Free-to-Play or Pay-to-Win?: Casual, Hardcore, and Hearthstone


“Casual” and “hardcore” are commonly used descriptive terms for games and gamers. While critics have discussed these terms with regards to game design and culture, “free-to-play” games like Blizzard’s Hearthstone add a monetary dimension to such considerations. Players can play such games for free, but success at them often entails purchasing in-game content. These games are sometimes instead derisively referred to as “pay-to-win:” players who spend money win more often. Free-to-play games suggest that casual and hardcore depend on how much money a player spends on the game, in addition to measures like time investment or play practices. I argue that free-to-play games encourage casual players to become more hardcore by spending more money on them in addition to improving their skills at the game, using Hearthstone as a case study to examine the implications of the free-to-play pricing structure on both game design and game players.