tavern brawl

Why Tavern Brawl Isn’t (Just) About the Loot

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The most interesting thing about Hearthstone’s new Tavern Brawl feature is the loot. ┬áIt’s the dog that barks quietly once per week, and that tells us a story about engagement and player motivation.

Loot is a big part of the Blizzard experience. The Diablo games have made loot drops into a fine art, but Hearthstone is no slouch in this department. It rewards players with a steady drip of gold and cards, earned by completing objectives and leveling up across different activities in the game.

Look a little closer and you’ll see how carefully rewards are woven into the structure of Hearthstone. Players earn a constant trickle of gold and experience points just for playing. This reward goes nowhere fast; the gold isn’t enough to do anything with, and the xp leads to decorative versions of cards you already have. All this loot really does is give you a sense of progress and remind you that more is possible.

Objectives provide more gold, but to earn it you have to try out different decks and play styles. They’re also limited, with one new objective appearing each day. The solo adventures play a similar role in encouraging diverse play, but do so with rewards of individual cards. The new cards add a lot of fun, but new solo adventures appear slowly and cost a lot of gold.

The best loot comes from the Arena. This is the fastest way to earn new packs of cards, and you can do it over and over again. However, the Arena requires you to invest gold (a key part of building habit forming products) and play creatively to maximize your rewards.

tavern brawl
Tavern Brawl and Pringles: Once you pop (the chest),you can’t stop?

Turning Out for the Tavern Brawl

From the loot perspective, the Tavern Brawl seems like a paltry reward. You get one pack for winning one match every week. A pack is always a nice reward, but that gain doesn’t seem worthy of a high-profile placement as one of Hearthstone’s four big activities.

That suggests to me that the Tavern Brawl is meant to scratch a different itch. It motivates players not by dropping loot, by providing a challenge and a feeling of accomplishment.

That feeling of accomplishment is getting hard to come by in Hearthstone. The player base is aging, and competitive play is getting more difficult. Skilled players with high-powered decks are prowling around even in the lower rankings. Decks that used to be competitive at rank 15 now have trouble climbing over rank 19.

It’s telling that Blizzard has added a message to the end of each season’s competition informing the player of where she stands in the overall player base. It’s even more telling that rank 20 players are in the top 50% of all players. Climbing the rankings is a lot harder, and the silent majority of free players are not making a lot of progress.

Tavern Brawl provides a quick blast of achievement every week. Each play variant provides an interesting puzzle to solve, usually by giving the player a blast of power from an unexpected direction. (This week’s Great Summoner Competition is a perfect example, with extra creatures showing up after every spell.) The player only has to win once, so the main investment is remembering to show up.

All this suggests that Tavern Brawl is intended to solve an engagement problem. Blizzard’s product managers seem to be worried that lower-ranking players are getting frustrated and giving up. At the same time, they know how addictive Hearthstone’s game play is. The product managers are betting that if they provide a fun challenge every week, players will log on and keep playing after they enjoy beating it.

The emphasis on accomplishment over direct rewards makes Tavern Brawl a nice nudge of player behavior — if it works. If it doesn’t, then Blizzard may have a serious player motivation problem on their hands, and we may see some radical adjustments as a result.

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