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Hearthstone – Game modes to win – 2

In the previous part I talked about Hearthstone’s design from the point of view of an isolated game. In this article I want to look at the influence different game modes and long term goals have on the experience. I will however focus on the multiplayer modes, excluding Adventures for now.

Game Modes

Arena

Lets talk about the Arena mode first. Personally I love the Arena. It accomplishes so much. In this mode the player picks one class out of three offered, then proceeds to pick one out of three cards until they have a full deck. Then the player is matched with other players until they either win twelve games, or loose three. It’s a draft mode. Those existed before in other games but it works really well.  So what sets the Arena apart from other modes of play? Well for once it has a very well defined goal. Getting those twelve wins for the first time is extremely satisfying. Sure Ranked mode (I’ll get to that) has the legend rank but that requires a huge amount of games to be played while getting twelve wins can be done in two or three hours on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a goal just close enough to be motivating.

 

Arena draft
Drafting a deck

 

Then there is the drafting itself.  Drafting an arena deck requires an entirely different skill set then just playing the game. Evaluating a card on the fly isn’t at all like building an entire deck from your cards. Risk and reward of picking cards which require synergies, keeping an eye on your mana curve and just being generally aware that a good arena card doesn’t have to be good in constructed and vice versa. There are many small things to consider and improve upon here which makes for a nice learning curve. Of course drafting has a random element to it. But just like the discover mechanic, having three choices tends to average out alright. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good or bad arena decks. But getting as far as you can even with a bad deck is part of the fun of the game.

The most important thing about the Arena is that is a complete equalizer though. The card collection and by extent the amount of money spend on the game don’t matter. Every possible card is available to everyone. This is really important. Free to Play games, even the “fair” ones, don’t often have a part of the game where everyone is completely equal. The arena isn’t free though. One has to pay either with ingame gold or real money to start a run. But since every card in the game is available in this mode there has to be a reason to play the other parts of the game. it is also interesting that it’s  this paywall which allows the arena to have a much higher reward structure then for example Ranked. A good arena player will often come out ahead without paying real money at all. I like free stuff as much as everyone else, but I can’t really disagree with this. Not to mention that an investment makes it all the more exciting.

Tavern Brawl

Another interesting game mode is the Tavern Brawl. This one is a lot harder to explain though. Every week a new brawl will be released with a certain change to the game rules. This can be anything from premade decks with interesting cards to completely unique heroes or more subtle changes to how mana or spells work. The fact that anything might be changed is the beauty of it. It allows the developers to prototype new mechanics and immediately get feedback from the players in an isolated environment. That’s one of the best communication between developer and player base I’ve seen.

It also gives players a reason to come back every week and earn a free pack for the first win, which is just another tiny thing to help those new players out. It is a shame though that the brawls cycle in an unpredictable manner and there is no way to replay them independently of this timing. Some tavern brawls have quickly become fan favorites and I’d love a way to play them at least with friends. Overall it is great addition with its own purpose though. There is absolutely no competitive side to the brawls, since there are no rewards beyond the first win. It exists  just for the enjoyment of it. Which means Tavern Brawls pretty much replaced….

 

Example Tavern Brawl
Apparentely there is a new set of crazy rules every week!

 

Casual

Oh how pointless this mode is. Casual should be the counterpoint to Ranked. It was supposed to be the mode where winning didn’t matter. And it doesn’t. Every three wins the player is rewarded with ten gold. Which is a small bonus at best. So the idea is to have a game mode where people would play classes and decks they’re not familiar with and do so without the pressure of loosing a rank.

The problem is that Casual absolutely does have a rank. It’s just hidden. Casual is the only game mode which uses a Matchmaking Rating (MMR) to match the players. Think of it of assigning a number to each player corresponding to how good they are matching close numbers. This isn’t bad in theory. After all matchmaking should do its best to let players of equal skill compete against each other. In reality people’s MMR seems to be either way too high or too low most of the time. I can’t try out my silly Mill Rogue deck if everyone I compete against in Casual is legendary rank. What is annoying is that new players often fall into the trap of playing Casual when Ranked would be the fairer experience. What is even more annoying is that I don’t know how to make this mode better other then improving the MMR system. Casual does have a place. It just doesn’t work right now.

Ranked

Saving the most played mode for last here. Well, it’s a ladder. Win games, increase rank. Every month there is a reset and a reward dependent on the highest achieved rank in addition to the usual three wins for ten gold. These rewards aren’t that amazing, the most relevant one being a cosmetic card back. It is nice though that the card back for every month is unique, allowing players to show off a little by using those from the early days.

