Conducted By Adam Ames
What happens when you cross a board game, CCG and MMO? You end up with a F2P title with unique elements and staggering potential. Card Hunter is currently under development by Blue Manchu Games with Jonathan Chey, formerly of Looking Glass Studios, leading the way. In this interview, Johnathan talks about the development of Card Hunter and his expectations for the future.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Card Hunter.
Hi, I’m Jonathan Chey. Card Hunter is an indie game so naturally I wear many developer hats. I probably spend most of my time programming, lots of time designing stuff and a bit of time coordinating the other people on the team. As well as that, I build some battle maps, muck around in Photoshop, maintain the website, Facebook page and Twitter feed, post on the forums, and write interviews. Phew!
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
I got my first job in the games industry in 1996 when I left graduate school. Somehow, I wrangled a job as an AI programmer at Looking Glass Studios in Boston. I was hired to work on the AI for a PC game called Terra Nova they were finishing up, but I got yanked off that and put to work on an ill-fated Star Trek franchised game. I worked for a year on that before it was cancelled – a great introduction to the industry! It was all good fun though and after that I got to work on Thief and System Shock 2 so I can’t complain too much.
Where did the idea for Card Hunter come from?
It’s an idea that was brewing in my head for quite a while. In 2005 I sold my stake in Irrational Games to Take 2 and, as part of that deal, I signed a contract to keep working there for several years. Once I left, I had to sit out a non-compete period so I had a year of doing nothing where I got to scheme about future projects. I knew I wanted to make a card game, but it took quite a bit of mucking around to settle on the idea that became Card Hunter.
The core motivations for what became the game were actually dissatisfactions with existing types of games. I like collectible card games but I feel that the revenue models (random booster packs) are too punishing to the players so I wanted to make a card game that let you win cards by playing the game. At the same time, I’m not a huge fan of MMOs because I find the gameplay a bit repetitive. So, I put those two things together and decided to make a collectible card game which works like an online RPG, i.e. you fight monsters by playing a card game and then win treasure from them – where that treasure is more cards that lets you grow your collection and improve your deck. Seems a pretty natural fit to me, but I haven’t seen anyone else do it yet.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in the continuous development of Card Hunter?
I think our biggest success to date has been creating a visual style that is distinctive and seems to resonate with people. I probably shouldn’t really claim too much credit for that, since the look comes from Ben Lee, our art director, but I will say that a laser-like focus on creating a distinctive look is something I consider to be important. And I mean that that is more important than creating a good look. Of course, having both is nice, but I think it’s critical to distinguish yourself from the pack somehow – really focus on that as a goal.
Our biggest failing is probably our failure to hit any milestones at all – even vaguely. Although that’s clearly a failing, I don’t worry about it too much as we’ve always dedicated ourselves to a quality goal and don’t worry too much about time limits.
In its current form, how close is Card Hunter to your initial vision?
What’s there is extremely close. Of course, the game is no more than 50% complete yet, probably not even that. However, the core principles of the game are absolutely as I initially envisaged them: a deep, easy to play card game where you acquire the cards through single-player battling against the computer. Many of the details of the initial game design have changed through iteration but that is entirely as expected. This project is a big experiment with the notion of continual iteration and refinement.
Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Card Hunter and if you are facing a similar challenge.
Yes, I can absolutely believe that. We are big believers in testing to tease this stuff out and that’s why we’ll be going through many rounds of testing with successively larger groups of players. We’ll also probably make a real effort to find some people who wouldn’t otherwise play these kinds of games and force them to sit down and play it in front of us. That always brings to the surface all kinds of problems and difficulty spikes you might not see from people who are more familiar with the genre.
The bottom line is that you really can’t just use your own perceptions of your game to evaluate it – difficulty, comprehensibility – anything. Relying on yourself for difficulty testing would be madness.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
For me it is the isolation. We’re a distributed team – in Australia, the US, the UK and now Sweden as well. So we generally just communicate through Skype. If I didn’t have a partner, there are many days when I wouldn’t see another human in the flesh. That can really start to be a drag and that’s why I hope to expand into a real physical office at some stage. At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for direct human contact.
How did you create funding for the development of Card Hunter and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
I’m very lucky in that I was able to use the proceeds from the sale of my previous business, Irrational Games, to fund this project and, hopefully, one or two more. That’s an enormously privileged position that I am trying to take the best advantage of and never take for granted.
Do you have an estimate on a release date for Card Hunter?
