We had about enough time for three full games, in a relaxed setting, but also with the Blizzard EU Community Team floating around to help us out and give us tips and input on how best to play. It was a fantastic surprise. Even more amazing to a Blizzard geek like me was that, shortly after finishing our game time, we got to sit down for a Q&A about Hearthstone with none other than the lead developers Ben Brode and Eric Dodds. So, what came out of that?
How was Hearthstone? First and foremost, what we got to play was an alpha, which only developers and internal staff had previously accessed. It has not changed a great deal in overall appearance since PAX, but many key gameplay changes have been incorporated. Unfortunately, due to Blizzard policy, we were unable to take pictures or video of the play session or anything else that took place.
Overall, the game felt solid. As we'll get to, they're really pretty happy with balance right now, but some abilities definitely still feel too strong, for example there was one mage-specific card that did six damage in return for five mana, now, without having seen the game yourselves, it's hard to understand exactly, but that is a heavy damage ability. Of course, it's worth remembering that we were only playing with what the devs called the "basic card set", so, none of the cards we could have earned or bought.
Other than that, the UI felt good, fast, stable. Turn systems vary across CCGs, but Hearthstone's, to me at least, seemed a little counter-intuitive. It's worth noting that, although the tutorial is complete, we didn't play through it, as the community team wanted us to have the maximum amount of time in the full game. That would likely have helped with the slightly confusing feel of the game, and the turn system. There were also some abilities and tooltips that didn't quite tie up, but none of these minor criticisms caused huge problems with what was, overall, an entertaining and well-put-together play experience.
We didn't, unfortunately, get to test anything but the main gameplay -- the deck builder, the sandbox-like Forge area, and the crafting were all out of bounds. But we were able to have various questions answered by the development team.
I was lucky to have a huge number of my questions answered, and as we didn't know about the interview in advance, had to rely on my note-taking skill to get their answers down. Therefore, the below is not presented as, and should not be read as, verbatim quotations.
I was very curious about the methods the devs had planned for earning cards, how exactly it would work within the game, and whether it was really a case of pay-to-win. This is often an issue with free-to-play games, but the devs assured us that that wasn't the case with Hearthstone. They gave the example of the internal testers -- basically everyone who works at Blizzard -- and said that of those who had reached Master, the highest rank, 40% had not purchased any cards.
I went on to ask how exactly cards were earned, and the devs weren't ready to comment on that just yet, only willing to mention that there were various methods, but that in general, cards were earned through normal gameplay. The cards earned through normal play could also be of any quality, not just basic cards, so Legendary and Gold quality cards could all be earned through basic gameplay.
Every player will start off with a free set of 30 cards, all basic, but strong cards. These will continue to be relevant throughout the game, and they are seeing these cards in regular use even at the highest levels of the game. Earning cards is done through the early matches against AIs, and cards earned at this stage will be specific to your hero class. The cards which are purchased in packs, or earned in packs, will have the potential to be completely random, and may not necessarily be compatible with your hero. The devs estimated that around 50% of cards were specific to one hero class.
On the topic of heroes, the nine original WoW classes will be available when the game is launched. There are no plans as of yet to introduce the DK or the Monk, but the devs also aren't ruling it out. Heroes are not all open to every player at the very start of the game, rather they are unlocked through gameplay. All players start with the Mage, and the devs told us that pretty much every game played in the initial stages would unlock a further hero until all nine were unlocked.
They were also keen to point out, mentioning it several times, that the quality of cards was not indicative of their overall strength. They added that quality was mostly a mark of complexity, rather than of power. There was no limit on the number of a certain quality of cards that a player could have in their deck, only limits on duplication. So, any one card can only appear twice in your deck, and any Legendary card can only appear once. Again, the decks are comprised of thirty cards, and can be created and saved hero by hero in the deck builder.
One major element of Hearthstone is the card crafting. The devs clarified that this system was essentially the thing that made them choose a collecting game over a trading game, as it meant that any player could access any card. I pressed them for more details on just how exactly the crafting system worked.
They were happy to explain that players went into the collection manager, found unwanted or excess cards, and disenchanted them into Arcane Dust. Higher qualities of card would give more dust, lower qualities would give less. Once a player had enough dust to create a card, they could simply do so -- there was no discovery, learning, rating, or other requirement to access recipes for cards. The only hurdle is earning enough dust to create a card.
Ben and Eric were keen to point out the advantage of this system over a Trading system: this means that any player can access any card on Blizzard's terms, rather than having to bow to another player's demands to get hold of the rarest or "best" cards. This also means that even the most basic cards maintain a value, as they can all be disenchanted into Arcane Dust and re-purposed into better cards. What's more, the crafting system allows instant gratification, whereas a trading system requires that players seek out the card they are after.
We talked a lot about the content of Hearthstone. One thing I was particularly interested to hear about was whether the devs had any plans for PvE content, such as campaigns in which a player can take on AIs of increased difficulty to provide an alternate route for character advancement. Ben and Eric clarified that, while there are early missions that fall into that category, there will not be a campaign in the game from the outset.
The devs are instead focused on the PvP aspect of the game, which is, for now at least, purely 1v1 duels. You are able to duel friends, setting up specific matches, and the developers are also excited about Hearthstone's potential as an e-sport, after interest in shoutcasted matches has been high.
There's also the Forge mode of play, where players are randomly assigned a deck to play with against another player in the same position. This has great potential for evenly matched games regardless of cards.
Matchmaking will be done via an MMR system, very similar to the WoW arena system, where players will have a rating and will be matched against players with a similar rating. Success or failure against higher or lower rated players will adjust this rating, and as Ben noted, it should always feel like you are good at the game, even if you're not! Decks are not taken into consideration with this rating. High rating will award achievements, the rewards for this are not yet ready to be announced, but will be something more exciting than just points.
There were a couple of other tidbits from the interview that didn't really fall into any particular category. Every card has its own flavor text and voice element, they were very keen to point that out, but there is no faction-specific segregation in the game. There was no specific plan to integrate Hearthstone into WoW, other than the potential mount link.
It will be region-locked, for now, so that US players can only face US players, EU against EU and so on. They are looking into ways to allow cross-region play, as it is regularly asked for. They may consider battle.net integration for friends lists and the like.
And lastly, Ben and Eric confirmed that, if interest remained high, they would look into getting Hearthstone onto Android!