Objective Frustration

How is it a game can evoke such strong negativity even from players that love it?

When it comes to Hearthstone, many are sure they know the answer: it’s the RNG. But randomness is not a bad thing. In fact it is the key to keeping many games fun and interesting. Iconic classics such as Tetris remain relevant precisely because of their random nature. The difference lies in how each game rewards players. Tetris rates your performance following countless random events, mitigating their effect. Meanwhile, contrary to its mechanics, Hearthstone focuses your attention on the short-term where the effects of randomness are more significant.

Hearthstone’s critics often cite RNG as being opposed to the influence of skill. But again, Tetris, and countless others show this is an inaccurate over-simplification. It’s not even accurate to Hearthstone. Veterans of the game all share the same perspective: a player’s skill shows in their record, not any individual match. You will lose, and there’s nothing you could have done differently to prevent it. Their point being Hearthstone is a game of managed variance. In the long-term your luck will balance out. Your deck will not always get a favorable matchup, and sometimes you will not draw the cards you need. But choosing and playing your deck wisely will pay off in the long run.

So why all the nerd rage?

Do people just hate losing that much? Does awareness of the random nature bias their response? Has society conditioned us to only think in the short-term? These are tempting explanations, but are neither productive nor appropriate questions for those outside professional psychology to answer.

But we know frustration comes from thwarted expectations. So what expectations does Hearthstone set?

Rewards come in the form of new cards, directly or otherwise. The currency used for card packs comes from 2 sources: direct play reward, and daily quest completion. But gold only comes in at a trickle from the direct reward.

10 gold for every 3 games won:
Assume average 50% win/loss
10 gold for every 6 games played
A match averages somewhere near 10 minutes depending on the deck you play
~1 hour played per 10 gold

1 card pack of 5 random cards costs 100 gold, or 10 hours of play time (ignoring other sources of gold)

That leaves daily quests. A majority of the randomized daily quests are of the variety “win 3-5 games as X or Y class”. Any statistician, and most Hearthstone pros will tell you 6-10 games (again assuming 50% win/loss) is too small of a sample to see meaningful patterns. But this is how Hearthstone encourages its players to value their time: in relatively small increments. The class limitation also encourages Hearthstone players to vary their deck, playstyle, and deviate from what they’re comfortable with. Both of these values are counter-intuitive to how the game is apparently meant to be played, and your skill measured. They’re telling players to measure their success game to game.

Other quests are less obtuse. Kill X minions, play Y creatures, etc. provide more reasonable direction, but still fail to directly encourage the kind of behavior needed to enjoy Hearthstone. They are missed opportunities.

So why is this system even in place? It seems baffling, like there was not a lot of thought in tailoring the reward system to game. The answer is found at the source: Blizzard Entertainment. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (WoW) popularized daily quests to relative success, and much imitation in the industry. It was a clever system that suited the design of WoW well.

MMOs are a game format built around long-term progress, reward, and repetitive activity. Randomized daily quests serve to break up the monotony of the grind by encouraging players to mix up their routine and refocusing away from overwhelming long-term goals on more immediate rewards.

The daily quest system makes perfect sense in this context, but was adapted too directly to Hearthstone without consideration for the effects it would have. Hearthstone needs to have its own reward system specifically built to its own pace and structure.

One notable exception in Hearthstone’s design is the spectator quest. Recently a quest was added to the rotation that asks you to spectate a friend winning a game. It’s an elegant design. The quest subtly encourages you to learn from watching your friend, or help them become a better player themselves. It also means that the worse luck your friend has, the longer you stick with them for encouragement, helping to overcome the issue of focusing on short-term failure. Perhaps best of all it plays to the strength of Hearthstone to enjoy the absurdity that does come out of the variance of individual games. You have a friend over your shoulder to share great plays with, or just help you laugh off bad luck.

So what else lies at the core of Hearthstone that should be highlighted by the quests?

Long Term Thinking
This is simply addressed by lengthening the key time period from days to weeks with objectives and rewards scaled appropriately.

Refocusing on a weekly period does run the risk of making goals too large to tackle at once, and discouraging to immediate gratification in the way MMOs are. It may need to be augmented by a daily login reward. Alternatively, following the style of the ability to stockpile dailies, it could be a bonus receivable up to 3 days a week for playing 2 games in any mode, etc.

It’s also important to reward sticking to one play style, giving the player time to develop their skill with it. This is much trickier to design conceptually and mechanically. Do you ask the player to stick to 1 class? How do you determine which class? Or is it 1 deck? You don’t want to discourage experimentation and refinement, so how do you determine when an alteration is still the same deck? These are all questions that would need in-depth experimentation and testing.

Different play styles
While we want to reward a chosen play style, the player must still be able to choose that style. Frankly, many players enjoy variety over strict efficiency. For them, the current quests probably work excellently. So there must be options that can be selected between for players of different styles. These should never stack. If players can get greater rewards by playing towards all styles, you have the same problem of instructing players to leave what they enjoy in another form. Only one set of rewards would be receivable, but would appear in a variety of categories catered to:

Serious Constructed Players
Players wanting to play and refine competitive decks to optimize their win rate, at least within a specific viable play style. While these players are more than willing to emulate successful decks, they must understand how to substitute individual cards to account for common matchups they face.

Sight Seers
Players that really just enjoy seeing the dramatic events of a game unfold, and getting to be a part of it. Interacting with the game’s mechanics is fundamentally enjoyable almost regardless of result.

Players that are semi-serious, but take little joy in imitating established competitive strategies. They like trying to uncover card interactions that might enable new deck types or variations. Success may be important, but secondary to ingenuity. Ultimately they want to see and try new things.

Serious Arena Players
Players that primarily play arena with the goal of maximizing win ratio. While casual arena players value many of the same things casual constructed players do, more serious arena players measure success and progress by different means.

There’s a huge range of play styles here alternatively valuing consistent or varied decks, and personal success measured over 50 games, 12 games, down to individual plays. At best the current set of quests serves the 2nd group.

Creating appropriate objectives for a game is critical. It is an implicit instruction to the player of what they should value, and how to gauge their success. Understanding this we can see how problematic it is to mismatch objectives with the ideal approach to enjoying a game. Just imagine how misleading and frustrating it would be to have a digital chess game that rewarded players for taking 10 turns in a row in under 5 seconds.

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