It’s official — Blizzard has announced at PAX East that their newest game is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a digital trading card game playable on Battle.Net.
I’ve been running around my house shrieking in delight all morning. One of my fondest memories as a wee overlord (I think I was eight at the time?) is being at the American Pioneer History Summer School For Smart Kids sitting at a picnic table under the pine trees, Pocahontas backpack clutched tightly as a couple of boys from 5th grade taught me the basics of Magic: The Gathering. They were patient, showed me each card, explained what it did, even let me hold them so I could study the amazeballs art. It was one of the only times in my life that I didn’t hear “you’re a girl, you can’t play games!” when showing interest in a Very Nerdy Thing. To this day, I still link trading card games with that feeling of acceptance, and Disintegrate is still my favorite card ever.
From there, I fell into the Pokemon craze. Birthdays, Hanukkah, any pocket money I got from my mom was spent on booster packs, and even one fancy box set. I kept them neatly organized in a binder, grouped by element and arranged in the order of their evolutions. I saw the Pokemon movie four times in the theaters just so I could get one of each of the special promotional cards they were giving out with ticket purchases. You could find me sitting on the sidewalk with the other Pokemon trainers in front of the school while I waited for my mom to pick me up. And yet again, I was able to play with the boys and not be cast out for being a girl. Hell, I think we had more girls playing than boys at our school. We’d happily trade our cards, common for common, rare for rare, to help each other get the most complete decks possible. I remember showing up one day with counters I’d made by taking the flat-bottomed aquarium gem stones and painting numbers in fancy metallic gold acrylic paint on them. This was my first experience with gaming-related crafts, and certainly not the last. I was also the school hero for the day. Everyone wanted a set of their own!
And then I got sidetracked by other things. Pokemon fever died down, and it became almost impossible to find anyone to play with. I sold off my cards or made pogs out of them (yes, I’m old, shut it) and didn’t even think about trading card games again until one of my good friends introduced me to Warlords. By now we were both full-grown adults, yet we still sat hunched over on my bedroom floor, laundry haphazardly pushed out of the way to form a mountain range around our “battleground,” as if we were once again two nerdy little kids during recess. We sat there for hours, playing game after game until we finally passed out amidst a sea of cheeseburger wrappers and hero cards. I’m sure by recounting this happy, geeky memory, I’ve just destroyed all of his street cred as a cool rockstar dude, but screw it, there is nothing more metal than being a battle-hardened orc swooping in to annihilate his enemies on the back of a dragon. Except maybe cooking directions for lobsters.
I was excited when I finally got an XBox 360 and found that Magic: The Gathering had a small downloadable game on the Live Marketplace. I was less excited when I played it for the first time and discovered just how noob-unfriendly it was. By that time I was rusty beyond belief, so the AI was a formidable challenge, and anyone playing it online was of a skill level somewhere around “professional assassin.” Happily enough, they appear to be releasing a new version of it that goes into some more in-depth explanations and has a less severe learning curve, so I may pick it up once again… you know, if I have any time left after playing Hearthstone.
Hearthstone combines two things I love: World of Warcraft and TCGs. I’m not a good strategist. I have never won a game of chess in my life. Though I loved Warcraft III and can’t get enough StarCraft 2, I accept my badness and stick to campaign modes. I’m slow and deliberate in my moves, meaning that each mission takes me about an hour to complete. In a versus game, that’s a death sentence. But I still love games that require them (and yes, I have played BarCraft, quite gleefully, might I add!). Hearthstone promises to be a simple-to-pick-up game, which appeals to the strategy noob in me and ensures that I won’t be left pitted against only skilled players. After all, games are even more fun when you can realistically expect to win at least once every hundred rounds.
The digital aspect is phenomenal for those of us who just don’t have the room to keep around binders full of cards, and don’t want to have to worry about losing or destroying them. I lost a few cards for the World of Warcraft TCG to the maw of a particularly frisky puppy. If it’s all done online, none of these concerns apply. The collection aspect is still there, allowing players to purchase, craft, and win new cards, so the OCD among us will still be satisfied — we just don’t have to store the damn things anymore. Whether or not Hearthstone will feature special loot cards to unlock pets in World of Warcraft like the physical TCG remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if such cross-game perks were implemented.
There’s also the excitement of having an almost unlimited pool of opponents to choose from. Gone are the days of sitting alone at the lunch table with your deck, desperately trying to wrangle over another player for an afternoon of fun. Hearthstone will use Battle.Net to match players together, but also give the option play against AI opponents. No matter what time of day, you’ll always have the option to get a game started.
Oh, and did I mention it’s free-to-play? Huge perk right there. Even purchased packs of cards are looking to be pretty cheap, with basic packs expected to start at just $1. You could presumably earn all of your card money just by playing the real-money auction house in D3 for a couple of weeks and funneling the credits to your Battle.Net account. What’s that? An excuse for more gaming? Sweet!
Despite the shininess of it all, I’ve noticed a lot of disappointment from gamers over this announcement. I believe a huge part of it was that they were expecting a reveal on the mysterious Titan project or the disclosure of a new expansion for one of Blizzard’s existing IPs. Even before PAX East, Blizzard straight up said it wouldn’t have anything to do with these sorts of releases. BlizzPlanet even tweeted this invitation to the Blizzard booth where it’s all laid out in no uncertain terms:
We’ve all come to expect huge reveals from Blizzard, so it’s not surprising that a fairly lighthearted game like this could feel like something of a shock. With only 15 programmers working on the game, Hearthstone isn’t going to be an immersive IP like World of Warcraft, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be fun as Hell. Sometimes you don’t have the time to devote to a terribly deep gaming experience. Sometimes you’re just looking for a game to kill time until your doctor’s appointment (or in the waiting room, since the official “What Is Hearthstone?” video depicts the game being played on an iPad), or you don’t feel like a hugely epic undertaking. Dismissing it right off the bat because it’s not “big enough” only hurts one person in the end: you.
It is true, however, that TCGs aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. Blizzard will have to face the challenge of attracting attention from players who haven’t otherwise shown interest in this genre. Linking it to the already-beloved Warcraft franchise should help; the dynamic and engaging interface shown in the official videos will prove that it’s not your average card game. The recognition factor of the characters and attacks contained within should assist in an easy learning curve for avid WoW players to slide right in.
I, personally, would love to see StarCraft and Diablo versions of the game. If Blizzard is keeping this small quicky-and-dirty team (known as Team 5) together for other projects as well, who knows what else we could expect? With their first foray into console gaming in a very long time, D3 for the upcoming PS4, maybe we’ll see versions of the game popping up on the XBox Live Marketplace or the PlayStation Network. I could even see it working well on the Wii or DS. That’s the beauty of Hearthstone’s simplicity — you can do almost anything with it.
We’ll have to wait and see just how addicting Hearthstone really is, but if you’re impatient like me, you can visit the official site and sign up for a chance to beta-test it. Let’s hope they don’t come up with Zergling Bejeweled before then, otherwise none of us will ever get any work done again.