How Hearthstone Makes Digital Cards Feel Good

| 1 Apr 2013 16:00
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A collectible card game that's all online needs some care to feel as good as cardboard.

Magic the Gathering is the granddaddy of collectible card games. And while it's great fun to play against players across the table in real life, we often don't have a large pool of opponents in our hometowns to duel. Enter computer game versions that use digital cards to emulate a lot of the fun, and we've seen a proliferation of them over the last decade. Blizzard has thrown its resources into building its own digital CCG - Click here for a rundown on all Hearthstone has to offer from the announcement at PAX East - but the lean 15-man development team realizes it has to make players feel invested in their collections if Blizzard is going to convince them to drop real money on fake cards. I was able to speak with developers Jason Chayes and Ben Brode on how Hearthstone makes manipulating your cards as tactile an experience as possible.

"One of the things we thought was important in terms of moving from a physical game to an online game is that you run the risk of losing how fun it is to hold cards in your hand and sort of shuffle through them. There's this great sense of physicality to them," said Jason Chayes, producer of Hearthstone. "We put a lot of time and energy into the cards feeling that way so when you kind of move cards through the game space they yaw and pitch and roll. They also spray little puffs of dust when they drop onto the playing table as they get summoned into play. There's wear on some of the cards, where you can see little nicks and scratches. All that furthers the goal of making it feel like physical things. Ultimately, it's to try and make you feel more invested in your collection."

In playing the three matches I was able to get in at PAX East, I definitely noticed a lot of what Chayes is talking about. The cards feel like real things that you can shift around on the playing field and in your hand. I was also struck by how the attack animations don't drop into cheap 3D animations of the units attacking each other, but instead are resolved through stylized card dynamics as they bump onto the target to deal damage.

Speaking of damage, one of the big departures Hearthstone makes from the CCGs that inspired it is the concept of persistent damage. USusally in turn-based card games, any damage on a creature is reset each turn, but in Hearthstone it stays there until it is healed or the creature is killed. "When you have persistent damage it actually gives you a little bit less hopelessness," Ben Brode, one of the programmers and game designers on the team. "When you attack with a small minion it does something, you feel like you've made some kind of impact. But also it makes healing-based classes feel really relevant and this opens up a lot of strategy in that area where a timely heal can turn the tide of battle that's been really interesting."

Healing classes are the priest or shaman and they can give back some of the damage your opponent might have dealt. But if you want to play quick and dirty with your warrior and let your creatures be killed along the way, that's OK too. "We really wanted Hearthstone matches to play really quickly so one of our goals there is figure out ways to make this very accessible very easy to jump into," Chayes said. "Right now, Hearthstone games usually take between ten to fifteen minutes to resolve. The persistent damage is one way to help move through the match very quickly, summon minions, attack other minions. It accelerates towards a lot shorter game time."

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