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The RPG Scrollbars: In The Cards

Deal with it

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These days, you’re just not a proper RPG unless you’ve got a fancy card-game spin-off either in or out of world. Gwent. Hearthstone. Arcomage. Triple Triad. Legends of Norrath. Pokemon CCG. Now The Elder Scrolls is throwing its adventurer’s cap into the ring with The Elder Scrolls: Legends, as announced aeons ago, but only just going into closed beta. Quite a gold-rush, especially given that historically, these games haven’t done particularly well in digital form, even when backed by a big name or license.

“Haven’t done well” is a relative term of course, compared primarily to the phenomenon that many of them have been in the real world. Steamspy for instance credits the free-to-play Magic: Duels (as in Magic: The Gathering) with a million or so owners, dropping to half that for games with an up-front cost, like the Duel of the Planeswalker series. They’ve also hit other platforms and may have sold better elsewhere, but still, they’ve never been a phenomenon on PC like they’ve been in card form. On an indie level, Mojang’s Scrolls got a lot of attention at release, but was overall a failure. It launched properly in December 2014, got little traction, and development stopped in June 2015.

Other games have done better, especially on the Gameboy, but even then often less than you’d think. Despite the number of Pokemon games for instance, there was only one digital conversion of the CCG – one I liked a lot, actually, aside from its unfortunate decision to split the gyms too cleanly by their chosen element. It sold a couple of million copies at least, but never became a series like Yu-Gi-Oh. There was a Japan only sequel though, and an online version that’s comfortably ticking along if you continue to want to be the very best, like no-one ever was etc. etc.

Even at their best, these games tended to play to their niche. Hearthstone, though? Twenty million players in its first year. An immediate e-sport sensation. Millions of dollars per month on PC, never mind the land of one-tap-fortunes that is mobile. It’s not necessarily the best of its kind, but goodness, it’s the most successful. And I love it. It’s the only game I have on my iPad right now, and it’s rare that I don’t fire up before going to bed, or in quiet moments while waiting for something, with time to kill.

Now, don’t mistake that for my being any actual good at it. I’m really not. And I’m fine with that. But looking at the recent rise of the CCG, I’ve been wondering why some of them have such a stickiness factor to them and so many others don’t. I’m reminded of all the MMOs that wanted to take World of Warcraft’s crown over the years, usually by offering some big features or promising to cater more to the hardcore base or otherwise trying their best to impress. What most of them missed is that whatever World of Warcraft’s triumphs or sins, it was a welcoming experience.

The graphics, the chunky feel, the flow, the opening conversations – it all worked together to create a game that wanted you to feel comfortable in its presence. Now, that’s comfortable by 2004 standards, obviously. It’s aged a lot. But simply beginning with not simply starter quests but starter adventures was pretty much unheard of at the time, even if it wouldn’t be until The Burning Crusade that Blizzard really set out to wrap them up nicely.

Hearthstone perfects this. Never mind the actual game. Just compare its look and feel to its peers: the hideous sterile whiteness of Magic, the confusing looking interface of Hex, the crinkled brown dullness of The Elder Scrolls. All of them are working so hard to look important, with the exception of Magic: Duels, which devotes most of its pictures to showing how you can buy cards instead of the fun you’ll have with them.

None have Hearthstone’s special sauce. It’s warm. It’s welcoming. It’s cheerful. It brushes aside however many people play it in favour of a far more important fact: that you can play it. And it wants you do. It so desperately wants you personally to be its friend. And from the booming welcome of the Innkeeper when you fire it up to the little jokes embedded everywhere from the matchmaking system to the card collections, I’m happy to do just that. I would love to go to this tavern after a busy day. I would love to sit in a corner, play Hearthstone, and talk about my daily adventures.

Is it a perfect game? Christ no. I have many complaints about it, and there are many more that are entirely valid. But more than with most games, they’re less important than the fact that playing it is like sinking into a warm bath – friendly, no-pressure, no ‘git gud’ bullshit or constant calls to put money into the slot. I’ve done that a few times of my own volition, most recently for the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, but never due to feeling forced. And believe me, I am very cheap. I never buy IAP anything, never mind fake bits of cardboard that go “Roar!”

In short, for any other CCG to draw me away, it has to not only replace my game of choice, but my local pub. It also has to offer cards that are at least as interesting as Hearthstone’s, and good luck with that too. Forget the raw lore stuff from World of Warcraft, like the hero characters. Hearthstone regularly makes me smile with its art and silly gags and incidental animations in a way that few other games can, reinforcing that it’s just a game to be played for fun, rather than actually a legendary battle between good or evil.

