On the face of it, Blizzard has been slow to adapt to the rise of mobile and free-to-play, just like parent company Activision. Fellow industry leaders EA and Ubisoft moved quickly to embrace emerging platforms and business models, but for Activision Blizzard ‘mobile’ often meant companion apps for World Of Warcraft and matchmaking platform Battlenet, or the now free Call Of Duty subscription service, Elite. Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft, a collectible card game set in the World Of Warcraft universe, is Blizzard’s first free-to-play game. Soon after its launch on PC and Mac, it will become its first iPad game, too.
Yet Hearthstone should not be seen as a rushed bid to hitch the studio to two lucrative bandwagons. It’s been in development for over two years, and is being made by Team 5, a new 15-strong unit of multidisciplinary staff assembled specifically to make games like this. Its mandate is to make smaller projects that can be iterated on rapidly and released in distinctly un-Blizzard-like time frames. CEO Rob Pardo promised his PAX East audience that when he said the game would be on iPad soon after PC and Mac, he meant this year, not ‘Blizzard soon’. Pardo made it quite clear that his studio’s love of collectible card games predated the rise of mobile and free-to-play, his claim backed up by some grainy photos of badly coiffed developers sitting cross-legged on office floors playing Magic: The Gathering.
“When we’re making a game, we try to figure out what the business model is and the platforms are after we know what kind of game we’re making,” Eric Dodds, the game’s lead designer, tells us. “We’re excited about card games, so free-to-play makes a lot of sense. One of the things we wanted to capture with this game is for you to feel like you’re touching the cards, and of course, for an iPad game that makes a whole lot of sense.”
Both the early iPad build shown behind closed doors at PAX and the PC version playable on the show floor have a tactile quality to them, meaning everything looks, sounds and feels like it has weight. Cards aren’t just played, they’re slammed down, kicking up little dust clouds as they land. Send a card out to attack another and it moves towards its target, pausing above it for a split second before lunging in to strike, the resulting damage counters enveloped by cartoonish hit sparks. Move a card from left to right before playing it and it tilts slightly; it’s barely noticeable, but adds to the sense that you’re playing with a real, physical deck.