The Curious Case of Team 5

As an armchair shrink, I often wonder what the hell they are up to next, and what the fuck they are thinking.

For most of my life, I did what most of you did: question the decisions and actions of game developers and say “I could do better than them! I know games, I could do that job!”. Which is an arrogant thing to think or say, but plenty of people do it about politics and sports management and TV writing. Everyone loves discussing and dissecting game design philosophy , whether it be on playgrounds or online, without a thought to how it actually works or the ramifications of the tiniest changes. And for years on end, I was just that guy, the same schmuck who talks the talk but trips over myself when trying to walk the walk.

I was privileged to work for AOL Games (I left recently) and while I was there I got the rare opportunity to dabble in a daydream: make a video game. I had the chance to work with some incredibly talented people, and we got to shape a mobile trivia game my boss bought for the company when he got pitched the idea while at a bar. He was drunk at the time. His memory loss turned into our gain as I got a real education in how games are imagined, designed, built, and tested from the ground up. I filled a notebook with ideas and concept art and titles and features and had the time of my life. Most of it came to fruition, it released, and has subsequently been pulled down. AOL is not going into game publishing anytime soon, it seems.

So what does all of this have to do with Blizzard you ask?

Well, I tell you the story because it had an unexpected consequence on how I look at the industry. You’d think being on the inside looking out would make me side more with the people who create games, but my perspective has really swung in the other direction. And it’s starting to become a real ‘before and after’ moment for me, because playing games is slightly different for me now as compared to before I got hired to run AOL Games. Take for example, not to bury the lead, Team 5, the fifth team at Blizzard to make the fifth franchise for Activision.

A childhood of collecting binders and sleeves, opening boosters, trading holographics, and being driven to early morning Poke meet-ups with other kids at the local Barnes & Noble left some indelible hooks in me. So when I grew out of every table top game on the planet, and stopped watching Saturday morning cartoons about children battling cards with monsters and demons, I never would have thought that since the closed beta in 2013 I would play Hearthstone every single day of my life. Yes it slightly pains me to admit that publicly but if you have me added as a friend you’d know it to be all too true.

I am one of 50 some odd million unique players to dabble in Hearthstone, which is a miracle of a game. It’s based on Warcraft lore, it’s digital only, there is no trading cards to friends, and yet it has blown Magic the Gathering out of the water in terms of size and cultural impact, and is the catalyst for making CCGs popular (Star Wars, Elder Scrolls, Gwent, Shadowverse, etc.)

Blizzard has a golden goose on their hands; it launched as a game that was supremely well built, made very smart decisions about its gameplay, had all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a Blizzard game, incredible attention to detail, killer production value, a smart business model, was portable, accessible, impulsive, addicting, meme worthy, and a top five game to stream/watch on Twitch. They did so much right and reaped all of the rewards, and it struck chords and nerves. It’s become a staple, a premiere eSports title and flagship franchise for Activision. Hearthstone reportedly makes $20 million for Blizzard a month.

So with a quarter of a billion dollars coming from Hearthstone a month, you’d ask yourself what I’ve been thinking and feeling for years: why doesn’t anyone behind this mega colossal success treat it as such? Why does Team 5 not upkeep, balance, respond to feedback, and maintain their game like the daily behemoth it is to so many casual players and hardcore fanatics?

I write this as Ben Brode, the Game Director for Hearthstone, ramps up on the second year of both Standard and Wild formats. I’m assuming if you’re still reading this you are not only familiar with this game but are so knee deep in the community that you have already heard and read everything to death. There’s far more raw reactions, impressions, opinions, suggestions, criticisms and drama than people to deal with it, but it seems really preposterous to me that after all of the live Q&A’s, all the replies on Twitter, and the BlizzCon panels STILL the only real changes or announcements we get are:

  • 3 expansions a year, far too spaced out, and always at the same time. They wildly vary in size and quality, and instead of making the meta fresh it just dumps the old one and replaces it with a new one, in bulk, and that becomes very stale very quickly, because people are very good at recognizing powerful decks and thus netdecking ensues after weeks.
  • Balance changes are far too rare, are often predictable and a tad too conservative, and take too long to enact. They are always nerfs and never buffs. Most cards are not touched, and never will be. Therefore, most cards will never be played or crafted.
  • Traditional ranked mode, specifically the Standard format and sets, is the only mode that matters. Nothing else is supported to the same degree, outside of talk about Arena additions , and none of these other great modes are ever made into tenants of the precious eSports schedule.
  • No tournament mode. Ever. Only Heroic Tavern Brawl. Give Blizzard your 1000 gold please. The amazing Adventures are no longer going to be around. Please clap.

