Blizzard Entertainment is probably a company that most of you are either familiar with or have at least heard about. Some of their biggest successes include StarCraft, Warcraft, and World of Warcraft, which are well known in the gaming community. Blizzard excels at two things: making highly addictive strategy games and getting its customers to eagerly open their wallets.
Recently Blizzard branched out from its safety net of genres and decided to try its hand at an online card game based off the Warcraft mythology called Hearthstone. The reputation of the company alone made me eager to try the game and I’m very glad I did. Hearthstone is just about everything I’ve ever wanted from an online card game and Blizzard got the model right on its first try. The game itself is a combination of Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon TCG. It is very simple to learn, but nuanced strategies and frequently decision-making make it hard to master.
While I love Hearthstone and the depth of the game, I keep coming back to one simple question: “Why can’t PTCGO be this good?” If Blizzard can create a game from scratch and draw in thousands of players from around the world in a short amount of time, then why can’t PTCGO do the same with an established fanbase? What makes Hearthstone such a success and PTCGO such a failure? These are the questions that I plan on answering today while taking a look at what Hearthstone has gotten right and PTCGO should adopt.
Let me start off by saying that the point of this article is not to persuade you to play Hearthstone or even present a review Hearthstone. Rather, I want to use this article to analyze Hearthstone and specifically look at areas where it is excelling. Through analyzing the successes of Hearthstone and the weaknesses of PTCGO, perhaps we can take the first steps toward voicing ways to improve PTCGO to TPCi.
Here are the aspects of Hearthstone that PTCGO could emulate in some manner:
1. Make It Free to Play
“Free to play” is probably one of the most ingenious aspects of modern gaming. It draws players in and gives them a real taste of the game, but at some point if the player wants to stick with the game, they will most likely invest real money.
On PTCGO players are forced to basically play starter decks unless they start inputting codes for packs. We all know that starter decks are not a good representation of Pokémon TCG. If you had no idea what Pokémon TCG was and your initial and only experience was playing with starter decks, then how long do you think you would stick around? Basically, PTCGO caters to veterans who understand the game but does little to draw in new players.
I think there is a large market PTCGO is missing. There are many people who loved the Pokémon franchise when they were younger and would probably want to play the card game again or for the first time, but can’t be bothered to spend the time it takes to discover an appreciation for the game. There are probably also players from other TCGs like Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh! who would give Pokémon a try, but would quickly lose interest when only exposed to starter decks. The key here is giving players a taste of the higher-level strategy to get them hooked.
Both Hearthstone and League of Legends are huge online games that have used “free to play” as a way to draw players in with a large amount of success. The way Hearthstone works is a pack of cards costs 100 gold and a player can earn 10 gold for every 3 games they win. Each day a player also gets a “quest” (which I’ll talk about later) which when fulfilled rewards 40 gold or on occasion 60 gold. I would say a moderate player could earn approximately 4 or 5 packs a week. This may sound like a lot of packs, but it is extremely difficult to put together a full-strength deck on so few packs, let alone build more than one deck.
2. Give Players a Reason to Play Every Day
As I just mentioned, gold is the currency in Hearthstone. Having gold is good and advantageous to the player. Earning 10 gold for every 3 games you win is a nice way to collect gold, but it is pretty slow (30 wins essentially nets you 1 pack). Every day you get a new “quest” which you can complete to earn 40 or 60 gold. This is a pretty big jump, so players always want to take advantage of quests. You can have up to 3 concurrent quests before you stop getting new ones. This causes players to want to log on every day to complete their quest and always have a new one the next day. The quests don’t really take very long, probably 15 to 30 minutes depending on the objective.
Obviously to have a successful online program you need people to play it. Daily quests are just one way that Hearthstone gets players to log on and play with frequency.
3. Implement a Good Ranking System
Ever get tired of playing against Basic Yellow?
The Hearthstone play system is divided into three areas (Casual, Ranked, and Arena), but for this discussion we’re going to focus on Casual and Ranked. Casual Play is simply fun games against another human opponent with no risk to either player’s ranking. It’s a great way to test out new decks and strategies or simply play without worry. Ranked Play, on the other hand, pits the player into a game involving the Hearthstone ranking system.
