Opinion: How Hearthstone may have killed a Titan

Blizzard has finally pulled the plug on Project Titan, and it's likely in part because Hearthstone taught the company some valuable lessons.

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After almost seven years in the public eye, Blizzard has officially pulled the plug on its MMO, Project Titan. Its long development cycle hinted at trouble, but both Blizzard and parent company Activision seemed content to continue pumping money into the game, apparently trusting the promise of breakout success. So what changed? Blizzard has recently learned to follow the interests and instincts of its developers, since smaller projects can yield massive success too. Projects like Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.

Picture, if you will, the sheer size and scope of a game that has been in development for almost a decade. At its largest, the team was 100 workers strong. Blizzard constantly talked it up in terms of scale. It was meant to be a successor to the wildly successful World of Warcraft, and even the title invoked the idea that this was its largest undertaking to date. It wasn't just large, it was a Titan. Even modest development costs over a cycle that long would yield a rather large bill, and it was only growing as time went on.

More importantly, MMOs are going through an identity crisis. World of Warcraft is one of a dwindling number of healthy subscription-based MMOs, and even that has been compromised to an extent. Blizzard indicated that Titan would likely follow a free-to-play model, but even then new MMO launches are making less of a splash every year. And if it was meant to be WoW's successor, even that game has been slowly losing subscribers. MOBAs are the new popular genre du jour, and Blizzard already has that covered

It's no wonder that as of last year, CEO Mike Morhaime said the game was being revamped. It couldn't continue to ignore some of these simple business realities. After so long in development, though, Blizzard was giving it one last shot. With so much time and effort riding on it already, Titan had to prove it was worth the titanic cost.

In any company, part of evaluating a cost is judging its worth next to other revenues, as well as the potential for other revenues. That's where Hearthstone comes in. The plucky card game is everything Titan wasn't. It was created by a small team of developers. Even after bulking up, the so-called "Team 5" is still composed of only 25 members--a fourth of the size of Titan at its peak. Instead of a long development cycle, it utilized a short and simple one that put out the game in beta quickly and rolled into the full version shortly after. 

The reward for this effort has been staggering. The company recently announced that it has reached 20 million players, Even if a small fraction are paying for card packs, arena runs, and the Naxxramas expansion, this makes for a massive revenue stream. Activision took notice. In May, only two months after its official release, Activision's earnings report listed it as one of the six games that it projected would boost it into record-breaking numbers. Hearthstone shared this spotlight with games like Call of Duty, Skylanders, and Destiny. Not bad for a little F2P project brainstormed by a few staff members.

Given this, it would be downright foolish to continue shoveling money into Titan. Morhaime's comments on the cancellation make the reasoning crystal clear. He noted that they couldn't find the passion, a notable difference from the small band of Blizzard developers who made Hearthstone because they genuinely love collectible card games. More telling is the statement by Chris Metzen, senior president of story and franchise development. Though he didn't mention Hearthstone by name, he might as well have:

"Maybe we can be what we want to be and inspire groups around the company to experiment, get creative, think outside the box and take chances on things that just might thrill people," he said. "Maybe they don't have to be these colossal, summer blockbuster-type products."

Maybe they just have to be Hearthstone.

Blizzard faced a choice between spending untold amounts on a behemoth of a game in a genre that's on its way out, or freeing its staff up to work on smaller projects that played to their passions. It paid off beautifully once before. Blizzard seems to be hoping lightning will strike twice, and facilitating that development environment is the best business move it could make.

Editor-In-Chief
From The Chatty
  • reply
    September 23, 2014 1:00 PM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Opinion: How Hearthstone may have killed a Titan.

    Blizzard has finally pulled the plug on Project Titan, and it's likely in part because Hearthstone taught the company some valuable lessons.

    • reply
      September 23, 2014 1:10 PM

      The thing is Hearthstone is such a small team and it seems to have taken Blizzard quite a long time to actually realise how popular their game is.

      It's probably still going to have the smallest showing at Blizzcon they still haven't got any kind of decent spectator mode.

      I don't know what the Titan team are going to work on next but I imagine it's going to be something to do with Warcraft. There's a Warcraft movie that actually seems like it's getting made after all.

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        September 23, 2014 1:33 PM

        At blizzcon they had the stage for hearthstone and they had tablets you could play it on. Then again at that time hearthstone was still in "beta" so long lines were for people who haven't played it yet.

        This blizzcon I suspect they will have a bigger stage, but still it's going to be a cluster of issues.

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        September 23, 2014 3:16 PM

        I almost feel bad that I just can't bring myself to give even a small fraction of a fuck about card games :(

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          September 23, 2014 3:21 PM

          a good one has more depth and strategy than basically any videogame

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            September 23, 2014 3:30 PM

            Do you and your opponent play with the same deck more than once in row?

