Interview: Card Hunter Uncovered
Irrational co-founder rationalises PC CCG
Card Hunter, the lovely-looking PC-based CCG/boardgame/MMO hybrid from Irrational co-founder (and former Looking Glass man) John Chey's new studio Blue Manchu Games, looks right up RPS' street. So, I had a chat to him about the game's inspirations, its conceptual similarity to Mojang's Scrolls, why it might be first time a collectible card game manages to be successfully singleplayer, and why it's an idealised version of the RPGs we played as children.
RPS: Where are you at with Card Hunter now? I couldn't tell how much of those screens and the video is actually made...
Jon Chey: ...And how much is fake [laughs]. No, we're actually quite a very long way along, because we did actually start a year ago almost to the day. So we've got a lot of stuff. I've actually really been enjoying the way we're developing this game. Because normally when you go through this cycle you do have to produce proof of concept things that are going to sell it to the team and to the publisher, and to the press once you've announced it. We've sort of been free to just ramble along at our own pace. So we spent the first six months just working on getting the game playable, in a really ugly kind of placeholder way, just to let us see how the game played. And the good thing about that is we actually threw away tons of stuff and iterated, and didn't feel bad about it, because we hadn't put a lot of work into polishing anything. So the core part of the game is pretty much 100% done. It's not graphically polished up yet and it doesn't have all the sound, but it's been playable for a long time and we've been playing it a lot. It's in really good shape, I think.
That said, that's only the core of the game. The game is sort of like an MMO or an RPG, where there's a sort of meta-game around that, and not a lot of the meta game exists yet- the process of choosing what adventures you go on, and getting awards for winning battles and growing your characters and trading items all that kind of stuff.
RPS: So there will be persistent characters as such? It's not like a boardgame where it's sessions that don't carry over?
Jon Chey: No, no. The core conceit of the game is kind of like what if you took that boardgame notion and wrapped it inside an RPG? That's really one of the two pillars of the game. I don't really like MMORPGs, to be perfectly honest, because I like the idea but I never find the actual moment to moment gameplay really fits my interests. I think there are a group of people out there like me. Obviously some people really like it, and I've tried many times to get into a whole variety of them. When I was working with Ken Levine he was always bugging me to play WoW because he's a big WoW fan, and I tried, I really tried, many times to start it. And I just always got bored. So one of the things that I wanted to do with this was take a game style that I really liked, which is card games and boardgames, and stick that into an MMORPG framework. What if you had a lot of the metagaming elements of an RPG but instead of little buttons with cooldowns you're actually a playing a more turn-based, tactics game.
RPS: You've previously described it as primarily a singleplayer game. How does that fit into it having MMO aspects? Is there any interaction with other players?
Jon Chey: There's not really an element of interaction in any sense of there being a world that you wander around in and see someone else over there playing a boardgame... Imagine how that would work! [Laughs] Although Magic Online has a weird sort of metaphor where there's a room with all these hundreds of people sitting at tables playing each other, which is a little bit sad and depressing in a way I think... So it's not like an MMO in that sense, but it is an MMO in the sense that everyone who's playing the game will kind of be inhabiting the same virtual world. So we do want to have trading, people getting together in clans and there's a co-operative mode to the game where you can group together with other people in the game and go beat up monsters together. So you'll be inhabiting the same virtual world but there's not going to be a landscape that you run around in.
RPS: And you can battle people for their cards, presumably?
Jon Chey: Right, there'll be a competitive component as well, and that's obviously going to be really important. I look at it again in much the same way as an MMO, where most people play it against the computer, because that's what most people are really interested in. I mean, competitive play is quite confronting, and it's really only for a particular kind of person who enjoys that challenge. So we want to cater for what I think of as a much larger group of people who want to play against the people, and that includes me to be frank. I do like competitive games, but I also like just kind of playing against the computer - relaxing and enjoying my experience in a less confrontational manner.
We think of it a lot like an MMO, where that's kind of the meat of the game and then some people progress onto the competitive part of it, having inevitability exhausted the singleplayer content and got tired of playing against an AI. Ultimately I suppose, the only endlessly interesting games are the ones you play with or against other people. People are infinitely interesting, all AI is going to get old.
RPS: And there's the added thrill of beating an entity that actually cares that it's been beaten.
Jon Chey: yeah, definitely. There is a level of excitement that comes from playing against other people, for sure. So there will be a competitive game sitting there, but I expect a lot of people will never engage with that. And that's fine. I mentioned before that the idea of mixing a card game with an MMO was one of the core pillars of this game - I think the other one was the idea of making a singleplayer CCG, because I really like cardgames but almost all of them are about competitive play. That's just very limiting to me. I personally have to work very hard at a game before I feel like I can summon up the courage to go and play competitively, whereas I can dip into a singleplayer game in a much more casual way.
RPS: There's a big difference among gamer mentality, I think, between people who just want an experience and people who primarily want to be triumphant against an opponent.
Jon Chey: Yeah, there's always one winner and one loser - and a lot of negative emotion that comes with that. It's a zero sum game; it's very hard to make a competitive game where both people walk away feeling good about themselves.
RPS: Isn't that a bit of a marketing challenge for Card Hunter? People are going to hear CCG and presume it's an incredibly competitive game that they'll forever need to keep spending more on.
Jon Chey: Yeah, I agree. I think there's a bit challenge for us. There are a lot of people, actually, who if they know what that acronym means, look at it and say 'well, that's not for me.' As you say, it's just going to be a kind of competitive experience driven by having to pay a lot of money, which is something that understandably turns a lot of people off. So we have a job of selling that's that is not really what we're trying to do here. CCGs are actually a lot of fun, and we want to present them in a more accessible way. Getting that message across is, as you say, going to be a challenge.
