Here at Android Police, we've made our position on the prevalence of free-to-play mobile games perfectly known, to wit: most of them suck. It often seems like instead of embracing the audience-widening possibilities that the phrase "free game" implies, developers and publishers use it as an excuse to design games around compelling in-app purchases for more and more fleeting rewards. The phenomenon is well-documented, so I won't bore you with the inherently manipulative methods of most F2P games - you can read here and here if you really need a refresher.
Pictured: not something you want to see in your "free" game.
Considering the current state of mobile gaming, it's important to do more than just stand on our soapbox and wag fingers at all the developers doing it wrong. (Like Electronic Arts, Gamevil, Glu, um, Gameloft on occasion, whoever made that Kim Kardashian thing... am I missing anyone?) No, we must also applaud when developers wade into the shallow end of the economic pool of gaming and manage to keep their dignity and the respect of their players. Plenty of developers use the free-to-play model and in-app purchases the way they were intended: as ways to charge for truly new game content, or to unlock a full game and make the "free" version a demo, or to remove some optional advertising.
With the Android release of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Blizzard has managed to do something even more difficult. They've made a free-to-play game with in-app purchases as a core monetization strategy, and keep the game both fun and balanced. Considering the focus on online multiplayer combat throughout the title, this is worthy of some major praise. Let's analyze how Hearthstone keeps things both free and fair, for the benefit of gamers and (hopefully) developers attempting to emulate Blizzard's model.
You don't need a review of Hearthstone. It's free - at this point anyone with a PC, Mac, iPad, or just lately an Android tablet can download it and try it out for themselves. But to put the following in context, let's discuss the basic structure of the card game. Hearthstone is essentially a streamlined and simplified version of Magic: The Gathering and its many card game imitators. Two players take turns drawing cards from their customized decks, laying down fantasy creatures, casting spells, setting traps, and trying to deplete the other player's 30 hit points first.
Hearthstone looks simple, and it is: lay down your varying cards, attack the other player's cards, try to survive the match. But the sheer variety of monsters, spells, traps, and various modifiers to the Warcraft-themed fantasy world means that it's almost impossible to play two consecutive games in the same way. Likewise, the randomized nature of the deck system keeps an interesting balance between skill, strategy, and blind luck. Even a player who's been living and breathing Hearthstone for months and has his or her deck tuned to perfection might lose to someone using a default build with a bunch of lucky draws.
Dedicated Hearthstone players will argue that the game still has its flaws, and it does - some of the more powerful cards are entirely too easy to play with the right combination of prerequisites, and some cards take so long to play that their limited effects render them useless. But Blizzard continues to tweak the game nine months after its initial release, trying to even out the few rough patches that remain (despite the fact that they keep that damn Mind Control card for Priest players that everyone hates, and if you disagree, you are wrong). Generally speaking, there's no one strategy or combination of cards that's guaranteed to win, no matter how much time or money you spend playing.
There are various ways to get new cards in Hearthstone, which facilitates your creation of custom decks and the development of new strategies. When you start out you'll play against the computer in practice mode, and leveling up in any one of the nine core classes will unlock cards unique to that class. Once you've earned all of the basic cards and gotten a handle on the game mechanics, it's time to head out into the multiplayer mode.
Winning three matches against randomized online opponents gets you 10 gold. A new "pack" of five cards in the in-game store costs 100 gold. So, getting a new pack and at least one rare card necessitates 30 wins in multiplayer. That's a lot of winning - each match takes between five and twenty minutes, depending on your draws. The only way to get new card packs aside from earning in-game gold is to buy them with real money. You can't buy a single pack with anything but digital gold, but two packs will run you $3, seven packs are $10, fifteen packs are $20, and 40 packs (200 cards in all) are $50.
