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The World Doesn't Need Another Mobile Card Battle Game
by Joseph Kim on 06/14/13 09:11:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I initially published this post in my personal blog on 6/11/2013. Small changes made to post and title for Gamasutra.

Guys, it's not 2011: The world does not need another card battle game.

At the latest Pocket Gamer event, within 1 hour I randomly bumped into different folks from 3 different companies launching 4 card battle games. I know of at least 2 active RFPs for card battle and I also know of at least 3 others in the works as well. These are just the ones I personally know of...

Do we really need another 20-30 card battle games (for the U.S. market) to launch in the next 2-3 months?


Why all of the fuss about card battle games?

Well, since the Japanese mobile gaming market is like 90%+ card battle game revenue, many of the large Japanese game companies like GREE, DeNA, and CyberAgent assumed the U.S. market would follow suit. These companies spent very aggressively to acquire users in a bid for market share ahead of what they assumed would be a U.S. market that follows the Japanese market.

They were wrong.

Everyone was talking about Rage of Bahamut and Legend of the Cryptids when they first launched as those games topped the charts in 2011/2012 and as the companies associated with those games touted extremely high monetization (well rumored and talked about ARPDAU of $1+ and LTV of $5+).

The problem is that ARPDAU does not equal profitability. The assumption that many/most of the card battle games are profitable given high monetization ignores the relevance of retention. Monetization AND retention are the Yin and Yang proxies of LTV.

I've seen the early marketing budgets for Rage (don't ask)... it was pure craziness. How can you spend $8-$10 in CPI and expect a profit?

The strategy must have been to lock up the card battle user base for the U.S. market and thereby not only acquire users for the first card battle game, but for future card battle games as well: to spread user cost over multiple products. This is actually a pretty good strategy but whose outcome at least for now seems uncertain.

Here in the U.S., the market did not follow the Japanese market. The dominating games in our space are not card battle games but a greater mix of genres such as (obviously) puzzle games (Candy Crush) and tower defense games (Clash of Clans).

We've seen this movie before. On consoles, in Japan the biggest hits are fantasy RPGs while in the U.S. the biggest hits are sci-fi/modern war FPS's (first person shooters).

The answer to the initial question is that all of the fuss about card battle games is a matter of mobile game executives not understanding our industry well enough and misinterpreting our current industry situation:

  1. Bad assumption: Card battle games are profitable. Actually, very few in the U.S. are. Those that have been profitable have been greatly aided by strong brands/Apple love.
  2. Bad strategy: Trying to acquire a user base where there has already been massive amounts of money spent to acquire at ridiculously high prices is pretty silly.
  3. Bad market read: There is a massive glut in the industry and more coming for card battle games (at least for the first and second generation kinds of games).

Maybe a good question to ask here is, can your company survive management that builds game designs around a strategy that is fundamentally flawed and a strategy that any reasonable person who spends a little bit of time studying our industry would likely avoid?

High level, macro-simplistic thinking without fundamental understanding of nuance kills...

How to Win?:

So let me be clear here. I'm not saying no new card battle game can be successful, but I am saying it will be extremely difficult and a strategy to compete in the first and second generation type of card battle games is likely not good enough. Sadly that's most of what I'm seeing.

Here's what I mean by the generations of card battle games and a simplistic view of the genre's evolution:

Card Battle Game Evolution

If you're thinking of creating another me too card battle game just don't do it. Having said that, to have any chance of success, I believe new card battle games must do 1 or hopefully more of the following:

  1. Brand: Have a strong brand (e.g., Transformers, Marvel, etc. to lower customer acquisition cost, can also lower cost structure by re-using an existing engine)
  2. +1 Design: Add a compelling +1 game design (e.g., Battlestone - from Zynga what?? Finally getting innovative)
    • Areas to potentially improve: Social, Battle System, Equipment, GVG, Genre Mash-up (e.g., Puzzle & Dragon with Match 3), etc.
  3. Simplification: The first and second generation card battle games are still too hard core. The magic of what Supercell did with Clash of Clans was to simplify the more complex versions of its genre (e.g., Backyard Monsters and Edgeworld on Facebook) to appeal to a broader audience (as well as with appropriate art style, etc.)

Even then there remains the key obstacles mentioned above to this category. Think twice!

Please Think Twice:

As we will no doubt see the coming avalanche of card battle games launched in the next few months, please think twice before launching yet another in the category.

What we need in this industry is more artistry and less distribution: more vertical less horizontal.

Let's create something new and stop creating 50 flavors of the old...

