Ben Nagy’s Big Picture – Game Creep, Part 1: Power Creep

There are an infinite number of possible Hearthstone cards. If you can dream it up, it could appear on a card. This is a large part of what I love about designing games, and CCGs in particular. You truly can do anything. Not everything you can do is worth doing. Today, we’re looking at power […]

Introduction

There are an infinite number of possible Hearthstone cards. If you can dream it up, it could appear on a card. This is a large part of what I love about designing games, and CCGs in particular. You truly can do anything.

Not everything you can do is worth doing.

Today, we’re looking at power creep and complexity creep in Hearthstone: what they are, why they are, and how they relate to our interpretation of individual cards, sets, and the game itself.

Welcome to Ben Nagy’s Big Picture, where we will look at how new cards/sets, various aspects of Hearthstone, and changes in the metagame reflect how Hearthstone is positioned against other games in the genre, and what that means for the future of the game. You’ll get a game designer’s perspective on how Hearthstone is being built from the ground up, which will help with your understanding of the changes Blizzard makes, as well as become more skilled at playing.

With the help of these articles, you’ll be able to see deeper into how Hearthstone ticks, impress your friends with your pro-level knowledge, opinions, and perspective on the Hearthstone game, and be the go-to guy in your circle for keeping up-to-date with commentary on the latest events in the world of Hearthstone.

Infinite Possibilities

There is no limit to the kind of cards that can be made, the mechanics that can be dreamed up, or the possibilities of what you can design in a CCG like Hearthstone. While “Battlecry: Add two random Murlocs to your hand” is an easy enough concept to grasp and to play around with, designers for Hearthstone and other CCGs have to first create the space in which those mechanics exist. What does Battlecry mean? What are Murlocs? Far beyond balancing concerns and knowing how good a given card or set of mechanics are, designers have to first define the rules in which the game is played.

In Beta, “Inspire: Add a Spare Part to your hand” would have meant nothing to you or me, but now that would make for an interesting card that would likely see some discussion because of two main things:

  1. First of all, this can be discussed and analyzed because we know what both Inspire Spare Part means. We even know what your hand is. We understand the function and mechanical ability defined by that line of text. When we click that hero power button, we get an additional effect if the minion this line is on is in the field in front of us. That effect is that we will add one of a selection of Spare Part cards to our hand. Now we can discuss what this card is, and how to use it most efficiently.
  2. Secondly, now that we understand what Inspire does and what Spare Parts are, we can now evaluate the card in a fuller light. How balanced is this ability? Is having access to this type of card only in one class a bad thing? Would it really be better if this card was neutral and everyone had access to it? We can now understand this card better not as a single unit with pros and cons, but how it fits into a larger environment. This environment is made up of all the other rules that we must keep in mind during our play. This includes core game rules, but also the rules added to the game by every card in my deck and my opponent’s deck.

A card today that reads “Exhaust: Gain a purple token” currently means nothing outside of what context you try to give it to the game. Building this context is what game design is really all about.

Finding the Right Environment for Card Designs

Although inspiration can come in any form, generally, before a game designer starts whipping up a bunch of cards, they need to think about the environment that they are building. The environment needs to both have some sort of hook, or theme, that gets players exited about the content, and the environment also needs to be balanced for a particular effect.

What I mean by balanced “for a particular effect” is that not all environments can or should feel identical. Each player has their own unique flavor of gameplay. Some enjoy only playing fast decks, or only slow decks. Some don’t care about speed, but maybe care about having a bunch of cute looking cards in their deck. Each player comes to Hearthstone with their own style of play in addition to their skills in both play and deckbuilding.

As such, each environment is generally shifted a little from the environments that have come before it. A new set coming out, following a number of fast paced environments, will likely want to slow down the game, to appeal to players who have wanted some longer lasting games, and vice versa.

Each environment affords new design space for cards. When you define what the next set will focus on, and what the intended effect will be for the macro environment, then you can see clearly what cards and mechanics should be introduced.

Thus, the priority is to design the next environment, which has mostly already been done for the designers because of already existing cards that will be present in the environment. The environment takes precedence over any single, unique or fun card design. If that design would break the format, then what is the point of introducing it, however fun or awesome it might be? The designer’s job is to fill the space they’re given with cards that support each other in creating the desired effect.

But what about the hook?

 

Each new set that gets released also needs to prove to players that it’s worth existing, and worth picking up the new packs of, as we discussed last week. Each set needs to build and expand on the environments that come before it, and so, as we add more and more cards to the environment, there becomes less and less space. The canvas that was blank when sitting down to design the game, has been largely filled in, and Blizzard has to make sure any additions fit in with the rest of the game that’s already established.

This is one of the core struggles and enigmas facing CCG designers: how does one both satisfy the hook for something new, while making sure that the cards are all fitting well in the current environment?

A card that costs five, and destroys all your opponent’s minions. Pretty powerful, and definitely a reason to buy the new set, so you don’t get behind everyone else! But as a card, it’d be terribly unfun, and would destroy the game. Especially if a whole set was balanced this way.

On the other end of the spectrum, a vanilla-only set would pretty unfun as well, and would likely not increase the popularity of Hearthstone any. Even if it played well and balanced, players would feel ripped off.

Each set, then, needs to push the envelope to explore and find new areas of design space. As the card pool grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for cards to find their place, as slots are filled. Cards have to be something special to compete with the many cards that already exist, are balanced and fit well with their hook. In order to compete in a new environment, new cards and mechanics have two tools they often use: power creep and complexity creep.

