Hearthstone: (Veteran) Heroes of Warcaft

photo from Blizzard Press Center

On March 11, 2014, Blizzard Entertainment released an online, collectible card video game known casually as “Hearthstone.” Since its inception (and as of December 5th, 2016), 672 new cards have been released through 4 expansions — where cards are simply released for purchase — and 4 adventures — where players can pay with money or gold (in-game currency) to go through a “campaign” mode to unlock cards the further they progress. The online card game has received generally positive reactions from Metacritic.com, IGN.com, and GameSpot.com among many others. However, a simple search on Hearthstone’s subreddit brings up one of the biggest struggles that Hearthstone is facing: keeping newcomers around. While many current users could praise the game, that would be looking at it from a veteran’s perspective. The other side of the spectrum shows complaints that getting into Hearthstone is near impossible. Many are quick to point the finger at Hearthstone for lacking a substantial initiative towards helping a beginner of the game enjoy the game enough to stick around to learn how to be good at Hearthstone.

Hearthstone, for all intents and purposes, is a F2P (free-to-play) game; beginners are able to unlock every aspect of Hearthstone (adventures and cards) without having to pay a cent, and it’s an achievement that still has yet to be met since many users end up spending money on packs and adventures instead of unlocking them with gold earned through constant play. However, there’s an bigger question that must be asked when it comes to this. Why are there so few people who can say that they’ve unlocked most, if not all, of the game’s achievements without paying for it? The answer is simple: it’s way too hard to beginners.

From a personal account, when I first played Hearthstone in the summer of 2015, I was hooked throughout the tutorial. The concepts of tempo, card advantage, and the Coin (what you get when you go second in a game) were mesmerizing, and I knew that I wanted to keep playing to get better. However, once I was finished with the tutorial and headed into what Hearthstone really was, I realized how impossible it was at the time to get good. In Constructed, a mode where players choose and play with pre-made decks, my opponents would play cards that the tutorial had never even mentioned, and after asking my roommate, who had some previous experience with the game, I realized that they all had quite a number of legendary cards while I was stuck with what every beginner gets for free. In fact, the Hearthstone subreddit has even seen incidents of new players, with beginner decks, facing Legend (the highest-tier players) players due to some faulty matchmaking. Another problem was with another mode that Hearthstone provides: the Arena. For a price of $1.99 or 150 gold, players can choose from three cards at a time to construct a 30-card deck and face other players who have assembled their own 30-card decks in the same fashion. However, as a beginner, I, and a lot of other beginners, wasted my one free trial as I, obviously, had no real grasp of the game’s concepts that I previously mentioned. The tutorial was only able to explain the very basic concepts of the game, but there were so many more concepts besides those that I just didn’t fully understand yet. What happened was a pretty long hiatus from the game as there was no point in playing when I wasn’t having fun and especially when even playing the game wasn’t helping me understand those concepts.

I got back into it… eventually… but that’s not the point. The point is that it was far too difficult for me to get into the game, and it took way too long for me to say that I finally understood different concepts well enough to consider myself “good.” This part of the newcomer experience is what Hearthstone really needs to look at if they want to excel in attracting newcomers and more importantly, keeping those newcomers around long enough for them to become committed players. Allow me to elaborate on 3 ideas to make the newcomer experience as pleasant as possible because Hearthstone definitely isn’t easy for beginners as it stands right now.

  1. Implement a “coaching” system/mode between veteran and new players.

As I mentioned through my experience in joining Hearthstone, it took extremely too long for me to understand all the different concepts of the game. Authors Robert Kraut and Paul Resnick explain in their book, “Building Successful Online Communities,” that when new members create and have friendly experiences with older members, they are far more likely to remain an active part of that community (pp. 204, 217). My idea would allow a mode where veteran players can volunteer to help coach beginners on the ins and outs of the game whether that be by communicating through Blizzard’s recently implemented voice-chat system or by playing against them with both players’ cards visible to both players. This would allow veteran players to help establish their reputation throughout the community while allowing new players to see just how great they can become at the game like their fellow coaches. Kraut and Resnick also mention how personal engagement between newcomers and old-timers increases bonds-based commitment, and having a way to have personal engagement through the game is far more feasible to players than adding a random user and asking for help (pp. 92). Additionally, this system would require some sort of reward for coaches, and my idea would be a simple 35 gold per game played with the mentee — enough to warrant interest but not enough to abuse for free packs, which cost 100 gold per.

2. Allow beginners to play games with all possible cards unlocked temporarily.

The biggest flaw that I would give Hearthstone is that newcomers have only a limited quality of cards to play with when they first join, but they’re able to face people who have all of the most powerful cards in the game already unlocked. Currently, there is a practice mode where players can play against AI bot but with their limited card collection. Hearthstone should strongly seek to allow players to craft decks with every available card so that newcomers can see for themselves how fun the game can be when you have the “strong,” “cool” cards. Kraut and Resnick state that giving members an experience that meets their motivation for joining a community strengthens their needs-based commitment to that community (pp. 107). It took me months to enjoy Hearthstone the way that veteran players do after unlocking the cards that I needed to be competitive. Giving newcomers a glimpse of the gameplay at higher levels satisfies their initial desire of joining the game and ideally, keeps them interested enough to stay apart of the community and unlock all of the achievements available to them.

3. Create a beginner-only mode.

I’d be willing to bet that many beginning users have their own stories of how they had to play against players with legitimate “meta” decks while they were still new to the game. As it stands, Hearthstone’s only “beginner-only” mode lies in ranks 25–20 (Hearthstone’s ranks go downward to 1 then Legend, being the best), and once you leave that 5-level range of beginners, you are thrown into the Hearthstone realm where you can face similar beginners who have limited decks and experienced players with a full collection. What Hearthstone needs is a mode where literally only beginners are able to play. Casual sees too much experienced play, which fails to give beginners the lessons necessary to improve at the game. Kraut and Resnick mention that creating groups within a larger online community increases commitment (pp. 83), and having a group where only beginners can play with one another to improve gradually really helps beginners progress more and more in the game to the point where they can figuratively stand on their own two feet when it comes understanding different concepts of the game.

Without a doubt, Hearthstone is a fun game that I would introduce to anyone and everyone. However, the issue has always been Blizzard’s stubbornness in making the game a little more friendly towards new players. Research can back my claims that these implementations would significantly increase newcomer commitment to the game, and I’m sure that user numbers would skyrocket if Blizzard made the concepts, the method of gameplay improvement, and the unlocking of cards easier for beginners. Until then, it really is a game for people who have spent a significant time on it.

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