Tobold's Blog
Monday, December 09, 2013
Solving game problems

In 1913 French mathematician Émile Borel proposed the infinite monkey theorem: A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Now while there is a certain resemblance to the internet :), collective problem solving on the internet works in fact much better than randomly hitting keys. While an individual player might be solving a problem in a game by trial and error, he can then exchange the results with others via various internet platforms, either in written or video form. With many people collaborating to solve a game problem by exchanging what works and doesn't work, the speed of problem solving becomes a lot faster than infinite.

That does has repercussions on game design. If you have a puzzle in your game, you not only need to think about how different players might have different skills to solve your puzzle, but also take into account that some will tend to try to solve it alone, while others will look up the solution before even having seen the puzzle. But even more striking is the effect of collaborative problem solving on game balance: If your game has an optimum path, players will find it through collaboration.

I was thinking about it when reading various blog posts about Hearthstone. I played a lot of Magic the Gathering in paper and online form in its time, and Magic the Gathering was reasonably well balanced: While at any given expansion a certain deck might be found to be "the best" of a specific play style, there was always a stone-paper-scissors meta-game in which one play style would do well against another, but lose against a third. And I am not certain that Hearthstone has that stone-paper-scissors meta-game, because the little I played of it made it seem a much simpler game than Magic.

Now of course it is hard to judge from excited blog posts about one deck being completely overpowered to judge the actual state of the game. But to me it seems that Hearthstone is more likely to "get solved", that is an optimum deck found for any given set of cards. While every expansion or nerf then changes that optimum, once the fundamentals are understood, the collective problem solving will find the new optimum while the changes are still on the test server. It is quite likely that the release version of Hearthstone will "get solved" before even leaving the beta. And that will affect the game's longevity.

At the very least some cards will be found to be better than other cards. So while the game pretends to have a certain number of different cards, those in the know will work with a much smaller card pool. And those who absolutely want to win will have to spend more money to get sufficient numbers of that smaller, better card pool, because suboptimal cards keep popping up in the booster packs they open. I wonder how all that will work out in the long run.

Aren't they solving this by making arena matches work like a draft tournament?
In Hearthstone, both the tempo and the style of the deck may vary - not as wildly as in MtG, but still significantly.

This means your deck could be designed to win as fast as possible or to stall the game. It could rely on placing lots of creatures on the field or on removing enemy creatures. All these approaches require different countermeasures.

So the closest thing to "solution" is the list of optimal decks, each of which could reasonably be fine-tuned for different situations an play styles. I wouldn't call is solution as such, because the card pool is pretty small and the decks are somewhat obvious from the beginning.

What really makes Hearthstone shine is while the deckbuilding part is much simpler than MtG, the actual tactical combat is more complex. Combined with low prices on most cards this leads to better player winning, not meta-game wins.
Hearthstone is at least partly solved. There is a card called the Argent Commander which is in just about every serious deck made by the top players.

However, unlike Magic, they can nerf the cards. When Magic made Black Lotus they couldn't change it afterwards because people actually had cards as possessions.

Blizzard can and has altered the stats on cards. This of course does have implications - if I save up 1400 crafting dust to make an amazing legendary and a week later it becomes trash I'll be annoyed.
Helistar has Blizzard's solution. Random cards for all players in a tournament. It does mean you have to understand each character's playstyle, through and through.

I've written about Hearthstone lately and I am hyper critical of the current meta. There is next to no balance to be had right now, which makes sense in open beta. Some 2 card combos can throw a match. Now that HS won't wipe beta status, it's very hard to reset the balance or change the way cards are sent out.

If the game cost me $30 up front, gave me 40 decks to open, maybe there'd be a bit less kerfuffle and more actual balance testing. That's not the case and when the floodgates open on go-live, I fully expect another D3 launch event.
I'm not particular worried.

There are as many cards available as the very first set of WoWTCG (Heroes of Azeroth). There is an upper limit on how many viable decks can exist with such a small card pool. More sets should go a long way into providing more room for innovation.

The "problems" have already pretty much been solved. If you look at the tournament decks, there is a set of 5-10 cards used in almost every deck. These cards are just flat out better than other cards of the same mana cost. This will remain the case until Blizzard balances those cards or adds new cards. Most class-specific minions are pretty weak compared to neutral minions, so maybe buffs to those minions could replace some of the strong neutral minions.
This is only to be expected given the Hearthstone's F2P model. If there are a select few optimal cards and you can only get them randomly from an expert pack, you will either play suboptimal deck or pay a lot of money for packs before you get your cards.

When a sufficient part of playerbase will do this, Blizzard can issue an expansion with new optimal cards that beat the old optimal cards and cash out again.

This monetization scheme could be called "pay for hope to win". :)
There are good reasons to include cards that are worse than other cards in the card pool. Wizards has been doing this with Magic for a long time now.

They make a card pool both to support limited play and constructed play. In limited play every card being the same power level is actually really dull. In constructed you just assume that people will go to the trouble of getting the best cards for their decks.

The mechanics of Hearthstone simply don't support the depth of Magic the Gathering, but that's okay. When Magic came out a bunch of companies tried to make Magic and they all failed. Hearthstone is cheaper and faster to play than Magic, and it feels slick to play, so I think it will do well.
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