Hearthstoned

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<enter Gambit quote here>

I’ve been working through Dark Souls in recent months, but to take my mind out of the land of gloom and doom, I’ve been dipping my toes into Hearthstone.

Pretty sure I’m done with Hearthstone after a few weeks, but I think I’ll be continuing with Dark Souls.

As a game designer, I’m asking: Why?

And…is it the same reason I’m unhappy with Braid?

One of the realizations I’ve had in recent months is that as I’ve honed my game design skills, I’ve also found better what resonates with me in a game, and why I like certain things and don’t like others. Depending on what kind of model you use, I can identify my primary goals in a game as variously “easy fun,” “discovery,” and/or “explorer.” Generally speaking, I’m in it to learn, discover, uncover, be surprised, play around, and inhabit a space. As per the usual disclaimer on this stuff: this isn’t exclusive, it’s just an emphasis.

Once the discovery has been wrung out of a game, the novelty wears off for me, and my interest plummets. I’ve gotten all the juice out of that game experience that I want.

In the games that I’ve had problems with in the past, part of what is bundled up in that is a lack of discovery. In Braid, for instance, there’s no “here’s a narrative to explore,” there’s just “Solve this puzzle. Good. Solve this one now.” (From the looks of it, The Witness seems to be in a similar vein)

Hearthstone is hitting a similar place after a few weeks cracking at it.

CCG’s have an appeal for that discovery-oriented play in opening new packs and learning about new cards and the collectible aspect of the game. It’s fun to look at novel cards, interesting mechanics, fun lore bits or jokes…delightful. Really scratches the itch.

But the actual play of a CCG leaves me cold. It’s competitive, head-to-head, with a troublesome focus on optimal strategies and deck optimization. The “metagame” becomes prominent, and either you’re playing the metagame, or you’re losing. If in Braid you needed to find the right answer to the puzzle, in Hearthstone and other CCG’s, you need the right cards to play in the metagame.

All those moments of discovery – opening decks, exploring new mechanics – quickly melt down to “is this card useful to win?” So many games just come down to who has better cards. There’s no reward or feedback for my exploration and investigation and curiosity. There is only things that lead to victory, and things that fail to lead to victory.

This feeling, of having One Answer, a monolithic Thing That Will Help You Win, is ice water on the sexy fun times of exploring the nooks and crannies of narratives, systems, and worlds. If Skyrim had to be played PvP only, or if the only way to progress was to actually solve particular puzzles, that would’ve sapped the delight out of the game for me. CCG’s and Braid do likewise.

But Dark Souls? The game is hard and it is unforgiving, but it is very rewarding to exploration. Gradually uncovered lore and hidden areas and confounding weirdness? I am in. I don’t care if I die a THOUSAND times.

It makes me wonder, much like how World of Goo managed to be exploratory enough for me, how one would make a more “explore-y” CCG. Would you have to remove the competitive element? Or rely on some equalizer like RNG? Or could you make even losing a game somehow rewarding for that aspect? Do you make cards more strictly equal and non-comparable?

It also makes me wonder about the game I’m developing now. The element of exploration isn’t particularly strong, but maybe there’s ways to enhance that…

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