Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Hearthstone - Heroes of Warcraft monetization analysis
Printer-Friendly VersionPrinter-Friendly Version
View All     RSS
May 12, 2014
arrowPress Releases
May 12, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb sites:

Hearthstone - Heroes of Warcraft monetization analysis
by Ethan Levy on 05/08/14 10:36:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


As trumpeted by the recent Activision earnings report, Hearthstone – Heroes of Warcraft is off to an incredible start with 10 million registered users. Alongside a stable of Blizzard titles, Hearthstone’s launch has helped drive record digital revenues within Activision; 34% of all Activision revenue for the recently completed quarter comes from digital sources. As both a childhood Magic: The Gathering enthusiast and a monetization design consultant, Hearthstone’s release on the iPad has been one of my most anticipated F2P games this year. In a market dominated by a small number of genres, flooded with me-too clones, the game promised a welcomed blend of fresh air, quality and nostalgia.

I spent 20 hours with Hearthstone as both a free and paying player to research this analysis. The game is clearly driving a significant amount of revenue for Blizzard. In the top 5 countries for mobile app revenue, Hearthstone has performed strongly on the top grossing charts over the past seven days with average positions per country of 12 (US), 109 (Japan), 1 (South Korea), 12 (UK) and 8 (Germany) according to App Annie. These are ranks any company would be ecstatic over. The purpose of this report is to analyze the game and suggest features that will help turn Hearthstone into the next member of Activision’s billion-dollar club.

Before I dive into the analysis, I want to provide my methodology and some stats on the 20 hours of play. For the first 5 hours I was in learning mode, playing as a free player trying out the various features and classes. The second 5 hours I played as free player trying to get serious with a single deck. I assembled a Rogue deck and split my time between casual and ranked play. I then spent 1 hour and $100 transitioning to a high-value payer. This time was spent opening packs and assembling Warlock and Priest decks. I spent 5 hours with my new, big spender decks in casual and ranked play. To cap off the experience, I spent 4 hours playing four admissions to the Arena. Here are some stats on my time:

  • Matches played – 112 (54 wins, 58 losses)
  • Dollars spent - $106
  • Gold earned – 550 (500 spent)
  • Packs opened – 91 (11 earned, 80 purchased)
  • Ending rank – Shieldbearer (rank 20)
  • Best Arena streak – 4 wins (as Hunter)

1. Is Hearthstone pay-to-win?

Before delving into the recommendations, I want to analyze the effect becoming a high value player had on my Hearthstone performance. The most frequent accusation leveled at F2P games by core gamers and journalists is that they are pay-to-win, and therefore inferior to packaged goods. Due to its incredible quality and fun factor, the discussions I have read and listened to for Hearthstone have largely forgiven the monetization aspect of the game.

Without a doubt, Hearthstone is pay-to-win. Just like poker, there is plenty of luck involved and the outcome of a match can swiftly change with every card dealt. In any match, a completely free player can beat an equally skilled paying player. However, over the long run a paying player has a distinct advantage in deck building that increases the likelihood they will win.

Putting aside my first 5 training hours, my record as a free player was 7 wins and 20 losses for a 26% win ratio. As a paying player, I went 15 and 15 for a win ratio of 50%. In ranked play, as a free player I had a 33% win ratio and stalled out at rank 23 after a 6 game losing streak. As a paying player, I easily ascended to rank 20 with a 53% win ratio before hitting the 5 hour mark. Had I been willing to disenchant cards outside of my core class to craft an even stronger deck, or spend even more money on expert packs, I would have undoubtedly continued to rise in the ranks on the strength of my Priest deck.

Obviously from my record, I am neither the most skilled Hearthstone player nor is the game completely pay-to-win. Spending $100 did not guarantee easy victory. But it did give me a significant advantage relative to my performance as a free player. As with many F2P games, by paying for packs I was artificially boosting myself up the skill curve relative to more experienced and strategic players.

