Free to Play, Pay to Win, and the Challenges of Collectible Games


gadgetzanThat’s always the trade-off – Time vs Money (“Time is Money, Friend,” as the goblins would say). The release of new sets, like Goblins vs Gnomes, may seem daunting to free players. They mean a huge additional amount of content for them to acquire, which represents a major time investment. As time goes on, and more sets are released, that time investment grows larger, and can become seemingly insurmountable.

Many players have suggested that the best way to tackle this in Hearthstone is to increase the rate of free currency gain, but that’s a dangerous knob to turn. When I’ve been asked for my thoughts on increasing Gold gain in Hearthstone, my response was that as a player I would obviously be happy to get more stuff for free, but as a game designer I recognize that the Time vs Money equation is a delicate balance that can easily be upset.

If a Free-to-Play game that offers a trade-off of Time vs Money is to be successful, the return on money spent must be attractive when compared to time. In short, significantly increasing the rate at which players earn currency or game content decreases the attractiveness of using real money to acquire it faster, which can harm the game’s bottom line. If you can get everything you want without paying money in a timeline that the average person is generally content with, why would anyone spend money at all?

There are some ways to address this issue without upsetting the balance dramatically. In SolForge, we frequently have sales on older content, whether in packs or as pre-constructed decks. This can allow players who may have gotten involved in the game later a chance to catch up more easily. I would not be surprised to see discounts on Classic packs in Hearthstone eventually, at least as a temporary promotion, for much the same reason. It’s important not to go too far down the road of discounting older content, though, because it can lead to your existing players feeling like you are devaluing the time and money that they spent before.

That said, as time goes on and more cards are released, the prospect of collecting them all – especially as a free or low spending player, and even if they are discounted occasionally – gets more and more daunting. This is an issue that collectible games like Magic have dealt with before, and the answer they came up with was card rotation. Essentially, only a certain subset of the cards the game has released are legal to play in the most commonly supported competitive  format, which means that players who get into the game today don’t have to worry about finding cards from twenty years ago in order to compete.

blackloutsRotation is especially important for physical games because they’re restricted by card availability. There are only so many copies of Black Lotus in the world, for instance, so it’s unreasonable to expect players to have one in order to compete. By limiting the biggest tournaments to using only the most recent cards, Wizards of the Coast is able to ensure that there is appropriate supply for the ever growing base of Magic players – and conveniently ensure that they keep selling new cards every year.

Digital games don’t have to worry about card availability. No one is going to be unable to get a copy of Zimus the Undying or Ragnaros the Firelord in five years because there weren’t enough copies printed. But rotation is still an appealing way to handle the card pool getting too big, both because it lowers the barrier to entry for a new player, and because it allows for the designers to make new cards without needing to constantly outshine old ones. While “power creep” is a term that is thrown around too frequently among players with respect to individual cards being better than others, it is a systemic problem as games age and new cards are released that need to be attractive to players.

Since digital collectible games are still relatively new as a genre, there aren’t really any good examples to look at what has succeeded and what has failed when it comes to addressing growing card pools. Rotating cards is generally unpopular among many established players, because it means they can no longer use cards they have acquired, so it can be a hard sell to a big part of your audience. As a Magic player, I love rotations, because it means an opportunity to build decks and explore the game in an entirely new context, but I can understand other players for whom acquiring new cards is more difficult feeling differently.

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