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An Ode to War Metal Tyrant's Game Design

An in-depth look at several key design decisions made in War Metal: Tyrant, a free to play online CCG.

Since I quit World of Warcraft a few months ago after playing it since launch day, concerned friends and family have been asking what game(s) could possibly fill such an enormous life void. The answer often leaves them surprised -- I have been completely absorbed by War Metal: Tyrant, a free-to-play collectible card game that makes a lot of smart decisions that are worth discussing.

A Core of Simplicity

If you load up Tyrant and play a few missions, the game will inevitably leave one distinct first impression: It is simple. Very, very simple. There are no resources. Decks contain only 11 cards. Your hand size is 3. Literally the only action you can ever take in the entire game is simply picking 1 of 3 cards to play during each turn. All abilities are automatic. All targeting is random. All special abilities are simple enough to be summarized by a quick mouse-over in game; there are virtually no separate rules to keep track of. If something has a chance to happen, that chance is always 50%. Games never last for longer than a couple of minutes at most.

As a long-time gamer and CCG player, I was a bit off-put at first. Where's the strategy? Does it really matter which order I play my cards in? Is deck-building as simple as picking the most powerful cards I own and tossing them into the mix? Is Tyrant just a stripped-down Magic: The Gathering?

I hear similar concerns all the time from indie developers. They often ask, "Is my game complex enough?" Oftentimes game designers seem to believe that the way to win over players is to impress them with complex and sophisticated game mechanics. But the player doesn't care; in fact, more often than not, the player craves depth through simplicity rather than a baseline of complexity. The revamped (and, in my opinion, greatly improved) talent system in the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion is a prime example of this.

Plants vs. Zombies achieves something similar -- it's a casual game, and anyone can play it. It never feels complicated, even for non-gamers. Yet the game gradually introduces so many intuitive, simple, well-balanced game mechanics and events that eventually the core gameplay becomes deep and interesting while still remaining simple. This is the heart of a truly successful game that appeals to casual and hardcore gamers alike.

Later Depth

By the later missions and the pvp, it becomes clear that Tyrant has a legitimately surprising level of depth and strategy. I would love to write a separate article about Tyrant deck-building strategies, gameplay strategies, and the dozens of little "tricks" that can be pulled off during a game to turn the tides in your favor, but such an explanation would be incomprehensible to someone who doesn't play the game, as my wife has unfortunately learned during the hours that I've spent excitedly recalling some of my close calls and brilliant saves during live tournament matches.

Tyrant is the sort of game that keeps its hardcore player base fully engaged. Tyrant chat rooms on Kongregate are constantly filled with people discussing cards, strategies and counter-strategies. There's a well-supported player wiki. People organize high-level raids on the forums. People tweak their decks both in response to specific opponents and in response to new abilities introduced in new expansions and updates. The high-level metagame is never left stagnant.

As long-time MMO players know, sometimes it's actually more fun to read the forums, check the news site, experiment with builds, try new rotations, and optimize stats than it is to actually play the game itself. Not that the game itself isn't important, but the value of keeping players' minds engaged outside of direct gameplay cannot be overstated.

Keeping the Balance for the Sake of Viable Content Quantity

When people talk about game balance, they're usually thinking about game balance from the perspective of a player who's fighting another player, or perhaps an NPC enemy that is either too easy or too difficult to defeat.

But game balance is often overlooked from a pure content quantity standpoint. If there are 5 sets of cards and 1 of them is more powerful than the other 4, the other 4 will not be used. They may as well not exist, just as many old raids in World of Warcraft practically might as well not exist. From a content design standpoint, the concept of making older content obsolete is hugely inefficient. To topple World of Warcraft's dominance, for example, another MMO doesn't need to compete with the entire game's content -- all a competing game would have to do is offer a better end-game experience, which, at any given point in time, is unlikely to be higher than 1% of the total content that has been developed for the game. Consider for a moment how incredibly inefficient it is for a game like WoW to have players canceling their subscriptions because they're bored with current raid content, even if they've never set foot in some older raids.

