19 November 2015

Hearthstone - match-making and bottom-feeding

Most players play every day to win their daily quest. Most daily quests involve winning in PvP matches. Thus, many players end up bottom-feeding: they keep their PvP ranking low so as to win more easily and complete their daily quest faster. That's why 90% of Hearthstone players are below rank 10 in ranked mode.

To reach the number of wins for their daily quest faster, players may want to concede and start another game when they see they have no chance in the current one. There are several techniques to gauge an opponent and the likelihood to lose:

  • A golden hero protrait indicates the player has won 500 games with that hero. It is a veteran player, most likely with lots of good cards.
  • Decks composed of 4+ legendary cards, especially Sylvanas, Dr. Boom, or Alexstrasza, are from players who spent a lot of money.
  • Purchased heroes means the player has certainly spent a lot of money on card packs as well.
  • A legendary card back indicates the player was dedicated enough to reach the top .25% of the player base.
  • Old card backs indicate the player is a veteran, and must have good cards.
  • Heroic dungeon card backs are awarded for clearing a dungeon in heroic mode, which requires many good cards.

Having players with different skill levels playing together is problematic. Veteran players tend to have better cards and more skill than beginners. As a result, beginners may frequently go on long loss streaks. Loss streaks are very unpleasant, and come to mind faster than win streaks. So when players talk to their friends about Hearthstone, they are more likely to complain than to brag. That won't encourage their friends to start playing.

There are solutions to bottom-feeding. One solution is to pool beginners together so they don't get beaten up too quickly. Another solution currently in place in Casual Play, Tavern Brawl, and legendary-rank games, is using a ranking hidden from players such as MMR. Hiding player's rank from them prevents them from knowing where they stand, and the average skill and cards to be expected from their opponents. But players can easily cheat the system and drop their MMR by conceding games before they even started.

A great solution would be to consider both the player's ranking (as is currently the case) and the rarity of the cards in their deck. In fact, websites listing Hearthstone decks already take into account the rarity of the cards in a deck by providing a dust cost. Epic and legendary cards cost a lot of dust, and are either useless (and therefore unused), overpowered (and therefore always used), or the keys to unlocking synergies in a deck (which is where the game is interesting). I think it would make sense to at least take them into account when matching players together.

18 November 2015

Hearthstone - grinding for cards

Players who spend $0 in Hearthstone (whom I call free players) can only obtain new cards from coins. Coins come from daily quests. Most daily quests involve winning 3-5 games against other players. Because PvP involves so much luck, winning games is about trying long enough. Thus the only way for free players to obtain new cards is to grind. How long is the grind for new cards?

The first step in obtaining new cards is unlocking the Naxxramas and Blackrock dungeons. How much time does that take a free player? Each dungeon costs 3500 coins. Daily quests give 50 coins per day, so unlocking them both takes 5 months. And that is assuming that during these five months, the free (yet dedicated) player is not buying any card packs with coins. I could understand that the less committed free players would quit out of desperation. Blizzard may have realized that too, so they introduced two new ways to obtain card packs: Tavern Brawl, awarding one pack per week, and Watch and Learn, a daily quest awarding a card pack for spectating a battle.net friend winning a game. Watch and Learn actually killed two birds with one stone, since it also was the first (and still is the only) incentive to socialize.

Once the dungeons are out of the way, free players receive a card pack every other day. After 3-4 months, nearly all commons and half of all rares have been acquired. But players eventually need specific legendary cards to increase their win ratio. How much time does it take a free player to get a specific legendary card? Since a legendary card costs 1600 dust, and a card pack awards 90 dust on average, it takes a free player 5 weeks to gather enough dust to buy one specific legendary card. And that is assuming that the player trashes all cards found in packs, including those of rare, epic, and legendary rarities. If they keep the epic and legendary cards, a card pack only awards 39 dust on average, and obtaining a specific legendary card takes 6 weeks.

Not all legendary cards are worth keeping. Competitive decks require 2 to 4 legendary cards, ie 5 months of grinding. Moreover, there are 9 classes in Hearthstone, each with different legendary card requirements. Since Blizzard releases new cards every 6 months, no free player can seriously think of collecting all the cards in Hearthstone.

17 November 2015

Hearthstone - crafting

Hearthstone has a soft currency called dust. Dust is used to purchase a desired card from Blizzard. Common cards cost 40 dust, legendary 1600. Dust is obtained from trashing cards: 5 for common cards, 400 for legendary. Players who want a specific legendary card are very unlikely to find it in a card pack. But they can trash the cards in the card pack for dust, and use that dust to buy it.

Blizzard gave a special name to purchasing with dust and trashing cards for dust: crafting and disenchanting. Yet this mechanic is far from the crafting we are used to in RPGs: no additional material is required beside dust, and all cards follow the same recipe. Rarity only increases cost. So why calling it crafting/disenchanting, and not buying/trashing? Why make a fancy UI, pretending that players are actually creating a card themselves, and not buying it from the store? I think it was so that players perceive dust as a regular game element, and not a currency. That way, players don't feel like they are purchasing dust (through card packs) with real money at all.

Blizzard actually introduced direct-purchasing (aka crafting) as a solution to what they say is a common trading-card game issue: when players obtain a rare card, they want to keep it, and they'll never trade it with other players. But that rationale is flawed. People who buy card packs will sell their duplicates if the game provides them an auction house. Blizzard probbaly did not want to go that route after their Diablo 3 auction house was overrun by gold farmers.

16 November 2015

Hearthstone - luck-based mechanics

I covered Hearthstone in a previous post, but there is more to say. Hearthstone is a collectible card game (CCG) for Windows, iOS, and Android, by Blizzard. Its gameplay is very similar to Magic: The Gathering, and its theme is World of Warcraft. It is free to play, but players can purchase coins, which are spent to acquire card packs or unlock certain cards. Hearthstone launched in March 2014.

Influx of new players

Hearthstone has seen 30M players and generated $250M as of May 2015. Hearthstone had 25M registered players in January 2015. That means 15% of the player base (5M players) have been playing for less than 6 months. This is very good: a constant influx of new players keeps a game alive.

Luck-based mechanics

Many mechanics in Hearthstone are based on luck. Very few mechanics help manage that luck.

Mechanics involving luck in Hearthstone
Mechanic Description Solution
Topdeck Drawing by luck the right card at the right time Filtering cards like Tracking
Starting hand 3-4 cards out of a deck of 30 One Mulligan (redrawing unwanted cards)
Card effects E.g. deal 2 damage to a random enemy, or get a random beast. Anticipating all possible outcomes
Card packs After 2 months, most cards from packs are already owned and redundant. One card per pack is guaranteed to be rare or above. Convert redundant cards into crafting dust. Collect golden cards.
Match-making Random opponent decks that may be very (in)effective against yours Tavern Brawls with pre-made decks. Best-of-3 in championships.
At rank 15-20, opponent skill varies greatly. Provide incentives against bottom-feeding.

When playing for skill, all luck aspects can be annoying. In my experience, topdecking and random card effects have been the most frustrating: a strategy works, it's about to win against an opponent, but the opponent draws the right card, or receives by chance the one perfect card to counter the strategy. Some decks such as Oil Rogue even rely on making a combo of 4 particular cards in the same turn. If these cards are in the starting hand, these combos fire after a couple turns, and the loser feels like the game was over before it even started. Unlike in Dominion, strategy in Hearthstone is too heavily mitigated by chance.