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Interview: Card Hunter's Jon Chey (Part 2)

Irrational's co-founder on the future of immersive sims

Curse our limited-length titles! For this post should really be called something like 'Irrational co-founder and now Blue Manchu boss Jon Chey talks more about his splendid-sounding new PC boardgame/ CCG/ MMO mash-up Card Hunter, how to make free-to-play non-horrible, what he thinks the future might be for immersive sims in the vein of System Shock and his thoughts on his former studio's controversial XCOM remake'. Doesn't bloomin' fit though, does it? Oh well. You'll find all that stuff out for yourself simply by reading on: tons of interesting comments in here, and I'm particularly excited by the thought towards the end that a coming wave of mid-budget simulational shooters might be on the cards, and far more likely to take big creative risks than their glossier triple-A peers... (Oh, and if you missed the more Card Hunter-centric first part of this interview, looky here).

RPS: You’ve gone for this cardboard cut out look - how’s that gone down with people?

Jon Chey: Well, it looks different and I guess what I was worried about when we released that was whether people would look at it and say ‘that looks cheap and nasty’ because cut-out cardboard figures aren’t 3D, they’re not animated. People might say ‘they haven’t spent a lot of money making that’ - which isn’t true, of course. Good 2D art is really hard to do well. But I’m pretty happy with the reaction to it. It’s distinctive and I think people like it, and those are both really important. And then I think, especially in the fantasy genre, it’s extremely hard to stand out - it’s been so heavily worked over that I can imagine if you’re an art director and your game director says ‘hey, we’re making a classic D&D fantasy game, can you come up with a compellingly different look for it..’ [Laughs]

RPS: ‘We need you to reinvent elves!’

Jon Chey: Right, ‘draw an orc in a way that no-one has drawn an orc before’. You’re just going to say ‘oh God, I’m just going to go home and shoot myself.’ So we didn’t even set that as a brief. It was instead of trying to make the actual pictures look different, let’s present it in a different way. I just can’t imagine another game whose visual conceit is that it’s a paper cut-out fantasy boardgame. It’s important for people to be able to look at your game and say ‘oh yeah, that’s Card Hunter.’

RPS: That’s definitely a problem for some MMOs, that you can’t identify the game unless someone tells you.

Jon Chey: Yeah, ‘that’s Heroes or World of Something or other.’ There could be 20 different things it could be. So yeah, I’ve been very happy about that so far.

RPS: And it’s not particularly animated, right? Those cardboard figurines are pretty static?

Jon Chey: Yeah, because we don’t want to go halfway here. There’s a big temptation to actually animate - ‘wouldn’t it be cool if the dragon breathed fire?’ or something, but it’s been done before. I think you’ve seen it and so what we’re trying to do is have all our animation and sound convince you that you’re playing a boardgame. That said, and we haven’t actually developed a strategy for this yet, we will make some exceptions. Like, if you play a fireball card you’re probably going to want to hear the sound of a fireball exploding, but we’re probably not going to actually have an animation of a fireball. You’re going to play a card. We’ve talked about things like when you move a piece across the board, maybe a giant hand comes down and picks up the piece and moves it. It’s not to say that we won’t have any animation in the game; obviously we’re going to try and make it visually exciting to watch, but it will be based around the core conceit, which is that it’s a boardgame. There’s room to explore some humorous ideas and not take it too seriously.

The other thing is that with these turn-based games there’s always this temptation to try and spice things up with animation, and it can actually just get in the way and slow the game down. A lot of turn-based games, I think, get tempted by the notion - ‘this unit’s attacking that unit, so now I’m going to play a lengthy animation which is the same every time, and it’s really tiring to watch after the third or fourth time.’ So what’s the point of making all that content that annoys people? So we try to keep things ticking along at good pace in the game. This is all great in theory, though we’ll see what it’s like when people come to play it…

RPS: I’d imagine, based on other successful PC CCGs and even stuff like roguelikes, you might well find yourself with an audience who are much more interested in the mechanics than the presentation.

Jon Chey: Yeah, I hope so. That’s what I’m like. I’m a very impatient player - I don’t like waiting, I’m not really big on cutscenes, I don’t like lengthy dialogue that trickles out slowly and I don’t like long animations when I know that it’s just this unit attacking that unit, I just want to know the result. On the other hand, animation can bring things to life, definitely it’s great for telling you what happened, but keeping it snappy and to the point is our goal.

