Progression

I am probably nearing the end of my focused Hearthstone play. Why? Two words: beta wipes. All progress, cards, gold, etc, will be wiped at least once in the upcoming weeks, and possibly more than once. If you happened to purchase something for real money, you will get the equivalent amount of gold once Hearthstone goes Live.

All of this is known information, so why am I bringing it up? That’s actually an interesting question, as I examined my roiling emotions after a string of recent Arena losses. Scrubbing out at 1-3 or – god help you – 0-3 sucks. Hard. Each Arena buy-in requires $1.99 or 150g, with the latter amount requiring roughly three days of dailies plus 30 wins in Ranked/Unranked play (i.e. against other people) to collect. Or just complete four dailies. Going that route actually works out pretty good as long as you keep Hearthstone as your sort of “side game” that you play for 30-45 minutes each day before playing your main game; as long as you keep yourself from getting too into things, you can legitimately play (Arena) for free pretty easily.

Alternatively, if you win at least 7 Arena matches in the buy-in, you get enough gold to play again.

What I got for going 9-2.

Money in the bank.

As you can see, I received 310g for having gone 9-2 with the Rogue (nine wins is the maximum). An earlier 8-3 record resulted in 215g. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, especially given the Arena portion of the game is significantly more interesting to me – playing against Constructed decks feels pretty rote in comparison. Plus, where else would I get to screw around with Legendaries in what feels like a guaranteed draw for each Arena match? You aren’t likely to see those and other high-powered cards from packs you open, but seeing epics and such is pretty common across 30 random draws.

But then the RNG floor fell out. I felt I was getting a good handle on which Heroes were best in Arena – things are much different than in Constructed where you can build around combos – but I suddenly realized how exceptional my winning decks truly were. My 8-3 Druid deck had eight removal cards, including AoE removal. The 9-2 Rogue deck had two Saps, a bunch of Silence creatures with multiple ways of returning them to my hand, a fistful of removal, and two Defias Ringleaders that make going second a complete joke when you drop a 2/3 and 2/1 on your first turn.

Here was the deck:

Building this was so much fun.

Building this was so much fun.

You don’t need to know anything about the Hearthstone other than that this deck was unfair. Three Fan of Knives, two Blade Flurry, two Sap, two Patient Assassins, Betrayal… Jesus, it was sublime. Hearthstone Arena is entirely about tempo, and let’s just say most games involved me playing dubstep to their John Cage 4’33”.

Needless to say, I have spent the past three days falling back down the Bell Curve face-first. A string of awful Hero choices plus awful card choices plus opponents who all but win by round four (having demolished my early game). It is entirely possible this all has been by design, via hidden MMR rankings. One of the biggest Hearthstone innovations amongst the pile of others has been the fact that Arena games are unmoored from any particular tournament. If you play a Booster Draft in Magic Online, you’re playing either for 15 minutes or two hours depending on your record, against whomever happened to stroll into your tournament with you. In Hearthstone, you can play one Arena game and then come back a week later if you want. This is fantastic… provided you don’t rely on being a big fish in a small pond for your wins.

All this losing made me realize that I don’t like it. Losing, that is. A fair ranking system is based around ensuring you lose 50% of the time, but it seems to me that losing feels much worse than the positive winning emotions, especially when losing results in opportunity costs and/or costs you real money. Presumably the delta between winning and losing is compensated by the fun you have actually playing the game. But I am coming to the realization that it isn’t enough. I need a tangible sense of progression too. Knowing that the pity packs are full of cards going away in X number of months means losses are simply time consigned to the abyss.

The obvious counter-points are A) new gear tiers in MMOs result in obsolescence of progression, B) time spent gaming is technically “wasted” by default, and C) how in god’s name did you play Counter-Strike for four years then?

The answer to the first is pretty simple: properly-formatted achieved goals can’t be taken away. My goal in WoW was never “have BiS gear in every slot” – that is just a recipe for disappointment. Instead, my goals were more general, like “be better off than I was yesterday.” Grinding Valor, getting raid drops, capping Conquest… all of these things resulted in a feeling of sustained progression that persisted even when new tiers came out. In fact, my “investment” in gearing up paid off in getting the new gear quicker or more easily.

Obviously I quit playing WoW, but I still don’t see that time as wasted; leisure activities being a waste of time presupposes an (nonexistent) objective purpose in life, which answers point B.