Most interesting for other F2P games with a multiplayer component is Hearthstone’s Arena mode. In the Arena, a player spends $1.99 or 150 gold to enter, draft a random deck and play until they lose 3 times. At the end of the mode, the player is rewarded based on the number of accumulated wins. A player is essentially paying to skip the pay-to-win portion of the game and face other players in contests that are equal parts luck and skill. This mode is fun and compelling and the $1.99 Arena admission purchase is currently the second most popular option behind the $9.99 purchase of 7 card packs. It is disappointing to spend $1.99 to draft a deck and quickly lose 3 battles, but even when this happened to me I was rewarded with at least 1 expert pack, a $1.50 value relative to the cheapest pack option.

2. Monetization analysis

Hearthstone is already performing extremely well on the top grossing charts, and thanks to its high quality, fun factor, name brand recognition and proven genre, the game is likely to be an evergreen success for Blizzard that remains on the top 100 grossing chart for years. However, more than any game I have played in the last two years as a monetization design consultant, Hearthstone has the opportunity to knock Supercell and King from the lofty positions on top of the charts. The rest of this article suggests features that can help turn Hearthstone into Activision’s next billion-dollar franchise.

2.1. Social engagement

Issue identified

When I think back to the many hours of my adolescence playing trading card games (TCG), social bonds were critical to my engagement and spend within the genre. Magic: The Gathering was more about hanging out with my friends after school than participating in hobby store tournaments where I would get knocked out easily by older, more strategic players. Embarrassingly enough, in the days before broadband was common place, I used to play Magic over the phone with my friend (and now world traveling pro player) Sam Black. The games my circle of friends played determined where I spent my time and money; my choice to dive into the mid-90s Marvel TCG over Star Wars or any other me-too trying to jump on the Magic bandwagon was purely determined by what my friends were playing.

It was not until the end of my 20 hours of play I even discovered that Hearthstone has a friends list. I understand how in-game chat is likely to create more negative externalities through toxic play than benefits through social interaction. Still, for a PvP game, Hearthstone is too light on the ability to interact with other players.

Proposed solution

Making Hearthstone more social will make it a stickier game, driving long term retention and therefore monetization. I suggest three improvements to multiplayer in order to make Hearthstone better with friends.

My first suggestion is to enhance Hearthstone for players in the same physical location. A curiously absent feature for a TCG is the ability to gift, trade or auction my cards to other players or friends. Given the hoopla surrounding the Diablo III auction house, I anticipate Blizzard is unlikely to institute a similar system for Hearthstone. However, the ability to trade cards freely with another player on my wifi network would be a powerful feature to encourage friends to play together. Similarly, gold rewarding quests tailored at encouraging players to play in the same physical location would create the strong social bonds that build long term retention.

My second suggestion is to implement some form of viral feature to encourage installs. For instance, a friend code system could be used to reward a player with an expert pack for every friend who joins Hearthstone and achieves a certain play milestone (eg. level X with at least one hero). Alternatively, a player could earn free Arena passes at the end of every week for each invited friend who has been an active player that week.

My third suggestion is to implement guilds within Hearthstone. For core games in the F2P space, social events are the feature driving the incredible revenue of games like Clash of Clans and Modern War. It is the implementation of guilds that will empower Hearthstone to topple Clash from its lofty perch.

2.2. Socially competitive events

Issue identified

The key to unlocking Hearthstone’s potential to be a billion-dollar franchise (over the next 5 years) is guilds and guild-based events. Competition between teams of players is an incredibly important feature in F2P. For instance, the chart dominating Modern War has publicized a 600% increase in average daily revenue when running events. Given the setting within World of Warcraft, the narrative wrapping already exists for guilds and guild-based competitive events in the form of Raids. All that is needed is a clever implementation that will drive player engagement and revenue.

