We're all so used to immaculately produced videogame reveals that it's actually shocking to witness a truly terrible one, and earlier this week, Blizzard put on a doozy in terms of how not to do it for the showcase of Hearthstone: Mercenaries.
It's the latest spin-off from what Blizzard now likes to call its card gaming "platform", and the presentation did at least make the gameplay influences obvious: Pokémon-style damage matching, auto-battler elements familiar from Battlegrounds, and Slay the Spire's roguelite structure. But thanks to near total information overload, and some incredibly questionable format choices, it's safe to say that very few viewers emerged from the stream with anything like a clear sense of what Mercenaries is. The only message that was clear was that Blizzard would very much like us to pre-purchase Mercenaries right now.
What Tuesday's stream needed was a concise explanation—think ELI5—of exactly how Mercenaries works and what the appeal is. That is very much not what we got. The mode—it's fair to call it a game in its own right—has been teased for months, but with tantalizingly little in the way of actual information. The livestream 'fixed' that by going from 0 to 1000 in seconds. During the show, viewers were submerged in information they had no context for: Caster characters deal double damage to Protectors! Cairne Bloodhoof is really strong when you pair him with the Reincarnation 3 equipment! You can collect baby King Krush!! (Okay that was pretty great.) Diablo is here too!!! For a price.
Tellingly, with so much bafflement over how the thing actually worked, the community quickly focused on the pre-order part, and how little sense we have of what the value proposition even is. The crucial thing missing was, well, gameplay. There was no extended demo reel, no show match from the developers, and no Kripparian or Kibler there to ask the obvious questions. Instead we were promised fun in the future and asked to spend now. That went over about as well as you’d expect.
I certainly don't begrudge monetization of a new game mode, which clearly takes a lot of work, or Hearthstone more broadly speaking. I just feel like it's important for people to understand what they're getting for the money they spend and even I feel totally clueless here.September 1, 2021
To get a sense of how we got here, let’s go back to the start.
The Blizzcon 2021 reveal of Mercenaries
Kibler has actually been around Mercenaries before, or at least the idea of it. During Blizzconline 2021 in February, game director Ben Lee spoke with Kibler about Mercenaries for precisely five minutes at the end of the presentation. It was a vague but promising speech about how the team had been inspired to make a new high quality mode taking elements from tactical RPGs and roguelikes. It sounded cool! But beyond a single screenshot showing a map, there was nothing to see. The entire Mercs presentation consisted of alternating close-ups and long shots of the table where Lee and Kibler were talking. It was a brisk, high-level overview that left viewers with a lot of questions and not many answers.
The survey leaks
The next time we heard about Mercs was through a survey that was sent out in June and leaked to social media as per usual. This is where we got a first look at the mode and noticed similarities to Darkest Dungeon, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Slay the Spire. If nothing else, it was obvious that Mercenaries was pretty far removed from the deckbuilding experience of core Hearthstone or the shared pool auto-battler of Battlegrounds. No, this was a mode that was based on the micro strategy of ability sequencing, the macro strategy of composing a team, and generally collecting tons of characters to fight with. Hmmm, collecting. Immediately we began to wonder how much it was going to cost.
Gacha or nah-cha
Here’s where things get really rocky for Mercenaries. Gacha games, if you're unfamiliar, are based on the idea of opening loot box after loot box in the hope of getting the exact item that you want. These items are not usually just cosmetic—they often have a major gameplay impact and are required to be successful. The items are usually graded by rarity and have wildly disparate power and… Well, actually it’s a lot like normal card packs in Hearthstone. But the difference is that many gacha games do not have duplicate protection and do not have crafting systems, so if you don't open what you want, you have to keep opening more loot boxes. How will the Mercenaries economy work? We don't exactly know! But we do know that we can buy a crap ton of stuff.
