There’s something not quite right about Blizzard’s latest offering, Hearthstone. At its most basic it’s a simplified version of a collectible card game that, like most of their products, takes a well-loved product with a dedicated cult of fans, sands off the rough edges and drops it into the laps of the general populace, prompting cheers and adulation. Indeed, this process has become part of their history and one of their signatures. Westwood Studios’ classic RTS Dune 2 was given the Blizzard treatment, resulting in the Warcraft franchise; World Of Warcraft was the creation of a bunch of Everquest fanatics trying to improve on what had been set as the benchmark for MMOs, and so on. Constant iteration is how gaming as a whole grows and becomes the bedrock for the next generation. But something seems unsteady with their more recent foundations.
The whole Diablo 3 furore is well-known enough by now and readers will probably already be familiar with it anyway. Even if you don’t know, here are just a few important points to bear in mind.
1: The real money auction house system was put in so that players could sell their loot for cash and Blizzard would take a percentage.
2: Some people did not like this at all and it was one of the many reasons that some people turned on the franchise.
3: They have a new expansion coming out and have also, coincidentally, stated that they are removing the real money auction house. In a recent statement, they acknowledged that:
“…it ultimately undermines Diablo’s core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot.”
(It is worth noting that the PS3 and 360 versions, lauded by some pundits as the definitive versions of the game, do not include the auction house.)
All of this unfortunately seems to point to a trend that Blizzard appears to be demonstrating; that they are primarily interested in making as much money as possible, while possible, and then dropping the badly-received design choices rather than standing by them or adjusting them to work as intended. Dropping the auction house will bring them more positive publicity than simply reworking their original ideas and changing the scope and the course of the product itself. Manoeuvres such as these feel less like the actions of an underdog that has fought its way to the top through persistence and a dedication to their universe, their characters and their games, and more like someone, somewhere at Blizzard HQ is twirling their moustache and cackling. It feels like opportunism and it does not mesh with the image that many fans have had of the company as a whole these last years. With all of that said let’s get to the point…
Hearthstone is a fun game. It really is. It takes the formula made famous by Magic: The Gathering, strips back all the unnecessary elements, repaints the remainder and delivers it to an eager Beta-testing crowd all shiny and nice and Jaina Proudmoore-shaped. The aesthetic is instantly familiar and over the course of six introductory matches you are introduced to a few minor WoW characters (and a couple of big ones) that settle you into the play style, showing you what each type of card can do (Cards with Battlecry trigger a certain action when the card is played for example.) You accumulate ‘gems’ each turn that are used to play your cards and they are replenished at the beginning of each turn. The system is simple and easy to pick up, and like most of Blizzard’s games, the complexity does not become immediately apparent until you have become familiar with the basics and begin to play around and experiment with what is possible. It is, first and foremost, a strategy game, allowing you to build upon each elementary rule in your own style and to your own liking, letting you learn how to play your own way. This is one of its biggest strengths and also its one major weakness.
Visually the cards borrow a lot from the WoW TCG. The borders and the text style are instantly reminiscent of the WoW experience as a whole and, if anything, I would prefer this game to actually be playable within WoW. Understandably that’s probably not on their list of priorities, but it fits so well into the canon of Azeroth as a whole that it’s difficult not to imagine this becoming part of the established game. This might be part of the grand plan, and I imagine it’s not far from the minds of the people who see the whole picture.
Now, I have never been a massive player of Magic or Pokemon or the WoW TCG. I have decks of each one and have played the online versions of those that are available for a bit, but for me it was always a phase. I was interested in playing for a couple of hours a week and after that my card game hunger was sated and I could go back to whatever else I was doing. So perhaps, uneducated as I am in the finer points of TCG strategy as a whole, I’m not the most qualified person to be speaking on this subject, or perhaps I am. But here goes.
I feel like the game is cheating. Even when playing against real-life opponents I feel as though I’m being secretly screwed by some unseen element of the game. Not including the opening six tutorial matches, I have played about fifteen games against the AI and about two against real opponents. I have not won a single game. The first six were simple and I felt good. I didn’t feel like I was definitely going to win. They felt like little tiny challenges and I was doing well learning the game as I went. The final opponent, Illidan Stormrage, was introduced as being “Too difficult” with the game declaring that the designers shouldn’t have put him in the game. I honestly thought I might have trouble. I didn’t. I beat them all in two rounds or less and enjoyed the feeling of a tutorial well-made and well-played. Now to start the actual game, said I. Practice mode it is, said I. I’d better click the button and stop talking to myself, said I. That was when the whole illusion dropped at once.
First practice opponent was “Rexxar”, a well-known character to those familiar with the lore of the game. I felt instantly dominated, humiliatingly so. This entire build up had been a sham. I wasn’t any good and I wasn’t going to be any good. Not with this deck. Not with this strategy. OK, I thought, Let’s try it again. Let’s learn from what’s being done. Pick up some ideas from ol’ Rexxar and see if I can play smart. Nope. The first three draws were useless because they either required more gems than I had or needed characters on the board to be effective. For two gems I could use my fireball spell once per turn, but that does one damage and is therefore fairly ineffectual. By this time Rexxar had lost two Hit Points to my fireball and was pissed off. He’d had time to get things moving and I was also suffering damage from his personal weapon attacks and, more importantly, his minions. I was trounced. Probably because I was not playing correctly, but also I felt it was because the deck wasn’t giving me what I needed to be able to play correctly. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything. I didn’t feel like I was getting better, or even being given a chance to get better. I felt stupid and awful at a game I wanted to enjoy. I do not enjoy feeling stupid and awful.