Proposed solution

At its simplest, an event is a time-limited leaderboard for individuals and guilds to perform the most of a particular action, with tiered and exclusive rewards depending upon performance. Highly monetizing events are ones that include some form of consumable use that leads to spending for those players who care about their individual or team rank. This structure pairs naturally with the concept of WoW’s Raids to create the perfect event for Hearthstone.

A possible implementation of Raids is a weekly challenge against a sequence of enemies with powerful decks, custom hero powers and astronomical health, perhaps with some puzzle elements. A Raid would have a time limited entry currency – a player may get one free, non-stacking Raid ticket every 4 hours or they can buy one with gold or real dollars. If the player is part of a guild, their progress occurs at the guild level. The player faces whoever the current enemy in the Raid sequence is, and the enemy’s health is a global pool that all players in the guild whittle down collectively.

The weekly Raid (perhaps only open for 3 days during a week) would have a guild and individual leaderboard. In addition to being rewarded each time a player’s guild conquers an enemy in the Raid (with a large reward for defeating the Raid boss), their performance gives the guild a global score that ranks them against other guilds. At the end of the event, rewards are distributed to players based on the placement of their guild as well as individual performance in the event. The higher their ranking, the bigger the reward.

The key to this system is the consumable element. Just like the Arena, players can participate for free and enjoy Raids. But if topping the global leaderboard and reaping the reward is important to a player or guild, then they will spend real dollars for the opportunity to be number one.

2.3. Competitive events

Issue identified

Although I never made the trek from suburban Chicago to Milwaukee for GenCon, another staple of my Magic days was participation in weekend, hobby-shop tournaments (where I usually washed out quickly). Tournaments are exciting, heightened events that enhance the experience of playing a game you already love. They are a staple of the TCG genre and another opportunity to introduce a highly monetizing feature into Hearthstone. A tournament can be a complementary style of event to Raids by appealing to competitive individuals instead of team oriented players.

Proposed solution

Some flavor of daily event is a common feature in F2P games. For instance, X-Men: Battle of the Atom features multiple, scheduled, daily battle events that a player can only join within a specific timeframe. Similarly, Hearthstone would benefit from daily, scheduled tournaments. Perhaps every 4 hours a massive, double elimination tournament begins (possibly with a quickening mechanic, like 20 health per hero instead of 30 to cut down game length).

This tournament would be a turbocharged version of Arena mode. A player would purchase entry for 375 gold or $5, draft a deck, and play for increasing rewards the further into the bracket they progress. At the end of each week, there could be a free, Twitch streamed and announced tournament for the top X placed players from each daily tournament. Additionally, the year would be punctuated with massive monthly or quarterly finals, as well as an annual, big money cash tournament. Skilled players who rake in gold from Arena wins and event participation would be able to enter these tournaments with earned currency, but other players would end up increasing their overall spend to participate in these exciting events.

2.4. Performance improvements

Issue identified

Given the Blizzard pedigree, I experienced two unexpectedly negative elements of Hearthstone during my time with the game: technical performance and UI implementation. Playing on a 3rd Generation iPad, I was surprised at how poorly the game performs from a technical perspective. Transitioning from screen to screen was slow with hangs and pauses at key moments (like the end of the battle). For a game built on the proven Unity engine with a largely 2D experience, I was surprised that the game did not run smoother.

This is a minor issue, but the negative effect is compounded by issues with UI flow and functionality. The game uses a hub and spoke model that makes transitioning from element to element an annoyance, since the player constantly has to return to the main menu before moving to other areas. Another small, but unfortunate detail is that a button to access the deck builder is not present on every screen outside an actual round of play.

Deck building itself is a chore. As I got deeper into the experience, I was surprised to discover that there is no easy way to delete a deck, nor can I give a deck a custom name [edit: thanks to a commenter I found that there is a way to rename and delete decks, but that it was a relatively hidden interaction for a touch based interface with no mouse hover]. Several times I had to reset a deck by literally dragging each card off of the deck UI element so I could begin with a blank slate.