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              September 23, 2014 6:29 PM

              not in Hearthstone unless you just repeatedly setup matches with a friend

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            September 24, 2014 12:20 AM

            yeah but so does chess

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              September 24, 2014 12:24 AM

              the deterministic set of pieces and movement in chess means it gets dominated by memorization more than card games both at any given moment and over time since the game never changes

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                September 24, 2014 5:13 AM

                At an amateur level, sure, but you can't say that of the game generally.

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                  September 24, 2014 5:14 AM

                  Also, randomness isn't equivalent to depth, and what I've seen of Hearthstone suggests it leans on randomness for interest and diversity more than, say, Magic, which seems to me to be a deeper and more nuanced card game.

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          September 23, 2014 11:27 PM

          I couldn't even give a fraction of your fraction of a fuck about card games. People tell me "no really it's good" and yep I bet if you like card games it is - but fuck that in the asssssssssssssssssssss

          Just make me Legacy of the Void, try to somehow make the story not shit in this one and I'll be happy. After that? I think I might be done with Blizzard, since War 4 won't happen due to WoW - Starcraft 3 will be 15 years away, I don't care about Diablo :/

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            September 23, 2014 11:55 PM

            Shocking information : I've never played a Blizzard game.

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              September 24, 2014 4:50 AM

              Further shocking information, I have and I don't think any of them are very good.

              Two Blizzard games I liked, Diablo 1 and 2...but they weren't actually made by Blizzard.

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                September 24, 2014 11:31 AM

                Weren't made by Blizzard? explain?

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                  September 24, 2014 1:52 PM

                  They were made Condor, who were renamed to Blizzard North when Blizzard bought them.

                  Then let them all go.

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          September 24, 2014 1:29 AM

          I feel the same way. Never liked card games of any sort, though I know there's a hell of a lot of strategy (I mean an old ass game like Bridge can have a daily strategy section in the newspaper). I just don't enjoy them.

          For people who do, the computer is pretty awesome I would guess. Lot easier to get a solitaire (or hearthstone) game going etc. I'm glad they've got that avenue!

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          September 24, 2014 1:50 AM

          hearthstone streams made me interested, but, ya, I've never been into card games.

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          September 24, 2014 3:49 AM

          I thought so too, until I tried it. Now I am hooked hard, it is a really good game!

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        September 23, 2014 6:58 PM

        Twitch is a pretty decent spectator mode, what more do you need?

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          September 23, 2014 7:00 PM

          Something that allows me to view my friends. Something that shows both players actually in sync.

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            September 23, 2014 9:52 PM

            those are nice to have but clearly from the Twitch viewership the game is already quite friendly to spectating

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          September 23, 2014 11:16 PM

          There's a pretty good tournament scene with Hearthstone ... Is extremely popular but is crazy the lengths they have to go to make the game work for a tournament. Having to capture both players streams and then splice it together afterwards ... makes it pretty much impossible for live games.

          Blizzard has known it's had a popular tournament scene and haven't done a thing to help.

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            September 23, 2014 11:18 PM

            I guess I would say the lack of built in tournament support is a bigger problem than spectating itself though. If you had a good tournament mode in the game then Twitch could easily take care of a lot of the rest.

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              September 24, 2014 12:16 AM

              Well it's the same thing really. You can obviously view a players game through twitch but this only gives you one persons view. For tournaments you need to be able to view both players perspectives.

              Tournaments and twitch casters get a huge amount of views through twitch and it just seems strange that Blizzard haven't tried to help the tournament scene at all.

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              September 24, 2014 3:55 AM

              I think you're confusing spectating and streaming.

              An option to spectate is essential for any game with an esports scene because you want a way to view both players' cards / hands. Currently there is no built in way for a tournament caster to view both players' hands. They currently use a really hacky method to show the hands of both players and usually it's laggy and animates wrong. It looks really unprofessional for a game that already has a pretty big scene.

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      September 23, 2014 5:01 PM

      I have to wonder how much money was wasted on this. I also wonder why they'd just drop a game that's been in the making for 7 years. Hearing things like "it wasn't that fun" or "we don't wanna be known as an mmo company" don't satisfy me. I know, they don't answer to me so it doesn't matter. But I still find the answers a bit hollow. As hard as blizzard works I'm having a tough time the game was just a train wreck or whatever.

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        September 23, 2014 5:25 PM

        Well they could release the source code and other people can make it fun right?

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        September 23, 2014 5:30 PM

        They decided canning the game was better than throwing away money trying to salvage something that wasn't good enough. Same thing happened for World of Darkness, and countless other games.