RPS: How’s the business model going to work? Is it packs of cards, adventure modules, new characters?

Jon Chey: I should give a disclaimer to start with, which is that we haven’t really nailed this down, so I don’t know for certain exactly what it is that you’ll be able to buy in our store. But I do have some general principles - that starting point was that when Magic came out, they had this idea of booster backs that you could buy, a random assortment of cards, some of which might be rare. I think that was really fun and people really liked it, but at the same time if you got really serious about the game it became a very onerous financial commitment, and I think a lot of people have looked at that and thought ‘that’s a really great business model - I’ll do that too.’ But people only have a limited amount of tolerance for that. Magic is still very robust because it’s Magic, but other people trying to get into that action are finding players are very reluctant to commit to another CCG, and now another one, and now another one. So we sort of approached it from the point of view of ‘we don’t really like that way of selling cards; what if we approached it from the MMO point of view, where you win stuff by playing the game?’

There was actually a Magic PC game that approached it, I can’t remember its name but the world you were in was called Shandalar. It was like an RPG, you wandered around the map, defeated monsters by playing Magic, and if you beat the monsters you got the card. And I really loved that, because you bought the game once and you could build up your collection by playing the game. When I played Magic online, that was what I really wanted. I wished I could just pay a subscription or something and play against the computer and win cards, instead of having to constantly fork out for these random collections of cards. So that’s our starting point: this game is about winning cards by playing the game.

Obviously we have to charge somewhere - for the game, or for a subscription. What we’ve decided is to do a free to play game, which I see as having its own potential pitfalls in terms of potentially also being a very exploitative business model, but I think it’s just another business model that you can do well or you can do badly. I look at it in many ways as wanting to use it almost like an analogue version of the old way of producing a free demo and then a game that you buy. To me a free to play game is one that you can try for free, and it’s got a large amount of content that you can play for free, and then if you like it there are increasing levels of commitment. ‘I like it a little bit so I’ll spend 50 cents on it’ or ‘I like it a lot, so I’ll spend $5’, or ‘I really, really like it and I’m going to play it for years, so I’ll spend $50 or $100 or whatever it is that you actually want to spend.

So our idea is that the free to play model will be a lot like the other free to play MMOs - I’m thinking probably of the Turbine ones like Dungeons & Dragons Online or Lord of the Rings Online where there’s a very large amount of free content. If that’s all you ever want, just play the game, get loot - which in our case will be cards - by playing the game, and that’s all you have to do. But there’s some content that you have to buy and there are also a whole lot of other things that you can buy that can accelerate your progress through to game, make things easier or increase the rate at which you’re gathering loot or whatever it is. You can offer a variety of those things to people who want different levels of help or priority in the game.

RPS: How does that work in the competitive modes? You presumably wouldn’t want a high roller having an unfair advantage there.

Jon Chey: There are a couple of aspects to that. One is that the competitive mode will have a points system, so you won’t be able to just take the most powerful cards into a battle. You’ll be rationed and you’ll have to try to find a selection of cards that is within a point limit. It’s a bit of a harder line, but in Magic they have the mana system, where the more powerful cards cost more mana to summon, so you can’t just take the giant monsters, you have to take monsters and spells that are efficient for their mana cost. We don’t have a mana system, but we do have a point limit, so you’ll have to find cards that you think are efficient for the point limit. That’s only part of the solution: there are definitely going to be cards which are better value for the points, so those will be the cards that people are trying to collect. I think that’s inevitably true for a CCG. Then it just becomes a design challenge for us to make sure that the variety of your collection determines the range of different strategies that you could potentially pursue with your competitive decks. If we design the game so that ‘hey, there’s this one this card that you have and anyone who doesn’t have that is at a disadvantage, and that card is really hard to find’, then I think we’ve failed, really. That’s a really difficult balancing act. If you look at Magic, some of the early cards they came out with were just completely out of whack balance-wise - the Black Lotus is the famous one, because it accelerated you into more powerful cards at a ridiculous rate. So those cards got banned, because they totally unbalanced the game. So we have to make sure that collecting more stuff is more about diversifying the set of strategies you can potentially follow, not sweeping up the set of ‘I must have these in order to win’ cards. It’s going to be tough; I can’t get away from that.

