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GDC China: If you want players to pay, compel them to collect
GDC China: If you want players to pay, compel them to collect
November 16, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

November 16, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Business/Marketing, GDC China

Social/mobile games with a card collecting element have been massively successful in Japan, with titles like Konami's Dragon Collection making early waves last year, and Gung Ho's Puzzle & Dragon currently topping the charts.

In fact, the number one game in the genre is making some $8 million U.S. per month in Japan. At GDC China, Xiaolei Zhang, global business director for marketing company D2C Inc. says the reason for this success is a desire to collect.

Essentially, make the cards pretty enough, and players will feel attached to them, and want to get more. Thus the major themes of fantasy, "cute girls," historical content, and licenses, says Zhang. If players are already basically familiar with the property, it can help a lot.

“The protagonist of the game changes from a virtual idea to a card," he says. "Even if the change is very small, psychologically it has a very profound impact to our users.” The collection is compulsive, with players gathering hundreds, or thousands of cards.

Ngmoco's Rage of Bahamut was the first successful Western game of this type, but many Western players tend to think these games are pretty-yet-shallow pay to play schemes. Zhang doesn't shy away from this.

“How to get very rare cards is very important," he says. "All these players will pay lots of money in order to get these strong cards.” This is especially true when they know the characters - using an example appropriate for the Chinese audience, he noted that if you're playing a game about The Journey To The West, you'll know the Monkey King is a powerful character, and you'll want to buy him in order to get him quicker.

PVP and battle modes are important for user retentions, says Zhang. You can get new cards, exchange them, join guilds, and become stronger. But evolution if cards is also important - in order to evolve a card in some games, you need to combine it with another card of the same type, likely around 8 times to get to the final stage. That can be difficult without paying.

On the development side though, this is very simple, and Zhang endorses it fully. “By simply changing the wardrobe and some skills, it's easy to give the player some new feelings,” he says. If your evolution system is excellent they'll feel the game is worthy of their energy.

Why is genre so popular in Japan, you might wonder? The genre is only one year old, on mobile. But Zhang says part of the popularity is how easy the games are to develop - once they've made the engine, they can constantly make new versions, just changing graphics and UI, drastically reducing development cost. On top of that, the gameplay is bite-sized. You can play it between subway stops, which Zhang says is important in Japan.

But above it all, there's just that cultural desire to collect, he says. “In Japan, when I was young, I also collected cards, sometimes from the instant noodle bowls. So when I wanted to collect the whole set of these cards I bought lots of instant noodle bowls, and I finally successfully collected the whole set. I think this psychology is the same.”

He admits that this genre will be a bit of a struggle in Chinese and Western markets, where players are used to fine control of combat. They may think these card games are too monotonous, he says. But these games aren't about skill. “Card games are about who spends more money or more time in the game, that's who's powerful," he says. "So I guess that's one of the drawbacks.”

Still, he's very bullish on the market. “I think card games will become an independent genre with its own design standards and metrics," he says. "In Europe and the U.S. card games have won a certain amount of acceptance, and this has made several Japanese companies modify their worldview of Western gamers.” You play it, you ask for it, you get it!

Gamasutra is at GDC China 2012, bringing you all the latest coverage from the event. For all the lecture reports and news, head over to our main GDC China event page.

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Carlo Delallana
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@They may think these card games are too monotonous, he says. But these games aren't about skill.

Magic: The Gathering says hello.

@“Card games are about who spends more money or more time in the game, that's who's powerful,"

I think this is why Magic is far superior to a lot of the card games offered on mobile. Magic's "Magic" is in the care the designers put in balancing the game so that players who have more money to buy cards do not automatically have the advantage over other players. And this is why the game has longevity. It is fair to players.

Design for monetization does not have to ruin a game's balance. Why can't more card games learn from Magic?

Andrew Yang
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That's not entirely true, while magic rares aren't what wins the game, a lot of champions in competitive gaming for standard spend quite a bit on their decks (though they make money for winning). Such as getting multiple planeswalkers, vexing devils, a miracle deck filled with 4 entreat of angels etc. When you get to legacy or vintage the balance is even more skewed with good players and expensive cards when you can win in 1 or 2 turns. Of course you can still make a decent deck under 50 dollars but that's still not cheap.

