The Treasurer Reviews – Hearthstone: Not a Game

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!

Treasury of Games: Plot Hook Generator

Sometimes you don’t know how you want to grab your players’ attention. Here’s a handy table to create that hook, and give you an idea how to pitch it.

 

Table A: Type of Hook

1 Friendly NPC

2 Hostile NPC

3 Cryptic Message

4 Mission or Quest

5 Omen or Foreshadowing

6 Obtain an Item

7 Lose an Item

8 Abduction!

9 Battle!

10 Roll twice more and combine results.

 

Friendly NPC

1 An old man answers one of the PCs’ questions. He wasn’t part of the conversation before, he just jumped in. Does he know the PCs, or is he a stranger? Where did he come from?

2 A little girl invites the PCs to follow her. Back at her home/hiding place, the PCs will find exactly what they need (to progress the plot).

3 “I’ve been sent to help,” the stranger says. The PCs have heard of the stranger’s sponsor, but are surprised to hear their interests and the sponsor’s align.

4 “Come with me if you want to live.” The PCs are in trouble, but this NPC shows up with a way out.

5 “Oh wow, you’re really them!” A fan of the PCs’ exploits is looking for help with the kind of thing they do.

6 An attractive member of the opposite sex has a proposition for one of the PCs… but not THAT. Well… Not unless the PC can do the job.

7 An attractive member of the opposite sex gets involved with one of the PCs in a whirlwind romance, but he or she is also involved in something big.

8 The PCs stumble across somebody in a running fight with the same kind of opponents the PCs usually fight, and it looks like they could use some help.

9 A childhood friend of one of the PCs shows up again in unlikely circumstances, with a surprising story, and a request.

10 Someone is selling exactly what the PCs need, at a fair price, and is even willing to make a deal if they need it but are short on cash.

 

Hostile NPC

1 An old enemy has a new way to get back at one of the PCs.

2 Somehow, the PCs have offended this person, and a fight breaks out.

3 1-10 armed thugs break in and start shooting at the PCs.

4 A PC is mugged in the street.

5 This NPC wants something the PCs have, and won’t take no for an answer.

6 One of the PCs is about to be an involuntary organ donor; this NPC needs an internal organ and one of the PCs fits the profile to give it.

7 The NPC is apologetic, but must do something terrible to the PCs.

8 The PCs might not realize it, or they might remember clearly why, but this NPC considers them all enemies and is back for vengeance.

9 A jilted lover from a PC’s past (or possibly someone messed up enough to hold a grudge over an unrequited crush) turns up to cause trouble.

10 Someone wants the same thing the PCs want, and isn’t shy about sabotaging their efforts to get it.

 

Cryptic Message

1 A note is delivered with the characters’ meal (in a modern setting, it’s perfect if this is inside a fortune cookie).

2 One of the PCs sees messages written on surfaces which nobody else can see.

3 A letter is delivered to one of the PCs. It’s addressed to the PC, but has no return address. The piece of paper inside the envelope is blank.

4 After making a normal purchase, the seller tells the PC, “they’re coming for you.” If asked for clarification, he/she says, “run, you fool!” What happens next?

5 A series of people come to the door and each says one word and then leaves. This occurs over the course of several days, no more than an hour separating each one, and when taken together the words form a message. If setting appropriate, the people who speak the words are actually some form of zombie.

6 The next time the PC is handed a receipt for a purchase, there is a message written on the back of it in a foreign language. The person handing over the receipt doesn’t know how it could have gotten there.

7 A public announcement (news broadcast in a modern setting, something publicly posted in town in pre-modern, etc.) mentions a PC by name, with an anonymous message, “You are almost ready.”

8 “They are coming,” a small child whispers to one of the PCs, and hands over a note, then runs off giggling.

9 A message is delivered in a usual way, from a PC’s normal contact (email in a modern setting, letter by a messenger in an older setting, etc.) – but it reads entirely differently from that contact’s normal writing, or if a voice recording, it isn’t the contact’s voice.

10 The wall catches fire, and the fire spreads into the shape of words on the wall. After the whole message has formed, the fire goes out, leaving it written in ashes and scorch marks.

 

Mission or Quest

1 Go and retrieve an item… but it’s big, so how will you actually carry it?

2 Go to a location and survive there for 24 hours.

3 Capture an enemy and interrogate them.

4 Extract a friendly from enemy hands.

5 Find the missing piece of this puzzle. A clue can be found where you want the PCs to go.

6 Destroy a specific item, before it can be used for disastrous purposes.

7 You can’t stay here! Escape to safety!

8 Fetch me a donut; the PCs are given an inconsequential task, but it turns out to be important once they complete it.

9 Fetch me a shrubbery; the PCs are given a task which is truly inconsequential, meant only to keep them busy and out of the way.

