Longtime readers will know that I often invoke Magic: the Gathering/Wizards of the Coast when discussing certain elements of War Robots and Pixonic, such as the art of teasing new expansions to the playerbase. Today, however, I’m going to shift gears and discuss a different collectible card game (CCG), Dire Wolf Digital’s superb Eternal.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to know the specifics of the game to follow along (though if you’re looking for an absolutely first-class offering of the genre, give it a try). If you’ve ever played Magic or Hearthstone or most any other digital CCG, you’ll be familiar with the concept of battling their players in a one-on-one duel with a deck of cards comprised of spells and creatures.
One of the more notable features of Eternal has nothing to do with mechanical differentiation. Rather, it’s something much simpler and more fundamental, something for lack of a better term we’ll call acquisition facility. That sounds fancy enough to be respectable, right?
What I mean by the term encapsulates how easy it is to obtain things you want and/or need in the game. The CCG model generally revolves around the “booster,” a pack of random cards that offers you little guarantee to the contents beyond the rarity scheme. Of course, most players have little desire to empty out their wallets to buy boosters until they get all the cards they want for a deck, which leaves the issue of how to acquire specific single cards.
In Magic: the Gathering Online, this was solved by permitting the development of an actual secondary market. Using the common currency of event tickets (ensuring WotC got their taste), players could “buy” and “sell” cards to one another, getting the ones they needed without blind-buying boosters.
Blizzard’s popular Hearthstone, on the other hand, went for a crafting market. Cards you didn’t need or want could be turned into a virtual currency (“dust”), and then you could craft (read: “buy”) the cards you wanted given enough dust. Of course, the conversion process is inefficient, with a desired card costing more in dust than is yielded by destroying a card of equitable rarity, which ensures a nice, steady drain on the dust economy to keep demand up.
Eternal has opted for the latter method, palette-swapping the term “shiftstone” for “dust.” And when it comes to getting cards to convert into shiftstone? Eternal spoils us.
Player after player has observed in the game’s forums that the payout and prize system is one of the most generous they’ve come across. You can get a 12-card booster each day just by winning one match. You can get more by winning more. Periodic events, alternate game modes, even just spending any amount of real money (RM) gives you three packs from each new set that comes out- in perpetuity.
I’ve had little problem assembling multiple top-tier decks with hardly any actual spending, and most of my modest spending has been- and here’s the funny part- buying stuff I didn’t really need (like cosmetic items) because I felt a desire to support a company that wasn’t looking at me like a credit card with legs. Call it the “pull” where other companies employ the “push.” In fact, this isn’t an uncommon sentiment in the community. “Yeah, I bought a few things not because I needed them, but because I wanted to support Dire Wolf.”
I have no access to metrics that show which method provides the better return for the developers…but I can certainly ascertain which of the two approaches goes over better with players.
Now here’s the interesting part, because nothing is ever all sunshine and roses except, perhaps, for actual sunshine and roses. I really enjoy Eternal, playing it daily. There’s another expansion coming up this year and I’ll actually be opening up the wallet to buy a “box” or two of boosters for, which will be an outlay of USD $25-50. While grinding for cards is certainly sufficient, there’s also something fun about buying a stack of packs and seeing what you get.
Put another way: I am looking forward to spending real money on virtual goods. This is precisely the sentiment that game developers work so hard to cultivate. Not just a resigned swipe of the credit card, but genuine enthusiasm and satisfaction from players spending money that make them more likely to continue spending as long-term customers.
And while some like to scapegoat the big spenders (“whales”), a healthy game needs spenders of all strata (including players who spend nothing but their time).
The funny thing about Dire Wolf Digital is that you could make a credible case that, like Pixonic, they appear to have missed the “sweet spot” at the intersection of price and enjoyment. This is the revenue range that delivers the most money and the most satisfaction.
Of course, it’s not really this simple except in the abstract, and both factors are more interconnected than the graph conveys. For instance, bleed the community and you may well gain a short-term boost in profit- but you’ll also drive players away. That ‘boost’ will soon deflate and go in the opposite direction.
I put Dire Wolf Digital somewhere to the left on the graph. Player satisfaction is high, and there’s little sense that real money is a primary factor in competitiveness. Nevertheless, you could make a credible argument that Dire Wolf actually fails to sufficiently capitalize on its game. When players who want to spend money need to look for places to do so, the result is that money gets left on the table.
Again, we’re talking about money that players would happily spend on the game if they felt there was a sufficient return, not money they feel compelled to spend to be effective at the game. That problem- which Pixonic is currently in the midst of- is found on the other side of the “sweet spot” on the graph.