Practice mode allows you to unlock characters that you have beaten, and you can use those characters to earn new cards and new avatars to play as. Each class is represented with a number of cards specific to that style. I started out as Mage and acquired cards as I levelled up, gathering cards with each subsequent loss, hoping that this was me working towards being able to play the game I should be playing. Once I reached level five I felt I had probably acquired enough cards to edit my deck a bit and see what I could come up with to change things up. Again, being inexperienced, this might all just be my fault but I don’t feel that it was. See, the whole game seems to be geared towards allowing easy, instant access to players who have never picked up anything like this. Its light-hearted introduction and explanation of powers and abilities allow a complete beginner to get to grips with the whole system. So it would make sense that you would include some sort of helpful tutorial about choosing a deck; apparently not. There is a tutorial of sorts and it does explain exactly what you need to do. (Choose a card you like the look of. Now pick some that require three crystals. Now pick some that need more. Now choose some lower level. How about using some of these to even the deck out?) It’s very friendly and easy to understand and I totally got why I was picking cards from each separate section. What I didn’t understand was how this made any difference. I could pick all the three crystal cards I wanted, I could pick the strongest and fastest and bestest there is. But if they didn’t get drawn, I was still going to get destroyed. And then I realised. It sunk in slowly and filled my mind with dread. The Diablo 3 auction house isn’t dead. They aren’t killing it or anything of the sort. They just moved it and called it something else.
Now, let me say that the dedication, the time and effort and pure skill that has gone into the play system and the crafting the game itself is undeniable. The style is great and it ties the entire Warcraft universe together in a similar way to what was achieved in the game “Poker Night at The Inventory” by TellTale Games. It feels fun, it feels exciting and dammit, I want to be good at this game. I want to feel like I know what I’m doing. I want to be able to beat the first fucking practice mission. But unless I am willing to pay some cash to get better cards, all I can do is slog through and lose until I level up to a point where the cards are given to me. I’m playing a game where I’ve been given a toothpick and i’m being told I need to dig for gold to save enough to buy a shovel, so I can dig for gold to afford an earth mover. It’s not fun. I don’t like feeling terrible at things and it seems the only way to not feel terrible at this particular thing is to buy better cards. It feels skeezy and manipulative. It feels like this is the direction that Blizzard is heading for good. (With rumours of a cash shop coming to WoW shortly this may be truer than we think.) Cash shop economics should always boil down to “This will cost you eight hours of play time to get, or fifteen quid if you want it now,” thus attributing a monetary value to the effort expended in the achievement of the in game rewards. But when you add on “…and also you won’t feel completely useless at this game” to the end of that sentence, it’s no longer about choice or deciding whether I want to put my time into it. It’s about making me feel rubbish enough that I have to pay you to feel better.
As a potential entry point into the world of TCGs, Hearthstone really doesn’t explain nearly enough about deck-building, about setting yourself up well in the early stages, about basic strategy. I know that it’s still in Beta, but so much of it feels polished to perfection that it’s difficult not to see the omission of a beginner’s practice section (or the choice to replay the introduction) as completely intentional. The game, happy and jigging introduces the core elements, joyfully grins the whole time it shows you how to play and then slaps you hard across the face again and again until you figure out what to do. The problem is, I don’t know what I’m not doing to stop myself getting slapped in the face. Everything the tutorial showed me is easily swatted away or rebutted by the AI. I have been taught how to defend against being kicked in the balls, then dropped in the wilderness to fend for myself and everything I encounter wants to slap me in the face. I wasn’t taught this. All I can do is take it all and wait until someone tries kicking me in the balls, swat it away and live off that tiny victory.
I could see Hearthstone becoming a damn good jumping-on point for the last few years of WoW or the Warcraft universe in general. Getting in this way gives people a starting point that they can associate with, getting on board with Blizzard as a whole without feeling as though they’re years behind. But it doesn’t do that. It feels insular. It feels like it’s been designed for six people and some of their friends. It feels like it’s been made for people who already know the game intricately, people who are willing and able to drop piles of cash for new decks every week. It’s the reason that I don’t see any point in playing Starcraft II multiplayer. I have played maybe 15 or 20 matches in my time and I don’t see where I am supposed to learn from my mistakes. I get destroyed, my opponent calls me a fag and that’s the end of it. It’s not fun. There are people who thrive on it and Blizzard accommodate for those people very well. They are putting in fifty and sixty hours a week practicing their game, and they are committed and dedicated to the serious business of Starcraft and WoW Raiding and Arena play and now they have a new thing to dedicate their time to. I used to be one of those people who could (but probably shouldn’t) have put in forty or fifty hours a week on WoW or Starcraft. Hearthstone has shown me that I’m really probably not one of those people anymore.
Anton K is a keen gamer. Proper games, that is. Find him on Twitter @ajkrasauskas.