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Q&A: Kongregate's Greer And Sirlin On Metagame Hopes With Kongai

Will a Pokemon RPG-inspired card battle metagame break social Flash game site Kongregate into the mainstream? Gamasutra talks to site founder Jim Greer and Street Fighter II HD Remix balance designer David Sirlin about the influences and des

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

April 29, 2008

20 Min Read

Online social Flash game site Kongregate launched in late 2006. Created by brother-sister duo Jim and Emily Greer, the site follows a YouTube-like model, allowing users to upload their own games to the service for play. Another major difference from other Flash gaming hubs is the inclusion of profiles and reward points. In a similar fashion to Xbox Live’s Achievement system, players earn point for completing certain tasks within certain games. Also being distributed as rewards are collectable cards, for use in a site-wide metagame called Kongai. Currently in closed beta, Kongai has been designed by renowned game designer and balancer (Street Fighter II HD Remix) David Sirlin, who describes the game as being more about mind-games and strategy than a simple case of which player can collect the most cards. The game is intended to be playable by all users of the site. We spoke to Sirlin and Greer recently and asked each their visions for the game, and how it aids the site in the long run. How does the metagame aspect of Kongai help the site as a whole? Jim Greer: Earning achievements is a huge part of what Kongregate is about. The idea with Kongai is to give people something to collect that gives them gameplay power, not just status. Do you think this will draw in new users to the site? JG: It could. I think there's a pretty big portion of gamers that think Flash games can be pretty good but don't really seek them out or pay them much attention. I've found that when you're playing a game with a concrete goal like earning a collectible card, you pay more attention and get more into it. So someone might show up to check out Kongai and then get hooked on playing the other games as well. Would you consider David a marketable name, and does that aid the site? JG: Yes, I think it helps us get noticed by the influencers, the kind of people who read game design blogs and Gamasutra. That audience knows him as the only American to ever design a Street Fighter game. If they like it, they'll write about it, tell their friends, etc and that coverage and attention can reach a larger audience. Of course, the main thing that David brings is serious design talent, in particular a genius for balancing that readers of his articles and blog will be familiar with (not to mention Street Fighter fans). In regards to the game itself, do you feel that is something likely to appeal to Kongregate users? That is, does "mind-game mastery over brute power or luck" represent the users of the site and their tastes? JG: If you look at the top rated games on the site, many of them require a lot of strategy. Desktop Tower Defense and Protector are #1 and #2 currently. There's a perception out there that Flash games are kind of mindless fluff. Some of them are, but there's plenty of meat out there. The mind game aspect is unusual since there's not that much multiplayer at all, but I think people will go for it. Who is working on the art for the game, and what motivated that decision? JG: I love the art - everything we've released so far was done by Udon Entertainment - they do the Street Fighter comics, among a lot of other stuff. David knew them from the work he's done on Street Figher II: HD Remix, so he brought them in. Will the addition of new cards and sets to the game be left in David's hands? JG: The gameplay mechanics and rules are all David. Our internal Director of Games, Chris Pasley, is working with David on the themes, art direction and so on. Do you see possibilities for licensing coming from the game? Is a physical set a possibility in the future? JG: Yes, there will be a movie, featuring Jessica Alba as Rumiko the Ninja and Uma Thurman as Helene the Swordstress. I wish! We'll see how it goes. A physical set would be great as a collectible, but some of the rules would need to be reworked quite a bit to do as tabletop game. Similarly, would you consider marketing coming into the game, that is, themed decks, and so on? JG: Maybe, for the right property. Transformers maybe? But not potato chips. More likely would be, ‘This set brought to you by...’ What about the possibility of other metagame type activities within Kongregate, if the game is successful? JG: That could be very cool - collecting units in an Advance Wars style turn based strategy game, maybe? How will you measure its success, and what would stop the game from being sustainable in your eyes? JG: It's a success if our players love it. Hopefully it will go beyond that and bring new players to the site. We grew 50% between January and February - I'd love to do that every month until we rule the web. But honestly I have no idea how it will do. It's an unusual strategy. Obviously if the game has a big audience we'll work harder to bring out new cards, update it, etc. But we'll maintain it in any case. David, why do you think Jim and Kongregate had enough faith that you would do the game the right way? David Sirlin: I heard that Jim asked around for a designer and he heard my name and [Magic: the Gathering creator] Richard Garfield's came up. That's some stiff competition! From my website about game design and my Playing to Win book about playing competitive games, I think he was able to get a fairly good idea about where I stand on various design issues before even talking to me. Also, I was - and still am! - working on my own card game called Yomi: Fighting Card Game, so it showed that I had some knowledge and interest in the card game genre. When I first talked to Jim, I told him I thought there were a thousand ways to go wrong with this idea of a customizable card game where you win the cards from playing various other games. He said, ‘Ok, so tell me how to do it right’. Fair enough. I explained that I thought a traditional 60-card deck game would be too unwieldy because it would require winning too many individual cards before you could modify your deck. I also let Jim know from the start that I'm on the opposite side of the fence of the entire CCG industry in my belief that rare cards in random booster packs and intentionally bad cards hurt the experience of playing a card game. Apparently Jim was willing to buy into my