When a Free to play game is announced the usual reaction on sites like this may be to treat it with a bit of contempt or scorn. We’ve been through a ton of these games, and we are for the most part members of a more educated group of people (at least as far as games are concerned). The exploitative, barely a game, gotcha, money delivering systems masquerading as a free to play game is like a grain of sand on the Jersey shore. They comprise the bulk of what is offered on the mobile. Not only that but they are often clones or mash ups. Anything that is remotely popular is usually replicated to hell and back.
So One could imagine my disappointment with the announcement that rather than getting an Elder Scrolls 6 (or 7 if you want to count ESO), we would be getting yet another digital card game. It seemed like ever since Hearthstone became a thing everyone and their mother wanted to make a card game for mobile. At the time I was just getting sick of it since chasing trends rarely leads to anything good. It also taps into my agitation with the industry and its larger players for the same reason. They chase trends and many games do suffer for it; Dead Space is a great example of this.
At that point I was not feeling it at all. My opinion at that time was that this was just another attempt to chase a trend that would inevitably end with Bethesda losing interest when public support faded. Taking into account The Elder Scrolls Online and some other moves made by Bethesda at the time my confidence was severely lacking.
It would take around 2 years for me to get around to playing the game, and I only ended up doing that because of a streamer named Kripparian. You see ESL had a very small online presence. I only remember seeing a bit of coverage and then it all kind of evaporated with very little discussion. Eventually I forgot it existed until I watched Kripp post it as a sponsored YouTube video. He started going over all the features in the game and went over a couple of decks he enjoyed playing. Skyrim was the newest expansion at the time and I became very interested in his Alduin deck. Ultimately I decided to give the game a try. There seemed to be a lot to do in the game and as someone who sunk a lot of time in Skyrim the cards were interesting to me.
I was also becoming a bit tired of the aggro fest that was the ranked format in Hearthstone. Pirate Warrior, Midrange Shaman, Jade Shaman, Jade Druid, Quest Rouge. It was hard to win any game because it would usually end by turn 4 or 5.
It is very frustrating to be so invested in a game, and to not be able to play most of the cool cards you own. Even now with Witch Wood out it’s hard to really enjoy my preferred game mode (ranked).
After downloading the game I played their single player campaign which acts as a tutorial of sorts. It helps you become familiar with the base set of cards and this games gimmick being lanes and runes.
Each player has 5 runes that draw you a card when they are broken. These runes break in increments of 5 spread across your 30 total health pool. This means that if you are at 30 health and take 10 damage you will draw 2 cards. What I personally love about this is that it can punish very aggressive play. The key word prophecy lets a card be played for free if they are drawn through breaking a rune and that can be anything from board clears to healing. So not only does aggressive play give your opponent a card advantage but it can also help them reclaim the board.
Lanes are simple, you have 2 lanes and sometimes one or both lanes will have a special effect when a minion is played on that field. This could be anything from giving a minion stealth to equipping a random item. What you get depends on what mode you are playing, though the standard set up is one normal lane(no effect) and one shadow lane(minions have stealth).
Now the first campaign you get isn’t just a big tutorial. Adventures in ESL have a certain degree of openness to them as there are optional quests that can be taken and actual choices that are more than just lip service. At times you will be offered a chance to make a choice as part of the story. Depending on what you choose the game will play differently and the story will reflect that. To illustrate this without spoiling anything, choosing to kill person X may make that battle harder initially, but pays off in a latter mission when you wear his cloths to get the jump on the enemy. It may not seem like a whole lot but all these little things add up to make it a great experience that is greatly rewarding.
Speaking of rewards ESL has to be one of the best free to play games when it comes to the free part. This is a game that I can truly call free to play. You could more than realistically get by without spending a dime. I think I spent a grand total of around $20 and that was because they had a few sales on card packs. The First thing ESL has is a daily Log in bonus, ending with a free legendary card if you logged on once a day for the whole month. The more you log in the better your rewards as time progresses. You can get free cards, packs, gold, soul gems (used to craft cards), and Arena tickets which can be used on all forms of arena (they also don’t expire). Even if you don’t manage to play it, it’s worth logging in to claim you bonus since you can use the gold you earn to buy chapters of any available story expansion, or you can use it to buy pre-made decks.
These decks for the most part are a great buy. The pre-built decks do well on their own but the real value is in the legendary and synergistic cards that come with it. All that is available for purchase with in game gold. The value there is tremendous, especially if you compare it to Hearthstone where your chances of getting a legendary are only guaranteed if you hit that 40 pack pity timer. Just outline how good it is by comparison, 500 gold nets you one of those prepaid decks in ESL (minimum 30 cards with one being a legendary). 500 gold in hearthstone will net you 25 cards and the odds are you will get 20 common cards and 5 rare cards. Assuming you own them all you get 330 dust. That is about 1/5th of the dust required to get a legendary.
