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How business model and economic design can change player's behavior: the hearthstone case

Today I'll go over the design choices Blizzard made for the different ways of acquiring cards in Hearthstone and their effects on the game.

Just to introduce me, my name is François Alligier, I'm a French game and level designer student and sometimes I think. Today I will share with you my thoughts on Hearthstone card acquisition system and the problems it creates.

Let's jump right into it, I guess everybody know Hearthstone but just to be sure it's a card game set in the Warcraft universe released by Blizzard in 2014. The game had a huge success on it's launch on PC, the mobile released made the game accessible to even more people and I think it is still the most successful digital card game as I wrote those words. A huge part of this success is the free to play business model allowing everybody to try the game and I'll have to admit, once you start you are hooked very quickly by the simple but effectives mechanics and the gorgeous art of the game. Until there it's a perfect run, but I wouldn't be writing an article if everything was perfect so let's get to the problems.

So Hearthstone is a collectible card game which means you will have to open card packs in order to fill up your collection and build your decks from there. The card acquisition system is simple, you buy packs of 5 cards picked randomly in the corresponding expansion set, you can either buy packs with the in-game currency or use real money to speed up the process, and you'll want that speed up badly because the farming necessary to buy packs with in-game gold is ludicrous. To give you an idea, you need 100 gold to buy a pack, if you put aside the daily quest that give you around 40 to 100 gold once per day if you complete it, the only option to gain gold is to stack up victories. You gain 10 gold every 3 victories which means you will have to win 30 matches in order to buy a pack, if you have a 50% win rate it makes 60 matches to play and with an average game time of 12 minutes you come to the conclusion that: 12 hours of play = 1 pack paid with in-game gold.

I see you coming to me saying " but you talked about daily quests, if you play everyday and complete your quest you can fill up your collection with the time necessary " and I will go with a big NO. The fact is, each year Blizzard is releasing 2 cards expansion with around 130 cards in each of them and one adventure that contain less but more impactful cards. I will not make the math to know the number of packs you need to open in order to get every cards of an expansion but you can find videos of streamers opening 200 or so packs and still not get every legendaries ( rarest cards ). As for the adventures, if you want to avoid paying real money you'll need to save up 3500 gold to unlock the 5 wings and get all the cards. So like I said, I will not go in the math and just say that it is simply impossible to follow the rhythm of the cards release just with free to play. And that's normal to incite players to pay real money in a free to play, after all it's the only source of revenue the game has but this has a cost.

It is well known that a lot of F2P players are actually not spending much and they prefer to just play without paying, following the slow-pace of the free side of the game. But in Hearthstone, the players have an impact on the pace of the game, if you follow the Hearthstone scene you start discerning the shadow of a pirate aggro warrior appearing in the mist, if not, you need to be aware that numerous play styles exists in Hearthstone ( like zoo, control or tempo ) each of them with a different game plan. If you take for instance the control type decks, their aim is to get to the late-game where they are the stronger and on the opposite side, aggro type decks aim to burn down their opponent as fast as possible.

And we reach here the root of the problem, the aggro decks being so much fasts to play, a lot of F2P players are playing them just to farm victories and get their free packs faster. And it's not only about the pirate aggro warrior ( which is everywhere this times ) I mentioned earlier, for almost every expansion, there was a fast deck made to finish the matches in 5 minutes top. The majority of the players being F2P, the meta is heavily affected by those fast decks, to the point that people are sometimes building decks just to counter them. And if only Blizzard was okay with the meta being what it is but no, you can see in each expansion cards that they are trying to push a slowest meta by giving control decks more and more tools to survive without great success.

I don't think Blizzard would ever be able to fix this problem with cards, the problem comes from the card acquisition system pushing the players to pay with an awful lot of farming to keep up with releases without spending money. As long as players will have a way to farm faster, they will use it, and if it impacts your game in a negative way, this is where you have to focus your efforts.

Thank you for your time, I will be happy to hear your thoughts and feedbacks too so let me know in the comments and until the next time, may the fun and the luck be with you.

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