In total there are 25 ranks and then “Legendary” after a player beats rank 1. The ranking system starts at level 25 and then moves in descending order down to 1 before finally hitting Legendary. For ranks 25 through 21, a player can earn stars but not lose them. However, once a player reaches rank 20 then the real challenge begins. If a player wins a game, then they earn a star, but if they lose the game then they lose a star. Each rank has a total of 4-6 stars. Once player has earned all the stars for the rank, the player is promoted to the next rank.
This sort of ranking system keeps players at a level approximate to their skill level. At the higher ranks (25-21), you run into a lot of lower-level decks and players, but as you advance through the ranks, the decks and the players progressively get better. At the lower ranks (10-1), you’ll never run into bad decks or bad players.
Their ranking system is perfect in my opinion. Whenever I’m playing ranked, I’m playing against really good opponents. Testing decks on PTCGO was always frustrating because many of my games were against weaker opponents. It is very hard to get good testing results against Basic Yellow. Hearthstone’s ranking system is also extremely addictive because it gives you a goal. Every month you want to make it to Legendary and it’s extremely difficult to do so. I might spend a couple hours playing in the morning and only move up 1 or 2 stars, or if I’m having a bad day I might go down 1 or 2 stars.
4. Provide a Legendary Rank
After a player beats rank 1 they are put into the Legendary rank. Once you’re in Legendary the normal ranking system has no bearing anymore and you can only move up or down within Legendary. For example, if there are 500 players in Legendary you might be ranked 85/500. The number of players in Legendary is constantly changing as more players reach the rank that season.
Giving players something to work toward each month gives them a reason to play the game other than for more packs and gives them a sense of accomplishment. Reaching Legendary is bragging rights for a Hearthstone player much like making top 8 at a Regionals is for a Pokémon player.
Legendary isn’t perfect by any means for Hearthstone though, and a better in-Legendary ranking system needs to be created. A player can finish an evening at 80 in Legendary, but when they come back the next day they might be at 280 just because people were playing when they weren’t online.
5. Have Real Prizes
At the end of each season (each season is 1 month) the top 16 players in Legendary earn invites and travel awards to compete in the Hearthstone World Championships at BlizzCon.
I could see Pokémon doing something similar like rewarding real Championship Points or even giving the top X players a chance to compete for a Worlds invite. Handing out something like 3-5 invites a year through PTCGO would give competitive players a lot more reason to play PTCGO.
As I mentioned above, I feel the ranking system within Legendary needs fixing. My suggestion is to leave the ranking system alone, but at the end of the month for 24 hours open up “elimination rounds.” Players would play against each other, but if they lose a single game, they get bumped from Legendary and have no way to re-enter until the end of the elimination rounds. Take the first 16 players or so to win 5 or 6 games and qualify them for whatever prize the top spots earn that month. This system can be adapted to fit the number of “winning” players you want.
6. Shorten the Seasons
A Hearthstone season only lasts one month and starts on the first day of the month and ends on the last. This is a lot like Pokémon’s League seasons, so it wouldn’t be too much of a jump to bring this into PTCGO.
The advantage of such short seasons is that if a player misses a season or is unable to play for a large portion of one season, they can very quickly and easily jump into the next season. At the start of each new season, the ranking system automatically pushes players back in rankings 7 or 8 levels. So taking a full season or two off does put a player farther back than one who plays continually.
This is considerably different than the Pokémon’s Championship Point race for a Worlds invite. There, if players miss a particular set of tournaments such as Cities, it makes it nearly impossible for them to get an invite to Worlds. This creates situations where players give up on the invite entirely and play very little the rest of the year. When you have players out of the game for such a long period of time, you run the risk of them not coming back at all.
7. Make It Easier to Attain Specific Cards
The number one reason that I don’t play PTCGO is because there really isn’t a good way to get specific cards. You basically have to open packs to get the commons and uncommons you need and then trade tons of sealed packs to get the higher-end cards.
To put it simply, trading on PTCGO is nothing but a huge pain. There are so many lopsided deals you have to wade through to hopefully find one that you want. I wasted a good amount of time trying to set up and find trades on PTCGO.
Hearthstone, on the other hand, has a much simpler system involving “crafting” and “disenchanting.” There is no trading of any kind in the game. The easiest way to explain it is to imagine that there is a store. You can sell (“disenchant”) your cards for essentially bulk prices. A common is worth 5 Arcane Dust, a rare is worth 20, an epic is worth 100, and a legendary is worth 400. You can then buy (“craft”) any card in the game at a higher rate. A common costs 40 Arcane Dust, a rare costs 100, an epic costs 400, and a legendary costs 1600.
