It’s become a cliche in gaming like any other. Red barrels explode, finding health packs means there’s a boss battle coming and Blizzard drags out announcements like they’re getting paid by the post. Lately HearthStone‘s Team 5 has taken to communicating about lack of communication, and it’s really starting to wear thin.
I come at this only from the perspective of the HearthStone community. I don’t know what the proportion of blue responses are for World of WarCraft, Heroes of the Storm, Diablo or StarCraft are, but in the case of HearthStone, communication is sorely lacking.
The reason I’m talking about this is that Ben Brode, the HearthStone dev team’s lead and very much the public face of the game, released another video in the Designer Insights series. Brode has done these before, talking about inconsistent card text, or the rationale behind nerf decisions; this one was focused on communication from the developers as it pertains to content updates.
In the video, the lack of communication is explained as a gap when announcements are forthcoming. According to Brode, the team doesn’t want to announce too early and have people waiting too long or announce that certain features/ideas are coming when they could later be cancelled. He defends the team from allegations that they are simply lazy and not working when they could be—counting money when they should be innovating.
The fact that Brode and the team make these videos is great; it’s always good to know that the team is thinking about the players and that they aren’t designing in a vacuum. But like most of Brode’s videos and the team’s communication, it doesn’t go far enough. He acknowledges that the team is often uncommunicative and that it’s a problem but offers no concrete solution, no plan, just that “they could be doing better.”
More than anything, this is a perception problem for Blizzard and HearthStone’s Team 5. They don’t really owe constant updates to their players, nor does any developer, but you can’t blame the community for having trouble reconciling the team’s actions. In May of last year, HearthStone cleared 30 million players and reports have the online CCG making ~20 million dollars a month.
With those impressive numbers and resources, the substantive updates for HearthStone seem comparatively sparse. Spectator Mode arrive with Goblins Vs Gnomes in December 2014, Tavern Brawl launched in June of 2015, Ranked Rewards were installed in August of 2015. Each expansion adds new card mechanics like Mechs, Inspire, Joust, or Discover, but these are largely seen as separate from game updates.
A tournament mode has often been requested. Many players want an update for Arena, which uses the new cards each expansion but has remained mechanically the same since launch. Many cards’ text are inconsistent with each other, which leads to confusion; the avoidance of which is frequently used as a rationale for not changing the game. And most famously, reaching meme status in the community, players want more than nine slots for deck building.
Blizzard’s responses to these community demands have either been insubstantial or tone-deaf. In a well-known post on the HearthStone subreddit, Blizzard Community Manager Aratil told players that their demands were “definitely not requested by the majority of Hearthstone players” and that “we simply don’t have any meaningful updates at this time. If you simply want us to acknowledge that we are still working on them, then here you go: We are still working on them.”
Improvements and updates like more deck slots or a tournament mode are undoubtedly a more complex operation than Reddit gives Blizzard credit for, but Blizzard’s current communication model doesn’t help. Right now the cycle is: radio silence -> community outrage -> “we’re working on it, promise” and that just isn’t good enough.
Similar to the requests for UI improvements and game updates, the process of balance changes is truly opaque. Whenever an overpowered deck rises to the top of the meta (and it will), the HearthStone team insists that it’s fine, that innovative players can counter the deck. Then when they can’t, a few cards will be printed to address it (like Scarlet Purifier, Lil’ Exorcist, or Chillmaw) and only when those fail, will the nerf come down.
Team 5 doesn’t like to nerf cards, they like to try to address the meta with expansions rather than balance changes. They want cards to feel real to players, and not have people confused when cards don’t work they way they’re supposed to. But its hard not to feel ignored when the nerf finally comes down after months of non-stop comments, and the insistence that everything is fine.
This gap in communication wouldn’t matter as much in an annual 60 dollar boxed release, but Blizzard has plans for HearthStone to last years. Already players are starting to worry about the massive barrier to entry for new players. To be competitive you need a solid collection of core cards, which takes weeks of grinding or a significant amount of money to acquire. With that barrier only getting bigger, communication is more important than ever; HearthStone players need to know what’s going on, that the dev team is hearing what they’re saying and working to consistently improve the experience.
I’m not saying Team 5 needs to document the entire development process like they’re Tim Schafer with extra Kickstarter money and run every decision by the mods of r/hearthstone, but they do need to do something. Maybe Ben Brode could do a tour of HearthStone’s Team 5; he can show the size of the team, who’s working on what and get a behind the scenes look at the development process. It would be informative, it’d be fun, and it would assuage the accusations of laziness that plague the HearthStone team.
Blizzard could reassess its community engagement strategy; while they are very responsive on Twitter, more emphasis could be placed on blue responses in the HearthStone Battle.net forums or CM presence on Reddit. Perhaps Blizzard just needs to hire more Community Managers; with the success of HearthStone, it’s hard to argue they don’t have the resources.
I hope I don’t sound entitled on the behalf of the HearthStone community, I don’t have any right to tell Blizzard what to do. They could decide to scrap the entire game next week and that’d be within their right, but as long as the game is still chugging along, the issue of HearthStone‘s lackluster communication remains prevalent.
Now that Ben Brode has addressed the issue, they’ve opened the door to these discussions and now they need to walk through it.