The Studio Behind: Hearthstone

The Studio Behind: Hearthstone

The Studio Behind: Hearthstone FBWith Hearthstone, Blizzard Entertainment saw the card game spin-off of their iconic MMO turn into an eSports phenomenon. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for one of the most significant game studios ever.

Anybody gaming in the early 1990s is sure to remember Rock 'n' Roll Racing. The isometric driving game didn't just look like the airbrushed cover of a classic heavy metal album; its soundtrack was packed with hits by the likes of Black Sabbath and Steppenwolf.

It was distinct, aggressive, and absurdly fun in multiplayer. For a few summer months it enjoyed hype, praise and high sales. But nobody back then really talked about the studio behind the game.  That studio was Silicon & Synapse, and Rock 'n' Roll Racing was their third game. The team had previously created a more traditional racer, as well as a peculiar comedy-RPG hybrid known as The Lost Vikings. The youthful developers had also done a lot of work behind the scenes, porting the work of other studios.

Rock n Roll Racing; Blizzard ent.

Rock n Roll Racing; Blizzard ent.

As a result of their impressive track record working on other peoples’ games, in 1994 – just three years after their foundation – Silicon & Synapse were purchased for $6.75 million by developer and distributor Davidson & Associates. It was a huge sum at the time, and keen to make a fresh start, Silicon & Synapse changed its name to Chaos Studios. Realizing that name was taken, they changed their name again – this time to Blizzard Entertainment.

After experimenting with creating a curious platformer and a Superman beat 'em up, Blizzard turned their attention to the RTS genre, releasing Warcraft: Orcs & Humans for MS-DOS and Mac. Little did they know, their fortunes were about to change forever.

Warcraft: Orcs & Humans; Blizzard Ent

Warcraft: Orcs & Humans

The game was a success like no other they had made to date. Five more Warcraft RTSes followed – at the same time as Blizzard worked on the sensationally popular Diablo action-RPGs and the icon-to-be that was StarCraft. Everything the team touched seemed to turn to gold.

Then came the MMORPG World of WarCraft; arguably the first household name, massively multiplayer game. A true global phenomenon, it is the most subscribed MMORPG to-date, with a peak of 12 million subscribers towards the close of 2018. WoW has become synonymous with the immersive power of games, and will likely always be close to conversations around gaming addiction and obsessive play. Indeed, it is still so popular today that Blizzard is currently toiling to deliver a 'classic server' version of World of WarCraft that will let players experience the game as it was before any expansions were released.

World of WarCraft original promo image; Blizzard Ent

World of WarCraft original promo image; Blizzard Ent.

Making an iconic game might be enough for many studios, but Blizzard was only just getting started. After six years devoted to their blooming RPG, the team in 2010 released StarCraft II; one of the early giants of contemporary eSports, and a title that continues to make professional players across the world considerably rich.

A handful of World of WarCraft and StarCraft expansions followed, and then Blizzard moved to prove that they were still the agile, genre-hopping team that traded as Silicon & Synapse.

Starcraft II; Blizzard Ent.

Starcraft II; Blizzard Ent

In 2008, much like the rest of the global video game industry, Blizzard had noticed the renaissance of the independent studio – or 'indie'. Small teams were making elegant, modestly sized and creatively distinct games without huge budgets and the need for giant online servers; and some were becoming very financially comfortable as a result.

The senior Blizzard staff wondered what kind of games an internal team modeled on the new generation of indies would make, so they set up 'Team 5' within their own ranks.

As avid players of physical collectible card games, Team 5 quickly decided to build within that genre – albeit in digital form – around the well established WarCraft lore. They had a solid, well-realized and proven world to use as their base, and quickly set about shaping a game that they hoped might serve to bring new players to the larger WarCraft games.

The idea was not entirely new; in 2006 Blizzard had licensed their MMO's world for the physical World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, giving them plenty of inspiration for what would become Hearthstone.

Rastakhans Rumble, Hearthstone; Blizzard Ent.

Rastakhans Rumble, Hearthstone; Blizzard Ent.

The game was launched on March 11, 2014. Blizzard must have known that the WarCraft IP would help make the game popular, but its rapid success surely surprised even them. By the end of the month, 10 million players had registered accounts, nearing the 12 million active users that World of WarCraft had taken six years to hit.

Hearthstone, which is free to own but offers expansion card sets for a price, has grown into a giant, netting blizzard $40 million in a good month. And the simple yet strategic gameplay quickly found itself as a burgeoning eSports title.; not that Hearthstone is a typical competitive release.

Kobolds Catacombs Board, Hearthstone; Blizzard Ent

Kobolds Catacombs Board, Hearthstone; Blizzard Ent

There's no need for lightning-fast reactions and the ability to move at pace through complex 3D environments. It is, after all, a card game. And that is what makes it rather more accessible than most eSports games. Yet there is a depth to the strategy that means to be a true master takes incredible skill, knowledge and experience.

Just as it was with the initial release of World of WarCraft, however, Blizzard weren't content to stay put and enjoy their success. In 2016 they released the colorful hero shooter Overwatch. Apparently inspired by seeing the success of team-based shooters like Team Fortress 2, Blizzard set to work on their own spin on the genre. Having canceled their in-development massively multiplayer online role-playing game Titan, they moved the team – and some of the canned game’s mechanics – over to work on Overwatch. In doing so, they built an eSports sensation, and one we will cover in-depth in a future WODuels’ blog.

Overwatch; Blizzard Ent.

Overwatch; Blizzard Ent.

Whichever way you look at it, Blizzard will always be a significant highlight of the history of games. The team has delivered some of the most iconic IP there is, lead and shaped defining genres and framed the emergence of eSports.
They've come along way since Rock 'n' Roll Racing, but it still remains one of their best.