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Cracked LCD- Hearthstone (IOS) in Review

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After a lengthy public beta, a general release on PC and Mac and then an agonizingly long one week delay following a “soft launch”, Blizzard’s much-ballyhooed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has finally hit the platform that could potentially make this free-to-play collectible card game a phenomenon. Hearthstone on iPad is a masterful implementation of a masterfully designed game rich with the kind of polish, refinement and attention to detail that has qualified Blizzard’s best work reaching back to the very first Warcraft. Bar none, Hearthstone is the best card game available on IOS and it may just be one of the most significant examples of video games finally repaying all of that debt they’ve had to tabletop games for all of these years.

Like most of Blizzard’s work, Hearthstone is built on a rock-solid design that is immediately approachable by the noobest of the noob, yet the myriad fine points of the design open the doors to tremendous depth and avenues for thoughtful gameplay. The rules are so simple and straightforward that many naysayers and hardline tabletoppers might decry it as a “dumbed down” version of Magic: The Gathering. However, as I always say, those who declare designs that are streamlined and accessible as “dumbed down” are the dumb ones.

There is virtually nothing mechanically fussy or procedurally complicated about the game from the deckbuilding to the highest level of online play. You either take out a stock deck or build a deck of 30 cards from your collection. Each deck corresponds to one of nine Warcraft character types, and each has a unique special ability. Because the deckbuilding limits you to 30 cards, you’re forced to keep decks lean and focused, selecting from class-specific cards as well as neutral options available to all. Those intimidated by selecting cards have some help on hand via a suggestion tool. With deck in hand, you can head out to practice games against fairly competent AI opponents, online casual or ranked games , or an Arena mode that is effectively a sort of sealed deck endurance mode.

Once you’re in a game, it’s about as cut and dried as CCGs get. Every turn you add a mana crystal to your supply- there are no resource cards, no “mana curve”, and you will never be screwed because you didn’t draw the right card. This mechanic keeps players on an even footing in terms of resources while also setting an escalating tempo for the game. Each card, of course, has a mana cost and you’ll be playing Minions, various spells that buff or debuff other cards, direct effect spells and Secrets that remain hidden until the opponent does something that triggers its effect, like immediately killing a summoned Minion.

Creatures have an attack and a defense value, can’t attack on the turn they were summoned, et cetera et cetera. The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life from 30 to zero with Minion attacks or direct damage, blah blah blah. This is all very basic stuff, really, and anyone who has ever played a CCG will feel like they’re putting on a favorite pair of sneakers. Anyone who hasn’t will be playing with some degree of competency within an hour, even though they may not quite yet grasp the subtleties of when to play or not play a card, when to trigger an effect or when to use the extra Mana Crystal card the second player gets as a balancing handicap. Regardless of a small handful of keywords and the inherent intricacies of limitless card interactions, it ain’t rocket science.

But let’s be clear about it- Hearthstone, as a design, is not particularly innovative. It doesn’t break the CCG mold and it will not forever change the way we look at card games. It’s not a quantum shift like Magic: The Gathering was, at least in terms of its white papers. Hearthstone’s greatness doesn’t like in that direction. Where Hearthstone earns its greatness is in how Blizzard’s developers have dismantled the core CCG model and thrown out all of those rocket science elements that sometimes put off game players from more hobby-oriented tabletop games or “hardcore” video games. Blizzard has stripped everything down, wrapping it in a package that looks expensive, complete and inviting with completely intuitive controls and gameplay that is perfectly positioned for all audiences. Ease of play counts for a lot. Ease of play plus a virtually flawless, immaculately balanced and meticulously crafted game design that welcomes players of all skill levels counts for everything.

This game could be huge, as if it didn’t already have a enormous player base. Everyone with an iPad now has free access to one of the best card games in recent years, and it’s absolutely free-to-play so there’s no excuse to not at least check it out if you are at all interested in using your iPad as a gaming device. Hold on, I just hit the brakes there with “free-to-play”, didn’t I?

We’ve all seen abusive, exploitative and utterly repulsive free-to-play schemes in digital CCGs and everything from match-3s to AAA disasters like Dungeon Keeper. We’ve seen games that use “free-to-play” as a leverage point for psychological shenanigans like making players wait hours or even days to build something unless you pay some kind of scrip currency bought with real money. We’ve seen games where you are actually locked out of playing because you’ve run out of “energy”- but oh look, you can buy energy gems with your credit card! Hearthstone has none of that kind of nonsense, and it should serve as a shining example of how to monetize a free-to-play game in a way that respects the consumer and encourages players to spend money because the game is actually worth it.

