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Hearthstone Helped Popularize Loot Boxes, Then Weathered The Backlash

The digital CCG borrowed the blind box aspect of its physical counterparts, and stuck with it even as the industry rushed to distance itself from randomized loot.


Hearthstone is celebrating its 10-year anniversary today, March 11, 2024. Below, we look back at how it helped pave the way for the common adoption of loot boxes, and maintained them as the industry came under heavy legal scrutiny.

When Hearthstone was announced in 2014, its approach to virtualizing the CCG experience seemed fair, even user-friendly. Just like a real-life paper CCG, you could pay for randomized card packs, have fun ripping them open and discovering your new finds, and then they'd be nicely organized into a collection. You could even trash duplicates for "arcane dust," a resource that lets you craft new cards. It wasn't a great exchange rate, but it felt fair enough as an alternative to opening a full-fledged trading marketplace--which Blizzard had good reason to avoid. What Blizzard couldn't have predicted was how its CCG-inspired monetization strategy would soon help to define an industry trend--a trend that the public eventually grew to hate, even as Hearthstone largely stayed the course.

In 2014, randomized packs of items were far from the norm. Team Fortress 2 had blazed a trail with randomized crates starting in 2010, but other companies were slow to adopt the practice. EA had introduced Ultimate Team in some of its sports franchises, and franchises like Counter-Strike and Battlefield had started implementing sales items like "battlepacks." But for the most part, downloadable content for games was a mix of cosmetic items, DLC expansions, skins, and other baubles. The idea of a repeatable transaction that grants you a randomized set of items was not commonplace. Hearthstone helped to change that.

Hearthstone was an explosive success at launch, reportedly generating tens of millions in revenue per month for Activision Blizzard in its first few years and becoming one of the most-watched games on Twitch. Though ABK played its cards close to the vest regarding exactly how much money the card game was bringing in, it did cite the card game alongside other big hits like Heroes of the Storm and Destiny when boasting of more than $1.25 billion in revenue in a 2015 quarterly earnings report. By virtualizing the CCG experience of randomized card packs, Blizzard had found a repeatable revenue driver. Rather than spend time making bespoke assets that would be sold a la carte, it created huge pools of cards to be randomly distributed at different drop rates, with certain items appearing much more infrequently. And just like in real-life CCGs, the excitement of opening packs and potentially getting something new was enough to offset the disappointment of getting duplicates--a norm in real-life CCGs.

Then came Overwatch in 2016. While it was a multiplayer shooter instead of a CCG, Blizzard's newest franchise had clearly learned important lessons from Hearthstone. Card packs were replaced with loot boxes, which unlocked randomized sets of cosmetics, including highly desirable Legendary skins. You could trash duplicate cosmetic items for material to buy others that were missing from your collection. Loot boxes were infinitely available, so if you didn't get what you wanted from one, there was always an easy way to try your luck again. And whereas Hearthstone had expansions with new sets of cards to collect to stay competitive, Overwatch had a regular drumbeat of seasonal events centered around holidays and even world events like the Olympics, packed with new (and often limited-time) cosmetic goodies to collect.

Overwatch was far from the only game to implement the idea. By 2017, loot boxes had become the norm across all sorts of online games, and especially in online shooters. But what had once been a novel way to imitate the randomized surprise of opening packs in games like Magic: The Gathering and the Pokemon TCG started to rub gamers the wrong way. And soon enough, developers would face a full-throated backlash.

With Star Wars Battlefront 2, EA planned to implement loot boxes in the form of Star Cards, which were tied to all sorts of progression and unlockables. It was fairly aggressive, especially since it seemed to offer a competitive advantage that was swiftly criticized as "pay to win." Perhaps because loot boxes were coming to a head, or perhaps because Star Wars was seen as an imminently kid-friendly property, the backlash to Star Wars Battlefront 2's loot box monetization was fierce. Worse, it went mainstream, attracting attention from outlets like the New York Times and drawing comparisons to gambling. That ultimately prompted scrutiny from Congress and the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC), resulting in bills that would make the practice illegal, and console manufacturers committing to voluntary disclosures of elements like drop rates. The ESA ultimately added content warning labels and committed to further steps as needed in 2019. But by then the practice was already on its way out. The industry had gotten perilously close to serious legal action, and it wasn't going to take that risk anymore. EA had aggressively ripped loot boxes out of Battlefront 2 just before launch, and new games were steering clear altogether.

Except for Hearthstone.

By 2018 and 2019, when loot boxes were becoming anathema, Hearthstone was continuing to plug away with roughly quarterly expansions, each one offering around 135 cards to collect, and the only way to get your hands on all of them was to invest heavily in randomized card packs. The plucky card game's success had contributed to a fire that consumed the games industry, and when the smoke cleared, it just continued on its merry way. Some pointed out at the time that Hearthstone's card packs were functionally no different from loot boxes, but the company continued offering them just the same as it always had.

This is not to say that Hearthstone hasn't changed significantly since launch. In its first few years, Hearthstone set a regular cadence of full expansions alongside smaller sets of "Solo Adventures" against AI opponents that would grant you a full set of cards. Now the game has reached a new equilibrium: three full-sized expansions per year, each with its own themed "mini" set that comes roughly midway through to keep things fresh. Like Solo Adventures, the mini-sets can be purchased all at once, but there's no AI-opponent aspect to earn the new cards. The new cards also get added to the pool of random packs so that you can just discover them alongside all the rest, if you'd prefer. Under the hood, Blizzard has progressively introduced new rules for opening packs that help stave off receiving too many duplicates, and the game allows you to re-roll certain rewards. Various mechanics have been added to attract new and lapsed players by helping them catch up, including granting the annual Core Set rotation to all players for free.

And while the early days of Hearthstone consisted only of standard play and the Draft-inspired Arena mode, the game has expanded heavily since then. Constructed play now consists of Standard, with an annually shifting base card pool; Wild, which allows all cards throughout its entire history; and the frequently shifting and experimental Twist mode. Arena is joined by Duels--still in beta--and the now-retired but still-available Mercenaries mode. The main menu houses Battlegrounds, an auto-battler mode, as well as the weekly rotating Tavern Brawl mode.

Likewise, the marketplace itself has changed a lot, as Blizzard has diversified its revenue streams. While the company has stayed the course of selling randomized packs, it also sells two separate battle passes--one for standard play and another for the Battlegrounds mode. It has introduced an in-game real-money currency conversion and greatly expanded the volume of cosmetics you can buy.

In total, all this means that it's never been easier to play competitively in Hearthstone--to obtain a functionally full standard set, or at least one that can remain competitive--and it's never been harder to be a completionist, if you want to own every cosmetic bauble. But the randomized packs remain, even as most of the industry has moved on. Maybe its nature as a virtualized card game helps to smooth over general dissatisfaction with randomized pack mechanics. Maybe Blizzard has sanded off the rough edges enough that it doesn't face the same scrutiny it would otherwise. However it happened, Hearthstone was instrumental in popularizing one of the biggest industry trends of the last decade, and 10 years later, it's one of the last ones standing.

For more on Hearthstone for its 10th anniversary, be sure to read our in-depth interview with Blizzard designers about how the team went about designing its birthday bash.

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