Opinion: Blizzard needs to do more to keep average Hearthstone players interested
I've entered into a strange love/hate relationship with Hearthstone over the past month, the upshot of which is I'm not sure whether I want to keep playing it anymore, and yet I find myself entirely incapable of stopping. Trying to improve my scattershot performance has drawn me into Hearthstone's 'meta game', where expert players create decks designed to beat the system. At least until the system changes and the cycle changes again.
Before we get to that, though, here are three reasons why I fell in love with Hearthstone in the first place: 1) The moment when, having outmanoeuvred an opponent early, I can sense them at the other end of the internet pipe, thinking about quitting. And then they do quit, and it feels sweeter than any 'proper' win. 2) Playing Faceless Manipulator against my girlfriend for the first time to make a copy of her buffed Stormwind Champion. "What the fuck was that?" she shouts from across the hall. "Oh just a little card I like to call The Equaliser." Strangely, I don't hear her laugh. 3) Using the game's ultra-limited chat options to gently troll people by saying 'hmm, thanks' whenever they place a card I consider strategically injudicious. A dick move, but strangely thrilling.
Hearthstone's right-click, eight-option chat system really is a thing of wonder. I suspect something like it will be the future for a lot of competitive online games. If it allowed any greater level of personalisation, the inevitable smugness and abuse would likely kill the whole Hearthstone experience stone dead. But, as it is, you get just enough sense of there being an unseen piece of sentient meat on the other side of the table making the decisions, and therefore enough satisfaction from eking out a win to keep you coming back.
That said, in truth, I haven't had much chance to act the big man because, despite playing Hearthstone every night for a couple of hours since the bug bit, for the most part I still suck Chillwind Yeti balls at it. There's a reason why the game's UI highlights your number of wins rather than your win/loss ratio, because unless you're one of the savants prowling ranked play, or you've dropped the cost of a kidney on Expert Packs, then that number likely looks a little dispiriting.
Having unlocked each character's basic cards, and splashed out on some Expert Packs in order recruit some Rares and a Legendary or two, it's easy to feel like you've hit a wall. If you're like me, you've probably built a couple of solid decks which you're comfortable with strategically. You know how run a decent overpowered spell game with a Mage, or how to use cards with Taunt to create a dominant control deck using a Druid. But, if you're like me, you're probably also still having your ass handed to you more often than not.
So you do the natural thing and ask the Internet for advice. Invariably that's how I know a game really has its hooks in. It makes me want to consume as much information, as quickly as possible, in a bid to suck less. Whether that be PC Gamer's own starter tips, this excellent basic deck-building guide, this list of the best cards, or the more high-end advice found on fan sites like Don't Kick My Robot.
It was there that I started to discover what people meant when they talked about the 'meta game', which was previously an alien concept to me, and how it was changing in response to trendy decks, like the Warlock's 'Murloc rush' build, and Blizzard's own tweaking/nerfing of popular cards. Essentially the 'meta' game is like viewing the Hearthstone community as being engaged in a crowd-sourced version of rock, paper, scissors. So if a particular type of character/deck becomes popular (let's call it the 'rock' deck), then the natural response from smart players, knowing they're likely to encounter that build a lot, especially in Ranked Play, is to create a 'paper' deck that will counteract rock's strengths.
So, a game within a game: meta. It only really clicked for me when I realised that most professional team sports have a meta game of their own. To take soccer as an example, look at the way formations become outmoded when they're trumped by a new tactical idea. So 442 suddenly looked draconian when managers started using variants of 4231 to flood the midfield. But nothing lasts forever, and fielding two strikers is arguably now on the rise again at teams like Liverpool and City. It's a constant battle between innovation and fashion, essentially, and the same goes for Hearthstone. Only with spell combos and minions instead of corner routines and inverted wingers.
But, if you aren't up to speed with what's happening in the current Hearthstone meta, as I wasn't, and as most new players surely won't be, then you're essentially arriving at a shootout clutching little more than 30 cards you quite like and some good intentions. No wonder you're losing. Or at least that's my excuse. And the danger is that what ought to be one of the most fun communities on PC becomes dominated by an intimidating elite.
Much as I love the game right now, it also feels like there's a big gulf between the entry level game and the power players whose tactics are timed with Quartz precision. In theory Blizzard's match-making algorithms should ensure you're being pitted against people who are, well… worthy opponents. But in practice Play Mode can feel like the lottery the spinning needle suggests it is.
I suppose that's no real surprise though. It's easy to forget that underneath the gloriously lush 2D art, past even the deep strategic potential, that Hearthstone is a diversion engine designed to part players from as much actual money as possible. I know, shocking right? I mean of course Blizzard is a business, not an outreach program. If you're looking for an analogy, I would say they're like an amusement park owner. Sure they want you to have fun while you're visiting, and they definitely want you to come back, but they also want your wallet empty when you leave.
And that's why the balance feels a little off key. Yes you can do the Daily Quests, and you can can grind wins in multiples of three for small handfuls of gold, but after that initial rush of unlocking the basic cards and opening you're first few Packs, (inevitably a couple are offered gratis, as the perfect gateway drug), then progress can feel like it's slowed to a crawl. Unless of course you're willing to pony up for new Expert Packs.
The answer, to my mind, is for Blizzard to find a way to add interest for midrange players. Perhaps that could be in the form of co-operative raids against bosses, which was hinted at in a survey at Blizzcon last November, or maybe offering single cards as rewards for completing quests rather than just Gold. Whether that fits with Blizzard's own cash generating sweets spot is another matter of course. Hearthstone is likely the way it is because that's what their data says will return most money.
For now I'm going to keep playing though. The only thing to do with this sort of obsession is to wait until it flames out or something bigger comes along. Which is probably also what I'll tell the men when they come to repossess my car.