I’ve spent about ten dollars total on the game, playing it on the PC since February (don’t worry, all of your progress from the PC/Mac version ports right over). And I’ve spent that money not because Blizzard has bamboozled me into paying for wilfully excluded content, features or any kind of “pay to win” con game- but because I love the game and I’ve ­wanted to spend a couple of bucks on it just for the spur-of-the-moment fun of opening a couple of booster packs. The incentive to spend money in this game is primarily because it is a quality product that earned my money, not because of pernicious design decisions.

A booster pack (five cards) costs 100 in-game gold, earned fairly easily by just playing online games. You can also buy two for $2.99, seven for $9.99 and so forth. In true CCG fashion, what you get is random so you might spend your way into the poor house and never get a particular card. So you can grind these cards into crafting dust if you’d like and use it to buy that card (and somehow validate your poor life decision). These boosters are the only real cost of the game, and it’s pretty easy even playing casually to earn enough gold to get a booster a day- particularly if you play the daily quests that give bonus gold for completing certain objectives. The sealed deck-style Arena mode has a 150 gold/$1.99 entry fee, but the rewards for surviving are the best payout in the game.

So yes, you can literally play Hearthstone for free, no strings attached. The core decks are great and if you prune your collection carefully you can make them very competitive. Sure, the “Johnny Suitcase” mentality is there and folks that spend hundreds of dollars on boosters will have a much larger card pool to draw from but it really doesn’t matter- if you’re playing casually or even in the ranked games, the likelihood that you’ll feel outspent rather than outplayed is extremely low. You might never even encounter someone that’s spent more than any reasonable person should on electronic cards.

If there’s anything to complain about regarding Hearthstone at this stage, it’s that it feels like there could have been another round of optimization before the general release. On my iPad 2, it plays fine but with a few seconds here and there of sluggishness. At first, it was very noticeable coming from the PC version but after a day of playing it whenever I had ten minutes (or three hours) to catch a game it doesn’t really bother me. The good news is that this is a game that will be broadly supported with technical fixes and additional content- it literally has nowhere to go but up, especially with an iPhone port coming later this year.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to take on my bad ass Hunter deck, I’m Zurenarrh on Battle.net.

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The Slippery Slope of Diablo’s DRM

Diablo 3's DRM model means it belongs more to Blizzard or your ISP than you - are you happy with this model for all digital media

There’s been no shortage of pixels expended on Diablo III over the past couple of weeks. Reviews have mostly been very positive, some critics have talked about its worryingly addictive qualities in the face of what ought to seem like relatively weak play and a lot of gamers got very angry over their inability to play right after launch due to server overload. Some people have made light of this and, in fairness, entitlement-rage in gamers is never a pretty sight. But to me, this is indeed an occasion for rage. Serious rage. Just not over entitlement.

The fury unleashed by the initial unavailability of the game was a consequence of its DRM model, which requires players to be online all the time even when playing solo. However, that DRM has other consequences that don’t seem to have been widely considered. It means that if your broadband provider has a blip, as is not uncommon, the game boots you out and you may loose progress. If there’s a broadband outage, you can’t play. If, like me, you’re fond of taking a laptop on road trips or flights to help keep yourself entertained, then Diablo 3 as the source of that entertainment is not an option. The product which you’ve paid good money for is not really yours at all – your access to it hangs on the whim of a number of outside agencies who at any time may fail to live up to the service you expect, or pull the plug entirely. There are advantages too, of course, such as the ease with which you can join multi-player games and cloud storage for your characters, but Blizzard could easily have given you these benefits of always-online as an option, providing a get-out clause for people who want to play on the move. They didn’t.

This is a new and extremely dangerous precedent. Think about it for a moment: by accepting that this is a valid model for the publisher of a video game to thwart pirates, you are effectively condoning similar action by the purveyor of any digital content. You’re telling the people making the next generation of games consoles that you don’t mind if you can only play a game on it – any game at all – when it’s online. How about if you couldn’t watch the DVDs you own without an internet connection? How about if you couldn’t play the MP3s you own, or read the e-books you’ve bought, without an internet connection? Does that suddenly seem so fair and reasonable as it does with a video game?

If you think I’m overstating the issues, then perhaps you should know that copyright people are very happy to leverage child pornography in order to get governments and legislators to do what they want. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with here, and to think they aren’t looking at the widespread acceptable of the Diablo III DRM model and not twitching with delight, or that that it’s not being stored as ammunition for use in the debate over denying access to used games, is naive. If you’re a Diablo III owner, I suggest you at least stop and think about the wider ramifications of what you’re signing up to before you next play the game, otherwise the unfortunate consequences could be with you sooner than you think.

