Tag Archives: Hearthstone

Opinion – The Future of CCGs

Reality, digital, and digital reality

As an avid player of both digital and meatspace collectible card games (CCG), I can’t help but be pleased by the explosion of new entries into this design space.  Hearthstone is obviously the biggest name, but plenty of other IPs exist and many more are on the way.  The old king of CCGs, Magic the Gathering (MtG), faces stiff competition from many corners.  It is being punished for its years of digital neglect as MtG developer Wizards of the Coast is just now trying to update its online client into something humans might use.  The temptation is to say that the proliferation of digital competitors means that MtG’s days are numbered.  Magic certainly has challenges ahead, but its unique position in the physical world makes the game stronger than it would appear.

The digital case is a strong one.  Adopting the powerful free-to-play model, digital card games are incredibly accessible in a way that the physical ones can’t be.  A pack of Magic cards costs $4 whereas most digital CCGs will let the player grind for every card in the game free of charge.  That’s a long and laborious process, but players can certainly grind enough to build a decent deck and compete.  Particularly for new players, the ability to play without a major financial outlay means that there is little risk and little reason not to try the game.  The cost savings don’t stop there.  Digital CCGs do allow players to buy packs and those packs are cheaper as well.  The lack of print and transportation costs means that a game like Hearthstone can sell packs for a fraction of the cost of a Magic pack and still realize a huge profit.  Digital CCGs are more cost efficient for both the player and the developer.

The digital world holds two major gameplay benefits for CCGs.  It’s 1) infinitely malleable and 2) totally controllable.  To the first point, anything the developers want in a game, they can code in.  The only hard limit is the imagination of the developers.  Consider the piloted shredder cards of Hearthstone.  When one of these creatures dies, it is replaced by another random creature in the game.  With over 10,000 cards, a Magic player would need a massive collection to replicate such an effect.  Hearthstone players just need an account because the program can do the rest.  Along with the malleability comes the complete control over every card and rule at all times.  One of the greatest challenges of any competitive game is balancing.  Once printed, Wizards of the Coast can’t undo or modify an unbalanced card.  If a card breaks the meta-game, then Wizards can ban or restrict it, but they can’t modify it to make it more meta-friendly.  By comparison, a digital CCG developer can change every copy of the problematic card in a single shot.  Everything is in the code.  Change the code, change the world.

I could go on, but it’s important to see the other side of this coin.  Digital cards may beat physical in a lot of ways, but the physical model still has legs on it.  The first is the social nature of the game.  Magic promotes the meeting of players by virtue of the fact that the physical game is unplayable without a human opponent.  Unlike Hearthstone which practically assumes that the player won’t know their opponent, MtG allows people to get together and enjoy the game among friends.  When friends aren’t available, Magic promotes Friday Night Magic which are locally run events designed to draw in players and build a community.  Many players talk fondly of the friends they’ve made through playing Magic; something that is all but impossible in your average digital CCG.

The other enormous benefit to the physical card game is that it taps player creativity in a way that a digital CCG never could.  While digital CCGs are incredibly responsive to the whims of the developers, they are completely harden to the whims of the players.  Creativity is a one way street from developer to player as every rule is hard coded into the game and every card may only behave a certain way.  Contrast that with MtG which has spawned numerous variations both big and small.  One of the more successful variation, Commander, was created by casual players and has been worked into future Magic card design.  The only way to incorporate this kind of creativity into a digital CCG would be to open the game up to modding.  Modding might sound promising, but the creation of an open environment would cripple the competitive scene.  Furthermore, modding requires a level of coding knowledge that would confine it to only the most committed of players.  By contrast, the only requirement for “modding” Magic is both players willingness to go along with it.

Fortunately for me, I think there’s enough space for both digital and physical card games.  They each serve a different, but overlapping, market that will allow players to enjoy both for years to come.  Their shared existence may even serve as a mutual benefit to each other.  Both types of CCG serve as an entry point for players who appreciate CCGs for different reasons.  Once hooked, they may reach out to explore the other options and, in doing so, expand into another game.

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Opinion – So you want to make an esports game?

Instant success in just a few easy steps!

