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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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