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        September 23, 2014 6:25 PM

        Well, it's not like they haven't done this before. How long was Starcraft: Ghost in development before it was canned? They gave pretty much the same reasons then ("it wasn't fun") as with now. Granted, I'm sure the team working on Titan was a lot larger, so I'm sure it was a bigger financial loss. But then, I believe Ghost was in development (and cancelled) before the WoW cashcow, so in some ways, Ghost may have been a bigger loss for Blizzard.

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        September 23, 2014 6:33 PM

        they're not interested in succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy just to damage their brand

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        September 23, 2014 7:05 PM

        There's a pretty wide range between "it wasn't that fun" and "train wreck." It might not have been a disaster, but at the same time not worth pursuing either.

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        September 24, 2014 1:43 AM

        Sometimes you just have to abandon a concept if it's not working. It's actually a sign of a good development team that can come to terms with that rather than simply trying to force it through anyways.

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          September 24, 2014 1:50 AM

          Yeah, and given that Blizzard has done this several times before, I think it's safe to say they've got a handle on doing it right and making smart choices with what games they actually finish and release, and which ones get left behind.

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            September 24, 2014 1:52 AM

            Precisely. This isn't a new move for them. I'd rather they work on something that excites them.

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          September 24, 2014 5:26 AM

          I would also presume that it's not entirely wasted, in that I'm sure they iterated on a lot of great design and content ideas that will make it into their other games.

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      September 23, 2014 6:43 PM

      Good article!

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      September 23, 2014 7:19 PM

      How many people will kill for a spiritual successor to Warcraft 3? I still have a blast going through the SP missions.

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        September 23, 2014 9:45 PM

        I didn't think I wanted one until I played Heroes. The maps are gorgeous and they're what I'd imagine a modern WC4 would be.

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        September 23, 2014 11:58 PM

        It would be awesome.

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        September 24, 2014 12:05 AM

        A shame that they took steps backwards with SC2 instead of forwards.

        No single player RTS has been so good. Such a fantastic blend of RTS, super lite RPG, it even feels like an adventure game.

        Seriously - such huge mission variety, CGI cutscenes, check, pre-mission cutscenes check, in-game-inengine cutscenes, check and finally in game, in rts view - as you play conversations ? yep! - very very rich on story. You really feel connected to the map / character. They fucked that up big time in SC2.

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          September 24, 2014 1:33 AM

          I'm glad they didn't do something like WC3 for SC2. I didn't like the more limited unit count and higher emphasis on spells in WC3. That said, I didn't like SC2 as much as SC anyway, so if I was a WC3 fan, I'd probably be worried about WC4 heh.

          WC3 compared to SC though, that did sort of presage the whole MOBA thing: fewer units, more emphasis on spells taken to its extreme, so I can't say the direction was wrong, it's just not one I liked as well

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            September 24, 2014 1:41 AM

            For single player storytelling though, they did well. Ok fine if you don't like spells or fewer units but the fact I very very rarely controlled Jimmy on the battlefield and what have you - it sucked. The Protoss missions were most of the best ones sadly.

            That's my beef - I don't really play SC or WC for the gameplay, I play them for the saga / storytelling. WC3 did nothing short of an amazing job with the storytelling and when they don't use the tools they've used in the past, it's noticable.

            The best mission in SC2 is the "kill the worms" mission #29 or whatever, you get to control 4 heroes - it's not about the heroes though, it's about them talking back and forth DURING THE MISSION.
            :/ Zerg campaign tried to fix this, with more control over Kerrigan but the writing in SC2? The writing? ...
            The writingggggggggggggggg? I swear in all seriousness you could get forum kiddies to generally post stuff as good.... amazingly bad.

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              September 24, 2014 2:03 AM

              oh sure wc3 did great with the story

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              September 24, 2014 6:25 AM

              Starcraft and Warcraft are 2 completely different beasts, and are focused on 2 different kinds of gameplay.
              I wont make any sense to make the 2 play the same, as both are great in its own way.

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          September 24, 2014 4:38 AM

          They stated long ago that StarCraft is not WarCraft and that StarCraft II would not be Heroes in Space.

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            September 24, 2014 4:41 AM

            It's not just about heroes, it's about a lack of storytelling mid-mission, it's as simple as that. I don't care about levelling and skills, I care about the missions being flat due to less conversation mid mission (much less conversation)

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        September 24, 2014 5:15 AM

        YEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS

        I was thinking about this yesterday. Warcraft 4, or whatever they want to call it, is all I want.

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          September 24, 2014 5:43 AM

          It'll be filled with nasty WoW stuff and even more "DOTA-ish"

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      September 23, 2014 11:25 PM

      I am not a fan of Hearthstone. I just can't get into card games.

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      September 24, 2014 1:41 AM

      badass article. briefcase, is there an anti ribbon of shame?