“Busy night, but there’s always room for another!” says the friendly dwarf voice, with the warm sounds of a cozy tavern playing in the background.
That’s how I’m greeted as I log onto my Hearthstone beta account. It makes me think, is there room for another free to play digital card game on top of SolForge, Duel of Champions, and the multitude of other free to play digital card games out there? The answer, of course, is sure; after all they are FREE and don’t take up any physical space. Which means I have no pressure to play out of obligation by subscription or physical investment. It’s a Darwinian world where my time and money will go to the game that is simply the most fun to play. And right now, that game is Hearthstone.
A lot of it is still the cult of the new, and I only just got into the Hearthstone beta a little over a week ago so I’m still very much in the exploratory phase. In addition, most free-to-play games tend to front-load new players with a lot of quick rewards that give a real feeling of value and that tends to fade as players get into the grind and become faced with the tough choice of either spending money or having their advancement slow to a crawl. I’ll be in the “new game” phase with Hearthstone for a bit longer because of the clever class leveling system which means there is a lot of content just waiting to be unlocked as you explore each class, but more on this later.
The purpose of this post is to give my thoughts on why my initial experience makes me think Hearthstone will see a huge amount of success. I see the potential of Hearthstone as resting on 3 legs: IP, Polish, and Gameplay.
The intellectual property of Blizzard and more specifically the Warcraft Universe is clearly a huge leg up over, say, the Might and Magic IP of Duel of Champions. Just the Warcraft brand alone will ensure a pretty high minimum sales figures from all the Warcraft nuts out there with way too much money. And Blizzard’s interesting choice to avoid tying Hearthstone too specifically to the “World of Warcraft”, combined with the casual and humorous manner that Hearthstone treats the lore with, ensures they have a bit more flexibility in applying the Warcraft IP and timeline to the game that might draw in some people who have developed an aversion to the MMO itself but still like the larger IP setting.
The IP and Blizzard label will certainly draw a lot of people in, but what will really wow them once they try it is the tremendous graphical and audio polish of the game. Blizzard is, after all, renowned for their high release standards and tremendous levels of polish in all their games, a trait which has earned them a lot of purchases from me. Hearthstone has allowed Blizzard to pour their money and resources into carrying their tradition to a new genre, the digital card game. The result has easily set a new industry standard. The overall atmosphere of the game creates an amazingly pleasant experience, from the rich sound effects to the shiny stylized Blizzard graphics to the fantastic and functional UI. The crowd sounds ooing and ahhing when you land a big hit, the magic missiles arcing across the board, the excited cheers when you flip over a legendary card, all of it creates a sort of tactile feedback that simply makes you want to play the game more.
Of course people may come for the IP, and they may be wowed by the polish, but the only thing that will really keep players for the long-haul is good gameplay mechanics. Here Hearthstone manages to impress also, borrowing heavily from the now defunct WoW TCG while also managing a delicate balance in terms of complexity so that it can appeal to the largest possible audience. The resource system is a very simple stepping system going from 1 to 10 so there are no concerns over mana screw or complex resource curves. The game gives you pre-built decks for every class once you have unlocked them, and can even complete a deck for you that you have partially built. The decks are only 30 cards with a max of 2 cards per type which makes constructing even totally custom decks not too daunting, while at the same time maintaining the same statistical control over the consistency of your deck that the Magic 60 card deck/4 duplicate max rule has. The tutorial provides a nice easy intro into the gameplay itself and explains all the main concepts. All this combined with the gorgeous graphics and interface makes the game very simple to ease into even for someone who has never played a DCG before. On the other side of the coin, the persistent minion health, carefully developed set of keywords, and class variety provides for much more depth than initially meets the eye.
What is dominating my early game experience is the very cool class leveling system. The game starts you off with a Mage deck at level 1, which means it has 5 of the 10 Mage-specific “basic” set cards. Basic set cards are permanent, once you have them you have a full playset basically bound to your account and you cannot remove or lose them. As you play your Mage deck you earn XP and it levels up, unlocking a further basic card every 2 levels (2, 4, 6, etc) until at Level 10 you have all 10 basic cards for that class. You have this same process for every other class, except you have to win a single game against the AI to unlock each other class. This means there are 45 basic cards to unlock and it will take you maybe around 200 games to unlock all of them, which is a pretty huge amount of gameplay with steady rewards to keep you going. This isn’t even counting the fact that you can earn gold (in-game currency) by winning PVP matches and by completing specific quests (such as winning 3 games as a Warlock or Shaman) which allow you to buy packs of cards. Packs only have 5 cards but since a deck only has 30 anyways it actually feels about right. Cards from packs are “expert” cards, of which there is a set number of neutral and a set number of additional cards for each class. These expert cards can be recycled into “dust” which can then be crafted into cards of your choice, based on rarity and a very inefficient formula. This gives players the opportunity to obtain any card they desire provided they have cards they are willing to burn to get them. Playing the game for free appears perfectly viable, at least for a while, though perhaps I will hit a wall once I have leveled all the classes to 10 where the grind for more gold starts to become less bearable.
Of course free to play card games tend to have some of the worst pay-to-win problems and you can purchase expert packs for cash which means some elite players have dumped a few hundred bucks and already have a huge collection of higher rarity cards. The ranked match-making keeps you matched against similar tier players so you aren’t facing elite players until you rise to their level, but progressing to that level is probably going to mean spending some cash. It just depends on how important that is to you I guess vs. the gameplay being it’s own reward.
For now Hearthstone is riding a huge wave of popularity, and there is a lot of development room in the game for new card sets, new features, and tie-ins with other Blizzard games. I haven’t even gone into the Arena format yet which is interesting in it’s own right as an alternative game mode that uses more of a sealed draft style to put players on an even competitive footing. I would say opt-in to the beta if you are interested and have a Battle.net account, and give the game a spin. I think there is a lot here even if you only play casually and who knows where Blizzard will be able to take this with the kind of resources they have. It should be a fun ride, made all the more fun by the fact that I’m not shackled down by a subscription.
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