Blizzard taps into collectible card game market with freemium “Hearthstone”

A few of the cards found in "Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft." Image from the "Hearthstone" official website.
A few of the cards found in “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.” Image from the “Hearthstone” official website.

In a departure from real time strategy games and MMORPGs, Blizzard Entertainment is expanding its Warcraft universe into an online collectible card game.

In Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, players will build decks of virtual cards to compete, in the vein of Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! or the Pokemon trading card game.

The game is currently in close beta for PC and Mac, with an open beta set to be released in December.

A version for iOS and Android is scheduled for the second half of 2014.

The game operates on a freemium model. Players can earn booster packs of new cards by playing the game, or they can buy new cards with real money.

Hearthstone Lead Designer Eric Dodds said the game is designed to remove of the barriers of entry CCGs have and appeal to a wider audience.

Dodds has a good point. Magic is fairly complicated to learn and the volume of cards available for it can make deck building kind of daunting, especially for people who do not have a more experienced player to help them.

Richard Cobbett of EuroGamer echoed Dodds’s sentiment, saying, “…there’s a massive audience scared off by those concepts for whom something that can be picked up in an hour is a huge advantage—especially when the lore and major characters are familiar after so many years exploring World of Warcraft.”

Created in 1993, "Magic: The Gathering" was the first collectible card game. These four cards were packaged as part of a standard (60-card) deck, but players can customize decks to their liking by adding and removing cards. Image uploaded from my iPhone.
Created in 1993, “Magic: The Gathering” was the first collectible card game. These four cards were packaged as part of a standard (60-card) deck, but players can customize decks to their liking by adding and removing cards. Image uploaded from my iPhone.

The idea of a simpler, more new-player-friendly CCG is positive for players wanting to check out the genre and for CCG industry. Playing Hearthstone might be some fans’ first step to getting into one of the game’s more complex offline counterparts.

The bigger question is whether the freemium plan will work for the game.

My inclination is to say it will. After all, it’s worked for games without the kind of pre-existing fanbase that Warcraft has, and that kind of real-world branding goes a long way in strengthening the life cycle of a game.

Perhaps more importantly, paid content has proved viable for video games for several years. Game developers have made enough downloadable content to expand on PC, Mac, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360 games that DLC has become ubiquitous in the video game market.

And that content was for games people had to buy.

For a free-to-play game, paid content is even more inviting because the initial cost of the game is eliminated.

Riot Games’s League of Legends, for example, brings in an estimated $200 million in revenue and has enough fans that the game’s official championship was held in Los Angeles’s Staples Center.

Blizzard will likely succeed in getting people to play and buy cards for the game, but it is less clear whether the game will reach the levels of fandom the rest of the Warcraft series has.

"Hearthstone," as seen on the iPad. Image from Polygon.
“Hearthstone,” as seen on the iPad. Image from Polygon.

With any form of digital media held entirely on a platform owned by its creator, there is a concern that people who buy the digital content will lose it if the platform goes under. That concern has not stopped the MMORPG genre from exploding in the last decade, but the possibility of financial loss is still there.

The financial restrictions within the game may be somewhat limiting too. There are no plans for Hearthstone to allow players to trade cards, and I would guess, then, that buying and selling cards between players is off the table as well.

For some players, these limits will make Hearthstone a less attractive CCG option than its tabletop counterparts, where players can trade, buy, and sell cards for $27,000 on eBay as they please.

Nevertheless, the game should be a good starting point for new CCG fans, and it can always be developing and expanding.

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