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[In this in-depth design article, game designer and balancer (Street Fighter II HD Remix) David Sirlin explains his methodology in designing intriguing achievement-based 'metagame' CCG Kongai for Flash game site Kongregate.]
While Jim Greer was the technical director at the casual game site Pogo.com, one of the things he oversaw was the Pogo badges system. This allows players to earn icons in various games on that site and show off their achievements to other players. Microsoft used this same idea with their aptly named Xbox Achievements. Now Jim is stealing his own idea back for his new free-to-play casual Flash game site Kongregate.com.
This time around, there's an interesting twist. When you complete the challenges for various casual games on Kongregate.com, you don't just win an icon; you win a card that's part of a metagame tying the whole site together. Jim asked me to design that game -- Kongai, which is currently in a closed beta and will debut soon. I told him there are many pitfalls in this idea and I could think of at least one hundred ways to do it wrong. Jim asked how I'd do it right.
The first thing that came to mind was avoiding the style of game where we have artificial rarity for a few very powerful cards. There are going to be some players who get caught up in the fun of collecting cards, and there will be others who actually want to play this metagame.
For that second group, I want them to have relatively easy access to all the cards. This doesn't conflict with Kongregate's business plan because the challenges aren't meant to be incredibly hard -- they're meant to be interesting enough to bring the average player back to the site.
We could make some cards extremely hard to get, but only if they have no gameplay differences from the easier-to-get version. For example, a very difficult challenge might get you a different border on the card, or different art, or a different icon for the edition of the card.
Along these same lines, I wanted all the cards to be approximately the same power level. I'm aware of Mark Rosewater's stance over at Magic: The Gathering that there should be a lot of bad cards on purpose to give players the fun of not choosing them.
Mark is brilliant, and I love his work, but on this point I disagree. I like the Guild Wars philosophy -- as you gain more cards (or abilities in that game), you are gaining the ability to create a wider and wider variety of decks, but not more and more powerful decks.
Another thing I wanted to avoid was a game that required a lot of cards to play. So-called constructed decks in Magic: The Gathering have 60 cards, but winning 60 challenges on Kongregate.com just so you can try a new deck would be way too hardcore. Even if we gave you 60 to start, winning 60 more to make a totally different deck is way too many. I wanted a game that could be played with relatively few cards.
With these ideas in mind -- no too hard to get cards, no intentionally bad cards, and small deck size -- I needed to actually create a game. I had several candidates, not to mention three other card games I was already working on for my own amusement, but one idea rose to the top: Pokemon Netbattle.