Many trading/collectible card games have been released in the past years, yet the number of games with success is very low with notable exceptions of Magic: the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh!. This fate has been broken by Hearthstone, incredibly successful title of Blizzard Entertainment, and attracted many other companies in the CCG market once again. In this article we are going to take a look in the CCG market from the point of view of Hearthstone and what is going on with new titles; Shadowverse, The Elder Scrolls: Legends and Gwent.
Brief History of Hearthstone
Warcraft franchise has been one of the most successful game franchises since the release of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans in 1994. As the core, the franchise has 3 real-time strategy games with expansion packs, and the infamous MMORPG, World of Warcraft. However, the franchise had a relatively unsuccessful game as well, a card game which is not Hearthstone.
In October 2006, World of Warcraft Trading Card Game was released by Upper Deck Entertainment under the license from Blizzard Entertainment. In March 2010, the license is passed to Cryptozoic Entertainment which continued the game until Blizzard Entertainment announced that it was discontinued in August 2013. In the same month, the closed beta phase of Hearthstone started and the game was released in March 2014 on Windows and macOS. The mobile versions were released for iOS and Android in April 2014 and December 2014 respectively.
Why Hearthstone Became Successful
There are many reasons for Hearthstone to become a success and a staple for the CCG genre. First and foremost the Blizzard brand and the popularity of Warcraft franchise together are one of the pillars of the success of Hearthstone. Even though, Hearthstone is a game of a completely different genre, there are many players tried it out simply because it is a Warcraft game developed by Blizzard. Being a Warcraft game allows players to recognize the lore and characters in the game and have the opportunity to play a card game with their favorite characters. In addition, the experience from the previous trading card game of World of Warcraft, even though it was not successful as much as Hearthstone, is also important in terms of game mechanics, concepts, artwork etc. There are many common elements between two games and these elements are rethought and revised to be included in Hearthstone during the transition from a physical trading card game to an online collectible card game.
Another aspect of Hearthstone is the accessibility from different types of devices. After only one month of the release of the game for Windows and macOS, the iOS version was released and eight months later Android version was released. With this accessibility the players are able to play Hearthstone during their lunch break at work/school, on the subway or wherever they are on their smartphones and tablets. In other words, the players do not have to wait until they get home and in front of their computers to play the game. This is an unprecedented feature for a deep CCG game with complex game play at the time which made a huge difference in the player base of Hearthstone.
The “freemium” business model of Hearthstone, on the other hand, was not a revolution. Many mobile games had (and still have) the same model where the users purchase in-game currency and/or virtual items for their accounts. This model has proven to be scalable in the industry and profitable, also helps to establish a certain amount of “free to play” players to keep the player base at a critical mass. Having a critical mass of players online at any given time is crucial and even though “free to play” players are not paying money to the game, they still help the game simply by playing it. For instance, when you queue up for a game in Hearthstone, you can find a player with comparable in-game rank level under less than a minute. This is a very important feature to have especially for players with limited amount of time. For the newly introduced card games, players may see waiting times as high as 4-5 minutes which may result in a reconsideration whether or not to play a game. As a side note, the queueing system of Hearthstone has influenced even Magic the Gathering Online, among many others, which resulted in implementing a similar system for certain formats.
The last point that is worth mentioning is the game itself. Card games on mobile games before Hearthstone worked in such a way that the players makes their decks and everything else happens automatically i.e. the battles, effects and results happen instantly without player interference. In Hearthstone on the other hand, the players get to play the game like a physical card game and also it feels like it. Of course, this sort of card games may have been introduced before Hearthstone, however, with all the aspects I have mentioned above combined with the quality of the game made Hearthstone “the CCG” instead of the others.
All in all, Hearthstone changed the rules of CCG genre. Many other games have been introduced with clear influences from Hearthstone since then and that is where the fun begins.
Following the success of Hearthstone, many companies started to pay more attention in the CCG market. According to Superdata, the CCGs, both digital and physical will make $5.73 billion whereas, the digital CCGs will make $1.4 billion in 2017. According to the same report, the top 5 digital card games of 2016 are listed below.
1- Hearthstone: $395 million
2- Shadowverse: $100 million
3- WWE SuperCard: $24 million
4- Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links: $24 million
5- Magic the Gathering Online: $24 million
When we look at these figures, one thing is for sure; Hearthstone is “the digital card game” of today. Nearly four times revenue of the second place, the market leader position of the game seems undisputable, at least for now.
Shadowverse is the surprise of the report and the year in the market. Shadowverse started its closed beta in March 2016 and open beta in June 2016 which means the above figure of $100 million is made in the second half of the year. This immediate success proves that there is competition ahead of Hearthstone in the near future and it is going to be a tough one since Shadowverse is not the only game entered in the market recently.
