Hatchlings Games

Web Gaming 2.0 Revolution

Ever paid RM60 for a piece of cardboard?

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That’s how much the above card costs on the first day the set was released (or more appropriately, ‘pre-released’). RM60 is slightly more than US$17.

Looks so cool, doesn’t it? One big black ball sucking up dead bodies. The bigger version looks even better.

To non-Magic (or more collectively, non-trading-card-game) players, seventeen bucks is a lot to pay for a piece of cardboard five inches tall and three inches wide. But that’s not the maximum amount of cash people are willing to shell out for a card. The holofoil Charizard of the Pokémon Trading Card Game reportedly sold for US$120 at its peak. Magic’s signature card, Black Lotus, is hitting four-digit sums on EBay.

Looking at online games, people are willing to pay for virtual cash and items, and for people to grind their characters. In short, people are willing to pay for games for seemingly trivial items that lose their value when brought out of context.

The trick of marketing products and services in games is to make said context as non-game-ish as possible. (I couldn’t find a better word)

Products in games are nothing much like, say, celebrity merchandise or stamps (The hobby of kings, the king of hobbies. Right.). People who aren’t into the hobby just don’t see its worth. A game company can try to pull people into playing their game. This is most often seen in roadshows and promotions in shopping malls, where the company gives out free trial CDs and other freebies in hopes that the receiver of said freebies woudl actually go home, install it, play it unti lthe free trial expires and proceeds to play the game. It’s largely a hit-or-miss process, much like traditional TV advertisements.

Coming back about the game’s context, what ‘traditional’ marketing does is they try to pull consumers into the context. In this sense, the barrier between real life and the game world still exists, hence there are terms like hardcore geeks and ‘otakus’, where they are so into a game that they are disconnected from the real world.

On the other hand, some companies expand the context into real life, blurring the barier between reality and game. This is otherwise known as viral marketing, where users of a product or service subconsciously ‘infect’ other people to use the product or service. In this sense, the context isn’t about the game, but of its players, and subsequently the player’s friends, and friend’s friends, and so on.

For a game, it’s even easier to spread the context by providing some non-game services to players other than just the game itself. MMORPGs sell by promoting the community as well as the game; Magic: the Gathering doesn’t just offer a hobby, but a career; XBox Live Arcade provides a platform for developers to sell their games and players to compete for scores. These are some other services a game could offer for a player before they decide to spend money on it.

Related links:
The Idea Virus by Seth Godin, a book on spreading the context.
Web Gaming 2.0, how Hatchlings is doing it.

January 23, 2007 Posted by | Encephalon, Game Development, Game Industry, Trading Card Game, Web Gaming 2.0 | 1 Comment

The color pie and the color salad bowl

While staying overnight in the office helps productivity in the sense that you could just sleep on the desk with your fingers still on the keyboard, nothing could compare to the satisfaction of stretching out your arms and legs on a nice, proper bed.

Sleeping at home makes me remember my dreams better too; just yesterday I had quite an interesting dream of traveling with my mum on this helicopter-like contraption, where you could just point to a place on a Google Earth-like 3D map and you’d be there instantly. The other day I dreamt that I was back in my junior college uniform and going to school on hoverboard. It actually felt pretty real; I just had to tilt my body slightly to control its direction and speed.

Seems like I’m thinking too much into the setting.

Futurustic dreams aside and still on a personal note, Planar Chaos, the latest expansion to the popular trading card game Magic: the Gathering will be released in a couple of weeks’ time, and I’ll be attending the prerelease event (as I have always did for the past six years) this coming weekend.

While being a long-time fan of the game, I can’t help but to wonder what the guys at Magic R&D smoking when they designed the set. While a lot of fans might find the upcoming set a brilliant set, there are some players (including me) who feel slightly put down by the execution of the set.

You see, they messed up with the color pie.

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(Credits to billythefridge from the MTGSalvation forums for the picture)

To most people out there who don’t play Magic: the Gathering and were wondering what’s up with the title, the color pie is a term used in the design of the game. Basically, there are five factions, or ‘colors’ in the card game. Each color has its own characteristics which were defined as the game evolved. Using these definitions, technically any card made for the game could belong to one or more of these colors, and technically some cards cannot be of a certain color(s). Some cards, however, could fall into a grey area of can-ness and cannot-ness.

