Hearthstone, and the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis

When it comes to Hearthstone, it seems you can’t win for losing.

The basic gist is that Trump, one of paragons of Hearthstone streaming, recently hit Legend rank (skip to 1:24 for the last game) with his F2P Warlock deck. This makes the 3rd class he has hit Legend with using the F2P deck concept; the prior two were Mage and Shaman. Back in February, Reynad piloted a F2P Warrior deck to Legend. Additionally, the #1 ranked player in both the NA and EU brackets, Kelento, uses a Hunter deck with six Rares. That’s right: zero Legendaries, zero Epics. With five out of the nine classes accounted for, forum-warriors and Bad Player Apologists alike continue with the narrative that Hearthstone is just another P2W cop-out. “Let’s see them hit Legend with Priest!” “Pfft, anyone can hit Legend after 180+ wins.”

Other than, you know, themselves.

As has been mentioned before though, they might not be wrong: everything hinges on how one defines Pay-2-Win. If one defines P2W as any game in which additional dollars confers any possible advantage, I suppose it could be said Hearthstone is P2W just like any given CCG. Then again, all of the F2P decks that hit Legendary rank were made using Dust and Gold given by quests and wins. In other words, zero actual dollars were utilized. Is such a broad measure of P2W even useful as a definition of anything? One can imagine a scenario in which someone paid a pro player to actually play his/her character for them, which would seemingly fit the definition of P2W even if the game itself was otherwise structured to be anti-P2W.

This sort of musing has led me to imagine something I’m calling the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis. Namely, does having infinite money somehow confer infinite advantage? Under this rubric, there are a number of interesting conclusions. For example, we can safely state that games like Candy Crush Saga and even Dungeon Keeper are P2W; both games (seem to) have infinitely spammable features that make even the most difficult challenges irredeemably easy. For example, in Candy Crush Saga, you can buy extra attempts/turns on the same map along with Lollipop Hammers that break candy without taking up precious turns. Dungeon Keeper is a bit edgier of a case considering there is a hard time-limit of 3 minutes to assault a dungeon, but you can absolutely purchase infinite resources and instant build times with infinite gems.

In Hearthstone, a ~$600 purchase in booster packs guarantees you every card in the game. As mentioned above though, not only do you not need every card in the game to hit the highest of ranking, you often don’t even need anything other than cards any given player can acquire in less than a week of gameplay. But we’re talking about infinite dollars, right? In which case, all the instantly purchased/crafted Legendary cards in the world won’t save you from Kelento’s Hunter deck, by definition of he being #1 on two continents. Control-type decks seem to require a lot of Legendaries to be competitive, sure, but I think it’s difficult to argue that P2W equals “money improves poor performance” without that (indirectly at worst) applying to everything.

A P2W definition that restricts the advantage stemming from only cash purchases paints games like PlanetSide 2 as P2W (camouflage is SC only) whereas Hearthstone gets a free pass. And considering how “F2P” games like Candy Crush Saga and Dungeon Keeper are moving towards a random daily prize model (that either awards cash shop items directly or cash shop currency), suddenly we’re in a world in which the “obvious” P2W games aren’t actually P2W anymore.

Perhaps P2W is one of those nebulous concepts, like porn, relegated to the “I know it when I see it” category. Be that as it may, I think my own evolving opinion is settling on the Infinite Money Hypothesis. Because in a world where companies like Blizzard price things specifically to dissuade certain behavior (e.g. $25 server transfers), surely we can conclude that infinite money breaks whatever balance they believe they achieved through pricing. If everyone had infinite money, would the policy still work? If not, it is at best a blunt instrument. At worst, a cynical money grab.

All that being said, I’m willing to entertain counter-examples.

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Posted on April 22, 2014, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. P2W = all variables being equal (skill, time spent, ….) except money, does the player who spends more money have a higher chance of winning? The more the answer is yes, the more the game is P2W.
    Credit for the definition to some blog-comment-poster whose name I’ve obviously forgotten.

    • You’re missing Azuriel’s point. The problem with that definition is that it’s not always the same answer. In Hearthstone, if you buy a bunch of boosters at the beginning and you get matched up with other newbies, you’ll probably have a better chance to win because you have more options. Although, not necessarily, as you might put in cool looking cards but not have any real strategy for how to use them. (I’m also not sure if the matchmaking system would even pair you with other newbies if you buy boosters, though.)