Magic also follows a collectible card game model where on standard you have to keep buying new sets, collecting the good cards for that set to keep decks up to date to play.

That being said its still a fun game, and there is a threshold where decks power level tapers off with price around the $200 is range from my experience.

Luis Blondet
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"I think this is why Magic is far superior to a lot of the card games offered on mobile. Magic's "Magic" is in the care the designers put in balancing the game so that players who have more money to buy cards do not automatically have the advantage over other players. And this is why the game has longevity. It is fair to players."

That's just hilarious.

David Miler
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Unlike others, I have to agree with you. At least to some degree - Magic, most notably the "limited" format, is absolutely about skill. I still requires quite a hefty investment and it doesn't really stand alone without the constructed formats, but saying that card games aren't about skill is just ludicrous.

Jeremie Sinic
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Just my opinion, but I think Magic is awfully expensive, yet the simple fact that you buy actual printed cards made it easier for me to shell the money.

And Magic is just different because it's an actual card game: those so-called TCGs are not really card games. Remove the illustrations and you have the same text-based MMO game replicated over and over.

In any case, I have to agree with Luis Blondet above.
Magic could have been a good example if the main tournaments were sealed decks (where basically players have to build a deck with a set of random cards) or draft (where players pick cards from booster packs one by one to build their deck at the event).
Instead, Magic's main competitive format involves as much money as wits.

jayvee inamac
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Prices of magic cards are mostly priced by the demand, not necessarily by its rarity.
Had magic not been a real-world trading game, just a video game like the discussed games, i think it would justify Carlo D's initial statement.

Jeff Alexander
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The two-decades-old argument of whether money or skill matters more in MtG misses the fact that a player who has both will generally beat a player who has only one. Neither is so far overshadowed by the other than it can be ignored.

E McNeill
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How predatory.

Alexander Symington
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Dragon Collection and Magic both use a card metaphor to explain their gameplay systems, but aside from that they play drastically differently. DC's influences from real-world card games are almost entirely limited to collection and acquisition; there are almost no mechanics inspired by physical card manipulation such as shuffling. DC has a very large emphasis on RPG-style stat development and PvP is a relatively small aspect of the game. Although Magic is well enough known in Japan that it's very possible that the speaker above might be familiar with it, I doubt that he thinks of the games as part of the same genre; rather, the closer comparison to DC might be baseball trading cards.

It must also be said that while Magic is, as discussed above, a game of ambiguous quality, which tars a very rich tactical ruleset with significant elements of pay-to-win, Dragon Collection is unambiguously terrible. Outcomes depend almost entirely on who has the biggest numbers, and who has the biggest numbers depends almost entirely on who has spent the most money and time on microtransactions and mindless grinding.

Jeremie Sinic
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@Alexander: Agreed totally.
And by the way, kudos to Xiaolei Zhang for his honesty in admitting it's about who spends the most money.

I think there is a problem in even calling these Japanese-style games TCGs. It is quite confusing because those games have nothing to do with actual TCGs like Magic, Pokémon or even Yu Gi Oh. They are more like browser MMOs or titles from Storm8 (iMobsters, World War, etc.), meaning text-based online games with minimal work on graphics and animations and emphasis on PvP.

So basically, these are animation-less text-based RPGs disguised as card games to add a "collectible" hook to an originally PvP-oriented concept.

Mistaking those games for actual TCGs is damaging to the real TCGs in the eye of the general public imho (although the discerning player will easily spot the difference).
The only real equivalent of Magic (apart from Magic itself) I know of (I know there are others but this one is really close to Magic) on iOS/Android/PC/Browser is Shadow Era. This is a game about skill, where money only get you so far (relatively easy to build a solid deck without even paying). The kind of game that deserves the "TCG" qualification (real deck building, draw phase, resources, spell and creature casting, etc.).

Robb Lewis
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Thinking about this from a higher viewpoint the inclusion of physical items provides a tangible experience to a virtual game. The cards don't just need to be collectors items either, cards could be integrated with the online game play or simply be fun branded merchandise. Sometimes this immersive experience can heighten a players sense of emotional connection and they become more engaged and more compelled to pay. Or at least in theory...the game still has to be good :-)