That might seem like it's entirely too difficult to get new cards without spending real money. Not so. Each day in Hearthstone you'll get two new "quests," special conditions that can get you bonus gold. You might need to win two matches as a Druid or play 20 cards that cost five or more manna. By playing with purpose each day you can earn 70-100 gold in a handful of games, sometimes even without winning them, all while simultaneously getting 10 bonus gold for every three victories. It all adds up quickly.
The Balancing Act
What makes Hearthstone so fair, and so different from the majority of free-to-play games, is that the system is applied to all players evenly. You can't buy in-game gold or dust for crafting new cards with real money, only randomized card packs. The guy who just dropped $50 on new packs might be getting a lot more cards than the 10-year-old who's out of allowance money, but the packs he opens aren't any more or less likely to contain that legendary dragon card than the ones he gets by playing for free.
There are no "premium" currencies. There are no super-special premium packs. There's no way to buy the cards you want to complete that perfect deck, or even trade for them by buying a ton of cards and exploiting the in-game economy. (There is, in fact, no trading system at all.) The randomized nature of obtaining cards, combined with downright amazing balance in the game's core structure and starting set of cards, keeps a relatively even playing field at all levels of play. In addition, impressive auto-matching in the casual and ranked online games means that you won't ever be playing someone whose winning percentage is too far above or below yours.
This makes up one of the core concepts supporting Hearthstone's admirable free-to-play model, and what keeps it from falling into the category of "pay-to-win": fantastic balance. You can't pay your way up the ranked board in Hearthstone. While having that legendary 10-manna minion ready to go at the end of the game might beat a few people, someone who adopts a faster strategy with default cards they earned playing against the computer might knock you out in five turns. And even if you crave those legendary cards and nothing else, you can craft them by sacrificing the cards you don't use.
But balance is only one part of the equation, and frankly, it's one that every multiplayer game needs whether it's paid or free. The other half of the free-to-play coin is one that gamers like us really appreciate - respect. Here's an example: when you buy 100 million Cana-Dough to build that stadium in Toronto in the Terrence And Phillip Freemium Game, that currency is gone when you spend it. The IAP is based on expendable, non-permanent digital goods. In Hearthstone, the cards that you buy are yours forever. There aren't even any limits on what you can do with them: the elf warrior you get in a randomized pack can be used in all nine custom deck slots simultaneously.
There aren't any limits on how much you can play in a day. There is no timer unlocking portions of the game after 24 hours. By tying real purchases with in-game items that are permanent, but keeping those same items available and relatively easy to obtain for free players, Blizzard has managed to have their cake and eat it too. On the PC, I played Hearthstone for weeks without spending a dime. When I returned after a few weeks, I spent $20 in real money on card packs, and never felt cheated. The big bump in my card count gave me a lot more options for custom decks and strategies, but none of them were inherently superior or undefeatable with the cards I had before.
When developers maintain a goal of making a game that's fun and fair for everyone, regardless of how much real money they do or do not spend, players don't feel like the game resents them or crushes them when they don't pay. By keeping the perfect balance between difficulty, time, and limits on the ability to buy an advantage, Blizzard is demonstrating respect for its players and the time they spend on their game. 20 million Hearthstone accounts is all the evidence other publishers should need that the Hearthstone approach is worth replicating.
Free-to-play doesn't have to be a dirty word. If the lure of easy income with in-app purchases is irresistible to developers, they can still strive to make a game that's worth playing. It's not easy. That kind of intentional design requires a lot of restraint when creating the core rules of the game itself (restraint that seems to be abandoned by most of the competitive mobile games), and no small amount of skill and experience creating a balanced system. But the rewards for players, and by extension for the developers themselves, is certainly worth the effort.
Hearthstone isn't perfect. It's a bit of a grind to get to the upper levels of ranked play, you can only hope that the randomized Arena mode gives you cards that fit your strategy, and the single-player Naxxramas expansions are little more than expensive boss battles with a poor payoff. But if you're making a free-to-play game, you need to take a look at what Blizzard's done for the model. And if you're playing a free-to-play game on your Android tablet, it should be this one.