I'm so sick of games that shoot themselves in the foot just to boost phoney player engagement numbers

Images from Hearthstone
Images from Hearthstone

Update: Since this article went live both Blizzard and Bungie have made changes to the quests and activities that were covered. Here's what Blizzard has to say:

"Our aim with the adjustments was to give all our players goals to play towards, and to reward our most engaged players (who would likely still complete the Weekly Quests without too much difficulty) for their commitment to the game. But we’ve heard your feedback and it's clear that we pushed too far."

The quests, some of which had tripled in terms of their requirements, are now being "'scaled down... to a number between what they were before and what they are now". So, not a complete rollback, but I would expect to see something much more conservatively calibrated.

Meanwhile, over at Bungie, improvements are being made to the Onslaught mode to make sticking around through the later waves more rewarding.

From the Destiny 2 account on X:

"We've been following feedback that there should be better incentives to stay in Onslaught for the full 50 waves, so teammates don't dip out after wave 10. We're adding two additional weapon rewards to Onslaught and buffing Trophies of Bravery drops to help address this."

The thread goes into more detail on the changes being made.

Honestly, I'm not surprised that either company has decided to intervene. Particularly in the case of Blizzard, the reaction to the quest rework was absolutely brutal. What would be really great is if companies could calibrate their reward structures based on what's going to make players happy to log on, rather than trying to trap them into racking up the maximum amount of time in-game.

It'd also be nice if those who set these targets spent a bit more energy listening to the voices within their own studios who warn them when these decisions are obviously going to land appallingly. We live in hope.

Original: This isn't the article I wanted to write today. I wanted to tell you how much fun the new Duos mode in Hearthstone Battlegrounds is, having jammed a couple of games with my colleague on GamesRadar last night. We won both, partly because we're big-brained CCG professionals, but also because we were in Discord strategizing hard as we threw cards back and forth between our screens. There's a significantly higher skill ceiling to Duos, both in terms of actual APM and planning for two team comps simultaneously, resulting in a mode that demands concentration but also pays off in big laughs.

But if you open the subreddit today, no one is talking about any of that. Instead you will find thread after thread of white hot fury directed at Blizzard.

That fury is because, in addition to Duos, Blizzard chose yesterday to revamp the way Weekly Quests work. If whoever is responsible for the redesign hoped that the arrival of Duos meant it would be a good day to bury bad news, then they're either incredibly naive or (worse) arrogant. Because within minutes of the new Quests going live, the uproar began.

For the last few years players have been given three quests per week that reward a juicy hit of XP that goes towards ranking up on the season pass. These quests have always had fairly generic requirements, like spending mana, winning ladder games, or using your hero power, most of which can be done in a couple of hours of play. However, with no prior warning, Blizzard has decided to triple these targets across the board, in return for which players are being granted a measly 20% more XP.

The only communication about the change was buried shamefacedly at the bottom of the patch notes: "[Progression] Some Daily and Weekly Quests have been adjusted to be harder to complete but will grant more XP." As the top Reddit thread succinctly puts it: "The math isn't mathing".

Images from Hearthstone
Images from Hearthstone

Of course, almost everyone reading this will be familiar with games that use predatory design in order to keep players logged in, whether that be to juice those all-important Daily Average User numbers so beloved of shareholders, or just in the hope that you might crack and drop some dollars in the MTX store. But I would say rarely are these things so nakedly egregious. Anyone with a basic command of how numbers work will see immediately that players are being told to grind three times as hard for a fraction of the return. No wonder they're pissed.

People either aren't being listened to or are being drowned out by upper management and the bean counters who work on the economy team.

What I find really unfortunate is that I cannot believe voices on the team weren't raised against this. But those people either aren't being listened to or are being drowned out by upper management and the bean counters who work on the economy team, whose job it is not to ensure you have fun but to keep you on the hamster wheel. Typing that feels almost preposterously obvious, because I'm a live service game veteran with many thousands of hours logged, so I know that this stuff works and that's why companies do it. But that doesn't mean we have to accept it, and increasingly I don't.

