On the back of Blizzard business cards: Ben Brode details Marvel Snap’s unlikely genesis

Ben Brode Marvel SnapYouTube: Marvel Snap

Four years on from Hearthstone’s global rollout, director and public face of the development team Ben Brode left Blizzard. Fast forward another four years and his new studio just launched its debut project Marvel Snap. But how did this gargantuan partnership come about? How did an indie team strike gold out of the gate? Ironically enough, it all started on business cards from his former employer.

When Hearthstone entered the spotlight in 2014, it largely helped revolutionize the Collectible Card Game genre in digital form. Captivating presentation, addicting gameplay systems, and of course, that once-renowned Blizzard polish all helped catapult it into one of the more popular and successful CCGs in the Western market.

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Years of support, multiple expansions, and millions in revenue later, how do you follow up on such an immense creation? That’s exactly what Ben Brode set out to answer in 2018 when he announced his departure from Blizzard and formed Second Dinner alongside a slew of ex-Hearthstone developers.

Before long, the crew had amassed $30 million in investment from Chinese company NetEase and announced its first title was to be a collaboration with entertainment juggernaut Marvel.

This was all before even so much as nailing down an idea of what this game might look like, as Brode recounted in conversation with Dexerto.

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Friends in superpowerful places

Before Second Dinner opened up shop and long before Marvel Snap came into the equation, Brode worked alongside Jay Ong at Blizzard. In the midst of Hearthstone’s transition from Beta to full-fledged release, Ong took up an exciting opportunity at Marvel. He was to lead the charge as the head of Marvel Entertainment’s video game wing.

“He had a really cool strategy,” Brode said, having been contacted by Ong soon after stepping into his new role. “‘Let’s do to Marvel Games what Marvel has done with [the MCU].’ Every single time a Marvel movie comes out, you’ve gotta see it because you know it’s gonna be good. So he said Marvel Games should be like that. Every Marvel game should be awesome.

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Insomniac Games / Sony
Spider-Man and the Miles Morales follow-up were two of Marvel’s biggest game launches in the past few console generations.

The fruits of that labor have only shown in recent years, with the likes of Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy from Eidos-Montréal raising the bar on what fans can expect from games under the umbrella. But Ong was putting out feelers far and wide from as early as 2014. One such group he was eager to collaborate with was his former colleagues on the Hearthstone team.

“He called and said ‘I know you guys can make incredible stuff. I’d love to do something incredible on mobile. If you guys start a new studio, I would love to work with you and do something really cool.’”

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In a matter of months, Brode and a handful of others parted ways with Blizzard, founded Second Dinner, and took up their friend’s offer on a Marvel-centric mobile game. Exactly what said game would look like, however, no one had quite thought that far ahead just yet.

“We were working on some other ideas,” Brode explained, “and when we were like ‘ok, this Marvel thing is going to happen,’ we started skinning them with Marvel.”

It didn’t take long for the team to realize this approach wasn’t going to cut it though: “We needed to build a game from the ground up to be a Marvel game, so we started over.”

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Making the most of unused business cards

From the very beginning of this partnership, Brode knew he wanted his team to develop a mobile card game of sorts using the Marvel IP. Typically, this ideation process can be grueling. Which central mechanics should you hone in on? What should it look like? How many players per match? It’s all a great deal to consider but fortunately for the newly relocated group, they settled on the idea of Marvel Snap sooner than expected.

“We quickly landed on [Snap]. In fact… it was so fast,” Brode laughed. “It was the second idea we had. We were like ‘this is too fast, we should explore other things just in case.’ How often is the second idea the best idea? So we spent at least a week trying out other stuff. It was the worst week because all we wanted to do was play [Snap].”

So with the earliest concept of the Snap gameplay loop swiftly in focus, what came next was to design a few cards that work within the rules. It’s here where a batch of now outdated business cards from his former workplace came in handy.

“Once upon a time, we used to make card games on the back of my dad’s business cards. So when I got my first job in games, I got business cards and I kept them. I thought someday, maybe I’ll make a card game with these. So when we started doing this, I got my business cards and I did the first prototype of Marvel Snap on the back of my old Blizzard business cards.”

Marvel / Second Dinner
Many of Marvel Snap’s most popular cards today started on the back of Ben Brode’s business cards.

Brode shared some of those cards, each crudely written out with black marker. They had all the same relevant information you see on your favorite characters in Marvel Snap today: Cost, Power, card names, and card effects. Shockingly enough, many of these stats and abilities even hold up to this very day, years removed from the concept phase.

