Is Hearthstone Gambling?
Last year, EA’s now-infamous title Star Wars Battlefront II gave players the chance to avoid a 40-hour grind to get certain strong characters, such as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, through purchasing loot boxes that had a random chance of containing them.
As you are probably aware, the backlash against EA was gigantic. Gamers hated the fact that the most fun and iconic characters were effectively locked behind a paywall – a paywall that once breached only gave you a small chance of getting the Jedi or Sith you wanted. Otherwise you had to slog through the game at a painfully slow rate, spending dozens of hours, in order to access the best that the game had to offer.
Sound familiar? Hearthstone players are well accustomed to being at the mercy of RNGesus both in game and while opening card packs. We often face a hefty grind to get the cards we want. Unless you spend a lot of time farming gold, where your wins and pace of gold-gathering is also partially decided by RNG, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to play the cool decks you see streamers playing.
We are incentivised to pay real money to buy packs. These packs can either be almost useless (40 dust) or they can contain powerful Legendary cards. Essentially, each pack is a minigame in which we either win big with cool cards or get next to nothing. Or you can use your valuable time to grind out those cool cards – which still aren’t guaranteed. Viewed this way, it’s hard to see how pack opening is different to EA’s despised loot boxes.
If you’re reading this, you probably know just how addictive opening packs can be. It’s designed to be a fun experience, yes – but it’s also engineered in a variety of ways to make you want as many packs as you can possibly have. The exciting glow that reveals the card’s rarity before you click. The colourful and visually pleasing graphics. The relative cheapness of each individual pack, allowing you to open at least a couple every day, alongside freebies from the likes of Tavern Brawl and daily quests.
Activision Blizzard wants to get us hooked. Like a slot machine, we all want to press the button and see what we win, again and again.
After the Battlefront II fiasco, a number of European gambling regulators announced that they were looking into the relationship between loot boxes and gambling. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands all examined whether these random digital prize chests count as ‘games of chance’. They are now regarded as illegal gambling by these governments, including Australia.
Blizzard did not escape from this crackdown. Overwatch, which also sells loot crates as ways to acquire skins and other cosmetic items, was declared in April to be in breach of Belgian gambling laws. They risk an €800,000 fine, largely because of the game’s appeal to children: “It is often children who come into contact with such systems and we cannot allow that,” said Belgian minister of justice Koen Greens.
What does that mean for Hearthstone, the well-known “children’s card game”, if Overwatch loot boxes have landed Blizzard in hot regulatory water - even though they only give cosmetic items that don’t boost in-game performance like Legendaries do? Are card packs the same as loot boxes?
Developers are worried. EA quickly dropped loot boxes from their game. There were even reports that the CEO of Disney had called up his EA counterpart in a rage to demand that loot boxes be removed. In comments to GameSpot, the Battlefront developers insisted that “the crate mechanics of [the game] are not gambling. A player’s ability to succeed in the game is not dependent on purchasing crates. Players can also earn crates through playing the game and not spending any money at all.”
One US senator from Hawaii even described the game as “predatory”, adding that “this game is a Star-Wars themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money. It’s a trap.”
The similarity here to Hearthstone is certainly disturbing. The light-hearted and bubbly aesthetic, a world away from the grittiness of World of Warcraft, certainly appeals to all ages. Unlike Overwatch or Battlefront, Hearthstone can be also played on phones and tablets, which is where younger people (and the money) are. It’s just as easy to spend £2.99 on packs as it is to spend much larger amounts like £79.99, as we saw in the recent pre-expansion promotions.
Despite all this, there is no real risk of Hearthstone being labelled as gambling alongside Overwatch, Dota 2, and Battlefront. Significant debate exists among government regulators about whether loot boxes - and card packs - are really gambling. The UK Gambling Commission, for example, disagrees with Belgium or the Netherlands and regards them as distinctly “not gambling”.
The key difference is that games like Dota 2, Counter-Strike, and FIFA, another EA game with very similar RNG-based pack openings, have items that can be exchanged on a marketplace in-game. You can trade your rare items that you got from loot boxes for other items, as part of a digital economy. Each rare skin thus has a tangible value that can be sold for a profit, and then sold to a third party IRL for hard currency. That’s why regulators have problems with EA and Valve’s games.
In Hearthstone, you may spend all your euros, pounds or dollars on a slim chance at Dr. Boom, but once you get him he can’t be traded with other players. There is no potential for unscrupulous skin or item shops to get involved, as they have with Valve’s games. All you can do with those valuable rare cards is use them yourself, or swap them for Arcane Dust. This is a crucial difference. No government ever prosecuted Yu-Gi-Oh cards as unlicensed gambling.
The free-to-play versus pack-buying argument has been raging more or less nonstop since Hearthstone was released. In my nearly five years of playing, I have never felt compelled to buy packs in order to succeed. Unlike in Battlefront II and many other new games, I believe players really can do well without spending a penny – and this has been proven by countless streamers such as TrumpSC. FtP to Legend is doable.
In my opinion, although Hearthstone clearly contains a lot of the worryingly addictive mechanics used both by loot boxes and the global gambling industry, it has enough supporting features to make it a fun and complete game without needing to spend money. You can’t use your gold to buy cards from other players, and that is a very good thing. If that ever changes, it’s a different story.
Until then, let’s let RNGesus take the wheel (or mouse, trackpad, or screen) and bust open those Boomsday packs without worry.