So with more time to process the @PlayHearthstone Mercenaries information, I'm still baffled by the idea of putting three expensive pre-order bundles in the store already. If you're a casual player and you open the store and see this, you're going to assume the game mode is $$$. pic.twitter.com/h35pQVbQEISeptember 1, 2021
You can spend over a hundred dollars right now for a game mode that has had no advertised gameplay, no demo, and offers zero access until the October launch. We don't know how much we'll need to spend to be competitive in the singleplayer portion, let alone the PvP. Matchmaking was described as "complex" for PvP, based on the power of our characters. Does that mean pay-to-win? Is Diablo only here to hock us packs filled with whatever Mercenaries Coins are used for? Time will tell, but I hardly feel compelled to throw down dollars on something so vaguely defined.
An avalanche of information
If the answers to these questions were there, they were rendered incomprehensible by the format of the show. There were so few hooks to latch on to as a clear positive, and I really cannot emphasize enough how little gameplay footage was included. In presentations like these, we normally expect the video material to provide the hype while official blog articles released after do the details. For Hearthstone Mercenaries, that was all ass-backwards. The articles were presented in small digestible chunks while the livestream presentation felt like trying to eat Thanksgiving dinner in a single bite.
The teacher in me was silently panicking. It felt like watching a tenured professor rattle off Diff EQ when he was simply supposed to show us how to solve for X. We ain’t ready for dat level mathematics yet sir 😩September 1, 2021
It was not the right structure for a brand new game, and Mercenaries is essentially that. Our pre-existing Hearthstone knowledge was useless here. The developers did their best, but 45 minutes of rapid-fire information doesn't set anyone up for success. Take a look at what Hearthstone Top Decks put together to summarize the mode. How could anyone have gone through all of this on stage in under an hour with no gameplay for context? Unsurprisingly, since it's fallen to content creators like Trump and RegisKillbin to put out (much more helpful) explainers.
The rewards track brouhaha revisited
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Believe it or not, Blizzard has put a ton of information out there if you're willing to go looking for it, including the odds on drops from Mercenaries packs. To my eyes it doesn't look like your normal hyper-predatory gacha. They're actually the same odds as normal Hearthstone packs, and include the same duplicate protection. You can also buy them with the gold you already have and you will earn a new currency called Mercenaries Coins that lets you craft heroes you don't own.
Is Team 5 trying to make a fair gacha? In order to believe that, you would need to trust Blizzard—and hoo boy is this not a time to assume that there is trust in Blizzard. The DFEH lawsuit looms large, the rumors that Activision is calling the shots has never been stronger, and the entirety of Mercenaries reeks of top-down design aimed at monetizing the playerbase that loves but barely has to pay for the Battlegrounds mode.
Battlegrounds was a brilliant accident initially created by a single designer as a Tavern Brawl that morphed into one of the best things to ever happen to Hearthstone. But it has nothing like the profitability of conventional Hearthstone because the only way it's monetised is through a relatively cheap pass and some recently introduced cosmetics. Ben Lee was quoted as saying Battlegrounds would be top three on Steam in terms of hours played on most days. It also grew organically while Mercenaries has the corporate sheen that comes from clinical commercial planning. Mercenaries may end up being accessible and it will likely be fun, but it also looks like it needs to make money and it needs to make money right away.
Unfortunately, all of the mistakes that Blizzard made with the Mercs reveal were also made less than a year ago during the Rewards track rollout. Brief snippets of information with no clarity, a leaked survey that inspired fear and doubt, a full reveal deep in details and ambiguous on benefit, and a playerbase convinced that Activision was coming for their gold. Since last year's fiasco, lessons seemed to have been learned, and it really felt like a corner had been turned with how the core set introduction and classic rotation was handled—clear communication, advance notice, and really obvious player benefit. When the users think they're getting a better financial deal, of course they'll give the new system a chance!
But Mercenaries is a bewildering deal at best and a raw one at worst. Team 5 has an opportunity to fix it, but there's a lot of catch-up work to do. Give us a gameplay demo. Put the pre-release software in front of a streamer or two and show them playing the solo content—then pit them against each other to show that money isn't necessary to have a good time in PvP. Extend the pre-order bundles so that players can buy them after Mercenaries is live in their region, so they have a chance to sample the goods. Right now it's hard to imagine that there were any sales of the Mercs stuff at all, even for hardcore Hearthstone or Diablo fans. Those numbers won't change without a serious remedial effort on Blizzard's part. Let's just hope they don't forget to equip Reincarnation 3 beforehand.