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Years Late, $20 Short

Hearthstone is jumping on the Season Pass bandwagon… in perhaps the dumbest way possible.

Earn More Rewards with the Darkmoon Faire Tavern Pass!
The Darkmoon Faire Tavern Pass unlocks the potential to earn even more rewards on the Rewards Track! With the Tavern Pass you can earn Hearthstone’s first-ever Cosmetic Coin, the Annhylde Warrior Alternate Hero and card back, three Jaina Mage Hero skins, three Thrall Shaman Hero skins, and experience boosts of up to 20% on the Rewards Track. Once you purchase the Tavern Pass, you will unlock the Silas Darkmoon golden Legendary minion and a 10% experience boost immediately!

In case you missed it, Blizzard did a big overhaul on Hearthstone rewards in conjunction with this Tavern Pass. Previously, the reward system was very straight-forward: you get daily quests (up to 3) that reward primarily gold, and 10g for every three wins. The new system is that there are now both daily and weekly quests that award XP, and you receive rewards as you level up along a track (which includes gold and other things). If you pay for the Tavern Pass though, you get the normal rewards plus a few cosmetics along a parallel track, plus a general 10-20% boost in XP gain.

Throughout the process leading up to the change, the Hearthstone devs repeatedly stated that this new system would not result in less gold rewards. But it does.

And the real kick in the teeth? The Tavern Pass costs $20.

Last year, I was gushing about Supercell introducing a Season Pass in Clash Royale. A large part of why was because of the value. Clash Royale has a cash shop that is borderline absurd/predatory, which made the $5 asking price seem downright beneficent in comparison. That’s… likely not an accident. Be that as it may, the amount of extra stuff you walked away with for $5 made it worth it for me.

When I look at Hearthstone in comparison, I don’t even recognize the company anymore. Literally, what is this shit? Paying $20 was always borderline for me when it came to the mini-expansions and the Dungeon Runs, but I put down the cash and largely walked away with what I considered some value. Dalaran Heist single-handedly got me through hundreds of hours of my son’s larval stage.

With the Tavern Pass though, the dissonance is getting too real. Hearthstone is not a premium game worthy of a $20 Season Pass. Seeing expansion sets with $80 “mega” bundles being advertised everywhere is sickening. And we just learned that in addition to the new normal of three expansions per year, Blizzard is adding another mini-expansion. Which would be fine, if the game were not so goddamn expensive already.

In the early days, the prices justified themselves in comparison to Magic: the Gathering and other paper CCGs. It isn’t 2014 anymore though – Blizzard is now competing in a world in which gamers can get things like Genshin Impact for free and the Xbox Game Pass for $10/month. Those obviously are not CCGs, but the world is moving on.

Blizzard has been keeping things fresh, like when they introduced Hearthstone Battlegrounds, which has been a relatively large success in spite of the fact that it’s even more crazy RNG nonsense. But that very innovation casts the rest of their monetization strategy into sharp relief. Battlegrounds Perk is another tier of paid advantage that expands the random selection of heros at the beginning of each match. Then there is Duels, another new game mode which seems poised to cannibalize the Dungeon Run roguelikes by replacing bosses with human opponents.

Also, Duels is directly tied to your card collection because fuck you.

What $en$e doe$ thi$ make?

SynCaine used to say that Hearthstone was a garbage P2W mobile game ported to PC, which never made much sense at the time (it released on PC first), but seems to retroactively becoming true. Except Hearthstone as an app is pretty garbage by itself – the app takes 40+ seconds to load, there are frequent disconnects, and it takes up a huge amount of space. So, basically, the monetization of a P2W app without the optimization.

I really don’t understand what Blizzard is doing. And, likely, neither do they.

[Fake Edit] As I was typing up this post, Blizzard released an official announcement:

We have been listening to your feedback regarding the Rewards Track and it’s clear we missed the mark both in how we communicated and implemented the full functionality of this first version of our rewards system.