Defining Power Creep

The first way that cards can stand out is for them to be very powerful. Or at least look like they are. Big, splashy effects get peoples’ attention. And with a new large set every year, the bar gets raised higher and higher for what makes a powerful-looking card. The Golden Monkey may look powerful, but after all is said and done, it will likely not be used too competitively.

So what is an example of actual power creep?

Power creep is something that exists on a spectrum, and can’t be defined too easily most of the time. Each card doesn’t exist on its own, but since it’s part of a larger environment, it must be evaluated as such. And the power level of a card is already debatable as is.

The best way to evaluate power creep is with “strictly better” cards. This means that in every possible scenario, you would prefer to have one card over the other.

Is Sludge Belcher better than Sen’jin Shieldmasta? Possibly. And likely in many scenarios, it will be. But you could find a lot of cases where getting that 3/5 body out there a turn early is beneficial. Thus Sludge Belcher is not considered “strictly better.”

The best example of a “strictly better” card is Evil Heckler over Booty Bay Bodyguard. Both cards are 5/4’s with Taunt. Evil Heckler costs 1 less and came out a year later. I don’t see any scenario where players will use Booty Bay Bodyguard anymore. They have a far better alternative, and no upside to using the goblin, unless they really need four copies of a 5/4 Taunt minion in their deck. Unlikely.

If Booty Bay Bodyguard had a “Goblin” tribe type at the bottom of its card, it wouldn’t necessarily be outmoded. It could still be used in a Goblin synergy deck someday, whatever that looks like. But 1:1, as it stands, the Evil Heckler will always beat it out.

It’s really rare to find “strictly better” cards, but we just received another one in Murloc Tinyfin over Wisp in League of Explorers. And while this is the surest way to check on creeping power levels, it is pretty easy to see that many new cards being released have taken older cards off the table. For example, who would now consider building a fatigue deck without the help of Reno Jackson? Reno replaced some card’s slot in fatigue decks, as it is more powerful than the older card it is replacing.

Power creep is the slow, steady rise of the power level of new cards in order to compete for slots in decklists against already established cards. As we said last week, if new cards (by necessity some of them more powerful than older cards) weren’t pushing the power envelope and being published, the game would die.

Why Power Creep Must Exist

It doesn’t take a genius to see that if the power level keeps rising, eventually, without a revolving format, you’ll have cards that have far too powerful an effect to be playable. So why do developers continue to indulge cards in being ever more powerful?

Beyond the obvious need to encourage players to buy into the next part of Hearthstone, whether players buy the cards with time or with money, Blizzard also has to make sure that the game continues to evolve and change. As stated in last week’s article, if no new content was to be released for Hearthstone for a year or two, it would die, since players could no longer discover newness in the game. There would be a few obvious picks for decks, with decklists already long ago optimized, and very little room for new archetypes and lists.

By adding content that is of a higher power level than existing cards, you incentivize players to play with something new, and to stretch how comfortable they are with their current deck choices and strategies.

Every CCG engages in power creep, or else the game has withered away, and has no new territory to explore. This is especially true, since power levels of new ideas need to be ramped up anyway, so that developers can see what works and what doesn’t. If you create a new mechanic that you don’t support by giving powerful cards, then you won’t know how good the mechanic is, next time you want to explore that area. If no one plays with the card because it is too weak in the current environment, you have no idea if it’s the type of thing your players want to play with.

On the flip side, if you make a card with a new mechanic that you raise to obscene power levels, you will, for the opposite reason, not be able to tell how much the mechanic is contributing to the card’s popularity, and how much the power level contributes. Do you play Dr. Boom because you like the Boom Bots and think the card fits your deck well? Or is it just a very strong card?

Power creep is inevitable, and a useful tool for CCGs to use. But they must be careful that they don’t increase the power level too much, or too quickly.

Nerfing and Buffing

Both nerfing and buffing are useful tools for smoothing out power creep. Since power creep usually occurs as developers try to push specific cards or strategies that they want to engage players with, adjusting those levels after cards have been able to affect the game and shift the meta is important.

While we haven’t seen any buffing yet, buffing can help developers by allowing them to encourage and incentivize players to play with specific cards by raising their power level.

The fact that we haven’t seen any of this tells me that Blizzard has, to their standards, appropriately pushed the cards that they most needed to push. On the flip side, we have seen a few nerfs to cards that perhaps pushed the power level a bit too far, and needed to be scaled back. Undertaker, for example, did a great job of bringing deathrattle minions to the foreground, but was too powerful in its initial form to be left as is. By nerfing the card after it has made some impact, Blizzard has been able to reap the benefits of an overpowered card, while making sure their game doesn’t suffer long-term for it.

Ben’s Suggestions

By using buffs alongside nerfs, Blizzard would be able to adjust the environment on a smaller level, making the game even more “fine tuned” than it is.

While power creep is generally frowned upon and avoided, it is an inevitable and necessary part of building a CCG. A lot of care is needed to be put into the slow evolution of power creep in a CCG, to make sure it is well tended to, not just avoided.

Conclusion

Power creep can be used as both a force of good, as well as a distractor from a good game system. However, when used as a tool, power creep allows developers to create new content, and push the game in new directions, to keep it from getting stale for experienced players. It’s a fine line, but Blizzard has explored their power barriers with caution. Next week, we’ll look at the other creep lurking around CCGs, complexity creep, and why it is so different from power creep in how it fits into the Big Picture.

-Ben Nagy

I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. What other aspects of the Hearthstone game have you wanted to learn about? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!