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Hearthstone started out as project from a small team. It’s now one of Blizzard’s most important games.
The World of Warcraft company ventured into smaller projects with smaller teams years ago, and one of the results was Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a digital collectible card game that released in 2014 after a long best-test period. It was an instant success. While card games weren’t new — Magic: The Gathering had a computer game version for years — Blizzard’s product became so strong that it established what market research firm SuperData called a “dominant new category” in a report last year. It found that card games had become a $1.2 billion market, and Hearthstone was its leader.
Shortly before the launch of Whispers of the Old Gods expansion in May, GamesBeat interviewed Jason Chayes, the production director for Hearthstone. The chat focused on the business and tech of the Blizzard’s card game. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Card games are now valued at about $1.2 billion a year. Hearthstone is the industry leader. When you launched, and in that first year, did you see a trend pointing to that? Or did you think the opportunity existed even before?
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Jason Chayes: We definitely felt like card games, and particularly digital online collectible card games, always had huge potential. That’s why we got into making Hearthstone to begin with. This is similar to how Blizzard approaches all of its games. There’s a genre that we’re very excited about internally, whether it’s MMO or CCGs or RTS for that matter, something we love playing, we’re excited about it, but we feel like there’s an opportunity to do a version we think could be better. That’s where Hearthstone came from. We played a lot of CCGs in the past and thought there was an opportunity to make a really awesome version of an online CCG. That’s where Hearthstone began, going back to 2008. We ended up spending a lot of time refining it, figuring out what was working, what were the areas that were frustrating and could get polished away, what were the areas that were pretty good and we could build on further. Through that approach, we go through these iterations of refinement. Over the next several years we figured out how to make Hearthstone the best CCG it could be. The idea behind all that, to answer the question, is we feel like a lot of other people out there could love the genre as much as we do — people who’ve never played a CCG before – if they just know what was great about it and could get super into it. The thing is, there are so many opticals or hurdles sometimes to the accessibility of the genre. A lot of our time is spent on figuring out how to take this core game, this core genre that’s super exciting, and make it so that it’s appealing to potentially a much broader audience. That’s how we approached Hearthstone, and I think that’s been a big part of its success — the fact that we’re able to take some of these core compulsions of the genre and make them something anybody can get excited about.
GamesBeat: As far as the lucrative side, did you think, when you launched this game, that it would help build a category that’s now worth more than a billion dollars? Or did that take you by surprise, how much money there was to be made there?
Chayes: It’s not something we focused on much when we were working on the game. Our focus was just on making the best game we could possibly make. What we’ve found historically is just that if we can make a great game that we’re excited about, that the community is excited about, that’s ultimately what we consider to be the biggest success. The fact that it’s been received so well is great. That opens up the ability for us to keep iterating on the game with new features that we’re passionate about and continuing to improve it over time. But the main thing for us is just how we can make the game as strong as it can be.
GamesBeat: How concerned was Blizzard, internally, when you were prepping and launching Heroes of the Storm, that you might cannibalize your subscription base from World of Warcraft?
Chayes: It wasn’t a major concern, to be honest. We felt like these are games that can coexist. In fact, we’ve seen a lot of players who play both Hearthstone and World of Warcraft. In fact, a lot of the people who know the most about the lore and the history of the cards in Hearthstone are previous World of Warcraft players. They’ve seen how Kel’thuzad was released as a major boss in a raid and how he’s translated to an adventure in Hearthstone. It’s a fun connection there. But the play patterns of Hearthstone work pretty well as far as fitting in a short game here or there. That isn’t necessarily a form of competition with someone who wants to keep playing World of Warcraft.
GamesBeat: Have you done any research into the overlap between active WoW and subscribers and active Hearthstone players?
Chayes: It’s one of the metrics we do look at here. There’s a lot of people who are existing WoW players who play Hearthstone. Also a lot of people who are coming to Blizzard for the very first time through Hearthstone. We’ve seen a lot of people discover the brand and the company through our first mobile release, which is also super exciting.
GamesBeat: Can you give us a loose idea of that number?
Chayes: The majority of our players are not necessarily co-active players of both games. But we do find that there’s a healthy percentage that are.
GamesBeat: Were you ever able to measure how many were lapsed players from WoW or Diablo or StarCraft who hadn’t played a Blizzard game in a while and discovered Hearthstone?
