Game Design

what went wrong with hearthstone’s new reward system

In November 2020, Blizzard revamped Hearthstone‘s reward system in a major way for the first time since the popular card game’s release in 20141.  But after the new reward system’s release on 11th November, there was an outcry amongst unhappy fans that it wasn’t awarding as many rewards, despite promises from the developers that they wouldn’t reduce the amount of awarded gold.

In true Blizzard fashion (remember the release and immediate nerf of the new Demon Hunter class?), on 7th December, developers announced updates to the brand new reward system, with changes rolling out barely a month after its initial release.

Since the launch of the new progression system, we’ve been listening to player feedback and carefully reviewing gameplay data from the first few weeks while designing a variety of updates to meaningfully address the elements that feel too slow, not rewarding, or too difficult to complete. We’re committed to getting this right. Our intent has been, and continues to be, to provide more rewards and a better progression experience than the previous system, and we’re sorry that our initial implementation missed that mark in a few important areas.

We’re ready to detail a series of changes that we will begin releasing later this month, and we will continue working to make the system even better over time.2

Players’ Negative Reaction to Hearthstone’s New Reward System

The overwhelming response from players is that the new system provides fewer perks than the old one.  But this is not exactly true.  Crunching the numbers shows that the value of the rewards is remarkably comparable to the old system, not to mention the cap for daily rewards has been increased (although this requires more playtime)3.  So what’s the problem?

I think the reaction from players makes sense.  For one thing, it’s difficult to stomach a significant change to a long-standing game.  And players are intuitively right, although many are pointing at the wrong cause.  The new reward system is broken, but not in the way they might think.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

Reward systems in games are not about giving a certain amount of rewards that is deemed fair by the designers or by the players.  There is no standard for “fairness” when developers are awarding in-game currency that they control.  From a business standpoint, the amount of in-game currency developers are going to award for free is going to always be low.  At their core, reward systems are not really about rewarding players, though players’ feeling of reward or recompense for their time and mastery can be important.

Reward systems exist for one reason alone: to keep players playing the game.

How Can Game Designers Use Reward Systems to Keep Players Playing?

With that in mind, we can analyse Hearthstone‘s new reward system and find out where it went wrong, and why players feel bad about it.  To do so, we must take a look at how the rewards have changed.

The in-game currency of Hearthstone, gold is used to purchase packs or expansions, with a pack of five cards selling for 100 in-game gold.

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The previous reward system included daily quests that could be completed for the in-game currency of gold.  Additionally, every three wins awarded the player 10 gold, up to a cap of 100 gold per day.

The new reward system contains a new rewards track, where players now gain experience points (XP) to progress along a levelling system.  Once you gain enough XP to reach the next level, you’re given a reward.  The rewards are a predetermined amount of gold (higher levels give more gold), a pass to one of the game’s paid modes, or a pack of cards from the current expansion.

In the new system, daily quests now give XP instead of gold.  There are three weekly quests that also give XP.  The 10 gold award for three wins has been removed from the game.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

Now, let’s consider how the design of Hearthstone‘s new reward system could be better.

1. Give the Player Small Incentives to Keep Playing

10 gold for three wins was never a good rate.  But rewarding players every three wins in a small way was important because it kept players motivated, and removing this incentive has been one of the most contentious changes4,5,6,7,8.  If I saw after a game that I’d completed two out of my three wins towards the gold reward, I’d be more likely to keep playing.  And in a game where a losing streak can be really disappointing, suddenly winning and getting that 10 gold as reinforcement can be a much-needed morale-booster.

With the previous system, after each win in Hearthstone, the player would be presented with a screen that showed their progress towards the 10 gold reward.  Three is a low enough number to motivate players, because they would always need either one or two more wins, something that feels attainable on the ladder.

Without the 10 gold reward, the current system has no carrot to dangle to keep players climbing the ladder after they have finished the big XP givers of the daily or weekly quests.  For players who don’t have a goal to reach a certain rank, there is no incentive to keep playing.

2. Make the Reward System Visible

Another problem with the new reward system is that it is largely invisible to the player if you don’t go looking for it.

I’ve written about how game designers take advantage of our addiction to progress.  The new XP system seems to follow this line of thinking, with a progress bar and rewards track that inherently appeals to our sense of achievement.  However, the progress system is not visible to the player, so it doesn’t provide much motivation to reach the next level.

From Hearthstone‘s main screen, you have to go through two menus to see your progress on the rewards track.

Worse still, while playing, you don’t see your progress after each game.  I only learned while researching this article that you do earn marginal amounts of XP from simply playing the game, based on the length of time you play.  The XP you earn from the game isn’t displayed to the player after the game, so the player has no idea that they are making progress, and has therefore no motivation to keep playing.  When you advance to the next level, there isn’t even a popup to show the player that their rewards are ready to claim.