The Hearthstone client, the UI/UX, the storytelling, the incentives and rewards, lack of leaderboards, and lack of auto-squelch will never be on the table. Games like League of Legends can transcend into being the ultimate (electronic) sport by being able to swiftly and deftly change everything on the fly, and they are never afraid to consider or enact sweeping changes. They’ve completely remade their game and are never satisfied. Valve takes a similar approach to DOTA 2. They’re better games because of it, and will give the people what they want because they risk losing their base.

Hearthstone wants to make everyone happy and does little to show for it. Why risk it? A staggering percentage of the userbase don’t get past rank 20, they don’t get every expansion, they aren’t the whales, and they probably play on their phones to pass the time. They don’t netdeck, they don’t go to message boards, they don’t watch Twitch, they don’t care. And those people are great! Nothing wrong with that! But you can’t cater to the ‘new player experience’ without really going to bat for keeping it Free To Play, and reducing the need to purchase packs to get good decks is important.

That hasn’t happened.

Okay, fine, so why not cater to the Hearthstoners, the ones clambering for smarter decisions, faster response time, better and more frequent balance patches, less RNG cards, more archetypes, a new approach to the Classic and Standard sets going forward, achievements, a focus on Wild collections and more out-of-the-box thinking for the eSports calendar, in-game deck lists and trackers, opening up the path for first or third party APIs, an end to power creep, and

If League of Legends can add a training mode after so many requests, surely Hearthstone can add a new hero character from a later WoW expansion. The line of communication between fans and creators need to be a two way street, not a one way pipeline of sewage. The cards coming out need to be better, the design has to be better, the competition has to be better, the turnaround has to be faster, and the eSports has to be better. I can’t watch Reno decks vs. Pirate decks for much longer.

The recent string of Developer Insights and the plans for the ‘Year of the Mammoth’ is a good start. You can talk all you want about “figuring things out for the future” but until things start changing for the better, you either burn people out, bore them to death, or give way to other games eating up time and money. The numbers shoot up after every expansion release, but you can’t prop up the entirety of 2017 with only three spikes. There’s too much downtime and too much chatter inbetween. The first two months were dead, and the adjustments to Spirit Claws and Small Time Buccaneer came way too late. Spend less time evaluating and considering and more time fixing and improving. I know I’m an impatient New Yorker, and a newborn pretentious game designer, but just as a fan, it’s a little disheartening to see such a legendary studio stagger behind its contemporaries.

And look, I get it: I know they’re trying, and I’m being overly harsh. Be that devil’s advocate or just me being an asshole, but I do not want this game to be left behind or fail or get to a point where I have to just check in on the game during each expansion. I really loved the Adventures they did, and now that’s gone. I loved Sylvanas Windrunner and Ragnaros the Firelord and now they’re gone. My favorite deck ever was Handlock and that is dead, never coming back because they killed Molten Giant to a ridiculous 25 mana, so it’ll never see play ever. Thanks.

It’s fine to eliminate these things for the sake of refreshing Hearthstone, but at a certain point, I have to call bullshit when there isn’t much filling in to replace these things. And I really dislike how long and slow the waiting is between content releases and balance patches to address stale, overpowered cards and meta decks. It’s literally the only thing the game has going for it, so why do less when you can do more?

A digital card game has every advantage over a paper one. Every. There is infinite room for ideas and combinations and the experimentation and inspiration has just not been there. Magic might be limited in almost every regard, and has never made a good video game version, but their card design is heads and shoulders better than what Team 5 cranks out (remember the Inspire mechanic?). And when your community continuously proves it can make better cards than you, more interesting, innovative cards with new mechanics and don’t rely on old trends, how can I not think there’s room for improvement at Team 5?