Listed for your convenience.
-Quests: Quests give 40-60 gold and are presented to you at a rate of 1 quest per day, up to 3 active quests. When a player has an open slot for a quest the game usually gives 2 quests and between those you can choose the one that will fill that slot. This is great because you have more control over your quests which means you will likely keep the gold flowing by picking the quests best suited to your play style. One of the best parts about this is that Quests can be completed in any mode, story mode included.
- Drops: Relatively new, drops are rewarded to you for watching ESL streamers on twitch. These drops happen at random and can be anything from gold to free packs. I myself have gotten many packs and arena tickets from drops. All you need to do is link your twitch to your Bethesda account and leave a tab open on a streamer while they are playing ESL. You have a random chance of getting a drop as long as you have the stream open. One great streamer for drops is JustALazyGamer who has his channel up almost all day every day be it with hosting other ESL streamers or rebroadcasts of his own. This is great if you have a crazy work schedule like me. You can always rely on Lazy to be up in some capacity.
- This game also has a leveling system and it usually rewards you with cards as well as upgrades for cards in your basic set. “Upgrades” are just better versions of basic cards that exist in the game. An example could be having a 3 mana 3/3 minion with no abilities that has 2 other cards similar to itself like a 4 mana 5/3 breakthrough, or a 4 mana 3/5 taunt. When you level up a possible reward could be a choice between the 2 cards. Pick what you want and that card type is added to your collection.
That’s a lot of loot, and a great way to enjoy much of what the game has to offer without spending a dime
The final thing I want to touch upon is the general Free to play experience and ESL’s great single player support. Since missions can be completed in all modes there is a great deal of freedom when it comes to playing ESL. In games like Hearthstone I do sometimes feel forced to play standard casual or tavern brawl in order to finish certain quests. I also feel like I really need to go out of my way sometimes because of the quests I roll. The problem with these 2 modes is that beyond the free pack for the weekly Brawl they don’t advance you in any way. If you want to get a few extra packs or gold for arena runs then you need to play modes that will ultimately benefit you (ranked and arena).
Going back to ESL what complements that freedom is the existence not only of multiple story missions but also Solo arena which is basically an AI controlled tavern brawl that costs 150 gold, or 1 arena ticket (acquired from promos, drops on twitch, and daily log in bonus). You face off against 8 enemies (you choose the order) and then defeat the final boss. Like arena you will construct you own deck from a series of offered cards (based on your chosen class) but in solo arena you also get another draft pick for each victory adding another layer of complexity and strategy as your deck further evolves. Each match usually has some kind of gimmick which is where the tavern brawl part comes in. One fight might have a lane that randomly transforms any minion played there into a random beast. Another might have both players wield a wobbajack.
As someone who enjoys what tavern brawl brings to hearthstone I really do enjoy solo arena. It provides a very similar experience to brawl but merges it with a lot of the things I like about arena, namely rewards based on performance and deck building. It should be noted that you can’t go infinite in solo arena. You don’t earn enough gold on any given run even if you beat the boss. Every 2-3 runs would probably provide the gold needed to get a “free run”, not counting any bonuses for ranking up in solo arena. You do receive other things like packs, soul gems, and cards so that more than makes up for the gold.
And finally, for those of you looking for a more standard experience ESL offers a regular arena mode and both ranked and casual matchmaking each of which provides their own rewards based on performance. From time to time they will have special events like chaos arena which is basically Solo arena with actual players.
There is just so much ESL offers to its players without asking for much in return. It’s a design philosophy that more publishers need to take into consideration. Make a good game, and the business will come. Too many companies concern themselves with the money they want to make so they put all these barriers in place to make their players feel like they have to spend to get anywhere. It’s not a fantasy it’s the reality of the mobile industry and there are dedicated services aimed at producing games in such a way that it will turn “players into payers”.
I’m glad that there are plenty of people who can resist the psychological bombardment of free to play games, but the world does not exist in a vacuum and there is a larger effect in play. Barring how this can negatively affect some people games that are free to play are balanced differently than a paid for game. Look no further than Battle front 2 if you want to see what a free to play game is when it is stripped of the “live service”. It’s an unreasonable slog that requires a full time jobs worth of hours to actually enjoy what the game has to offer (and worse yet people paid for that).
I feel that Bethesda chose to make a good game first, and then monetize it later. Instead of capping you in the knees after the first 5 minutes you are given the tools and opportunity to actually earn what the game has to offer simply by playing the damn game and being part of the community. Having such a good time here brings me mixed feelings. I am happy for the game, but also a bit upset with the state of things because I see just how much better things can be. It’s not that I don’t want people to have free games or to enjoy themselves on mobile, but I want them to have a better experience. Perhaps instead of justifying the shitty industry standards and bending over backwards to justify and accommodate them we spend a little more time celebrating the good ones and sharing those with the people close to us.