Lets Talk Microtransactions: Solforge vs. Hearthstone

I think about microtransactions a lot. I am cognizant of the dichotomy of my thoughts on the subject, too; I'll throw money at something that brings me joy, and without question, but if I'm doing it on a mobile device, I feel weird about it. I got to thinking more about this while playing Hearthstone. I recognize and appreciate that this game can be played and enjoyed without paying a cent. However, as a fan of card games, I wanted to dive into the deckbuilding. I spent a week playing it every day, so I spent $10 to buy 7 packs to get started.

A week later, I spent another $10. And another $10 a week after that. At this point I started wondering why I'd never gotten around to buying some packs for another card game I enjoy, Solforge. Solforge is similar to Hearthstone and also a free-to-play CCG on PC and iOS, although Hearthstone isn't available on iOS yet. I've played Solforge daily on my iPad for the past 8 months or so. I expect the iOS version of Hearthstone will make me play a lot less, so I decided to spend $10 for the time I've spent with it.

Then I remembered why I had never spent any money: gold. I had to buy a fake digital currency called Gold. Then I had to use my fake Gold to buy packs of cards, but only after performing a lot of division and/or multiplication to figure out which tier of Gold I needed to buy to get the specific packs I wanted. There are several tiers of Gold purchases and three type of card packs. You can't just give them money and receive packs of cards. Everything is incredibly obfuscated. Such is the way of bad microtransactions.

Before continuing, let me say I realize that Stoneblade Entertainment, the creator of Solforge, has to give Apple a cut of in-app purchases, so this roundabout purchase process helps them charge a little more to make-up the difference. That just passes the overhead onto the consumer, but I'm sympathetic.

When I buy a pack of cards in Hearthstone, I know each pack is valued at about $1.50. I know this because I give Blizzard $2.99 and I receive 2 packs. If I spend $9.99, I receive 7 packs, and so on. I don't buy Hearthstone Gold to buy packs. I just spend USD and I don't end up with a balance in fake currency.

Solforge's microtransactions are an example of what is wrong with this model. Now, hang on. I know there are apps with some truly awful in-app purchases out there, especially in the games category. If you're thinking about one of these apps, then you know those apps are abusive. The microtransaction model itself is not bad, but it must be done well or it is exploitive and silly.

At the time of this writing*, Solforge charges:

  • 70 Gold for a Basic pack
  • 560 Gold for a Normal pack
  • 3,250 Gold for a Premium pack
  • $4.99 for 1300 Gold (base tier)
  • $9.99 for 2750 Gold (5% bonus)
  • $19.99 for 5600 Gold (7.5% bonus)
  • $49.99 for 14400 Gold (10% bonus)
  • $99.99 for 30000 Gold (15% bonus)
*There is a "Winter Sale" going on where all prices for things you buy with Gold are 50% off, so all prices in Gold have been doubled.

Lets acknowledge the typical, sort of sleazy strategies employed here. The prices don't increase at the same rate (no $14.99 option). Each tier advertises a % bonus in Gold. The ridiculous $99.99 tier is a huge button in a different color and advertised as "THE BEST VALUE". OK, now lets ignore that trash. This is all par for the course that is microtransactions. I want to discuss the economy that this idea of Gold is hiding.

Hearthstone packs are well balanced because there is one type of pack that contains the same number of cards and chances of containing something rare as every other pack. Solforge's card packs are already unbalanced because of the tiered model they use. Basic packs only grant you three cards (one guaranteed rare) and it'll probably always be something you have after you've been playing the game for a while. A Normal pack grant you 8 cards (two rare cards and one heroic guaranteed). A Premium pack grants you 10 cards, but it's the king of packs; you are guaranteed to receive one legendary card, three heroic cards, and three rare cards.

The Solforge community has also determined that, while any pack can contain a legendary card, Premium packs have a higher chance of spitting them out. So spend more money and get ore bang for your buck. This breaks the traditional CCG model: buy a pack of cards and cross your fingers; the old ways keep every competitor on even ground.

Solforge also offers you 4 chances to get one of these packs for free every day. The chance of getting a Premium pack is very low, but you often get a free Basic pack and some Silver. Oh, no, another currency. Yes, there is also Silver, which can be used to buy some things, like Basic packs. Silver will be discussed later.

