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The Rise of the Mobile Collectible Card Game

February 14, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The Collectible Card Game as a Genre

It's hard to know if something has the potential to grow into a true and lasting genre unless you can understand its value. Gree's Araki once again articulates the collectible card game's potential -- both to players and to developers:

"With the added bonus of keeping hundreds of cards digitally (as opposed to physically carrying them around), the accessibility of asynchronous gameplay, and engaging socially with a committed community of other like-minded players, CCGs have the potential to be more than just a mobile game, but an extended hobby and experience for players," he says.

Meanwhile, when it comes to developers, "the development cycle of free-to-play mobile games allows us to constantly update the game with new events, themes and campaigns – like new cards, bosses, and fusion features – which help promote high engagement; and the casual element of mobile gaming helps to draw a more mass audience."

"Within Japan, card games are treated as their own established genre, similar to FPS and third person shooters," notes Cygames' Iino. "In Japan, the market is vibrant and varied."

Turning the physical card game into a video game genre was easy, he says, because "Users in both regions... have a vast knowledge of card games, giving them the mindset of card games as its own separate genre."

Horiuchi sees this as key to the genre's newfound success, but also the fact that "it was a kind of game that could provide acceptable operation and rules for mobile users who had not been gamers." Once you added social functionality to that, he says, "it grew up into a social mobile genre with communication between users of trading card games."

A (Global) Focus on Card Games

Still, what works in Japan doesn't always work in the West, as everyone well knows. Why did this genre translate? Rage of Bahamut's Japanese success had made the developer "very confident that it would find an audience in the West," says Iino, though the degree of this success was a surprise.

The genre has gotten so big in Japan that it forms the cornerstone of several companies' strategies. Konami's Dragon Collection is the premier game in the category in Japan, with more than 7 million registered users, according to Horiuchi.

"This title represents our company's social game development," he says. He's not exaggerating; a reliable source last year told Gamasutra, off the record, that Konami had bet its game business on Dragon Collection's continued success.

Konami is not alone. "We're focusing on simulation and card battle games globally," says Gree co-founder and executive vice president Kotaro Yamagishi.

Yes, globally. Gree's U.S. development studio, based in San Francisco, has taken the genre away from the fantasy tropes that power Dragon Collection and Rage of Bahamut with MLB: Full Deck, an officially licensed Major League Baseball product. "The combination of baseball and card collection is a timeless concept that we knew baseball and CCG fans would enjoy, so it made sense," says Tyler Nation, the game's lead product manager.

In fact, the flexibility of the genre is precisely what makes it appealing, says Yamagishi. "It varies according to each title," he says, and the audience "could be anyone from anime fans to sports fans."

"We discussed several game concepts internally, but ultimately the license for MLB: Full Deck was pursued specifically to create a great baseball game for collectible card game fans," says Nation. "Typically, CCGs have a small yet highly engaged user base, so I set out to create an MLB card-collection game that was more accessible and therefore captured a larger audience."

Making it Work in the West

Nation says his U.S.-based team strove to make the game more accessible. What has to change to bolster the genre's popularity in the West? Surprisingly little, is the answer, and what changes is pretty predictable if you follow the market.

"While we did not make any changes to the system that was used in Rage of Bahamut, we focused on designing a UI that would resonate with Western users," says Cygames' Iino.

"For the Western version of Bahamut, we focused on being sensitive to religious issues and the different tastes of Western gamers. There is a slight difference between the cards, due to their optimization for the overseas market. We have also adjusted the stats of certain cards to fit the market. Furthermore, we implemented a Battle Ranking system because we believed that Western gamers would enjoy competing against each other."

Similar changes were made to Dragon Collection, says Horiuchi. "We haven't changed the balance in the game," he says. "There were adjustments to make it easier to operate and understand to users in U.S." The company tweaked the UI, and even removed text, but in doing so also made the game's story elements "stronger," he says.

Ngmoco's Scott puts it like this: "the core compulsion and design of Rage of Bahamut remains true to what made the game a success in Japan. The core of what makes Rage of Bahamut a great game is absolutely universal across all iterations of the franchise."

