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Q&A: Hearthstone's small-team success at big-time Blizzard

Hearthstone lead designer Eric Dodds shares insight into the game's design and explains how its small team signals a significant departure from Blizzard's typical approach to development.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

March 10, 2014

7 Min Read

Hearthstone is a first for Blizzard in a lot of ways -- it's the company's first mobile game, its first free-to-play game, and the first game the company has announced and launched (albeit in closed beta) within the same calendar year. For Eric Dodds, a Blizzard veteran who previously worked on big games like World of Warcraft and Diablo 3 before serving as lead designer on Hearthstone, it's also the first project that inspired him to pitch a GDC talk. Dodds is scheduled to speak at GDC next week about design lessons learned from trying to design a free-to-play collectible card game that's purely digital, yet deeply influenced by physical games. During a recent interview with Gamasutra, Dodds opened up about some of those design influences and explained how the small team behind Hearthstone is a significant departure from Blizzard's typical approach to development.

What was the genesis of Hearthstone, as a project?

Eric Dodd: It came from a couple of different directions. One of them was folks at Blizzard looking at the way we operated and often seeing these projects that we are very excited about pursuing, but unable to pursue because we have these very large teams working on these very large projects that take a very long time. We sort of figured it would be cool to have these small projects that we could actually tackle, so in the beginning we had a team that was a little experimental, a smaller team that could hopefully get things done a little bit faster. That was the genesis of the team; the genesis of Hearthstone as a collectible card game was mostly that we loved collectible card games. We have played CCGs at Blizzard from the very beginning, have been very passionate about them for a very long time, and have long felt that they are so awesome that it’s sort of crazy more people aren’t playing them. So we thought it would be great if we could figure out a way to bring CCGs to more people, and Hearthstone started by merging a very small, experimental team with an institutional love of CCGs.

How big is the Hearthstone team, and how does that compare to the typical Blizzard team?

The Hearthstone team has been growing a bit, so I think we’re at about 20 people now. But if you look at other teams at Blizzard, they’re much larger. I think when we shipped World of Warcraft it was at 60, and now it’s certainly way over 100. Diablo is probably around 80-100, something like that, so Hearthstone is significantly smaller, and for most of development we were actually more like 12-15 people. So Hearthstone’s team is dramatically smaller; I’ve worked on many of the larger teams at Blizzard, and it feels very different to work on Hearthstone.

How so?

For me it’s been very exciting! I worked on World of Warcraft for a very long time, then I moved onto Diablo 3 for a little while, and at the time I remember saying something about how excited I was to move over to a smaller team. Of course, to many other folks in the industry that seemed pretty funny, since the Diablo 3 development team was only “small” when compared to World of Warcraft’s mammoth team.

"It's important to remember to look at the core tenets of [a given] genre, because players already understand them, they enjoy them, and it gives new players a huge leg up when they come in and try to learn your game for the first time."

Then I moved over to Hearthstone, and the great thing about that team is that everyone on the project can be involved at all levels. We’re all in the same design pit, and so when I’m arguing with someone about a point of design, pretty much everyone else on the team can hear it. And if someone has an opinion, they come right over and get involved. It’s fantastic to have a game where everyone on the team is involved with multiple aspects of the game; we’re already a team of generalists, with designer-artists and programmer-designers and the like, but the small team fosters an environment where everyone gets intrinsically involved in everyone else’s business, and I think it made for a better game.

Do you think the design principles and lessons you learned on Hearthstone are applicable to other development teams, regardless of size?

I think many of them are applicable to teams of all sizes. Many of the things we learned aren’t specific to Hearthstone specifically; heck, I think much of what we learned can be applied to other types of games. I’m an avid board gamer, I play role-playing games, and all kinds of different games, and a lot of what we learned are just general game design maxims that worked out well not just for Hearthstone, but for all types of games.

Can you be more specific?

Well, one of the things that I learned while working on Hearthstone is the importance of making sure that you don’t deviate too much from the genre that you’re working within. There’s a tendency to take a game and really make it your own, and I think it’s important to remember to look at the core tenets of that genre, because players already understand them, they enjoy them, and it gives new players a huge leg up when they come in and try to learn your game for the first time.

How did it feel to try and build a digital version of a physical card game?

I think it was actually pretty liberating, because one of the things that was important to us was to make a game optimized for the digital space. There’s a lot of things we love about physical card games, but there are definitely some things that are, uhh, “non-optimal” about them as well. It was very exciting to look at some of those troublesome areas and work out how to fix them and make the game more awesome. We can never make a physical version of Hearthstone, because we made a bunch of design choices that require it to be digital, and I love it.

Are there any other physical games you wish someone would translate to digital?

Actually, they are making a digital version of one of my favorite board games: Galaxy Truckers. My understanding is that someone is working on an iPad version, and I’m pretty excited about that!

Where do you see the free-to-play market headed in the future, and how is Hearthstone a part of that?

When we’re making a game we don’t focus on the financial model -- we focus on what the game is all about, and that implies what the financial model should be. It’s not like we started to make Hearthstone with the intent to make a free-to-play game; we set out to make a collectible card game, and as we started to set our stakes in the ground -- we wanted a game that everyone had access to, you know, stuff along that lines -- it made sense to make it a free-to-play game. I don’t really have a sense of where the free-to-play market is going; I just know that model was a fantastic fit for Hearthstone. So I don’t think Hearthstone is -- at least on Blizzard’s part -- really indicative of what the future holds; it’s more indicative of what’s best for Hearthstone.

Do you think Blizzard will continue to field small teams alongside larger teams? Would you consider the work you've done on Hearthstone proof that such a model is successful?

I’d like to think so. I don’t know for sure, but Hearthstone is looking like it will be pretty successful, and so I’d like to think that we’ll do more stuff like that. But you know, it’s hard to predict the future.

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