The incredible rise of esports has encouraged imitators to develop the next great game.  If they succeed, they could follow in the steps of Riot Games resulting in massive, stable profits for years to come in an ever changing industry.  Fail and the game joins the scrap heap of imitators which are doomed to be forgotten except by a few devoted souls.  That being said, successful esports games seem to range across a number of different genres making it hard to know why they succeed or fail.  What follows is a collection of commonalities I have noticed in popular esports games.  As I wrote this, I discovered this article is really a two parter.

 

They’re accessible

Think of the most successful esports games.  DOTA, League of Legends, Hearthstone, etc.  The one thing they all have in common is that they’re free to start.  In theory, every player can get to the top of the rankings without spending a dime.  In reality, successful players probably spend some money, but the games only ask for payment after the player is hooked.  They also don’t require a super expensive computer to run.  These two factors dramatically reduce the cost of trying the game which significantly broadens the player pool.  One of the most important aspects of a high level competitive scene is having a group of fans large enough to both play the game at a high level and to enjoy watching it.  The lower the barrier to entry, the easier it is for players to join, and the more likely the game will reach a critical mass.

The skill ceiling is sky high….

The competitive players that make up the competitive scene in a game want to feel rewarded for the considerable time and energy they invest in the game.  They want to know that improving their skill will result in greater success on the battlefield and leaderboard.  A high skill ceiling ensures that devoted players will always have another step to climb and that the best players will rise to the top.  With a low ceiling, the best players will ultimately settle at the same level thereby stagnating their progress and turning competitive matches into either a crap shoot or a foregone conclusion*, depending on how the skills are capped.  This both frustrates fans who want to see diverse strategies and prevents the development of a skilled cadre of players.  Individual players and teams can’t stand out if everyone performs the same at a particular level.  This prevents the creation of reputations and brands that fans identify with and which invest the fans more into the game.

…, but the bottom end is fun too.

Let’s face it, most of esports game players suck.  They aren’t reaching incredible levels of mastery.  Hell, they probably aren’t getting out of the single player campaign or fighting bots on stupid mode.  Even so, these are the people who an esports developer need to watch games, root for players, and buy merchandise. To encourage old players to return to the game and new players to join in, the game can’t be so difficult that only the masters can play.   They also serve as the foundation from which eventual pro players arise.  Low skill players won’t just fill in the bottom rung of the competitive pyramid, they’ll also fill in every successive rung thereby providing aspirants with a path to the top.  The fewer people who enjoy a game, the fewer people who will pick it up and the lower quality the eventual pros will be. Finally, having fun at the low end makes the high end more relatable.  Fans have a hard time appreciating the skill of a player unless they’ve tried to accomplish the same thing.  By making the low skill end of a game entertaining, the developer is also allowing fans to discover what they love about their favorite game.

 

And that ends part 1.  See you next week in part 2.

 

*If the game relies heavily on random outcomes, then the winner of a match between equally skilled players is usually the player with the luckiest roles (think poker).  When the game has a low skill ceiling and little randomness, then both players know the outcome and can predict every move (tic tac toe).

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Opinion – GamARTing

Sunset is a game by indie developer Tale of Tales about being a maid in the early days of a revolution…which you never played.  How do I know this?  Easy.  The game sold 4000 copies and the developer complained about it here.  In their blog post, Tale of Tales talked about how it did all the right things, yet the game still failed.  There’s a very real sense of entitlement throughout the entire post which hints at why they failed.  Beyond that, the post almost asks a very pertinent question: What is the role of art in gaming?

It is unfortunate to see that most artists and art minded critics feel that the role of art is to criticize people who don’t appreciate art.  Tale of Tales’ blog post, with the adjoining Kotaku article, lament the popular crowd and its failure to understand the brilliance of the indie scene.  From this view, the general games buying public is a mindless mass that gobbles up cheap Call of Duty fare, but lacks the capacity to appreciate the genius of the small, auteur creator.  Should the general gaming crowd point out a problem, the indie minded critic cries “but its art!” to explain away all manner of gaming sin, assuming the developer is sufficiently avant-garde and the audience is suitably popular.  By the end of this kind of article, art in gaming feels like an elitist club designed to make the complainers feel better about themselves by denigrating the greater masses.  The critics are wrong to do so.

