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Blizzard building "more experimental" titles with Hearthstone

Blizzard's new free-to-play game required a cultural shift within the company, Rob Pardo tell us

At PAX East 2013, Blizzard surprised a number of people with the announcement of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a digital, free-to-play, collectible card game based in the Warcraft universe. Unlike other Blizzard titles, Hearthstone is developed by a team of only 15 developers. GamesIndustry International talked with Blizzard Entertainment chief creative officer Rob Pardo about changing company strategy to support a smaller development team.

"We wanted to have the capability to start doing some smaller, more experimental games," said Pardo. "At Blizzard, each team has gotten bigger and bigger, and our dev cycles have gotten longer and longer, and the industry moves much faster than that. Even though we still are going to keep doing large games because that's what we're great at, we still wanted to build some new capability and experiment with some games that might turn into the next big thing."

"First of all, building the team itself was challenging because on a really large development team, you end up with a lot of specialized people that are technical artists or animators or all they do is paint textures. With a team like Hearthstone's [Blizzard Team 5], you need a multi-talented sort of team," Pardo explained.

"Maybe they're not as super-specialized in one area, but they can cover things more broadly. And you also need a team that's more willing to utilize existing technology; they're not trying to build the next great graphics engine that's going to compete with all the other graphics engines out there. You need to stay really focused on the gameplay core. So, I think that was the first big cultural shift."

Team 5 also had to be protected by management from the larger teams within Blizzard, since the group was comprised of "a mix" of veterans and neophyte developers.

"The other thing was just protecting the team. Within Blizzard we have lots of different teams that have important projects and important deadlines that are always coming up. It's easy to look at Team 5 and say, 'Wow, they have a couple of really talented guys that could really help us with this milestone.' So that's was another cultural shift that we had to achieve."

"I can't imagine that we would do Hearthstone and never do another free-to-play game."

Blizzard chief creative officer Rob Pardo

For Blizzard, Hearthstone and Team 5 are learning experiences, allowing the studio to improve its free-to-play chops and build smaller titles quickly. Pardo said that while Blizzard is focus on getting Hearthstone out the door, there is room in Blizzard's future for more free-to-play.

"Clearly, free-to-play is becoming an important kind of business model and a way that people play games around the world. I can't imagine that we would do Hearthstone and never do another free-to-play game. It's going to become a really common business model," said Pardo.

"With digital distribution - things like Steam and Origin - you really start to question where is the industry going. Free-to-play might become a very dominant way for people to distribute and play games. We need to start learning what makes sense for that and what's the right way to utilize that business model. I don't think it would ever be a situation where the only thing Blizzard will do is free-to-play, just like I don't think that PC or consoles will be the only thing. We like to make games that are for a really big market. Ultimately, we make a game that we want to play and we think would be really successful, and then we figure out what platform it should be on and figure out what the right business model is."

"We wanted to do something around free-to-play. We really felt like there was opportunity with these collectible card games that haven't really been realized in the digital online space. We felt like there was an opportunity to do what Blizzard does really well: which is, take a genre that's generally viewed as pretty hardcore and make it much more broadly accessible," he emphasized.

Hearthstone is coming to PC, Mac, and later iPad, but Pardo did not rule out other platforms like Android in the future. A side effect of building a smaller development means that other versions have to wait, but Blizzard to open to all platforms.

"It's really a matter of just when, not if. With a small team you have a make a lot tough decisions about what features you're going to keep in, what platforms you're going to support. We really wanted to approach it as 'get the game out there as soon as possible in people's hands' and then add features and platforms as they make sense," he said.

"We're coming out initially on PC and Mac. We can get the iPad version out soon thereafter. After that, I imagine we probably will add Android or better support for Windows tablets. Whether or not we get it on [Windows Phone]... that might be more challenging because of the size of the screen rather than the technology, but that's something we'll continue to develop. With a much bigger team, you'd just do it all at once. We want to really take that entrepreneurial attitude; let's get the game out there as soon as its fun and awesome."

Familiar Warcraft staples return in Hearthstone.

Blizzard has had experience with microtransactions in other titles like World of Warcraft and Starcraft II, but Pardo admitted that the studio has "never launched a true free-to-play game." Internal testing has been focused on the finding a balance between making fun and making money. One thing Blizzard hasn't done is hire an econommist or statistician to help tweak the game's microstransactions.

"We haven't done that yet. It's certainly something we've seen as a trend and I think we'd be open to it if we found the right person. But we're so gameplay-driven that oftentimes when you talk to folks like that-monetization strategists or economists-they really attack it from the 'how do we maximize revenue' side," he explained.

"We feel like if you are going to add microtransactions, you want to add something valuable and people really want to give you money. The free-to-play games that are really successful do that really well. Where that first happened for us was World of Warcraft, when we added paid character transfers between realms. We wanted to maintain the community on a server. So, the main reason we added that microtransaction was to put a hurdle between being able to easily jump from server to server. It ended up being a great little sub-business, but that's not why we created it. We created it because that's going to drive better gameplay. Hopefully we can do that as much as possible in any of our free-to-play games or microtransactions."

"We've had experience with microtransactions in our other games, but not really a true free-to-play model. We feel really good about the game and the way it's going to work," Pardo added.

Like other Blizzard titles, Hearthstone will be released for PC and Mac when its done. Blizzard has promised beta testing soon.

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Mike Williams avatar

Mike Williams

Reviews Editor, USgamer

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.