We apologize for the confusion and disappointment we have caused.

During the natural progression of the rewards cycle, our intention was, and still is, to give out extra XP over time through a variety of ways. The aim is to help players get through the Rewards Track, or catch-up if they join later in an expansion phase, ultimately ensuring players earn more rewards. […]

In addition, you’ve provided us with a wealth of feedback, and we agree that the pack rewards at the end of the track don’t feel appropriate for the effort it takes to get them. We’re going to adjust these rewards in the later stages of the track, swapping six packs for a total of 1350 gold that players can spend as they see fit. If any players reach this milestone before we implement these changes, they will be retroactively compensated.

https://www.hearthpwn.com/news/7783-rewards-track-update-official-blizzard-statement

Amusingly, they appear to be following the same script as Bethesda with Fallout 76: release a reward track that mathematically requires hundreds of hours of grinding (unless you pay!), ignore the people that warn about the math prior to release, then release it on a population that instantly revolts, and then “remember” that you forgot to mention the hastily thrown-together events that give bonus XP.

Sounds legit.

This is the part of the post in which I make a token effort to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt. “They’re changing the 6 pack reward with 1350g, which is a big improvement!” But this capitulation was foreseen on Reddit for the past week: “2 greedy steps forward, 1 greedy step back” And seeing it play out in real-time is a bit nauseating… because it’s true.

Great, they fixed patched a very obviously broken reward system. And yet here we still are with a $20 Season Pass, with a new game mode dependent on having X epics in your collection, which means you can’t dust them to craft new expansion Legendaries that single-handedly win games on the spot. And Battlegrounds Perks is another whole layer of season pass-ness that exists for no rea$on.

Disgusting is the word that keeps coming to mind. Not exploitative, not greedy, but disgusting. Charging for MMO hotbars or lootboxes with 0.6% rewards are terrible, pernicious things to game design. But Blizzard’s Hearthstone “strategy” feels like strange hands slipping into pockets, groping about, feeling for loose change. What the fuck, Blizzard. This is a CCG, just sell some packs, Jesus Christ.

Season Pass, Revisited

Two months ago, I was pontificating on the Clash Royale $5 “Season Pass” scheme, and the broader context behind this type of microtransaction.

This month, I have completed my third Season Pass purchase in a row. That $15 is more Supercell has seen from me in almost two years of playing Clash Royal, so clearly they are doing something right. But what changed in my thinking?

Floors and ceilings. And defined value.

If you browse any of the Personal Finance subreddits out there, one of the frequent topics is renting vs buying a home. What is correct for your specific scenario is, of course, specific for your scenario. One of the interesting lines that comes up though is this: rent is the most you will have to pay a month; a mortgage is just the minimum. As any homeowner knows, you have to cut a check to the bank every month and then pay for whatever shit may have broke in the meantime. Last summer, for example, we discovered dry rot in the roof by way of water leaking down pipes into the basement. You might come out ahead in the long run with a house, but that depends on running a long time.

In games like Clash Royale, the payment ceilings are effectively nonexistent. Most of the time, you are paying cash for random results and could end up spending $100 or $1000 for whatever it is you want. With that much uncertainty, it is better to… spend nothing. So I have been, for years, minus some 10x value offerings. Those had been great deals, but they were not real floors either – just chests and gold and random goodies that got me a leg up in the front door, so to speak.

The Season Pass is a true Floor. For $4.99 you get X, Y, and Z. Someone broke it down back when it first released but there was some extra value above and beyond the defined benefits. For example, unlimited resets on some of the Challenges. Sure, that effectively means “you get all the Challenge rewards.” But you could technically get all the Challenge rewards if you play well enough. With the Pass though, the anxiety is gone. I can play a few rounds while watching the baby, because if I have to put the phone down I won’t be screwing up my only shot at completing the run.

Much like with Humble Bundles, there is a relief that comes from knowing one small payment obviates any “need” to pay more money for the month. You don’t have to think about it anymore.