The problem with the above argument is that it stems from a limited understand of why people play games and so imposes the motivations of the arguer on to the public.  For the vast majority of people, video games are a fun way with to relax and socialize with friends and that’s totally legitimate.  The average player of GTA V isn’t looking for deeper meaning, but rather would like blow to stuff up in an entertaining manner.  Our hypothetical GTA V player might look to something else for greater meaning, or not, but their failure to do so within the context of games does not suggest there is something wrong with them.  Gaming need not be a major source of artistic value like it is for some passionate followers of the medium.  It’s also important to recognize that appreciating an artistic game often means understanding the long history of gaming.  A new player can’t pickup up an artistic game and appreciate the high level of meaning any more than a consumer of just a few cheap romance novels will grasp Kant.  Many of the ideas analyzed in these games rely on a mental infrastructure that artistic gamers, developers, and critics have developed over years of play.  Art complainers are effectively criticizing people for not spending the considerable time and money needed to reach this understanding.

The real insidious nature of this kind of argument is how it warps the potential role of art in video games (I got here…eventually).  The devoted art gamer often hones in on the most expressive and least accessible examples of the medium, while ignoring the very real potential for meaning within its most popular expressions.  One of the greatest artistic achievements in games is the original Bioshock for its ability to marry gaming’s popular appeal with a deep critique of Ayn Rand.  The role that art can and should play is to use the relevance of the medium to impart messages in a way that gaming’s audience can appreciate.  The more art gaming breaks away from the basic appeal of video games, the more it isolates itself from the broader public who might benefit from art gaming’s message.

There is a role for developers who want to push the boundaries of meaning.  They investigate new ways to express ideas through games that may make their way into the popular scene.  While we applaud their efforts, we should recognize that their work is necessarily limited by the small, devoted audience the players their games.  These developers aren’t better for their niche pursuits.  Instead, they fill a necessary role within gaming that should be appreciated alongside the triple A developer who takes a less nuanced approach to a broader audience.

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Opinion – Wrapping up 2014

Arbitrary rankings for goodness!

2014 has been a bad year for video games.  From the controversy surrounding the Gamergate issue to the rash of overhyped games that failed to deliver, it’s hard to see this year as anything but a failure.  Still, there have been some successes.  In this article, I’ll go through my most disappointing game, but I’ll also highlight three games that show what the year could have been.  Let’s hope 2015 is better.

Most Disappointing Game – Civilization: Beyond Earth

This was a crowded field.  From the disappointing games I played like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Farcry 4 to the others I mostly heard about like Destiny or Assassin’s Creed: Unity, 2014 was chock full of over promises and underdelivering.  Even then, one game stood below the rest.  Civilization: Beyond Earth.  I initially met the announcement of a Firaxis developed space Civilization game with a sense of joy and excitement.  We hadn’t seen a proper successor to Alpha Centauri ever and the premier turn based strategy development house was taking it on!  Unfortunately, the final product proved to be an extension of Civilization’s flaws rather than a proper development of the concept.  Firaxis failed to infuse the game with the story or the strategic depth of its spiritual predecessor.  Even without the comparison, Civilization: Beyond Earth was just a soulless game without much to recommend it.  There were certainly worse games this year, but few failed to live up to their potential like this game.

Best Surprise – Hearthstone

Blizzard Entertainment is one of the most public and successful developers, so it’s hard to say that anything they do is a real surprise.  That being said, a deep, complex collectable card game is incredibly difficult to make and Blizzard had no background in it.  Even without the experience, Blizzard created a fantastic experience in Hearthstone that only the beta players really saw coming.  From the variety of strategies to the slick interface, Hearthstone is the digital successor to Magic: The Gathering.  To be sure, the game has a ways to go.  Blizzard has a great deal of design space to explore, I’m not convinced it has a grasp on how to build cards for arena, and it doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy for rolling out new cards.  That being said, the base game is fantastic and accessible.  We now know that Blizzard has the chops to put together a compelling card game.  The question is whether it has the ability to maintain it.

