On the 23rd of February last year, Blizzard sent out the below teaser to games media outlets.
According to the invitation, “it’s not a sequel, expansion, or that rumored next-gen MMO, but it’s something we’re excited for you to get your hands on.”
These assurances could only do so much of course, and it wasn’t long before rumors of new IPs or even revivals of long-dead projects like Starcraft: Ghost were flying around the internet.
When the reveal of Hearthstone, a free-to-play card game based on the Warcraft franchise, finally came it was met with confusion on one side and cautious optimism on the other. After all, didn’t Blizzard already have a Warcraft TCG? Do their attempts to push the eSports aspect of the game have any merit? Why are they pushing the eSports aspect of the game so strongly? Is there really all that much potential in the digital card games market?
It has been just over a year and Blizzard’s “little something” has done quite well for them. Hearthstone reached its one millionth player while still in beta. This number quickly grew to over 10 million registered accounts following the game’s full release and given that this was before even the game’s iPad launch (where it quickly soared up the charts), it’s safe to say that there are a lot of self-proclaimed ‘Hearthstoners’ out there.
The eSports aspect of the game has similarly gone from awkward beginnings to a promisingly popular ends. The ESL and other eSports organizations have quickly jumped on the game’s potential and there are countless Youtubers, Theorycrafters and Livestreamers standing testament to the Hearthstone’s competitive potential.
Given that some market analysts have estimated the game is going bring in a “modest” $30 million in revenue for Activision-Blizzard over the next year, it’s probably safe to label Hearthstone a success and call it a day. That said, there’s definitely something interesting to be seen here when you look at this success not in comparison to other competitively-angled free-to-play games like League of Legends but other digital card games like Shadow Era and Magic: The Gathering.
According to Kyle Poole, lead developer of Shadow Era, “The main strengths [of Hearthstone] are obviously the WoW brand and the level of polish they have in the game.”
Shadow Era is one of several digital trading card games (Infinity Wars and Scrolls being two popular alternatives) that made their way into gamers hands long before Blizzard began preparing to enter the market with Hearthstone.
Like Heartstone, Shadow Era is free-to-play and offers competitive play across multiple platforms (PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android and web browser). The game’s website even directly describes Shadow Era as “most similar to the WoW TCG” and while Poole touched on this during our interview, he was quick to add that “it’s important for players to have more choices when it comes to what games to play, and as a game designer I love to see how the marketplace evolves with different ideas and combinations”.
The other big strength of Hearthstone is its accessibility. From the streamlined menus and charming visual details, Hearthstone is working to draw you in from the moment you launch it. The effort that Blizzard have put in here is something Poole can see and acknowledge the value it offers to more casual players. According to him, Shadow Era places a similar amount of value on being accessible. “Accommodating more casual players was also very important to the initial game design,” he states, “things like eliminating interrupts that required too much thinking on your opponent’s turn, and simplifying the rules allowed players who had never even played a ccg before to quickly pick up the game.”
The previously-mentioned eSports success of Hearthstone is another factor behind its success and while Shadow Era might lack some of the mainstream exposure that Hearthstone has behind it, there’s definitely still an eSports scene behind the game. Poole expressed enthusiasm for this side of the game saying “We also have a yearly world championship, and last year I was quite impressed by both the variety of heroes used, and the amazing strategic gameplay that was displayed.“
Earlier this year, I interviewed Julia Hiltscher of the Turtle Entertainment about the eSports scene surrounding Hearthstone. According to her, the appeal of the game comes down a couple of simple things that it does well. She says “[Hearthstone]’s main strength is accessibility coupled with a strong IP…the game itself is easy to understand, while still offering a level of complexity sufficient to keep longtime players interested.” She says, “I don’t think the game has any objective weaknesses, just the usual balancing problems that occur when you continuously add cards (which means new rules) to a competitive game.”
While players are quick to cry foul at Blizzard for balancing cards (the recent changes to ‘Unleash The Hounds’ are a good example of this), Hiltscher can see where Blizzard are coming from with the changes. She understands that “From the professional perspective of a game developer or organizer, it is always a high priority to listen to your top players, while keeping in mind that you can make the majority of your community really sad when you only listen to the top 1%.”
But enough about the game’s strengths, if we want to find out more about the weaknesses of Blizzard’s game we only need to look towards the community surrounding the most popular trading card game in the world – Magic: The Gathering.
A poster-child for commercially successful card games, Magic: The Gathering has been around since 1993 and today it’s played professionally across the world. Magic was also one of the first card games to take steps into the digital realm with Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO) and more recently the Duels of the Planeswalkers (DOPT) series.
There’s definitely some interesting comparison to be had here, especially given the history surrounding the digitization of media. When records were invented, some musicians believed it would be the death of music and when as today’s eBook market began to take hold, similar worries were voiced by the booksellers of the world. What’s interesting then, is the lack of fear that Wizards of the Coast have towards the digital card games market.
In an interview with Games.On.Net, Wizards of the Coast see the emergence of games like Hearthstone as the result of the successes that they’ve made with MTGO and DOTP. When asked about how they compare to their competition, Aaron Forsythe says that “Blizzard is a heavy hitter in the industry…. I know that we couldn’t make an MMO as good as they could, but as far as trading card games go [sic] I am confident in the team”
Although there’s probably an element of truth to this, Forsythe’s comments make an interesting contrast for the company’s recent legal actions against the developers of Kickstarter-funded digital card game, Hex: Shards of Fate. Although their lawsuit against Cryptozoic may be more focused on the mechanics of Hex rather than its digital format, their actions definitely make you wonder how far Wizards would go if they truly felt threatened by digital card games.
While Hearthstone might not be the only DCG to generate an eSports following, it’s one of the few to balance the meticulous demands of a competitive scene and the accessibility that comes with casual gaming. It’s a combination that’s already working wonders for Blizzard’s foray into free-to-play and if it’s popular enough, its commercial success could be the herald of a new age for the digital card gaming genre.
Article by Fergus Halliday