When I first met the brilliant minds over at Cryptozoic Entertainment a few years ago it was easy to see that they were an insanely passionate and creative bunch with mountains of potential. Since then they've created a number successful deck building games and licensed board games. Now they're looking to shake up the digital landscape with HEX, the world's first ever MMO-TCG.
HEX made an immediate splash with the TCG community the moment it was announced and it speaks volumes to the demand for a true digital TCG experience on par with established physical products. The fact that it will have persistent MMO features complete with a vast PvE experience that allows for solo and co-op play is even more impressive.
HEX is enjoying one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date and I sat down with the team to discuss some of the challenges and design philosophies that went into creating the game. Joining in on the conversation were President and CCO Cory Jones, Lead Engineer & Lead Encounter Designer Chris Woods, Lead Systems Designer Kevin Jordan, Lead Designer Ben Stoll, and Lead Developer Dan Clark.
Blending a TCG with an MMO sounds like a dizzying task. With so many lackluster digital collectable card games on the market, what is the team at Cryptozoic doing to ensure a rich gameplay experience for the player?
Cory: MMO and TCG are some of the most overused words in the gaming industry but we believe that being a TCG doesn't just mean putting some fancy art on an oblong square and then monetizing it. From the very beginning we set out to avoid the pitfalls that plague the mobile and digital space because we understand that it takes months to properly build and balance card sets and game modes. It's obvious that the design teams behind a lot of digital collectable card games on the market don't even know the right questions they need to be asking themselves in order to build a sustainable and balanced game. We'll spend months and months just looking at how a single game mode should work and that's an important distinction between what we're doing compared to other developers/publishers that just want to capitalize on the collectable card game craze.
Over the years I've noticed this growing desire for a robust digital TCG that has enough depth for high-level competitive play, but also more casual solo and co-op modes alongside it. Was HEX designed from the start to address this?
Cory: It really came down to my wanting to play a game like HEX and as a team we really feel that there is a need for this type of game in the digital market. Some of that stems from our disappointment with what's been released on mobile and social platforms in the last year or so. The fact that gamers have put up with so many bad mobile and social card games lately speaks volumes to how desperate they are for a truly great digital TCG experience.
Kevin: HEX got started pretty quickly because we could immediately see the promise of building this kind of game. At the first brainstorming session two years ago we knew the world was ready for this type of hybrid and we all recognized its potential. We almost felt obligated to make it and we couldn't be happier.
For years I've heard many programmers and game designers say it was almost impossible to create an A.I. good enough to handle a persistent PvE experience with a constantly expanding card pool. How were you able to overcome this seemingly insurmountable technical hurdle?
Cory: Luckily for us, we have Chris who is the most accomplished A.I. programmer in the world for TCG's on our team.
Chris: [laughs] It's literally all I've done for a decade working on TCG versions of some of gaming's biggest IP's including Legends of Norrath, Star Wars Galaxies, Stargate, and Magic: the Gathering Tactics. I got my specialty in artificial intelligence in college and when working on my first A.I. project for a TCG, I realized just how utterly different the problem space is from other games.
I think the reason that nobody has really solved the issue of how to make genuinely great artificial intelligence for a TCG is because it's not enough to just be good at programming A.I., you also have to understand the core concepts of TCGs and you have to be able to merge the problem spaces together. As humans we know when a card feels right or wrong to play and being able to quantify why a card feels good doesn't have a simple pragmatic approach when it comes to programming artificial intelligence. Our A.I. System, codenamed Arbiter, is a real breakthrough proprietary engine that genuinely simulates the feeling of playing against a human opponent.
Arbiter also takes care of all the logistical stuff so that players can do what's most fun and that's play the actual game. With Arbiter, you have an official judge at every table essentially ensuring that players won't continually stumble into misplays, cheat, or miss a required card bonus.
Ben: More importantly, having Arbiter lets us design cards that would otherwise be impossible in a physical TCG. A user interface running in the background means that card stats and modifiers can easily be tracked as cards move between game zones [deck library, player hand, field of play, discard pile]. It removes most of the logistical tracking that players normally have to do with physical TCG's and, more importantly, opens up the door to new card interactions and abilities that could never be done with a physical product.
This sounds like a heavenly gift to long-time TCG players who are all too familiar with having to use dice or manually manage life totals, counters, multipliers, and countless other stat modifiers that are standard fare in the genre. All that micromanagement can really feel like a chore.
