Mobile Card Games

(A sort of free-flow post that goes all over the place in my attempt to get back to blogging)

For the past couple of years, app stores around the world have been invaded with a range of casual card games. I’m not referring to card games of the poker / casino variety (though that’s certainly a major category revenue-wise, especially in western markets), but rather the “collectible card game” type which has taken an interesting evolution in mobile.

One of the earlier games to hit market success in this model was probably Rage of Bahamut, which still puts on a respectable showing today (I was able to quite easily find it on App Annie’s grossing charts). But since then tons of clones have leveraged the same underlying engine, some with astonishing levels of success – Puzzle & Dragons being the flag-bearer (it has a match-3 mechanic, but the meta gameplay is the same). Various big name IPs have also been leveraged, such as Marvel (Marvel Puzzle Quest) and Star Wars (with the horrendous Force Collection mobile game). In China, “I’m MT” reached massive success with a derivative IP (it’s based on a fan-art based on WoW), and since then there’s been literally hundreds of clones, many infringing on global IP franchises such as Naruto, One Piece, and League of Legends (disclosure: which I happen to work on).

Put aside the specific puzzle mechanics in Puzzle & Dragons etc. (which I argue add some real gameplay engagement but doesn’t explain the popularity of the overall genre, especially all the games with no combat mechanic at all), the basic formula of these games is the card “level-up/evolution fusion” mechanic, the randomized card purchasing via a treasure-box, and a cheap PVE questing system.

The “level-up/evolution fusion”  mechanic is essentially a convoluted card leveling system which dramatically extends the collection depth, obfuscates the collection cost, and acts as an economy drain for in-game items that players farm up – a card can be both “leveled up” by using other cards as source material as well as “evolved” (again using various items as material) to become a different card (usually a higher-tier card of the same character). So, say you have a Tier I warrior that is level 5, he can be leveled up to a max of level 30, at which point he can be evolved to a Tier II warrior that starts at level 1 (and the cycle repeats).

The card purchasing treasure-box functions to add scarcity (and therefore collection depth) via randomization. It satisfies a psychological itch very similar to gambling (and is often called a gambling mechanic). It’s also the same primary gameplay loop that players seek out when farming items in Diablo (the chance to get some really good item “drop”).

The cheap PVE questing system is exactly that – highly repetitive, low production cost PVE engagement, with various bells and whistles on top to drive engagement (for example, some levels are only open at certain times of the day or week). Players generally farm these PVE levels to gain items that help them pursue the card level-ups and evolutions.

The fact that this basic formula has demonstrated immense market success is also revealing in other ways. For example, the fact that a large number of these games are successful without any stimulating “moment-to-moment” gameplay (e.g. Puzzle & Dragons’ match-3 combat) shows that players are engaging with them in a very low-intensity fashion (not in terms of time/money commitment, but rather attention and focus). These games are catered towards capturing the popular “fragmented time” space pursued by many mobile apps. They can be great “second screen”/multi-tasking experiences, which a high intensity game cannot satisfy.

At the same time, it’s really hard to see these games as not a fad. The formula can be extremely sticky initially but once players experience fatigue there’s very little to prevent them from churning. Some games have tried differentiating with higher production value (e.g. Million Arthur, which leveraged famous anime voice-actors) and/or IP tie-ins to create that initial draw, but I’m skeptical that players will continue to enjoy products in this space after engaging deeply with one product and breaking from it.

This brings my rather unfocused post to the other elephant in the room – Blizzard’s Hearthstone. This game has all the signs of being a massive mobile card game, despite only beta-testing on PC/Mac so far. Ironically, I get this confidence from playing the Chinese rip-off of Hearthstone which Blizzard has just taken action against. It has the right type of session length, onboarding accessibility, and gameplay depth. And it leverages a very familiar IP. (I do think there’s a lesson or two Blizzard could learn from the Chinese rip-off, especially the small client-size which I do think is a big deal on mobile.)

In short – Hearthstone may be the first massively popular “hardcore” game that is truly achieves cross-platform parity between mobile and PC/console (I’m discounting ports like XCOM because the mobile experience still has some issues). As more and more games figure this out, it may incidentally accelerate the decline of PC gaming. Once hardcore gamers form the habit of gaming on mobile, it will be harder to lure them back to PC/console experiences (demanding even higher production costs etc., which may break economics). All of this is just speculation at this point, but dramatic gaming engagement shifts may be coming.

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