When do you decide to ban a game studio — and its games?

Yesterday no you doubt read the news that Blizzard stepped into it big-time when it banned a professional Hearthstone player for delivering a brief but apparently heartfelt pro-Hong Kong, anti-China statement during an interview. Blizzard didn’t quietly deal with the situation, but came down on it loaded to bear. It yanked the guy’s won prize money away, denounced him in the strongest of language, and even sacked relations with the two interviewers.

All of this, of course, because Blizzard is heavily invested in China’s gaming market — and Chinese companies such as Tencent are financially invested in Blizzard. Dissent under Chinese rule is not allowed, not this publicly, and apparently Blizzard was more concerned with appeasing its business partners/overlords than upholding a measure of free speech and opinions, even in a tricky political sphere.

The callousness and punitive wrath that Blizzard used in this situation immediately caused a massive backlash. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people from different political parties and walks of life quickly band together against a decision like this. Nobody likes seeing free speech squelched or one guy have such a heavy boom lowered on him, especially when it’s in favor of an oppressive government. The whole event triggered a Twitter-trending call to #boycottBlizzard, and my feed (and Massively OP office chat) was filled with announcements or discussion about cancelling subscriptions and play hours to Blizzard’s titles.

Now, a boycott is usually done for one or both of these purposes: Because one’s conscience will not let that person support that company/practice any longer, or because one figures that a boycott will prompt change within that company. Used en masse, it’s a powerful social leverage. I watched in fascination as Blizzard got squeezed between the screws of its Chinese partnerships and the wrath of its community, each pushing for its own agenda.

On a personal level, the idea of boycotts has come up every so often in our home. The tricky thing is that when you start boycotting… where does it stop? What’s the line? Companies often do immoral, anti-consumer, and politically motivated actions, and it’s near impossible to keep track of them all. I suppose you do in the spheres that are closest to your interests, but I also find that it’s easy to become a hypocrite who bans one studio for one thing but lets a lot of other things slide. Plus, there’s always the type of boycott where you loudly state you’re not supporting this company any longer… and then, months later, you quietly slink back into its fold.

If your conscience is screaming loud enough that you have to do something — include boycott — then you probably should. But for me more often, the boycott is part of a push for change. It’s voting with my wallet and time, so to speak. And in this situation with Blizzard, I definitely feel that the studio went way over the line in its arrogance and greed, and therefore should not get my attention or money. At least for a while.

Hearthstone: Hangin’ with kobolds

Can we acknowledge up front that out of all of the game teams over at Blizzard, it’s the Hearthstone folks that seem to have the most fun? I mean, they had the best BlizzCon presentation, all of these weird and funny songs, and commercials like the Lich King ice cream and this hilarious D&D parody. There simply seems to be a sense of humor and enjoyment swirling about that group, and if I worked there, that’s the team I’d want to join. Not that I’m a great card player or anything.

Anyway, last week Hearthstone released its Kobolds and Catacombs expansion, which is… I guess the first time I’ve been playing during an expansion release? I think so. It’s been an odd year for me, I’m rolling with it. It’s a great expansion to jump on board as a solo-happy person, since it adds a new single-player mode called dungeon run to the mix (on top of new cards, card types, legendary weapons, etc.).

Let’s talk about dungeon run, because it’s a bizarre duck. Up front, there seems to be no reason to play it. There’s no reward for beating a dungeon in and of itself, unless you beat all eight bosses nine times with the nine classes, and even that’s just a card back. But now we’re seeing a lot of daily quests come into the game to promote the dungeon run, and since these have been paying out in card packs, well, now there’s a reason beyond the experience itself to do it.

Dungeon run takes players though a series of eight boss fights, going from ridiculously easy to ridiculously overpowered. Kind of like that old Nintendo chestnut, Punch-Out!! The twist here is that normal rules and balance is sort of thrown out the window; players build decks with batches of cards, but they also get to choose “treasures” that are huge advantages that change the rules. For example, I love getting an extra mana crystal with all of my games, since that lets me play a two-crystal card on turn one consistently. I also got “The Candle” card once that would fry a bunch of low-health mobs and then be shuffled back into the deck to be used over and over again.

A run turns into seeing how far you can go. The best I’ve gotten is through five bosses, dying on the sixth. Enemies also have a disregard for the normal rules, so seeing seven pyroblasts coming at me wasn’t too unusual in this mode. It’s just kind of crazy and different, and I find it a nice change of pace from the normal 1v1 matches against opponents. Plus, it’s a great way for me to level up classes that I haven’t even gotten to 10 yet without putting myself through PvP grinds.

As for the cards themselves, I’m still exploring it. I don’t even have a favorite deck yet; I keep building new decks to meet specific daily challenges (like casting 40 spells), but sooner or later I’ll use all of my gold to buy up a bunch of packs and see what I get.

Revisiting Hearthstone

I think it’s been at least two years — maybe? — since I last touched or even thought much about Hearthstone outside of the news that I’ve been given on occasion to write. I was pretty much just there for the launch month or so and then drifted away.