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League of Legends has a similar progress system with a rewards track, but they provide better motivation by making progress very visible to the player.  After each game, you’re shown the amount of XP you earned from that game, and a popup appears to congratulate you if you have reached the next level.  This progress bar is also shown on the main screen and loading screen for every game.  Even though the amount of XP you earn is a pittance compared to the amount you need to earn rewards, seeing constant reminders of your progress is a source of motivation.

These progress indicators are especially encouraging to players who are grinding to gain levels, and can often push them to play one more game.  Hearthstone‘s lack of progress and levelling feedback does not serve that purpose.

3. Reward Appropriate Behaviour for the Type of Game

Like League of Legends, Hearthstone‘s new reward system awards XP based on the length of time played.  But Hearthstone and League of Legends are very different games.  In League of Legends, incentivising a longer game with more XP makes sense because playtime is important in League.  Playing longer games is valuable for the sake of improving, and the reward structure also encourages players not to forfeit or rage quit.

However, in Hearthstone, longer games are not necessarily better.  Certain decks skew towards a more “aggro” play style that aims to finish the game quickly.  Rewarding players for longer games then leads to them purposely extending their games.  One way to do this is a technique called “roping”, where players wait out the maximum turn time to try and frustrate the other player into conceding.

The new reward system encourages the wrong behaviour, and indirectly discourages the diversity of deck types.  Achievement and progress in Hearthstone is measured in wins and losses, not in how long a game lasts.  As an example, after winning a game fairly quickly, I checked my XP only to find that I’d gained just 1 XP from that winning game, which was rather disappointing.

Climbing the ladder quicker by winning games faster should not be worth less than taking a long time, and the system should reflect that.  In that way, the previous 10 gold for three wins system fits a lot better with Hearthstone‘s gameplay.

In Hearthstone, it’s not about making players want to play longer and longer games.  The reward system should always make players more likely to jump in the queue for another game.  Instead, it motivates players to drag out games, not to win or lose quickly and start fresh in a new game.  This is counterproductive to the Hearthstone ecosystem.

4. Make the Reward System Easy to Understand

A big problem with the new system is that it’s way more complex.  It adds the new in-game quantity of XP, which is an extra layer of abstraction on top of gold.  This is confusing since players don’t have a concept of the value of XP.  Additionally, because there’s no consistent conversion rate, XP is less tangible than gold.

It’s also unclear how to gain XP, and at what rate you can expect to progress.  The help screen displaying details about the rewards track is vague.  As I mentioned above, I didn’t even know that you could get some XP just by playing.

With the new rewards track, when you level up by XP, you sometimes get gold and sometimes get other rewards like passes to other game modes or specific card packs.  This restricts players’ freedom since thy can’t choose what to buy with their gold if they are given other items instead.  And for players like me who don’t want to play other modes, the passes have no value.

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Not understanding how you can succeed is detrimental to players’ motivation to continue playing.  Hearthstone‘s confusing reward system with potentially useless rewards does not push the player to keep playing, because the value of XP is perceived as not worthwhile.

Learning from Hearthstone’s Reward System Design

To summarise, an effective reward system should have the following features:

  1. Give the player small incentives as they play to encourage them to want to play more
  2. Make the user’s current XP visible and display celebrations when the player achieves milestones along a progression track
  3. Reinforce behaviour that is beneficial to the game and is related to the player’s progress
  4. Be easy to understand so players know what to do to progress and earn rewards

Unfortunately, Hearthstone‘s new reward system falls short.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t entice players to play just one more game.

References Cited

  1. Blizzard Entertainment. “Revamping Progression & Rewards in Hearthstone.” Hearthstone, 22 October 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.
  2. Blizzard Entertainment. “Rewards Track Update Coming Soon.” Hearthstone, 7 December 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.
  3. Poghy. “[Math] Old VS New Reward System [UPDATED].” HearthPwn Forums, 13 November 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.
  4. Jaguarpaw. “Bring Back 10 Gold for 3 Wins.” General Discussion. Hearthstone Forums, 22 November 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.
  5. Madisian. “3 Wins = 10 Gold = Please Give It Back!.” Community Discussion. Hearthstone Forums, 17 November 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.
  6. Nothingman. “Bring Back 10 Gold Per 3 Wins, Revert This Exp System.” Multiplayer Discussion. Hearthstone Forums, 16 November 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.
  7. VladimirNB. “I noticed the removal of the 10 gold per 3 wins makes me play less..” r/hearthstone. Reddit, 19 November 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.
  8. xxxDaymo. “Getting 0 Gold from playing all day Feels Worse than 10g per 3 Wins REGARDLESS of new rewards track.” r/hearthstone. Reddit, 13 November 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.

Additional References

  1. Xavier, Phil. “Everything the new Hearthstone progression system did wrong.” Hearthstone. Blizzard Watch, 2 December 2020. Web. 2 January 2021.