Thirty million people is a lot of people. Say that number to yourself: 30 million.
To put that into context, that's over three times the population of greater metropolitan London. That's more than the population of Australia. It's probably slightly less than the amount of people who were wiped out when the Death Star obliterated Alderaan, but it's still a lot of people. And that's roughly the number of people who are playing Blizzard's virtual card collecting game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.
When it first emerged, Hearthstone seemed like a lightweight, casual game – something Blizzard was tossing off between installments of its main franchises: StarCraft, Diablo, World of Warcraft and now Heroes of the Storm (which is out today, the 2nd of June). But in the year since its release, not only has Hearthstone bagged a huge audience – helped in no small part by its release on tablets – but it's also become a massively watched eSport. Its popularity simply continues to grow.
It's now, according to Hearthstone's senior game designer Mike Donais, set to become even bigger. In April 2015 it made the jump onto iOS and Android phones, meaning that we're all just a pocket fumble away from a game of virtual cards.
"It's been really positive," he says. "We get tons of threads on our forums saying things like, 'Wow! It's on my phone now, I'm playing it at work and I'm playing it while I'm driving!"
"Er... never do that," he adds.
The success of the game and its rise as a bona-fide eSports addition took Blizzard a little by surprise. The developers knew they'd made a good game, but from the sounds of things they weren't prepared for its runaway success.
"We were a really small team when we started," says Ben Thompson, the game's art director. "It took years to make one set [of cards]. Nowadays we're trying to bring out content fairly often, and we have to design with eSports in mind, too."
"That said, there's a balance," says Donais. "At its inception, Hearthstone was designed to be a game for everyone, so we want to be as fair as we can to the casual player and people who just want to play for free."
If you've never heard of it, Hearthstone is essentially Blizzard's take on Magic: The Gathering. Two players square off against each other, playing cards that are either creatures with attack and health scores or spells that befuddle, annoy or hurt their opponent. Each player has a health score of their own and when their opponent manages to drop it to zero – dealing damage through creature attacks or spells – they've lost.
Perhaps the biggest aspect of Hearthstone's appeal is the ease with which one can play it. You don't need some high-end gaming rig PC to play the game, as is evident from the fact that it now fits on your phone, and it's incredibly easy to get your head round. Unlike a lot of eSports games, it doesn't demand that you're a tactical genius, or a drum-tight team player. It doesn't ever require you to program a bunch of hotkeys before you start, to shave off time between moves. If you've ever played Top Trumps growing up, you already have the basics.
On top of that, you don't even need to buy the game – it's free, and while it does contain a boatload of in-app purchases (including card packs and a Solo Adventure mode where you can earn rare cards once you've beaten some levels) you don't really need to fork out any money to become a decent player. It's possible to grind away in the Arena mode and earn cards, in-game currency (with which you can buy more stuff) and Crafting Powder, which allows you build only the cards you want.
In fact, the only aspect of the game that may run new players up the wrong way is the behavior of a prominent section of its players. There have been reports that some players on Battle.Net – Blizzard's digital management platform – send messages to opponents who have beaten them that range from sarcastic to borderline psychotic.
The snarky behavior isn't even muted if you decide not to respond to chat requests on Battle.Net. In the game, players can "squelch" at their opponents – choose from a list of communication options that range from greetings to threats to apologies. That last option is almost always used by players just before they reduce their adversaries to dust.
There are few things more irritating than hearing an enemy say "I'm sorry" several times just before a gigantic fireball blows your minion apart. Has Blizzard thought of putting in a "Piss Off!" squelch option?
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"We've talked about that," says Donais, "but we've found that it's really tough to find a communication option that isn't used sarcastically by our players. Even something like 'I'm sorry' is almost always used ironically."
"But we find that a British accent helps immensely," Thompson says. "That's just the ingenuity of gamers and people in general, isn't it? We can only do our best by offering the friendliest, most welcoming choices possible. What people do with them? We can't really control that!"
So there you go. If you can deal with sardonic so-and-sos – and there is a hell of a lot of them regularly playing Hearthstone – and you understand Snap and Trumps, the first lesson in your training to become an eSports champ is just a free download away. Just don't play it while you're driving, okay?
Blizzard's latest eSports-friendly MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, is released today, the 2nd of June.
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