10 It’ll be dangerous… The PCs must do something which seems suicidal, but failing to do it would be even worse.

 

Omen or Foreshadowing

1 A bat in the daytime: The PCs must soon take a long and dangerous journey.

2 A butterfly in the bedroom: The PC will soon have a great joy, but could destroy it by doing the wrong thing.

3 The broken chain: A PC’s wallet or watch chain breaks, and (s)he will soon suffer disappointment.

4 Crossed knives: Soon there will be conflict and strife in the PCs’ future.

5 Shooting star: What the PCs desire will come true, but it won’t necessarily be good.

6 A gun on the table: The plot device you will use to introduce the next challenge is in plain sight in an establishing scene.

7 An instant dislike: The antagonist is first introduced in a friendly setting, but at least one PC doesn’t get along with him (or her), for some reason.

8 Hidden meaning: An NPC tells the PCs something which seems straightforward, but also foretells something in the next encounter you have planned.

9 The gods must be crazy: an important plot device literally falls from the sky.

10 Retroactive: pick a scene that’s already happened in the game – something from that scene is now a key to your next plot device. (Preferably pick a memorable scene; if you’re just starting the game, pick something in a PC’s background.)

 

Obtain an Item – an opportunity to get something useful or interesting can motivate PCs and drive a story.

1 A weapon

2 A tool

3 Something magical (or symbolic)

4 Something foreign/exotic

5 A gift from a friend

6 A gift from an enemy

7 A prize in a contest of skill

8 A prize in a contest of luck

9 One man’s trash

10 Something written

 

Lose an Item – losing something valuable or even the threat of such loss can give focus to the PCs’ actions.

1 Something personal, of sentimental value only.

2 A favorite piece of equipment, which is used all the time.

3 An expensive piece of equipment which is used rarely.

4 One of the PCs’ homes.

5 Somewhere the PCs often meet.

6 A favorite food stops being available.

7 Communication with the rest of the world – in the form of the ability to write or phone calls or whatever items would normally allow such.

8 Transportation – a mount, vehicle, or other equivalent. Even a pair of shoes.

9 Luxury – a source of relaxation or comfort, such as a bed, pillow, food, etc.

10 A hat – something worn on the head.

 

Abduction! – Players love rescue missions. It’s a clear focus and grabs the attention of most PCs instantly. When someone important is kidnapped, the PCs will follow after them.

1 A family member (child, parent, sibling, cousin, etc.).

2 A lover or spouse.

3 One of the PCs! (Make sure the PC still has things to do, even if escape isn’t possible without help from other PCs)

4 A mentor or teacher.

5 A trusted NPC supporter – someone who isn’t usually part of the adventure, but provides things the PCs need in between.

6 A contact the PCs need to achieve their current goals – best if kidnapped right in front of the PCs or otherwise under their noses when they are about to get what they need but haven’t quite yet.

7 A POTENTIALLY useful but not current NPC contact/supporter

8 A political figure (1-3: local, 4-6: regional, 7-8: national, 9: roll again and add “aligned with the PC’s views”, 10: roll again and add “opposed to the PC’s views”)

9 A cultural figure (same chart as above, or roll for type of cultural – entertainer, artist, etc)

10 Roll again, ignoring this result if rerolled.  Add “…and the PC is a suspect in their abduction” to the result.

 

 

Battle!

1 Roll for initiative! Someone has jumped out and attacked!

2 Surprise! Perception checks, to see if any PCs notice the ambush.

3 Opportunity! The PCs have a chance to surprise some enemies, who they’ve noticed before being noticed in return.

4 Sports – the PCs are challenged to a form of sporting mock combat appropriate to the setting.

5 Duel – a PC is challenged to one on one combat.

6 Standoff – a tense situation arises where one wrong move could result in a deadly battle.

7 Bystanders – battle erupts between two parties other than the PCs in the PCs’ presence!

8 Nonviolent – a conflict in some form other than physical violence, such as an argument or hostile corporate takeover.

9 Misunderstanding – the PCs get involved in a fight they don’t want, because an NPC takes something they said or did the wrong way.

10 Outnumbered – The PCs are surrounded by a more numerous enemy, and must escape; cue chase music!

 

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.