As mentioned, Blizzard Entertainment’s success with Hearthstone, attracted many other companies into the CCG market. In this article, I have taken the open beta release dates of the games as the baseline since the games start to build their player base starting from as early as closed beta, however, the big jump in the player base occurs in the open beta phase when players try out the game to see if it is for their taste. There are many other CCGs released before and after Hearthstone, however, for the sake of simplicity, I have taken into consideration the games below. The closed and open beta dates of some card games can be found below in the order of closed beta releases.
|Game||Closed Beta||Open Beta|
|Hearthstone||August 2013||January 2014|
|Hex||April 2014||October 2014*|
|Shadowverse||March 2016||June 2016|
|The Elder Scrolls Legends||April 2016||August 2016|
|Eternal||April 2016||November 2016|
|Gwent||October 2016||May 2017|
|Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links||November 2016’||January 2017’’|
*Hex does not use the term “Open Beta” but at the date mentioned above the beta key for the game is dropped.
‘Release of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links in Japan.
‘’ Release of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links in the rest of the world.
It can be seen from the above table that, after the success of Hearthstone, there is a boom in the closed beta versions of card games in 2016. In this article for the sake of simplicity, I am going to mainly discuss Shadowverse, The Elder Scrolls Legends (TESL for the rest of the article) and Gwent compared to Hearthstone. The reason of choosing these games is that there are common features among them and they are comparable from different aspects.
Accessibility: Shadowverse, Gwent, TESL vs Hearthstone
The companies may choose to release their games on different platforms. Especially with the booming mobile industry (smartphones and tablets), playing a game without having to wait to get home is now a reality. There are some benefits for users and the company but there are also some drawbacks such as maintaining different versions of the same game on different platforms such as coding differences, legal issues, different version update circumstances, third-party relationships etc. However, these drawbacks become irrelevant when it comes to the contribution of the players across different platforms. For instance, a player on a smartphone can play with another player on PC. In this case the more players online, the less the waiting queues and more sales opportunities. Therefore, it is an important aspect for the games to be accessible across different platforms to keep the players in their game.
The platforms of the games can be found in the table below.
|Gwent||YES||NO||NO||NO||Xbox One, PS4|
*By the time of this article, the Mac version of TESL has not been released yet, and expected to be released in summer 2017. Gwent is available on the Xbox One and PS4 at the point of publishing.
In terms of accessibility, Hearthstone and TESL are both available on PC/Mac and mobile with their own versions. Shadowverse on the other hand, is available on mobile but relies on Steam for the availability on PC. Gwent is available as an open beta phase on the PC, Xbox One and PS4. In addition, it seems there is plan for the mobile platforms which may be a disadvantage for Gwent in the future.
In terms of game mechanics, Hearthstone, TESL and Shadowverse share many traditional core concepts in card games such as “mana as a resource” system, minions/creatures/followers with abilities, player life totals etc. Even though every game has their own mechanics and differences the concept is more or less the same: bring your opponent’s life total to 0 through creatures and spells.
Gwent differentiates from this point of view. In Gwent there are no life totals or mana as a resource, no combat, the players can play one card at a turn and try to maximize the total strength points of their units and also players can interact with their opponents’ units with spells and/or effects. This makes Gwent a completely new game which can be considered as a competitive advantage however, it is much harder to design since there is no other example to estimate the effects of a possible card or mechanic on the game. This would increase design and development costs of the game as well as it is a bit risky since the predictability of a concept is much lower than the traditional card game concepts. It is highly likely to have a completely different game after some time compared to the beta version of Gwent as the game evolves.
An important topic in the community when it comes to game mechanics is the random effects i.e. RNG. In digital card games, RNG effects are easy to generate unlike the physical card games because the cards and/or effects are generated through script without having the player to do something extra such as finding the right token or rolling a dice to determine the outcome of the RNG effect. Although, these effects may lead fun and unexpected outcomes and experiences, having too much RNG effects that decide the outcomes of games single-handedly, especially on the competitive scene where so much at stake, has negative impact on the community and the perception of the game as an eSport. Therefore, the games have to balance between these effects without compromising on the fun aspect for the majority of the players and at the same time, limiting the deciding RNG effect on the competitive scene to avoid titles go from one player to another by “coin-flipping” (*cough Yogg *cough). This creates particular and delicate design constraints for the games but at the same time there is room for differentiation.
All four games are “freemium” games where players can purchase cards or cosmetic effects for their collections. Under this model there are also promotional gifts distributed to the players for several occasions such as anniversaries, expansion releases etc. The “generosity” i.e. giving “free stuff” and/or rewards to players is an important aspect in the gaming community especially for new players. The entry barrier to the game should be carefully considered by the games to spare the players from giving up after a short period of time.