Best Updates – Crusader Kings 2: Rajas of India, Charlemagne, and Way of Life

Any who have played Crusader Kings 2, know of the game’s ridiculous depth.  Even the vanilla version allows a player to control thousands of Christian leaders across almost 400 years of history.  Had developer Paradox walked away from their 2012 hit, it would have remained a great game.  What makes it truly one of the best is Paradox’s continued commitment to updating and improving CK2.  This year, we saw releases that expanded the world to India, introduced a story line around the Carolingian kings, and created an RPG-lite system for character development.  Paradox made an already deep game even deeper this year and shows no signs of slowing down.  If you haven’t had a chance to play this game, overcome its (admittedly, vicious) learning curve and dive into one of the best strategy titles available.

Game of the Year – Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s telling that my best game of the year is also a heavily flawed one.  DA:I suffers from a number of bugs, odd pacing issues, and a generally uninteresting cast.  Even with its problems, it still provide the most compelling experience of the year.  DA:I is effectively two games.  It combines open world exploration with a dedicated scripted story line with the challenging, complex choices that we’ve come to expect from the Dragon Age series.  More than any game of the year and most games made, DA:I provides a clear sense of the world the player is inhabiting and the people who live in it.  The history, culture, and society are all center stage and intricately woven into the gameplay.  It’s telling that, as much as the first Dragon Age frustrates me, DA:I has tempted me to go back, endure that frustration, and truly make the story my own.

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Review – Hearthstone Beta – PC

Card addiction beta

It’s like Magic the Gathering, but quicker and better adapted for an online environment.

For a lot of you, that’s all you need to know.  For the rest, Hearthstone is a collectible card game based on the universe of Blizzard’s Warcraft.  The game is wrapped in an online candy coating that makes playing easy and buying cards even easier.  It lures you in with a technically free-to-play premise, and keeps you there with a self referencing environment.  In short, it’s addictive, it’s fun, and it’s going to leave you destitute.

The basic premise is simple:  Two players draw cards that they use to damage their opponent.  The cards are either spells (one use cards that have a wide variety of effects) or creatures (cards that stay on the board and can deal damage the opponent or other creatures each turn).  Players wail away at their opponents through a wide variety of strategies and card combinations until their opponent’s life total is zero.  As anyone who has played a collectible card game knows, the depth is in the variety of effects that the cards provide.  While Hearthstone Beta’s depth doesn’t rival older games, like the aforementioned Magic the Gathering, it still has plenty of interesting card combinations on offer to entice experienced players.  Hearthstone introduces one truly unique idea in the form of heroes.  When creating decks, players must choose a hero who has a special ability and access to unique cards.  Each hero lends themselves towards different strategies allowing many different styles of play.  Players have the opportunity to experience each hero for free to determine which one best fits them.

The gameplay of Hearthstone Beta is functional and fun, but it doesn’t explain the popularity of the game.  For that, you need to look to the brilliant online implementation that makes playing simple and easy.  It begins with the tutorial that is fast, interactive, and rewarding.  Hearthstone Beta walks you through several show matches before guiding you towards games against AI, games against players, and ranked matches.  Along the way, it grants you in-game currency for winning matches and achieving daily goals.  Players may then spend the currency for new packs that provide cards for decks.  They may also spend real money.  Extraneous cards can be destroyed for another currency called “dust” which can be exchanged for specific cards.  The end result is a constant incentive to keep playing to earn more packs and purchase better cards to earn more rewards.  It’s a vicious and compelling cycle.

Hearthstone Beta may be good at keeping you playing, but it’s not without its faults.  In particular, the free-to-play promise is undermined by the reality of a subtle pay-to-win mechanic.  While you could grind for the necessary cards, the process takes too much time.  It’s hard to get to a competitive level with a pack a day (assuming dedicated daily play).  For most players, they’re going to want to treat this like a $30 – $40 dollar game.  That should buy you enough cards to put together some competitive decks.  Even then, it’s extremely disheartening to watch your finely tuned strategy wrecked by Mr. Moneybags and his wad of legendary cards.

Hearthstone Beta is an extremely refined experience.  It establishes a vicious cycle of play and reward that will both encourage players to keep playing and keep buying.  Players who fall easily into the loot trap should be warned: this game will clear you out.  For all others, Hearthstone Beta is a deep and rewarding experience that will return to you what you put in.  Sit down, play, and enjoy the ride.

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