As for C), well… that’s the pickle. I feel games like Counter-Strike allow you to experience meaningful fun even as you ultimately lose a round/match, probably because winning/losing doesn’t matter in the first place. As long as I pulled off some kind of crazy kill before dying, I could walk away satisfied even if our team was otherwise destroyed. Which is leading me to believe that the existence of progression in a game sets up its own failure, given that losing progression (either directly or via opportunity cost) makes me feel worse than gaining progression. At the same time, I tend to gravitate towards games with “investment” opportunities over games where I am “just” killing time. All games kill time, but killing time + progression makes it feel more meaningful on top of whatever arbitrary goal-achievement neurochemistry is going on.

All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that I lost a bunch of Hearthstone Arena matches this weekend and am sad as a result. Going from being more than self-sustaining to practically in-the-hole playing is bad, and there not being any sense of long-term progression (in the beta) makes it worse. Also, trying to unlock Shaman cards in Constructed play feels terrible; seriously, Blizz, why did you put all the juicy Shaman cards in the packs? Chain Lightning is practically required to get anywhere.

Wait a minute, why am I in-game again? Might as well knock out this daily…

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Posted on September 9, 2013, in Hearthstone, Impressions, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think this is a perfect example of how F2P games can be more lucrative than sub-based. I’m going to have to keep an eye on myself to avoid “accidentally” spending $25/month.

    • CCGs/TCGs in particular are dangerous, in my experience, because you can’t really predict for how long you will be playing in, say, Drafting tournaments. If you have 1-2 hours available and want to fill them with playing a Magic Online Booster Draft, for example, you might lose your first games and be out of the tournament almost immediately (< 30 minutes). The question is always: what then? Play (i.e. Pay) again?

      I thought subscription games were dumb for the longest time, with the logic of "why would you keep paying for the same game every month?" The turning point was when I realized I spent $45 in Magic Online Booster Drafts on a Saturday afternoon/evening. As in, a single day. Suddenly WoW's $15/month didn't seem so bad.

  2. This is why I’m not planning to spend any significant time in the beta.

    Asynchronous draft does sound like an interesting format. I don’t think I’d have realistic expectations of playing completely free, but the consolation prizes can be viewed as a “rebate” that extends how long the money I do pay into the system lasts.

    Also, the guarantee of building a draft deck and then playing a minimum of three games for only $2 is significantly cheaper than any physical CCG that I’ve ever heard of. Don’t drafts in Magic online cost the price of several booster packs PLUS some entry fee? I can see where a losing streak that costs you money could start to suck, but there’s also some fairness in it – the amount you pay is proportional to the amount you’re playing. If Arena is the most lucrative format then at least Blizzard has a strong incentive to make sure that the Arena game is fun.

    • You are correct that $2 is pretty cheap as far as Booster Drafts are concerned. Magic Online required you to submit three unopened booster packs and 1 Event Ticket, which is basically the arcade token/carnival ticket/internal MO currency that is worth $1. So, basically, a full buy-in cost at least $13 for a tournament entry that could be over in 30 minutes.

      The not-so-insignifigant difference however was the fact that you kept all the cards you drafted. I can certainly see why Blizzard went the other direction on this – keeping cards can radically change your Draft picks – but it does change the comparison to be more apples and oranges. Just like how Hearthstone’s Arena is a superior means of buying booster packs (100g vs 150g, but can win free ones with the latter), Magic Online Booster Drafts was a much better use of your unopened booster packs for basically the same reason (with the sometimes added bonus of other people passing you valuable rares that otherwise are weak in a Draft environment). A cheaper minimum doesn’t necessarily mean a cheaper maximum, in other words.

      Unless, of course, you simply enjoy the format itself, like I do. In which case Hearthstone’s format is a clear winner. Plus, MMR aside, there is less likely to be Draft sharks swimming in the pool all the time; $13 vs people playing for free makes for a much different player environment.

  3. good points .maybe when they make publicly visible ladder for ranked games (not arena) that would be incentive to play

    Otherwise really if you dont enjoy the game itself then dont play it. all those incentives in form of achievements/gear are just the tools to get you addicted. you play not because its fun but because you are conditioned to do a meaningless boring activity and receive reward

    If you play games like TF2, CS, Planetside2, or any single player game you play it because its fun. you play games with ranked ladder because you want have proof of your skill , and you play gear grinding/achievement games (like path of exile , WoW) because you are addicted .

    I think in case of hearthstone core game seems attractive and fun enough to play it for itself.
    arena having an entry fee might look like a waste of money (and thats why you are stressed when you lose) but its actually more efficient way to acquire cards than buying card packs straight up. because arena has those rewards they had to make a fee, otherwise there would be no incentive to ever pay for anything