Sunday, 7 February 2016

Interview: David Sirlin (Codex)

There hasn't been a new trading card game in quite a while - Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Hearthstone seem to be the only big card battlers right now, so maybe it's time for a refresh in the genre. David Sirlin, a developer who's worked on many genre-bending games, has his sights set on the TCG genre with his latest project, Codex, which is currently funding on Kickstarter. I managed to send over a few questions to him concerning Codex, and here's what he had to say:

Making a card game in which every game is reasonably fair and the game is almost entirely skill-based is a pretty bold statement. How will you ensure that every match is fair, yet won't devolve into a stalemate?

Fairness. Actually there is some confusion on terminology there. You seem to be quoting something I said about fairness, but then asking about game balance. I meant those as very different things. So my statement about fairness actually isn't bold, rather it's the bare minimum to not be an absurd affront to the point of competitive games. By fairness I meant the game doesn't INTENTIONALLY deprive you of material advantage. Imagine how stupid it would be if you started playing chess, and you were told you aren't even ALLOWED to buy all the pieces until you play 100 hours with half the pieces. That's a forced-grind, and it has no place in competitive games because it creates an uneven playfield. Or imagine a game where a collectible barrier was added on top of the gameplay system, so that some elements are artificially made rare and only available to you in random packs. You get into situations where you have underpowered stuff playing overpowered stuff as part of the system, which is crazy to me. It's not a balance problem, it's way beyond that. In both cases, it's the developer doing their best to create UNFAIR matchups on purpose in their game.

For a game to be fair, you need immediate, non-random access to any gameplay-relevant object that you want to buy. No forced-grind. No random packs of gameplay-relevant stuff. So in ALL my games, you can only ever have a full-strength deck. Yomi decks cost $10 each, for example. Not $10 for a gimped starter deck, but $10 for the exact same deck that someone will use to win the biggest tournament. We are somehow now in an age where fair games are dying, and losing out to more and more intentionally unfair games. I personally cannot stand to be involved in intentionally unfair games, so I'm trying to provide an alternative for people by selling games in only a fair way. In only a way where you have full-powered decks *always*.

Regarding game balance, that's a really different question, but I can answer that too. To understand how customizability intersects with balance, please read these articles:
(And especially check out that graphic of the chart about Yomi vs Game X)

To quickly summarize, if you allow full customizability of gameplay elements, it SOUNDS like there are tons of options. But actually, it almost guarantees far less variety. A game with 20 fixed decks is very, very reasonable to tune them so all of them are viable to play in a tournament. A game with 3.77x10^93 possible decks is almost guaranteed to somehow degenerate down to very few real options, because something in there is just way way better than the rest. So the normal way of doing things, you get very imbalanced matchups in CCGs. In fighting games, we look at matchup charts and rate matchups as 5-5 if they are even, 6-4 to 4-6 if there is some advantage to one side, etc. That means if you play 10 games between experts, you expect one side to win 6 times or whatever. 7-3 is getting pretty extreme and 8-2 is really quite a problem. But when you have full customizability, it's really all about that matchup chart's crazy imbalanced matchups, sometimes more than playing the game itself. That's called "the metagame" but really it mostly means making sure you have overwhelming advantage before you even sit down to play. In my background, we want the opposite: we want you to sit down to play with as little advantage as possible and for your win to be based as much as possible on decisions you make during the gameplay.

So if we're serious about maximizing the number of balanced matchups, we need a really radical change somewhere. The standard model of full customization, while it might have its virtues, is not good at all for this particular design goal. So instead, Codex has 20 heroes, each with a "spec" such as Anarchy, Blood, or Fire. Each hero is associated with several spells, units, upgrades, and so on that are in that spec. You choose any 3 heroes and you get all the cards that go along with them. You can make well over 1000+ decks, all of which differ from each other by at least 1/3rd of the cards. And ALL 1000+ of them are reasonable to play. Yes, really. I'm not just saying that as a marketing buzzword.

