Updated: Nov 13, 2019
So, like a lot of people, I was excited to hear about the new CCG from Valve called “Artifact.” For months on end, the hype surrounding the game was incredible, and it was being called the “Hearthstone Killer.” Valve, of course, is the studio behind such classic games as “Half-Life,” “Left for Dead,” “Portal,” and “Team Fortress 2,” so expectations were sky-high for the success of “Arifact,” especially given that it was being designed by Richard Garfield, the creator of the most successful CCG of all time, “Magic the Gathering.” Of course, Valve had never done a card game before, but given their track record, they had to hit this one out the park, right?
Turns out: not so much. The commentator from the YouTube channel “TheQuartering” does an excellent job of explaining just how badly Valve dropped the ball (see the video above). I don’t want to belabor the points he makes here, but during this video, he brings up an issue that I find extremely interesting: he points out that games like Magic the Gathering and Artifact, while fun to play, are not much fun to watch.
As a designer, I found this idea both fascinating and troubling: he points out that, while Hearthstone lacks the complexity of the other games, it is very entertaining to watch (this point is borne out by the massive interest in Hearthstone streamers on both YouTube and Twitch). The commentator believes that this is because games like MtG and Artifact, while fun to play, are too complex and have too much going on in them for people to follow, and are therefore boring to watch. While this might be true to a certain extent, I’m not so sure that I agree: yes, complex games can be harder to follow, but I don’t think that Hearthstone’s popularity as a game to watch has anything to do with its simplicity: rather, I think that people enjoy watching it because of how random it is. Hearthstone has depends so much on random shenanigans that of course its going to be entertaining to watch: people like to be surprised, and seeing some weird, random effect is going to be far more interesting than watching a clever, thoughtful, or skillful, but low-key play.
This raises an interesting dilemma: what is more important: game play or entertainment value? As a gamer myself, the answer is easy: I will always be more interested in how fun a game is to play than how fun it is to watch. Of course, that is coming from a player’s perspective. From the perspective of a company like Blizzard, the creators of Hearthstone, the answer can be seen in how they’ve chosen to design and market Hearthstone: they are far more interested in making the game entertaining than fun to play. Don’t get me wrong: Hearthstone can be a blast to play, too, but too often it can be frustrating as well, when all of your careful thought and clever choices are rendered meaningless by some random effect that causes you to instantly lose the game. As fun as that might be for a spectator, as a player, it can be demoralizing to lose a game that you should have won because of some random shenanigans.
The popularity of Hearthstone as a spectator sport is in inverse proportion to its reputation as a competitive game: no one takes Hearthstone seriously as an esport, because it is too dependent on random effects. On the other hand, Magic the Gathering is generally considered a legitimate game of skill, with the best players routinely winning tournaments on a regular basis (something that hasn’t happened in Hearthstone for a very long time).
So, the question is: how do we create a game that is both fun to play and interesting to watch? Is there always going to be an inverse relationship between game-play and entertainment value? I don’t know that I have the answer, but I’m certainly going to work towards finding one. Let me know what you think down below!