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Design Impressions: Hearthstone

September 7th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been playing Hearthstone since the iphone release. It’s obviously an extremely well-crafted game, though it can be baffling or frustrating at times. My favorite experiences have been the Solo Adventures, especially Blackrock Mountain and League of Explorers. But i’ve also played my fair share of Ranked, Arena, and tried virtually every Tavern Brawl to date.

Hearthstone logo     Gameplay
• Luck is a huge deal. There’s no way to win consistently against anyone remotely close in skill level.
• Random turn order, shuffled card draw, and blind opponent class selection ensures occasional/regular losses, amplified by RNG mechanics and limited access to valuable cards.
  ○ This is obviously intentional design, to level the playing field for casual players who take longer to grasp nuances and learn matchups, or don’t bother looking up strats on the internet.
  ○ Everyone wins sometimes, even in late stages of Arena runs.
• High level constructed games are often 75% luck, 20% knowledge, and 5% critical thinking.
  ○ Outplaying opponents is rare, especially in aggro meta. All you can do is play the hand you’re dealt and avoid obvious mistakes.
  ○ It may be dumb gambling at times, but there’s still an adrenaline rush before/during matches, especially in Ranked/Arena modes. I can see how people who’ve never played a real skill-based competitive game can get hooked.
• A more positive spin is that Hearthstone is a game of probabilities, which shift dramatically based on whether you’re winning or losing – and being able to determine whether you’re winning or losing is an expert-level skill.
  ○ Since so much of the game is hidden, winning consistently at high ranks requires strong familiarity with your own deck, your opponent’s class, and the current meta. You’re basically expected to deduce what deck your opponent is playing within the first few turns!

    Monetization / Currency
• There are three different types of currency (real money, gold, dust), several other accumulated resources (hero levels, ranking stars, ranking levels, Arena key levels), and lots of numbers to manage in-game (health, mana, weapon durability).
  ○ Somehow everything remains intuitive, possibly because each resource serves a distinct function within its own domain.
  ○ Real money isn’t stored in mobile accounts, only appearing when the player is about to make a purchase. Gold is the grinding currency and it’s displayed everywhere. Dust is the crafting currency and it’s only displayed in the crafting screen.
• Card acquisition is pure gambling, with rares being relatively easy to obtain via crafting and specific legendaries virtually impossible to obtain without spending hundreds of real dollars.
  ○ It’s shocking how slowly higher end cards accumulate, especially when dabbling in multiple classes, which is almost mandatory to complete daily quests and difficult Solo Adventures.

Hearthstone Elementals (Practice: Expert vs Mage)     Free Single-Player Content
• Initial tutorials are short and fun, followed by practice matches against straightforward AI-controlled decks.
  ○ There’s enough free content to engage new players for 2-5 hours without feeling repetitive.
• Gold rewards are provided at an accelerated pace early on, due to hidden one-time achievements. Once that period ends, the offline gold earning trickle stops entirely.
• Players must start playing online (Casual or Ranked) to continue earning gold through daily quests and win streak rewards.
  ○ Simultaneously, offline play becomes boring due to a lack of variety when playing against practice mode AI opponents. Overall, Hearthstone does a great job of onboarding newcomers and nudging them into the active online player pool.

    Paid Single-Player Content
• Solo Adventures are story-driven battles against powerful boss decks; all locked behind pay walls with a steep gold cost (700G/$6.99 per wing vs 200G/$2.99 per two packs).
  ○ Beating each encounter unlocks Class Challenges, facing the same boss with a specially pre-constructed deck. These are typically easy, yet inspirational and fun to replay occasionally.
• Obviously the primary goal of any competitive game is keeping players engaged in online matches, to keep matchmaking quick and accurate.
  ○ Charging for quality single-player adventures is a good way to earn revenue from offline players, which funds additional content.
  ○ Otherwise continued development might be financially unsustainable.

    Alternate PvP Modes
Hearthstone Elementals (Tavern Brawl)• Arena mode highlights dynamic deck construction and emphasizes mid-game improvisation, since Arena decks generally don’t have nearly as much synergy and optimization as constructed decks.
  ○ Sadly, Blizzard doesn’t always pay enough attention to Arena balance when releasing new cards. Mage and Rogue are currently much stronger than other classes, and have been for some time.
• Tavern Brawl introduces intriguing new game rules every week (with a few repeats). It’s an incredible way of keeping the game fresh, experimenting with new mechanics, and enticing players to come back every week.
  ○ Not all Tavern Brawls are successful, as a few of them have been ruined by certain cards. (Flamewaker and Astral Communion always seem to be in contention for most hated card.)

Disclaimer #1: This is not a review of the game. These scattered notes are just my personal impressions as a player. Please don’t take them too seriously.

Disclaimer #2: I’m not trying to say i could do better by any means. If i point out a flaw, it’s usually because i think it’s interesting; not to criticize anyone involved. There are countless reasons why a feature might be imperfect, buggy, or incomplete. Game development is a chaotic human endeavor, and it’s very rarely easy to figure out why something went wrong. Anyway it’s a safe bet that the dev team thought of most ideas or solutions i might suggest, but they couldn’t be implemented due to some unfortunate constraint.

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  1. September 9th, 2016 at 01:15 | #1

    By the way, trying to take decent screenshots of the KO moment is incredibly awful. High-damage hits cause tons of screen shake, displacing everything that isn’t covered with debris. So many ways to go wrong!

    There’s also no stage select, no rematch option, no turn order option, and obviously nothing remotely advanced such as replay/do-over capabilities. Plus network latency causes strange delays in attack timings, which also makes it hard to time screenshots.

    To make matters worse, there used to be some bug that caused spell card sparkles to remain on screen forever, possibly due to lag, basically invalidating the entire game. Putting the iphone to sleep caused the app to disconnect/reconnect, resetting all VFX and fixing the issue, but card stacks were reset as well, which clearly looked like a bug too, especially when both decks were supposed to be depleted.

    I would’ve taken more screenshots (and they would’ve been better) if it wasn’t so damn hard. I realize that people who like taking/sharing screenshots and videos are in the minority, but this type of stuff is pretty discouraging for us.

  2. wilerson
    September 11th, 2016 at 10:21 | #2

    @Maj
    The mobile experience is certainly chunky. The desktop is a bit better, but some features are sorely missing (such as a tracking of the “graveyard” or the cards in your deck).

    I’m not sure I agree with how luck-dependent you consider high-level play. Good knowledge of the meta can certainly skew one’s win rate. As you said, the earlier a player can deduce which deck their opponent is playing, the higher the chance of winning gets.

  3. September 12th, 2016 at 21:58 | #3

    Ranked play works out because you have a month of matches to broaden the sample size and figure out who deserves to be on top. But the result of any one game or even set of games is pretty hard to trust. Even tournaments, which use a different format to increase consistency, are still wildly inconsistent.

    In fairness, high level play is a lot less random than intermediate level play. Hearthstone’s persistent hero power and guaranteed mana ramp systems do help. But i’ve heard lots of players complaining that HS results are much less consistent than other card games like MTG. It’s gotten even worse due to the discrepancy between going first and second increasing lately.

    Overall i still enjoy playing HS once in a while and checking out the Tavern Brawl almost every week, but nowadays i prefer watching the meta from the outside rather than playing ranked games myself. Actually, ranked might be the worst part of Hearthstone for me. I like every other mode better, which isn’t surprising i guess, because it was never designed to be a serious competitive game.

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