that’s a little weird that you’re doing that,” says Eric. “What are you doing? You are doing something a little weird and different’. I think that we had those thoughts around the company a little bit.
“It wasn’t resistance really, but people were questioning it.”
Here is how Blizzard works: team members tend to work on projects that interest them. As Hamilton puts it, developers at Blizzard create the games they want to play. In that regard Hearthstone made perfect sense. A large number of the newly established Team 5 had been playing card games. They had been playing card games for decades. But everyone understood that these games could be inaccessible -- they could be convoluted.
“We thought, boy these are super fun, but many of them are so complicated,” explains Hamilton. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make something that would let mass public to find the kind of fun.”
Team 5 immediately set about designing the game they wanted to play: an accessible card game set in the Warcraft universe.
Back then no-one -- not even Eric Dodds, the game’s eventual Director, or Hamilton Chu, Executive Producer -- could have predicted how popular Hearthstone would eventually become.
Pen And Paper
But then, sabotage. Or the closest thing to it. Before the hard work of prototyping began, Team 5 was temporarily dissolved.
Bigger deadlines loomed. Another of Blizzard’s major releases required attention before shipping and the majority of Team 5’s resources were immediately funnelled onto that project. Only Eric Dodds and Ben Brode, a Senior Game Designer, remained on the game that would ultimately become Hearthstone.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“It was actually kind of cool,” admits Eric.
‘Cool’ because -- almost immediately -- Eric and Ben were isolated, working alone. This was far from a problem; it actually worked to Team 5’s eventual benefit. It allowed the pair worked feverishly, rapidly prototyping dozens of different versions of Hearthstone, quickly finding out what worked and what didn’t with an intense, brutal efficiency.
For the longest time, Eric and Ben worked almost exclusively with pen and paper.
“We were basically in a world of ‘what do we think the design of the game should be’? That’s not a place you spend that much time in traditionally as a designer,” says Eric
“For us that meant trying tonnes of different ideas. We spent a lot of time with paper/pen prototypes to try and figure out what this game was going to be and it was great.”
Eric and Ben took blank pieces of paper. Literal pieces of paper. They drew funny pictures and they wrote numbers above those funny pictures.
Says Hamilton: “they took those funny drawings, cut them into cards and tried a whole lot of bad ideas on the way to some great ideas”.
It was refreshing. It was exhilarating. It was game design in its purest form. Traditional chokepoints simply didn’t exist. There were no pipelines to push assets through, no politics, no nonsense: just two guys in a room with a pen and paper and a handful of crazy ideas that might just work. And if they didn’t? No big deal. Scrumple that piece of paper, launch it headways into the nearest trash can and start all over again.
The Game Is Done
It wasn’t your average Blizzard workspace, but Hearthstone wasn’t your average Blizzard game. Envelopes and cards stapled all over the walls; the end result of an asynchronous drafting process for Arena: a game mode in Hearthstone that allows players to compete against one another using specifically constructed decks.
This was the workspace that Team 5 walked into after their forced exodus.
To an extent the team knew what to expect. Blizzard was and is permeated with what Hamilton refers to as a “great culture of sharing”. Everyone had a vague idea of what Eric and Ben Brode were up to with their envelopes and cut up pieces of paper. They knew what they were in for.
But the newest members of Team 5 weren’t prepared for what came next; no idea how far Eric and Ben had taken it. It subverted almost every idea Team 5 had about the traditional process of game design.
Eric pointed to a computer in the corner of the room, running a flash version of Hearthstone. In everyone’s absence Eric and Ben Brode had been busy. They had essentially prototyped and then built everything Hearthstone was going to be in Flash.
In short: the game was already finished.
“We pretty much pointed at the computer and said -- ‘the game is done’,” laughs Eric. “Just remake that game over there.”
It was the end result of that rapid, brutally efficient iteration process.
“The rate of iteration was like seriously, in order of magnitude, faster than in any game project I’ve ever been involved with,” says Hamilton.
“It was unbelievable how similar the core game ended up being to that initial prototype.”
The game that Eric and Ben built -- minus the bells and whistle and polish -- was essentially the Hearthstone you are playing today.
Coming Out Party
It was time for the game’s coming out party.
As Eric mentioned, Hearthstone, for a certain element of Blizzard, was seen as a curiosity. For a company used to developing mammoth, era-defining video games, across multiple teams packed with multiple employees, a card game was… different. Not everyone was convinced of the direction Eric had taken Team 5 in. Not everyone understood. Some people didn’t ‘get’ it.
“But that all changed a little after the coming out party,” says Eric.
