Wessex’...

Wessex’ World: From Beta to Live

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I hate beta testing. Do not misunderstand that statement as meaning that I dislike finding bugs and broken functions, but instead infer that I hate having an opinion of what could have been a phenomenal play experience tainted beyond repair. This is why I regret playing Diablo III as soon as it was released on PC, and it was only because I received it on console as a gift that my faith in that franchise was revived.

MMOs make an odd exception, because when you beta test a major content patch the server and game integrity are normally stable enough that you’re just helping to tweak minor mechanics. Hearthstone, whilst marketed as a digital card game, has been a very smooth beta experience for the most part and Blizzard have certainly handled the growth of the F2P title with some admirable skill, and the game has proven (after the Diablo debacle) to be one of the best pre-live experiences I’ve enjoyed, hence why I keep writing about it.

There are, however, niggles that a small development team and board executives will miss that several hundred thousand players will find for you. Whilst many of these are going to be addressed ‘urgently’ in an upcoming patch such as the addition of a spectator mode and the  correction of the placement bug from token generators, I thought I’d take the opportunity this week to address some broader niggles I have that I feel could take Hearthstone from being a great game to a long-term esporting phenomenon.

1. Players should be able to buy dust

I agree with a lot of the purposeful distinctions Blizzard have made as they attempt to make a premier Digital Card Game, and not a Digital Trading Card Game. The complete lack of trading was a brave but incredible decision for gifting players with a true sense of a personal collection and individual progression, and the crafting system is more or less spot on.

However if it was perfect I would not have to write this column. Right now, being able to play in the plethora of constructed events that many esports sites have organised is a pain in the arse if you just got the game, and even if you’ve had it a while is a huge time and money sink. I’m sure Blizzard don’t mind the money sink aspect (yay, capitalism), but the amount of time it takes to accrue a complete collection borders on the asinine.  I think that being able to buy dust itself would help alleviate this problem somewhat. The only concern here might be the ‘pay to win’ aspect, but that is already intended and I don’t think that is an argument to avoid the implementation of such a system. Rather than buying blind, the consumer would be able to buy exactly what they wanted in the fashion that sites like StarCityGames.com allow for Magic: the Gathering, but rather than a third party Blizzard would maintain the necessary control.

What you would need is a careful balance: how much dust can you buy for a dollar/euro/pound so that if you want specific cards it is worthwhile, but that there is still plenty of appeal in buying packs and cracking them. I think a pound ($1.50) for 100 dust is about right. A completely average pack of one rare and 4 commons nets you 40 dust but five cards and a chance at so much more than that. One hundred spectacles of pixelated dust would let you get one rare card, but also let you buy a specific legendary (at great cost) for your deck.

It’s a difficult balance, because of the pay to win argument. But even buying a single booster is ‘paying to win’. This second, alternative payment method for augmenting your collection lets you sacrifice chance and choice for singular specification, something that is dearly needed if Hearthstone is going to be able to build on it’s budding esports status.

Play skill in a card game is not dictated by DPS or APM, it is dictated solely by strategy and logic. As such people aren’t buying the top DPS weapon, they’re buying an Argent Commander or two so that they can compete, if they so choose, on the grandest stages of them all.

I also think that in much the same way that I can gift my girlfriend a Lil’ Ragnaros, I should be able to gift gold or boosters to another player, but that is a very minor issue. And 40 dust for a common is a bit pricey, I think 20 would be better suited.

2. A neutral minion (or two) that deals with Secrets/change Ice Block

Scarlet Inquisitor mock

Don’t like Mind Control? Find Unleash the Hounds tough to stomach? Both of those pale in comparison to Ice Block when reduced down to raw bad gaming experiences and faulty card design.

Unlike weapons, to which Blizzard has kindly provided the Acid Ooze and Harrison Jones, there is nothing you can do about secrets except trigger them UNLESS you are a Hunter packing Flare. I am a firm believer that some classes should do things better than others, and Hunters having a 0 cost spell that obliterates every secret an opponent has is absolutely fine. What is not fine is that nobody else can do anything about them.

Don’t get me wrong, the average secret can be played around. A Hunter just played a trap for 2? Don’t play another ally before attacking or they’ll all take Explosive Trap damage. A Paladin paid 1? Attack and kill their worse minion first with an ally that has more than 2 health in case it is Redemption or Heroic Valor, then play your worst minion from your hand so that its health or attack is reduced to one, and not that of your Argent Commander. But Ice Block? When a Mage can build a Wintervolt Disguise Kit deck and just sit there freezing everything until a Molten Giant and a Pyroblast deuce blow you out of the icy water? That is poor card design.

I’d have less of an issue with Ice Block if you could kill it before it triggers, or prevent it triggering entirely as you swing for fatal. I’m not a fan of these create a card websites, but in this case I’ve included two minion designs that I think would add further strategy to deck building and constructed play.