Hearthstone succeeded online not because everyone is a Blizzard loving sheep or because it’s the greatest game ever, but because Blizzard sweated the raw feel of a Pyroblast slamming home as much as the individual rules, and made sure that cards were interesting whether or not you had any prior connection to them or not. Have the others? No, not really. Just looking at The Elder Scrolls: Legends makes me yawn. So, so, bland. Call me when they add the Daedric Princes, maybe, since their delightful dickery is about the only memorable part of that world’s lore anyway.

While my inexperience with the genre probably contributes to Hearthstone’s style working better for me than other games, its tricks have been the key to most other successful attempts too. Gwent (which I finally got around to playing after reviewing The Witcher 3) is a solid game, sure, but a big chunk of its practical appeal is the way that it’s baked into the gameworld. Playing it isn’t simply firing up a minigame, like the dice poker of the previous game, but feeling part of a wider hobby with a social element. The same goes for one of the best digital CCGs – Card Hunter – which attempted to simulate the feel of sitting around a table playing D&D with friends, complete with a ton of narration and jokes and a DM whose attention is constantly split between the game, players, and pining after the pizza girl. I don’t much like the feel of the game itself, but that wrapping kept me with it far longer than if it had been a straight-RPG using the same mechanics on an Actually Epic Quest.

Going back further, the pattern continues. Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad took about the simplest card game this side of Snap and made it something that could be a big feature when added to Final Fantasy XIV some sixteen years later. The enthusiasm and importance of this silly thing in-game made it more than it was, even without getting into the gameplay side of it unlocking gear. I was never taken with Might and Magic’s Arcomage in this regard, but enough people were that it got its own standalone spin-off way back in 2000.

All that said, having the world obsessed with a game and talking about it all the bloody time doesn’t automatically make it fun. Consider this the ‘Fuck Blitzball’ corollary, if you will. Likewise, New Vegas did a poor job of establishing Caravan as a game worth anyone’s time within the quest, Knights of the Old Republic’s attempt to sell Pazaak as something that anyone would actually play for fun was at best adorable, and let’s not even get started on The Witcher’s original take on the CCG style.

Of all the games to merge with RPGs though, CCGs are arguably the best fit. They’ve got the cast and systems to base cards and rules on, and a world that allows any player to take it as seriously as they like. There isn’t the sense that you’re buying into something that’s going to cost the Earth, as with something like Magic: The Gathering, or even Hearthstone. Hunting new cards is the perfect background quest, since players who don’t care can completely ignore it, while those who do get something directly useful with each and every new acquisition. It opens up great potential for setting up key characters as duelists, reinforcing the satisfaction of beating them at what they’ve almost certainly just claimed they’re the best at. It’s a handy distraction for when the main combat loop gets a little wearisome. And it’s the kind of strategic, tactical experience that goes well with an RPG mindset, certainly compared to giving the cast of The Witcher 3 a love of pachinko because it’s easy to code.

I personally wouldn’t settle down to play Gwent in the same way as Hearthstone, any more than I’d ever challenge anyone to a game of Triple Triad in real life, but it’s a fun thing to do while hanging out for a bit in its homeworld. I do however hope that the next variants of these in-game CCG type games finally have characters reacting to their opponent literally pulling themselves out of the deck. I call all the bullshit on that, unless the game is known to be so comprehensive that everybody in the world has a card and somewhere there’s a kid in a playground trading for Generic Peasant 5,021. Still, as breaks from reality go, I can tolerate it. Assassin’s Creed suddenly trying to insert a millennia old CCG into its secret history, probably not. Though I really wouldn’t be surprised if the next game gives it a shot, now that scouring maps for generic pickups has not so much worn out its welcome as started to face exile to Siberia.

But Gwent 2077 when Cyberpunk 2077 comes out? A history of Britannia in CCG form when Shroud of the Avatar comes out? Why not? At least as part of a larger product, we know the goal was to be fun rather than simply to sell cards, and what better tutorial than a 30 hour RPG that helps build an emotional connection to the contents of the card as well as the rules? If it turns out people like it enough to want to spend real money as freely as virtual gold, then hurrah all round. As long as that spending is within reason, obviously, and not used to make a bloody Secret Paladin deck. (Grr.)

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