The ‘coming out party’: it took the shape of a Blizzard-wide Hearthstone competition, a competition that took the office by storm. By the end, after everyone got their hands on the Alpha version, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t ‘get’ Hearthstone.
The finals took place in the Blizzard theatre and that theatre was completely packed with cheering crowds utterly engrossed in everything Hearthstone. Eric and the team had been vindicated. Everyone at Blizzard had fallen completely in love with the video game that, just months ago, was a strange idea that some were unsure of.
“It was really amazing,” says Hamilton. “When you’re heads down on something, really close to a project, sometimes you have a skewed point of view. Getting it out to people, feeling the vibe, hearing everyone talk about what was fun to them, what stood out, what they hated -- it definitely created this atmosphere. It was amazing.”
“It was an exciting moment.”
The flash prototype was an overwhelming success, but there was still work to be done. Hearthstone was a video game first and foremost, but creating an experience that felt tangible and above all physical was a major priority. The flash prototype that Eric and Ben Brode had built was completely two dimensional, so the majority of the remaining development time was spent working on aesthetics: how it Hearthstone would look, how all the separate visual elements worked in tandem to create the overall experience. It was important that Hearthstone looked and felt like a card game.
It was the kind of work that couldn’t be done on pen and paper.
“A ton of time spent figuring out how these cards move in the game space, how the board looks,” explains Eric. “How do we can retain that physical feel? There was a lot of time spent there.”
“Then we had to hook it up to the server,” adds Hamilton. “There was just a lot of actualisation that still had to happen.”
Rumbles And Murmurs
Team 5 worked furiously towards an unveiling at PAX East in April of 2013. Buoyed by newly registered enthusiasm for the project internally at Blizzard, there was a confidence about the team. The prototype was rock solid, the game was rock solid, all that was left was to deliver a polished version of that product -- an experience that lived up to the promise of a game that was once nothing but a series of envelopes stapled to a wall.
The public unveiling of Hearthstone was, in a sense, a picture perfect cross section of the internal issues Eric Dodds had with the game during development. Eric was showing his baby to the world for the very first time -- to a bustling sea of Blizzard fans who weren’t quite sure how to react.
It wasn’t rejection. More like apprehension. And confusion.
“I was nervous,” admits Eric. “I didn’t exactly know how it was going to go. Hearthstone was a new thing.
“When we announced it there was definitely a rumble in the audience of ‘we don’t know what this is.”
“There was a lot of murmuring in the crowd,” Hamilton adds. “People didn’t really know what to make of it.”
‘Disappointment’ is probably the wrong word. Both Eric and Hamilton had seen this reaction before and, in a sense, were used to explaining themselves, used to explaining Hearthstone to people who weren’t exactly sure what the hell they were looking at.
They remembered Hearthstone’s coming out party, the shift that became apparent the second people began playing Hearthstone. Perhaps the same thing would happen at PAX.
Of course, that was precisely what happened.
After the announcement, Eric and Hamilton strolled towards the show floor. By the time they arrived at the Blizzard booth the line to play Hearthstone was an hour long.
“My initial nerves instantly transformed into elation,” says Eric.
“The energy was amazing,” adds Hamilton.
“Anxiety was immediately replaced with astonishment. People were enjoying the game so much.”
Later that day; another moment. Hamilton scans the queue, spots a face in the crowd. He’s certain he’s seen that guy before. He taps Eric on the shoulder, ‘hey, recognise that guy?’
‘Yeah, he must have been here at least three times’.
Hamilton walks up, ‘Have you played this before?’
‘Yeah, this is my 12th time’.
The Hearthstone That Never Was
In a corner of a room in Blizzard studios there is a space reserved for the Hearthstones that never came to be. Boxes upon boxes of paper and envelopes wheeled wherever they’ll fit.
In the wake of the PAX East announcement, Hearthstone has been more successful than anyone could have anticipated, to the point where it is now said to be driving iPad sales.
Peoples are talking about Hearthstone. Everyone is talking about Hearthstone. And it all started at PAX East.
There was initial confusion, but even back then -- walking around the halls of the Boston Exhibition Center -- there were already rumblings. A murmur.
The swapping of pins; the presentations on board games. In every queue, in every panel, hordes of gamers huddled around Magic: The Gathering. Hearthstone tapped into something dormant -- a sub culture within a sub culture, waiting for that one video game that made sense to them, the game they could share with others. That’s what Hearthstone has become.
“I don’t know if I have a lot of insight into the meta-movement of the genre,” says Hamilton. “All I can say is both Eric and I and a bunch of other people in the team have enjoyed these types of games for a long time and it makes me really happy that other people are starting to enjoy it now.
“It’s great to see that these games getting the attention they deserve.”
Originally published on Kotaku Australia