Friday, April 5, 2013

Journey into a Design Exercise: Confrontation Web Card Game

And a howdy-do to all my fellow game enthusiasts!

Today I thought I'd start on a new little series on my blog. As a hopeful game dev, it's important to really start getting some design practice, and what better way to start than playing other games and breaking them down into their components. I plan to look at games of every sort and size, old and new. This week, I had a hankering to play a collectible card game. I figure since I'm trying it out, I may as well also examine it for it's good, bad, and ugly design choices (if any are to be found).

Let's take a Journey into a Design Exercise: Confrontation Web Card Game

Confrontation is a web CCG which is trying to cut a niche into the goldmine that is the facebook market. I'll admit my first impressions of the game where not flattering, but I pushed ahead to see the depth of the game (if any existed). In the few hours I've been playing it, it has grown on me a bit...but I digress. This is not meant to be a review. We're breaking down it's design! So let's get to it.

I'm a big fan of Extra Credits, and they did a great episode a while back where they did a basic breakdown of the mechanics of Bejeweled. Their method for breaking down a game's mechanics mimicked the Scientific Method; Ask a question, come up with a theory, test that theory. So, here are the questions that I will seek to answer in order to break down this game's design:

  1. Why do the battles play out automatically instead of allowing the player to choose the cards they play?
  2. Why are the deck sizes small, but you can make many decks and choose to use multiple decks in a game? Why not just allow the player to make a larger deck?
  3. What is the purpose of the leveling system in the context of this game?
  4. Why are there three types of currency (Silver, Gold, and Gems)?
  5. Why can any monster on the field only be attacked (a.k.a. can only defend) once per round?
  6. How did they deal with the issue of power creep?

I think answering these questions will give me a good insight into what the game's designers had in mind when creating Confrontation. So, let's dig right in.

1. Why do the battles play out automatically instead of allowing the player to choose the cards they play?

This was the mechanic that gave me a very bad first impression. When I've played a paper CCG in the past, I found that a big part of the engagement was playing your cards in a cleaver way and outsmarting your opponent. However, in this game, the battle are automatic, and are built to complete in less that a minute at the x8 speed setting. I'm sure I'm not alone in my enjoyment of actually playing the cards in my deck rather than letting a computer do the work for me. So why make this choice?

After spending some time with the game, I believe that there are several factors that add up to this design decision.

I think the biggest reason for this choice is that they choose Facebook as their release platform. The average person on Facebook who would play this game does so to "kill a few minutes." Rarely will you find someone who wants to play a half-hour long card game. Having the battles play out themselves means that the battles run quickly, allow the player to feel like they've accomplished a lot in a little amount of time.

Since the battles play themselves out, you don't need anyone else to be online for Player vs Player. This is especially important in the game's infancy, since there is nothing worse than joining up for a CCG online and finding no one to play with. With this mechanic  you're not really playing with people, but rather challenging the decks they built.

In pretty much every CCG in existence, there is some manner of condition that is required to be met before you can play a card to the field and/or activate it. In Confrontation, that resource is "time." A card will hit the field after a pre-determined number of turns has passed. Since this was their choice in limiting how fast a card can hit the field, then why not just have the card hit the field as soon as it's ready? To allow a player to hold onto cards after the time limit on the card has expired would cause some pretty severe balance issues, since a player could just hold onto ALL of their cards until a moment of their choosing, and then vomit their entire hand out onto the playfield.

From a programming perspective the "AI" is easier to program, since the AI doesn't need to account for player actions or even be truly competitive. The card game will play out as per the predefined set of rules. All abilities on the card that can be used are used, cards are played as soon as they are available, every card attacks whether or not that decision is wise, and the game ends when a person is unable to defend themselves or their "morale" (the player's HP) reaches 0.

Deck building is clearly the name of the game, since this mechanic takes control away from the player during the actual combat. So, the person with the strongest cards and the most coherently built decks will come out on top. They've target people who enjoy collecting cards, people who enjoy deck building, but who don't necessary need that one-on-one interaction that many CCG's provide. Also, it's important to note that since the game is centred around deck building, and some cards are vastly superior to others, that the mechanic draws the player to the store. The more they can get the player to the store, the better chance they have of dropping real money on the game. So, in other words, this mechanic draws people towards their monetisation strategy.

2. Why are the deck sizes small, but you can make many decks and choose to use multiple decks in a game? Why not just allow the player to make a larger deck?

