Recently, we were lucky enough to see a guest column from Prismata developer Elyot Grant, which delved into his thoughts surrounding why randomness is a bad thing for the strategy card game genre, and how he hopes that Prismata will manage to rectify some of the issues he sees with the traditional approach to games of that ilk.
Prismata has been designed very much as an antidote to that approach. Eschewing random card draws, it’s a game in which both players knows exactly what is going to be in front of them before each match, and aimed to be a blend of traditional card strategy and real-time-strategy video games. It’s also managed to garner quite a name for itself in a genre typically associated with being rather niche, surpassing its Kickstarter goal and enticing a large number of passionate fans to its cause.
I caught up with Elyot Grant, Founder of Prismata developer Lunarch Studios, to discuss more about Prismata, the dev team’s background and influences, and where they see the game going in the future. Here’s the transcript of that interview.
Dale: How did you come up with the idea for Prismata?
Elyot: I think that the game we were playing, that inspired the initial idea for the game was Dominion.
Dominion is a table-top, card-based deck-building game. It’s not like a trading card game where you buy packs; it has the same mechanic that we have, where the set of stuff you have available for purchase is different every time you play. Dominion isn’t the only game that has that mechanic; it’s actually very common in many table top games, where there’s some kind of randomization or choice made before the game begins, which affects the variety of the game itself.
The original idea was that we were playing Dominion, and we were getting frustrated with the randomness. Often your draws, especially in the first four turns of the game, would have a really heavy impact on whether or not you got off to a good start, and how far behind you would get. So were theory crafting about what the game would be like if you drew your whole deck every turn, instead of just drawing 4 or 5 cards every turn. And that idea became a very early prototype of the game, but of course we added a combat system. Dominion doesn’t really have too much of that.
The best way that I would explain it is that you have a deck, every turn you add stuff from your deck and it can either be money, or it can be points, or it could be actions. Every turn you draw a subset of your deck, and you play it, and depending on how much money is there you can buy other things. The other subset is actions, and they can sometimes give you more money, for example.
It’s a very simple game, which got pretty popular I think. There was an online version for a while that got pretty popular, and we used to play it quite a bit. The idea was that we took this idea and we applied it to a game with more of a combat focus. We brought in a bunch of ideas from Real-Time Strategy games, as well as games like Magic: The Gathering and we threw out all the randomness, all of the hidden information like rock-paper-scissors mechanics. We were left with this…. It’s effectively a pure strategy game that’s different every time you play.
As a group of friends, these were the games that we used to play. We used to play tons of Starcraft, and games like Magic: The Gathering, and this was about four and a half years ago.
Dale: What’s your development background?
Elyot: I’ve been making games since I was about eleven years old. One of the first games I made, my middle school teacher had to ban it from our computer lab because everyone was playing it all day instead of working. I made, like, 40 levels for the game or something. It was just some crappy side-scrolling game that ran in DOS.
But I was really into [making games]. The programming was basic, but I was building a lot of levels, and adding a lot of features to the game, and they were pretty much all programmed from scratch.
As a kid, there were two things I really cared about: math and videogames. I never really got outside much!
Dale: Is Prismata your first commercial project, or have you worked on other things in the past?
Elyot: It’s the first commercial game that any of us have worked on. As we’ve gone on, we’ve brought in more people who have more experience working on commercial game projects. We have people who’ve worked on titles like Halo 4, Bioshock 2…
Dan Hunter was effects artist for a lot of Plasmids in Bioshock 2 and worked on the DLC for Halo 4. Dave Churchill is our AI developer; he has an academic background in AI.
But the group of us who were working on Prismata in school? None of us have made a game commercially before.
Dale: How are you funding development?
Elyot: The initial funding for the game, which has paid for all of the work up to this point like the art and programming, was self-funded. The costs were covered by our own personal investment, plus some investment from friends and family. There’s no publisher, there’s no big investor, or anything like that.
Dale: Prismata is browser-based at the moment, but are you looking to branch out into other platforms, perhaps mobile platforms?
Elyot: We can easily make a desktop version of the game. In fact, I actually use a desktop version of the game to test things out during development. We haven’t pushed it live for everyone, because there are still issues in terms of compatibility, in terms of certain features and things. Right now we’re aiming to support a browser-based version, but we’ll slowly move that over to a desktop version [at a later date].
In terms of mobile platforms, tablet is definitely going to happen. The timing of that depends on a number of things. We want to focus on getting the core game finished before we start worrying about a tablet port. That said, we did actually design the game from the start to be playable on a tablet. There’s no right-click for instance, which is a design decision we made very early on.
