Hearthstone's Eric Dodds and Ben Thompson

Wed Jan 18. 2023

Hearthstone's Eric Dodds and Ben Thompson

It's currently one of the most watched games on Twitch TV at the time of writing. It draws in more viewers than the entertainment blockbuster Call of Duty Ghosts, the indie-rocker Minecraft, and the digital zombie phenomenon DayZ. According to Twitch, Hearthstone is currently the most popular Blizzard game on the market.

This is a remarkable feat for a game that was created in large part by 15 developers working in the shadows of StarCraft II and World of Warcraft.

It's no surprise that it ranked in the top 10 of Gameplanet's 65 most anticipated games of 2014, beating out more than 50 other heavy-hitting titles.

Since July last year, we have been passionate about Hearthstone. Since then, we've been playing it every day. It's balanced and engaging. It's fast. It is supported by the rich Warcraft universe. It has everything we need in a quick, easy-to-pick-up-and play game. And it's free right now.

We sat down at our desks this morning and called Eric Dodds, Hearthstone lead designer, and Ben Thompson, Hearthstone lead artist, to find out more about how a small group came together to create one of the most exciting games you will play this year.

Q. When was the first time you thought of creating a card-game?

Eric Dodds We created a small team at Blizzard to pursue projects that were less epic than World of Warcraft or Diablo. We looked at games that we enjoy, and collectible cards are definitely one of them.

We think collectible cards are great and there are many great ones. However, we felt that we could create a digital version of a great card game that more people could enjoy than the existing digital games. That's how the idea started.

Q. How is the open beta we're currently playing different to the original concept?

Ben Thompson: Oh, my God... [laughs] So many!

Dodds : We worked with physical prototypes of paper for a while, and each week we tried something new. There were tons of variations of ideas that worked on the art side. We had many different versions of the board, how it looks, and what the game's physicality was.

We eventually took all that information and created this Flash prototype to bring them all together. We had something that looked very similar to what you see today. There were many wild ideas along the journey. I believe that without those wild ideas, those early failures and those cool things, you wouldn't have the cool game you have today.

Q. How has Hearthstone been different from other games that you've worked on?

Thompson - It was great to get out of my comfort zone. My work was often very realistic and detailed. In some cases, it had a dark fantasy feel. The best thing about Hearthstone is that, when we explored all the possible routes, the one that received the most responses was the lighthearted, whimsical, very wide, chunky shapes. This was completely opposite to my style. It was amazing to be able to stretch muscles I had never been able to before and to do it in an environment that allowed for experimentation.

This extended beyond the art to the designer. They communicated on a weekly basis. I would take something and design would do some thing with it. Or design would do something and we'd reply to it. It is a great environment for artists and creative people to work in. You can create something from your passion, rather than following a set of rules or desires.

Q. How is it different from other properties in the Blizzard stability?

Thompson: First, the team was much smaller than other teams. The majority of the game was completed with 15 developers. This includes all disciplines, including production, art, engineering, and design.

This comes with its own set of challenges but also the amazing quality of each person having three to four different paths or duties within the team. This gives people the opportunity to have their input quadrupled. I would request feedback from all members of the team, not just artists.

It's a very collaborative environment. I've used the analogy before. We're a garage band that works within the framework of a larger, more successful band. We can make mistakes early on and take those chances without the risk or overhead.

Dodds - We joked a lot early on about the "art section", because Ben Thompson-led the "art department".

Thompson: [laughs]

Dodds : Ben was the only artist on the team. The art department was small, which is why we are referring to it as small.

Thompson - Yes, it's very schizophrenic conversations among the concept artist, lead artist, art director, and implementer!

Q - You claim that you have finally settled on the lighthearted, whimsical look you all know today. What were other directions you considered and decided to ignore?

Thompson: World of Warcraft is a license that allows you to take it in many directions. You can be serious or lighthearted, and there are many degrees in between. Many of our early explorations were about finding the right spot on that meter. We all hit one point or another on that meter at some point.

Some versions were slightly more serious and literal translations of the world. One board was Darkmoon Faire themed. This was where you first encountered the game. Another was more abstract. It was cartoony and very simplified.

We found the best of both worlds. We get the tongue-in-cheek, the lighthearted, but it's detailed enough to give you the feeling of physicality and the tangible nature of all the pieces. This was important because it made you feel like you were in Azeroth's world, something you have known for years.

We wanted a game that reflected all the most interesting and evocative aspects of this world. To create the fantasy that I'm in my favorite inn in my favorite city in Azeroth, and that for a moment I'm Jaina fighting Garrosh.

Q. Were these heroes always representing the classes?

Dodds : This was not always true and there was much debate about it. We decided that strong personalities and characters should be available to Warcraft players. You know their motivations and who they are. We talked a lot about this at first. The personality, the flavor and interaction you get - even in Jaina's introduction when she is fighting Hogger - is truly worth it. We never looked back once we found it and grasped it.

Q. Can you tell me more about how each class was designed to stand out visually?

Thompson : There was a lot discussion about it, and it wasn't just about art. As I mentioned, it was a team effort to create the game. In those discussions, engineering and design would share their experiences. Design is about feeling anchored to a class when you play it. You want to feel like a mage when you cast powerful spells if you are a mage. If you are a rogue, you want to feel sneaky, underhanded, and backstabby.

All of us have played World of Warcraft and all of us have experienced a variety of emotions from being able to interact with the world. As an artist, I would ask other members of the team, "Hey, I've never been a rogue." What's it like to be a rogue in Stranglethorn Vale? What was it like? And what were your top skills for certain activities?

We were able to identify the main points for each class through these discussions. Then, when we actually created the effects, continuous revisions were required: is that enough? Is it enough? How does it feel to cast the 10 cost fireball and the five-cost fireball? Is that rogue spell like a backstabbing, physical spell? As if it appeared out of nowhere?

These things shouldn't feel like spells. You don't want to feel as if you're casting magic spells if you're a warrior. Instead, you want to feel like your making a tangible, tanking impact. These abilities are more visceral and powerful than magical.

Q You mentioned the Hogger encounter earlier. Do you want to explore other encounters and play other games than just head to head?

Dodds - The game's core is a one-on-one, player against player game. The next thing we'll be releasing will be an adventure. The idea is that I can play against bosses. By playing against them, I earn cards. We will be exploring that territory a bit more, but at its core, Hearthstone remains a one-on-one PvP game.

Q. How would you describe your week since you were in open beta?

Thompson - A whirlwind! It's been fascinating to see how the community responded. This is where you should start when you're a developer. This is the person you have spent your entire time creating the game. While we say that we create the games for ourselves, the game eventually comes out and the community can interact in their own way. It's been exciting and educational. We look forward to hearing from the community about eSports and other topics.

Q. What's next for Hearthstone.

Dodds - Next is watching the game and getting it out in release mode. We'll be able to respond to the community's requests next. Right now, people are saying things like "Hearthstone is great!" What about observer mode? Another group shouts out, "We want to see more cards!" Or, "Can you give us more ways of connecting socially?"

There are many things people want from us and we want to give them to them. However, it's been difficult for us as a small team. Right now, we're very focused on getting this game out. The next step is to actually do all the cool things we get to do.

Now, we get to do this stuff, which will be awesome.