Chayes: We do keep an eye on those things. Unfortunately I don’t know the stats for that off the top of my head. But we have found that people come back to Blizzard by virtue of remembering some of the great experiences they had in the past. We’ve also seen cases where people come back to Blizzard via Hearthstone and then re-engage and resubscribe to World of Warcraft as well.
GamesBeat: I was never part of the card game community until Hearthstone. I hadn’t played card games since the ‘90s. One thing I’m finding is how excited people are about card backs. Has that surprised you?
Chayes: I wouldn’t say we’re super-surprised about card backs, because on the team we’re all excited about card backs as well. This is an area where I wish we had more of this in Hearthstone, to be honest. It’s one of the areas where you can have a lot of customization. Right now the main ways to get customization in Hearthstone is through which decks I build, which is a huge amount of customization right there, but in terms of what I’m showing outwardly to my opponent, the card back is my main way to express that. Because of that, this is sort of my signature. I like playing with the Fireside Friends card back or the Ice Crown card back or whichever one I feel like represents my personality. We thought a lot of people would get excited about collecting these things, particularly the way that we’re awarding these now each month, by reaching rank 20. It’s a cool thing you get out of participating and continuing to play in the ranked ladder. On the team we were really jazzed about it before as well. So yeah, I think we knew this would be a fun part of the game. We’ve been happy to see that a lot of folks have liked it as well.
GamesBeat: Back before Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm debuted, even before their alpha tests, who were you looking at when it came to free-to-play? When was it that Blizzard or Activision decided that free-to-play was something you needed to get into?
Chayes: For us we don’t ever really start with a business model. Our approach always begins with the game itself. We knew we wanted to have this game where—we wanted it to be super accessible. We wanted anybody to be able to come in and start playing very quickly. We also knew that it would be important to have a diverse group of people come in and play, because the whole idea was exposing the genre to a broader group of players. With that in mind, as we think about business models that make sense—that’s how we arrived at free-to-play. You could hypothetically imagine a world where there’s a subscription-based CCG, but it didn’t make sense for us with what we wanted to do for Hearthstone. Same with a retail box. That makes sense for some of our other games, but for Hearthstone, where we wanted a lot of people picking it up and jumping in, the free-to-play model just made a lot of sense.
GamesBeat: What portion of the Hearthstone player base has spent $200 or more on cards?
Chayes: I can’t go into detail on that. What we have seen is that there’s a lot of ways people engage with the game. A lot of players have spent money, certainly, and a lot of players spend nothing, yet they’ve still been able to make it to the top levels of the game, to legend ranking, without ever putting money in. That’s what we want to get out of the game. You’re not required to spend money. You can be very successful. You can make a very competitive deck. You can see everything the game has to offer without putting money in. And if you do choose to put money in, that’s totally cool too. We want to make sure that’s a great experience as well.
GamesBeat: Another thing I’ve been impressed with in Hearthstone is that you don’t use a lot of the monetization tactics we often see in other free-to-play games. It all feels like, when I spend money, it’s because I want to spend money, not because there’s a roadblock preventing me from advancing in the game. Is that an important part of your design?
Chayes: For us it was very important. We wanted to make sure that people could keep playing indefinitely, that they didn’t hit a wall where it’s time to turn it off and go do something else. You can continue playing and earning your gold just by playing missions. There’s a cap to how much you can earn on a daily basis, but as far as your ability to experience the game, try different things, keep playing, it was important to us that you could keep playing any way you wanted to. That was one of our governing philosophies when we designed the systems to begin with.
GamesBeat: Have your shareholders ever pushed for more aggressive monetization tactics, or are they satisfied with what you have?
Chayes: We’ve been lucky. We have a lot of support through Blizzard and Activision as far as figuring out what’s the right model for the game. Let’s make sure we take care of the game first. That’s served the game very well.
GamesBeat: If you were talking to a smaller company that’s going to come out with a free-to-play game, what would you say are the best tactics as far as being both successful and fair to your players?
Chayes: The biggest thing I’d say is, make sure you respect their time. As an industry and as a genre, we do a pretty good job respecting the investment when people put in real money. I don’t think we always do as good of a job respecting the time people put in. We spent a lot of time on Hearthstone thinking about how we value somebody’s time when they’re putting in hours, days of time playing the game sometimes. And making it feel like you’re making a lot of progress towards your collection, making it feel like you’re having a good time and you’re enjoying yourself. If I was starting up a new company I’d be thinking about how we make sure the time people put into our game is something we appreciate.
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