But we all know the story of when we drift back to games, and that’s what happened with this title and me. I guess I’ve been thinking about games to be playing while I’m doing my exercise bike this winter, and my recent adventures in World of Warcraft led me back here. Plus, Hearthstone kind of had the best presentation at BlizzCon during the opening ceremony, which I respected. The dungeon runs also sounded cool.

Was it too late to get into, I wondered? I wasn’t going to drop any money on this, not during Christmas month, and I know that a ton of expansions and sets had dropped since I last played. But hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

When I logged in and loaded it up, I was surprised to see Hearthstone outright acknowledge that I hadn’t played in a long time and would I like some help getting back into the swing of things? Yes please, I thought, that would be most appreciated.

So the game encouraged me to go through a few sets of matches, first PvE and then PvP, rewarding me with free packs of cards left and right for doing so. I think that by the time I finished the welcome back chain, I had netted nine free packs, which most certainly put some wind in my sails (and cards in my deck).

That didn’t mean I was fully back on my feet. For one thing, I hadn’t even managed to unlock all of the basic cards when I was playing last. For another, I had all of these outdated decks that I had made that were either invalid (because they had been bumped to wild) or were completely unfamiliar to me. When that happens, I wipe the slate clean and start over as best I can. So I deleted all of my decks and started building up new ones, focusing on the quests every day to see if I could earn some gold.

It’s not been terrible nor unenjoyable so far. I’ve been playing ultra-casually, mostly because one match in Hearthstone takes about four times as long as a match in Clash Royale, and I have to be in a patient mood. I also have to divorce myself from caring about whether I win or lose, whether my minions get killed or not. That helps me keep the blood pressure down when I play these kinds of PvP games, and keeping a calm head aids in making logical decisions.

I’ve been winning some, losing some, and promising that I’m going to really sit down to build up a solid deck one of these days instead of some Frankenstein quilt of random cards I whisked together. My wife even took the tablet out of my hands one time and taught herself how to play during what must have been a bewildering match for my opponent. One thing you can always say about Blizzard — that studio knows polish and accessibility.

We’ll see how it goes. As I said, with the matches taking as long as they do, I can’t spend all the live-long day playing Hearthstone, but I can squeeze in a match or two here and there depending.

What I’ve been playing on tablets

BoomBeachPreview-7I’ve been doing a little more reading as of late which has cut into my tablet gaming time, but there are a few titles that I did want to mention.

A few weeks ago I picked up Out There, which is sort of a choose your own adventure/resource manager space roguelike.  Unlike FTL, there’s no combat, but instead a near endless stream of decisions to make in every new system, mostly regarding whether the risk is worth the payout for materials needed to keep your spacecraft going.  I applaud the approach and the visuals, but there’s something that didn’t quite click here.  Constant resource gathering was tedious and not visually appealing, and I didn’t connect with my ship at all.

But speaking of FTL, the new version of the game came out for iPad last night, and even though I own it on the computer, it was a no-brainer to pick it up.  I’m still getting used to the different controls, but I’m pretty giddy to have it on a portable platform.  I always thought it would be a game that lended itself well to a tablet and I think that it will do so.

So what else?  I got the director’s cut of Broken Sword to be the next adventure title that I play while exercising.  I don’t know much about it but everyone seems to speak quite highly of it, so we’ll see.

And while I never got into Clash of Clans, that studio’s follow-up with Boom Beach has been pretty involving.  You get a base on an island that you build up over time, using it to stage amphibious landings on other islands (there’s a lite-WWII feel with it, but it’s all cartoony).  You fight against both players and the computer to “free” islands and gather in more resources.  There’s a time-limited F2P mechanic going on, so it’s really something I just pick up for five minutes here and there, but I love approaching every landing like it’s a puzzle — how do I get my troops to victory while losing the fewest of them possible.

It looks like Hearthstone should hit the iPad very soon, as it’s soft-launched in a few countries.  This is terrific news as I’ve been eagerly waiting that transition.  I haven’t played Hearthstone in a long while, mostly because while I’m on the computer I’d rather be doing or playing other games, but I can totally see spending a few sessions a day tinkering with this on a tablet.

Three things I like about Hearthstone… and three things I don’t

wow-ptr-5-4-hearthstone-board-3Hearthstone gets at least a few matches with me every day, and after a couple of weeks, I thought I’d make up a short list of what I’m liking and what I’m not.

Three things I like about Hearthstone

1. The daily quests

Doin’ yer dailies is one of those must-do activities in Hearthstone, because you just don’t want to pass up that 40 gold.  I mean, three dailies done is a free pack of cards, and I like how the dailies encourage me to try different heroes and strive for various goals.  I also like how the game saves up three dailies at a time, so you have a few days to get one done if you’re on a losing streak or what have you.

2. The relaxed pace of the matches

Unlike Magic, I don’t have to concern myself too much with what’s going on during my opponent’s turn.  I don’t have interrupts to throw, etc., which means that as long as I vaguely know what just happened, I can use that time to tab out for a few seconds or read another page in my book.  Ending the day by reading while playing a few Hearthstone matches is becoming routine for me now.

