Playing to Concede

One of the misconceptions about being a game developer is that you get to play games all day.  Not only is this not true (you’re usually so busy making games that you don’t have time to play them), but being a game developer can significantly alter what playing a game even means.

For example, like many people, I picked up Hearthstone when it came out on the iPad.  “Playing” Hearthstone, though, for me at least, is not about winning; it’s not about collecting cards, building better decks, increasing my ranking; I don’t go out into the forums looking for tips or analysis or deck templates.  Rather, it’s about taking the game apart and seeing how it works.

There are the basic things, like the rules and their limits; there are more advanced bits, like how many points Taunt is worth vs. Charge; but in order to really understand the game, I had to build out all of the basic card sets for all of the characters.  And, I had to play all of those characters to see how the 30-card decks and the 2-card limits played out (not abstract probabilities, but real play sessions), how much difference starting makes vs. the extra card, how many jokers are in each character’s set, where and how often Legendary cards are actually more powerful rather than just having unusual characteristics, how much the different characters rely on luck or crafting for key cards.

This takes a lot of time.  It takes a lot of sessions.  At this point, I have all 9 characters over level 20 and over 700 gold sitting in my “bank”.  And somewhere along the way, I decided to stop winning.  I think it was while I was grinding up my Paladin deck.  Rather than finishing off opponents, I now get to the point where I have (to my own satisfaction) answered the question I was investigating, and then I concede.

I see this as a win-win.  I need other players to see how decks compete in real-world conditions.  Other players need wins to complete their daily quests, grind out gold, whatever it is they are trying to accomplish.  I would be concerned about what this is doing to the matchmaking algorithm, except that the matchmaking algorithm is incredibly loose to begin with.  The communication channels are so limited that I’m not even sure what effect this has on the other players, whether they are surprised, outraged, grateful, annoyed.

It’s not the sort of thing I would have ever done when I used to play games for fun.  But, being a developer warps how you approach games.  You can never play innocently again; the questions of how and why all of the pieces are implemented the way they are, they never leave you.  I can play like a normal player, but only through a weird dual-consciousness where I am both playing and watching myself play.  I can only get to “like a normal player” not actually playing normally.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It’s a tradeoff, to be sure, but one that I am happy to concede.