RPS: Presumably you’re not so concerned about that kind of balancing for the singleplayer game?

Jon Chey: Yeah, I think that issue will be irrelevant to a lot of people, the ones who never play competitively, but the competitive aspect of the game is really important, I think, in the long run and for people who want to stick around after they’ve played through singleplayer. So it’s certainly not something we take lightly. There’s another advantage for a completely digital game, which is that we can rebalance things. With the paper Magic game, they can’t say ‘well, we’ve decided Black Lotus is going to cost 5 mana to cast instead of 3, everybody get out your marker pen, cross out 5 and write in 3…’ Obviously we have to be very careful about that too, because if people have put a huge amount of effort into finding a super-cool card and then we say ‘you know what, that card’s too powerful.’ But MMOs do that, they rebalance things, and certainly it’s a nice tool to have around. It’s not a cure-all for sure.

RPS: That must be doubly hard if you have to nerf something that someone might have paid real money for?

Jon Chey: Yeah, that’s true. That’s hard. But that does happen, like League of Legends for example, I think they’ve got a great model because you trial the characters for free but if you want to play this character all the time you’ve got to pay for it. It’s a very nice model, but they still have the same problem - ‘if we need to rebalance, we need to rebalance, and you may have paid for this character, but...’

RPS: Because you’re making the game to your brief rather than anyone else’s, does it feel like a huge risk, after years in the studio system? If it doesn’t work out, will everything be ok?

Jon Chey: [Laughs]. Um. Yes and no. It’s a big, frightening thing because it’s my idea - actually I’m developing it with a bunch of really smart, talented people, so I should say it was my idea when I started - so if it fails I can’t say ‘oh the publisher told us to do this.’ It’s our decision. All these decisions are ultimately my decisions, and if people don’t like it, I’ve gotta live with that. I’m in the fortunate position where, with this new studio, we’ve got enough capital to roll the dice two or three times, so long as we’re not completely crazy. So we won’t be sunk if this one doesn’t work out in exactly the way we want; obviously we’ll be disappointed. For me, that was the great thing about selling Irrational - while paying off my mortgage was nice, the other thing that’s only come along now is the opportunity to take a risk and to invest some of that capital in trying to do something that I can’t imagine getting to do otherwise. I really don’t know how I would sell this game to an investor or a publisher.

RPS: Given we’re in an age where so many people who leave big studios seem to head straight off to make FarmVille clones, it’s good to hear this isn’t really a money decision.

Jon Chey: Well, you can’t really blame people for looking for capital. I’m lucky that I’m in a position to be able to do this. My belief is that there is certainly room in the market, and an ability to reach groups of people that probably would have been hard to reach before, when you had to put things on the shelves and get distributors on-side. It’s just so much easier to reach people now that you don’t have to go for the biggest market possible. There is obviously no way that Card Hunter is ever going to compete with the big MMOs in terms of its audience, but it doesn’t have to. It can reach what would from their point of view be an insignificant audience and still keep a studio of 10 people going.

RPS: Did you ever think to try and talk 2K into taking a punt on this or something like it while you were there?

Jon Chey: Well, they might have, but there was a second problem for me which is that I was the BioShock, System Shock guy. I don’t know how I would have approached the management to say ‘you bought our company because you wanted us to make innovative first-person shooters, but I actually want to make a turn-based card game…’ [Laughs] I dunno, maybe they would have been more open-minded than I think. I never actually asked that question, so maybe it’s my fault, but I kind of assumed that they wouldn’t give a greenlight for that.

RPS: If you felt you had to leave to do it, that probably speaks volumes.

Jon Chey: Yeah, I think it was unlikely. But 2K is doing lots of interesting projects. If Card Hunter is successful, maybe more people will be prepared to get into this kind of genre. I guess we’ll find out how big the market is. We never make decisions based on ‘let’s make this really casual’ because I think that leads you towards making the same decisions as other people, which is on one hand safe but on the other almost dooming yourself to failure, because going down the same path as everyone else, how are you going to compete? We’re not going to compete with the marketing budgets of people making these very successful, casual games, or even people making the bigger budget MMOs. Our strategy is really differentiate ourselves, make a product that’s really different, and then we’re not competing with anyone other than ourselves.

