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FYI, the First C in CCG is BS

There’s a real issue with the “Collectable” in online Collectable Card Games, which is creating an ever-expanding handicap on newer players, and making games needlessly unfair, and if these games aspire to be as good a quality as they can be, it needs to be addressed.

The problem is this. In games like Hearthstone, Duelyst, the now-dead Scrolls, and so on, players earn in-game currency that allows them to buy more card packs. The longer you play, the more currency you’ll have earned, and the more card packs you’re likely to have brought. As time goes on, those who have played for longer will have amassed a greater range of cards, opening them up to a greater range of moves. Particularly in something like Duelyst (which you can see a review of here), where cards are also awarded to you for simply for playing the game long enough, long-term players will be at an advantage against newer players.

This is on top of long-term players also being likely to have greater skill at the game. The longer you’ve played, the more likely you are to have grasped the optimal tactics and strategies of the game. Gaining skill at a game isn’t a problem – if anything it’s what every player aspires to do – but when your skill and your range of ways to express it both are larger than your newer opponent, an imbalance is being created. In games like Chess and Go, the superior player is given a handicap when playing against inferior opponents. This ensures the superior player still has a challenge, and the inferior player has a chance to win. But the act of collecting in conjunction to your naturally growing skill handicaps in the opposite direction; the inferior player is penalized, creating games that are too easy for the superior player and a crushing defeat for the inferior one. This article will refer to this newer-player handicap as ‘card-imbalance’.

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The online CCGs do present a way around card-imbalance by effectively trading it for another one. They allow players to pay real money for additional card packs, allowing players to circumvent the issue of having a lesser range of cards than long-time players. However skewing what the game favors away from how long one has been playing towards how much money a player can spend is far from a remedy, particularly when talking about ensuring these are fair games. Disregarding the worrying elements of wealth-disparity this can reflect, money is completely isolated from the game, and is just as an unbalanced and arbitrary a quantity to have effect the game as, say, a player’s height, nationality, or available fridge-space. It also isn’t an actual solution for those players that simply lack the disposable funds, and just expands who you’re handicapped against to include both richer players and longer players.

One might consider charging for more cards to be fair. It is understandable that game makers would seek to make money off of their product. How else would they sustain it? However in-game purchases that have an impact on the game mechanics isn’t the only way to monetize a game. Funnily enough, people have been selling games for a flat, one-time payment since video games started. Most games aren’t free-to-play, and the recent introduction of game-affecting micro-transactions within games that aren’t free has been met with disdain. Why then do we tolerate it within CCGs? I’ve recently been playing Duelyst, a new online CCG. The irony of playing Duelyst, for me, was that its monetization actually resulted in me paying less money to its maker, Counterplay Games. Having gotten 30 hours of crude but enjoyable content from the game, I figured it was only fair I pay something, so I spent £8.20 on the in-game market. However if the game had all of its abhorrent monetization stripped out, and was a higher quality because of it, I would have happily paid £15 for the complete package. I plan to never spend another penny on Duelyst. The charging for additional booster packs actually resulted in me paying less. The exchanging of the problem of card-imbalance for the problem of monetization not only doesn’t actually solve the problem of unbalanced gameplay, but also, in my personal case, made the game less profitable.

One supposed solution to card-imbalance would be to eliminate older sets of cards as new ones come along. This is certainly more viable than the current presiding methods, although it would have the consequence of making the meta even more volatile. With each new set players will have to both adapt to the addition of new cards, and the loss of older cards and the strategies that relied upon them. That isn’t necessarily a negative, mind. If what you want is a player base as actively engaged as possible, then forcing their older decks and strategies to become unusable would be a hefty cattle prod to that end.

However at the same time the removal of older cards, over time, disincentives players who get enjoyment from playing specific decks as well as, or rather than, just from playing the game, which would be most people who enjoy these games. Inevitably as one plays, even if it is only in response to random cards gained from booster packs, one begins to formulate certain decks and strategies in favour of others, and it seems likely that one might begin to specifically enjoy playing one or some of those specific decks that would eventually be removed and discourage the player from returning to the game.

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It’s not like players don’t already have to adapt to shifting meta, but removing older cards would accelerate that shift, perhaps to the conclusion of encouraging older players to drop out the game.