Elektra is still a 1 Cost | 1 Power card that destroys an enemy 1-cost card. Captain America is still a 3 Cost | 3 Power card that gives other cards at the same Location +1 Power. Even Galactus remains intact from the very first idea, destroying two Locations on the board if it’s the only card you play at the other. The likes of Professor X, Gambit, Namor, and many others were all envisioned from the very start of development, right on the back of old Blizzard stationery.

“What’s funny is this makes it seem like not a lot changed,” Brode said, “when actually, a lot did change.”

Although the core idea of ‘snapping’ was in place, many fundamentals hadn’t yet taken shape, despite the fact a few dozen cards were effectively finalized right away. From “the number of turns” to “the way Locations work,” and even the Snap mechanic itself, plenty of variables were up in the air as development got underway. “But throughout all of it, a lot of these cards stayed very similar.”

Back in the formative years of Second Dinner, the growing team was laying tracks while the train was already in motion. Cards continued to be theorized while basics building blocks were still yet to be locked in place. Initially, for instance, Locations functioned quite differently from how we see them today, Brode elaborated. Where today each of the three unique Locations reveals itself one turn after another, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, Locations “didn’t always have abilities” in the first place.

Marvel Snap gameplayMarvel / Second Dinner
Marvel Snap’s Locations were once blank slates for cards to manipulate without any added effects.

Later down the road, when custom effects were involved, all three Locations would reveal on turn one. Unfortunately, this solution was “overwhelming,” the team quickly realized before pivoting once again. At this stage, players were even required to build multiple decks — one housing your cards and one for Locations. In essence, each competitor was able to influence the playing field by pre-selecting a favorable effect on the board.

“You built a 12-card hero or villain deck and then you build a Location deck. The Locations were one of mine, one of yours, and one at random. So the games were less variant and it was very unbalanced. Certain strategies had access to very powerful Locations and certain ones didn’t. It was much more complicated.”

While limiting RNG and having a say in which Locations appear has been a popular talking point among the community, Brode and the team tested it extensively in previous years and came to the conclusion it’s simply “less fun.

“Part of the fun in Marvel Snap is being put in new situations that you have to puzzle your way out of. If you’re in the same situation over and over again, there’s less puzzling, less thinking on the fly, and less problem-solving. So I think having a lot of variance there is really important.”

The weight of Hearthstone’s shadow

Regardless of how you look at it, Second Dinner certainly had a tremendous weight on its shoulders during Marvel Snap’s development. Be it internal stress from those on the former Hearthstone team wanting to outdo their previous work, expectations from the new Marvel Games division in their corner, or simply just investors keeping tabs on their progress, pressure was clearly mounting.

“I remember thinking, gosh, what if it’s not fun?” Brode admitted. “We’re going to spend years trying to make this thing and what if I set us off in the wrong direction?”

Having served as the face of the Hearthstone team throughout its launch years, all but representing the developers in videos for the community, appearances at major events, and leading content reveals, Brode is no stranger to bearing the brunt of that pressure. If Marvel Snap were to fall short, in many ways, he would take on that responsibility. But three weeks removed from the global rollout and Marvel Snap has done anything but that.

“Launch has been amazing,” he said, with the trademark Brode smile the CCG community knows all too well. “In some ways, launch represents an exhalation of breath I’ve been holding in for four years.

“I’m a very optimistic person so I felt pretty good about it. We’ve been playing it for years internally. It’s a game we playtest every week if not twice a week. So I think we had the benefit of just a huge amount of time to really hone in and polish the core gameplay, make sure it felt really good.”

But not only that, Brode had unwavering confidence in those around him: “A game like this is only as good as the team building it.

“We have just this unbelievable team. Our VFX artists are so good at making snappy VFX that really highlight the stories of the characters. The engineering team built a really unique backend where we were able to launch a giant game with no server issues, no downtime, that’s kind of unheard of. We just have this unbelievable team. Our number one value is to make a place people really love to work at. Everything else becomes easy after you do that.”

Second Dinner’s launch title shot to the top of the App Store and Google Play charts shortly after release, quickly reassuring Brode and the team at large they were on the right path all those years ago. Though as we all know, in a live-service world, launch is only the beginning. But with the state of Marvel Snap upon release and a developer committed to its long-term success, there’s no question the sky is the limit.