RPS: Given you’ve returned to turn-based PC games, how do you feel about the XCOM remake, which I think you worked on a bit? Are you sympathetic to fans feeling let down that it’s a shooter?

Jon Chey: I can certainly understand their concern. X-COM is one of my favourite games of all time, I’m a huge fan of that game. And so… it is a difficult thing for me to talk about, because I did work on it before I left 2K, but I’m not involved in it anymore. I don’t really know what the game is now, so I can’t really speak to it in any great detail. I can understand why people might be concerned about where that franchise is going, but I still know a lot of people who are working on it, there are some very bright people working on it. I’m hopeful they will respect what makes that franchise special, but I just don’t really know I’m afraid.

RPS: What did you work on it for it before you left?

Jon Chey: I can’t really talk about that, but I don’t think what I worked on has an awful lot to do with what they’re doing on the game now. We did work on it for a long time - it went round and round in many different directions.

RPS: On the other side of the coin, have you met any fan distress that you’ve moved on from legendary immersive sims and brainy shooters to work on a free-to-play turn-based game?

Jon Chey: I really like those kinds of games too, which is lucky as I’ve worked on them for so long, and I would like to do another one, but I have to be honest I was getting a little bored working on them. Not because there’s not still lots of interesting stuff to do in that genre, and what Ken’s doing with the next iteration of BioShock is phenomenal, but I don’t really miss it because what I’m doing now is really different. But I would like to come back to that genre, because I think there’s a really interesting question to answer there, which is ‘what can you do in that genre with a budget that is somewhere above an indie guy sitting in his bedroom coding but a long way below BioShock Infinite or the next Call of Duty?’ That’s interesting because the tools are so much better now. I’m kind of interested that if you pick your battle, kind of like we’re doing with Card Hunter, and don’t go head to head with what other people are doing, can you do something interesting in the simulational first-person genre? I have some ideas about that that I’d love to explore, and that might be whatever we do after Card Hunter, maybe.

RPS: We occasionally see insane Russian takes on that sort of thing, like Pathologic, which can often be broken in all sorts of ways, but the thought of what people who want to make those kinds of games could accomplish with a slightly bigger pile of money is incredibly exciting.

Jon Chey: Yeah, because a lot of the money you spend on those games is on animation and large amounts of 3D content, whether it’s levels or character models or whatever. If you can find a way around that, there’s a lot of room to innovate in the first-person genre still. I still love the games that Looking Glass, where I got my entry into the industry, did - Ultima Underworld, the original System Shock, Thief… There’s still a legacy there that hasn’t been fully explored, in terms of simulating a world. There’s a lot to do there, but it does require a certain amount of capital. 3D, simulational games are definitely more expensive to make than turn-based 2D games. So that will be the challenge. Maybe if Card Hunter’s a huge hit we’ll have plenty of capital, but certainly at the moment the kind of capital that we have is sufficient to try something interesting, but not compete head-to-head with triple-A shooter titles.

RPS: Can you ever see that mainstream market wheeling around to concentrate again as much on the world-building and simulation, that real Looking Glass legacy, as on the action, or are those days over for the big-budget titles?

Jon Chey: I’m not wise enough to answer that question! If someone answers that question it’ll be because they make a game that does that and sells really well, and then everybody will be ‘oh yeah, that’s incredible, let’s do that too’, but that will take an incredible amount of guts from somebody who has to invest $30, 40, 50 million. I don’t know how, as an exec at a publishing company, I could make that decision. What we were very grateful to 2K, or I was at least and I think Ken was, for was that they were prepared to get behind BioShock, which was really quite a risk from their point of view, in terms of the fact it was a successor to these complicated simulational shooters with RPG elements and more exploration. That had not really proven to be a genre that could sell mass-market numbers. So I think it was really brave of them to put the capital in, to really produce that level of polish that we hadn’t been able to get to before, and it paid off. That sort of opened things up a little bit - well, a lot. And now someone else could open it up even more I suppose, but it would be another brave step to try and do that. I suspect it’s more likely to come from smaller budget projects, where you can afford to take more a list.

RPS: The new Deus Ex is going to be interesting in that regard.

Jon Chey: Oh yeah, that’ll be very, very interesting.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

More details on Card Hunter here.

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