Loot Box Bans Could Mean the End of Hearthstone
Published on January 18, 2018
Belgium’s gambling committee recently sent shockwaves throughout the esports community when they declared loot boxes gambling. While many have argued over the subject before, the anti-loot box sentiment had yet to be the cause of any major governmental decisions.
However, Belgium changed that in late 2017, and they likely won’t be the last. With many countries in the European Union now discussing similar rulings, this phenomenon is about to go global. Many games will only feel a slight effect, but for Hearthstone, it could spell the end.
Hearthstone’s economy, like that of many collectible card games, is built on the idea of randomness, which is what Belgium’s gambling committee took offense to. With the exception of Blizzard’s legal team, no one seems to know if the law in Belgium applies to Hearthstone packs. To understand how and why Hearthstone could be deeply affected by the outlaw of loot boxes, we first have to examine the Hearthstone economy.
Hearthstone is a digital collectible card game, or CCG for short. In-game, players utilize a group of resources to gain an advantage, but in-game is only half of where Hearthstone takes place. Like many other card games, Hearthstone’s core is deckbuilding. With over 1,300 cards to choose from, players fill thirty or more slots before beginning each game. Not all cards are built the same, though, as they are spread across rarity and power level.
The most common way to get new cards is to open packs. Card packs in Hearthstone contain five cards spread across four different rarities. One rare card is guaranteed in every pack, an epic card in one in every five packs, and a legendary card in one in every twenty packs. Card can also be golden, which makes the cards more valuable — it has no mechanical value, but they’re pretty.
There are two ways to purchase packs: either through in-game currency (gold), or real-life currency. Two packs cost $2.99, giving each card a theoretical value of $0.30.
This value doesn’t hold up for competitive play, though. Unfortunately, opening random cards means you’re more likely to get the card you don’t want than the card you do. To get exactly the card you want, you have to craft them. Crafting in Hearthstone is the act of creating cards and destroying them. When a card is destroyed, it will give you some amount of “dust.”
For commons, you get five dust, for rares you get twenty, for epic you get one hundred, and for legendary you get four hundred. To create the card that you want, you’ll have to spend that dust. Commons cost forty, rares cost one hundred, epics cost four hundred, and legendaries cost sixteen hundred.
This makes Hearthstone one of the more expensive digital CCGs to play. According to Polygon, in late 2017, Hearthstone costs an average of $400 to play competitively each year.
Magic: The Gathering has had some issues with loot box bans in the past. Magic is typically a good place to look for precedent with esports, and it’s especially appropriate for Hearthstone. The two are similar in that they both card games, and the easiest way to obtain cards is packs. Wizards of the Coast has to dodge gambling law by never explicitly referring to the secondary market value of a product.
This is where the important distinction between Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering comes up. Magic is not a collectible card game, but instead a trading card game. Perhaps because of the nature of being a physical product, card trading between players is promoted.
There are, however, no mechanisms for trading in place with Hearthstone, although their model closely resembles Magic’s. In Hearthstone, there is no secondary market to avoid referring to. They’ve created their own, and that randomness does (on the surface) become gambling.
In Hearthstone, there is undeniable value to each card, to gold, and to dust. An incredibly lucky player could open six packs and be handed the deck they were looking to build, while an unlucky player could open six hundred and never get what they were looking for. For one player, $18 got them $400 in value, and for the other, $1,800 couldn’t do it.
Dust helps to mitigate this somewhat, as a player does have expected value in each pack, but the luck factor is still there.
If Hearthstone is forced to move away from card packs, fans may actually rejoice. As the game matures, its fans are becoming increasingly disappointed in its high cost. In their eyes, the cost of the game is a symptom of Blizzard’s exorbitant greed. Many have already stepped away from the game because of decisions they didn’t agree with — namely that the game is veering away from its free-to-play roots and becoming pay-to-win.
Hearthstone players have already been discussing the idea that Hearthstone may, at least in Europe, be forced to attempt a different model. Some have asked others to consider the adventure model Hearthstone has already employed before, wherein a player can play a game to quest for new cards, knowing exactly what to expect.
This model could work, but would be a major shock to the Hearthstone economy. It would ask players to stop dealing in tangible currency and start dealing in a more valuable one: time.
Blizzard makes all of their money from Hearthstone when players buy packs, which is why the prices seem so exorbitant. Without packs, Blizzard would have to look for other places to make their money. Aesthetic choices and other customization options would be the most likely candidate, but a game as big as Hearthstone can’t reasonably expect to survive this way. Their server costs alone must be through the roof.
If loot boxes go down, the servers could, too.