Identifying Opportunity

A good way to begin a design is to identify a way to improve an established game. This is more or less the Blizzard strategy and it's worked fairly well for them. Sometimes, this isn't just a way to provide something new, but it's an essential approach to enter the market at all. I'm thinking specifically of the living card games ecosystem.

I think about LCG/TCG/CCGs often (and I'm going to simply use LCG as shorthand for the rest of this article), as a consumer, but also it's been top of mind for Project Gaia as that is attempting to borrow heavily from the notion of an LCG in some key ways. I'm also thinking about why some newer LCGs succeed, and others get sunset like so many in the past.

Ashes, from Plaid Hat Games, is one of the newer ones to succeed, lately. Plaid Hat noted on their podcast that it had sold over 10,000 units, and they've begun releasing expansion packs. I think Ashes did a few things right to succeed.

  • Compelling starter decks. So many of these games give you very mediocre starting decks. They require you buy expansions and deckbuild to see the game executed well. Ashes prioritizes good, pre-constructed starter decks.
  • Dead simple resource system. In Ashes, you roll a pool of dice at the start of the round. You then spend the dice, which have one of three symbols, to resolve cards. It's not dissimilar to Hearthstone's guaranteed mana per turn mechanism. However, in Ashes' favor, the dice allow for variance, which I think is lacking in Hearthstone, and there are decisions around dice mitigation that again add depth without greatly complicating it.
  • Strong UX Execution. It's subtle, but the game's functional presentation is very strong. They have a few very simple icons to learn. They didn't go overboard with game terms. And every card has a very simple explanation on how it is played, like "Play this card to your Spellboard." I copied that for Project Gaia.
  • Simple Turn-Based Structure: The game rounds are very simple, and avoid the temptation may LCGs succumb to of tangential rabbit holes. In Ashes you roll your resource pool, then execute actions one at a time. The game moves briskly as a result, and is easy to learn.

I've recently started playing Warhammer: Conquest from Fantasy Flight Games, and they've also taken some noticeable steps to make it an accessible game.

  • Even deader simpler resource system. Each round you get some guaranteed money. Some cards increase this. You then spend this resource to add cards. It doesn't get simpler.
  • The game is always progressing towards the end. Every round, one player will win the starter planet. The game ends when someone has three planets of a matching type. This means you will not stalemate, or wait to top deck someone. The game will progress, it will end.
  • You can almost learn the game from its reference card. The core of the game is really simple. I'd honestly compare the game to Revolver, with a little more business added. I think that's wise. In a sense, they've really hyper prioritized a few key decision points and deckbuilding.
  • They've lowered the barrier to deckbuilding.

I want to go deeper into this last point, as I think it's a key one. We've been conducting a great deal of research at work lately to basically answer the question: who really likes The Sims, and why? The basic reasoning is, instead of assuming who our customers are, or what our greatest strengths are, it'd be nice to know, for certain, which group is most invested in our game.

I think it's safe to say that people who deckbuild are Fantasy Flight's best customers for their LCGs. These are the people who want more cards, invest in the meta, and play the game even when not playing, simply by fiddling with cards and constructing decks. However, I would wager that there is a precipitous drop from people who buy the game and play the core set, and people who buy additional packs and deckbuild.

Plaid Hat's expansions aren't just new cards, but are in fact new pre-built decks. I think this is genius, because it means they're reducing the percentage of drop off. In Netrunner, if I buy more cards, I have to build a deck with them. They are otherwise useless. In Ashes, like with Summoner Wars, if I buy a new deck, I can play it as is and never deckbuild.

This problem reminds me of an old story with Unreal Tournament. Initially, the developers made bots as an afterthought. It was a game meant for online multiplayer, after all. However, their data found that an overwhelming number of players (it was 75% or more if I recall correctly) never went online, ever. Therefore, they made their bots a priority to make them better. For a while, they were known for their excellent bots.

I bet the number of people who buy a Netrunner, or Doomtown, or Ashes, and only play the default decks is probably 60-75%. I have nothing to back that up, just a hunch.

THEREFORE, it seems incredibly savvy of Fantasy Flight and Plaid Hat to put a premium development effort on minimizing the complexity of deckbuilding. Which, I think they've done. They do it in a few key ways.

