By John Walker on March 2nd, 2011 at 2:01 am.
It’s an RPS ultra-news. There’s a new game from Minecraft creators Mojang, and we can tell you what it’s called: Scrolls. We can tell you what it is: it’s a collectable card game-meets-board game. And more than that, we can tell you a great deal about it. I travelled to Mojang’s headquarters in Stockholm to meet Markus “Notch” Persson and the team behind this new project, including Jacob Porser and Carl Manneh, and below you can read our exclusive coverage. We learn how Mojang’s open development philosophy will apply to Scrolls, quite how strikingly different the project is from Minecraft, how it plays, and some of the more ambitious plans they have in place if it proves to be a success. And we all attempt to avoid attack from Markus and his dangerous collection of Nerf guns.
“It’s not like Minecraft,” says project lead Jacob Porser, who with Markus Persson has wanted to make the game for five years. “It’s very different from Minecraft. It’s more along the lines of a collectable card game. But it’s not just that – we’ve added a lot.”
It’s more collectable card game meets board game meets role playing. The simple name was a temporary placeholder while they tried to think of something else. But it got stuck.
“It’s always been Scrolls to me,” adds Carl Manneh, Mojang’s CEO, who joined the company a few months ago. “I think it’s a great name.” It seems pretty amazing that they managed to get the URLs. I ask if they free? Both laugh, and shake their heads. So how did they get them? Carl explains, “It helps when you’ve got some cash.”
That’s a huge advantage Mojang has going into its second game. Minecraft, the indie phenomenon of 2010, has meant the company is secure to experiment with something completely new. Selling over 1.4 million copies, at €14.95 a time, works out to just shy of twenty-one million euros, and it continues to pour in. That’s slightly more than most indie developers have to hand. It’s meant they can expand to a company with its own offices, and in a couple of days time a total of nine staff. And about half of them will be working on Scrolls, aiming to get it into a purchasable beta by the end of this year.
Set in a traditional fantasy world, players will initially buy a pack of game cards, which are played as units and spells on a game board shared by two opponents. That’s the foundation of an idea that Jacob and Markus have been talking about making for almost five years. Both big fans of collectable card games (CCGs), they frequently played each other, but they always wanted to tweak the games.
“There are certain gaming mechanics in most CCGs that are kind of annoying, so we started talking about what features we’d like to add to the game,” Jacob tells me. “And before you know it we were designing and developing this game. It’s been an ongoing project, discussing it, pitching ideas, laughing at it and having fun with it.”
Last Autumn, as they were beginning the discussions for putting their company together, both realised they could finally do the game. Because Persson is working on Minecraft full time, Jacob Porser is in charge of Scrolls. He says that the process began with summing up five years worth of ideas. But what exactly is it?
“At the core it’s a collectable card game, but it’s also a board game,” says Jacob. “It’s combining the two. As you place your units or your buildings, or your siege weapons, you place it on the game board to play against your opponent. It’s not only about designing a proper collection of scrolls [cards], and the tactical aspect of that deck, but it’s also about the tactical sense of how to place your units on the game board.”
Players will buy the game, and with that will come a randomised starter deck of scrolls. Should they want more, they can buy additional card packs, as with any other CCG, and of course not know what new cards they’ll receive. And they have many other plans for adding to your deck. “Obviously it’s going to be a multiplayer game,” continues Jacob. “We have a lot of fun ideas for the community. We’re going to let you place your Scrolls in an auction house, trading with other players, and a lot of different multiplayer templates. Ranging from a friendly game, testing out your latest deck, or you may enter a more long-term league, where you get ranked. That can go on for a couple of months. We also plan on having a lot of tournaments. Small ones, and large, like a world championship. We’re talking to some great partners about that.”
Talking about how Scrolls will stand out from other CCG videogames, Jacob explains that it’s because their emphasis is on the videogame. “A lot of the CCGs, they have the analogue version, the paper version, and that prevents certain elements that you’d like to have in the game, because they’re too complicated to keep track of as you play. What if you add poison counters that do damage for five rounds? You have to keep it in mind as you’re playing the game. You can probably keep one of those in your mind, but if you have them all over the game board it’s impossible to keep track of everything. As this is made to be digital, we can add features that other CCGs simply can’t. When a unit comes into the game it will have certain life points, and it won’t heal up every time – again, it’s hard to do that in other CCGs.” And it will all effect the tactics.
“I think also another factor of this is the fact that we have this game board. You won’t be able to be a successful player unless you learn to take advantage of this game board,” he continues. “Maybe I have an imp, and I want to place him, but the board is busy and my opponent has cast spells that prevent me from placing units in certain areas. The game board is dynamic. You need to manage your units constantly, working out how to protect them, heal them, shield them. This will be an almost roleplaying element. You can give creatures items, for instance. So maybe you invest heavily in a unit, give it a sword, you want to keep it alive. You’ll want to make more long-term strategic choices in this game.”
