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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft preview: Blizzard's F2P experiment

by Steve Watts, Mar 28, 2013 6:45am PDT

For a giant publisher with such stock in online gaming, Blizzard has been notably reluctant to jump into the free-to-play market. All that changed this weekend with the announcement of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a F2P online collectible card game that marks the company's first foray into the market strategy. And while it isn't as striking an opening volley as Titan, Blizzard's patience has paid off. The F2P market is still going through its growing pains, but by waiting the company has output a game that seems to dodge many of the inherent drawbacks of the sales model.

For one, Blizzard is committed to making sure this game doesn't sport consumer-unfriendly features as F2P games sometimes do. The game has no energy bar, and absolutely everything can be obtained simply by playing it normally. The cards are divided into Basic and Expert classes. Basics are given for winning any match, while Experts are gained by winning matches online against real players or purchasing packs. The Crafting, shown off at its presentation, showed how duplicate cards can be discarded to create a more powerful and rare card.

All this combines to offer a system that lets you complete your set without paying a dime, which was central to Blizzard's philosophy when it set about making Hearthstone. "It doesn't feel good when games put up a wall and stop you from getting everything by playing the game," game designer Ben Brode told Shacknews.

I played a short round on the iPad against executive producer Hamilton Chu, with Brode offering tips. I played as a Mage, and quickly noticed the playfulness of the game board. While I waited for Chu to make his moves, I could poke different pieces, like tapping lanterns to put them out. When the game started in earnest, we each had 30 HP to last us, and an assortment of cards with standard effects you might expect from a CCG: draw two, "Taunt" to prevent attacks on the main foe, and so on.

We each also started with one mana, which then stacks one more on each successive turn. That means that the longer a battle goes, the more deadly attacks you'll both be able to deal. Once I had a greater pool, I had the energy to target Chu's "Taunt" cards and still deal damage to his player character. The game was accessible enough for me to immediately grasp its basic combat, but I could already see how that structure can support a much more complex game.

The decision to set the game in the World of Warcraft was no mistake. The game itself is justified as a game that denizens of Azeroth themselves play for fun, like you might play darts in a bar. "From day one we knew we wanted to make a Warcraft," Brode said. "Warcraft has such a wealthy of lore and stories and characters. Something that huge lends itself to a collectible card game, so it's a really great match for Warcraft."

And like Warcraft, the pair expect Blizzard to be in this for the long haul. Chu pointed out that Blizzard makes "living games" that are supported long after launch. Brode noted that they want to support Hearthstone long-term, but they're still looking into how that support will come and plan to base it heavily on player feedback. Aside from adding more cards, Blizzard could add more classes to the existing nine that will launch with the game.

The experimental 15-person staff tasked with designing Hearthstone is called Team 5, and Chu says that the new team is a "new aspect" of the company. "We have our awesome, epic games and those are going to keep going forever. We have this small team that's agile, we're working on more focused things like Hearthstone and we hope that'll be a cool thing we can keep doing."

The iPad version I played ran without a hitch, but it won't launch until sometime after the planned PC and Mac versions. Blizzard has a reputation for frustrating levels of patience, but when it comes to its first foray into free-to-play, that cautious approach may have paid off.





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