Last time, Tim and Blue Manchu supremo Jon Chey discussed what led up to the creation of Card Hunter, as well is its inspirations and how those inspirations influenced it. As the last part ended, they’d just been discussing the difficulties in balancing the game so that both deck-building and player skill were of equal importance, and making sure that games stayed short. This time, we pick up at the continuation of that conversation. And remember – if you don’t want to read through the whole interview, you can listen to it as an MP3 here.
TM: I can’t imagine it would’ve been easy to balance Card Hunter – not only in terms of balancing out the cards themselves, but also in terms of trying to balance out the deck building with the tactical side, and player skill with the cards themselves. Has it been a bit of a nightmare?
JC: Yeah, nightmare’s the right word for it.
JC: I knew it was going to be really hard, and I was kinda looking forward to it. I also engaged the services of a guy I’ve worked with a lot over the years, called Dorian Hart. I met him at Looking Glass – he was working there before I started in the games industry, so he’s been around for a very long time. He’s worked on System Shock, and Thief, and Ultima Underworld, and he’s the numbers guy.
He worked for us at Irrational and he was the numbers guy on BioShock and System Shock 2, and that’s his thing – balancing, and juggling these giant spreadsheets. So I thought “I’ve got Dorian, I’m sure we’ll be able to figure this out.” And I think we have, but it’s been hugely more complicated and difficult than I thought it would be.
The reason is because we’ve created many, many constraints and axes in the game. It’s very hard to balance a CCG with 300 or 400 cards in it, but we have… probably 500 or 600 cards, and we have this whole layer of items on top of it. We have thousands of items in the game, and they have all kinds of different things that have to balanced, like when they’re introduced in the single-player game and how valuable they are. Then we have these things called Power Tokens that govern how many of the more powerful items you can equip. And we have how many characters you have, and how many classes there are, and what races they are… it’s just this enormous, complex, multi-dimensional web.
But I think the absolute worst thing is that we built a game with a big single-player component, and we wanted to create a really robust, balanced, fun multiplayer game. Those two things often conflict in terms of their balance. Probably the single toughest thing is trying to make sure they co-exist happily.
I think we’ve got most of the way there. [Laughs faintly] But I think we’ve still got a lot of balance work to do, particularly on the multiplayer side of things.
TM: I was going to ask about that, actually – whether the balance had been a lot more difficult because you’re trying to do multiplayer and single-player together – but you’ve pretty much answered that.
JC: Yeah. I really, highly recommend that as something that nobody should try to do.
JC: At Irrational, we always tried to avoid that. We were always getting asked to build single-player/multiplayer games, particularly because there’s a belief in publishers – and they’re correct – that multiplayer extends the shelf-life of a game. If people keep playing the multiplayer it’ll stay alive and they’ll be less tempted to trade their game in, and so on. We were mainly about making single-player games, but we were always getting badgered to add a multiplayer mode to them. Sometimes we did, but it was always kinda half-arsed because we’d develop it after the single-player, and we didn’t have enough time to balance it properly.
There’s no point in building a half-arsed multiplayer game. There are so many multiplayer games out there, and people have a very limited appetite to engage in them because they require a lot of commitment to get good at. We would always try to avoid having to do a multiplayer game, but we’d have to do it occasionally. [Laughs]
With this game… I don’t know if it was a mistake or not, but I sort of forgot that it was going to a problem. I think I figured “This is a pretty simple game; how hard can it be?” and just dove into that… and suffered the consequences over the following years. [Laughs]
It’s a lot of the reason the game has taken so long, and the result is that we do have a game that tries to balance those two things. You can just play it entirely as a single-player game, and you can play it entirely as a multiplayer game, and we hope you can cross over. Everything you collect in one is applicable to the other. But that does create a lot of tricky problems for us.
TM: You’re not the first developer I’ve heard say things about there being no point in doing a half-arsed multiplayer mode. If you’re going to do multiplayer, you need to be focusing on it from the start.
JC: There are so many dead multiplayer games out there. They built themselves a multiplayer system and a lobby, and there’s just nobody playing them. It’s very depressing to look at, I think.
TM: I think so, as well. There are so many games – in the first-person genre in particular – which are very clearly bolted onto something that was a single-player game to begin with, and the multiplayer side just died after a couple of months.
