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Hearthstone, by Blizzard Entertainment, looks like a game. It interacts with its users as though it is a game, and tournaments are held of it as though it were. The original concept for this article was to explain why Hearthstone is a bad game, but after analyzing the elements of it, I reached a different conclusion: Hearthstone is not, primarily, a game. The reason for its failings as a game is that it is designed mainly with ulterior motives in mind, with enough game elements to masquerade as something other than its true identity: a malevolent marketing Skinner Box.
A Skinner Box is any scenario designed to keep someone doing a repetitive task with the minimum reward necessary to keep it interesting, based on the principle that infrequent rewards are actually more addicting to the human mind than reliable rewards. Hearthstone uses these principles: you only get rewards if you win, and only a limited amount, which tapers off over more play. Wins are not guaranteed, nor entirely in the player’s control (something I will touch on more later), which adds to the unreliability of the reward – and the strength of the operant conditioning. If you keep coming back to it day after day, you will be randomly assigned “quests,” which could let you get extra rewards for certain kinds of victories, or possibly make some progress even without victories. These additional breadcrumbs further enhance the addictive effect of the operant conditioning.
The marketing purpose of Hearthstone is clear on one level – convincing players to buy the cards, or attempts in the “Arena” mode to possibly earn more cards than otherwise. This is incentivized by a clear imbalance in the power of the cards themselves within the game framework of Hearthstone. Rare cards give more power for their in-game cost than common cards, which give more power than the basic cards everyone has access to. There are also even rarer “epic” and “legendary” cards which give even more disparate levels of return on investment of in-game resources. The design is also inconsistent in these power level assignments, leading to a clear stratification of cards which outclass others. Little is done to address this by the game developers, because it is ultimately beneficial to their short and medium-term aims. Long-term, this situation would be toxic to a game – and that is one reason I can’t classify Hearthstone primarily as one.
The secondary level of marketing in Hearthstone is not aimed at sales in Hearthstone itself, but bringing players to Blizzard’s other products. By addicting players to a free-to-play game, which bombards them with imagery from their subscription game (World of Warcraft), they gain a channel for continuous marketing communication to potential customers. It’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of this marketing channel, particularly due to its release simultaneously with the pre-orders for Warlords of Draenor, the newest expansion for the other game – but that similarity in timing is telling of the effect Activision and Blizzard wanted it to have. They lost 800,000 subscribers over the same period that they picked up 1.5 million pre-orders for the expansion, the period immediately following Hearthstone’s release, and had been losing subscribers steadily before that as well. From its peak of over 13 million subscribers in 2009, World of Warcraft has declined to as few as 7 million, though the last two expansions both drew in enough re-subscriptions and new subscriptions to boost that number over 10 million again for some time. The tie-ins with World of Warcraft range from using the same characters and world IP to in-game perks in WoW for playing Hearthstone, to using the same launcher tool so that every time a player launches Hearthstone, they are reminded that Blizzard’s other games are there, and they could be playing them. This also applies to some extent to Diablo III, Starcraft 2, and Heroes of the Storm, which share slots on the Blizzard launcher.
I call Hearthstone malevolent because, from interface to card balance, it is designed to harm the user. The emote system, for example, is designed to allow the players to annoy each other, without allowing direct interaction which could be complained of as harassment. As a result of this lack of direct interaction, there is no feature to report another player, so the various abuses which are possible in the system are guaranteed not to be punished. There is an option to squelch an opponent, but it cannot be set up as a default option – it has to be manually set each time a game starts. The animations and sounds on victory and defeat are typical “this is good” and “this is bad” reinforcement – but human beings have an inherent negativity bias, so the overall effect of these animations is to punish users when they lose more than rewarding them when they win. The animations also can’t be entirely skipped or turned off, so there is again no opt-out of this conditioning mechanic.
The card balance may simply be negligent, but I find it more likely to be intentionally painful to the user who hasn’t spent more money than his or her opponent. I already mentioned the power differential between basic, common, rare, epic, and legendary cards; for example, for 6 mana you can get the following minions:
Basic – Boulderfist Ogre – a 6/7 minion with no special abilities.
Common – Temple Enforcer – a 6/6 minion which gives another minion +0/+3 when it comes into play. (2 more health on the field for the cost compared to the basic card)
Rare – Savannah Highmane – a 6/5 minion which spawns two 2/2 minions on death (a total of 10/9 in stats, +4/+2 compared to the basic minion)
Epic – Piloted Sky Golem – A 6/4 minion which spawns a random 4-cost minion on death (potentially a 5/6 Pit Lord or a 4/3 Piloted Shredder which itself could spawn a 4/4 Milhouse Manastorm – so at maximum a +8/+4 increase in attributes compared to the basic minion)
Legendary – Iron Juggernaut is 6/5 (+0/-2 compared to the basic minion), but it shuffles an Iron Mine into the enemy deck, for 10 damage when drawn (+10/-2), and this mechanic can be repeated with common cards which return the Juggernaut to your hand (an incomparable increase in power). The Black Knight is a 4/5 which destroys an opposing minion with Taunt when it enters play – which could destroy a 6/5 Lord of the Arena, making the Knight worth 10/10 in attributes between what it gives its player and what it takes away from the opponent. It could also destroy a 6/6 divine shield Tirion Fordring, making it worth at least 11/11 (since divine shield takes at least 1 point of damage to pop) but effectively much more (since taunt is a powerful ability itself, and divine shield could potentially block any amount of damage).
These examples focus on the obvious raw attribute advantage of the rarer cards. Notably,spending enough money on the game allows obtaining these cards for certain – duplicated of already-owned cards can be traded in for credit towards unowned cards, with a system where common cards are cheap and rare, epic, and legendary cards are expensive. It’s possible to earn all the cards through play, eventually – but the previously mentioned psychological tools are working to punish you the whole way, and meanwhile the option to pay to get the better cards is on the table the entire time.
If Hearthstone were designed as a game, it would not be designed with these obvious power disparities. Take Magic: The Gathering, for example, since it is the game Hearthstone imitates. The giant difference between Magic and Hearthstone is that once you have a physical magic card, the company which published it can’t control whether or not you give it to someone else. Hearthstone, being a fully online system, takes full control of what cards a player has available to them. Once the packs are randomly filled and sent out to stores, on the other hand, Wizards of the Coast has no further control over who receives what cards in Magic. Wizards of the Coast also realized early on in Magic’s history (as early as 1995) that rarity and power could not directly correlate for their game to be healthy. Richard Garfield, the award-winning game designer who created Magic, said it himself: “rarity should not be equated with power.”
If you enjoy playing Hearthstone, whether competitively or as a pastime in between other activities, don’t let me stop you. However, do be wary of the psychological armlock you are being put in, before deciding to spend any money on it. Hearthstone is a program designed first to extract your money, and secondarily to be a game. If you’re interested in competitive card games online, you could actually play Magic, or get into an even better designed game, Android: Netrunner. A:NR dispenses with the random card acquisition entirely, allowing all players to design decks from a completely even standing. It also has a unique asymmetrical style of play, where the Runner and Corp players are playing different games against each other, allowing for a change of pace depending on which side of the board a player wishes to take.
Ian Price is the creator of Kitsune: of Foxes and Fools and Bad Decisions, and has contributed to the Ghouls, Carthians, and Chronicler’s Guide books for Vampire: The Requiem. Bad Decisions has a Kickstarter project coming March 6th!