Keeper of Secrets mock

Both cards are underwhelming, except when used against secrets. I think it fair that both cards effect you and your opponent. Against secrets, they’re solid cards that take up a deck slot. Against every other card type, they’re vanilla minions that do nothing else for you. Hopefully those two will have given Blizzard some ideas.

Secrets are a fun design space, but being completely unanswerable is a flaw that is magnified tenfold when the secret in question creates an incredibly bitter aftertaste in your mouth. Having your minion stolen by Mind Control pales entirely to losing the game when you should have won, but could make no play or deck building decisions to compliment that (and it’s not like Hunter is competitive enough to justify inclusion in the upper echelons of the metagame just on the back of Flare).

3. Regular content updates

As it stands I think Hearthstone is deep enough to occupy a player for a few months, but card games suffer more than a MoBa or RTS from metagame fatigue due to their pure strategic nature (as opposed to the requisite alertness and precise play speed other esports genres rely upon). Whilst it could be said that Magic: the Gathering publishes slightly too often at four core game sets a year, if an MMO like World of Warcraft needs content expansions and patches, so does a card game.

I’m not expecting anything major on this front from Blizzard until the second quarter of 2014, as there are still a lot of players yet to experience the delights of the core game experience. But players get bored quickly, and there’s only so much pixel collecting I can do before the chase for 24 legendaries bores me to death, for at heart I am competitive player and not an achievement completist. A lot of the mechanics such as Death Rattle (borrowed from the WoW TCG) can be expanded on quite readily, but a digital environment offers a lot of design space for exciting and new card gaming experiences (Thought Seize is probably my favourite card in the game).

Blizzard will need to add more cards and fresh Arena experiences at a regular pace. They have obviously stated that they intend to do this, but I worry that a digital card game will eternally be in beta with the necessary stream of new content in order to maintain the attention of both the casual and esports markets. Blizzard is in a great position to make a move on DCG esports before Riot Games, Stoneblade Entertainment and Cryptozoic Entertainment can even canter out of the gates and I just hope they capitalize on their unexpected momentum.

Do you agree with my thoughts? Please comment below (this post’s comments and sync’d with the forum post)  where I’ll do my best to interact with you, as well as on Reddit and any other media forum where you express your love for Hearthstone, as well as on twitter @StoriesbyJack

I’ve been fiddling with my webcam and video capture software, so hopefully I’ll be able to upload a deck featurette in the near future. Maybe I’ll even collaborate with my old WoW TCG friend Gnimsh on his ihearthu projects.

Thanks for reading, and may the Coin odds be ever in your favour (no Katniss).

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12 COMMENTS

  1. First of all, well written article. I really enjoyed to read it.
     
    There are some good points that Blizz definitely need to work on such as the secrets “issue”. Having cards that can deal with secrets are a must especially if you get more secrets in future expansion packs, but I’m afraid that we wont get such cards before new packs come out.
     
    I also totally agree with the content patches you brought up. Getting new cards into the game is always exciting, yet if you ditch out a full new expansion pack containing, let’s say 90+ new cards (I don’t know if thats reasonable for Hearthstone) there is a lot to balance and this takes time, which is totally fine to me. I still enjoy playng the basic and expert cards that are currently available since there is still somewhat room for new decks. Of course due to the relatively low card pool we have in the beta and at launch there isnt that much variety to come up with completely new decks and strategies over and over. Taking that into account i’d say getting new packs every 4 Months would be reasonable, for the first year maybe, and when you have a bigger pool of cards reducing the speed of which new packs getting release to every 6 months or so.
    There is also the possibility to get out cards more frequently if you release fewer cards in a smaller time span, like 6 new cards every 2 weeks.
    This would potentially take away the hype of new expansion packs, but bring something up to be excited about every 2 weeks, which helps keeping the players interested in the game.
     
    Last but not least i kinda see quite some issues coming up if blizzard would make dust purchaseable, as you wanted in the article.
    Right now, buying packs feels like your normal tcg/ccg expierience. It’s always exciting to buy new packs and hope for the one drop you always wanted, just like many of us expierenced earlier with MtG or YuGiOh or any other card game we played.
    Buying dust instead could potentially make a lot of people upset about being pay to win, what noone really wants. Reason behind that is imo that dust suddenly becomes more like an ingame premium currency like in many other free to play games. As a lot of people have made bad expieriences with those kind of currencies it has kind of a negative touch to it.
    While i don’t really mind implementing that, it could potentially bring up hate against that model of free to play Hearthstone

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I’ll admit to being no expert on in game currencies, and my point in dust is more to do with the lack of ability to buy singles so that you can play the specific deck you want for the minimum investment. The crafting system is amazing, and without it I wouldn’t be playing the game, but I just think dust could take it a bit further. It all comes down to costing balance: the cost of a pack vs the cost of X dust.

    After I wrote this article Blizzard’s Ben Brode mentioned in an interview that they would be doing smaller expansions called Adventure packs of 20-30 cards between major expansions, which will be perfect. It’s an advantage of having no print run overheads, and I think the perfect way to introduce new cards.