 

Hearthstone_Cardbacks
Me showing off card backs from the early days

 

Ranked is pretty much the main mode of Hearthstone for most players. What I dislike about it is that it doesn’t really complement Hearthstone’s design all that well. A Game designed  to be played in short bursts probably shouldn’t have a carrot on a stick dangling in front of the player for a month. It seems that one has to either commit a lot or shouldn’t bother at all. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a competitive mode to Hearthstone. I’m a competitive player myself. But Arena isn’t free, Tavern Brawl isn’t always available and of variable quality and casual is broken. The result is that the more casual audience is forced into ranked mode. Which isn’t great for anyone. I was lying when I said Casual was the only mode with an MMR. At rank 0, better known as Legendary, all Legend players are matched with an MMR. I don’t really have to say much about the Legendary rank. It serves as a goal to players and has its own ladder to compete for the number one to provide a new goal to those reaching it consistently.

Pay and Win

I will again preface this by saying that I’m aware of changes coming to the game soon. They are not implemented yet though. With that out of the way lets talk business…model. Hearthstone is a Free to Play game. You can pay for card packs, playing in the Arena and for optional hero skins. The first two things can also be purchased with ingame currency, which is acquired relatively easily.

Personally I didn’t pay for much in the game, but that is because I play the game since its official release, before there were any expansions. From a perspective of a new player right now, the business model probably seems a lot less fair. Particular the adventures are major gates, simply because they have to be unlocked in a specific order. So if I want to unlock a card from the fifth wing of Naxxramas I need to buy the entire adventure for 3500 ingame gold. Bundle prices also only apply if payed with real money, creating a barrier to entry for new players not willing to immediately spend anything. Yes the adventures also have additional content besides the cards, but that is not the point. Additionally all the worthwhile gold giving quest require you to win games, which can be a significant time investment for a newer player. Changing the quests to games played would require an internal timer to make sure the games are real, but it would help a lot to make the new player experience less frustrating. Honestly I don’t think I could get into the game at all if I started it today. The Arena mode and Tavern Brawls even this out a bit, but it is a shame that one need to invest so much to play the regular game. It quickly becomes a grind.

I’d like to address the issue of Pay to Win. I don’t think paying for card packs really helps you win more games. Only up to a point, really. There are always cheap decks that are competitive, and player skill has more impact than any particular legendary card. All that said, I believe Pay To Win is a matter of perspective. Simply because winning isn’t necessarily the same thing for everyone. If you read this far you probably have an idea on what kind of player I am. I like to play a one on one game competitively, have some nostalgia for Warcraft and like CCG’s in general. This isn’t true for every other Hearthstone player out there however. To distinguish different kinds of people who use a product it is useful to create a persona for each of them. These are fictional people who desire certain features in the product. Sandra the office worker might want an interface similar to the software she already uses, while steve the system administrator would like a command line interface for configuration. This is commonly used in Software Devolopment. Games aren’t any different then that. And while the distinction between casual and hardcore players is pretty useless, a better look at their players and what they want out of the game can be of great help. Here are some definitions of “winning” which I can think of in Hearthstone.

  • Win a game in constructed
  • Achieving legendary rank
  • Achieving top legendary rank
  • Own every card
  • Have your favorite deck in shiny gold cards
  • Own every non-monthly card back

Now the whole Pay to Win thing gets more complicated. If “winning” for you is to own every card, and you can pay a few 100$ to get them. it somewhat becomes Pay to Win. If your goal is to get every card back available, you flat out have to pay for the ridiculously overpriced hero portraits. To be fair, looking at it from this perspective pretty much every Free to Play business model out there falls flat. To be fair again though, pretty much all of them are bad. I will admit that the most important aspect is whether paying money directly allows a player to win more games, since this is also where two players interact with each other. My answer to that is still no. And no one should care if someone else pays for something and now feels good about it because they own every card. It becomes an Issue though when some long term goals require payment. This is why I disagree with the idea that having to pay for cosmetics is always fine. If some card backs are in the game as rewards for certain achievements then the game directly encourages players to see them as a goal. If other card backs are only available for money however, then what’s the point? I think it is important to realize that a competitive player and a player interested in aesthetics aren’t the same and to value both their experiences and expectations.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Hearthstone – Baby’s first RNG simulator? – 1

Introduction

This post contains my thoughts on the game design in Hearthstone. Since this is about an ever changing online game it is important to note that I’m writing this as the League of Explorers adventure is the newest content available and wild and standard have just been announced as a change to the format. It is quite likely that the game might have changed significantly in the future – for better or worse.

