Can Blizzard weave its magic into the trading card genre?
Towards the end of this year, Blizzard will make its first foray into the digital strategy card game space with the release of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Taking its stylistic cues from the blockbuster MMO World of Warcraft, the game promises to bring some serious competition to a genre that's been dominated until now by Magic The Gathering.
As we found out while going hands-on with the game at Gamescom this year, however, it's still a very traditional card battling game at its core. At the start of each match, players choose from one of nine heroes, and these heroes are based directly on their World of Warcraft class counterparts. Choose the clobbering Warrior hero, for example, and you'll enter battle as Garrosh, the Warchief of the Horde. Mages are represented by Jaina Proudmore, Paladin's by Uther Lightbringer, and so on. All nine classes from the vanilla release of WoW are represented in this fashion.
Once in the battle itself, two players take it in turns to field an army of characters, drawn from their strategically flavored deck. While these minions do battle in the center of the grid, the two heroes represent the final point of attack - whittle the health of your opponent's hero down entirely, and you'll win the match.
But why exactly did Blizzard choose its Warcraft franchise as the basis for this new game, particularly for a genre where players expect darker fantasy themes, ones that might be considered more in tune with the likes of Diablo, or even Starcraft.
"WoW was picked specifically because it opens up such a broad audience of gamers," explains Ben Thompson, lead artist for the project. "If you look at any of the other licenses that Blizzard has, they're very specific in the tones that they hit, whereas WoW has a very broad base.
"You've got epic, you've got charming, you've got tongue-in-cheek humor, and because of that there are so many opportunities to build off it. When it comes to this game, we went for very charming, very simplified, but not in a dumbed-down way - rather a simplified, fun and light-hearted approach. Because of that, even people who aren't WoW players can really identify with what's being seen and shown."
Combat is driven by a mana system that allows specific cards to be fielded each turn, with an additional mana gem awarded at the start of each turn. This ensures that players are held back from fielding their most fearsome cards too early in the match, before a satisfyingly strategic game of cat-and-mouse has begun to emerge.
Even so, the pace is faster than you'll be accustomed to if you've enjoyed the cautiously cerebral gameplay of Magic. But while our early battles at Gamescom ended all too briskly, there is plenty of room to fight back from even the tightest of corners, something we came to appreciate as our skill and time with the game increased. "Taunt" cards can be used to force your opponent off your hero and onto your defensive minions, for example, and an early but non-decisive aggressive push early on can leave you defenseless as the mid-game rolls around.
But how do you create a game that has depth to satisfy the hardcore crowd, while making it accessible for the newcomer? How to appeal to WoW players, and draw them into a notably different gaming experience, while not turning the whole thing into a painful in-joke that leaves outsiders feeling cold?
"Something we've focused on in Hearthstone is making it accessible to as many people as we can," explains Hamilton Chu, executive producer for the game. "We're big fans of a lot of these kinds of games, and that's because there's this core fun that's really compelling and really deep. We think Hearthstone can release that to a lot of different players. "WoW players will enjoy the game - all the favorite characters, history and places will bring back a lot of nostalgia and a lot of sentiment. But for all the other players too, we think once you sit down and get your hands on it, it's very compelling from there on out."
"There's really a lot of depth and nuance in the game. We've been playing this game for months and months, and people are still finding new strategies, and new combinations - still working out how decks can interact with other decks. Even people with a lot of card game experience are still finding new aspects to the game."
Blizzard is cagey when it comes to confirming whether competitive cross-platform play between iPad and PC gamers will be a part of the game. You will, however, be able to continue your progress between both platforms, presumably via the company's Battle.net service which brings its social services for all titles under one roof. An Android tablet version of the game is also under consideration after launch.
There's much that's familiar about the core mechanics of Hearthstone, but its gameplay unfolds in a brisker, more immediate way, and we rarely found ourselves in a situation that felt like a truly lost cause. That makes the game worthy of note, and with a release promised before the end of 2013, we won't have too long to find out whether this is a game that can hold its own against the current heavyweight.