While many of us await the exciting new developments of another 6 cards in the coming week, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on a growing discussion about direction and deployment of a card game like Faeria. To my thinking, Abrakam is on a good path. One of the more significant choices remaining is whether to pursue large content updates (i.e. expansions), small content updates (i.e. monthly or bi-weekly updates), or a mixture. Following some contextualizing remarks on Magic the Gathering and Hearthstone, I will consider what each might mean for a small studio like Abrakam, and a small playerbase in the context of the video game scene (especially CCGs)
Magic the Gathering and Hearthstone offer two useful touchstones for product development from a CCG perspective. The former began as a physical card game which included distribution in stores, attracting a wide-ranging following over many years. MtG has recently moved to digital environment, but is largely falling to the wayside in this medium in part due to the overwhelmingly analog nature of the mechanics of the game (permissions, passing turns, etc…). The main point I wish to draw out for MtG is that the balance of the game necessarily followed the distribution cycles which were established by this physical aspect of the game. Though cards were initially released as additions to the core set, it was impractical and costly to release content which did not occur in a block format. They have followed a model of releasing different kinds of sets (core, expacs, and combination/compilations), which in some ways mirrors what Faeria is poised to do with Oversky. The difference for MtG has been ironing out the timing of such releases. Generally their blocks are roughly 300 cards, and subsequent xpacs which share key-words and mechanics are 100-150. Such a large volume of cards is supported by the “ban” system within the competitive scene, where tournaments are governed by certain legal and illegal cards according to which “blocks” are being utilized. This allowed WotC to introduce power-creep without worrying that the tournament scene would be harmed by combinations of extremely powerful cards native to one block or another. It is also the reason why many cards in each block are virtually unplayable in a tournament setting – being so poorly “balanced”. Taking this broad approach (due to the inability to change cards once mass-printed), MtG is balanced on a block-by-block basis, and has generally thrived in this mode.
Hearthstone has pursued a similar path, albeit in a digital format and with the added benefit of being able to balance and tune cards, since players do not purchase a physical card, but only access to the pixilated version. In terms of art and design, they have remained committed to a heavy investment of time (as MtG did) which is seen in all aspects of animation in the game – from boards to special card effects to the “golden” version of every card produced. Thus, in many ways, Hearthstone has taken the best of both worlds (quality of physical foil cards and access of digital environment) and appealed to the masses of players. Like MtG, they have chosen to pursue a block release, modifying the original formula to diversify the kinds of expansions: pay for a block of cards versus buying individual packs to gain them. Notably they have removed any aspect of trading, so that players can only increase their collection via Blizzard. Finally, Blizzard allows the base game to be “free” to play, giving enough in game currency for average-to-good players to slowly build up a collection (of course, they will not have access to those expansions marked for purchase). Like MtG, Hearthstone now includes a great deal of power-creep, so that if you play a wild deck (all cards available) there are some seriously potent combinations from each block. Part of my argument going forward is that this system of expansion-based content, released in a 6 month – 1 year cycle inevitably leads to such power-creep. In addition, it is part of the design of Hearthstone (though not MtG), through the class system, to include steady power-creep, as new cards available to the classes is limited by the lore of the WoW world. The flavor potential is far more narrow, and key-word/mechanics tend to be minimized and limited (this is also the reason for severe amounts of RNG, because of the audience).
In addition to the philosophy of design and deployment for these two large CCGs, there are many more both physical and digital CCGs (like Yugioh, Eternal, Hex) which follow a similar pattern in terms of game design, game board, and play style. The ones on the digital side tend to be developed by small studios competing for the MtG audience (cf. Eternal); the chief marker of most of them is that they have simplified (almost copy-cat) gameplay, are generally free-to-play with micro-transactions, and are relative skeletons on the artistic/story side of the equation.
Faeria enters the scene as an innovator – card and board given equal development and strategic importance – and maintains a high degree of quality in terms of art and animation (quite strong for a rather small studio). But now they are in that crucial period of attempting to forecast how best to develop the game over the next number of years. Should it be a similar cycle to Hearthstone/MtG, which means blocks of content stretched over many months, or very brief but relatively small additions to the card pool? Before weighing each, I will say that I take for granted all the Solo aspects of Faeria. By this I mean that I take it as a given that such content is a necessary part of establishing solid storylines and lore for the future of the game. Without it, Faeria would sink back into the realm of the copy-cat types mentioned in the previous paragraph. Without a doubt, the solo experience must continue to be developed regardless of the overall strategy discussed for the release of cards, because it gives much needed substance to an otherwise easily discarded shell (and the solo stuff is quite fun, especially the puzzles). It will however take some of the available work-load (especially any animation) away from other content development, which we must consider in the following comparison.
