Earlier today, Hearthstone Game Director and resident belly-laugher commented on the state of Hearthstone with regards to the new player experience.
I have had tons of discussions/ debates about this topic with my good friend Michael (@Scytus on Twitter), so I thought it’d be a good time to air my thoughts.
I. Why the New Player Experience is an Issue Worth Considering
If you are reading this, the chances are either you are an experienced, devoted, hearthstone player, long-past the “new player” stage, or you are my family and you just click on everything I write so that I get more than like 2 views. Either way, the “new player experience” is most likely something that does not evidently affect you, reader, in any substantial way. One might ask, “why should we, the non-new-players, care about the new-player experience?”
The new player experience has a direct (I can only assume) effect on new player retention; if you have fun, you’ll keep playing. Player retention, in turn, has a direct effect on in-game purchases. In-game purchases, obviously, fund the continued validity of this game and all related events, prize pools, etc. On top of that, many of us (including myself) get immense joy from the Hearthstone community, and want to see it grow for its own sake; some people (not including myself) also make money as third-party content producers, and stand to make more money (and thereby continue to make great content) as the community grows. Simply put: until we get to the point of server crashes, more players is good for all players.
Oh, right, and we also care about new players because we’re good people who want to bring joy to our fellow humans. Or something like that.
II. The Reddit Post In Question
A. Reddit’s Complaints
Taking a look at the threat that Ben Brode ultimately commented on (here), between the original post and a few of the most upvoted comments, I can pick out a few major concerns.
The original reddit post complains that the ranked ladder is like “throwing new players to the wolves” from day one. The post notes that tier 1 decks are pervasive throughout the ladder and that some players even specifically go to the bottom of the ladder in order to “farm” new players. He further notes that casual mode feels pretty similar, as it is filled with people merely getting a feel for tier 1 decks before risking ranks playing them. He concludes that there is no game mode wherein it feels ok to have a limited collection and, therefore, the game feels pay to win (with the caveat that “win,” means “get to legend”). He suggests that there needs to be an alternative “end goal” to reaching legend.
A related concern, and the concern that I hear most frequently voiced when discussing the new player experience, is that the top decks are too “expensive” and that players need to devote much too much time or money into the game to be able to build anything competitive at high levels of play.
B. Ben Brode’s Response
I don’t like putting words in peoples’ mouths when I don’t have to, so here’s Ben’s comment, verbatim (direct link, if you don’t trust me):
We agree that the new player experience needs more work. We’ve been tweaking it for years and have seen significant increases in retention among new players since launch. Most new players start playing against the AI and then take on other players in Casual. The Casual matchmaker has gone through a lot of iteration and new player winrates have increased by ~15%.
Ranked is a different story. Ranked is becoming more difficult for new players over time. I spoke about some of the challenges we are currently facing with our ladder system before I left for paternity leave here: https://www.reddit.com/r/hearthstone/comments/58pxgt/ben_brode_confirms_the_2_game_win_streak_is_not/
Something you may not realize is that new players actually play in a seperate matchmaking pool for their first several sessions. In Casual, we match them entirely against other brand new players with similarly-sized collections.
That all said, we think the introductory missions up through Illidan feel pretty good, and after that it still feels like a bit of a cliff. It’s definitely something we’re aware of. Thanks for your feedback, and for the feedback of everyone else who’s been chiming in on this over the last few months.
III. My Take on the “Problems” with the New Player Experience
A. The New Player Experience is, Actually, Great
1. New players are given safe environments to play with smaller collections.
As indicated in Ben Brode’s response, Hearthstone has an amazing tutorial, the expert innkeeper AI games, and then a “safe” zone in casual mode. You literally get months of the exact safe environment people are asking for.
2. The “pay wall” for the highest level of play is, comparatively, appropriate and actually pretty generous.
As stated above, many people complain that there is too large of a “pay wall” to break into competitive Hearthstone play, or that the game is (at least to a point) “pay to win.” Yet, Hearthstone has the lowest pay wall of any TCG/CCG I have ever played, and it is on-par with general video-game industry standards.
First, a player’s collection is not the main problem in terms of making respectable progression on the ranked ladder. It has been proven time and again that budget and free-to-play decks and accounts can be taken high up the ladder by competent players. Anecdotally, I took my free-to-play account to rank 15 in my first month of casual play and I now routinely take it to rank 12 or better. If I were trying-harding on it, or even just if it were my main (or only) account, I am certain I could take it to Rank 10 or better fairly frequently.
