Blizzard's insistence on catering to casual audiences with Hearthstone has pushed long-time players away from the game, especially as the future of Hearthstone's esports scene remains somewhat uncertain.

Catering to Casuals: Hearthstone’s New Player Problem

May 22, 2017
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Blizzard’s attitude towards new Hearthstone players has been a source of frustration for a while. In the past, I’ve complained at length about the new player experience, and I stand by my original arguments. The same problems still exist, and they seem to get worse every patch. It’s not just the preposterous pricing for digital items in a supposedly “free” game that I take issue with. It’s not even the insane amount of consistent grinding you need to do if you want to keep expanding your card collection. It’s the way that Blizzard dumbs down Hearthstone for new players. We end up missing out on a lot of great things to allegedly make the game more accessible for ‘new players,’ but Hearthstone doesn’t succeed at drawing these new players in. In other words, everyone loses.

New Players Beware: Ongoing Issues in Hearthstone

For the sake of how many browser tabs you’ve got open, I’ll give you a quick rundown at what new Hearthstone players are expected to deal with. The biggest issue is, quite simply, the ridiculous price of entry. Hearthstone is free-to-play, but in name only. It’s an incredibly expensive game. Prohibitively expensive, in fact. In order to get a working set of cards, you need to dump around $500 in right off the bat.

That’s just for a standard set of cards to run only a handful of the top-tier decks, mind you. If you’re willing to disenchant absolutely everything you don’t need, the price does drop a bit. But if you want to start playing now and don’t have enough disposable income to justify dropping some dollars on digital card packs, you’ve got a real fun task ahead of you. You’ll barely earn cards before new ones get released. Completely free-to-play gamers will likely never get even a passable collection if they picked up Hearthstone today.

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All this to say, the game isn’t nice to people who don’t want to spend lots of money. And Hearthstone is not particularly balanced in terms of card rarity. If you want a strong deck, you need legendaries and epics. End of story. There aren’t many uber cheap decks, so if you want to play competitively, you need to spend money.

There are plenty of ways that the current system could be tweaked to make Hearthstone more appealing to new audiences, and the lack of progress is disheartening, to say the least.

Here’s an easy solution: Blizzard could make a fortune and improve the new player experience by selling Hearthstone starter kits. Want to skip some grinding while you’re still learning the game? Cool, no problem. Just shell out, say, $29.99 and you’ll get a collection of 300 cards (or perhaps even pre-built decks) that are powerful enough to give you a taste of what playing with a good collection lets you do. Innovations in revenue generation and player retention systems in other free-to-play models make Blizzard’s approach look thoroughly dated.

Want to play Hearthstone? Fork over the cash, get ready to put in an unfathomable amount of grinding, or get out. Those are your options.

Why Do We Suffer?

Blizzard’s development of a mobile app to appeal to weary commuters and apathetic teens aside, it’s clear that Hearthstone doesn’t do a good job at drawing in new players. And yet, the rest of the playerbase has gotten used to taking hits on behalf of these mythical ‘new players.’  We didn’t get more than nine deck slots for over two years because it “would confuse new players.”

Card rarity is a mess for the exact same reason. More complicated cards have higher rarity values to make sure that new players aren’t overwhelmed–not that it matters, really, since it’s unlikely that they’ll be getting their hands on them for a while. Skewed rarity values leads to imbalanced Arena games, and, of course, means that players have to spend even more money to have a viable deck.

The reason I decided to write about this was the Tavern Brawl last week. It was Hearthstone’s 100th brawl, and Blizzard decided to celebrate the occasion with a festive event that commemorated past brawls. You picked a class and were given a deck from a past brawl that’s thematically relevant to that class. Mage got the Unstable Portal deck, for example.

The Tavern Brawl was, as far as these types of events go, a decent amount of fun. No real complaints there.

I’m a patient person. But Blizzard found a way to push that patience to its natural limit. In every single game of the commemorative Tavern Brawl, you were forced to sit through a mini-introduction. First, there’s a blurb that pops up explaining what deck you’ve got. Another blurb comes immediately after the first one, and tells you what deck your opponent is piloting. After that’s been covered in sickeningly slow vagueness, another friendly blurb shows up and gives you ‘helpful’ hints about how to use your deck effectively.

This happens Every. Single. Game. Even if you’ve played the deck before. Even if you’re playing your second Tavern Brawl in a row.

I’ve played Hearthstone for three years. I understand the mechanics. I’ve played every single one of these Tavern Brawls. Could I use a refresher on a couple finer details? Sure, there’s always room for improvement.

As far as video game experiences go, sitting through fifteen seconds of unskippable tutorial every game proved to be an unexpectedly painful reminder of why Hearthstone is such a frustrating game for fans.

I’m not a new player. Stop treating me like one. I’m glad you’re adding things that help players understand what they are playing, but give us an “opt-out” box. This isn’t the first time that Blizzard have graced us with awful unskippable text boxes, and while efforts to bring in a new crowd of players are importantly, at some point you’ve got to realize that you’re making design choices that alienate more players than they help. I was going to write a piece about the history of the Tavern Brawls, but I couldn’t bring myself to keep playing.

Those unskippable text popups were enough to make someone who’s spent countless hours—and money—on the game walk away from it. That should tell you something.

Treat your players like idiots for long enough and they might not come back.

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Stephen Draper
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Stephen has a degree in English from Brock University. He grew up playing video games and card games, always having an affection for strategy. He picked up League of Legends in early Season One and has since achieved Diamond rank multiple times. He also picked up Hearthstone in Beta and has since achieved Legend consistently. When he isn’t reading, writing, or gaming, he’s probably watching other people game.
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