So what is Hearthstone? It is an Online Collectible Card Game (or CCG) made by Blizzard Entertainment. It is similar to traditional Trading Card Games like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-gi-oh, but in Video Game Format. For context I recommend to either play it before reading (it’s free to play) or at least watch a video of someone playing it. But in summary: 2 players; play cards; attack opponent; win. Good stuff. And simple enough.

An Image of a game of Hearthstone
A Warrior against a Mage

Simplicity

Which brings me to my first point. Hearthstone is well known for being a really really simple game. There are certainly several reasons for that. First the win condition isn’t particularly complicated – you just reduce the health of your opponents hero to zero. The resource management is almost completely removed compared to games like Magic, since mana automatically increments every turn up to a total of 10. Similarly, the game doesn’t split each turn into different phases like other CCG’s tend to do. There are no interruptions and you can play your cards and do your attacks in whatever order you want, making it rather straightforward.

But I think the biggest reason it is so simple and easy to pick up is due to its nature of being a video game. Hearthstone does a great job of using visual aids to guide the player. Cards have a green border when they can be played, even changing the color of the border when a specific condition is fulfilled. There is also no need for a lot of card text, since the players don’t have to resolve the effects themselves. Just play a card and see what happens. The card text only needs to give the player an idea of what’s going to happen. The game is also paced quite fast with relatively low health totals so games are over quickly.

Visual aids
Green: Cards that can be played. Yellow: A condition is fulfilled for the effect (in this case a mech is on the board)

 

That being said there is a trade off to be made here. Hearthstone games just don’t feel as large or impactful as playing a card game in real life. Think of a card that deals 3 random damage to any character (Mad Bomber) for example. To play a card like this in real life you would need to assign a number to each occupied slot on the board, and throw a dice with these numbers three times to get the effect resolved. And while doing this over and over would be quite a hassle, it would also make playing mad bomber a more meaningful experience in the game. The developers do try to recreate this effect by making the animations of the game very physical and they really do a pretty good job there. In the end the quick card resolution accelerates the games even further, resulting in hearthstone being a game designed to be played in short sessions in between.

Depth

So since Hearthstone is basically baby’s first CCG it must be lacking depth in its gameplay right? Well yes and no. Lacking some features like different phases certainly limit depth to a degree. It is worth noting however that depth does not necessarily equal complexity. A game can be quite easy to play but still have a huge depth. Just look at go for an example. It is however true that complexity is one way to create depth. If a game is hard to pick up to begin with, it will always have a high skill ceiling. I’m looking at you Europa Universalis 4.

Hearthstone introduces depth with several mechanics. First there are the classes. Every class has different class cards as well as its own underlying concept. Shamans and Druids actually do have a form of resource management with their overload and ramp mechanics. Rogues on the other hand have to be aware of how many cards they have in hand since they depend on playing multiple cards on the same turn. Splitting these mechanics into the different classes allows the game to have decent depth without sacrificing its simplicity for it. Since the pool of cards has to be split among the 9 classes though, this can sometimes make the options feel limited.

Another reason why Hearthstone is a rather deep game isn’t really due to good design though. The game just flat out doesn’t tell you its full rule set. While I praised how the game doesn’t use much card text, because really seeing LORD JARAXXUS – EREDAR LORD OF THE BURING LEGION played once is usually enough to understand the card, some things just aren’t that easy. I’m speaking of the so called “hidden rules” of Hearthstone. To give a few examples:

  • Buffs can be silenced, Transformation effects can not. Cards do not specify which effect they use.
  • When two or more minions with a deathrattle die, the effects will be resolved in the order they entered the board.
  • A Hero can only have a maximum of 5 secrets in play at the same time.
  • A minion at zero health can still trigger its effect.
Card inconsistencies
Left: a transformation. Right: a buff

 

The problem is this information can not be found in the game. In general the game follows a depth-first approach to resolving plays. These things might seem a bit obscure, but as someone who played the game quite a bit I can say they really are not. Not to mention that some of these rules have exceptions; simply because the cards have been coded differently. I believe a rulebook accessible from within the game for these kind of things would help a lot. As it stands, Hearthstone gains depth by forcing some trial and error out of its playerbase, which really isn’t ideal.

Skill and Luck

I do consider Hearthstone to be a rather skillful game. Not everyone would agree though. A lot of this comes due to the very type of game it is. If you’d ask someone if they think chess is a game of skill the vast majority of people would probably say yes. If you’d ask the same for poker however the answers get much more varied. Poker players with a lot of games would say yes, while there will be a decent amount of people saying its all luck.