      Since you can slowly accumulate cards through normal play over time, at some point the person who buys a bunch of cards is not going to have an advantage over the person who has played for several months and has collected all the cards. It will come down to ability and luck to see who wins at that point.

      So is Hearthstone pay to win? Yes… and no. But, mostly no at the point where you’re going to be “playing for real”. As Azuriel says, this means that any simple definition like “can you get any advantage for money” is nearly useless in judging the business model.

      • Since you can slowly accumulate cards through normal play over time, at some point the person who buys a bunch of cards is not going to have an advantage over the person who has played for several months and has collected all the cards. It will come down to ability and luck to see who wins at that point.

        Well, except for having a much higher average win%, because of all the “new players” he steamrolled by chain-playing legendaries….
        At the same time, with “normal play”, I’m well away from having all cards, and the new expansion has already been announced, so I don’t buy it that over time I will have access to all the cards, quite the opposite, probably.

      • It’s not an expansion, it’s Adventure Mode, and all the new cards will be earnable by playing the AI.

        Win percentages aren’t really anything worth anything, and the Ranked ladder resets monthly. On top of that, “chain running Legendaries” isn’t going do much against Kelento’s Hunter deck with its six rares. This is why the traditional P2W argument gets weird. In fairness, one of the top decks last season (and this season too) is Warrior Control which requires 5+ Legendaries. It’s not the best deck though, and has some issues with much cheaper decks.

        So, basically, I consider Hearthstone to be the equivalent to a cash shop selling XP potions: it gets you to the same place as everyone else, just faster, and without an actual Payslope.

      • Only one wing is free, the others must be opened with gold/money, so it will still limit the speed at which you get the cards since it also conflicts with buying packs/playing arena.

        On top of that, “chain running Legendaries” isn’t going do much against Kelento’s Hunter deck with its six rares.

        Yeah, if HE is playing the deck. You’re somehow assuming that all players are equally good. Did YOU reach rank 1 with that deck?
        Your reasoning applied to WoW would be that you’re saying that gear in WoW doesn’t matter because Paragon/Method are able to clear HMs with a low ilvl…..

      • That’s an interesting argument that pushes things into weird directions. Would you consider something like Counter-Strike to be P2W because someone could buy a better computer with an increased frame rate that improved their gunplay?

        I think trying to determine whether anyone, anywhere is capable of seeing some performance increase via dollars spent is the way towards madness. Kolento getting #1 proves that Legendaries are not required, that skill can overcome money in Hearthstone. That should be good enough, IMO.

  2. Good discussion. I think that “pay to win” mostly only really matters in competitive games. Few people would care if you poured infinite money into Candy Crush Saga. Unless your Facebook friends are easily jealous. But, in a game like Hearthstone where single player is “practice” and the real game is multiplayer, it becomes more of an issue.

    From my experience, most people throw around the accusation of “pay to win” when the game takes money for any advantage. I agree this is a useless definition, as that advantage can diminish over time depending on the game. I think the main issue is that the hard-core players prefer things like “all you can eat for a low monthly price” type plans because it suits the hard-core playstyle better. Same with “buy once and don’t pay except for expansions.” But, the realities of games on mobile (the race to the bottom price-wise) has meant that games can’t rely on old business models. But, the new business models mean the hard-core end up having to pay more. And, nobody likes having to pay more. :)

    • I think the main issue is that the hard-core players prefer things like “all you can eat for a low monthly price” type plans because it suits the hard-core playstyle better. Same with “buy once and don’t pay except for expansions.”

      Well, sure, there’s an element of self-preservation in there. At the same time, I honestly do feel punished in games/etc when the more enjoyment I derive from the product the more it costs me. If I cared less about PlanetSide 2 or Hearthstone, I’d still have X amount of fun but have Y more dollars to spend elsewhere. In a rational economic sense, scaling costs erodes my consumer surplus for literally no net gain.

