We’re Getting Screwed by Patching

I quite enjoy Hearthstone as a break from Vainglory, Command and Conquer Rivals, and Armajet, purely because it’s turn based.

Zimbabwean internet is expensive, but stable for the most part, but there are often times when things get a little more ropey. Were primarily connected to the rest of the world by two major internet lines, one of which has had a lot of repairs. On top of that, it’s not uncommon for the service to be disrupted by lines being downed by wildlife or dug up by the rural communities.

But Hearthstone is not without its issues.

I’ve played a few Trading Card Games in my days, from the Pokémon TCG, to Magic: the Gathering and even a little Netrunner, so I’m familiar with the concept of the current meta. Essentially, with the release of new expansions, there are certain cards or combos that see a lot of use due to their power.

Sometimes it’s just a case of a new card doing what an older one did, but better or cheaper. Sometimes it’s a new card twinning in powerful ways with an older one. Whatever the case, this creates a meta and counter meta, which essentially means you’ll see these cards and combos, and the best cards and combos to counter them, a lot.

In a real world TCG, this meta stays in play until the next expansion comes out and changes it. Theoretically, this means that any super powered combo is going to be around until the next set launches with cards that counter it, or sometimes even longer until the particular card or cards in question fall out of Standard play. That can be quite a while.

In practice, this means that TCG designers go to great pains to consider every card that they design and how it might play with other current cards. Whilst there are plenty of examples of super powerful cards and combos in Magic: the Gathering, they’re not as common as you’d think, and there’s usually a good counter meta at the same time – I’d imagine by design.

Hearthstone doesn’t have this issue. It’s a digital game so the designers don’t have to worry about waiting for a super powerful card to rotate out of play, they can just patch the game and change the cards. This is good news as it means any super powerful combos can be toned down quickly, right?

I disagree for two reasons.

Firstly, I believe this lack of accountability leads to lazier design. Previously, designers had to carefully balance everything in a game before launch to ensure it was fair and fun. Now, designers don’t have to worry too much about a card (or character in a fighting game or MOBA) being overpowered as if it begins to dominate the meta, they can just patch it down later, which means they don’t need to consider it quite so carefully. This ties into and exacerbates the second issue.

In Hearthstone, it’s difficult to get any one particular card. You can’t just purchase individual cards, you have to pay real world money for booster packs and hope that you either get the card you want, or that you get enough unwanted cards that you can disenchant to create the card you want directly (and that’s not cheap as cards disenchant for quarter of their crafting value). This means that players after a particular card are likely placing a significant financial investment into getting it, or at the very least are disenchanting a significant amount of cards to create it.

So what then happens when the card is patched?

Players have spent a significant investment to get their hands on a particular card for its abilities. If those abilities are then changed after their purchase, I can imagine this could cause a lot of resentment. It’s also an ethical grey area.

If I purchase a t-shirt at a shop because of the design on it, I know what I’m getting, and I know that it will stay that way (excepting stains or wear and tear). I know what I am buying and can make an informed decision on what it’s worth and if the price is acceptable.

The me could be said with purchasing something like a car. The customer will weigh up the cost of the product, along with the expected lifespan of the product and the tangible benefits of having that product. If those expectations aren’t met, there’s usually grounds for a consumer rights complaint. If I buy a car, I expect it to run well for several years without major issue if it’s looked after.

When paying money on digital content, none of these protections apply. We may expect our purchase to operate a certain way for a certain length of time, but there are no guarantees that this will be the case.

This extends beyond Hearthstone and into the digital world in all manner of ways. MOBAs or fighting games could make new paid DLC characters more powerful to attract players to purchase them to get the edge, only to nerf them down later. This is most definitely not ethical and arguably false advertising. This is enticing people to spend money on something only to later change the nature of what they have purchased, without their consent and without warning at point of sale.

To use the car equivalent, imagine that the sales man states that the car comes equipped with several exciting features and it is these features that ultimately sway you to make the purchase and part with your hard earned money. Two weeks later, several of these features disable themselves, so you go back to the shop, only to be told that this isn’t a fault – the designers decided that they didn’t want those features any more.

This happened recently: some people got (understandably) upset when they purchased films on the Apple Store that were later removed by the providers and no refund offered by Apple. If I purchase a videogame and it’s later patched, it may not be the same product I originally purchased and may have altered away from the reasons that I initially purchased it.

It makes me think of phone OS upgrades. Often, a new iteration of a phone operating system is released and settings are changed – users may not like the new layout or the removal of previous functions, but they have no say in this. Software may not run properly on the new system, causing issues until the developers can correct it. Sometimes this may just be minor inconveniences and annoyances – sometimes it renders important services unusable which can cause loss of earnings or other serious repercussions.

Sadly, it’s an aspect of the digital world that we are having to accept. Without our consent, the products we have paid for are altered and changed. Imagine paying for software only to later find that it now is collecting and sending your data to third party companies. You can’t get a refund yet this isn’t what you agreed to when you originally downloaded the software.

What do you think? How has the ability to patch and change our products and games changed things? Do you agree with me that the ability to patch things creates lazier design? Is the ability for providers to change products after you have purchased them unethical? Should we be adding some kind of consumer protection into this?


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