Large releases are exciting, drawing both newcomers and those who have lapsed back into the Faeria scene with renewed vigor. They are also a more efficient use of advertising dollars, since you can get behind one project, target the audience and potential seed-carriers (i.e. Twitch users), and shine the product into a polished work. Moreover, it is easier to balance the release of 30-50 new cards over a short period (i.e. leading up to the release and shortly after) than it is to constantly monitor the impact of a monthly release of a small run of cards. It also comes with some drawbacks. Large releases are the most susceptible to stagnation, meaning that players solve the inherent “puzzle” of the best cards and decks, post those results into the community channels, and wait out new cards while experimenting on the fringes. With such stagnation comes the gradual departure of the player-base, either waiting at the highest ranks so as not to lose position until the monthly tournaments, or disappearing altogether until fresh cards enter the scene, or a balance change occurs. For the developer of Abrakam’s size, such lulls are dangerous to their growth and exposure, since it is difficult to advertise or advance the reach of the game when there is no content to promote.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, relying only on small developments without any plan for large “block” releases brings its own set of pros and cons. On the positive side, it frees up resources to truly balance the cards, and if it were Abrakam’s desire to make every single card relevant in the competitive context (looking at you Krog), the small-update approach offers the best opportunity to do this. It also allows a small studio to remain in constant contact with the player base, increasing the gains of loyalty while also maintaining a constant presence in other media (like Twitch, Youtube, Facebook) without sacrificing large amounts of time or development in other areas. On its own, this approach tends to generate a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the game for the non-hardcore crowd, as best seen in the App scene for tablets and phones. All those mini-games share a very similar development strategy to keep people addicted and unaware that simple algorithms are being constantly re-hashed to give the appearance of freshness. Without a large update/expansion to look ahead to and give shape to the narrative of the game, products like Faeria engender another kind of stagnation, this one associated with fatigue and burnout. Sameness and lack of inspiration – lack of punctuation by serious development and additions – lead to such sterility in game quality, and push the player base away faster even then the droughts of a long cycle.
What, then, of a blended approach? It is likely no secret at this point that I would prefer just such an arrangement, but let us consider what it entails and why it is perhaps superior to the others. A blend would include content on a short term, monthly cycle(i.e. new cards each month, notwithstanding – as I said earlier – the solo/lore content necessary to give the game substance and lay a foundation for new mechanics), and large additions on a 6-month or yearly basis. The 4 weeks would include a regular balance cycle every 2 weeks (once with the release of new cards and once mid-way through the month). This would allow Abrakam to keep any outliers in line without being overly intrusive, allowing the meta to develop and change. It also would keep a quick pace of development in the professional scene, allowing players who excel at deck-building to leverage their advantage for the major tournaments; more to the point, it negates the problematic side of the growing trend of net-decking while offering potential avenues for greater structures to form in the faeria community (coaching, writing, youtube content, streaming, discussions, community tournaments and contests, etc…), precisely because there is always a fresh intake of content to be digested, analyzed and commented upon.
Such an approach would necessarily curtail the extent of large updates. In particular, the movement toward very large blocks of cards (ala Hearthstone and MtG) would become neither possible nor truly beneficial. But it would give an opportunity for a targeted development of the direction of Faeria. These yearly efforts would not be under as much pressure to shake up the meta and would be free to move forward key-words, mechanics, lore, and structural changes. It would also coincide with the professional development of the game, which I believe has high potential for excellence: year end tournaments which usher in a brand new season of mechanics.
Why Write This?
I write not so much to convince Abrakam – though my hope is to contribute to productive and reasonable discussion in this regard – as to bring to light my own observation of the changing landscape of gaming, especially in the CCG market. It is quickly being flooded via platforms like Steam, and opportunities for sustained marketing via popular places like Twitch depend very much on a new paradigm: consistency, regularity, optics. In a phrase, staying on top of the pile. My argument is that such consistency is a necessary part of a complete package, and the best way to achieve this is to provide enough monthly additions to the card pool (I have suggested 5 cards on Stream, in other posts, and in discord discussions) to keep the meta of the game unsettled, though not imbalanced. Faeria remains in a precarious position due to the converging audiences in the CCG genre – a position which becomes exacerbated by droughts in content.
If Faeria took a lesson from developments in the MMO genre (a dying breed), where a game like WoW has steadily increased the consistency of its content deployment (recognizing that keeping players interested on a monthly basis is the new metric), it might remain flexible in the emerging gaming environment. But, I also think such consistency needs to be buffered by exciting climbs to expansions where a large number of cards are introduced. MtG and Hearthstone have released such blocks in the 100-300 range; I don’t think this is the way forward for Faeria. Rather, a more modest approach (such as the 30 they are contemplating with Oversky) makes far more sense because it allows them to attempt to keep 85-90% of the card base balanced and valuable. I am convinced that moving to a full-block approach, where cards are banned from future tournament scenes represents a very real pressure to abandon the regular release of content, which (I must say emphatically here) definitely is the bread and butter of the new paradigm in gaming.