Lately, we've been playing a lot of Hearthstone. Hearthstone's a digital collectible card game from Blizzard, in which you assemble decks of cards and battle other players. It's a game that clearly draws a lot of inspiration from games like Magic: The Gathering, but it's significantly simpler.
We've been playing Hearthstone since it soft-launched in Australia a couple of weeks ago. Today, it launched worldwide on iPad, and people who weren't already raving about it are starting to take notice. While playing the game, we've ourselves really getting into it, which surprised us - Hearthstone is a free-to-play game from a triple-A studio, and we usually get really into games like Dear Esther, Gone Home, and Kerbal Space Program. The level of enjoyment we've been getting out of this game was a little startling, and we had to spend a bit of time working out why we liked it so much.
Here's what we worked out.
1. The experience starts right away.
When you start the game, you immediately enter a game and begin learning to play. You're given a deck, you're given specific instructions on what to do next, and you play through five games that progressively teach more advanced mechanics.
At the end of the tutorial, you're then asked to sign up for an account. This is absolutely genius - all of the non-fun (or, to be more accurate, non-core-gameplay) components of the game, such as signing up for an account, managing your deck, and even being asked for money, are deferred for as long as possible.
2. The monetisation model is subtle.
Hearthstone is a free-to-play game. The developers make their money from in-app purchases, and the more purchases you make, the happier the developers will be. While many games put pay-gates on progression, Hearthstone's pay-gates are on flexibility. When you play games, you unlock cards; if you pay money, you unlock more cards.
Collectible items as a free-to-play strategy are an increasingly popular area, and we're going to see a lot more of these. They're a model of monetisation that actually respects the player's time, and doesn't club them over the head with a publisher's demands for return on investment. When you buy cards in Hearthstone, you're not paying a toll for playing, you're permanently enhancing your experience of the game. This enhancement happens in very small increments, but it's enough.
As an aside: we're increasingly convinced that 'consumable' in-app purchases are the worst possible thing to base your game's design around. There's been a huge amount already written about the drawbacks of this approach to making money from games, and we've always suspected that those who are defending the approach (and who aren't taking a 'I freakin' love taking baths in dollar bills' attitude) are doing so from the perspective that, well, you don't have to pay, but it makes the game a little nicer if you want to. The problem with this approach is that 'making the game nicer' often translates to 'making the game less abusive'. Making a game that starts out great and gets better with in-app purchases, instead of less bad, is a very desirable goal indeed, and we think Hearthstone (and games that use a similar accumulative-item model) have cracked it.
In addition to paid rewards, almost every game provides some measure of reward for the player. When playing in Practice mode, the player levels-up their characters and unlocks new cards. When playing in Play mode, the player earns progress towards achievements, which give the player items that would ordinarily require paying real-world money. If their game is Ranked, they don't earn items, but they have a chance to increase their rank.
This reward loop serves to keep players in the game for longer, which increases the potential for them to drop money on the game without ceaselessly hammering at them to cough up cash. This also has the benefit of keeping the player population high.
3. The game's design is fast.
Hearthstone games last 20 minutes or less. There is no interaction between players during a turn: players may not interrupt another's turn, and combat has no interaction either. When it's your turn, you have uninterrupted control over what happens until you hit the end turn button.
Turns have a time limit, which is useful; interestingly, the game punishes players who take too long, in that if their turn timer expires, they receive less time to do their next turn. (If they complete that next turn without the timer running out, their amount of time per turn is restored to normal.)
4. The game is welcoming.
The intro movie begins as a traditional Blizzard cinematic: giant, intimidating heroes doing battle and magic, while saying cheesy lines about glory, victory and honour - until the switch at the end, where it's revealed that everyone's just sitting in an inn, playing a board game, having fun.
The game feels incredibly happy and supportive, while at the same time sacrificing none of the feeling of risk and excitement that Warcraft's universe traditionally evokes. Even the voice that the player hears when the game starts up is welcoming: "Ahh, it's good t' see ya again!"
This is reinforced by the fact that games don't take very long: the player feels able to drop by the game, play a short round, and at the end of the game, they've received some kind of reward.
We're going to keep playing Hearthstone for a while longer, and see what else we like about it. If nothing else, it's given the mobile game space a lot to think about!