The Soapbox: Comparing monetization of physical and digital card games

Damn it.

Earlier this week we reported on the recent Blizzard poll on a possible one Hearthstone sub. As I read the news, I almost choked on the sourdough jacket I was about to snack on when I accidentally blurted out, “That’s stupid!” loud enough to catch the attention of most of my fellow guests. But you know, after a bit of thinking (and after accidentally writing 2000 words on the subject), I think this might be one of those moments where an unlikely combination might make more sense in practice than in theory.

Hearthstone was a big deal in 2014. While it wasn’t the first digital card game, it certainly cemented it as a serious genre and a staple in the modern gaming industry. If there wasn’t Hearthstonewe wouldn’t have games like Legends of Runeterra, Eternal, Gwent or Kill the towerand Wizards of the Coast certainly would not have built Magic the Gathering: Arena. (Whether the latter was good or not is still unclear.) Hearthstone is still loved (and loathed) by many players today, and while naysayers say the end is near, I don’t see it anytime soon. There’s just too much money in it.

Back to the start, Hearthstones Monetizing was easy: pay money for packs and build a deck with them. Today, Hearthstone has evolved into a platform. It hosts a variety of game modes including the original game, Mercenaries, and the popular Battlegrounds.

But the success of the battlefields made suddenly Hearthstone much harder to monetize. In recent years, Blizzard’s attempts at a Battle Pass and other monetization methods have infuriated angry gamers. And given the poll above, players aren’t thrilled about it at all. But could a sub actually work for a game like Hearthstone and digital card games in general? let’s find out But first, some context: we need to talk about trading card games in general.

I’ve only recently started collecting the Final Fantasy TCG again. The Locke card costs about $12! I even double sleeved it!

The Economics of Trading Card Games

The concept of the non-digital trading card game as we know it took off Magic the Gathering back in 1993. Along with Yu-Gi-Oh and the Pokémon trading card game, a whole subculture grew out of these tiny 63x88mm cards. There is no shortage of trading card games these days, and make no mistake: one of the main components of these games is The “trade” itself. Some people make a living from buying and selling these cards. And even if a player is only interested in playing the game and not making money from it, these cards still take up physical space. And at some point they have to change hands.

Buying booster packs has become an art. There’s a chance the next booster pack will include the set’s prized Pursuit card, and for many players that’s incentive enough to keep buying. Wizards of the Coast and other card games know this, so they sell a variety of booster packs, all with different drop rates for mythical and rare cards. It recently peaked with the release of a $1,000 box containing 60 proxy cards Magic the Gathering. Its impact on the market has been quite large and is beyond the scope of this article, but most importantly, every booster a player buys has the potential for a return on investment. And this is the keyword: Investment. The maps can be seen as an enrichment. Sometimes that $200 collector’s box contains the cards to cash out the box itself, and then some.

The price of a physical card is based on supply and demand. The current meta usually determines the demand. But of course there are legendary pieces – like a first edition Charizard for the Pokemon TCG or Black Lotus – which come at a hefty price tag, both for their power and their importance to the game’s story. And once a card is printed, the card can’t just be nerfed or polished like in a digital game like in a digital game Hearthstone. In the worst case, it can be banned, or players are not allowed to bet more than two at a time in a competitive game. Its feasibility in one format helps determine the price.

In a trading card game, both the company and the individual can make money, so each card has an inherent monetary value, even to the player. There is money to be made from cards worth a dime if sold in bulk and with some clever sales strategies. It’s a system that depends on all parties involved: the company that makes the cards, the players who play them, and the people who buy and sell them.

MTG Arena is currently struggling with its economics.

The economics of digital card games

Of course, you cannot swap cards in digital card games. There is no “pursuit card” in a set. Instead, players pay real money to get the cards or use the in-game currency they get from daily newspapers to buy packs. If there is a specific card that a player needs, there is usually a system to destroy old cards for a specific currency in order to “craft” the cards. This is like Hearthstone makes it. Legends of Runeterra takes it a step further by being extremely card generous, and it’s entirely possible to get all the cards in a set by playing the game.

Putting a deck of cards in the digital space allows for mechanics that wouldn’t otherwise work in a traditional deck of cards. For example both Hearthstone and Runeterra can store a running total of a card’s current hit points. In Magic the Gatheringto defeat a card, it must take damage equal to the card’s health all at once. That’s because keeping track of a map’s current hitpoints is non-trivial. But in Hearthstone, in the next few turns, a player can knock away an enemy card to get rid of it. Another example is coincidence. It’s possible for a card to form a card that isn’t even in the player’s deck. Or in the case of Zephrys the Great, players can wish for the perfect card. This is not something that can easily be emulated in a desktop environment.

But even though these digital card games can do all these cool things, it’s monetization that gets sticky. Since these cannot be traded, purchased cards have no monetary value for the players. So yes, that country map that fell off your table and accidentally ran your gaming chair over it did more monetary value than all Hearthstone Map. As great as Runeterra Monetization is, I highly doubt it’s as profitable as League of Legends. And the working theory is that it exists primarily to get players to play Riot’s other games (and provide a convenient alternative to Blizzard’s ecosystem).

Hearthstone is just expensive to play. Be prepared to shell out $500+ for an entire set. And Blizzard knows this, and as such is trying to find ways to get dropped players to play again and create new revenue streams, especially after losing its entire Chinese player base – hence the subscription survey.

So would a subscription make sense? You know what, I think so. Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of this two-part soapbox, in which I’ll explore how it could actually be better for gamers than the current state of monetization.

blankEveryone has opinions and The Soapbox is how we pursue ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns on our own soapbox to deliver unqualified editorials that are a bit outside of our normal purview (and not necessarily shared by all employees). Think we’re spot on – or crazy? Let us know in the comments!

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Curtis Crabtree

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