There is much to laud about Dire Wolf Digital’s model, but it would be remiss not to point out that they too have some familiar struggles. Here’s Exhibit A for the prosecution:
This guy is pretty bonkers, and there’s some controversy in the community right now as to whether or not he’s broken. He offers an almost insurmountable advantage if he’s not answered almost immediately, and there’s concern he may be warping the metagame. Not only that, but his health of 7 makes him very hard to burn out (the best burn card seeing play hits for 6, so you often need to get creative to shut “Mr. Beefcake” down).
Where things get especially dicey is that Tavrod isn’t available in boosters, but rather is part of an expansion set. In other words, you buy the expansion set and play through it, and you’ll end up with a playset (four) of this guy, and a number of other cards. And you can’t craft him, either. Want Tavrod? You have to pay for the expansion with ingame currency (which you can either grind or buy with real money).
Fortunately for them, Dire Wolf has built up enough goodwill to avoid accusations of, “you put an OP card in a money set, and will only nerf it once you’ve made all your sales.” Those voices are out there, but still fairly muted. If you’ve played War Robots for any length of time, however, you’d be hearing that in full throat.
The problem for Pixonic is that the goodwill piggy-bank is not only empty, but the bank has shut off their overextended credit line. Anno Domini 2017 has been an annus horriblis in many ways for the War Robots crew, as they’ve lurched from one crisis to the next, each seeming to snowball into the successive one.
I came to the game late last year, walking right into a controversy surrounding seal clubbing and Magnum Gepards (“Oh you…”). The community was up in arms, so Pixonic responded by biting the bullet and implementing a root-and-branch solution. This would put an end to the pile of band-aids they’d stuck on the game, helping making a solid foundation that would give the game ample room for growth going forward.
Except that brought along a new slate of challenges. Players getting matched up with imbalanced opposition brought promises to fine-tune the matchmaker, a fine-tuning that for some remains nowhere in evidence.
Others gaming and exploiting the new system through tanking/fading necessitated the creation of the “Leaver’s Queue” which would (theoretically, at least) if not prevent the malaise, then at least quarantine it. Whether this was more curative than placebo is open to debate, but then the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys soon discovered that their gulag was actually a great place to farm achievement awards (see: Anarchy Rogatka) during Events. One loophole closes, another one opens.
Spare a moment of human empathy for those at Pixonic who surely can be forgiven for feeling like this when they walk into the office each morning.
The result of all this is that as we enter the fourth quarter of the year, the tolerance of the community is exhausted. With the botched release of the Component system and the discovery that the RM price of high-end bots has multiplied, Pixonic has been taking it in the neck. The players mobilized a boycott, campaigned to trash the game’s reputation in the iTunes/Play stores, and found other games to occupy themselves. I’m told that one of the top-tier clans lost fifteen of its members in the last day or so to burnout surrounding the game’s problems.
The outcry was enough to recently force a walkback from Pixonic, and a “bear with us, we hear you” from a company that many feel has handed out too many unhonored IOU cards already.
If anything, the key takeaway from the “Tale of Two Cities” of Dire Wolf and Pixonic should underline how very difficult it can be to find the mark when it comes to ensuring both profitability as well as player satisfaction. In some ways, Dire Wolf’s challenge may be greater if they want to up revenue, as their high bar for generosity may be difficult to lower.
Pixonic, on the other hand, has scored a series of own-goals to be sure.
You have to imagine that sometime recently, in some team meeting or other one of them must have said, “so, what are we going to charge for the new stuff,” right? I mean, unless the diktat came down from Mail.ru, there was certainly a discussion.
And in that room full of bright people, the numbers they settled on were in the $100 to $350 range. Was it unanimous? Was there dissent? Did some in the room- perhaps those with their fingers closer to the pulse of their consumers- strenuously object? Did others rub their hands together with delight, think this was a slam-dunk opportunity to finally build that custom dacha they’ve always dreamed of? That the players would swallow any price they wanted?
We weren’t there, of course, so we’ll never know. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and it makes for interesting conjecture.
What we do know is that however the meetings went, they seem to have gotten it wildly, woefully wrong. But they still have the ability to right the ship. To set the power level of the new gear more in line with player feedback rather than in its current, overpowered state. To set cash prices, grind times, and Component drop rates to levels that the players can live with. And to rebuild trust with the community through deed over word.
So the ability is there. Perhaps the real question is, then… do they still have the time?