Planar Chaos is full of these. I mean, the name of the set itself tells you that it will be breaking a lot of rules. I suppose one of the disadvantages of having a ‘color pie’ – where all the flavors of cards belong to either a slice or another – is that your game is limited by the pie crust, the ‘outer layer’ that players perceive the game. Having damaging spells in white, a color traditionally associated with protection, healing and upholding of the law, feels like mayonnaise on apple pie – no matter how good you try to justify it, it just tastes weird. (I guess it would be different if there are people who are actually brought up on apple pie with mayonnaise… not that I want to know)

Encephalon tries to use a different approach on classifying cards. With reference to the color pie, I call it the ‘color salad bowl’. I could call it a ‘color soda fountain’ too, but I’m not sure if that many people actually like to mix their soft drinks likeme. Anyway, the pie has its ingredients all baked inside, while a salad bowl holds salad taken from a salad bar. The salad bar could hold every single card we can think of, and if we want to add more stuff, we just mix it with some other vegetable.

I guess the above comparison is very vague, and some people preferred baked pastries over raw vegetables, so I’ll just write down some points here.

(1) Encephalon allows expansion of factions. Each faction would just have one or two things that they’re good at, and slightly different things could belong in the same or another faction. In this sense…

(2) Factions actually don’t matter that much. A big portion of the cards are generic, while factioned cards are more of a rarity and are really good at what they’re suposed to do. Even if you have a lot of generic cards, they’re ‘spiced up’ by…

(3) Customization allow cards to be the same but still unique. Customization is one of the biggest selling opints of Encephalon, in the sense that you can actually ‘slot in’ and ‘take out’ stats and abilities from a card and put it in another. It’s like how you don’t pick out and eat the corn bits first. (Excuse me if you do)

In short, we’re not trying to make how deep a faction can go, but rather how far can we expand this game. I wouldn’t say the salad bowl is flawless (In fact I could point out a couple of flaws right now, but I’ll leave the homework to our competitors), but we just want to try out something new. We’re aiming for seven factions now, but of course, we could always get a bigger salad bar.

Related linkses:

January 17, 2007 Posted by | Encephalon, Game Design, Trading Card Game | 5 Comments

Life of a Pawn II – Encephalon v2.1

A few weeks back, Hatchlings Games Lead Game Designer no-wing posted an article, Life of a Pawn. The popular article was a by-product of a certain discussion by our game design team. We were trying to resolve certain issues with Encephalon’s gameplay mechanics.

Granted, no game developer has infuse elements of trading card into a board successfully yet.  And granted that Michael Ooi, Lead Game Designer of an older Malaysia-based game development studio, John Galt Games did highlight to us an old but defunct trading card / board game called Guardian was fairly successful during its time. At one point, we switched our approach to the design of Encephalon from a trading card game perspective to a board game perspective. We analyzed Chess; one of the key features of Chess was the role of the Pawn.

Our latest changes to the game design (let’s call it Encephalon v2.1) have turned a Creature Card‘s life to one that resembles the Chess pawn. Let’s recall that Encephalon is a game with upgradable, customizable, tradable cards on a Chess-like BOARD. Note that Creature Cards in Encephalon < 2.0 could move x amount of squares, in any direction, every turn.

In Encephalon v2.1, a Creature Card by default cannot move more than 1 square. Unlike the Chess Pawn which can only moving forward, the basic Encephalon Creature can move backwards and also left and right along the board ranks. Also unlike the Chess Pawn, you cannot get promoted if you get to the other side of the board. Note that in an older version of design, way back when Encephalon was called by the codename BattleChess, Creatures Cards at the opposite end of the board can use action points to “attack the opponent”. The attack reduces the opponent’s life & resource, which was a shared resource.

Let’s come back to Creature Cards in Encephalon v2.1, where they only move 1 square. Game mechanics design decisions are mostly made to solve design problems (i.e. too much noise, dominating strategy, etc). And the reason we adopted this mechanics was to balance and to control the mobility factor of cards.

There was a major problem that Iris and I noticed during playtesting where mobility was a dominating strategy for a player. At one point using mobile creatures to control territory could be a one of the strategy for players. Mobility control & balancing became a major problem after we changed a subtle but game-changing battle mechanics that improved both the player’s tactical and strategic choices. No-wing or I could write about that change if there are enough requests for it through comments.