What I mean is that each of the 20 specs is a chunk that has a coherent set of cards that we know to be of reasonable power level. So any given team of 3 is at the very least, able to enact 3 different gameplans. Actually it's more like 9 gameplans, but I won't get into that detail here. The point is, the weakest deck you can make would be 3 specs with no synergy, but even that is still at a reasonable power level. So this frees you up to play the heroes you LIKE, either because of their art or personality, or game mechanics, or whatever else.

You describe Codex as a "card-time strategy" How did you get the idea to blend the two genres together, and what elements are you taking from each genre?

Codex was actually not originally going to be themed after RTS (real-time strategy) games. It started out as more like an MMO, where each faction was actually a fantasy-based character class like mage or warlock, etc. But gameplay-wise, I hit upon on how great it was to have heroes be required to cast spells and "something" (eventually, "tech buildings") be required to make creatures. This way, everyone has a built-in way to sort of pre-counter specific things you'd do. Afraid of a certain spell? Kill the enemy hero that can cast it. Afraid of a certain creature? Destroy the enemy tech-building that can make it. This fit RTS a lot better than the original theme, so switched over. Amazingly, many other elements of the game just happened to line up with RTS. The main game mechanic where you build your deck as you play from your codex (card binder full of cards) actually felt very much like an RTS. The cards in your codex are kind of like "all the units that Zerg could ever make" and the ones you pick are "the ones you're going to use this particular game." In other words, your *build order*. Also, the part where you can't see the other person's build order right away is naturally like the fog of war in an RTS. Then there's our resource system, where unlike most card games, you have to actually pay to make a worker (to "play a land" so to speak). That happened to fit RTS too.

So it just worked out really nicely that a certain theme happened to exactly work with the gameplay elements I thought we needed to have. It wasn't a case of starting with an RTS idea and trying to shoehorn gameplay to fit it.

The art on each Codex card looks beautiful. Are there any card games (real or virtual) that you've loved for their art?

Thank you! Because I put so many years into the gameplay development of Codex, I felt it REALLY needed good art to go along with that. I actually spent over 3 years on the art development just to make sure it was all as cohesive and consistent as possible. I think it's unusual to spend nearly that long, but this way helped a lot with making all the cards look like they belong together. I should mention that that hero art in particular is a different style from the rest (though all the heroes match each other in style). Those cards are done with Yomi's graphical style. It's on purpose different from the rest, partly to make the heroes stand out but also as a nod to Yomi. The hundreds of other cards use a style that's more painterly.

Another thing I had in mind that seemed "risky" from the start, was to intentionally not show the units in action scenes. And to intentionally show just "icons" for spells, as if the card is showing you the button you're press for that spell if you played it in a video game. The idea was that this would make spells and units look radically different from each other so you can tell them apart instantly, and also because if you show closeups of characters rather than action shots, you can actually SEE the characters. The idea is that you're seeing their portrait, like if you clicked on them in Warcraft 3 or something. I say it seemed risky back then because maybe it would turn out boring. But it really didn't. It added a ton to how readable the characters are, you can easily see what they are from across the table and they just look great.

Regarding art in other card games, I especially liked the art in World of Warcraft TCG. I probably had that in the back of my mind during all the art direction.

A lot of the games that you've made have tried to put a new spin on different genres. Do you think games aren't as innovative now as they were before?

Oh I don't know if games are more innovative or less innovative now. That seems hard to answer. I don't really think about that much anyway, I'm more concerned with games that are good than innovative. Sometime we see a game or set of games that have a great idea in them, but maybe those games don't REALLY hold together if you play them hard (as in Playing to Win). Or maybe other elements of the game weren't great that surrounded the thing that was good. So I put a lot of value on some other game coming along and really making that good thing shine. That's probably why I generally like Blizzard's games. They are also into putting "good" as a higher priority than "innovative". Not that innovative is bad though! It's just one of the many factors in a game: graphics, feel, how innovative, polish, etc, etc.

Lastly, what is your favourite card in Codex?

I think I'll go with Nautical Dog. He is one of the most beloved cards in the game for some reason. He was also the very first card to have real art. I like that he looks ridiculous, and that even though he's so simple, he's a good and solid card in red's early game. They found him in a lake.

Find out more about Codex on Kickstarter. Follow David on Twitter @Sirlin, or check out his book Playing to Win.

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