One issue is that Prismata is actually quite a hardcore strategy game, while the mobile market is a lot more casual. If you look at the kind of strategy titles that do well on mobile, then you’re looking at stuff like Clash of Clans. Hearthstone is perhaps the only example of a more hardcore, esports-type game that has had any real success on mobile platforms, but even then I’m not sure if Hearthstone is still charting that high on the App Store anymore.
In 2015, we’re going to look at whether the tablet gaming market matures, and whether we start to see more serious gaming experiences doing well. If we start to see that, then we’re definitely going to hop on it. But right now, it’s not our priority. Our core audience is very much a desktop gaming-based audience.
Dale: Prismata is free-to-play, with micro-transactions for purely cosmetic effects. How are you planning for that to pan out further into the future? Are there plans for paid expansions to the base game?
Elyot: We actually wrote a blog about this recently on our site. There are four ways in which we intend to monetize Prismata and generate revenue. One is with cosmetic items – skins, emotes, etc.
The second way is through single-player content. Yes, we intend to release expansions. We’re going to have a free single-player campaign to start with, but if people are really digging the single-player content then it makes sense for us to create more of it, and perhaps sell those in little packs. And on top of that, we’re going to have something similar to an Arena mode that you see in games like Hearthstone, where you play a series of matches until you lose a certain number of times or something like that, and they’ll reward things like super-rare cosmetic items.
The last thing is raids. This is something that we’ve had on the back-burner for a while, but we’ve been developing for some time a PvE mode, where you and a couple of friends face off against a boss that’s spawning waves of mobs to try and destroy you. A lot of our early play testers found this mode to be really compelling, so it’s definitely something we plan on releasing within the next year, and there will probably be some form of monetization around that. It’s not going to be like, “you need this item to finish the raid” – we’re not going to put a paywall in front of winning – but it will mean that you can enhance the experience somehow, like perhaps if you pay a little money, you can get better loot, something like that.
It all depends on the feedback we get, and we’ll reallocate our resources towards what people would like to see. The thing we’re trying to get away from is the sort of pay-to-win games, or those energy-based – or, as I call them, frustration-based – business models, because they have a long-term negative effect on a game’s community. We want to build a really solid community.
Dale: How are you planning on doing that?
Elyot: We have in-game chat and friends’ lists; you can challenge your friends to games…
We’re looking at adding some clan features. We’re not sure how far we’re going to take it, but stuff like having private chatrooms will be part of it. We’re also going to work on things like leagues and tournaments. Tournaments are in there already, and it’s very much like an online poker site, where you can just have sit-and-go tournaments. I think that the social aspect is really important, both for growth and for retention within the community.
A lot of these features don’t actually take that long to implement. When I look at a game like Starcraft 2, which didn’t have chatrooms for years, I feel like Blizzard missed an opportunity there. Those things aren’t difficult to implement, so why not implement them? They add great value.
Dale: You mentioned Dominion earlier, which is Medieval-themed. Why did you go with sci-fi for Prismata?
Elyot: That was a business decision. Believe it or not, units like Drone, Forge Splitter, and so on used to be Peasant and Town Hall. But we did a re-skin of the entire game with a sci-fi aesthetic because we wanted to be different. We wanted to stand out from the other games on the marketplace, most of which go for a more fantasy-led approach. We wanted to occupy a bit of a niche. It’s worked out so far!
Dale: So far you’ve mentioned Dominion and Hearthstone, but are there any other card games which inspired you?
Elyot: Fantasy Flight’s living card games [like Call of Cthulhu and Netrunner] follow an interesting model. They’re not trying to sell you packs that you buy to fill out your deck, like in Magic: The Gathering. They sell you the whole game, and then sell you expansions for it. But they still offer that core deck-building experience, where you construct your deck around different strategies and face off against other players doing the same.
When we were testing Prismata, initially we had a deck building mode – where you could select the subset of units that you wanted to be able to purchase during a game. When we tried it, we found that it threw up a number of problems. There was less variety, because you’d play the same opening move every single time; there were sometimes a lot of auto-win situations, where you’d build a green deck, your opponent would build a red deck, and you’d be unbeatable because there’s no luck of the draw in Prismata. It was like a chess game, where one player had nothing but queens on the board from the get go. So there were a lot of balancing problems with that approach.