Warhammer: Conquest: In Warhammer, you must choose a Warlord. Netrunner does this as well when you choose an Identity, and Ashes when you choose a Phoenixborn. It has the not-so subtle goal of focusing your efforts against the Warlord's benefits.

Secondly, your Warlord requires you add 8 cards to your deck. You cannot use these cards in any other deck, so almost 20% of your cards are spoken for. Smart! Decks, by the way, have a minimum of 50 cards, and generally speaking, you want to remain at the minimum when building decks in games. Generally.

Thirdly, simplifying the system in Netrunner, where you have a number of points you can allocate to out of faction cards, which have an individual cost against them, and perhaps taking a nod from the smash hit Smash Up, you can only choose one faction from which to mix cards. The factions from which you can choose  are also limited.

Image taken from Fantasy Flight's website

Above image taken from Fantasy Flight's website, which is linked if you click the image.

Let's pretend you are building a deck using an Ork Warlord. You can take Ork cards. You may also add cards from either Chaos OR Imperial Guard, but NOT both. You cannot take cards from any other faction.

In Netrunner, you have near infinite possibilities in the pool, though many of those possibilities are impractical. In Warhammer: Conquest, you have very focused, finite possibilities. This limits the complexity of deckbuilding, which acts as a method of easing you into it.

Finally, the resource system, as mentioned above, is dead simple. In Magic: The Gathering, a portion of your deck needs to be Lands. If you have multiple colors, you need a mix of those lands. You should also have cards to help you draw and find more lands, and or cards that provide Mana in the event you don't draw Lands. In Netrunner, you need cards that provide you with Money, as well as aid you in click efficiency. In Warhammer: Conquest, the bulk of your money is provided every round. I've just dipped into it, and haven't even gone through all my new cards yet, but the focus seems to be on combat. It seems they've deliberately simplified the economic aspect of the game.

Star Wars: The Card Game from Fantasy Flight also introduces a novel way to get players into deckbuilding. The idea is that instead of choosing individual cards, you choose sets of cards. You choose ten or more objective cards. Each objective card is associated with five other cards added to your deck. So, you essentially make ten choices, not 60 individual choices. This still forces you to think about the harmony of the cards, but as you cannot fiddle quite so much with the details, this lets players deckbuild more quickly.

I haven't played this game (yet, I plan to), so I cannot discuss its contributions further. But, for the sake of this article and my premise, merely knowing the mechanism is sufficient.

Gaia: While thinking about this over the week for this post, I'm fairly pleased that in trying to solve against the business barriers for making an LCG as a small publisher, I may have made progress in the direction of simplifying deckbuilding.

There are a few obvious barriers for making an LCG:

  • Illustration cost for unique cards.
  • Manufacturing capital needed to craft a core set and subsequent follow-up expansions.
  • Development team needed for such extensive testing. The openness of LCGs is daunting.

In short, it's the Mount Everest of genres. With Gaia, I decided to take a whack at all three by crafting a game with a small, finite card pool (55 cards, unique) and making the decks only 9 cards. This gives players quite a few options - not as many as Netrunner, obviously -- but plenty to get a taste of the experience. Plus making a 9 card deck allows for easy experimentation, and if the core game is successful, I can create standalone follow-ups.

Now, it's clear Gaia won't have the legs of Netrunner. Certainly not by itself. But, to actually deckbuild with just a Netrunner core set, you need three total copies of the core set!

I have no clue if this will be viable or it will work. Obviously, my goals are not the same as Fantasy Flight's. I don't intend to make a huge expansion based business, nor do I expect to foster a tournament scene. But, I'd like to scratch the itch as a small publisher.

LCGs that Don't Succeed: A part of what inspired this post was thinking about why Doomtown: Reloaded failed. In case you didn't know, the publisher recently noted that the game's upcoming expansion would be its last after about 2 years. Now, you might think "2 years on the market isn't so bad!" But, to successfully enter the market as an LCG, you have to fuel the pipe a ways out. It's one of the risks of the format...you need to put in a big down payment well before you know it's successful.

I haven't played Doomtown, and I'm not sure I will. It being cancelled means the content I so desire in an LCG is going to be tougher and tougher to find. Furthermore, have you read the rules. Wowza!

