Hearthstone is a digital collectible trading card game from Blizzard Entertainment. It was launched in March 2014, for mobile versions for iOS and Android as well as the desktop. By June of 2015 it was taking in $20 million revenue per month and by April of 2016 its active player based numbered 50 million players worldwide, and the game’s kept growing ever since. So how did they manage that?
Trading Card Games (abbreviated TCGs) started out in 1993 with the absolutely iconic game Magic: The Gathering. Since then, many have tried to imitate this novel gaming model but only a tiny handful have succeeded, namely Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and a few more with a fringe following. The problem with paper TCGs is that they have to go big or go home; your cards are near worthless if you have nobody to play with, so a fringe following limits you to your immediate social circle.
While all paper TCGs have made forays into the digital medium to mixed results, the idea of a purely digital TCG was originally scoffed at wildly. Who would pay good money for digital cards that could disappear if the game folds? Hearthstone works around that by being very accessible to play for free. It is possible – though not easy – to ascend the ranks and build up a collection at a slow pace, grinding away daily at quests and weekly competitions (“Tavern Brawls”), all without spending a cent. But a small investment of a few dollars cuts months off your grinding time for the impatient.
Digital TCGs get over that problem of having nobody to play with that paper TCGs have. As a mobile app, you can get a game of Hearthstone in at 2 AM on a Sunday with people from all over the world. But Blizzard has exploited many more benefits…
Taking Innovative Advantage Of The App Medium
First off, Blizzard got around another problem, namely not being easy to trade cards between players, by using a card crafting system. Every card has “dust value,” which means it can be discarded for a number of dust points or crafted for those same dust points. Don’t like a card, dust it and save up the dust for a card you really want. This prevents the typical paper TCG problem of players being priced out of the market.
Ask any Magic: The Gathering player how much of a problem the price tag is. The present author may offer some illumination of the game’s expense by pointing out that I backed off on my coin collecting hobby to amass a vast Magic: The Gathering collection, and some cards appreciate value (albeit with a far more volatile market) at many times the pace of precious metals and rare coins.
Hearthstone also takes advantage of the digital medium by patching the game content to restore game balance whenever one card or strategy gets to be too dominant. In a paper TCG, when you accidentally print a card that’s too powerful and it breaks the game to the point where everybody must play that specific card or lose, you just have to shrug and ban it from competitive play. Hearthstone can just nerf the problem card to be less powerful, quietly pushing the patch out in the wee hours of the night if so needed.
But more than anything, the most brilliant way Hearthstone exploits the digital medium is to make the experience more like a video game than a card game. Hearthstone cards are based on the universe of Blizzard’s cash cow video game franchise World of Warcraft, which has a long and established history all its own. In Hearthstone, the gaming arena is animated and interactive. Non-spell cards played represent characters called “minions,” and they all have their own personalities. They yell funny lines when they enter the battlefield or die, from Doomsayer’s “The ending is coming!” to Reno Jackson’s inspiring battlecry (as he restores you to full health) “We’re gonna be rich!” They have goofy effects like converting another minion or adding a random card to your hand, or they might pull other cards out of your deck or mimic your opponent’s best minion. They might get up and frolic around the arena while tucking a secret card for you to draw into your deck, or randomly morph into other minions. All of this is difficult to impossible to pull off in a paper TCG.
There’s also more than one way to acquire cards. Daily quests can earn in-game gold to buy 5-card booster packs for 100 gold each. The Arena is a mini-competitive game mode with a 150 gold entry fee that works like paper TCG draft formats, with potential to reward with packs, gold, dust, and other goodies. Weekly Tavern Brawls reward with a free pack just for winning one match, and at least half of them are playable even for newbies since they provide you with a random temporary deck to compete with.
Through all of this, Blizzard realizes the potential of a video game version of a TCG in a deeply imaginative way.
Casuals vs Competitives
All these shenanigans also make Hearthstone have a somewhat divided community, with more competitive, serious gamers wanting fewer random effects and silly mechanisms and more skill-testing mechanics for eSports play. But the vast majority of Hearthstone players are casual and love the game just the way it is. Blizzard puts it right in their name: They’re an ENTERTAINMENT company, and their job is to make you have the most fun possible. Players who want the game to be more serious will always be shouted down in the end.
Which is not to say that there isn’t a competitive aspect to the game anyway. There is a ladder ranking system, where you can grind away to become one of the top players worldwide every month. There are sites like Metabomb and Manacrystals with deck lists and strategy guides to advise competitive players. You can also observe pro players on Twitch.tv, where Hearthstone is in the top five viewed games there. And of course, if you want to bypass the hard grind to success, you can pay money out the nose and have a gold-plated top-tier deck right away, and it won’t be long before you’re in the legendary ranks. There’s even competitive events with a prize pool up to $1 million.
So Blizzard does support competing, but it refuses to cut the casual fun out of the game. This is a smart balance, despite the spiky critics, because in the end, your game is more profitable if it shuts out fewer players. If only half the other TCGs out there could understand this. If you want to compete in Magic: The Gathering, forget brewing your own deck; there’s about three viable decks at any given time in each format, and the cheapest one will be $1000 and stay relevant for an average shelf life of six months. Why? Because Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic, are beholden to their long-time competitive base.
The Way Forward For Digital TCGs
Given how Hearthstone has run away with the digital trading card game market, it’s surprising how few other TCG apps there are. There’s digital versions of the major paper TCGs, and maybe five or so other digital TCGs trying to take off at any given time. Most of the other digitals TCGs that do stick around for awhile have tie-ins to other media franchises such as another video game or a TV series.
The app medium is uniquely suited to trading card games. Whether tying it in with a video game aspect or treating it more like a paper card game, it seems we’re only scratching the surface of possibilities. Hearthstone has established itself as the leader of this particular small pack, so much so that its primary competitor is Magic: The Gathering itself. Whether that’s all by sheer design cunning or dumb lucky decisions, Blizzard has shown that a digital TCG can be manageable, profitable, and amazing fun. But we’ll know more when it gets some bigger competitors in its own niche.