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Luis Blondet
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Card Battle games are a genre. This is as silly as asking developers to stop making FPS, Puzzle Games, Side Scroller games, RPGs, etc.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Joseph Kim
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Matthew, thx for the support.

Luis, agreed that developers shouldn't stop making any new card battle games ever. That's not what the point of my post was.

The point is that there is/was: 1. a set of faulty assumptions leading to as Matthew states "gold rush" behavior, and 2. the sheer volume of this single genre without enough differentiation has a significant user acquisition/marketing/distribution impact that mobile game executives are not fully comprehending.

I'm also asking developers to stop making the same thing... which is different from making a better form of the game in the genre:

"So let me be clear here. I'm not saying no new card battle game can be successful, but I am saying it will be extremely difficult and a strategy to compete in the first and second generation type of card battle games is likely not good enough. Sadly that's most of what I'm seeing."

Joseph Kim
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Luis, btw much respect your beard blows mine away by like 3 or 4x.

Andy Lee Chaisiri
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Yeah, I could just as easily say "The world doesn't need more mobile games" based on the tiny sliver of profitable games in the gigantic sea of forgettable (and forgotten) titles.

Greg Pollock
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Thanks for writing this. I have been astonished by the dozens of card games that are essentially the same, and was wondering how they could possibly all be justifying their UA costs. This makes a lot more sense.

I think there are two other directions for the CCG genre to fragment around gen 3. One is the inclusion of gen 1 mechanics (collectible cards as visual metaphor, gacha and evolution) into games of other types. I saw this recently in com2us's Defense Technica, a pretty traditional tower defense game where the card stuff provides an extra layer of monetization and metagame.

The other thing to do would be use cards for what they are good for: games that involve thinking. Cards are abstractions that are really good for representing rules. Those are the kinds of games that gave us CCGs as a genre (MtG, Pokemon, etc).

Joseph Kim
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Great point. Puzzle & Dragons is another example of exactly what you're talking about wrt to card battle game mechanics "mash-up" with a different game type.

The 2nd point you make is very interesting. The industry currently thinks (at least the execs I speak to) in terms of "card battle" with the Rage/Legend of the Cryptids type of game play stack: card collection + fusion + evolution + gatcha + async PVP battle.

Wizards of the Coast where are you? There should be a formula for a different kind of card battle game that does just what you are taking about... thinking and crafting interesting strategies using cards.

Erin OConnor
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Still plenty of room for great multiplayer card games.

The trend in the cardboard world is moving toward living card games. Essentially when you buy the game you have ALL of the cards you need to play. With the CCG element removed the game is much more focused on strategy and gameplay. Simply spending a lot of money to get the ultra rare instant win cards won't work.

Take a quick peek at what the board game world is doing:

#5 Android Netrunner
#13 Dominion
#14 7 Wonders
#19 Race for the Galaxy
(just to name a few)

Andy Lee Chaisiri
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From the title I thought I was on Kotaku for a moment hahah.

Reading your article though, you're actually saying "The World needs BETTER mobile card battle games".
Yes, the world can always do with better games.

Joseph Kim
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That title is too boring... :-)

Andy I like your other comment above... seems like we share a similar world view. Ha!

Nian Wu
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Thx for sharing!"What we need in this industry is more artistry and less distribution: more vertical less horizontal."I really agree with that!

Christopher Ory
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In your diagram do you mean Hearthstone as the 3rd generation example? (The only Bloodstone game I am able to find is 007.)

If so, I would not put it in the linage of CBG's. It comes from more of a Magic: The Gathering design history. A big misconception many people seem to be making in the discussion over the CBG "craze" is that games like Rage/etc and Collectible Card Games are the same thing. I don't think this is the case and things get a little convoluted when the two are confused.

CBG's are incredibly simplified, automated RPGs that function more like Mafia Wars or Vampires than any type of actual card game. M:TG is a huge industry changing success story that sounds really good to mention when generating hype around your "card" game, but Magic and current CBG's have almost nothing in common except the use of cards as a way to relay important information.

There are several games that are coming from a CCG history like Hearthstone, SolForge (obviously), and Cabals. None of these games seem to have been able to attract an audience beyond hardcore card gamers. I'm looking forward to seeing how Hearthstone performs and if it can break the mold.

Bethany Ward
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I'm not sure whether RoB and MWoH would be classified as hardcore? I tried playing both these games and they seem pretty mindless. I'm curious as to your definition as I wouldn't really know how to classify these games, I just wouldn't classify them as hardcore.