We talk to Ubisoft’s Stephane Jankowski about the publishers new online card game and doing free-to-play the right way
14 January 2013 | By Import
After initial resistance to the idea, free-to-play on PC exploded in popularity in 2012, helped by a slew of quality titles that embraced less punitive monetisation approaches and ditched the relentless grind and pay-to-win aspects that had too often characterised F2P in the past.
Few publishers have embraced the approach as much as Ubisoft, who over the last year have announced a raft of F2P projects. One of the most interesting is Might & Magic Duel of Champions, an online deck building competitive card game that hit PC and iPad in December. We talked to Ubisoft Producer Stephane Jankowski about the challenges of working in the F2P space.
Strategy Informer:Might & Magic is one of the all-time classic PC franchises. When translating it into an online card game format for Duel of Champions, what were the key elements you felt you had to get right?
Stephane Jankowski: To be honest, the universe of Might & Magic is a wonderful world to base a card game on! After its 26 years of existence, its numerous game installments, its deep lore and iconic characters, it has become so rich that our game designers had plenty of material to work from. We wanted to create a M&M card game, not yet another card game. To achieve this, we took the time to discuss it with diehard fans of the series in order to make it as close as possible to the DNA of the other M&M games.
Strategy Informer: The PC version transitioned in December from the beta into full release status without an account reset. What were the important lessons you learned from the beta stage, and what issues needed to be addressed?
Stephane Jankowski: During closed beta, we tested numerous reward patterns (XP, free currency, premium currency, cards, packs, etc) to be sure that our players get something valuable in exchange for the time they spent playing our game. Being a free-to-play game, we need to be respectful of the investment each player puts into our game, whether it be time or money.
When then launching the open beta, we decided to reset everyone’s progression but that this would be the last reset we would do - not even for the end of the open beta - because we did not want to penalize our player base that was already committed to our game. To us, it was a matter of respect.
Also, the balancing of the cards has been our top priority. Over the last months, we made some card rule changes to ensure a fun game experience for players of various levels. Starting decks have been revisited a couple of times, some factions have been twisted here and there and we will continue to take advantage of the digital format of Duel of Champions to ensure a high level of balance in our game.
Strategy Informer: Computer card games always run the risk of being quite visually mundane. What were the design approaches you took to the interface and gameplay to make it visually exciting?
Stephane Jankowski: It’s a tough balance to find when, as a video game production team, you want to have everything visually fantastic but at the same time respect the genre and its fans. If you try to represent chess or poker with visual effect fireworks, you are losing a lot of the soul of the game and you can be sure nobody will play it.
But with the help of the amazing artists within our team at Ubisoft Québec, we managed to create a game that we believe to be visually impressive. We made a lot of iterations on the “battleground” and also have done some private playtest sessions to refine our design. We also took into consideration the heritage of Might & Magic, hence why the board is horizontal instead of vertical as in traditional card games. The result so far is being praised by our players as an efficient yet beautiful game.
Strategy Informer: The full release of Duel of Champions was also accompanied by a brand-new expansion: Void Rising. Can you tell us about what that brought to the game?
Stephane Jankowski: Void Rising is our first major expansion and it’s bringing more than 100 new cards to our library that will reinforce the 4 existing factions (Haven, Inferno, Necropolis and Stronghold) but also introduces a completely new faction: Sanctuary.
This means a lot of possible new strategies for our players to try, new combos, new defences/offences and a new mindset to have when building your deck.
Strategy Informer: After some initial wariness from public and publishers alike, the free-to-play model has exploded in popularity over the last 12 months, and Ubisoft in particular are making a big push in this area. How challenging is it to get the balance right between creating a satisfying free core game while also ensuring it can be profitable?
Stephane Jankowski: I have the chance to work in a studio that shares my views that creating a successful free-to-play game is not very different from creating any other game: it has to be fun. If your game is fun, high quality and engaging, your players will be more interested to talk about your game in itself than in your business model.
During the creation of Duel of Champions, we introduced economic design into our overall design process very early on. We quickly locked down our monetisation strategy: we are not a pay-to-win game. It’s the player’s skills that make them the best, the time they invest in their deck building strategy and how smart they are that prevails, not the money they can put in our game. So far the results are great as a majority of our top players are free players, and it’s perfect like this.
Strategy Informer: The Infernal Pit seems like an interesting alternate approach to the Auction House model, allowing players to recycle and get value not only for their rare cards but also cards that are useless to them. How exactly does it work, and what was the thinking behind going with that model?
Stephane Jankowski: The mix of the card game genre and the free-to-play model creates a lot of risks tied to having a traditional auction house in your game, as players could create fake accounts, open the 3 booster packs we give to new comers and immediately sell/trade it with their main account. Even if it could have brought substantial revenues to us through transaction fees, we’ve seen too many auction houses ruin great games to go down that road.
Instead we preferred to offer a way for players to burn their extra copies of cards against some gold (that they can use to purchase new free booster packs) and on top of that have a chance to win a specific card that is randomly renewed every eight hours. It allows any player to get a chance to acquire “the” card that they are looking for with a bit of luck, but reduces player-to-player transaction risks. We have some plans to improve this feature in the future and make it even more interesting for advanced players.
Strategy Informer: As a competitive online game, creating a committed and yet also welcoming community for Duel of Champions must have been one of the biggest challenges. Are there specific things you’ve done to try and ensure that getting into the game is as friendly as possible for newcomers?
Stephane Jankowski: Duel of Champions is a game that will challenge you and we know that our fans appreciate that we are not watering down this experience. For example our tutorial is long and complex, which was a deliberate design decision as we did not want to lie to our new players about what’s inside our game and what they will face when playing the game for real. If you’re looking for tough competition, smart guys and girls online and crazy strategies, Duel of Champions is the game for you!
Strategy Informer: You held the first final of the Worldwide Championship of Duel of Champions at Dreamhack 2012 back in November. What was it like watching your game being played competitively in a live setting?
Stephane Jankowski: The first Razer Worldwide Championship has been a great experience for us and a learning experience as well! It was a great opportunity to meet in person the best players of our game, discuss with them and listen to their feedback. Watching them playing live with our baby in ways that are sometimes completely opposite to the way we designed was a lot of fun too!
Strategy Informer:Duel of Champions has also been released for iPad. Did you face any specific challenges in developing it for iOS?
Stephane Jankowski: We successfully released the iPad version on December 18th and we now have thousands of players who enjoy DoC on iPad. On the technical side, Duel of Champions has always been designed to be a cross-platform game, a game you can play seamlessly from PC or iPad versus players from any platform when playing online.
We have therefore built our entire architecture and production pipeline to support those platforms in parallel. The real challenge has been to ensure the player experience was excellent on each platform, with design and UI decisions that kept that in mind. In the end, we have little difference in our code between both platforms, giving us a good level of flexibility for the future.
Check back soon to read our full review for Might & Magic Duel of Champions.