Whispers of the Design and Marketing Gods…

Hearthstone®  from Blizzard is a free to play card game with an estimated 50 million players and making over $20 million monthly (that’s more than Dota 2).  You can download it now via Opera Mobile Store – on Android or iOS.

Here, we will take a look at some of its dynamics that may be of interest to app developers whether from a design, play or marketing perspective.  It’s a rare game that keeps me coming back daily over three months and rarer yet to persuade me to spend real money on a free to play format.  Further, yesterday marked the beginning of Hearthstone’s new Standard Format along with a new “Whispers of the Old Gods™” (Cthulu-themed) expansion pack.

Free to Play or Pay to Win?

It becomes obvious quite quickly in some “free to play” games that one must “pay to play” outside the starting gate.  That, for me, is an immediate call to delete the game.  With Hearthstone, the call to pay is more subtle and refined but repeatedly (and literally) smacking you in the face, but let’s back up.

Gold is the in-game currency which can be spent on Card Packs (100 gold), Adventure Wings (14 in total, usually 700 gold each), or a round in The Arena (150 gold).  Each adventure wing unlocks several new cards while rewards in The Arena scale to player performance (play until you lose 3 or win 12 matches).  So, that’s what you can spend gold or real money on (aside from a few vanity items), but we’ll come back to the real money in a moment.

Gold can be earned by winning 3 matches (10 gold), completing daily quests (roughly 60 gold each on average), through a few milestones (like playing on your Android device or iPhone), and from winning in The Arena.  Additionally, a free card pack can be earned from each week’s Tavern Brawl.  Committing to this “minimum” will yield the equivalent of 2500 gold (2100 gold + 4 decks) per month.

Of course, you have the option to pay real money for any of these items; and there are discounts for bulk purchases – 2 decks for $2.99 ($1.495 each) to 60 decks for $69.99 ($1.167 each).  We can consider the base value of 100 gold as equal to $1.50.  So, the 2500 gold from above has a theoretical in-game value of $37.50 – or roughly $450 over the course of a year.  That’s a fair chunk of change!  Essentially Free, but with a cost in Time.

Many MMORPG’s today offer player’s the opportunity to fast track their entrance into a game – to start at level 80 or 90 instead of level 1, for example.  Time and money are both currencies, of which everyone has more of one than the other.  While being able to purchase “content” does accelerate entry and can help to win, it does not by itself equate to “pay to win”.  In Hearthstone’s ranked play, there is no shortage of players between the ranks of 20 and 15 with undoubtedly awesome card collections.

Card Value

Not all cards have the same value, from several different perspectives.  Every Hearthstone card pack is guaranteed to have 5 cards, mostly Common but at least one is guaranteed to be Rare.  They may occasionally include an Epic or Legendary.   While you can get most cards from opening packs, you also have the option to craft ones you deem essential, at a cost:

  • 1 Legendary = 1600 dust
  • 1 Epic = 400 dust
  • 1 Rare = 100 dust
  • 1 Common = 40 dust

Thus, for the cost to craft 1 Legendary card you could craft 40 Common cards, 16 Rares or 4 Epics.  The process of collecting cards proceeds in basically that same fashion – far more likely to get all of the Common cards before getting all of the Rares, repeating similarly relative to Epics and Legends.

Consequently, this is the big draw for the Adventure Packs, guaranteeing 1 Legendary per adventure wing, plus a “final boss” after completing all of the wings.  

There is no in-game card trading in Hearthstone, as obviously that would cut into sales of card packs.  Leastwise, designers need to spend a fair amount of time fleshing out their game’s economic model – as relates to in-game currency, cash and potential marketing components.

Whispers of the Old Gods™

The inherent problem of Hearthstone’s format, or any competitive format, is that the longer people play it the more difficult it is for new players to effectively compete – making it more difficult for the game to grow.  Honestly, after seeing Dr. Doom and his Boom-Bot companions appear 8 matches in a row, I started questioning my long-term interest in the game.  It’s not that Dr. Doom equated to an automatic loss (more 50-50), so much as realizing how much of a head start that perhaps 20-30 million other people had.  About that time, news came of Hearthstone introducing a new play format which would weed out some of the older cards from most competitive play.  This has the inherent impact of evening out the playing field, some – not completely.

