A Game by the Fire: Blizzard's Hearthstone

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Several months back, when World of Warcraft studio Blizzard teased their new game, everyone was thinking big. Way big. New MMORPG, perhaps? Another real-time strategy game? Something even more amazing?

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t big, but it was, in its own way, amazing. Blizzard unveiled Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a, um, digital collectible card game.

Hearthstone's Field of Battle

I recently snagged a spot in the closed beta for Hearthstone, which still has no firm release date, and I’ve been cautiously pleased with what I’ve seen. Drawing art and sound assets from World of Warcraft, Hearthstone captures the feel of that game quite well, taking nine classes from WoW as deck archetypes. The card play itself is fairly standard—mana grows turn by turn, allowing the play of cards from your hand; creatures usually cannot attack the turn they are played; and the object is to whittle the opposing hero down to zero health. So, essentially, a very streamlined Magic: The Gathering, gussied up with particle effects.

The emphasis is on fast play. Interaction during your opponent’s turn is almost nonexistent. Indeed, you cannot even chat with your opponent beyond a few pre-programmed emotes. And, given my long experience with World of Warcraft, that’s a feature, not a bug. The AFK timer is rather efficient at burning through an absent opponent’s turn, too.

Hearthstone will be free-to-play, with Blizzard making money through the optional sale of booster packs and entry into a drafting format. One can earn enough in-game credit by playing other people to purchase a booster pack probably two to three times a week with regular play. The matchmaking engine thus far has done well pitting me against players of similar (which is to say, limited) skill, enabling me to get a fair number of wins. Play against the computer is possible, but quickly becomes boring. At a certain point, AI play is only good for testing a new deck.

As a collectible card game, there are quite a few cards to accumulate, both class-specific and neutral cards usable by any class, though once you obtain more than the maximum hand limit of two of any card, you can “disenchant” the extras to form a crafting material that can then be used to create cards you want. A slow process, but if there’s a card you really want, you can get it, eventually.

The card collection interface is unwieldy and looks designed more for tablets than computers, but then I have yet to see a really good digital collection interface.

Hearthstone Collection Interface

While the limit of nine constructed deck slots makes sense with the nine classes you can play, I do wish there were more slots for creating multiple decks of the same class. One hopes Blizzard will not monetize that particular feature.

On the whole, I think Blizzard has (yet another) winner on its hands with Hearthstone. The gameplay is accessible for people without prior exposure to the collectible card game genre, appealing to World of Warcraft fans, and fast playing enough to make up for the slight lack of tactical depth (at least as compared to Magic: The Gathering). Besides, you can summon chickens to attack your opponent. That’s a win right there.

Sir Chair of the Duchy of Desk: MMO Name Inspirations (or the lack thereof)

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Virtual worlds blog Terra Nova takes a look at some of the choices players make when naming their avatars in Massively Multiplayer Online games, examining the rather mundane inspirations that guide some decisions.

Can you find the stupid names in this picture?

While focusing mainly on a World of Warcraft forum thread that examines avatar names derived from common household objects, Terra Nova’s Timothy Burke also touches on a very interesting point about the intersection between names and voice communication:

Other times, we’ve given some thought to how a neologism or random name sounds. But other times, the question itself is a bit of a surprise, and we suddenly realize that something which was entirely textual up to that point is now also oral. It’s really interesting to see how people negotiate that moment of invention, where they have to decide just how to say the character’s name, or decide that they don’t really care how it’s said and will respond to any recognizable variant pronounciation.

As I’ve examined in the past, character names are important to a player’s immersion in the game world. If my character’s name is unpronounceable, or untypable, I have to accept that other players will refer to me by a nickname or shortening of my chosen character name. If you cannot adapt to the name that is bestowed upon you because of the inherent complexity of your chosen name, you’ll find your immersion lessened.

The fact that most games put up barriers to name changes, ranging from a not-insubstantial fee (as in World of Warcraft’s $10 charge) to a complete prohibition on changes (as in EVE Online), suggests that game developers understand the importance of a consistent name, both for continuity of reputation within the game world and for that sticky, immersive quality that keeps players playing—and paying for—the game.

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The Name Game: Real Names versus Character Names in MMOs

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I’ve spent eighteen months interacting almost daily with the same group of forty to fifty people, for up to four hours a day on occasion. None of them call me by name.

Oh, they know my character’s name in World of Warcraft (WoW), the massively multi-player online role playing game (MMORPG) where we interact as a guild, confronting the game’s tougher challenges as a team. My guildmates know my catch phrases and my habits, my playing style and my singing ability (or lack thereof), but few of them know the name I was born to. I’m not Chris to them in WoW—I’m Fellstone. And if someone were to use my real name in the game, I probably wouldn’t even respond to it, out of non-recognition rather than petulance. Am I Fellstone to myself in WoW, too?

Gaming in general involves some degree of identification beyond the self. We invest the checker we move with the desire to reach the other side of the board, the video game sprite we maneuver via joystick with the will to thread a maze. Avalon Hill game boxes were festooned with blurbs drawing the would-be gamer into the game world contained within. For instance, Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980) invites you to identify with the setting on a personal level:

From your vantage point behind the matched grays of the House of Gaiius, you watch as the sultry image is broken by the clatter of late-arriving chariots approaching the starting line. . . . The Roman is using razor sharp scythe blades—a cruel threat to any wheel or horseflesh which ventures too near. You are all that stands between him and the favorable inside position at the far corner.

The outcomes of games matter because we are involved with them personally to some extent. Role playing games—traditional pen-and paper, computer, and online—rely on the one-to-one identification between the player and the character played for their power and effect. We identify with the character; much of the impetus for playing RPGs stems from the desire to develop the character. RPGs, particularly online and pen-and-paper, tend not to have “winning” conditions, the character’s evolution being the paramount reason for playing at all. At some point, we transition from “Helvetica the Mage died!” to “I died!”

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