Sometime in 2012, hopefully earlier than later.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with a price point for transactions within Card Hunter?
Our game will be free to play with in-game transactions, so we’ll control this completely. In terms of pricing within the game, there are lots of other games in this type of space and we’ll try to position ourselves relative to them. I think we’re starting to see a good shakeout now of what people think is fair and reasonable for micro-transaction games and what is exploitative and over-priced.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
I’m a huge fan. This kind of game simply wouldn’t be viable through shop front sales and that’s true of indie games in general. Direct sale through your website, Steam distribution, App store, Xbox Live Arcade – all of these have helped spur the enormous growth in indie games which we’re seeing at the moment. I think it’s incredibly healthy for the industry.
Please talk about developing the art style and music for Card Hunter.
We had a number of big challenges with the art-style for this game. Firstly, it’s a fantasy role-playing game – could you get a more crowded genre than that? Secondly, we’re an indie dev, so we can’t just go for big-budget spectacle. Finally, we’re a turn-based board-game so we can’t rely on lots of particles and animation to spice things up.
The way we decided to tackle these challenges was to embrace our weaknesses rather than fight them. So instead of doing a half-assed job trying to make a turn-based look like something else, we just decided to focus on the fact that we really ARE a board game at heart. That’s why our pieces look like cardboard cut-outs and our board looks like a real board-game board.
I generally find with look and feel that once you establish a guiding principle, everything just falls out from there (with a bit of hard work, of course). But the most important thing is to set up that yardstick by which you can judge everything you do.
Will there be a trial of Card Hunter available at or near launch?
On the one hand, yes, because in many ways I view the free-to-play model as an extension of the trial model – only a bit more generous. We give away a large amount of the game and then you can choose to buy other bits and pieces as they interest you.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Card Hunter from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
I think it’s very useful but also dangerous. The utility of it is obvious – you can directly engage with your players and get their feedback and thoughts as you develop (and once you release, of course). The danger comes from what you do with that feedback. There are two main problems: firstly, it is impossible to please everyone, so if you start taking criticism to heart, you will end up heart-broken pretty quickly. The second problem is that players aren’t designers. The know what they like when they see it, but expecting them to tell you what they want is likely to disappoint. As a game designer, you need to have the courage to stick to your vision and deliver it.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Card Hunter professionally?
Hmm, well I think everyone’s opinion is of some interest. Obviously there are some reviewers who I care more about either because I think they are experts in the genre or because I share their tastes.
Good reviews are nice, but they don’t pay the bills. We had a good deal of experience at Irrational with games that were well reviewed but weren’t commercial hits (System Shock 2, I’m looking at you). If you gave me the choice between good reviews and lots of happy players, I’d take the latter any day.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
They are extremely interesting and clever. I think any indie would love to be a part of them – why not? I wish I had been smart enough to think of the idea.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I think some people have figured it out and some haven’t. Claiming that piracy is killing the industry are obviously false. On the other hand, some games shoot themselves in the foot.
For examples of people doing it right, you don’t need to look any further than Valve. Their focus is solidly on adding value to the customer, not punishing them. Is there really any more to say? It’s clearly the right thing to do and financially rewarding.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Again, it’s something you can do well or poorly. We’ve seen the industry fumbling its way through, trying to figure out what is right. There have been some notable failures (horse armor anyone?) and successes. I hate to bring up Valve again, but can anyone really complain about what they’ve been doing with Team Fortress? DLC is a great way to extend the life of a product but it’s not a cheap panacea. If you want to do it, you should put real effort into it.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community?
Modders are a gift from the gods for the industry and for developers. Really, how can you knock back someone doing free work that extends and expands the life of your product? Without modders, there would be no Counter-Strike or DotA. In a much more modest sense, modders were critical to Freedom Force too.
That said, supporting modders is not a free or easy thing to do. It adds considerably to the complexity of your project to provide proper mod support.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Well, one thing I would say is that making a great game is only half the battle. You also must focus on self-promotion – you need to get your name and your game’s name out there. That’s true in any industry. Game developers must be familiar with community building, PR, viral marketing and whatever other tools they can get their hands on to promote their image and their games image. A lot of developers, myself included, don’t want to do this sort of stuff because it doesn’t come naturally to them. But it’s not really a step you can afford to skip. Look at Notch with his 300,000+ Twitter followers for a great example. -End
We would like to thank Johnathan and all the guys and gals at Blue Manchu Games. You can read up on the progress of Card Hunter on their official site.
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