Avaricious design

For another example, let's hop over to my other forever game: Destiny 2. Like Hearthstone, it recently launched a new mode that has been received with near universal acclaim. Released as part of the free Into The Light update, Onslaught is the kind of horde mode players have craved for the entirety of the series' decade-long life. It has great loot, juicy enemy density, and in the Legend version an almost perfectly pitched difficulty level. It's a triumph, and as a result the game has climbed from historically low concurrent numbers back into the top 10 most-played games on Steam and Xbox.

Here comes the but: In order to unlock any of the dozen new weapons that drop from the mode for 'Attunement' (which means they're much more likely to appear as rewards), first you have to complete a mindless busywork quest. Again, the requirements are pretty generic. For the Mountaintop grenade launcher it reads: "Rapidly defeat combatants using Breech-Loaded Grenade Launchers anywhere in the system. Bonus progress for rapid final blows in Onslaught." Because seasoned players invariably chose the path of least resistance when it comes to loot, the result is that we either load into the entrance to the Grasp of Avarice dungeon, or grab a checkpoint for the Shuro Chi raid encounter, and farm trash tier mobs until the quest is done.

Is doing that hard? Obviously not. But is it also a completely unnecessary waste of my time? Absolutely, and it's really hard to find any justification for it beyond more hours logged. Instead, imagine if that quest step read: "Kill a lost sector boss on Legend difficulty with a grenade launcher." It would be fun, quick, potentially rewarding, and at least feel like you'd done something. But no, back to the wheel we go.

To be clear: I think the Destiny 2 example is much less offensive than the Hearthstone one. Certainly, the audience has barely blinked. But that's partly because Bungie has plenty of form for busywork, and I think this kind of design—grind, simply for grind's sake—is ultimately cut from the same cloth.

Onslaught mode from the Into the Light update
Onslaught mode from the Into the Light update

My real frustration here is that Blizzard's embarrassingly obvious manipulation of the XP-to-time numbers is part of a slow drip that ends up poisoning the groundwater for service games in general. Speaking to my non-industry friends, they'll routinely say stuff like: "Well, Bungie doesn't care as long as the engagement number is up." That is a prevailing sentiment among even casual players, and that way of thinking ultimately leads to more cynical accusations like: "These devs don't even play their own game", which I see levelled all the time across service games.

Having spent over twenty years talking to game developers, I can categorically say that it isn't true. The folks making the games you love want you to keep playing because you're having a great time with their creative work and not just to hit arbitrary engagement numbers. However, where the accusation feels like it does land is with whoever is making decisions related to in-game economy design.

Artificially created scarcity breeds FOMO, and leads to real sourness in the long run.

How else to explain the fact that, in Onslaught, it is more rewarding to just play the first 10 waves and dip rather than go all the way to 50 for which you're rewarded with a handful of rare mats and a single extra chest. It beggars belief that people didn't identify that as a problem in testing. Most of us noticed after one run. Also, why are the limited edition 'shiny' versions of these guns going away when The Final Shape launches, other than to jack up numbers now? Yes it works, but that artificially created scarcity breeds FOMO, and leads to real sourness in the long run. I won't be at all surprised when the drop rate is doubled in the last couple of weeks for another injection of playing time.

Likewise, who on Diablo 4's economy team decided that four Resplendent Sparks (already nerfed from five!) was the correct number required to craft an Uber Unique, the game's most rare tier of item? Almost the only source of Sparks comes from dismantling Uber Uniques, meaning you already need to have played for a wild amount of time each season to guarantee getting the one you want. And look, this isn't about wanting loot handed out for free. Trust me, I'll put the hours in. It's about not wanting to feel like the economy designers are laughing as they turn the screw.

As things stand, I can't help but feel like these sorts of woeful decisions are damaging the great work done by their colleagues. If I were one of the mad geniuses on Destiny 2's weapon sandbox team, or one of the brilliant artists creating cards for Hearthstone, I would stop letting the economy designers sit at our table for lunch. The fightback has to start somewhere.