On Day 1 of the Whispers of the Old Gods release and introduction of the new Standard Format, everyone was greeted with 3 free cards (one being a Legendary, C’Thun).  On top of this, everyone received 3 free card packs with cards from the expansion.  Players were also given a new extra Daily Quest – Win 2 Games in Standard and win 5 free card packs.  This was followed by Win 7 Games in Standard and win 5 more card packs.  No coincidence that these add up to 13 free card packs – and roughly $20.00 in base value.

A promotion leading up to the expansion offered the pre-purchase of 50 decks for $49.99 (or $1 per pack) along with a vanity C’Thun (Cthulu) themed card back (a vanity item).

By taking the time to play to earn more card packs you acquire a good deal of experience to help you get the most out of the cards you already have.  By purchasing the content, in many perhaps most cases, players may have a greater selection of cards, but not necessarily the experience to get the most out of them.  It’s a roughly equal trade.

Generally though, my willingness to spend money has been significantly influenced by how much the game gives to me – which after all, if players don’t play – the developers make no money.  That’s not necessarily saying to give everything away for free – not at all.  It is simply advocating, with freebies like the Daily Quest and Weekly Tavern Brawl, to keep us coming back – and to strategically channel our rewards into the things we need most to advance our game further, faster and better.

The majority of my investment into Hearthstone was on the Adventures, purchasing the complete sets at a significant discount for the biggest bang for the buck.  Even so, I could have opted to earn them via regular play at the rate of roughly 1 wing per week.   With most games, there is a dynamic where, “You need the gear to get THE GEAR” – i.e. it is easier to beat a monster with a +1 longsword as compared to a rusty dagger.  Different game… same principle.

Players need to know what they could have to have any interest of getting it – which brings us to:

The Arena

Players have the choice to purchase card packs for 100 gold or enter The Arena for 150 gold.  Even if you don’t win a single match in The Arena, you are guaranteed 1 card pack plus a random reward (gold, dust for crafting, or a single card).  The average Arena ticket sees 3 wins before accumulating 3 losses, and is considered the breakeven point (as in 1 card pack plus roughly 50 gold of random reward value).  One can go “infinite” if they can average 7 wins per ticket (1 card pack plus 150 gold).  That’s a rarity, but some are doing this and you can easily find them on YouTube (Trump and Kripparian are two who come to mind).

The Arena exposed me to lots of cards that I didn’t have – and realizing that card value is not entirely dependent upon card rarity, but presenting lots of new possible strategies based upon card synergy.  Any card in Hearthstone can show up in an Arena Deck – exposing players with a basic collection to lots of cool cards.  Players are given 3 classes to choose from and then proceed to make a choice on 30 three card options and having to make difficult decisions.  It was The Arena and the potential of “endless rewards” that ultimately convinced me to buy the Adventure Packs – and really learn the game.

Choices.  Decisions.  These are the bread and butter of the games that most people enjoy most.

 Blizzard’s Marketing is Comprehensive

It also needs to be noted that Blizzard runs cross promotions for most of its games.  Reaching level 20 with a new character in World of Warcraft®  will get you a new Hero portrait (vanity item) in Hearthstone.  Starting an account in Hearthstone and completing a few achievements will net you a free mount in WoW.  Of special interest to developers is that Blizzard starts promoting some of its new releases by almost a year in advance.  Almost everything Blizzard does includes some marketing component – either to attract new players or retain existing ones.  Of course, their player base does fluctuate substantially, but that is normal to product and release cycles.

Aside from daily quests, Blizzard has game content for almost every major holiday – coinciding with appropriate email promotional mailings.  They have a recruit-a-friend programs along with generous rewards for group play.  Early on, Blizzard was one of the first to offer free CD-trials of its Warcraft RTS games (mid-1990s).  Leastwise, when it comes to marketing a game, take a look at what Blizzard has done and is doing because it is intrinsic to virtually everything they do, including game design.  Their latest moves in WoW have been to simplify character skills and abilities with an eye toward 1) making games fun to watch and 2) make it easier for eSports casters to highlight the action in broadcast events.

Warcraft: Orcs & Humans debuted in 1994 – 22 years ago, which translates to being older than dirt by computer game standards.  There have been a lot of great game companies that have risen and fallen since, but Blizzard not only survived, it has thrived.  My simple assertion to game developers of today is to take a look at what other successful game companies have done and are doing – and try to emulate them.  That starts with producing high quality games, yes — but there’ve been a lot of high quality games produced by companies that have long since bit the dust.  What transcends everything?  Marketing – constantly expanding your audience, getting new and dedicated players.  Including marketing principles in your game design is what retains them.

Project Manager at the Opera Mobile Store providing Sales-Marketing support. Content development and research.

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