This week, Blizzard announced that they’d be releasing a new playable Hearthstone hero called Nemsy Necrofizzle. The catch? It’s only available for players who participate in difficult-to-reach LAN-type events called Fireside Gathering Taverns. This has annoyed some players, but it’s also shown that Blizzard still hasn’t figured out a good scheme to encourage more in-person matches of their very popular online game.
Even though Nemsy is a purely cosmetic collectible and doesn’t affect the game at all, players on the Hearthstone subreddit and official forums are upset about how difficult it can be to actually find a Fireside Gathering Tavern. The nearest one to me, for instance, is in Newark, New Jersey, so even though I live in the ultra-populated area of Brooklyn, New York, I’d have to travel at least an hour to reach one of these events.
You can’t easily just run one of these events in your neighbourhood, either. According to Blizzard, the studio behind Hearthstone, “A Tavern becomes established after you’ve hosted a Fireside Gathering that had at least three unique patrons in attendance. After you meet this requirement, your next visit to FiresideGatherings.com will prompt you to establish a Tavern that you and your community can call home.” In essence, if you want to start a Tavern, you need to gather a group of three people to play Hearthstone in one place, on two separate occasions. Good luck with that.
So we’ve got Fireside Gathering meet-ups and Fireside Gathering Tavern meet-ups, which are similar in name but different in scope. One yields a new hero portrait while another does not. There’s no doubt that some players will travel to a non-Tavern Fireside Gathering and come away without a new Warlock portrait. It’s confusing.
I can’t say I can fully relate to the outrage over an in-game item that doesn’t affect gameplay, but this whole situation does have me wishing for a more robust scene for Hearthstone meet-ups. Up until this point, Blizzard has struggled to put together organised community events in a way that’s both natural and convenient for the entirety of the Hearthstone playerbase. Earlier this year, they tried to host early rounds of an important tournament at Buffalo Wild Wings locations across the U.S., frustrating pro players who were flabbergasted that they had to travel for hours just to play a few games of Hearthstone — an online video game — in a fried chicken joint.
If you’ve ever played a card game like Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon TCG or Magic: the Gathering, you know that card games can serve as potent community-builders. Think of all the times you’ve sat at a lunch table or local game store playing a TCG, and it’s easy to recall the sheer joy of being in a physical space with physical people, playing a physical game with physical objects. Because these games exist in analogue form, they’re made to be shared and traded and admired.
Clearly, Blizzard is trying to recapture some of this excitement with Fireside Gatherings, but the jump to digital space complicates things. Since Hearthstone is an electronic game, the company has to be at least somewhat involved in the process of controlling the environments in which it’s played. They don’t want their game to look bad, after all, if something goes wrong at a public Tavern locale or if the internet is spotty.
The problem, at least for now, is that none of this feels natural, even for players who actually want to go out and play some Hearthstone at a bar the same way they might play Netrunner. By attaching a limited-release hero portrait to the mix, Blizzard is only drawing extra scrutiny to a system that already leaves a lot to be desired.