Tyrant has no scaling power across card expansions. Some sets are certainly better than others, just as some individual cards are better than others, but there's no gradual increase over time. Because of this, old cards are still worth getting. Old raids are still worth running. Old missions are still worth completing; old achievements (which often award cards) are still worth doing. Getting a brand new card always feels rewarding because its power is often in the general ballpark range of other cards, and it might someday prove useful in a specific mission, achievement, raid, or pvp scenario. Compare this with completing an old quest in WoW for a level 10 piece of gear.

This model isn't unique to Tyrant -- Guild Wars does something very similar. But simply giving the player a lot of new options as they progress isn't enough; those new options have to be compelling and useful, which is where Tyrant is especially successful.

The Many Ways to Progress

Sometimes people don't fully understand the gravity of what I mean when I tell people that I swapped World of Warcraft for Tyrant -- there's an assumption that I dropped a 20- to 30-hour/week WoW addiction for an occasional game of cards. Sometimes I wish this were the case.

Everything about Tyrant has been designed for maximum content efficiency. It strikes the perfect balance between having a large volume of content and having a surprising amount of variance between content. Even with over 600 cards, very few of them feel reptitive, despite their simplicity -- this is partially thanks to the game's 45 unique card abilities, which interact in lots of interesting ways without becoming overwhelmingly complex or confusing.

From a sheer content standpoint, Tyrant feels like a full-blown MMORPG. The game currently has 144 story missions, plenty of side missions, 149 achievements (the vast majority of which are interesting and well-designed), 12 unique raids, faction pvp, casual asynchronous pvp, and synchronous tournaments. Tyrant's development team is incredibly small; the only reason it's possible for them to add so much regular content to the game is because of how strong and flexible the foundation of the game is -- simply by tweaking enemy AI decks across different missions, the designers can create missions that feel fresh and different because the player decks and strategies required to complete those missions are often quite different as well.

Collecting more cards only makes sense if the player is never allowed to "settle" on a single deck. Tyrant constantly forces players to try new decks, new strategies, and specific card abilities, whether it be for the sake of completing missions, achievements, raids, or pvp. Raid bosses have specific abilities that need to be countered; sometimes only very specific types of decks will work. Individual enemy decks have specific strengths and weaknesses that often need to be countered. "What's a good deck for mission X?" is a question constantly asked in Kongregate chat.

This psychology is important to instill in the players. Once they're convinced that variety is valuable, collecting new cards becomes very compelling. I'm driven to complete missions to get cards that might help with raids, missions and pvp. I'm driven to complete raids to get cards that will help with pvp and possibly achievements. I'm not sure exactly where this cycle ends or what the ultimate point is, but I do know that I'm helplessly caught in it. And I also know that the developers can continue the cycle indefinitely without ever reducing the total pool of viable content in the game, unlike a linear power progression model.

The Benefits of Randomness

Players complain about randomness all the time, but deep down they love it. It keeps things interesting and, most importantly, unpredictable -- both of which are critical components for a game that aims to addict players long-term.

When I play sealed deck tournaments, I get a new deck every time, which means I have a different play experience each time. Sealed deck tournaments give the player 20 cards from which to build an 11-card deck, so it's no exaggeration to say that this structure guarantees that most of the cards in the entire game get regular play, especially since nearly every card is useful in at least some situation given a combination with another card -- for example, if you get a card with "rally all imperial," you might want to include imperial cards in your deck that might otherwise have been passed over.

The sealed deck tournaments serve as an extremely efficient way to expose players to all the fun cards and abilities that the game has to offer. By investing my time in a single WoW character, I have access to about 10% of all the fun little player gameplay mechanics that the development team has created; by regularly playing Tyrant tournaments, the content from my perspective as a player is actually higher, even if the total amount of content is much much lower.

More benefits of randomness: When I fight against the same player for the third time in a row, it's unlikely that we'll both know who the eventual winner will be, since we'll have drawn different starting cards that might end up behaving a bit differently anyway, thanks to the game's plethora of abilities that have a 50% chance of succeeding.