Despite being able to buy additional cards, they promise it won’t be a game you can beat by pouring in money. It’s all about how you put your deck together, they emphasise. “The tactical element is two-fold,” Jacob says. “Creating the deck, and then playing it. Obviously there are going to be some elements of random chance in the game as well, just to keep players on their toes. You won’t be able to have the same strategies every time, because different circumstances will force you to modify your strategy as you play the game.”
Can he give an example of this? “The game has certain space where you can place your units, so perhaps you want to place them in a spearhead to defeat your opponents defence and damage him, you gather them together. But if the opponent has a lot of damaging attacks that do area damage, having that kind of strategy will ruin all your attacks and destroy your units in a couple of strikes. That’s the simplest example I could come up with.” But it gets much more complicated. “Every unit comes with abilities, and apart from these you have spells you can throw out. For instance, maybe you have a unit that’s very powerful against a certain type of unit, and your opponent has this unit but it’s not aligned correctly. You could use spells and abilities so his unit lines up with mine just before I attack. Or maybe I have a siege weapon that does a lot of damage, but as it fires it does damage to everyone surrounding it. So maybe you can’t have your units in front of it to defend it, so how do you cope with that? Maybe there’s a unit that doesn’t take damage from siege weapons? It’s not going to be that this unit is lousy, and this one is great. It’s about finding the synergies in your deck so everything works together.”
What about winning cards from opponents? Well, it turns out that’s an area that’s somewhat complicated. “There are going to be ways of acquiring cards in the game without necessarily paying for them,” says Jacob, with slight hesitation. “Maybe winning them in tournaments, or from opponents?” The issue is, however, what constitutes gambling? “The thing we have to look into is the legal issues – we don’t want to have to get a gambling license and put the servers in Malta to get the game up and running! I don’t want to promise too much, but [winning opponents’ cards] is a feature I’d like to have. Not forced, but as an option.”
Of course, this is Mojang, and their open development philosophies apply. In other words, you’ll be able to buy the game before it’s finished. But not quite as early as with Minecraft. “The way we’re planning to release the game is to have a closed alpha first,” says Jacob. “Where we invite a set number of players who can test out the game and help us locate bugs and balance the first edition of the game. The closed alpha will be a test launch to get some feedback. People will eventually be able to sign up for this on scrolls.com.”
After this, when they think they’ve got something balanced, they’ll go into beta and make the game available to all, as it goes through the next stage of its iterative process. “We won’t have every feature in place, but at that point we’ll start treating it as a proper game. Everyone can sign up and purchase items and start to do the things with the game that we intend. At that point the development will be pretty much the same as Minecraft.” This means new content, new scrolls and new environments to do battle in, and new features, will be constantly added as it goes along.
So how different does Jacob think the game will be by the time it’s gone through this process from their initial idea? “The game changes a lot depending on what scrolls we put in the game. I think the content’s going to change quite dramatically,” he tells me. “One thing you learn from Minecraft is exactly how creative people are. I think they’re going to take the content we’ve made, and make horrible, horrible things with it. And we’re going to have to sit back and say, ‘Jesus Christ, this wasn’t balanced!’ I’m sure it’s going to turn out that way. But that’s the point of the closed alpha.”
It’s a carefully thought through process, rather than just an early tradition. “What we saw with Minecraft was that it was unseen to charge for something that was unfinished,” explains Carl. “But when people pay for something they commit to it, so it’s a win-win for the player and the developer. It funds the game, and people are investing into the game. We get so much feedback, and they are more likely to spread it to other friends as they invested in the product. It’s not an evil business mind of ours – it just makes sense.”
At this point Notch opens a door a crack and points the barrel of a nerf gun toward me from the office next door. I brace myself, and look to the others for help.
“That’s my fault,” explains Jacob. “I bought those for him. I’m sorry about that.” He pauses for a moment. “We all are.”
Seeming to be safe for a moment, I ask more about what’s changed since they first came up with Scrolls. “It’s not like we’ve been talking about it every week for five years,” Jacob explains, pointing out that the process hasn’t been formalised until recently. “It’s changed dramatically in the process. Adding things saying, ‘This will be cool!’ and then the next time we talk about it, ‘What were we thinking?’ Most of it has been just me and Markus wanting to do a game together. We’ve had some awesome battles between us with CCGs, rage quitting and throwing cards at each other. He looks up and notices Markus coming into the room again. “I almost always won,” he says to me, glancing at his colleague.
“That’s not the way I remember it,” mutters Markus as he passes by.
