Blizzard had made it a habit of announcing new games at their BlizzCon events, but this time the honour fell on the smaller PAX event held in Boston. And even if Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is something that came out of left field, it is still very much something that makes perfect sense.
As you may already know Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a digital collectible card game. Card games are something Blizzard developers have been playing at the office ever since the studio was founded - Magic: The Gathering and Jyhad were mentioned - and naturally the World of Warcraft: Trading Card Game. However, Blizzard in their typical fashion wanted to leverage the possibilities afforded to them as a digital only card game and also make it more accessible to players who may not have spent hundreds of hours playing Magic growing up.
The action is turn based and with each turn your mana meter automatically rises by one. Your first decision to make is whether to try and rush towards a quick win doing damage on your opponent from the start, or whether to try and build up a strong hand to unleash when you have more mana at your disposal.
The result is a quick duel game were players pick one of nine classes/heroes that should be familiar to all World of Warcraft players; Thrall, Uther, Gul'dan, and Malfurian to name a few. In the demo on the showfloor your deck was pre-made based on your choice of class/character, so there was no option of customising it - natural given the conditions of a showfloor demo, where you need people quickly in and out of the kiosks.
As a fairly inexperienced card player I got my behind handed to me over a series of matches, but I truly felt like I was getting better at managing my deck and adapting to the playstyle of my opponent. I suppose that is evidence of what Blizzard is trying to achieve - make a card game that's accessible to players new to the genre - but still deep enough to captivate veterans. The classes have very different abiilities ranging from doing damage to oneself in order to draw extra cards, getting shield and an extra attack point. Knowing your opponents class is key to shaping your own strategy, and Blizzard will look keenly at the beta to make sure the different characters are fully balanced.
When talking to a couple of team members from Blizzard's Team 5 (made up of just 15 developers) we learned that the rich universe of characters and creatures was a benefit when it came to designing cards for the most parts. When looking at what kind of cards they needed there was usually an easy fit readily availlable. However, in some cases they had to make adjustments. The potency of Deathwing is one such example, and something they will look closely at when the beta rolls out this summer.
Deckbuilding and opening new packs is something that Blizzard felt was key to making a digital card game both accessible and exciting. The computer will offer helpful hints to build your deck to suit your chosen class, while the ritual of opening a new booster pack is given the bells and whistles treatment where you will be treated to a bit of fanfare if you happen upon a legendary, or epic card. There'll be three hundred cards available at launch, ranging from a simple Murloc to the immensely powerful Deathwing.
But if Blizzard really want to emulate the experience of opening a physical pack of cards they have a tall task ahead of them. It's not just about discovering card per card what you've gotten - it's also about the smell of new cards, the feeling when ripping open a new pack - it's just cannot be reproduced digitally try as you might. However tools for easy deckbuilding and the option of crafting the cards you really want and need may make up for it.
We asked Blizzard why they didn't go for an auction system like in Diablo III, something that on the surface would mimic real world trading cards very well, but they felt after weighing all the options this was the best way to go. It's also a neat way for players to do away with duplicates or card that just don't go well with their chosen hero.
Obviously Battle.net will play a major role with Hearthstone, the massive service that has been expanded and grown over the years will put the free-to-play right in the hands of many of the potential players the minute the game launches. Blizzard expressed how they really wanted to make a free-to-play game, and perhaps Hearthstone is also a way to gain lessons ahead of Titan - a game many predict will be free-to-play. Naturally you will be buying and earning booster packs by playing the game - a simple enough economy that is standard when it comes to digital card games.
Rob Pardo mentioned a dollar a pack as a price point they are currently looking at during his speech, but that is something that may change as Blizzard move closer to launch. And yes, this game is said to launch this year, which is a bit of a shocker when it comes to a Blizzard title.