The whole system of ‘collecting’ cards is so problematic the best solution is to do away with it. Allow all equal access to all cards, and find a different way to make money off your game than selling booster packs. Let players have equal opportunities to deck-build and allow their victories to be as reflective of their personal achievement as much as possible. If anything, I’d be interested to see a game that increasingly restricts the number of cards you have access to, forcing the player to compensate with their developing skill.

The current system is archaic. It is understandable in a pre-internet age that analog CCG players would have discrepancies in their collections of cards, as there would be an unavoidable discrepancy in access to cards based on proximity to whoever was selling those cards. It also vaguely understandable to dole out new cards via booster packs in a pre-internet age, considering the cards had to be physically produced and selling all the cards in a set in bulk to avoid the problem of card-imbalance would be impractical. But nowadays, when the internet means everyone playing a digital CCG has equal proximity to the card seller, and the cards are all representations of electronic data that take a speck of a pittance of data each, to carry on the habits and flaws of the analog past is absurd. Instead, now that CCGs are video games, the boons of that format should be played to, and game makers should aspire to make games as accessible, fair and challenging as possible. And they might even make more money doing so, if people share my spending habits.

Written By

Liam was created in 1994. At seven years old his friend passed on her Gameboy and copy of Pokémon Yellow. He never made it passed the first gym, but he did pass in to the magical world of video games, and has been trapped inside ever since. He also likes webcomics, regular comics, pen and paper rpgs, sculpting, drawing, scifi books, technology, politics, films, literally all music ever, and TV. He is trapped in a loveless marriage with manga. The kind of guy you call when need a Gramscist-hegemony-analysis on the purchasing format of PES, Liam does not get called very often. He hopes to fight evil, make video games a recognised field in its own right, and see the Bard class removed from Dungeons & Dragons.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. xhanx_plays

    November 14, 2016 at 8:07 am

    Selling the game as a one time thing does not work unless you are Blizzard. Faeria, another ccg strategy game, just ditched their one time buy model because it meant no one bought packs.

    How many people would play games like Duelyst were it behind a £15 gate. I wouldn’t, and not because I wouldn’t spend £15 on a game, but because I could not trust that there would be enough of a server population to ensure quick matchmaking queues at any time of day.

    Furthermore, charging an up front cost for the game kills the audience on mobile. And mobile (tablets anyhow) may well be the best platforms for these games.

    • Liam Hevey

      November 14, 2016 at 5:16 pm

      How ironic (I think (irony is hard)). I cut a paragraph from the first draft of this review stating I would have paid up to £15 for a full game of Duelyst with no in-game purchases and immediate access to all cards, whereas what actually happened was I reached 20 hours of play and figured I owed them something and bought one of the booster packs for £8.20, and I will never give them another cent. For me at least, Counterplay making their game as it is meant I paid less. I can’t speak for the market as a whole, but I feel enough people could do the same that a game could make enough of a return that you wouldn’t have to sacrifice quality for profitability.

      I haven’t done any statistical analysis on server populations and how they differ based on the market model, but my guess is that free-to-play games would have larger numbers early on, but later on there would be little difference in player numbers between the two models. People only wanting to play for free would drop off due to disadvantages brought on by not making in-game purchases, and players who had either paid once for the initial pay wall or booster packs would stick around, since they’ve invested in the game and would be incentivised to get more out of it to see better returns for their money. From an armchair it just looks like they both end up with similar numbers, but one model favours wealthier players and so would lessen game quality.

      I’m not sure how your Faeria comment applies. I haven’t played it, but from the sound of things it charges both for the base game AND booster packs. I’m for getting rid of booster packs entirely in exchange for charging for the base game, so it seems like a non-applicable example.

      Lastly, there’s no intrinsic quality to Blizzard that means only they can do certain market practices. It’s literally just another game dev/publisher.

      • xhanx_plays

        November 15, 2016 at 12:26 am

        You didn’t cut the £15 anecdote, it was why I referenced it in my comment. With Faeria, it’s free to play, but you could buy the complete set of cards for one price, or buy/earn boosters to build a smaller collection. They removed the complete set option.

        Players do not stick around to a game with empty servers. Battleborn players (who have paid for the game) have been begging for months for it to go free to play. https://www.reddit.com/r/Battleborn/comments/4spzpe/its_gone_too_far/

        The intrinsic quality to Blizzard is that they have a 9 figure budget for everything, and an audience built up over decades which will eat with relish whatever polished golden turd they’re thrown.

