As of this writing, I've successfully avoided the siren song of Hearthstone, and based on my friends' social network posts, that's probably for the best. When Blizzard recently launched the long-awaited iPhone version of their popular game, the response was unanimous: This thing was going to ruin lives.
The wild success of Blizzard's digital card game is something no one could've possibly predicted, but in hindsight, it isn't difficult to see the immediate, obvious appeal behind Hearthstone's design—making it kind of like Minecraft in that respect. And while the people at Wizards of the Coast—makers of Magic: The Gathering—must be beating themselves up over failing to turn their decades-old IP into a money-printing machine, Hearthstone won't be the only game in town for long. HEX: Shards of Fate stands as the latest entry in the world of digital card games, though its developers aspire to do more than replicate a physical experience in a more convenient format.
HEX: Shards of Fate has an interesting history behind it. After development started a little over three years ago, HEX's original publisher dropped the project, causing its developers to Kickstart their creation back to life. Since this crowdfunding campaign ended, HEX's development has made a great deal of progress, and despite a 2014 lawsuit from the aforementioned Coastal Wizards, Cryptozoic's creation has finally enetered public beta, so now anyone can check it out for themselves.
At first, dropping a digital card game into the framework of a multiplayer online RPG might not seem to be the most obvious idea, but HEX makes this collision of worlds feel pretty natural. While HEX Entertainment President Cory Jones was slightly vague about some of the more specific details during our recent meeting—mostly, the single-player component—the "massively multiplayer" aspect of HEX mainly involves connecting with other people, and not exploring the huge, open world this genre classification usually signifies. HEX's auction house exists as the biggest element of this multiplayer component, giving players an incentive to buy booster packs—bringing the all-important monetization hook to the game.
Above all, Jones made sure to emphasize HEX wouldn't follow the same tactics of other free-to-play games; he views the platform as a kind of "hobby shop," in which players are presented with the full experience up front, and can then choose to invest more without running into a paywall. And HEX definitely seeks to replicate the real-world thrills of opening a sealed pack of cards in a local game store. Purchasing a booster doesn't just plop a bunch of icons into your inventory; HEX treats it as a true event, where players slide their packs into an altar, and watch their bounty gradually reveal itself before clicking on that final card. Each booster pack also comes with a bonus in the form of a treasure chest players can increase in value by feeding a slot machine their earned, in-game currency. (Think of it as the stick of bubble gum that used to come standard in a pack of baseball cards, except not so stale and starchy.)
While you'll be collecting cards and building decks in Hex—pretty standard stuff for this type of game—more of its RPG elements can be seen in how play revolves around champions: characters that level up, gain new skills, and offer six slots for the sake of attaching equipment that provides a mix of benefits. HEX definitely goes beyond your standard card game with the amount of customization this "champion" concept entails, and the effects of certain cards definitely couldn't happen in the physical world. Jones walked me through a simple player-versus-enemy encounter, showing off some of the more extreme effects of his deck: Some cards can multiply themselves, create new cards, or even change the text on existing cards. Jones pointed out one of HEX's goals is to fully take advantage of its digital playspace, and the few instances of this I witnessed definitely reflected the developers mission statement.
To be honest, digital card games aren't completely my bag, but HEX's design seems intentionally engineered to bring people like me on board. Even if this kind of experience doesn't strike you as all that exciting, the RPG elements found within provide some familiar trappings to help outsiders grow accustomed to HEX's brand of card-based play. There's been an impressive amount of work put into this project in its lifetime, and while it's unclear if HEX will be able to put a dent in Blizzard's absolute domination with Hearthstone, if it can maintain the healthy community it needs to thrive, Cryptozoic's work-in-progress could have a bright future.