3. The cards are easy to understand and combo

It’s just the right level of complexity for me.  I don’t have to read up on a thousand keywords, but with tooltips and common sense I can easily deduce how cards interact.  I learn a lot from watching my opponents play, and often end matches with new ideas how to use my cards in the future.

Three things I don’t like about Hearthstone

1. The bugs

I’ve had the game crash a few times (usually on start-up) and the visuals are quite glitchy.  Sometimes the card art doesn’t show up at all or the text is all mangled and gibberishy.

2. The matchmaking service

I have no idea what’s going on with the matchmaking service in this game, because from match to match it wildly varies.  I’ve gone up against legendary-slinging foes with my basic cards, and I’ve stomped all over newbies.  You always have some sort of chance when you’re going up against an opponent with rarer cards, but not a great chance — and that’s when the pressure to buy more cards kicks in.

3. The way it makes you want to play WoW

Yeah, this is supposed to be a nice little hit of nostalgia, not a gateway drug to pull me back into WoW.  But really, all of Hearthstone is an advertisement for WoW, from the visuals to the classes to the spells and creatures.  I do not need to go back to WoW right now.  Please do not tempt me further.

And in the middle: the music.

The music that’s here is great, but it’s only like three tracks.  Hearthstone needs more tuns, man!

Hearthstone: Yeah, I could get addicted to this

hearthstoneAfter finally, finally finishing up Wildermore in LOTRO last night, I put out a plea on Twitter for a Hearthstone beta key.  A friend quickly came to the rescue, and short story short, I enjoyed a couple of initial hours with the title.

I’ve always loved collectable card games since first picking up Magic in 1994 with my college buddies, but other than a serious stint with Magic Online in the early 2000s, I haven’t had a lot of time to devote to these games.  I think Hearthstone scratches that itch perfectly by being far more accessible than Magic Online while presenting that Blizzard polish and presentation that we know so well.

Heathstone definitely delivers a more streamlined card battling system, starting with the absence of mana cards (which I really never liked and do not miss here).  Instead, its system of automatically increasing your mana reservoir by one up to 10 each turn reminds me of Spectromancer.  It leaves you to build a deck that doesn’t have to worry about how many mana cards you include, but you do have to keep in mind the gradual mana curve of the game.

The game initially puts you through a tutorial of five or six battles against the computer, each battle teaching you a little more about the game’s mechanics.  You get a handful of cards that include minions to put on the board and other various spell effects.  Minions can attack either other minions or the opponent, although in a switch from MTG, you can bypass the enemy minions entirely if you choose (unless there’s a taunt/tank minion on the field) to go for the enemy player.  Another small change is that minions’ health will remain permanently depleted when attacked unless you heal them up, so over a couple of turns you can chip away at that big-health minion over there if you so desire.  Also, each player controls a hero that has a specific power that can be used once per turn for a mana cost.

So far in my experiences (the tutorial, several sessions against the computer, and one vs. player that I lost), there’s a much more fluid progression of the game.  Minions come and go rather quickly and I’m not so much setting up the board for a long-term strategy as I’m reacting to the immediate situation and trying to turn it to my advantage.

The look of the game is fantastic.  The board is clean while being quite detailed, and I got a kick out of clicking on the various corner graphics to see what they’d do (like clicking on a campfire to light it or some vines to cut them).  There’s a lot of animation and pizazz that comes with attacks and spell cards so that you get an almost visceral sense of what’s going on.  That coupled with the sound — the beautiful music and the snappy sound effects — lends an energy to the game that Magic Online never had for me.

I barely scratched the surface of deck-building last night, but man I can see some potential for wasted hours there.  Unless the game is just holding me back right now, you can only include two of any one type of card, which creates a more diverse deck but could be problematic if one is trying to make a specific build.  There’s also an interesting crafting interface where old cards can be broken down and built into ones you want, which is definitely something I applaud.

Perhaps what’s gotten me most excited are the leveling and quests — yes, those MMO staples.  Each hero you manage levels up and gets goodies along the way, and the game keeps throwing quests at you such as to play three live opponents.  Through these and just normal play, you’ll get cards, packs of cards, and gold to spend on packs.  Even so, man I can see this game making Blizzard rich as it would be totally easy to dump lots of cash into breaking open decks to see what rares awaited.

I appreciate that it’s got a generous free-to-play model, however, and I’m really looking forward to playing more (in short sessions, of course).  Now that the game’s not going to be wiped, I don’t mind so much that it’s in beta.  I just want to learn enough of the basics so I don’t get trounced every time I face off against a real player.

If you want to say hi and give me a challenge in the game, my Battletag is Sypster#1665.

Quote of the Day

“Out of all of the games I thought might inspire Hearthstone…Peggle was never on that list. Regardless, Peggle comes to mind as a possible major inspiration for Hearthstone’s presentation.

Peggle managed to make the relatively obscure game of pachinko into a global hit by mastering the art of audio visual feedback. Peggle is great because every single thing you do sets off a barrage of rainbows and fireworks. It just feels good. Hearthstone does something similar for the collectible card game.”

~ PA Report

Have I mentioned how jealous I am that I’m NOT playing Hearthstone right now?