Horiuchi hopes that marrying the "know-how of user analysis achieved in Japan" with an understanding of the "uniqueness of the market and users" in the West will be Dragon Collection's recipe for success -- the same blend Ngmoco's CEO, Clive Downie, says will make his company successful in the long run.

"I truly believe that we are the leaders in maintaining and growing the live services in Western mobile because of what we've been able to learn from DeNA in Japan," he recently told Gamasutra.

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Robert Tsao
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Games like Rage of Bahamut are the equivalent of taking a walking tour through Pyongyang: feel free to follow the path and go at your own pace, or hey, do some exploring for yourself... also, you can't deviate from the path, please do not explore, and please, do follow the guide's pace or there will be problems.

So, yes, this genre is a fad. No, this genre has no real staying power in the truest sense. Nobody working in the games industry has ever said, "well, I played a ton of Facebook and free iOS games a few years ago and I just knew I wanted to make games like this." There is no room for innovation in this "genre" because any sort of real, player-expressive innovation would free players from the tightly wound compulsion loops and social-networking-as-rewarding-punishment that form the backbone of the super-impulsive IAP that games like these facilitate.

To do so would effectively spell an end to the genre, because like Araki said, monetization is the key to longevity of the game. "The key to our success is making money."


Jesse Tucker
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I've played a ton of Hero Academy (made by industry vets), which is a well-done free mobile tactical game. As a AAA dev, I would love to work on a game like that. I've also been playing the free collectible Highgrounds from Spry Fox in its early form. These games are both innovative and enjoyable to play. I'm also looking forward to Card Hunter, which is a free collectible game being developed by a bunch of ex-Irrational folks. You can't say that industry veterans aren't interested in these types of games.
Free mobile games are the flavor of the year. The form is currently being flooded with a bunch of small studios that are making their first game as a free mobile game. Once the dust settles and the new hot game style appears, this genre won't end - it will become established.

Robert Tsao
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@ Jesse

I'm also looking forward to Card Hunter as well, and I do think there is potential in card games as both a genre and a conceit on mobile platforms.

When I say collectible card games lacking innovation and staying power, I'm referring to "card games" specifically in the context of this article. I do agree industry veterans such as Jon Chey are interested in the potential of card game mechanics, and I doubt they would ever create something like Rage of Bahamut. I've played Rage of Bahamut (which iirc is a clone of Konami's "Dragon Collection"), as well as all of its clones such as Legend of the Cryptids and Reign of Dragons.

The fact that these post-RoB games aren't even trying to hide their clone-niness aside, what irks me about the general design of these games is the fact that they're missing out on what makes CCGs truly special in the same way gamification is reviled as distilling games into badges, achievements, and leaderboards.

Magic: The Gathering and CCGs like it (RIP L5R) are built on player expression through customization. Building a new deck around either a super-aggressive strategy or a control/combo strategy is half the fun of the game. RoB and games like it, on the other hand, are focused on the "chase" element of CCGs. The only expression to speak of in the game is basically sifting out a personal deck of playing cards and replacing all the non-face cards with Kings and Aces; it's a gussied-up version of war.

I have confidence that Card Hunter will be more of the former as opposed to the latter, but whether it is profitable or not remains to be seen. Here's to their hopeful success.

E Zachary Knight
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I played Rage of Bahamut shortly after getting my phone. I gave it up after a while because the energy requirements needed to advance outpaced my energy regeneration and I was no longer able to advance at an interesting rate. It started out pretty good. I was able to get through a chapter in a single sitting. However, after about 6-8 chapters, it started to take 2 or 3 sittings to make it through a chapter. Such energy requirements are what put me off the current crop of social games.

Other than that, the core gameplay of RoB was quite nice. I enjoyed playing the actual game. I just wish the pace of the game was consistent.