Now, before all bash on Rank 10 as a poor measure of success, let us remember that Rank 10 puts you in the 92.5th percentile of players! (cite) You are playing against real people who, if you are new, have put much more time and possibly more money into mastering this game than you have. Why should you expect to just pick up a brand new game and be better than more than 90% of the people who are already playing the game? That a new player would expect to be better than 99.5% of players, without putting in substantial time or money to get there, completely baffles me. While there is arguably a problem here, it is, in my opinion, more a problem of appearances (because rank 10 does not feel like the top of the ladder) than of actual ability to play.
Second, if you do want to consider Legendary as a new player’s goal, the barrier to entry is still, comparatively, well within the range of normal. I played Magic: the Gathering for a dozen years–all of my youth–and I can count on one hand the number of times I saw a top-tier standard deck that cost less than $100; after the introduction of mythic rares, the top decks routinely went in the $300-500 range. I played Yu-Gi-Oh for a little while, too; same deal–literally hundreds of dollars for the top decks. I wasn’t old enough to get competitively into Pokemon when I played it, but I sure remember key cards going for anywhere from $20-$100 each. Compared to those games, Hearthstone is an INSANE deal–you can literally play it for free, and if you plan to spend the amounts of money you have to spend in order to play any of the other major TCGs in our collective memory, you would certainly be set with at least one tier 1 deck and something like 20% of ALL standard-legal cards in print (which means you’ll have a lot of extra stuff to toy around with).
Calculated another way, Hearthstone is about on par with other major video games: a new console/PC game costs $60. That’s enough for two adventures and some leftover packs. Pair that with all the free gold/dust/packs you get just for playing the game, and you are well on your way to a decent collection. With some specific direction and just a little luck, you could definitely get a tier 1 deck or two for that kind of money. Similarly, the subscription-based games I’m aware of hover at around $12/month (often in addition to an initial purchase price). At $12/month, devoted new players could hit legend within just a couple seasons (about as long as it takes even good players and CCG/TCG veterans to really learn how to play anyway).
3. The alternative to a “pay wall” is terrible
The alternative to the “pay wall” is that either all cards are available to all players or the basic/classic cards are good enough to carry a player to legend without the need for expansions. Both options are terrible.
If the former were the case, then the game would need to be monetized some other way.I’m sure a top-tier company like Activision-Blizzard would figure some decent method out, but I’m having nightmares of some ridiculous “play up to 5 games today, but you can buy more credits if you want.” On top making the game annoying through limited access, ads, or some other traditional free-to-play monetization scheme, this cheapens the game and makes it feel decidedly unlike traditional TCG/CCGs. Team 5 has made it clear that Hearthstone is supposed to “feel” like an IRL card game, and that “feel” is, in my opinion, a big part of the game’s success. On top of that, if you were to turn the entire game free now, you would almost certainly lose a huge chunk of current players whose painstakingly curated collections suddenly lost all value–that kind of betrayal is, for a lot of people, unforgivable.
If, instead, the classic and basic cards were buffed to the point that players could compete at legend ranks with starter cards, then the meta would get stale with breakneck speed. On top of that, sales would plummet which, as stated above, is generally bad for the game. Again, we would lose tons of players to boredom and might lose the entire game.
In short, the “pay wall,” as small as it is, is a “necessary evil” to keep Hearthstone alive.
B. But One Fairly Simple Change Would Make it Even Better
Even though I think the game is fine, both as a veteran on my main account and a newb, budget-player on my alt account, I do think there is one fairly-easy solution that can benefit new players and veterans alike: more formats.
Yes, it always comes down to new formats for me, but hear me out. We can expand casual mode to really allow for a lot of room to grow the game. Casual mode could safely allow: class bans like they do in tournaments; general card pool restrictions (like “pauper,” “basic+classic,” or “pre-con decks only”), or even specific card bans (“no reno, no small-time buccaneer”). The game already knows what decks we are each queuing into our games, and MTGO already has this type of system in place, so it seems within the range of possibilities for the matchmaking to allow for these restrictions.
More expansive format options like this would: a) give new players attainable goals and formats they can compete in; b) give new life to underused cards; c) give new challenges to veteran players who want to figure out new formats; and d) facilitate awesome, exciting new Hearthstone content from streamers and others; all while keeping a regulated, manicured, and predictable format for the official HCT matches and for ranked rewards. It’s a win-win that I hope and expect eventually (like I predicted the Standard-Wild split would as soon as Reno Jackson was printed), but I hope it is on the “sooner” side of the horizon because that would be siiiiiiick.