This is already getting complicated. Prices can't be directly compared because each pack is different. But we can use the base Gold tier to figure our the USD price of Gold. $1.00 gets you 260 Gold. That means:

  • Basic packs are $0.27
  • Normal packs are $2.15
  • Premium packs are $12.50

Wow. OK, so you get a guaranteed legendary and all that, but $12.50 for 10 cards? Remember, this might be awesome if you download the game and dive in by buying some Premium packs, but if you wait, you'll probably get duplicate cards. It's a $12.50 gamble. Compared to the Hearthstone model (or physical card games), this seems ludicrous.

I wanted to give Stoneblade Entertainment $10, so I had to figure out what this meant. We know that got me 2,750 Gold. Normally that would not get me a Premium pack, but that Winter Sale business enabled me to buy one for 1,625 Gold. That left me with 1,125 Gold. I was then able to buy four Normal packs for 280 each. I was left with a maddening 4 Gold.

As a fan of the game, Normal packs are next to worthless for me. Slightly more efficient than Basic packs, but full of cards I probably don't need anymore, and this turned out to be the case with my purchases. It hardly mattered, though. My aim was really to "buy" the game and support it. It still left a sour taste.

Then I started looking at the other things for sale. A skin for the gameplay area is 15,000 Silver or 140 Gold, which comes to about $0.54. That should make 1,000 Silver equal to $0.04. A Basic card pack is the only pack you can buy with Silver and it carries a 900 Silver price. But that means you can either spend $0.27 USD or $0.03 in Silver.

But this changes based on how you choose to calculate the cost of Silver. If we base it off a Basic pack, 1000 Silver is worth $0.30. A Basic pack costs 900 Silver or $0.27 in Gold, so this seems to be Stoneblade's intended exchange rate. That makes the price of a skin $4.50 in Silver. See how quickly this goes off the rails? Either way the balance between Silver and Gold is terribly skewed.

Additional deck slots for custom card decks can be purchased for 25,000 Silver or 140 Gold. Wait. That's the same Gold price as a skin, but the Silver price is 10,000 higher. That's $7.50 in Silver and $0.54 in Gold/USD. None of this makes any sense, but it only gets worse.

To truly understand how this is so bad, I have to explain Silver. You can get Silver as a reward for playing. You can get tiny amount of a few hundred Silver or over 2,000 just from signing-in each day. Every prize after that, gained by winning 5 games, can also reward Silver, but sometimes you get a draft or event ticket, a card pack, or a single card. Your reward and its value is completely random. If we assume you can gain at least 5,000 Silver every day, that means 3-5 days to earn what could be purchased for $0.54.

This is a typical reward. It's generous to assume 5,000 Silver /day.

Tickets are truly broken. Both Hearthstone and Solforge have a card draft mode. Hearthstone calls it The Arena and a player can pay their entry fee with a single day's worth of in-game currency or $1.99 USD. Solforge calls it a Draft Tournament and charges the player 7 tickets, a third currency.

You can buy a ticket for 20,000 Silver or 130 Gold, but you need seven. Why even do the math? We already know the result will only make us all sad. You need 7 tickets to enter a Draft Tournament. That means--assuming a player doesn't get lucky with their daily rewards--the entry fee is one or some combination of:

  • 35 days collecting 5,000 Silver/day
  • $3.50 in Gold
  • $42 in Silver
Solforge values their Draft mode as 2x what Hearthstone values its Arena mode. That might be a value might be as high as 35x that of Hearthstone's if a player is only spending in-game currency. To be fair, entry into the Arena requires 2-3 days worth of currency, but Hearthstone doles out currency via Quests, which you can build up for 3 days and complete all at once.

This entire piece has actually gone a completely different direction than I expected, mostly because I had not anticipated the math to be so ridiculous. My quick mental math painted a slightly more balanced picture, which might be the point of all this obfuscation. But it does help shed some light onto why I shy away from spending money on my iPad when I'd probably throw money at my PC monitor if I thought it'd be a faster way to give my money away.

It's because of all this trash between me and the people I want to pay. If I had started playing Hearthstone on my iPad and never touched the PC version, I wonder if I'd have ever spent any money, or spent it so quickly. I think it might have not made any difference. We'll see what Blizzard chooses to do with in-app purchases when that app is released for iOS.

Figuring out how to balance an economy of Silver, Gold, and USD is hard, but maybe you just shouldn't try to do it. At the best of times you get some version of this mess, but it's jut insulting and abusive at its worst. Solforge is somewhere between and I sincerely hope they can fix it.

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