Hearthstone didn't just stroll up to Magic: The Gathering one day and take its crown as the world's most popular card game just because it wanted to. It sized up the competition, identified its weaknesses, and the end result was a game that offered easy access for the newcomer, and deeper strategic waters for the hardcore to tread.
If Valve's Dota-inspired Artifact wants to stand up against Blizzard's juggernaut card game in terms of revenue and numbers, there are some crucial lessons that it needs to learn about just how Hearthstone's came to dominate both the casual and hardcore card-game crowds.
Here are five key things that Hearthtone does better than anyone else, and that Artifact is going to have to at least equal if it wants to prise players away from the fireside anytime soon...
1. Accessible Depth
It's one thing to have a game of such enormous complexity that it satisfies a hardcore following (hello Dota), but a vibrant game - not to mention a busy metagame - thrives on having enthused, active players at all levels of the ranking system. That means providing variety around a handful of core strategies and archetypes.
Hearthstone nails this approach perfectly. There are budget-friendly aggressive decks that counter pricier complex decks, defensive decks that frustrate aggressive decks, and everything else in between. This encourages experimentation and refinement on the part of the best players, while still leaving more casual players with their own, less complicated paths to glory.
2. Competitive Free to Play
No matter how many players cry foul at Blizzard's revenue model for Hearthstone, the fact is that streamers continue to pilot entirely free to play decks all the way to the highest levels of the ranking system. It provides competitive hope to players of every budget level, and allows the very best players to showcase the benefits of skill over hard cash.
The Hearthstone formula is quite simple really. If you want to sample all of the delights the game has to offer, then you'll need either deep pockets or a lot of game time to grind out the necessary card packs. If you just want to pilot a few competitive decks though, a relatively modest amount of play time and cash is all that's required. This stops lapsed players from feeling locked out after a period of absence.
3. A Living Game World
As satisfyingly complex as the videogame incarnations of Magic: The Gathering can be, coming back to them after a spell in Hearthstone feels like a rather dull and joyless experience. Cards clunk together, the targeting interface is a crude mechanism, the audio is pretty uninspiring, and it's a comparatively flat game to watch all round. It was a target ripe for the taking, in other words.
A large part of Hearthstone's appeal comes from the comparatively complex animations of its characters, the voice acting of the minions, and the way they knock heads together whenever targets collide. Despite being a game of minimal manual interaction, it's always fun to watch these cards perform and interact with one another. Artifact will hopefully make much of the established lore and culture of its Dota background to keep players similarly entertained.
4. Identifiable Actions
A game that's easy to enjoy watching is easy to stream, and the more people that stream the game, the faster the audience grows. Part of the appeal of watching these games is that you get to enjoy being vicariously much better at the game, while still experiencing the card and unit interactions, and the contemplation of each match's wider strategy.
For that to work though, it's vital that actions and interactions are clearly telegraphed for the player and viewer, and that there's no ambiguity about what will happen when X encounters Y. In Hearthstone, that means crystal clear card text (something the team devote a quietly enormous amount of effort to preserving), and clear boundaries for how players can influence each other's resources. This encourages new players to try the game out for themselves.
5. Leaving a Door Open for New Players
After several years of operation, Hearthstone ran into a bit of a problem. As more and more card sets were released, leading to more and more powerful versions of the same decks, new players were in danger of becoming locked out altogether, or forced to pay huge amounts of money to remain competitive - a problem that's rife in Magic.
Blizzard's solution was to limit the sets that can be used in the game's “official” ranking mode, while maintaining a separate, anything-goes ladder where the most overpowered decks could be played without restrictions. This is a problem that lies much further down the road for Valve, but they be wise to plan for success and ensure a door always remains open for newcomers - whenever they happen to turn up.