Thursday, 5 December 2013

Moby Hearthstone: the hunt for the Great White Whales

People who write about games call those players of free-to-play games who spend really big "whales." These players are traditionally viewed as a small minority of the player base who finance the game for everyone else by spending so big. Typically they may constitute a tiny fraction of the player base, around 1%.

I suspect Hearthstone will far exceed this proportion because partly due to its design and partly due to emergent factors it's going to attract a lot of players who spend really big.

Carson63000 made this comment here a few days ago:

"The problem I see with Hearthstone's business model is that it just doesn't seem very worthwhile to spend a small amount of money. I feel like it pushes you to either play completely F2P or to spend a fair amount of cash."

There's a lot to what he says, in particular I think Hearthstone will be very successful at persuading some of its players to spend very heavily.

If a player researches Hearthstone he or she is likely to be drawn to the e-sports scene and the various streams of top players. There's at least one fully professional Hearthstone player already and the game's not even out of closed beta.

This is going to be highly aspirational for a lot of people - what job could be better for a gamer than playing games all day? But the truth of the matter is only a tiny handful of players will be able to reach those heights, in fact a statistically insignificant number set against the number of players and prospective players. It's possibly less than one in a million.

This tournament will pay out $4800 in prize money.

Now the game does a lot to encourage people to over-estimate themselves and it will draw from World of Warcraft which strongly encourages people to over-estimate themselves even in pvp.

Hearthstone has a strong luck element - a great player might play his deck with no mistakes and still lose to a worse player who can string together 5 turns without cockups after drawing a great hand. Now that has several psychological effects. First anyone half-decent can beat anyone else in the game, even the top top players. So people are going to win a match against Kripparian or Trump and think "wow, I could be a top player, I'm better than that guy!" (They're not, they just got lucky).

The luck element compresses people's win ratio. A really really good player, infinite in arena, will have a 75+% win ratio. Now if you have a 70% win ratio you're actually much worse but it looks close doesn't it? 70 is quite a similar number to 75.

It's going to be even more opaque to people coming from World of Warcraft. In WoW pvp it's very easy to be a god among men - all it takes is time and picking a particular priority. The pvp gear makes you much much stronger against players who don't have it - they're basically free kills. And many people in WoW battlegrounds don't focus on being top killer, they try to take map objectives, run around with the flag, etc. Plus if you were in a pre-made you'll have gotten used to massacring random pug groups. All of that means you may have been insanely flattered by WoW rewarding you constantly for your pvp success and may still be completely mediocre. Top killer in a battleground seems like a measure of success but it's not really a measure of skill at all.

People who believe they have a chance to be a top Hearthstone player are going to be inclined to spend lots of money. There are two ways to be competitive: you either follow the meta or you set the meta. To follow the meta you will only have to craft the popular cards. Defender of Argus is a rare that gets used in a great many tournament decks so someone following the meta might make that. But there are lots of rares you'll not see ever used - they're underpowered or too niche.

If you want to set the meta you need to have almost all the cards. You'll be doing things like making a secrets deck and testing it - which would need several rares and epics which, once you'd discovered secrets aren't really good you'd never use again. But you need a large collection so you can keep experimenting with obscure combos.

The killer is that there's no trading. In a paper card game you could trade for those secrets cards, they them, then swap them for something else. In Hearthstone the only thing you can do with them is disenchant them but that would be a bad idea anyway because you then wouldn't be able to test the secrets meta in a new expansion.

My advice is to follow Eve developer and former pro poker player CCP Rise's words of wisdom: don't innovate, steal then iterate. That talk really should be required watching for anyone who wants to be a top competitive player in any game.

I didn't do this with my murloc deck but I did with my next deck idea. I moved up a bracket in Constructed play yesterday and suddenly my warlock murloc deck stopped farming me easy wins. So I looked around for a deck to steal and came upon SpecialistSC's Special Tactics Aggro Mage guide. I was missing about 7 of the cards so I just substituted in cards that seem good. It rocks, I'm now winning in One Star Masters more than I lose.

I think goal setting is going to be very important in Hearthstone. I played Magic: The Gathering when it first came out at a very high level - I won two national tournaments, playing the final on a stage in front of halls full of people. But during the year I played Magic I spent about £5000 on it, to play at that level I felt I needed a full set of all the cards so I could experiment with deck ideas. I don't regret that year, it was an awesome experience but when I accidentally lost my decks in a pub while drunk I wasn't sorry to say goodbye to MtG. And I think I would have regretted it had I spent £5000 and not won - what's more I didn't realise how much I was spending at the time, it was only afterwards I added it all up and realised how much I'd spent.

In Hearthstone I've spent £60 to kickstart myself once but I'm not really intending to spend more money. I didn't fancy playing completely free. A game takes about 10 minutes and if you win 50% then 6 games per hour will pay 10 gold, equivalent to about 10p (£0.10). That's a horrible grind rate - people mock players who make $1 an hour in other games but Hearthstone is one of the least rewarding in terms of real cash value. I also wanted to be a decent arena player so that £60 buys me 40 arena starts which is enough for a lot of practice.

But be careful - if you don't set yourselves limit you may find it very easy to spend a lot of money on Hearthstone without really realising it and the game will encourage you to think there may be professionalism and real money just around the corner if you only had a slightly better collection....


  1. Korean MMO Altanica has a arena function to it. I can not remember everything, you have one hero class and 8 sub-hero. Each hero and sub-hero have different attacks and buffs they can do. Altanica functioned on Micro-transactions, but you could also buy heroes. I really liked the game I spent way to much on it, but one of my friends I found out dropped thousand+ on it. I can totally see this happening in Hearthstone. All blizz has to do every 6 months to year come out with new cards that change the meta, and boom cash falls from the sky.

    Another game which I think is amazing at cashing in players IQ is EvE.

    1. Yes, they all do it to some extent but games make some of their money because of their addictive and impulsive qualities and designers plan around our irrationalities.