Load up a game of Hearthstone, Blizzard's exquisite collectable card battler, and you suddenly feel at home. Maybe it's the cold weather outside, the dreary January mornings or the dark winter nights. Whatever it is, there are few more welcoming sights on your PC screen than Hearthstone's warm ember-filled glow, or the sound of its genial dwarvish inn-keep welcoming you in.
It's all deliberate, of course, calculated and reasoned with Blizzard's usual laser eye for detail and knack for polishing game systems until they shine. But knowing the work that's gone in behind the scenes, the story of Hearthstone's two-year (and counting) development is no less impressive. Still only just in open beta, Hearthstone is a gem of an idea that has been slowly filtered until crystal clear - and Blizzard is still tinkering to make it purer. But with the studio's history and talents - and clearly with plenty of time - surely success was pre-ordained?
"You never really know," Hearthstone's production director Jason Chayes tells Eurogamer. "We have a lot of love for the genre and Warcraft IP, but I think the first indication we were on to something really special was when we released our first internal alpha. We had people from within Blizzard crowded into our little internal theatre and cheering. It was a rowdy audience," he recalls. "That was a really good sign."
Hearthstone remains the work of a tight-knit few - less than two dozen still, even after staffing up for the game's future tablet and smartphone releases - and it shows, both behind the scenes in the work to better balance cards, and right in front of you, in the cohesive design of the game's hand-made, almost physical design, with its chunky bejewelled cards and embellished wooden box.
"We were 15 developers for a couple of years," Chayes remembers. "Now as we're getting ready to launch on tablets and phones we've grown the team to just over 20. We'd like to grow the team a little beyond that, but it's our goal to keep it small as we feel the chemistry we have is something we'd like to maintain."
Maintaining the core feel of Hearthstone on platforms with different audiences will be a challenge, but it's one that Blizzard feels it can crack. "As we looked at mobile and tablet devices, that was the biggest question," Chayes says. "Does it look and feel as good as it does on PC?" He and the rest of the team continue to finesse the game's portable controls, although R&D testing has proven the game works satisfactorily with a smaller amount of screen real estate.
"Something that worked very well for us was that, fairly early on, we decided we wanted to make a very physical game," Hearthstone's lead designer Eric Dodds chips in. "A game that always felt like you had a physical box, that you could touch the cards, that you could drag them into play." Performing these movements with your own hands "translates really well", he adds.
"We'll probably end up going PC and then very, very shortly after that go to the iPad."Hearthstone production director Jason Chayes
Hearthstone's iPad version will debut almost simultaneously with the game's official PC release, where it at last will lose its beta tag. Typically Blizzard isn't rushing that moment but, with the game now available for anyone to try, the day it will happen now feels like a tangible point on the horizon. "We'll probably end up going PC and then very, very shortly after that go to the iPad," Chayes explains. "Beyond that we're looking at getting on Android tablet, and then a little later this year we'll get it on Android phones and iPhones as well - we're looking at the second half of 2014 to put those out for our players." All of which hopefully means that the iPad version will be available before summer.
Console versions have also been discussed, but Blizzard is waiting to hear more from its player base before "pushing [them] up the priority list". Even then, it's unclear who would work on the port - being a small team, the Hearthstone developers need to pick their battles. And there's plenty of things still to do on the PC version, the pair argue - lingering bugs to be squashed and features to be finished - before Blizzard will declare it "ready", let alone done.
"One of the big ones is getting in golden Heroes as an incentive for playing in Ranked mode," Chayes reveals, a feature talked about back at BlizzCon. "After 500 wins you'll get an awesome-looking version of Thrall or Jaina or Garrosh. For people who are very committed to their class it'll be awesome for them to show off this great version of their hero to their opponent.
"We also have card backs - each of the final seasons for ranked play will have a custom card back for participating in that season that you can then use to customise how your deck looks. We also have a disconnect feature so that if you get cut off during your game you should be able to just jump back in."
Beyond these additions lies the meatier prospect of Hearthstone's Adventures mode, which will see your decks put to the test against a campaign full of enemies. Like the base game, it sounds like Blizzard will again offer this up for free - or at least allow you to pay for access using in-game gold, such as in the Arena.
"We're still locking down the business model for Adventures and expansions, but one thing we feel pretty passionately about on the team is that there should be a way to unlock the content in Adventures just by playing the game," Chayes explains. "You'll have the option to access and play that content without spending real money. That may mean you earning gold through the existing systems we have in place and using that to unlock Adventures. [But] beyond that - how much will it cost, how much to charge? We're still debating that internally."
"One of the streamers just started a new class and made it all the way up to legendary status without putting any money in."Jason Chayes
For the current build, Blizzard seems to have gotten the balance just right. Anecdotally speaking, there are a number of avid Hearthstone players in the Eurogamer office with an array of purchase histories, but most have parted with a small amount of cash after a long enough period of play. There are a few who've spent quite a bit more (naming no names) and still others who are yet to pay a penny. It's something Blizzard monitors, and seems comfortable with.
"One of the streamers just started a new class and made it all the way up to legendary status without putting any money in," Chayes says. "We want to make sure the game supports that. That said, if people do make the purchase decision to buy packs or entry into the Arena it needs to feel like a fair value. We need to make sure people don't regret any purchase decisions. When people go in and buy a card pack they need to be getting awesome things which help enhance their collection." But Blizzard's experience so far is that they are on the right track. "That's one of the pieces of feedback we've got from the beta," he continues. "That people who have gone in and bought packs have been pretty happy with what they've been getting."
It all comes back to the cards, Hearthstone's well-honed instruments of war which have now seen many a tweak. The era of extensive changes is over, Blizzard has said, although "it's possible a card or two will change," even now. "Our philosophy from here on out is to make very, very few changes to the card base," Dodds reassures. "We're very happy with where the balance stands today." The same perhaps can be said for Hearthstone in general - and bearing in mind its humble origins, meteoric rise and bright future, it's easy to see why.