Blizzard’s Hearthstone blends traditional CCG mechanics with the world’s most popular MMO
You have to give Blizzard credit.
For all the talk and rumors and speculation about what the company would reveal at PAX East, I don’t think anyone guessed “online collectible card game based on World of Warcraft.” Hey, at least it wasn’t Diablo III for PlayStation 4, right?
It’s always dangerous to venture into comments sections, but I’ve done that on a handful of gaming sites, including this one, and the reaction to Hearthstone seems to be generally positive. There are a few “WTF Blizzard???”s, but there are a larger number of “This sounds cool”s, at least from my viewpoint.
At the very least, very few people are screaming about what an awful idea it is, which has to come as something of a relief, considering how recent gaming news has been and the often vitriolic reactions gamers have to anything that even remotely offends their sensibilities.
I’ve played upwards of 120 collectible card games, with around 25 or so of them in something I would consider a serious manner, and I used to be the associate editor of Scrye, the leading CCG magazine in the industry.
I’ve also worked for two CCG companies – well, one CCG company and one sports card company that decided to dabble in CCGs – including being the co-lead designer on two games. (Disclaimer: Everything you didn’t like about those games was done by the other guys.)
So I like to think I kinda-sorta know my way around this field, far more than my dubious expertise in MMORPGs would suggest. I’ve seen CCGs come and go, seen hugely hyped games fail and seen tiny ones succeed. And my overall opinion of Hearthstone, based on what we’ve seen so far?
More of the same… but that’s OK
I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that every CCG to come out over the last 10 years or so has touted itself as “easy to learn, but with enough strategy to please advanced players” or the equivalent thereof. It’s the classic “trying to appeal to everyone” line that we’ve seen, in various forms, in the descriptions of MMORPGs, and it was part of Hearthstone‘s exposé, as well.
It certainly is simple, at its core. The basic structure of the game is similar to a streamlined Magic: The Gathering, with simplified mana resources, a common trait in modern CCGs. Even MTG creator Richard Garfield has gone on record as saying that if he had the game to do over again, he would do away with land cards.
Hearthstone‘s general similarity to industry leader Magic is the exact same sort of thing MMO gamers lament when the latest “WoW clone” hits, but this doesn’t typically arouse the same ire among CCG fans.
The reason? In a physical CCG, you have to compute everything manually, so having familiar mechanics makes the basics of the game easily recognizable and allows you to quickly move on to more advanced styles of play.
In an MMO, most of the computations are done for you by computers, so the basic mechanics of the game require little thought. As a result, players look for more beyond those basics and when they don’t find them, they tend to rightly get upset at an experience that’s essentially no different from the one they’ve already been playing for years.
In other words, Hearthstone is a “Magic clone” as much as Rift or SWTOR are “WoW clones.” It’s not exactly the same, but it’s similar enough at its core that players of one can easily adapt to the other – and that’s the idea. In fact, it’s a strength, and very few non-Magic-style CCGs have survived, much less thrived, especially over the last decade.
Beyond the basics
Once you get past the relative simplicity of the mechanics, what else does Hearthstone offer? Is it really complex enough or offer enough strategy to please hardcore gamers?
We’ve only seen a limited subset of cards so far, but there seems to be a fair amount of variety. I imagine that high-level strategy will include intricate combos and devious tactics, similar to any CCG, that give highly intelligent players much-deserved advantages.
Most of these tactics will likely involve concepts such as resource management, direct damage, control, creature zergs, etc. It won’t be particularly special or unique, as compared to other CCGs, but it should nicely satisfy that strategic itch.
(Before StarCraft introduced the race, we used to call a certain type of zerg deck in Magic “white weenie,” and no, that wasn’t a sexual joke.)
What Hearthstone can do differently from its cardstock competitors is include elements that are difficult – or even impossible – for a physical CCG to replicate.
Take the simple card Sense Demons, which puts two random demons into a player’s hand from his deck. You wouldn’t see these kinds of cards in a non-offline CCG, because the means of selecting random cards would have been clunky at best.
Keeping track of minion health is another item that you don’t see in most CCGs, because it either requires some kind of tokens or memory. In fact, CCG designers often look to minimize or eliminate so-called “memory issues,” so as to prevent mistakes or arguments. (“Your creature only has one hit point left!” “No, it has two!”)
But that’s the exact sort of thing that a computer is perfectly suited for. Probably the best-known MMO-CCG crossover, SOE’s Legends of Norrath, didn’t often utilize these kinds of mechanics because – at least early on – there were aspirations of porting the game over to a physical format.
A lot has also been made of the special effects, like voice acting, animation, and so on, which are also nice window dressing for an electronic game. But it’s the “can’t be done anywhere else” powers that I think will set Hearthstone apart and open up new strategies that are truly unlike any that have ever been seen before in CCGs.
But does Hearthstone even need to innovate on the strategy front? As previously mentioned, many Magic clones do just fine, and a Magic clone paired with World of Warcraft seems like a license to print money.
There’s talk of integrating Hearthstone with WoW in multiple ways, the most obvious of which would seem to be “loot cards.” Present in Cryptozoic’s World of Warcraft TCG, these were rare cards with a code that could be entered into your WoW account to provide a unique piece of loot for your character. The most impressive were the mounts, some of which sold on eBay for triple-digit sums.
Then there’s the payment method, which sounds to me like the best deal of all, and something that definitely couldn’t be replicated by a physical game.
It sounds like you’ll get a basic starter deck for free and then can earn extra packs either by paying $1 for five cards (not confirmed, but expected) or by earning points in game that will allow you to buy packs.
This sounds not unlike the method we’ve seen in other “friendly” F2P games like League of Legends and PlanetSide 2. No content is gated, and it would be possible – though slow – to play Hearthstone and become an expert player with a vast collection without spending a single dime. And all of that doesn’t take the awesome-looking crafting system into account.
I think Hearthstone will do just fine, with strong potential to be another great success for Blizzard. Creativity will be found less in the game mechanics themselves and more in how it’s presented and how Blizzard leverages its status as a computer game first and a collectible card game second to drive innovation.