From a game theory perspective Hearthstone is a zero-sum game with imperfect information. Zero-sum means for every player who wins, another one has to loose. Imperfect information means a player doesn’t know everything about the current gamestate. In Hearthstone the hand of the player and the opponent, the board and the remaining cards in both decks make up the gamestate. Only the players hand, the board and the amount of cards the other player has are the visible gamestate however. The thing about these kind of games is that their skill isn’t perceived so easily. In a game with perfect information like chess, the better player will win every single game unless he makes a mistake. With imperfect information however, the better player will just have won more after a certain amount of games, since making an educated guess about the hidden information just isn’t as reliable as knowing everything. This is obviously simplifying game theory a bit but that’s the gist of it.

What this means is that tournaments with a best of three format are kind of silly in my opinion. It’s like having poker players play 5 hands before deciding who won.

Hearthstone however, further complicates this by introducing a large number of cards with random effects on top of the inherit randomness of the imperfect information. I’d like to talk about what I think these random cards add to the game, before I actually judge their impact on the level of skill the game allows for.

The first thing that comes to mind for me is, funnily enough, the increased skill ceiling. A Random effect creates a branching path of possible outcomes for which the player has to account for. Similarly the game can be manipulated to make the random effect work in your favor every time. Cards like Crackle and Bomb Lobber are good examples for cards like this. Bomb Lobber in particular is 100% reliable if the opponent only has one minion on board. Learning how to use cards like this effectively is part of the challenge and the game would be worse without them.

Crackle and Bomb Lobber
Randomness which can be made predictable is good randomness

 

Then there is the increased design space if a card game allows for random effects. Simply stated: a random card can have a higher power level since it has some potentially bad outcomes. Ysera is a good example of this. Ysera gives the player one of a specific set of dream cards at the end of their turn. All these cards are powerful, but some are more useful then others. If the player was allowed to choose a specific card, Ysera simply couldn’t exist even if the cards were to be nerfed.

Next random cards exist to keep the simplicity of the game intact. Imagine playing Knife Juggler, a card that deals one damage randomly whenever the player summons a minion, but with his ability being targeted. Play a minion, choose where to deal one damage, play another, choose where to deal one damage. This would make the interface cluttered. This is probably why there are no targetable persistent abilities in the game right now. And while I certainly hope targeted minionabilities get implemented one day I can see why this wouldn’t work with some interesting cards.

The last thing here are “player stories”. Blizzard keeps bringing this up when talking about randomness so I might as well. This means that randomness can make for memorable games. True enough, a lot of wacky things can happen in Hearthstone. While I had these games and I can see why the designers would want the players to experience this, personally I think it potentially sacrifices the consistent enjoyment of the game for the occasional spike of enjoyment.

So randomness isn’t really a bad thing. It makes it harder to perceive skill, but can also increase the real skill required on top of many other positive effects. That being said, there a couple of cards which take randomness too far and become problematic. And yes I’m aware we are (sort of) rid of most of them very soon. That doesn’t make it less useful to talk about them for future reference.

Unstable portal

Unstable Portal

This card is probably the embodiment of the “player stories” philosophy. It can be great fun but it is completely independent from any player skill. Creating any minion in the game is just too much of a variance to be able to plan ahead. It’s a card that you play and hope it benefits you.

Shredders …and a raptor

shredders

These cards have the same problem but to a lesser degree. Since battlecry effects get taken out of the equation for their summons they are a lot more predictable. The problem they suffer though is that they, as well as unstable portal, will constantly get stealth buffed/nerfed when new cards get introduced. Cards that interact strongly with a huge chunk of the card pool are unpredictable three expansions down the line.

Boom bot

boom

This is just dumb. I’m sorry but it is. Stacking two random effects on top of each other is just bad design, and having to see them resolved twice each time Dr. Boom gets played is just asking for trouble. The variance on this is just through the roof.

So the problem really isn’t randomness, it’s variance. Random effects are perfectly fine as long as they have a level of predictability. The good news is that blizzard seems to have found a nice middle ground to this. The at the time of writing newest adventure of the game (The League of Explorers) introduced the discover mechanic, which lets you pick one out of 3 random cards of a specific type. These cards do have huge variance but they even out in the end. 3 bad cards will always have one more useful then the other, while you can still only pick 1 out of 3 great cards. Furthermore these cards go to your hand without any cost reduction so they remove the tempo of unstable portal and shredder. This allows players to play with unusual cards, while still including players choice. It is a great mechanic and I hope future high variance cards will learn a lesson from it.

In the next part I will talk about the various game modes as well as the business model and whatever else I can think of.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com