Of course, it is all a mental trick devised by mercenary psychologist-economists to get people to part with their cash. Nobody “needs” to pay any money to Supercell, and the “value” that comes from the Season Pass is, in part, derived from the fact the company has hitherto been miserly with normal rewards. If, if, you have been worn down by the unceasing barrage of unfettered capitalism though… well, the Season Pass is not the worst possible capitulation.

It sure as shit is going to get you farther than $5 will in Hearthstone.

Subscription Pass

When the videogame historians look back on this particular monetization strata, it will undoubtedly be the Season Pass era. Or perhaps the Microtransaction era more generally, to include loot boxes, but with legislators and science slowly turning against loot boxes, I feel like more and more games will be making a hard turn into the Season Pass model.

To be clear, I am not referring to the Season Passes of yore, in which you essentially pre-ordered DLC. The new hotness is basically a month-to-month subscription. This most recently slapped me in the face in Clash Royale:

Clash-Royale-Update-Pass-royale-1147670

The new troop doesn’t even officially get released until Season 2…

Someone on Reddit wrote up all the incentives that your $5 will purchase, and the list is somewhat enticing. None of them are technically P2W, which is itself a moot point because you could drop $99 on shit from basically day 1 in Clash Royale anyway. Indeed, if you look at the package in comparison to what your hard-earned cash could buy normally, you’re effectively getting 10x-11x the normal value. Five dollars will get you 500 gems, which can convert to 10,000g or two emotes or two Lightning Chests… or basically give you 40,000+ gold, 800 more cards (including 60+ Epics) and a bunch of other stuff.

Of course, Supercell doesn’t want it to be an either/or scenario. You can do both. Having an exceptionally generous Season Pass can lure F2P players into making their first purchase, after which it is easy to make another. One of the “perks” of the one in Clash Royale is an auto-announcement in Clan chat that you purchased the pass, and thereafter your name shows up in gold coloring in chat and battling. Turns out that adding gold leaf to a scarlet letter makes it rather desirable.

The dilemma I face is the same as always: I am caught in eye of the monetization storm.

ClashRoyale_AlmostMax.jpg

Could I be any more off-meta?

As the screenshot shows, I am one Miner card away from having a fully-maxed deck. I am sorely tempted to purchase the Season Pass entirely to get that last Miner card. It would normally not be too difficult to trade for it within my current clan, but there are at least three other members currently asking for Miners themselves, and none seem keen to trust me in giving up one of their so I can max the card and satisfy an effectively infinite number of trades thereafter.

After that though… what then? I have dozens of technically maxed cards that I cannot actually max out because I lack the gold to upgrade them all. Not that I would need to max them out in the first place, considering I don’t use them in decks. The deck I have is the one I enjoy the most. The last two slots are technically flex slots, but I have tried a bunch of alternatives and found them lacking.

Would the new Fisherman legendary card be a good fit? Completely irrelevant. New legendaries may as well not exist, because I would need literal dozens of them to get them anywhere near usable levels where I’m sitting on the ladder (~5800 last season) and in 2v2. Granted, the Fisherman has some utility outside of his base HP and damage – the ability to hook and pull troops around like Roadhog from Overwatch – but I’m still not bringing that to match that matters.

In any event, the Season Pass model gives me pause. In the context of cash purchases within Clash Royale, it’s a great deal. Would I pay a $5/month subscription to Clash Royale though? Nope. It’s not a subscription though, as there are no reoccurring payments. “Cancel any time!” And yet there will be tens of thousands who do re-up every month, for the rewards or the conveniences lost.

Technically this should be positive Consumer Surplus territory… so why do I feel so dirty?

Possibly because I felt the hook twitch. Supercell isn’t reeling in the line yet, but it’s there. Subscription versus Season Pass is a distinction without a difference, and yet those who would riot about the former in their game are praising the latter. It is a trick of psychology, a stark reminder we can be tricked, and evidence that we face amoral corporations that have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to trick us out of as much money as possible.