The key insight in getting away from that deckbuilding aspect is what made the biggest difference to Prismata. If you compare us with other deck-building games, I really feel like we’re in the opposite end of that square. For the last twenty years, card games have been based on this business model where you buy a starter pack, then you buy booster packs which have a chance to have a rare card, you need a certain amount of rare cards in order to build a competitive deck, etc., etc.
So it’s interesting that now we’re starting to see more games that move away from that model, but where you still need to build a deck and fight an opponent. I think it’s weird; if you’re not going to use that business model, I think you can do better – and have a more compelling game – by just getting rid of the whole deck-building phase altogether.
Dale: You recently wrote a developer column about eliminating RNG from card strategy games. Blizzard recently released the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion for Hearthstone. It’s interesting that despite so many Hearthstone players complaining about the randomness of the game, Blizzard seems to have actually emphasized that element even more in the latest expansion.
Do you think that random and non-random card games can exist peacefully side-by-side, or do you think that they’re locked in a competition for dominance with each other?
Elyot: I think they can [exist side bt side]. You obviously can’t make a game with both of those elements. There was a talk at Blizzcon this year with Ben Brode, where he was asked about why Blizzard decided to include so much RNG in Hearthstone. He actually gave a number of different reasons why they went for that approach. One of them was because of all the social media sharing. When they threw all the RNG stuff into the game, all of the top Hearthstone videos on the Hearthstone subreddit suddenly became videos of people doing all this crazy stuff with the RNG elements.
So my theory is that they’re adding in all this random-chance stuff to jack up and increase the virality of the game through social media, so that there are all these videos of something really good, or really bad, happening, and the player response to those things.
Hearthstone really depends on a lot of RNG for much of its mechanics. But I think Prismata is also a good fit for that kind of viral social media sharing.
Think of a game of chess. Even though each player has the same pieces on the board in every single match, there’s an almost infinite number of different possible moves and board geography. You’ll never see the same game played out the same way twice.
The difference is that you have to be really into the game to appreciate all those whacked-out moments with Chess. With Hearthstone, you don’t have to be into the game at all to appreciate all those crazy moments where someone luckily drew three great cards in a row and just suddenly wins the game. So I think there’s a balance to be had, but I feel they made that choice for marketing reasons rather than gameplay reasons.
Dale: Outside of the card game genre, what other games inspired you, other than strategy games? And what games do you personally enjoy?
Elyot: I used to be a pretty hardcore Starcraft player. I actually have this certificate on my wall from when I won a Reddit Starcraft tournament. As a kid, I used to play loads of classic Nintendo games, and I still do today. Whenever there’s a new Mario or Zelda game, I buy them.
The narrative side of Prismata is actually influenced a lot by visual novels, those graphic-novel approaches to story-telling that are used in games like Trauma Center so effectively.
I play pretty much everything. I used to play a lot of Quake; I used to play a lot of the original Diablo when it first came out; I’ve never been much of an MMO or MOBA kind of guy, but I do play a lot of games. I think, though, that in the last few years I’ve spent so much time playing Prismata that I’ve sort of neglected other games!
Dale: Do you think perhaps you run the risk of becoming so close to your own project that you lose the ability to see its flaws?
Elyot: I think we’re very aware of the properties of Prismata which make it a difficult game for some people, either to play, or when it comes to marketing. The most important thing for us is to speak to the community. There’s a little button in the corner of the software that allows you to click on it and type in a complaint, and we spend a lot of time reading what people have to say about the game. It’s invaluable for us to identify where we might be going wrong, or where we should rethink something.
I’m also in our game’s global chatroom pretty much all the time, so I can see when people are complaining about things and address that. We’ve cut entire units from the game because people were complaining about them, or because they weren’t being used because players didn’t find them very interesting. I think listening to your community is the best way to approach quality control. A lot of other games just go for A/B testing and data analysis, but in order to create a long-term satisfying game you need to listen to your community and see what they like and don’t like.
Dale: What’s the most useful feedback you’ve had so far from the community? And is there any feedback which has been, shall we say, less than useful?
Elyot: We spent years with our own game on evenings and weekends before we showed it to the public. I think we managed to reach a level of polish that other games don’t manage to hit before giving people the chance to play. The things we have heard are things like “your tutorial sucks!”, which, believe it or not, is actually very useful for us.
At the moment we’re working on a campaign that involves a lot of tutoring for new players. We’ve performed a bunch of play testing on that, and the testers point out every single thing where they think we need to improve how we train new players to play the game – every little thing they might be confused about, everything that sucks, and so on. We haven’t pushed that to the live alpha yet, as we’re still doing user testing – but it’s coming.