There’s one thing I really want to ask, and this is a bit of an odd one. When I was playing Card Hunter, because the whole aesthetic is a board on a table and it’s all about “playing a fantasy RPG”, I was keeping my eyes out for any mechanics in combat that couldn’t be done with a board, some dice, and some cards. Have you made a physical board, and tried playing it as a tabletop game?
JC: In terms of actually producing a physical board, we’ve done that. If you go to the Card Hunter website there’s a splash image there of an actual, physical board and a bunch of physical Card Hunter pieces sitting on a physical board. It’s kind of hard to tell these days, but it is a photo!
Ben Lee, our art director, produced that for the promo video that we made of the game when we first announced it – which was actually a live-action video. Something else I never thought I’d do.
So we actually had people picking up these pieces and moving them around, pretending they were playing an actual board game. So yes, we’ve actually produced them.
In terms of a playable version, though, we haven’t produced that. We have had a bunch of conversations with some board game publishers ever since we announced the game, but we haven’t inked any deals yet. I think it could be turned into a really great board game – all the concepts are there.
I think there are some mechanics that would have to change, from “a bit” to “a lot.” One of them is the triggered card notion – armour cards and block cards are played automatically when you get attacked, if you have them in your hand. You could change that to a mechanic where you could choose to play them, but the tricky thing is that some of those triggered cards are negative. You might have a card that you don’t want to have triggered when the enemy does something, so it’d be hard to stop people from cheating, as your opponent wouldn’t know whether you had them in your hand or not. The game enforces that rule, but it’d be hard to enforce it in real life.
But it wouldn’t be too hard to design around that. You could just leave those cards out of the physical set, or come up with a rule that you have to reveal them when you draw them, or something. I think there’d need to be a bit of tweaking to the rules, because I think the game might slow down a bit too much.
I play a lot of board game conversions on tablet, and it’s astounding how much faster they are. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a game called Small World, which is a fantasy wargame where you take over the continent with various different races of fantasy creatures? It takes about an hour to play, if you play it in real life with a couple of other people. If you play it on the tablet, it’s over in about five or ten minutes because the game does all the counting for you, and shuffling the pieces around, and so on.
Interestingly, I actually don’t really like the tablet version because there’s a lot of pleasure in shuffling pieces around, and the physical, tactile experience that you have. That’s just missing from playing it on the computer. So… I don’t know; I think you’d have to sit down and play Card Hunter and I suspect it’d be a little too slow to start out. It could stand a round of simplification – there’s a lot of dice rolling in the computer version which the computer does for you, and they might need to be taken out or toned down. Obviously, rolling a die in real life takes a lot longer than it takes a computer to roll it.
But yes! I’d love to see an actual board game. People keep asking us about it all the time.
TM: I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed the board at the top of the website. I went and had a look now, but no, I didn’t notice that was real before.
JC: It’s hard to tell, these days! But I can assure you that it is an actual photo. A lot of the pieces in the game – not the actual figures, but the things that appear around the edge of the board when you’re playing, like the dice and paper and pencils and so on, are… the way that Ben constructs a lot of those is that he takes photos of things, because we try to make those look as realistic as possible to try to maintain the illusion that you’re playing an actual board game.
It’s a weird kind of metaphor with Card Hunter that, in the single-player game, it is a board game that you’re playing with someone else. So it’s a computer simulation of playing a board game.
TM: There’s a bit of a resurgence in terms of board games being ported over to computers, right now. There have been loads done on tablet, and even on PC… well, Games Workshop have opened up their licensing a little bit more. I mean, there’s a full conversion of Space Hulk coming.
JC: I know! I can’t wait.
TM: Did you look at the market when you were developing Card Hunter and look at what was becoming popular and what was changing, in terms of these physical games making the leap to digital, or was it just something you wanted to do?
JC: No, I didn’t look at it at all. I was actually a little bit embarrassed to be working on this, because I figured it was completely commercially unviable, and totally out of sync with the zeitgeist. [Laughs] But it seems to somehow have been the opposite of that! Card games are becoming very profitable, especially on phone and tablet, and there are a whole bunch of other people doing it. Blizzard is doing a World of Warcraft card game, and Mojang is doing Scrolls, so there are a whole bunch of other people doing them; those aren’t the only ones.
As you said, there are so many board games popping up on tablet and phone now. I think we caught the wave. We got onto the wave before it started, and then we were so slow – we took so much time – that now we’re cresting the wave! It might look like we’re hopping on the bandwagon, but we didn’t even realise it was a bandwagon when we started.