For however bad loot boxes may seem, never forget that loot boxes are apparently not enough.

Beta Impression: Battlefield 4

I have been playing the Battlefield 4 beta these last few days, and I’m not quite sure what to think.

40 fps on High without current video drivers.

40 fps on High without latest video drivers.

It certainly isn’t the jump in quality from Battlefield 2 to 3, that’s for sure, although there are some interesting moves. For example, the default rocket launcher has a tracking mode that activates when the Recon class designates a target with their binoculars; this sort of solves the incredible power discrepancy between Engineers that had unlocked the, er, lock-on launcher versus newbie players.

Another interesting change was how they gave the Recon class (aka snipers) C4 charges. While this makes roof-top campers extremely annoying – they can drop C4 at the elevators and wait for the door opening sound for an auto-kill – it also creates an amazing tension in the class. Do you run out and C4 that tank while risking being caught in close-quarters with a sniper rifle, or do you hang back and try and snipe with a tank blowing you and your team up? Giving snipers claymore mines and assault classes C4 makes more thematic sense, but reversing those roles makes for more interesting gameplay decisions. Even better, the thermal Binoculars you get not only lets you lock on to vehicles for your teammates to kill (you get bonus XP when they do so), but it lets you more easily spot enemies running around that are too far to hit. Or, honestly, that you aren’t skilled enough to hit. Just spotting them is basically 1/4th a kill though, and it’s a useful service to do so.

Win-win.

However, some design changes have gone in the wrong direction. Technically, it was Battlefield 3 that “introduced” the concept of the medic class having to actually unlock their core ability, i.e. to revive people, but Battlefield 4 is taking that to ridiculous extremes. It takes 11,000 Assault-class XP to unlock the Defibrillator, which I hope to god is a placeholder value. Perhaps if smaller maps were available it might not be so bad, but actually getting that amount of XP on a class that otherwise brings nothing interesting to the table is a massive chore; not only do the other classes have easier ways of racking up easy XP, but remember that BF4 (and BF3) made the change to a regenerating HP model too. Between that and the near-zero Time To Kill numbers, the ability to throw a Med-Pack is only ever useful when you find yourself dueling someone from behind cover.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

The unlocking situation gets even more ridiculous when you look at the Support class, aka the ammo guy. While I suppose it was annoying/immersion-breaking when a single Support dude could drop an ammo box and spam infinite grenades over the wall, putting the ammo box behind a 52,000 (!) XP grind-wall is an extreme overreaction. The most obvious trickle-down effect is that it makes every class weaker by extension: what good is an Engineer without rockets? Given how you respawn with full ammo, the smart move is then to play both aggressively and carelessly by spamming everything you have and then effectively suicide yourself for Round N+1.

While there has also been some grumblings over the idea of “Battlepacks” – random lockboxes filled with camos, dog tags, XP bonuses, etc – as someone who played Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer for a while, I don’t see it as such a big deal. Yes, it is a cynical cash grab given how you can pay money to buy those things. However, as far as I can tell, you do not actually unlock more powerful weaponry from these boxes. Which automatically makes them less of an issue than ME3’s lockboxes where opening a rare Widow or Carnifex/Paladin was basically the start of your game.

Beta is beta though, and this one is more restrictive than most. Overall, I can’t say that I’m too impressed. It’s honestly been so long ago that I uninstalled BF3 that I forget if being able to spawn inside a vehicle from the Deploy screen is something new to BF4 or not. And, really, that’s kinda what it comes down to: why do we need Battlefield 4 again? Once all the maps are unlocked, then perhaps we’ll see where the differences lay. Plus, supposedly Commander Mode is back.

But right now I do not see any reason why I would be compelled to purchase Battlefield 4 on Day 1 as opposed to when they bundle the game + first Map Pack together. Or, really, when they bundle the game + Season Pass.