Launching in March of this year, Blizzard's free to play card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, has gone from strength to strength. Praised for its addictive gameplay and the way that it features microtransactions without forcing them (players can earn cards packs through play and not just by spending their own money) the game has gone down well with existing World of Warcraft fans and those who are new to the lore alike.
So popular has the game proved, that as of September, Hearthstone had racked up over 20 million players across PC, Mac, iPad and Windows 8. And with Android and iPhone releases planned for the next six months and PS4/Xbox One releases being considered too, that figure is only set to rise.
Good news for Blizzard then, as the game is largely responsible for their recently reported $481 million digital revenue. But what's harming that is Hearthstone's raging bot problem - which is exactly why the developer is now doing something about it.
Software that allows players to automate gameplay to easily earn gold (to pay for card packs) and get to higher ranks, Hearthstone bots spoil the fun for everybody who's made the effort to play the game as designed. Blizzard recently announced plans to combat the scourge, punishing those responsible:
"We've recently banned several thousand Hearthstone accounts that were associated with the use of third-party programs that automate gameplay, otherwise known as “bots” or “botting.” These accounts will be banned until 2015. As we’ve stated, fair play is at the core of the Hearthstone experience, and cheating and botting will not be tolerated."
The developer has received backlash, with some players feeling that the bans are lenient. In World of Warcraft Blizzard doled out permanent bans to those trying to gain from illicit means, so for Blizzard to offer a 'slap on the wrist now, perma-ban later' deterrent, it might seem a lot less steep.
But, despite making that announcement just days ago Blizzard's warning is already having an effect. The creator of the most popular Hearthstone bot tool - called Hearthcrawler – is shutting down, saying that "after discussing this with Blizzard, it's clear we have to take off our services/products now".
The statement offered by the Hearthcrawler team was short but it's clear that Blizzard is doing its bit to make the game a lot fairer for players. It's likely that they've taken this initiative now to clear the game of cheaters ahead of Hearthstone's next, massive expansion. At the end of October, Blizzard filed to trademark 'Eye of Azshara' in Europe. Believed to be the next Hearthstone expansion after spider-themed Curse of Naxxramas, Azshara could involve the region of World of Warcraft where the Goblins settled after their home island was destroyed.
An area redesigned several years ago for World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion, the 'eye' part of the name comes from an island called Bilgewater Harbor that's in the centre of Azshara's bay. From above this area looks just like an eye, making it a logical naming choice.
The possibility of this being the next Hearthstone expansion is also leant further credit by the "Goblin" card backs that were revealed in the game's October patch. Mechanical in their styling, Goblins are the inventors of the Warcraft universe suggesting cards featuring pipes, gauges and the like.
As for when we'll see the Eye of Azshara's release, Geoff Keighley recently teased a mechanical Hearthstone reveal at Blizzcon 2014 which kicks off on November 7th. Hearthstone's lead designer Eric Dodds previously said that "it’s going to be over 100 cards" which is huge in comparison to Curse of Naxxramas' 30 additional cards.
We'll have more for you once Blizzard makes it official.