Why Do We Play Diablo?

I’m angry. I have many reasons to be angry at the moment, but this anger is leveled directly at me. I’m playing Diablo 3 quite a bit — less than some (my NHS friends list is filled with people who have finished the first playthrough) and more than others (basically Todd). I just beat the third major boss of the game with some help from veteran NHS reader nicthaninja and his wily Witch Doctor. I’m sitting at level 29 with my Demon Hunter Ms. Tessbacher and can see the end of the campaign in sight. For the record, I hate how the game doesn’t allow for spaces between names. Silly.

I’m not a die-hard Diablo fan. I played the first one, like everyone else my age when it came out. I was fresh out of college in late December of ’96 when it was released and I played that damn game on our PC lab’s LAN on the OSU campus to the point of exhaustion. Still, I never finished the game. We’d all get to a certain level and want to play a new character type.

I played Diablo 2 sparingly. I remember reaching an area with little dudes who shot blow darts at you. I got annoyed and quit and never played it again. This was the summer of 2000; my wife was pregnant, I just just lost my job at Computer Games Magazine and was trying to live the life as a freelancer (not advised), working for the magazine as well as GameSpy and anyone else who would have me. Finishing Diablo 2, when I wasn’t assigned to review it, was not high on my ‘gotta do’ list. I was reviewing every sports game imaginable and building the reputation as someone who hated games.

So here we are with Diablo 3, a game that I was never pumped about like others around these parts and yet I bought it a day before it was to be released. It was an impulse buy, really. It always seemed odd that I never finished a Diablo game…even though this fits my track record with these types of games — I rarely kill (or see) that last boss in a hack and slash rpg.

So I’m playing a little every day, still not quite sure if I’m technically having fun or not. Oh I’m playing, though. In fact I’d like to be playing right now as I type this. I’m so close to the end (I think). But why do I want to get back to playing? It’s a question I can’t answer with any level of certainty.

There is something inside the design of that game, and games like it from Sacred to Fate to Torchlight to Din’s Curse, that latch onto the addictive center of the brain and won’t let go. When I am not playing, I find it more and more difficult to reason with myself as to why I want to play. On Normal, it’s a fairly easy game. Sure I’ve died some, but there’s very little penalty and I am back in the fray in seconds. I love the new skill system now that I am a higher level, but in the end I’m pressing the mouse button. A lot. Killing waves of monsters in the same way over and over and over again. Somersault, knife fling, multishot. Repeat.

So what is it?

Is it the level grind? The dog treat joy of earning a new skill?

Is it the gear? Just seeing your avatar in all its glory decked out in your shiny new helmet?

I found myself asking these questions during my two year World of WarCraft addiction when I finally asked myself one day, “Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t reach an answer and I have not played WarCraft in years — and have zero desire to do so again. Diablo, on the other hand, is different. I’m still asking that question and coming up with the same vacant answer and yet the minute I am done writing this I’m going to go back to killing demons.

There has to be a reason why games like Diablo instill this drive, this need to play. “Because it’s fun” isn’t an answer, either. It never is. I can tell you why I played the Witcher 2 twice or why I played Baldur’s Gate five times start to finish. Or why I played Dark Souls to the point of absurdity. I can give you specific, detailed reasons why I loved those games.

Diablo?

Diablo takes all of the skill that I have as a game critic, and I’d like to think after 16 years there is some skill there, and smacks me across the face and sticks its fingers in my eyes and tells me to piss off and just keep with the clicking. I cannot reason with Diablo 3. Every ounce of my critical eye tells me this game is mindless tripe whose only redeeming feature is that of the dangling carrot. It’s an online only game that is designed around playing by yourself. It’s been hacked. It had a terrible launch filled with instability issues.

And yet it defies my own feelings about it. Because I am still playing, and have every intention of running through another time with a new character build.

Diablo 3 absolutely fascinates me.

Diablo 3 Accounts Hacked

Well I for one am shocked.

There are multiple reports on forums and in chat rooms and on my Google Chat screen about Diablo 3 users seeing their accounts hacked, their items stolen and money plundered or even their entire accounts hijacked. It’s like the old days when your ICQ account would no longer work. Poof.

Of all of the reports, aside from a few friends of mine falling prey to this, the most damming comes from Eurogamer, complete with chat screenshots.

Ok show of hands — who is ready for the Real Money Auction House! Woo hoo!

I bid a dime.