Now that most Creature Cards can only move one square, we found a REAL use for the next type of card – the Field Cards (i.e. terrain cards which modifies the board grid that they are placed on). Players can now play multiple Field Cards to form shapes (e.g. Tetris shapes). Each Field Card has a list of shapes which if formed accordingly will activate a certain stated ability. Each individual Field Card in a particular associated shape will grant Creature Cards on them a corresponding ability. Note that for Encephalon v2.1 Field Cards are not modifiable.

A major ability of the Field Card is Creature Card Launching. This is similar to the Chess Pawn’s first move; In Chess, the Pawn can move two squares during its first move. With good emergent gameplay rules for the deployment of Field Cards (which we believed we have), players who wishes to deploy mobility strategy can plan for it. Since the player has to plan for it, positional control using and giving mobility control becomes a concrete and deployable strategy. This feature allows emergent gameplay where players pit their deployment planning skills against each other.

The interaction and synergy between the Creature and Field cards due to the changes made in Encephalon v2.1 fixes many “noise” problems found in Encephalon < 2.0.

Related Links:

January 17, 2007 Posted by | Encephalon, Game Design, Trading Card Game | 6 Comments

Life of a pawn

When is a chess pawn not a pawn? When it’s a trading card.

In chess, pawns are everywhere (Because there are eight of them on each side, duh). The game starts with all of them in a row. Their movement is pretty much restricted to moving straight and capturing diagonally (For reasons unknown to me, but I guess there are explanations behind it).

Pawns also define the geography of the board. How a chess battle is fought is determined by the opening moves. Pushing your pawns up front in the the early game allows more maneuvral space for your other pieces and thus better control of the board.

What kind of gameplay would there be if the chess board starts out empty, and players have to lay out pieces in turn order? Every piece, to a certain extent, would be a pawn. Super-pawns, when the queen and rook could run around unhindered and actual pawns not exactly very useful in the late game.

“So what can we do about it?” asked Slade as we were conversing over late lunch. “We went through the cards, but we totally forgot about the board.”

In some way our game is like chess – the fact that it’s played on an 8×8 board. However there are some big differences, like the fact that the board starts out empty, and the fact that you’d have at least 40 random pawns to start with.

“OK, look at this,” I said, “We now have turn structure like chess, progression like any strategy game, and the customizing aspect like, um, something. What we now lack is…”

“Is…” John continued while massaging his temples, “I can’t find a word for it.”

“Synergy. We have strategy, but no synergy yet.” Bingo. “A pawn in chess is a pawn because it’s meant to be like that. It’s role is defined as blah blah blah *scribbles on paper*”

“You’re right so far, so what are we going to do about this?”

Moy, the artist and third person at the lunch table, grabbed a pencil and started to sketch. “What if… the ‘pawns’ in our game defined the terrain like this?” He shaded some grids. “We have field cards, right? Cards that give some effect to a certain number of grids. What if these pawns are like farmers; they ‘plow’ the board to lay fields?”

“You mean, like Dune?” I asked, getting excited about the idea. Dune was an old real-time strategy computer game by Westwood which had scary sandworms that ate your units (And God forbid, harvesters). It had one particularly annoying thing: You had to lay concrete slabs on the ground before you can build your buildings on it, else the building starts out damaged (which sucks).

“Nah, that’ll be too annoying. What I mean is *scribble sketch scribble* these creatures lay fields as they move… they leave a trail. So they actually define the terrain in early game, and since fields can’t be overlaid according to the game rules, there’s actually a fight for territory!”

“Sweet.”

“Sweet.”

By the way, you ought to try dark coffee with lemon juice. Very interesting drink.

Some related posts:

January 5, 2007 Posted by | Encephalon, Game Design, Game Development, Trading Card Game | 12 Comments

Web Gaming 2.0: Trading Card Concept on the Web

Edit (May 2007): Quasr.com is now on Alpha Testing. Join us!


This article is the first of many; where everyone in the world can join us as we experiment with the concept of Web Gaming 2.0.Financial realities of Hatchlings Games have pushed us into a scenario where we must maximize Quasr’s chance of success. We should not leave anything to chance. The opportunity on the web and games are so great that the convergence of the two is probably too alluring for any entrepreneur and/or game designer to ignore [read insane competition].