      I mean, imagine if Netflix charged $0.99 or even $0.25 for each movie or whatever instead of a subscription. Does the non-power user watch more than 40 movies on the service a month? Unlikely. And yet they’d likely watch even less when buying them piecemeal. So I’d argue that something like a subscription simply feels better than the nickle-n-dime strategy. Of course, the latter clearly working on mobile.

      Edit: Apparently the average Netflix user watches 12 movies and 20 TV episodes a month, at least circa 2012. In other words, at $0.25 a pop the average user would break even paying for them individually. Still think it would be a disaster in practice.

      • At the same time, I honestly do feel punished in games/etc when the more enjoyment I derive from the product the more it costs me.

        Imagine if we felt that way about other areas. “I feel punished when the better I feel after eating food the more it costs me.” “I feel punished when the further I travel the more it costs me.”

        We pay for most other things a la carte based on usage or value derived from it. Why is paying for entertainment in games so different? Because we’re used to paying flat rates for gaming entertainment, and nobody is eager to pay more than they feel they have to. Other bring out the “pay to win” strawman as their way of beating back this encroaching increase in cost.

        I think one problem in free-to-play models is that people tend to focus on paying for actual items for cost. Are virtual cards in Hearthstone really intrinsically worth 33 cents each? Not really, but that $1.99 you spend on a pack of cards also goes to covering the rest of the costs of running the service and paying the people who work on the project. (Part of that also lets freeloaders like me play without paying; thanks, by the way.)

      • We pay for most other things a la carte based on usage or value derived from it.

        That’s actually not true at all. That post is from 2011 and my position has shifted a bit since then, but the basic gist is that Consumer Surplus exists. In other words, we routinely get more value out of purchases than what they cost. Microtransactions and data caps and the like typically erode that consumer surplus for zero gain for us.

        Indeed, companies recapturing consumer surplus is literally a zero-sum game; they win, we lose.

        As for your examples, I don’t see them as odd at all. If you have to pay more for something the more you enjoy it, that is a punishment of sorts. Your net consumer surplus is zero. Turn the thought around: imagine having to pay the maximum amount of money for every single thing you enjoy, even if it was hitherto free. Enjoy a nice jog? Nope, that’ll be $200 now. Imagine every website being behind a paywall but only if you enjoy reading it too much. Imagine all games being pay-per-use. And so on.

      • I think you’re misapplying that economic principle of surplus. Pretty much every transaction in a capitalist system should result in the person deriving more value than what they pay for it. This is easier to see in a barter economy: if I have a lot of extra eggs and you have a lot of extra tomatoes, we might trade. I value the tomatoes more than I value the extra eggs, and vice versa. We both come away with more value than we started with in this trade.

        The problem with trying to apply consumer surplus to free-to-play is that the surplus doesn’t come from the game. In fact, a free-to-play game of any quality gives consumer surplus by definition: the game is free, and whatever value you derive from it is your surplus. The individual microtransactions would be subject to surplus, however, and since most transactions are a set price you’re going to have surplus depend on the individual transaction. Or, think about it another way: if consumer surplus is lost from microtransactions, why does anyone ever pay for microtransactions when flat rate games still exist? The actual reason is that consumers are price sensitive, particularly for mobile games and MMOs.

        The business reality is that games have become more expensive to develop while price has fallen compared to inflation. The overall growth of the gaming market has helped to offset these changes, but the highest growth platform (mobile) has a price sensitivity problem. People have high price sensitivity to mobile apps, and mostly expect apps to be free. Microtransactions were a way to give consumers the “no cover charge” apps they want while getting value in exchange from people who wanted more than the basic version.

        Same thing with MMOs. People look at what WoW offers and are price sensitive to other games. A smaller game cannot possibly offer as much as WoW without charging a higher price; so, the smart move is to give the game away for free then charge people for extras. People will try a game for free, and then pay for extras if the game suits them. They may end up paying more, but their price sensitivity means they would not have paid that much up front just to have access to the game.

        Anyway, this is a wordy way to say that you paying for microtransactions in a game isn’t punishment intended to take away your consumer surplus. It’s a way to charge people who can afford it more in exchange for increased perks, benefits, and services in a game. It’s basically a way to deal with price sensitivity in the market.

  3. Having infinite money breaks Arena. In the absence of a meaningful entrance fee, you can keep rerolling your card packs until you have a perfect deck.

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