These are all minor issues, unlikely to have a major impact on revenue. Bundled together, they may have a modest, negative effect on retention (and therefore revenue). However, these peccadillos collectively communicate to the player a game that was built primarily with a desktop frame of mind.

Proposed solution

Technical fixes may not have a large, direct effect on monetization. However, fixing these issues will enable Hearthstone to reach a larger, more global audience of older iOS and varied Android powered devices. Also, performance and UI flow improvements will make the game more joyful to play, even if only in a subtle way. The experience of Hearthstone would be improved by speeding up technical performance, modifying the UI so that the deck builder is always a single tap away and making deck building a significantly smoother process.

2.5. Let's get small

Issue identified

Currently, Hearthstone is exclusive to iPad for touch based devices. However, the in-game UI is primarily decoration that is wasted space from a functional point of view. If anything my thousands of matches of Ascension on the iPhone have proven, it is that there is a way to pack a dense, card based experience onto a tiny screen.

Proposed solution

Hearthstone needs to be available on iPhone and Android powered phones and tablets. Not only will this increase revenue by increasing reach, it will also close the current opportunity for me-too products to start building an audience on those platforms where Hearthstone is currently unplayable.

Related Jobs

Makielab — London, England, United Kingdom

3D Games Artist
Raven Software / Activision
Raven Software / Activision — Madison, Wisconsin, United States

Sr. Software Engineer (Gameplay)
Raven Software / Activision
Raven Software / Activision — Madison, Wisconsin, United States

Senior Network Engineer
Raven Software / Activision
Raven Software / Activision — Madison, Wisconsin, United States

Senior UI Engineer


Brian Garst
profile image
No, Hearthstone is not "without a doubt" pay-to-win. And it certainly is not more so over the long run. Quite the opposite. Money only helps in the short run, which is what you experienced. In the long run a free player can acquire every card without pay, negating the impact of others paying for packs.

Ethan Levy
profile image
My definition here, which may differ from yours, is that a game where you can pay for a significant advantage that increases the probability you will win is a pay-to-win game. I do agree that over a long enough time period, a free player can unlock all of the cards that a paying player can.

However, one can reasonably assume that of the 10 million registered Hearthstone users, the median player spends far less than 20 hours in Hearthstone before quitting. For the majority of players who would be unwilling to spend the tens of hours grinding it would take to earn the equivalent advantage I unlocked by spending $100, the game has a distinct advantage for paying. Those players who are willing to grind it out are likely outliers relative to the total population of the game.

David Fried
profile image
For any other game company that might be true, but not for Blizzard's audience. I'd be willing to wager that the majority of players will grind on Hearthstone for years to come.

Samuel Green
profile image
That's the League of Legends argument, and it doesn't hold water. Time is money. In Hearthstone this is exacerbated because of the 1v1 nature of the game.

A guy with Sylvanas, Ragnaros, Bloodmage Thalnos, 2x Argent Commanders is going to destroy a player who just started the game (or has even been playing it for 2 weeks straight). As you can tell from my card examples, I stopped playing in the late stages of the Beta... but the argument still stands.

Nathan Blume
profile image
FYI: You can both rename and delete decks by clicking on the image at the top of the list on the right in the deck editor.

Ethan Levy
profile image
Thanks much, Nathan! I will edit the article now that I know.

James Gibbs
profile image
As far as the "pay to win" aspect, I think it is a bit exaggerated in this argument. I do think there are some downsides to their model and especially so for people who do not enjoy Arena play. I am still missing quite a few cards and have played for a long time and the only money I ever spent was $10 way back, but the bulk of my cards is once I was experienced enough to play Arena whenever I wanted and come out ahead. It's also been shown by many people creating new accounts and spending no money they could hit the highest rank.

The largest advantage money gives you as a fresh player is just more card options. Arguably, as a new player you will not know the game very well, so if you follow the natural learning curve of the game I think it has even less of an effect. I think 5 hours of time is very little for a game like this that actually has quite a bit of depth involved to make sure you are making the correct plays down to deck building, mulliganing and each individual play.