I will say that one thing I find very surprising is that the units we thought were really weak, turned out to be really strong in the hands of less experienced players. We’ve spent a lot of time playing the game ourselves – we created it, after all – and we included a number of units which offer a lot of different opportunities for strategic play. But there are other units, weaker units, which offer fewer of those choices. What we’ve found is that with those other units, the more simplified units, in the hands of a weaker player they’re actually proportionally stronger, because a player has fewer chances to use that unit sub-optimally. So it’s sort of balanced itself out!
Once we have the campaign ready, the campaign will illustrate all kinds of different strategic uses when it comes to units. But we’re finding that, when we look at the data generated by matches, certain units tend to float to the top in terms of their effectiveness. That doesn’t necessarily mean that unit is broken or overpowered; often it simply means that the community has a worked out a really effective way to use that unit. But we monitor all of that to ensure we’re building a game which is really satisfying for the players.
Dale: We’ve already discussed mobile and desktop versions of the game. What about consoles? Do you have any plans to make use of the various indie game programs being run by platform holders like Sony and Microsoft?
Elyot: I don’t know actually. Blizzard hasn’t so far gone down that route with Hearthstone, but who knows?
There are two approaches to this kind of thing. On the one hand you have the Candy Crush Saga approach, which is “get yourself on as many platforms as possible”, but I’m not sure that’s the right approach for us. There’s also the issue of adapting the game to suit a controller. We have a version of Prismata that works with touch screen devices, and works really well, but I’m not sure how well that would translate to using a controller.
It works for Magic with Duels of the Planeswalkers, for example, but that’s basically supposed to be a gateway drug to the real game. The way that Duels works is very different from how the real Magic: The Gathering actually works, which is far more about buying and opening boosters, spending lots of money, and constructing decks. Duels is designed as a bite-sized introduction to all of that, and is far more restrictive to the sort of cards available to you and the decks you can create. That said, they did solve some of the problems with mapping the necessary inputs for a card game to a controller. With Prismata I’m not sure how well it would work. We offer a Blitz mode in Prismata, which limits you to five seconds per turn, and it’s playable precisely because you can use hotkeys and things, and rapidly click different piles of units to use their abilities. I’m not sure how well that would work using a pad. If we can solve that problem, great – but it’s not a priority right now for us.
Dale: You’ve been working on Prismata for four and a half years. You’re in closed beta at the moment, but is there any kind of planned release date?
Elyot: The whole concept of “final release” doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to us. We’re in closed beta at the moment, and at some point we’ll be in open beta, but putting a date on that isn’t something that makes sense; it’ll happen organically. If you look at Hearthstone, that’s all they did – they just announced one day “ok guys, now we’re not in closed beta anymore, we’ve fixed all the bugs”. There was no fanfare; they just announced it and it happened.
We want to have a portion of the campaign out by next spring, at least for our closed users. The full campaign would be nice to have by the end of next summer. I don’t know if that’s actually going to happen, though. We can actually produce that content quite quickly, and we have a lot of it done already; the whole campaign has already been planned out. It’s just a case of optimizing the campaign and the dialogue, and that’s the stuff we really want to refine a lot before we roll it out to ensure that’s it’s as polished as we can get it.
In terms of when we go from closed to open beta? I think that will probably be around next spring, but it really depends on things like how much work it takes to scale the server and things like that. We don’t want to rush it out and experience loads of problems. I’m sure you’re already aware, but a giant multiplayer server can have all kinds of problems. We don’t want to end up like Blizzard on the launch day of a World of Warcraft expansion!
But we’ve been gradually improving things on the server side; we recently improved things enough to ensure that we were able to send out keys to everyone who had applied for the closed testing of the game.
Dale: To the people who have backed the game so far, is there anything you would like to say to them?
Elyot: I’ve written so many thank you messages!
I want to deliver a promise.
We’ll deliver the type of game which our fans really want us to deliver. If our fans have something that they take issue with, or recommend, our door is wide open. I’m really grateful that our fans have stuck with us, and believed in us, and really shared our vision for Prismata. It’s made a lot of difference, and we wouldn’t be here without them – or reached this point without their dedication. So they really deserve all the credit for getting us where we are. They have our eternal gratitude.
Prismata’s Kickstarter campaign still has just under 30 hours left to go. It’s also on Steam Greenlight, where it’s doing rather well – you can reach that page by clicking here.