RPS: Have you spotted Scrolls, the new game from the Minecraft guys?
Jon Chey: Oh yeah, of course. I saw that previewed on your site a couple of months ago. One of the guys I'm working with is this guy Farbs, he's an indie developer who did a game called Captain Forever, which is like a space, top-down shooter where you blow things up and they explode into pieces, and then you use those pieces to put together your ship. Cool little game. He knows Notch somehow, so we got in touch with them when we saw the Scrolls announcement, mainly because we were like 'well, we don't want them to think we're copying them'. We've been working on Card Hunter for nine months or something by the point, but because we hadn't announced anything no-one would have any idea that we were working on anything. So we didn't want to come out with our announcement, then possibly have other people think 'oh, you're just jumping on the bandwagon'. I actually think our games are probably very different.
I haven't really seen too much of Scrolls yet, but I would be surprised if they had chanced on the same sort of metaphor [the faux-cardboard figurines]. I think it's actually a nice idea that a lot of people who play card games have thought of, because in Magic you put your monsters down in front of you in a very abstract sort of way. So we thought what if they were actually figures that you put down on the board and moved around, had a position relative to each other instead of being lined up in front of you. And there's a few computer games that are already like that. None of which have become hugely successful, but all have that same kind of concept - instead of just playing a card you play a card and a virtual monster appears in front of you, that you can move around and fight with. It's a cool idea; I don't really feel like anyone's made it work perfectly yet. And our game's actually not like that, having said that - you don't summon anything. It's actually quite a different game.
RPS: I got a bit of a Heroquest vibe from it - one or a few guys stomping through a dungeon.
Jon Chey: Right, yeah. I think definitely an inspiration for us was the sort of classic miniatures-style RPGs, where the idea of having a little board that is the dungeon, and you have your little figures exploring it, and all the monsters are little figures as well. That sort of visual concept was really important to us when we were developing the game too. One of our earlier ideas was that we would actually have your characters look like painted miniatures, like actual metal figures that had been painted. We actually talked to some miniatures companies about licensing a set of figures for the game, and taking pictures of them, cos it's actually a 2D game, and sticking them onto the board. That was really the look we wanted, and we had some interesting mock-ups which we got very excited about, but when we went to these miniatures companies it was like pulling teeth -they were just so uninterested.
RPS: Maybe it's a threat to their business model - 'you're going to put digitise miniatures? Does that mean people won't buy the real ones?'
Jon Chey - I guess so, but I was kind of expecting they would see it as a chance to diversify. I would have thought they'd be really interested into franchising out into videogaming. I guess I was wrong, or maybe we just didn't talk to the right people.
RPS: It's interesting looking at Games Workshop and seeing that they've licensed out their IP but not really those core elements of collecting and painting figures to games.
Jon Chey: Yeah, I can understand that. They don't want to cannibalise their core business, which makes sense. I can't say we actually talked to Games Workshop, because I can't imagine they would have been interested [laughs]. But some of the small miniatures producers I would have thought might have been.
RPS: It almost seems like there's a second wave of, for lack of a better word, geek coming along. We've had gaming being so based around Aliens and Star Wars and the big, brash sci-fi fantasy touchstones for a long time, but now there's this slow move back towards thoughtfully reinventing old systems like board and card games instead of going for bombast. It's almost more refined, rather than broad.
Jon Chey: I'm flattered that you'd describe us as more refined geeks! I don't know if there's anything particularly refined about this [laughs]. For us, it's kind of a nostalgia trip in a way. A lot of our inspiration was very early roleplaying games, and looking back fondly at the naivety of that time. I mean, I actually haven't played a lot of roleplaying games in my life, because I think when I was at high school and even primary school, when I was first exposed to them, there just weren't a lot of people around that I could play them with. But I spent a lot of time looking at them and reading the rulebooks and pretending to play them [laughs], and they were a big part of my life at that age. And so I'm old enough now that that's something I kind of look back and think 'that was in my youth, my childhood', so it's quite nostalgic to me.
I was a kid when D&D was first around, and it was really just a hobbyist thing at that stage. If you go back and look at the early D&D books, the artwork in them is absolutely appalling - it's got a lot of energy, it's very enthusiastic, but it's really amateur hour. But if you grew up with that in your mind, it's still really cool and exciting and so I guess what we're trying to do is take that idea and preserve almost the innocence of that, but polish it up and sort of make it... we couldn't reproduce the actual art style from that time because it was pretty mixed up, but it's sort of like taking that idea and making an idealised version of it. As if you were back in your childhood and you had all these D&Ds modules that you wished you had, and the money to buy them, and they were full of awesome artwork, and you had all the figures, and they were all clean and nice and not kind of scuffed up. And you'd punched them out properly, you had a nice board to play on - an idealised version of your childhood, I suppose. At least for the people who've been through it. And then of course there are a lot of people who are still in their childhood, they haven't been through it, they don't have the nostalgia- so we have to make something that hopefully looks interesting enough to be appealing to them as well. You can't just go for the people who are in exactly the same demographic as you.
And that's just part one of this interview. In part two, we talk Card Hunter's business model, Jon's thoughts on the immersive sim genre he worked on so many important examples of at Irrational and Looking Glass, and a few thoughts on his former studio's XCOM remake.
More details on Card Hunter here.