  2. Matt De Azevedo

    November 14, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    Keep in mind my only real experience with CCGs is Hearthstone (which I’ve played a lot of), but I think the current CCG model is fine, and it works because it functions the same as the TCG model more or less. Yes, with TCGs like Magic you have physical property that you can in-turn sell or trade, but if a person were to try and get into Magic right now, and play at a competitive level, they’d be looking at a price wall of 500+ dollars, where as a brand new Hearthstone player can plunk down 1/5th that amount of money and easily compete right away for the top of the Legend ladder (once they acquire game knowledge, of course), or grind in game currency and eventually compete without spending a cent. It’s pretty amazing that you can play the game at the highest level without spending a cent, and it’s also amazing that a person with strong game knowledge and a basic deck can beat a person who has spent hundreds but hasn’t invested the time to learn the game. The pay-per-pack model is simply how the genre operates, and I don’t see that ever changing, especially with the massive success that Hearthstone is.

    Also, a very key aspect to this is that opening packs is a vital part of the game. Having that ever-dangling carrot on a stick is enough motivation for players to keep coming back for years. Giving them all the cards at one flat price may create the even competitive playing field you’re looking for, but at the same time it would alienate a bunch of people who aren’t really playing to ladder, but simply playing to collect. As a purely competitive player myself this seems silly, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

    And finally, about your comment saying Blizzard has no intrinsic value, that’s completely wrong. If Blizzard were to announce a game RIGHT NOW, regardless of what it was, and put it up for sale on Battle.Net, people would swarm in the thousands, if not millions, to buy it right away. If Random Game Company X did the same thing, no one would care. Blizzard is a titan within the industry, and their pedigree has earned all of their products a very real intrinsic value.

    • Liam Hevey

      November 15, 2016 at 12:18 pm

      We’re really wading in to video game theory here, but I strongly disagree with the idea that opening packs is important, and that games have to have those kind of impulsive incentive structures. This is a very complex field, however, and I won’t dump thousands of words on you. I would recommend watching this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqFu5O-oPmU&t=1015s) talk by Jon Blow. I think it’s really interesting and makes a case better than I could.

      On Blizzard; absolutely, it’s got a fanbase that will almost certainly lap up whatever new thing it puts out – but if the next thing it puts out is a real stinker, I figure that fanbase will be pretty apprehensive about what comes next. The fanbase endures off the back of (what they believe is) consistent quality. It’s contingent, not intrinsic. I also thing it’s worth mentioning that in 2007 the US housing market collapsed, Trump is the president-elect, and Notch is a millionaire. In this age, nothing is certain, especially not markets.

      • Matt De Azevedo

        November 15, 2016 at 8:33 pm

        Opening packs is, without a shadow of a doubt, a vital aspect of the experience. It’s the exact same thing as “leveling up” in most online shooters today. I know people who spent THOUSANDS of hours playing CoD4: Modern Warfare JUST BECAUSE you could constantly gain EXP and level up. I, on the other hand, spent my time playing Halo 3, a game with no leveling up, as I was simply playing for the competition. When I asked my friends if they’d continue to play Modern Warfare if the prestiging mechanic was removed, most of them answered with a simple “no”. The ever-dangling carrot on a stick method is basic psychology; you constantly put an easily attainable reward just out of the users grasp (be it a card pack, a level up, etc…), and they are likely to return. And it gets even worse when you add the ‘collection’ aspect to it, and provide a card book showing every single card the user has yet to find. My point is factually proven by the “achievement” and “trophy” craze: people will play games longer if you include meaningless rewards for them to collect. Everyone, including Blizzard, knows that a huge portion of its audience is simply hooked on the collecting aspect and nothing else.

        An intrinsic value is something belonging to an object due to its very nature. Blizzard’s success over the years has instilled that value into its products. By releasing quality product after quality product, they have assured people that their games are, by default, of a certain quality, meaning that to their audience, their value is intrinsic. Diablo 3 had a lot of issues, it was a “real stinker”, yet sold amazingly well, as did Blizzard’s next games, including Overwatch, a multiplayer-only FPS that has found so much success where 99% of others trying the same thing have failed. Overwatch is a fantastic game, regardless of who created it, but having “Blizzard” on the cover makes a world of difference. As xhanx_plays said, somethings just don’t work unless you’re Blizzard.

        Anyways, this comment section has veered far offcourse. I’ll leave this discussion by simply reiterating that the CCG model works because it’s the TCG model, which has worked for decades, and will continue to work for decades more. It’s clearly not broken, and probably won’t get changed in any meaningful way for quite some time.

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