Dan: One of the key advantages of digital is the user interface allows for clean and easy sorting and managing of cards. We continually ask ourselves "what is the most intuitive and simple way for players to just have a good time playing our game?" and then we proceed to design it that way.
Chris: We want to do everything in our power to maximize the amount of time players spend actually playing the game when they're logged into HEX by making it easy to get into all of the game modes.
Kevin: Press a button, start a game. That's been our design philosophy in terms of ease-of-use.†
Some of the cards you guys have revealed so far seem like they would be impossible to implement in a physical TCG. It speaks volumes to the unlimited potential that HEX has going forward. Are you guys surprised by how crazy you can get with card design?
Ben Stoll: Give designers nearly limitless potential and you can bet they'll use it. We have brainstorming sessions all the time where we just throw around crazy design ideas. We always want to see where the earliest kernels of card ideas can lead to.
Dan: If I have a wicked dream and it inspires an idea for HEX, I have the freedom to pitch it at a meeting and maybr see it work its way into the game in some way. It's pretty cool.
Cory: At the same time, we don't want to be reckless when designing things. Even though HEX is a digital game and we're dealing with digital cards, we want to make it feel as collectible as possible. That means we're being very diligent in designing great cards. We want players to have fun and feel that we made cards right the first time out. We don't want to ever go back and change a card. In a worst case scenario of it turns out a card is broken, we'd rather ban the card in a certain format than have players feel we're going to start changing some of their favorite cards on them.
On the MMO side, things seem to be in pretty good hands. Does having Kevin Jordan, one of the original masterminds behind Warcraft II, Diablo II, and World of Warcraft in its early days, raise the stakes since players will almost certainly walk into HEX expecting a deep story with thoughtfully developed characters and a rich world history?
Cory: With Kevin on board we're confident we'll have the core systems that will make HEX a thrilling and engaging experience for PvE fans who love story and enjoy atmosphere. The game isn't even out yet and our message boards are already full of fans talking about the lore, the various races, and the overall world of HEX.
Kevin: We know players will expect a vibrant world full of interesting characters, races, and locales. We will definitely deliver on that front. We will also have all the social aspects that players expect from an MMO in place and ready when the game launches. It's our priority to support and encourage players to talk and build communities within the game. Along with guilds, there will be friends lists, local chat, guild chat, party invite, and an easy-to-use matchmaking system.
Does that mean players can expect fun and unique community interactions with special events such as PvE battles that can decide the fate of a faction, character, or kingdom in the HEX universe.
Kevin: Absolutely. That kind of stuff will be in there. We want to bring life to the lore behind HEX and keep players emotionally invested in the game world. We can't reveal the exact details but players can look forward lots of community events that will shape the overall game world.
Cory: When players start the PvE mode, they'll notice they occupy just a tiny part of the globe as a whole. We have about eight years worth of content being planned to fully flesh out that globe. Players can rest assured that we're in this for the long haul and that they will play a major part in that.
You mentioned mobile and social games that just barely scratch the itch for a truly immersive TCG experience that fans are looking for. One of the biggest criticisms of so many mobile and social collectible card games is they try to monetize seemingly every tertiary element of the game experience. How are you guys approaching F2P differently in terms of monetization?
Ben: There's really no barrier-to-entry for HEX. While free-to-play has become this cringe-worthy term as of late, HEX will be free-to-play in the best possible way. HEX requires no upfront cost to play and every player who signs up will get a free starter deck and will be able to dive right into the PvE experience.
Cory: Specifically we're going to be selling booster packs and starter decks. Event tickets and entry fees into tournaments go right into the prize pool for winners to earn. All these will sell for far less than any existing physical TCG. We also have an optional VIP program that offers players things like booster packs at a discounted rate and access to a VIP tournament once a month, but it's something we came up with to cater to the more hardcore players. We're not going to be monetizing every little part of the gameplay experience.
Chris: We also wanted to stay away from the velvet rope model that so many F2P games use where they sell players boosts. It's so essential to balancing PvE that there not be this extra complicating factor where a player's experience of the game be dependent upon how much money they spend. We want PvE to be fair and fun for everybody.
Kevin: Setting up a guild will be free. Creating multiple champions will be free. All PvE content updates and dungeon expansions to the game will be completely free.
Dan: We want to give every player the freedom to completely tailor how much they want to spend on HEX and not force anything on them.