I like collectible card games and am currently working on one. You can do many wonderful things with them. Even just card games are fun. They don't have to be collectible. For instance, while the physical ccg market has faded away with only a handful of top players left, the card game genre is alive and well with a lot of great games such as Bang!, Dominion and many other gaining in popularity. Perhaps that might be a new direction video card games take.

Fredrik Liliegren
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I think the genre will evolve like any other to start offering a deeper engagement than just button pushing and stat increasing, when strategy becomes a deeper element in progression then i think the genre will flourish. We hope to accomplish this with our own title coming to Ipad soon but already available on the web here:

Kevin Carpenter
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I'm a bit puzzled by this game's success, as I gave it a try and, yes, the art is kind of neat (certainly plenty of fan service) and it was very easy to get into, but there's no depth to it. When I heard it compared to Magic the Gathering, I was expecting something more than just a fantasy version of War.

It's classic bait and switch fremium design, where it lulls you in with free and easy energy and progress, but once you hit a certain point it becomes very slow indeed, unless you start throwing down some cash. I really can't abide games that do that, and the better free to play games don't. They provide a cohesive experience that they then let you expand upon if you're willing to pay.

tony oakden
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except the better F2P usually don't make enough money to be viable. Bahamut does make money which is why it's structured that way. I hate games like this too but developers are finding out the hard way that giving away a game which is fun to play, no matter what extra payment options you offer on top, is financial suicide.

Keith Nemitz
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I was impressed by Shadow Era. I thought they did freemium 'right' for a card game. Unfortunately, I recently played the MtG app and was reminded of its greater play depth. Now I play neither. S.E. is a little too shallow for me, and MtG also reminded me of why I dislike freemium.

don synstelien
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My team and I created an engine for these types of games a few years ago. We're small and unfunded, so it took us longer to get to market than it should have, but we've always seen the value in the idea of a mobile CCG.

If you get a chance, check out Plan X -

We're still working and tweaking. The interview subject is correct that ongoing support is the biggest thing that people care about. We've done holiday specials, special card packs, events, etc. It's a lot of work.

GameViewPoint Developer
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Nice artwork, I would of thought it would of been better to be F2P though?

Steven Tu
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I'm utterly surprised by the lack of mention of one of the best CCGs on a mobile platform - Assassin's Creed: Recollection. It was a big name title, made by a big company (Ubi, of course). But it came and left in the space of a year - the gameplay, mechanics and balance were fantastic, and harkens to a real-time Magic, with so much more depth and satisfaction than Shadow Era.

But the lack of support from marketing and business left it floundering despite having an organically grown fanbase, and while the servers are still on and the fans are still playing, it seems to have been abandoned, with an AC3 expansion that was promised never ever seeing the light of day.

If anything, this has left a sour taste in the mouths of ardent fans who spent real money in the F2P model and will make future forays into the model fraught with resistance, unfortunately - for both the developers and players.

Alexander Symington
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This genre seems very at risk from the 'strip mining' effect that we've seen collapse Zynga's revenues. Like Farmville, Dragon Collection and its ilk have gameplay of very little interest or depth, and are heavily dependent on aggressive Skinnerian systems for retention. Without evolving into something more playable (Puzzle and Dragons is a start, but only a start) there is only a limited number of first-time users to cycle through.

Chris Roberts
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Well I'm hoping it's got some staying power as I've just released my new game Shelter on the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Now mine doesn't quite tap into the social aspects to the same extent, and it's not free to play, but hopefully it can be viewed as innovative and build up enough of a fan base to let me keep making games. I say innovative as it's a single-player assymetric CCG, using dice rolls and simple rules to provide a challenging opponent with some randomness and unpredictability.

It was inspired by the idea of combining the rich and deep strategic duelling mechanics of CCGs like Magic with the quick play style of castle defence games.

Take a look if you're interested:
Marketplace -
Trailer -

I'll be porting to iOS, Android and PC via MonoGame shortly.

Paul Johnson
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I certainly hope the bubble doesn't burst just yet, we have one coming out in a couple of months. We're trying to raise the bar a bit in terms of what actually happens in the battles though.