The really cool thing is the game automatically recognizes when you open extra copies of cards in your collection and gives you the option to disenchant them right away. Of course, you can always look through your binder and disenchant whatever you want.
8. Have Turn Clocks
You have a 90 seconds to take your turn regardless of the deck you’re playing. If a person is away from their keyboard during their turn and doesn’t make an action, then their next turn will be only 15 seconds long. This keeps the game moving at a decent pace and stops you from waiting around for a player who isn’t at their keyboard.
9. Reward Free Basic Cards
Aside from the ranking system, Hearthstone also as a leveling system. Regardless if you win or lose a game, you earn experience. Much like the Pokémon video game after you gain so much experience, you advance to the next level. As you advance through the levels, you earn “basic” cards. Translating this to Pokémon, these cards would be staples like Professor Juniper or N. For newer players, even if they are losing on a regular basis, they have the ability to earn more cards and improve their decks.
10. Introduce Alternative Formats
Hearthstone has a drafting feature called Arena where players draft a deck and compete against other draft decks. The game will show you three semi-random cards and you have to choose one to add to your deck. This process is repeated until a player has completed their deck. Players play until they either get 12 wins or 3 losses. The prize payout is based on how many wins the player managed to accumulate before being eliminated.
At first, I hated drafting and considered it nothing but a stab in the dark where the players who did well simply drafted better. Then I started to listen to Chris Fulop discuss his success in Arena and how he compared the drafting format to Magic. Taking his advice and doing some research on how to get better at drafting, my records started improving dramatically.
Drafting is a great format for players who enjoy playing the game, but don’t want to invest the time or money into high-level constructed decks. In Hearthstone players can spend either 150 gold or $1.99 to come in and draft whenever they want. They don’t have to mess with trying to build full decks or keeping up with a changing metagame. Essentially draft is perfect for players who enjoy drafting and playing the game, but don’t want to become invested in Ranked Play or constructed decks and strategy.
The problem is Pokémon TCG is a horrible game to draft a deck and draft decks are boring to play. Players usually end up with thin evolution lines and only a couple of Supporters. Perhaps Pokémon could look at some different ways to improve drafting for PTCGO or maybe drafting is not even the answer. What is needed is a format where players can come in and enjoy a good game of Pokémon without having to have a collection. Perhaps a format like Palace Format or common/uncommon-only format where players can have unlimited access to cards only for their run. A small cost of 1 or 2 codes could be the entry fee.
11. Set Long-Term Goals
In Hearthstone once a player has won 500 ranked games with a certain hero, they get the character in gold. To put it in Pokémon terms, they start off with a regular version of their avatar and then get a Full Art version which all of their opponents will see and awe. Playing 8 hours a day, it would take the average player over a week to win 500 ranked games. Certainly most players don’t have time to play that much, so this is definitely a long process. Much like having Full Art cards, there is a certain desire to get your golden hero. Hearthstone has 9 different heroes, so getting all 9 to be golden is an extremely long and difficult task. Having this sort of long-term goal gives players something to strive for over time.
I think there is a huge market for online card games that is only starting to be tapped. The biggest advantage is you can find a game whenever you want and you don’t have to spend time or money on travel. A company saves millions of dollars not needing to physically create a product or distribute it. These savings are carried over directly to the consumer. To put it in perspective, a pack on Hearthstone costs approximately $1.25 compared to the $4.00 of an in-store Pokémon pack. It’s a situation where both the company and the consumer win.
Blizzard is a company that had absolutely no experience with card games. However, they were able to successfully create an amazing game with a simple and easy-to-use interface and make money. Once again they’ve created a situation where both the company and consumer are happy. There is nothing better for a business than customers who willingly hand over their money with a smile on their face.
PTCGO had some success, but it also had a lot of failure. I don’t say that to insult the program or Pokémon, but rather put it all into perspective. This is the time to step back and take a hard look at the program. If we can admit our failures and shortcomings, then we can move forward creating a platform for the game we all know and love. Perhaps it’s time to start emulating programs that are truly successful at bringing TCGs into the online world.