  3. yeah, those adventure packs sound like a really cool thing to keep the game interesting and exciting in the “waiting time” to get a new major patch. Nevertheless, the good thing about Hearthstone is that you can implement more things than just only cards. I think Blizz somewhere mentioned they want to implement 2v2, 3v3, and some kind of raiding pve mode which will definitely bring a lot of variety too, apart from actual new cards.
    Overall the concepts Blizz has planned for the future do sound very promising to me

  4. Raids might be the best way to do constructed arena, although PvE has limited appeal. The WoW TCG had raid and dungeon decks that had some limited appeal, but those ideas can probably be better implemented digitally. I definitely found the Illidan fight at the end of he tutorial ‘interesting’.

  5. Re: Secrets, the whole point of secrets is that they really can’t be interacted with. There are no Instants and there is no stack/chain in Hearthstone, so Secrets are the only real way to interrupt your opponent’s turn.

    Re: Ice Block in particular, it really just stalls for another turn. Is it good? Obviously, yes. Is it poor card design? I don’t think so, seeing as cards like that have been printed in nearly every over CCG I’ve played — and those games printed them at Instant speed.

    The major difference, obviously, is that a system with Instants can deal with Instants by playing their own Instants. So I agree that there should be more ways to interact with Secrets. Unfortunately, it is a tough design spot to be in since not all classes play Secrets. They would end up being more cards like Ooze which is fine… but not exactly thrilling.

  6. In isolation of other secrets, without interactivity and the menagerie of freeze effects a Mage can deploy to stall in a static resource game where every draw is live, it is poor card design. You can’t compare it to Fog or similar effects because of the resource and secret systems.

    I think every class will end up with secrets eventually, I don’t think it’s going to be a class defining mechanic like overload.

    • I guess I’m willing to consider Ice Block being poorly designed but I having trouble fully understanding your point. Is the problem the one turn stall from Ice Block? Because that *is* present in a lot of CCGs and doesn’t seem to cause issues. Is the problem that Mage can “stall” for 8 turns in a row if they get lucky? I’d agree that is annoying and sort of bumps into Blizzard’s goal of making the game fun even when you lose.

      Or to put it another way: Freeze “all minions” causes problems in a game so heavily focused on minions when you can do it with Cone of Cold, Blizzard, *and* Frost Nova. But Ice Block? How is it different than other 1 turn stalls? If anything, it should be *less* annoying than “freeze all” because you can at least do something with your minions. Maybe the problem is *class* design?

  7. It’s definitely more of a class design problem than a particular card issue. The game is so minion heavy that I’m not sure Blizzard’s plan is to have player a sit there for a possible 8 turns watching nothing happen. The fact that ice block only triggers at fatal is also really frustrating for opposing players who think they’ve got there only to be digitally slapped in the face.

    Again, back to Fog, that isn’t an issue in magic because resource gain isn’t static and it’s normally just a waste of a card. When you can play that effect pre-emptively and I have zero way of interacting with it, that’s where it is poor design. Hunter is the only class that can interact with it, and even then the card is never dead because of the cantrip.

    Also I can counterspell these effects in all other card games hard because of the stack.

    • Fog isn’t an issue in Magic for quite a few reasons which is sort of why I brought it up.

      I personally like how Secrets can be “pre-played” but Ice Block is definitely kind of a strange trigger condition since it will inevitably happen and when it does, Ice Block will be useful. The other Secrets have a lot more push and pull. Case in point: Ice Block probably won’t change the way your opponent plays by much. Most of the other Secrets do.

      Zero-interaction (e.g. no countering) is just a fact of life in Hearthstone. I’m not really concerned about that. The issue really comes down to whether the card or class is overpowered or unfun to play against. I’d guess that the endless freeze is not that much fun to play against; I don’t think I’d consider it overpowered.

      So in the end, I think I probably agree with the spirit of your complaint even if I choose different words to express it. There are so many more interesting design concepts for Secrets that it seems like a shame to waste one on Ice Block. And freezing gets old after the second or third turn in a row.

      But whatever. Thanks for the article and the conversation! Here’s to hoping Blizzard keeps on tweaking the game to continuously make it more fun for everyone. :)

  8. As far as ‘buying dust’, you kinda do if you spend your gold on packs and end up with a bunch of repeat cards. Even the worst packs (4 commons and a rare) are 40 dust, so 100g for 40 dust seems to be the average exchange rate. Granted, cards are worth many less dust than they cost to craft, so that’s actually around 260 for 100g if you were to keep the cards.

    Not sure if that’s worth it. If you’re buying cards and getting dust, or playing arena well enough you make profit in gold and dust, you can still spend excess gold on card packs and dust the duplicates and worthless cards and still get quite a lot of dust.

    What ratio of gold to dust do you think is appropriate? 100g = 260 dust? Seems a little excessive but at that point you might as well just bypass the dust mechanic and sell cards for gold. 15g = a common, 40g = a rare, 160g = an epic, 640g = one legendary with costs doubling to get gold versions.

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