Hearthstone has been out for a few years and there's already millions of experienced and regular players. But to find out how Blizzard keeps things fresh, we had a chat with lead designer Ben Brode about the intricacies of the meta, matchmaking system, and more.
Before Hearthstone, Blizzard was known for World of Warcraft, real-time strategy classics and Diablo. So venturing into a free-to-play turn-based card game (now with in-game purchases) was a bit of an experiment, to say the least. But it paid off big time: since launching in 2014, Hearthstone has amassed over 50 million unique players.
For something that at is core is just a digitalised card game, that's pretty impressive.
But Hearthstone can't afford to be complacent. The nature of card games means rounds are short and people can drop in and out of Hearthstone at a whim after just a few battles. Then there's the stigma around collectible card games (CCGs), that they're complicated and involve a lot of rules.
The typical way to keep these kinds of fantasy CCGs fresh is to regularly release new cards and adventures, something Magic: The Gathering players would be familiar with. But unlike Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic cards, Blizzard doesn't have a long history in the card creation business. Introducing new cards can be extremely tricky; you have to factor in the stats on each card and how it impacts the existing meta.
"We look at a huge array of things when we make new cards that will shake-up the meta-game," Brode told Kotaku. "When new expansions and adventures comes out, it's important the meta-game changes so the game feels exciting and fresh.
"That's our primary concern: let's make some powerful and exciting new cards either to bolster existing decks that may not be widely played because they're missing a few bits or to create brand new deck types that no one has seen before."
Ensuring new cards aren't wildly off the power curve (i.e., not ridiculously powerful or, conversely, underpowered) is, Brode admitted, partly determined by gut-feeling and using previous cards as baselines. New cards are also tested internally over hundreds, even thousands, of rounds.
"We want them to be good and powerful as long as they change the meta-game," Brode said. "But if they're too powerful then everybody will gravitate towards the one in that deck and the game won't feel fresh because we'll be seeing the same deck every time you play a game on the ladder (ranked mode)."
It's also worth looking at Hearthstone's matchmaking system, which is manned by dedicated full-time staff. Having a solid matchmaking system churning away in the background is important for ensuring high level players are paired with people of similar skill levels, but also to ensure that newbies aren't scared off from the game at the beginning.
"It's very hard to match brand new players because we don't have any data about them. They come into your game, they might have played card games, they might have played with a friend pass or got a new account somehow; there's no data in a variety of skill levels," Brode said.
"Brand new players can easily lose five games and might not want to keep playing, so it's important that we get matchmaking right and we have people doing that full-time.
"We do a lot of stuff to make sure new players match with new players ... it's something we've been steadily improving for years now and we're doing a lot of research to make the process better." This includes using appropriate metrics to recognise when a new player should be moved out of the "newbie pool" to mingle with more experienced users.
Since Brode is a highly experienced player of Hearthstone, we were curious about what hero and deck build he prefers to play with:
Players, take note.
Hearthstone's latest expansion One Night in Karazhan is out now.