The Soapbox: Subscriptions might actually be the next big innovation in digital card games

Or at least in Hearthstone

It's all the money we don't have!

What started earlier this week as a rant on how bad an idea a subscription model in Hearthstone would be evolved into something more: a Soapbox comparing the economies of traditional TCGs and digital card games and realizing that there might still be space for growth in the field of monetizing the latter – a way that might actually be better for gamers after all.

While the sound of another monetization scheme for Hearthstone is sure to make players groan, in practice it might actually make sense. So in today’s Soapbox, I’ll discuss whether the proposed subscription mode is something that could or should be adopted by the digital card game genre as a whole… or would work only for Hearthstone.

Would a subscription work?

Based on the proposed figures in Blizzard’s survey, a player could expect to pay $120 a year ($10 a month) to have access to the standard Hearthstone cards and one class. That would include the neutral cards, the core set, and all the cards for the chosen class for the year, not including the expansion. If players want access to all the cards including the expansion, they’d be paying $240 a year ($20 a month).

What the hell? Who would even pay the $10? There’s literally no point to buying that. It’s manipulation. It just makes the $20 option seem like a more sensible idea. But I’m pretty sure brighter minds have already figured that out; I’m more concerned about its viability as a monetization strategy for digital card games. I think it does make sense for a game like Hearthstone – but it probably won’t work for MTG: Arena or Legends of Runeterra.

MTG: Arena and Legends of Runeterra are secondary to their respective companies’ core product. In Magic’s case, making cards easier to access in an online space could lower the value of physical cards since it could pull players away from the breadwinner. Because of how deeply entrenched many players are in the buying and selling of those Magic cards, it’s in Wizard of the Coast’s best interest not to rock that boat too hard, especially after the backlash from its 30th anniversary packs. There’s a risk of cannibalizing its product.

LoR also maintains a specific place in Riot’s ecosystem already: It’s there to get players interested in both League of Legends and the untitled Runeterra MMO. But Hearthstone is in a unique space; it’s not there to get players to play WoW. Instead, it’s meant to be treated as a person’s “main game.” And just as Magic the Gathering offers a variety of card boosters and formats to play the game, Blizzard must know that a different way to pay for Hearthstone might actually be helpful for many of those “main game” players – and that includes prospective competitive players.

A subscription fee would make sense for players who don’t want to deal with the RNG, for a start. They’d pay $240 and have access to the entire set for the year. It’s expensive, absolutely. But Hearthstone already has that reputation of being expensive, so instead of making it cheaper for the player, Blizzard would be making the money players spend on it more predictable.

But holy cannoli, $20 a month? World of Warcraft is $15 a month, and subscribers have access to retail and classic servers. Overwatch is free-to-play with a battlepass that runs for about 60 days. So that’s about six battlepasses a year, and players can buy just the $10 battlepass or the more expensive $20 one that provides an experience boost and free levels. That adds up to between $60 to $120 a year depending on which flavor of battlepass a person buys. I know players of both games can end up spending more, and my abacus math can only go so far without knowing how Blizzard will monetize Overwatch’s PvE content. But that’s far and away one of the largest expenditures when compared to the other games Blizzard has.

And there are certainly players that probably won’t even need this subscription. For players who pilot just a few deck types a year, it might just be a better idea to buy a bunch of packs, disenchant the cards they don’t need, and craft the deck. There are also players that have already played so much Hearthstone that they have more dust than they’ll ever need.

So, whom would it be for?

Well, it’s not for the hardcore Hearthstone player who plays in the wild format. There is n reason for those players to sub. The language in the survey suggests that once an expansion is out of the rotation, it’s out of the subscription.

But you know whom this can work for? The player who plays Hearthstone only a handful of months per year… like me. It felt bad when I dropped $70 last year for Voyage to the Sunken City just so I could pilot the Naga Mage deck, a control deck. (Yes, I am a control player. Sue me.) And I know myself – I know I’m not the type who’s going to play Hearthstone all year. It sucked to feel that $70 fly away from my wallet knowing that my deck might not even be viable in six months, and I might have to spend another $70 just to play that fun new deck. In other words, the subscription is for the player who plays standard and isn’t overly committed to the game – that is, the typical Hearthstone enjoyer.

But on the other hand, this model could also address the issues Hearthstone esports is currently dealing with. In the dev blog about scaling back esports shared by the Hearthstone team, one of the frequently asked questions was, “Is this because of low viewership from being exclusive to YouTube the last three years?” And the reply was, “Our goal is to balance the cost of running esports productions while taking into account the size of the competitive community.” Sounds to me like Blizzard is scaling back because of the lower pool of competition (and that’s not just because the Chinese component of tourney play has been cut off). We can easily link this to just how expensive it is to get to the highest tiers of competitive play. A sub fee that tore down those barriers could help bring in players who are interested in ranked but don’t have the collection to compete. And if we take it a step further, a consistent subscription base could also help fund the esports events that Blizzard feels forced to scale back on.

Essentially, players would have a choice: spend up to $240 a year to play standard or spend an unpredictable amount of cash for cards they can keep forever (or however long the Hearthstone servers stay up) with the option of being able to play in the wild format. Which you’d choose would depend on your style of gaming and goals for your play.

All that said, the proposed price is still pretty high for the offered product. Does access to only the Hearthstone cards and not other features in battlegrounds and mercenaries justify a $20 price tag? I doubt it. From Blizzard’s perspective, it seems the target audience for the sub is the player in the middle – not quite the Hearthstone enthusiast, but also not the completely casual player either. Personally, I’d want more features tagged on with the subscription to make it truly worth it from the player’s position.

But if Hearthstone were part of a certain Game Pass service that costs $10 a month for just PC and also allows me to play other games, then maybe it won’t feel so bad…

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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