Game balance and card design are obviously key parts of making a good competitive card game, but in this post I will not discuss them. Instead, I want to take a look at processes and scheduling: the hardcore operations side of the equation.
What makes for a good competitive card game?
I will argue that a good competitive card game requires the following:
- A steady and predictable influx of new cards to reward both deck building and piloting
- Synchronization of major events with card releases
- An ecosystem that supports professionals
Cadence of new content releases
Every collectible card game relies on a steady influx of new cards. It is inevitable that the meta will become stale after a while without new releases, and even though there are still good games to be watched and good plays to be made at that point, it reduces the competitive skillset. In an unsolved meta, the competitive skillset consists of deck building and piloting, and the clearer the meta becomes, the more emphasis is placed on piloting, with deck building becoming irrelevant at the end.
It is desirable for the competitive environment to reward both deck building and piloting – if it was not, the viewers would never experience the excitement of a novel idea winning games from the established standard decks.
Is Blizzard currently releasing new Hearthstone cards often enough and steadily enough? The answer is a resounding no. While the introduction of the Standard format created a huge meta shift, new releases have not been able to keep up with the pace players are solving the possibilities of the card pool.
Furthermore, Blizzard’s design philosophy of not publishing deadlines and releasing content when it’s done is counterproductive for a competitive card game. Players need to know that new content will be released in steady intervals, and, as a related issue, major events need to be timed according to content releases. More on this aspect a little later.
This possibly boils down to the development processes used at Blizzard. While various agile methods are great for software development, developing card releases is not really software development in the same sense. There is a place and a time for different project management methodologies, and card development is something that can and should be done with fixed deadlines. Methodologies such as critical chain project management can be used to steer such projects effectively.
Compared to, say, Magic: The Gathering, there is an additional challenge that Hearthstone faces related to more frequent content releases. Whereas the business model of Magic: The Gathering is very effective at milking whales, Hearthstone has been committed to a free-to-play business model for hardcore players and a quite inexpensive commitment for more casual players. Both positions are threatened if content is released more frequently.
This dilemma can be solved through content planning, pricing, and card design. The content schedule used to consist of adventures and expansions released in turns. The current schedule is to release two expansions and one adventure per year. In order to keep the meta more fresh while maintaining reasonable costs for the players, Blizzard could go for four content releases each year: two adventures and two expansions. If adventures continue to be reasonably priced and in addition offer proportionally more strong cards than the expansions, casual players could put together reasonably strong decks mostly from adventure cards, thus limiting the overall commitment needed to have fun in the game.
Scheduling of events and content releases
For the competitive scene to be predictable, content releases need to be predictable. However, this is not enough. Once the dates for the content releases for the next year are set, this should affect the whole competitive calendar.
This did not happen in 2016. Even Blizzard’s own events were not scheduled with content releases in mind – well, you cannot really do that if you do not know when content is released – and third-party events were in an even worse state. For example, several LAN tournaments in spring had rules according to which they are played in Standard format, if Standard format is released before the event, but not if it is released during the event. Confusion, ambiguity, reduced interest.
If the release dates were known well in advance, the first tournaments after those release dates would become highly valuable because of almost guaranteed interest in the new meta. If Blizzard chose to, they could even set content release dates so that specific major events benefit from them. Dreamhack Summer and Winter, for example, have set dates up to year 2018 already, so Blizzard could also plan around events that are planned even further in advance, it is not a one-way street where content releases are always scheduled first and everything else follows from them.
Furthermore, if the release dates were known well in advance, deck list submission deadlines and event dates could be planned to play nice around content releases. Deck list submission one day after new content has been released? Not good for competition, some testing time is always needed to produce decent results.
One feature of current content release scheduling warrants discussion at this point: the staggered release of adventures. Releasing the wings (and cards) of a new adventure in stages over the course of four weeks prolongs the interest generated by the adventure, as the meta changes every week for a while. However, it also results in several weeks of meta that is known to be extremely temporary. What about tournament play? For tournaments that require deck list submissions in advance, the tournament is all but guaranteed to be played without all the cards already available to players. With enough content releases overall, there should be no need to harm tournaments by staggering the release of adventures – instead, all cards could be released simultaneously.
Building an ecosystem
Even if content releases are well-timed and events are scheduled to coincide appropriately with new releases, it is not enough. For a game to be a competitive sport, it has to be possible for many people to make a living out of it: professional competition is only possible when it is possible to be a professional.
In Magic: The Gathering, this is accomplished through the Pro Players Club, through which Wizards of the Coast pay out appearance fees and arrange travel and accommodation for the most successful players. Essentially, making it to the Platinum level of Pro Players Club means that it is at least somewhat possible to play Magic: The Gathering for a living.
The importance of the Pro Players Club for the competitive Magic ecosystem was clearly seen this spring, when Wizards of the Coast announced plans to cut the appearance fees almost completely in favor of increased tournament prize pools, especially at the top end. In a game of variance, moving fixed fees into a top-heavy prize pool would mean that none of the players could know if they can make a living playing the game. Players were outraged, and Wizards of the Coast reversed their plans within days.
Now, how does this apply to Hearthstone? Hearthstone has a much bigger online presence, especially on Twitch, and several people already make a good living streaming the game. Streaming is not the same thing as competing though. However, the digital nature of Hearthstone gives Blizzard ample opportunities to support teams and players through crowdfunding, a subject I have already looked at in-depth in this article: What if Blizzard supported Hearthstone teams with sales of custom card backs?
Regardless of the means, building and supporting an ecosystem around the game is necessary in order to keep it competitive.
So far, Blizzard has not been able to demonstrate the ability to make Hearthstone a solid competitive card game. However, the processes to make it happen are not out of their reach, and with a little bit of work towards this goal, it can be achieved.