It leads to close calls and plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments. Sometimes it's easy to calculate your odds of winning just by looking ahead at the odds of specific events occurring. If I have a card with "strike 1" that strikes a random enemy card, and the enemy player has 1 critically important card with 1 health that will win the game next turn if not killed, and this card has "evade," which gives it a 50% chance to avoid strike damage, AND the enemy has 5 cards on the table, I can calculate that I have a 10% chance to kill this card and potentially win the game. This is just one example of how Tyrant achieves depth through simplicity.

Some people would argue that Tyrant should have manual targeting, so I could simply select my opponent's card in the above example and increase my chances to 50% from 10%. This is analogous to World of Warcraft letting players decide when they get a critical strike. It's not usually allowed because critical strikes are fun if they're mostly random. Every WoW player can recall moments when a lucky critical strike saved the day, just as I can recall many Tyrant tournaments that were won with a lucky hit on a flying unit or a perfectly synchronized order of abilities that turned the game in my favor.

But this doesn't mean that the game is without skill. It simply means that the player doesn't have absolute control over the outcome of gameplay, which every game does to some degree, and with good reason. Rather than asking players to fully control every aspect of battle, it instead challenges them to carefully weave through a sea of possibilities to maximize their odds of success, which can sometimes lead to nail-biting decisions. If, for example, my opponent has a "strike raider 2" card that will kill off my critically important raider card next turn, should I play ANOTHER raider card, simply to give my first card a 50% chance to avoid a fatal blow? Or should I hold back on giving my opponent more fodder for an ability that's otherwise wasted if I have no raiders on the table?

In high-level games, these decisions can become incredibly strategic. There can be many outcomes to consider in an environment with inherent uncertainty. There's also a bit of a chess-like element to the game, where sometimes it's important to position your cards in a formation that serves as both a good defense and a solid offense. Other times, players will position their cards in such a way as to aim for taking out one particular enemy card, the same way a chess player might form a strategy and sacrifice a few pieces to take out the enemy's queen.

Yet with all the available strategy, the player's decision is always the same: Just pick 1 of 3 cards. That's it. There's no other option to consider, which sometimes means that playing the game well just means selecting the least-bad option, which actually can be fun in its own "damage control" sort of way.

The Psychological Trickery

Psychological trickery in an MMO is sort of like the McGurk Effect -- it still works even if you're fully aware of it.

And there's no shortage of psychological trickery in Tyrant. There's a classic free-to-play energy system, raid lockouts, and a designated "gold sink" expansion set. These all ensure that playtime and gold always have perceived value to the player.

But it's also important to allow the player to keep playing if they want to, potentially with diminished rewards. For example, in World of Warcraft, players can feel like their rest state is being "wasted" if it's capped out and not being used, the same way potential gold, cards and reputation in Tyrant are "wasted" if the player is not using energy to complete quests, achievements, or raids.

But locking the player out of a game entirely shouldn't be an option either. WoW solves this problem by still allowing players to level up or run excessive 5-man dungeons if they want to, but with diminished rewards. In Tyrant, players can still join tournaments or do asynchronous pvp if they've run out of energy. Typical returns aren't as great as energy-centric activities (missions and raids), but they're still fun activities that can be enjoyed by players who are waiting for their energy to replenish.

It's Short!

My final point about Tyrant that deserves an end-of-article emphasis is that the games are short. Really, really short. There is never insufficient time for "just one more game," much to the dismay of my wife while she's serving dinner. Single-player games rarely last more than a minute, and synchronous multiplayer games are rarely longer than 5. Turn length is limited to 20 seconds, which is usually plenty of time to decide which of your 3 cards is the best option to play.

Games are, at most, 9 total player decisions long, which is a very low number relative to other online games. Even the last card in the player's deck is played automatically, and once both players have put down all 10 of their non-commander cards, the game quickly plays out and declares a winner within seconds, assuming that the game even lasts long enough for both players to put down all their cards (they often don't).

Of my friends who've quit WoW, several have similar stories of their final day -- they logged in, spent a few minutes trying to decide what to do, decided not to do anything, logged off, then never logged back in. One of the biggest advantages of having short, varied, interesting gameplay with a compelling sense of progression is that there's very little friction with getting a player to regularly log in and play a couple of games, which is exactly what Tyrant achieves so brilliantly.

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