In contrast to some of the newer LCGs, Doomtown's complexity is unforgiving and unrepentant. I own a copy and have read the rules and all tutorial material and I'm still not sure I could play it or teach it. There a few ways I think Doomtown is particularly confusing:

  • Confusing win condition. I actually cannot remember it. You need to have more Influence than your opponent has Control, or vice versa, or...something like that. It's a dynamic value and it's not simple.
  • Confusing "thematic" game terms. Netrunner did this too, and it's probably that game's most controversial feature. Doomtown is full of terms like Boot, Cheatin' Hand (yes, removing the G is a thing this game does constantly), Dude, Draw Hand, Play Hand, Hexes (which only Hucksters can use), Miracles (which only Blessed Dude's can use). It makes the game tougher to learn.
  • Multi-layered deckbuilding. Like most games, you need to figure out which units, spells, and attachments to use. But, you also need to figure out which locations you need, with which to wield control and influence for the win condition. And on top of that, every card in your deck must contribute to making poker hands to resolve shootouts and initiative. That is a lot of stuff to consider.
  • Tangents. The game sends you down lengthy, complex paths. For example, to resolve initiative, you draw poker hands from your deck. If you cheat, this can trigger Cheating, err, Cheatin' Hand abilities. If you challenge someone, there's a chance they can avoid it or fight. If they fight, both players form posses. Then they resolve "pre game" abilities (my words). Then, you draw poker hands, using the abilities of your characters which modify them. Then, you resolve any Cheatin' Hand abilities. Then, you resolve the damage. And once this is finished, you go back to typical terms. There are so many games tucked into this game.
  • Exceptions. The game seemed to have quite a few exceptions, particularly around when you boot cards, and when you don't. Sometimes you move them and boot, sometimes you don't. It's one of those things that in actuality may not come up often, but in reading the rules, I was having trouble keeping track of everything. By comparison, exhausting Units in Warhammer: Conquest is very cut and dry.

Why did Doomtown fail when Netrunner succeeded? Netrunner is also a complex game in the old school sense. In fact, it isn't just one game, but two games (Runner and Corporation). Did Doomtown go too far with its complexity whereas Netrunner doesn't quite cross over the line? Is Netrunner's theme more appealing? It is for me, but anecdotal arguments aren't useful here. Well, more than I've already made!

If I had to put money down, I think Doomtown is too complicated, which has limited the game's growth and appeal. If your friends aren't playing, you aren't playing. Furthermore, its deckbuilding is so tricky that the typical split from those who buy the core game, versus those who buy the core and expansion content, is greater than usual.

Final Thoughts: Because it applies to Gaia, a game I'm actively developing, I chose to focus on LCGs. But, I think this is true of other genres. When trying to make a successful game, you should identify the opportunity to be different, or find a hole to succeed in new ways. For LCGs, I believe the opportunity being pursued by successful companies is simplifying the gap from Core set to deckbuilding.

What are some other genres you want to discuss, and how do you think you'd make inroads? How far off am I for my thesis regarding deckbuilding?

Comments

The only part where I think you may be incorrect is that hard core players didn't jump at the game. PvZ is full of strategy and is overwhelmingly successful on so many platforms...for years!

I think you are spot on with regards to simplifying an otherwise complex mechanic being key to breaking into a category. I think of Plants vs Zombies (not a perfect example, I admit, but go with me here). They boiled down the essence of Tower Defense into a game a six year old could play. While hard core TC players didn't jump at the game, that was never the intended market. Instead, they focused on the casual gamer market, and brought all the fun and strategy in a light package, making it accessible to millions of new players. Seems like LCGs has a lot of the same potential.

I'm in agreement regarding deckbuilding—it's an activity that adds complexity and promises degrees of depth. But it can easily overrun the "complexity budget" of any design, particularly as players come to expect tighter, more holistic gameplay.

One concept not touched upon in the article is the notion of deckbuilding as an expressive activity. For the LCG fanatics among us, I think that deckbuilding mechanics serve the dream of succeeding at alchemy, and in discovering a new way to win, finding a way to say something about your role in the imagined world of the game and in the real world. But this is clearly not something everyone needs or wants out of a game, and the game to do it best, Magic: The Gathering, has had nearly 25 years to build the immense scaffolding needed for players to engage in expressive deckbuilding.

You're right, of course. I was trying to cover ways to make an LCG at a high level, not so much "why deckbuilding is so great," so, definitely, that wasn't covered at all.