Jacob carries on, explaining about how they’re still in the early stages with a lot of ideas. They’re tentative about sharing some of them at this point, not wanting to make promises they aren’t going to keep, or give away all the secrets just yet. Jacob and Carl look at each other, their eyes asking the other if it’s okay to mention one of the larger plans, when the back of Jacob’s head is bombarded by Nerf bullets.
“Okay! He won!” cries Jacob, his arms up in surrender to Notch’s attack. “He won the games almost every time. You can write that!”
Once everyone’s recovered, we get back to that morsel of information. There’s plans, should the development of Scrolls go well, to look at the possibility for a single-player mode. They’ve learned from surveys that about 70% of players prefer to play alone, so it’s a big chunk of the audience. They want to let players explore the dungeons of the game board, have adventures, maybe find cards to play in multiplayer, in a meaningful way that’s not just the same as the multiplayer game with an AI. They’re even in the process of talking to some fantasy authors with regards to creating a story for a single player version of the game. While they weren’t willing to name anyone at this stage, it was clear that both were excited by the people they were talking to. However, they have revealed that Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins will be contributing to the back story.
Their philosophy remains the same, despite the investment going into this: if the players don’t like it, and they can’t iterate it to a point where they do, they’ll give up on a game. It’s a bold stance, and one they acknowledge would be tough to do. “We talked about that,” explains Jacob. “If it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t make any money, then we have to cut our losses and step away. It would be hard, because it’s something we’ve talked about for so long. But we like the game!” Neither expects it to come to that, but everyone is aware that a brand new direction with a brand new IP is always a risk.
“We’re in a fortunate position where we’re going to have a lot of eyes on this project,” says Carl. “We know that a lot of people are at least going to try this game.” Mojang have a lot of people following them online – hundreds of thousands on Facebook and Twitter, and the company’s philosophy to be open means they get a lot of reaction to everything they do. “And also what we don’t do,” adds Carl.
“You lazy European fucks, get back to work!” interjects Jacob, quoting a favourite catchphrase in the office at the moment, from a comment they’d recently received. “The negative comments are usually the loudest,” Jacob explains. “We try to see past that. Overall it’s a very positive experience. The community really has been great. And launching this new game – it can be a bit stressful. What if people hate it? We want people to love it.”
They’re not expecting anything close to the same sort of viral impact that Minecraft has. Scrolls isn’t the sort of game where you can record some novel creation and share it on YouTube. “It’s not a sandbox game in that way,” says Carl. “We’re going to have other mechanisms that will be interesting to share with, maybe your closer friends. You can challenge friends, create small tournaments, invite people to play.”
“If I were playing a game like this,” adds Jacob, “I would love to have a community to discuss things with. ‘This card is broken! It’s too powerful!’ Stuff like that. And a profile page people can visit, see that someone has a particular rare card.”
There’s also a desire to let the game be hosted on other sites. It’s not finalized, but the idea being that a site can host the game and its own tournaments. There’s also plans for it to go multi-platform, eventually reaching smartphones and similar. But the initial development will be PC and Mac, working both as a download and browser-based. And that’s something they’ll stick to? “We’ll never abandon the PC!” laughs Jacob.
At this stage it’s still a little tricky to completely understand how Scrolls will play. We know there are the cards, and the dynamic game board, and we know that the real focus is on layers and layers of tactics. Mojang are hoping to create a highly competitive game, something that will spin off into large-scale tournaments for the very best players. What’s most interesting is just how much it has nothing to do with Minecraft. There’s no attempt to piggyback its success on anything other than reputation and a pre-built audience, not even with the artwork. Their resident artist, Markus “Jnkboy” Toivonen, is bringing a Western-cartoon style that’s entirely dissimilar to Steve’s blocky world. And it’s cartoon for a reason. “We’re going to have a lot of cards,” explains Carl. “A lot of graphics, so we need it to be this cartoon style so it’s not too cumbersome to produce.”
Apparently it’s already in a playable form, even if it’s only with a prototype design they didn’t want to show. The closed alpha sounds like it could be happening by the summer, with a plan to see the beta on sale around November or December. And it’s a clever plan. If it works, they’ll once again have a game their audience will refine for them, testing out new cards, new units, new tactics to a vast audience who will certainly make their feelings known. And while Minecraft is currently a one-off purchase (although check out our forthcoming feature with Notch for rumours of some news about that), Scrolls will have the option for people to keep on spending, buying packs of new scrolls to change their deck. But, they stress, it’s not essential. Along with other potential ways to increase your arsenal, the initial deck should be enough to get on with.
“If people find the game fun they’re going to spend money on it,” says Carl. “That’s the way I work, anyway. We’re going to be good guys here, and give people something they can use to get going with when they buy the game.”
Tune in soon to hear of my adventures at Mojang, along with some big juicy secrets when I interview Markus. Meanwhile, take a look at the art work for Scrolls.