Even though, the actual costs of these games are not a topic of this article, it is worth mentioning some important aspects related to costs. All four games offer a free to play experience to the players through in-game rewards for playing and/or winning games, some ways to earn the in-game currency and the ability to buy card packs with it. Comparing the actual costs of the games is a difficult task to achieve for the time being since the games are relatively new to the communities (except Hearthstone) and available data are limited. Even though the card pack prices (in-game currency and real money) are more or less the same, there are certain other variables to consider such as legendary (highest rarity i.e. least common) card limits in decks, or the deck/pack sizes. However, one thing is common for these games; they all create switching costs for the players. In other words, the time and money invested in these games are sunk into these games and in case of quitting the game (or switching to another game), there is no way to recover the investment unlike the trading card game counterparts like Magic the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh!. In other words, the time and money invested in a certain game may keep the player in the same game even though the player is not feeling great about it. However, this kind of frustrations can build up quickly and spread through various media which can create negative impact on the game.
In order to attract a player to a certain game, the player must be “exposed” to the game in some way such as advertisements. Even though this is marketing topic, in the CCG market something in particular happens. The companies arrange paid promotional content with popular streamers (influencers) for their games. Many people who follow certain streamers on platforms like YouTube, get “exposed” to other games through this kind of content. In this manner, Hearthstone, as the first mover, has a disadvantage since it has the most streamers and generally Hearthstone is the main game that the streamer plays and in many cases the streamer got their followers on social media or other means, by playing Hearthstone in the first place. On the other hand, for the new games, this situation provides a window to promote their games across different platforms and helps them to reach to a wider audience.
In addition, there may be certain well-known players who switches the game. The perfect example of this situation is a very well-known player called Lifecoach. Lifecoach announced publicly that he will be switching to Gwent from Hearthstone (the reasons are outside of the scope of this article). Many people, including myself, heard about Gwent for the first time because of Lifecoach. In addition, this created a discussion of which game is better than the other. When this discussion starts, what do the players do? They try the new game.
Another important aspect on this matter is to use the lore of the franchise. Hearthstone is based on World of Warcraft (or Warcraft), TESL is based on The Elder Scrolls series and Gwent is based on Witcher series. Having a popular game behind the design of a card game is an important advantage which opens up design possibilities and builds up on the recognition of the characters by the players. This way, companies can provide additional exposition through “Easter Eggs” in the franchise games as well as their other games or advertising on their own game clients etc. The only card game that is not based on a previous game/universe is Shadowverse. At this point, Shadowverse stands out with its anime-like art and the in-game storyline to attach the players to the game’s universe. In addition, the art style gives Shadowverse an edge in the Asia market and Japan in particular which is easy to observe from the Steam statistics.
However, exposition is not enough and the games have to offer more to the players, especially to the ones which already plays one. For example, for a Hearthstone player of two years with a significant card collection it is a tough choice to switch to TESL and build up another collection and get nothing in the process (switching costs). Offering “free stuff” and/or “being generous” in terms of in-game rewards and promotions may not be enough for a switching player, since building up a new card collection from scratch once more will require time and/or money. In addition, even the return of card rate (i.e. collection build up rate) of the new game is faster than the older game, if the experience is the same, for many players it is just not worth it. Therefore, the differentiation between games in terms of experience would be one of the deciding factors of the competition. This takes us to the game modes and tournament play.
Game Modes and Tournament Play
We can roughly divide the player base of a card game into three groups; competitive players, casual (for fun) players and semi-competitive players. We can define competitive players as skill based, casual players as fun based and semi-competitive players as somewhere in between the other player types.
The important issue when it comes to game modes is when different types of players play together. It is not fun nor educational for both players where a competitive player play against a casual player. The competitive player would like to play against players with similar or higher skill suited with close to optimal decks to learn more from the game whereas the casual player would like to experience fun stuff happening over the course of the game. Imagine a competitive player with an optimal list of an aggressive deck against a casual player with a deck which is built by the player him/herself with the cards that are thought to be fun. Probably the game would end pretty quickly and neither of the players would accomplish anything or enjoy the game. If this kind of situations occur frequently, the frustration of the players would lead to some negative consequences to the game, especially, if these players are paying a significant amount of money to the game. In addition to this, this kind of frustrations are heard about and spread very quickly in the age of internet through social media which is used by almost every player.
Between the four games, Gwent is still under beta therefore game modes are not an immediate consideration for the game. However, it is worth to note that, Gwent has announced that there will be more single player content with the launch of the game. Currently Gwent does not have a way to play a draft (arena) mode.
TESL currently has additional single player content, a solo arena mode (against AI) along with the ranked and casual constructed and arena modes which are almost identical to Hearthstone.
Shadowverse has a very long single player main story for each class, the ranked and casual constructed, a different type of arena. In the arena mode of Shadowverse which is called (Take Two) the players have to choose 2 options where each option has 2 cards for each pick to build their decks.
