In the first six years of its life, Hearthstone's economy remained stable to the point of being boring. We logged in, played games, and earned gold for every three matches won, or for completing daily quests. It would be vastly overstating it to say people liked the system—there have always been gripes about its cost—but they understood it.
That changed on 12 November with the biggest update Blizzard has ever made to the way rewards work in the game. The result: Confusion, and then anger, as the community calculated what's on offer in the new system versus the previous iteration.
What Blizzard must have once hoped would be an exciting moment right before the release of the new Darkmoon Faire expansion now looks like a PR nightmare. The front page of the Hearthstone subreddit is eerily reminiscent of the Blitzchung incident from a year ago—a tidal wave of negative posts about Blizzard's alleged greed and dishonesty has drowned out all other conversation.
Battling the pass
The controversy over the new rewards system dates back to August this year when a survey leaked that detailed plans for an experience-based reward track. The reaction from players was strong, especially regarding how much gold would be available. According to calculations, players would have been given 3,990 gold per expansion, significantly less than they were used to in the pre-patch 19.0 system.
In response to that outcry, players were reassured by strong messaging from Blizzard. During a reddit AMA on August 11th, game director Ben Lee posted:
"I very specifically mean to identify and clarify that we absolutely intend to maintain the value that players can earn within the game and keep the flexibility of purchases that current rewards provide."
Lead developer Dean 'Iksar' Ayala doubled down on that claim a couple of weeks later with a Reddit post of his own, emphasizing that players would not lose out on gold.
Players are now losing out on gold.
Details remained sparse about the new system right up to the release of the 19.0 patch. Players first saw the full rewards track inside the client on Thursday, November 12th. The initial reward levels flew by and the system felt exciting and engaging… but the rate of experience gain was still murky in the client and per-level XP requirements weren't displayed at all. It's worth noting here that most Hearthstone players weren't used to earning XP at all, having left it behind after initially levelling the classes to 60.
Soon data miners started digging in to clarify, and community site Out Of Cards was the first to publish an article outlining the experience requirements per level. The numbers didn't paint a great picture, and the fears from the initial survey seemed fully realized—the track was designed to take most of the expansion to complete, and would deliver less gold than players currently had in their accounts.
Discord servers were quickly flooded with calculations and conversations, wondering where they went wrong. But the math seemed right. Hearthstone fans were mad—and stingy rewards aren't this update's only issue.
Blizzard had also announced a paid 'Tavern Pass' to go along with the new system, providing an experience boost and cosmetics for $20. The phrase Tavern Pass has been used for prior expansions to refer to Battlegrounds perks, which are now a completely separate thing—and while prior Tavern Passes were included in expansion preorders, this one was not, leading to more confusion and claims of corporate greed.
An informal poll I ran on Twitter pointed to a lack of clarity around what was included and what wasn't.
informal poll – did you expect the cosmetic “tavern pass” to be included in the mega bundle? answer yes if you thought you were getting it and no if you knew that you were notNovember 11, 2020
The new system is difficult to evaluate at first glance because it's designed to maximize that Hearthstone endorphin rush we know so well. When a click gives you a new legendary and a level up, it's hard to stop playing. While the community tone has curtailed positive conversation around the new system, there are some who consider the rewards more beneficial. It depends on what you value most, and players less interested in buying packs with gold have a starkly different view of the changes.
Still, it's hard to argue in favor of the game getting more expensive and harder still to argue that it hasn't done so. Another new planned change of "mini-sets" was announced, adding 35 cards to each future set two months after their initial releases. Many players plan to hoard packs while purposely limiting their day-one experience to avoid the fear of missing out once the dust well has run dry and new cards are inserted into boosters. The combination of reduced gold, increased set size, and confusing store offerings has justified many fears about the cost of the game going up. Combine with the fact those initial reassurances appear to have been inaccurate, whether intentional or otherwise, and it's a bad look.
So what's the fix? There are theories that this was a calculated move from the overlords at corporate to extract every last penny from players, but the stated intent of the team is at odds with that, and it's plausible that the numbers simply didn't work out as expected—regardless of eye-catching titles on YouTube advertising "BLIZZARD LIED," we simply don't know what happened behind the scenes.
Hearthstone's massive user base is diverse, and designing a system with universal upside is a big undertaking. But Hearthstone needed a slam dunk improvement that was easy to understand and easy to appreciate. The new system is built on assumed trust—if you keep playing, you'll come out ahead. That functionality needs to be immediately and continually obvious beyond a shadow of doubt to regain the trust that's now been severely damaged. Only then will discussion return to normal topics, like why Pen Flinger needs a squelch button.
There have already been many potential solutions proposed, including doubling all gold rewards for the first 50 levels or reinstating the much decried 10 gold for three wins. If I were in charge and had the leeway, I'd start by lowering all level requirements to 4,000 xp at maximum, giving a consistent feeling of progression and a nice bump to gold rewards while minimizing confusion. The team has many options available to them, as a system with this many technical details has a lot of latitude for adjustments.
Adjustments are something the team has made plenty of this year, as the pace of the game's feature growth has dramatically accelerated since the launch of Battlegrounds last November. The Hearthstone team have taken more risks, and been universally praised for additions like duplicate protection (a pro-consumer change that made the game more accessible). They've also had stumbles along the way—the power level of Demon Hunter's class release being a prime example. The new economy is another test, and Hearthstone has found pushing that boundary results in the community pushing back hard.
Hearthstone's developers have an opportunity to demonstrate that this was a misstep instead of an intentional cost increase, and a dramatic change will be needed to mollify the community. For now? We'll have to wait and see how they'll respond. It's a safe bet that an uproar of this volume will be met with a blue post in the near future, and I'm hopeful that changes will be swift and significant. But faith has been shaken, and regardless of a change, that will take time and effort to heal.
It's not hard to hear me talk more about Hearthstone… check out my twitter at RidiculousHat for up-to-the-minute takes and tune in to my two podcasts if you're looking for more long-form analysis. One is Coin Concede, and the other is at Vicious Syndicate.