The most obvious reason for this (at least in my mind) is to lower the barrier to entry for players. Again, since this is a Facebook game, they want to reach as many people as they possibly can. Other CCGs like Magic: The Gathering can be quite difficult to even get started. Creating a 40 to 60 card deck with no limit on how to build it can be very intimidating. With Confrontation, you pick a hero card, and that card limits what you can put in the deck for you. And the decks on average are only about 10 cards, which are much easier for the average gamer to wrap their head around.

However, by allowing players to build multiple small decks, it has the potential to keep the interest of more advanced players. Many of the battles down the road use two, three, four, and sometimes even five decks at the same time. The player will need to know how strategies can work together and build a coherent set of decks.

And yet again, this brings the focus to deck building, which drives the player to the in-game store.

3. What is the purpose of the leveling system in the context of this game?

The leveling system in the game seems to serve three main purposes. It gives players a way to win the "Gem" currency in large amounts, it plays a factor in Player-vs-Player matchmaking, and of course a Skinner-box style reward system.

4. Why are there three types of currency (Silver, Gold, and Gems)?

This one I found a bit odd...I'll admit I'm not a huge Facebook gamer, but from what I've seen the usual strategy for monetizing a game on Facebook is to have two forms of currency. One in-game currency, and one real money currency. This game, however, has three types; Silver, Gems, and Gold.

Silver you earn by actively playing the game. Gems are earned by completing story missions (usually only one to five gems)  or by leveling. Gold is the "real money" currency that player need to drop actual dollars and cents on to earn.

When you go to the in-game store for more cards, you note that you have a choice in currency to buy most packs. The lower-level packs you can spend either Silver or Gold, some of the mid-tier packs and cards you can use Gems or Gold, and then the biggest and most powerful cards are locked away behind Gold only purchases.

Speaking from a mechanics point of view, this other in-game currency, Gems, seems superfluous. When a player levels, it would be just as easy to give the player extra Silver, and have all packs cost either Silver or Gold. So, as near as I can tell the purpose of Gems is to make the player feel like they're accomplishing more or something special when they level and get Gems. From the few hours I've spent with the game, there seems to be no way whatsoever to earn the real-money currency in-game as some Facebook games allow you to do. I believe "Gems" is the replacement for that, giving the illusion that when you level you're making more progress towards earning stronger cards.

5. Why can any monster on the field only be attacked (a.k.a. can only defend) once per round?

The answer to this became clear fairly quickly. I've played several other CCG on the web, and more than one suffer from a very nasty "snowball" sort of effect. When all monsters on one side of the field can attack the same monster more than once, the main strategy quickly becomes "fill up your side of the field first." In this scenario, it becomes near impossible to turn the game around when the other player has gained momentum.

While it is still true that a player who has gained heavy momentum in Confrontation can be difficult to beat back, with this design choice it is possible. Rather than a card hitting the field and being destroyed immediately, it has a few turns to get going. With two well built decks, momentum can shift so many times it can be impossible to tell who is going to win until the player's life hits 0. This can make for far more interesting games versus other games I've played. Knowing you've lost after the first four cards are played and having to wait it out isn't a lot of fun.

One thing I should note though, is that there is no limit to the number of cards you can have on either side of the playfield. This choice seems a bit odd to me, since a game can still snowball, despite this design choice. The only reason I can see them making that choice is allow a player to gain a definitive lead to make sure games don't take long. Each game (espically if you're playing on x8 speed) usually takes less than a minute to finish. Limiting the size of the playfield would lengthen the game.

6. How did they deal with the issue of power creep?

This game has a very big problem with power creep. In fact, it seems to have an issue with balance in general, greatly favouring the players who spend real money.

As I stated before, the packs containing the best cards are locked away behind the real money currency. It didn't take very long before I realized that the rare cards are worlds more powerful than the other cards, and a player without these rare cards can't even hope to compete against a player that does.

This is the worst way a free-to-play game can operate. No one wants to be forced to spend real money so they can feel competitive in a free-to-play game. If players want to spend money, that's perfectly fine, but in this game it puts them far ahead of the rest of the pack.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting that the common cards be just as good as the rare cards. That wouldn’t make for a good CCG. When you get a rare card, you want it to feel useful and powerful. However, well designed CCGs don't make their more common cards completely useless. There is NO motivation whatsoever to build you deck with any common cards if you can avoid it, which makes all your earlier efforts to build your collection basically pointless.

This is a very fast and unfortunate way to get players to lose interest. The moment they realize that all their efforts now will become completely useless later,  they'll drop the game (just as I plan to do).

- - - -

Well, that was a fun little exercise in game design. Had to play the game a fair bit to come up with the answers that I did. I hope the more I do this, the better at it I'll get.

If anyone out there wants to weigh in on my breakdown (or completely disagree with me), nothing would make me happier.

gl hf