It is important to note that; all the games implemented the ranked play mode as a ladder system. While the ranking systems and the rewards may be different from game to game, the experience is the same i.e. “the grind”. This ladder system needs some experience and time to identify possible weaknesses that comes naturally with it. This has been acknowledged by Ben Brode, the Game Director of Hearthstone by mentioning four problems with the system. It is out of the scope of this article to discuss the problems of the ladder system. However, it is important to note that; basically “the newcomers” actually replicated a system with problems that surface after achieving a critical mass of players. In other words, when Hearthstone makes changes to the ladder system (or any other game mode change), if the other games implement the same changes to their ladder system, an opportunity for these games to differentiate and offer a different experience to the players would be lost. In other words, if a change is made by one game and replicated by the others, the problems that come with the change will be the same in all games. Instead, the games should be significantly different when it comes to their game modes, to offer experiences that can attract more players. This is applicable also to the limited game modes (arena, draft).
Another point worth mentioning is the rotation of certain sets. Hearthstone implemented a rotation system which introduced two formats; “Standard” which the last two years of cards are legal and “Wild” which all the cards are legal. This is an inevitable stage in the lifetime of a CCG since with bigger card pool creates an entry barrier to new players. This situation however, could have been foreseen, by simply looking at the example of Magic the Gathering, which has Standard, Modern, Legacy and Vintage formats (in the order of card pool, smaller to bigger) which was inevitable for a 25-year-old game. Ever-green sets i.e. Classic in Hearthstone, is currently another point of discussion in terms of whether an ever-green set should exist or not because with different standard set of cards, the same, old classic cards will be included in decks every rotation. Therefore, Hearthstone took a step further and moved out 6 cards out of Standard even though they are from Classic set. In this sense, all four games currently have their first set of cards as ever-green, which is another similar concept with certain problems, implemented by the other games. It is worth mentioning that; Magic the Gathering had the same issue with Core set and some inevitable changes have been made.
Regarding the tournament play, it is a necessity to have a large enough competitive player base for the games to have a complex organized play structure. On the other hand, tournaments and events are very important marketing tools for the companies to promote their games and their brands. I have discussed the issues of Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT) in my previous two articles including a comparison with Magic: The Gathering. For TESL, Shadowverse and Gwent, even though it is early to implement such complex and resource consuming structure, it is a matter to plan ahead. However, one thing is crucial for all of the games; in-client tournament support. With HCT getting more players from all over the world, there will be some technical and/or organizational impossibilities for the third-party organizers (online and offline) which ultimately will be solved with an in-game implementation for tournaments play. This will also make it easier for the players to participate in tournaments without following any third-parties. In addition, in-client tournament support would open up possibilities such as constructed decks with further restrictions (such as all common or single-set decks) which can offer different and fun deck building and game play experiences to most of the player base.
What Will Competition Bring to the Players?
So far we have discussed how the games should differentiate compared to each other and what the companies should do. However, as a rule of thumb, competition brings some benefits to the consumers. Now, the clear market leader position of Hearthstone is threatened by other quality card games, we are going to see some changes. One recent change that I would like to point out is the pricing of Hearthstone. Since the beginning of Hearthstone, players have observed a very rigid pricing of card packs and adventures. The last rigid move by Blizzard was the adjustment of prices in currencies other than US Dollars. However, for the first time in game’s history, there is a card pack promotion where players can buy more packs than usual for the same price. In my opinion this is a good call by Hearthstone however it is also a necessary move. The new games entering into the market and offering free stuff to the players and being more generous in terms of in-game rewards, the rigid pricing of Hearthstone becoming less and less reliable. Therefore, as the competition heats up, players will have opportunities for more promotions, free stuff and special events.
Another point regarding the competition is that, the games have to communicate with the community in a more effective and efficient way in order to keep the players loyal to their games. Even though the switching costs helps in terms of loyalty of the players, it would not be enough, especially in the case of bad player experience. The games must satisfy the enjoyment of their own community and at the same time should offer experiences different than other games to attract more new players. We are going to see the effects of this situation on a wide spectrum from game/card design to game modes.
With the growing CCG market, different games have been released to compete for the market share. Hearthstone, as the current market leader and the first mover, will be more and more under pressure to sustain its growth and success. It is up to the games to stand out in the competition among many other quality titles. The differentiation is the key word and as we have seen in this article, some concepts with underlying problems becoming standard across the games. However, if the games offer no new experience than the other games in the market, the market situation is unlikely to change. The crucial things to consider are; to satisfy different kinds of players through different types of experiences, keeping the player base loyal to the game, creating a fun game that requires skill etc. All in all at the end, the players will have the benefits of the competition through more new experiences and offers from the games.