Not leaving anything to chance might sound ironic since our game is based on user generated content; that is, we are already giving our users chances to screw up our game. After some soul searching, reflection and deep conversations, both Zie Aun and Slade came to the same conclusion – that we must trust our users if we aim to be successful in this user-centered future.

At this point, there is a big hoo-ha on the business & design world about the future of content. Pundits and web & game industry leaders insists that majority of content should be user created. Early adopters of such radical concept (i.e. Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, etc) have seen tremendous financial & branding success. Due to technological and an ongoing cultural shift, customers are now simultaneously the producer and consumer of content.

Games are heading towards the same direction too. It is getting harder to start a company, creating games for gamers for a living; but that forces us to think, to start our engine of innovation. We must constantly be thinking outside the box, to innovate and be a leader. Industry leaders (game designers, producers, studio heads) have been discussing emergent gameplay design (few years), planning for user generated content (more recent), and creating successful immersive worlds. The above together with the success of game MODs, MMOGs (i.e. WOW), web game worlds (i.e. Neopets) and even 100% user generated virtual world (i.e. Second Life) are pushing games towards the same direction as web 2.0 services.

The main platform for distributing such user generated content is the web. User created content requires a widespread and easy to use distribution platform. The web is such a platform. Services like blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and Digg wouldn’t be possible without the web. These websites are successful because they are disruptive. They maximized the web to beat their competitors, which are all traditional content publishers and distributors.

Trading card concept

Trading card games, a genre pioneered by Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering (M:tG) has all the basic ingredients of an addictive game: good gameplay (pacing set by tempo, strategic depth, and control-decontrol) and game mechanics (goal-reward / collectability).

If the game is popular enough, it can be extremely profitable for the game developer. Trading card game players are driven by their primal urge to collect, compete and achieve. Pokemon and Yu-gi-Oh are two extremely popular trading card games since the release of M:tG. All three games are still making money for the developers.

The problems game developers face with physical trading card games were usually:

  1. Content creation; the design and illustration of few hundred cards per set, and the cost that goes into it
  2. Printing cost for those shiny cards.
  3. Marketing; as with most game genres, established brands are hard to compete against, even monopolizing.
  4. Distribution; the need to setup distribution channels all around the world.

Web 2.0

Go Digital: eliminate printing cost

By creating an online game (as a downloadable client), Quasr would have solve problem number 2 and in a way number 4. There would be no need for us to print cards. The cost equation for card has changed from the number of cards printed in volumes to the number of cards a person owns.

The more card a player owns, the more profitable Quasr is. The profit margin for a single player increases every time he buys a new card. The server cost remains a constant for that one player.

The Web: the most distributable platform

Having the online game as a downloadable client still doesn’t solve problem #1, #3 and it only partially solves problem #4. To further the solution for distribution, we place the game completely on the most distributable platform – the web.

Without having to download a separate client and asset files, we dramatically increase the chances for site visitors to click on “play”. “Play” wins vs. “Download”. Granting each account a sub-domain (e.g. http://johntan.quasr.com), we increase the desire of players to virally (via links / RSS) spread the game.

User created content

A web 2.0 site trusts its users. It allows users to create, edit and moderate content. The developers of the site are also its users. There is very little distinction between the developers of the site and its users; both are the producer and user of its content. The developers become platform creators or service providers. The concept of internet services can be extended to trading card games.

Quasr too will feature user created content: we allows users to create card and art based on certain rules. We give the players a set of basic cards that they can add abilities and stats to, obviously based on some card-modifying rules. Residents of Quasr can even draw custom art for a card, but they first have to let the community vote for style & quality.

Conclusion

Quasr.com is now up for Alpha Testing, so go and try it. It is still very crude (just like this article) and does not have the user-created features yet. As of now we are still struggling with designing the best gameplay

I hope someone finds an inspiration from here. If you do please leave a comment and start a dialogue with us. We need your feedback. We cannot take this on alone; fortunately we are joined by great game designers such as Raph Koster with Areae. Do join us as we experiment with this, to bring games and immersive worlds to the web.


Related Posts:

January 1, 2007 Posted by | Entrepreneurship, Game Design, Game Industry, Quasr, Trading Card Game, Web, Web 2.0, Web Gaming 2.0 | 5 Comments