I also think the test would have been better reversed, paying on one account and first and then creating a 2nd account without paying for a single thing. In your experiment you've learned at least some very basics of the game in your 5 hours and then went with at least a little more knowledge and bought packs.

I like a lot of the other details you delve into and some of these features could be really interesting, but think you should take more note of many factors you may not be taking into consideration as far as how much money impacted your play.

Harold Myles
profile image
Your list of suggestions are probably decent, as you could get the same list from just reading the hearthstone forums. Players want raids, guilds, tournaments, android versions etc.

And a few of your suggestions blizzard does like how they promote fireside gatherings.

However, your suggestion that trading be included, in an article about maximizing monetization, seems odd.

I think to make that suggestion you would need some data to back it up that it would increase sales.

I would guess that trading is counter to that goal. Right now you have to buy all your cards from blizzard. And you can buy them directly. You dont have to wait or hope to get lucky to get the card you want.

You can buy 40 packs for $50. Each deck is guaranteed to disenchant for at least 40 dust. It takes 1600 dust to craft any legendary you want. So any legendary can be purchased for $50 max. Its no mistake that you can buy 40 packs at once at the base price of 3 cents per dust. 40 packs will disenchant to no less than 1600 dust. 1600 exactly if you always got 1 rare and 4 commons.

If you introduced trading I could only imagine that it would decrease these sells. In an environment where you sell cards directly, how is trading going to help your business?

The max purchase price of every card tier (common, rare, epic, legendary) is known, through the conversion of money to dust. The only thing trading would do is possibly make some cards less valuable than their purchase price, possibly decreasing sales.

In the past TCG and CCG have been used as synonymous terms. But with electronic card games the terms can have different meanings. Blizzard has stated specifically that hearthstone is a CCG not a TCG. There is no trading. It is not a "curiously absent feature."

In an electronic environment, with millions of users, you would have to enforce arbitrary limitation on the trade interface to make it interesting. Such as only being able to trade with local players (on same subnet) or with players in friend list, or something as painful as sorting through a big list of player posted trades.

Both would just make people mad when the system ultimately could be I want to trade card A for card B and the system instantly goes and finds a matching trade.

Without solid data indicating player to player trading would increase sales I think its a naive suggestion.

Trading only affects constructed deck play. Arena and other draft modes aren't affected.

I think a more interesting questions is:

How much of sales are through constructed play "pay to win" vs arena "pay to play". I do agree with you that if arena had a more visible ranking system and visible tournament results that it would probably increase the "pay to play" side of their business.

Ethan Levy
profile image
My hypothesis on trading is that if you enabled it only for players on the same network, it would encourage groups of friends to play together, and the stickiness would drive long term retention in a way that would have a greater impact on overall revenue than any revenue lost from players not purchasing packs. It would also increase the appeal of physical events and gatherings. This is, of course, just a hypothesis and I have no data to back it up. But I do believe creating incentives for friend groups to play together, and in the same physical location, would have a Amazon Prime like effect of creating more positive effects for Blizzard than the lost sales it would generate by making the market for attaining cards more efficient.

Alessandro Ituarte
profile image
I agree that the game is not very good for playing with friends. Since there's no matchmaking when playing with friends, that means that normally one of the players will be far better than the other, which means not fun (I had that issue when playing Magic the gathering with real cards too).

Trading would seem like a natural alternative, but the problem with trading is then you would have to build a trading system, which will involve "messy" communication full of "WTT X card for n amount of Y card", spam, and information sources for the latest meta value of cards (see Mojang's CCG "Scrolls" to see what I mean). And still then, people won't necessarily trade with friends.

I think a solid play-with-friends drive would be cooperative game modes, like MTG two-headed giant, for example.

Edit: Derp, now I understand, you mean only trading with people in the same network. Interesting idea, but too many assumptions about impact for the development effort, I would assume.