I'm sure it helps that you guys don't have some board of directors breathing down your necks whose only interest is a fiscal bottom line and whose every company decision is dictated by a fiduciary responsibility to a group of shareholders.
Cory: All of us making the important decisions behind HEX are gamers and not a bunch of analytics people so our primary focus is fun, not monetization. The last thing we'll do is use crazy gimmicks to make money. We won't force players to recruit new players in order to gain access to game content, or reward them with exclusive cards if they get a dozen friends to "like" us on Facebook, or slap promotional ads for consumer products in our client. We won't destroy our game.
Ben: As hardcore TCG players we have this pure love for the genre embedded into our souls and that makes us very empathic to our users.
Cory: Exactly. We always want to provide maximum value for our players. Even with our auction house, we're using a very consumer friendly approach. We talked about it early on and felt that it wouldn't be a true collectible game without an auction house that lets players buy, sell, and trade rare cards. It guarantees that players have something to look forward to every time they crack open a booster pack. Knowing that the next booster pack a player opens could contain a valuable legendary card is what keeps a lot of players invested in the game because they feel they're getting value with each pack. But we aren't going to nickel-and-dime them just to use the auction house the way other games do.
Chris: One thing that Kickstarter has taught everybody is that if you provide something upfront and deliver a fun experience, people will just give you money. You don't have to scheme ways of getting money out of them. Players can tell when you're being fair with your game and they reward you for it. They literally tell us "you're awesome and we want you to stay in business."
Speaking of Kickstarter, you guys are enjoying one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date. Does it validate your initial beliefs that the industry is thirsty for the type of experience HEX will provide?
Cory: The Kickstarter is great because the word-of-mouth and early hype it has generated means we're going to have a large community immediately at launch and I think it's going to grow pretty quickly after that. We had some great early bird donor amounts that were essential in seeding the initial word-of-mouth in both the TCG and online gaming communities. The money is great, don't get me wrong, but we want to get a community up and running around HEX as early as possible because that's always been one of our core strengths at Cryptozoic.
I heard you guys plan to grow HEX as an eSport and that the game will be designed with an infrastructure that is conducive to streaming on sites like TwitchTV along with hosting live tournament events.
Cory: The idea that there isn't a super robust eSports component to any digital TCG today is criminal in my opinion. We want to support both online and live events for HEX. Having a world championship event and crowning a world champ is a major step towards incentivizing top-tier competitive play. We already have a dedicated TwitchTV channel for HEX and we will be implementing a spectator arena mode in the game for players who enjoy watching high level matches and discovering the full potential of the game.
Dan: It goes hand-in-hand with our philosophy of fostering community involvement and interaction. By giving fans multiple access points to HEX we allow them to consume the product in whatever way they prefer.
Chris: On the technical side we have portable servers ready to go for when we do actually start rolling out competitive live events. Having portable servers helps us isolate the live environment and ensure match integrity and make it a pure competitive environment.
Since Cryptozoic is best known for its physical card games and board games, will there be any cross-product promotion, perhaps a redeemable code for a free booster pack or starter deck included with future physical products from Cryptozoic?
Cory: We absolutely can and will do that. We can even take it one step further at live events like Gen Con or PAX where we can potentially host side tournaments and give away exclusive redeemable Mercenary cards for attendees. Other digital games have done this to great success in years past and there's no reason why we wouldn't do the same for our fans.
Do you think HEX could exceed the longevity of physical TCGs because it will be so much more accessible as a digital product?
Cory: Even if someone has never played a TCG before, we will have the most robust learn-to-play single player component ever created for a TCG. A major downfall for previous online TCG's has been the lack of good supporting tools or single-player modes.
Chris: We're going to let players move at their own pace and learn at their own pace. It's brutal to have to learn a game by playing against experienced players so we've removed the risk of embarrassment that comes with being thrown into highly competitive matches with no idea how to fully play the game.
Dan: We're constantly testing with people and getting feedback from players in order to make sure we have the easiest and most polished interface possible.
Cory: We also know there are a lot of older players who feel they have aged out of physical TCGs because they don't have a good way to engage in the hobby since they have full-time careers and families. They need to be lucky enough to have a local hobby store or somehow logistically coordinate a group of people at a specific time and place to play. HEX will give them a chance to jump back in and play a genre they love by logging in and knowing they can find a quick match or enjoy the PvE mode whenever and for however long they want. Availability is the biggest hurdle for trading card games and I believe we've solved that conundrum with HEX.