crazy ideas, and the rest is history. Were you apprehensive about taking on a project of this level of importance for the site? After all, a metagame that wasn't entirely successful would have pretty dire repercussions for the site, right? DS: I don't think any artist - using that term broadly - in any field worth his or her salt would be apprehensive about taking on a project because it's too important. This never even occurred to me to worry about. At the same time, I was investigating being the head of a $30 million MMO, so Kongregate's game wasn't exactly scary to me. I was apprehensive about it for another reason though. Every project takes a time commitment and a mindshare commitment. I knew I'd have to spend time clearing my mind of everything else and just focus on this design problem and conjure all the design data from nothing. It's like fighting a dragon to me. Yeah I know I can do it, but do I really have the energy in me to defeat this dragon given that I'm also rebalancing Street Fighter HD Remix? I was originally going to tell Jim that I didn't have the time, and to his credit, he suggested that I make some changes in my professional life that would allow me to do it. In retrospect, that advice of his was a turning point for me and I can't thank him enough for it. How long has the project been in the works? DS: Jim first contacted me in July 2006 and I started thinking about it then. I was officially working on it a month or so after that. We haven't been working on it the whole time though. For a lot of this time, Kongregate focused on improving the main site. What were your initial aims with the game? DS: Years ago, a gamer from South America who went by the name Pollo stumbled onto my forums. His English was not good and some of my other forum goers flamed his beliefs. But I came to see he was the real deal. His knowledge of games was so deep that he had been to the highest skill levels of many games and gotten bored with them. He played competitive games professionally, and a lot of them. He listed several qualities that he wanted in a game, and it was very interesting to see his perspective--to see what types of design elements led to deep games, according to him. Over the years both he and I had our separate threads where we listed a set of about 10 requirements for a game - we shared many of them. We were each asking if there existed any such game that met all our requirements. Incidentally, I call this activity “pure research” in that I was researching the field of games for its own sake, rather than for the sake of a particular project. It's unpredictable what such research will yield, but it will yield things you couldn't have specifically looked for in the first place, and that is why it's valuable. And again, any designer worth his salt should be conducting his or her own pure research projects like this. It turns out very, very few games met our requirements. One game that people suggested unusually many times was Pokemon Netbattle. This is not the Pokemon trading card game, but instead the turn-based battle system that exists inside the Pokemon RPGs. Players liked it so much, they extracted all the data and equations into a PC game. This - of all things - came up frequently as an answer to my list of requirements. Much later when Jim Greer asked me about a game for Kongregate, I had this Pokemon Netbattle in mind. There had to be some magic brew in that game and maybe we could improve it, simplify it, and bottle it. I considered a couple other radically different designs at first, but soon enough, I settled on capturing essence of and improving upon this relatively unknown gem. Yes, I know Pokemon is incredibly popular, but the battle system itself is not exactly known to the average internet user. Why did you decide to use an existing game as the basis for Kongai? DS: There's always a debate between whether to make something new or make something good. They aren't exclusive of course, but I think it's best to pick one or the other for a project, and call it the highest goal. If you pick good, then you accept that it might or might not be new. If you pick new then you accept that it might be trailblazing or it might not come together as you'd hoped. Honestly, I didn't spend much time debating this for this project, because the pure research that led me to this battle system was still on my mind, and it seemed like a good fit. It happened to turn out that an existing game lined up with what I thought Kongregate needed, so I went that route. I should at least point out that there are numerous changes to the design from the Pokemon game though. The character switching system works differently, the energy system governing which moves you do when works differently, I introduced the concept of close and far fighting ranges, I replaced all damage formulas with simple arithmetic, and I got rid of the original game's ridiculous 17x17 chart of resistances. It's a new game for sure, but it's inspired from something existing, yes. Incidentally, another pure research exercise of mine has led me to create a card game that is very new, and not based on much of anything out there. So maybe it's an accident of history which one ended up being Kongregate's metagame. Did you go into it with an audience in mind? DS: Maybe this is bad to admit, but no. As I explained above, the basic idea was already known to be pretty good. I knew I could modify the game to be more accessible, easier to learn, and to emphasize even more the concepts of competitive gaming that I think are important. And I want to be clear that I really fight hard for things to be easy for people. Even though I'm a competitive tournament player, I'm also on a crusade of eliminating arbitrary difficulty from games so we're left only with the truly interesting decisions. If the game had a solid basis to begin with, if my changes pushed it further toward easy of play and accessibility, then I didn't have to think too hard about the audience. I thought a mixed audience of expert players and casual players would all be able to find the fun in this game, so I concentrated on how to make it the best design I could, rather than how to fit it specifically to a certain demographic. How difficult was it to adapt the game for entry level users? DS: It was just part of the basic design process I follow of making things as easy as I can. The crux of it is that this is a game of outguessing your opponent amidst a web of possible counters. For this to be interesting, there has to be a web of some sort. The original game used a 17x17 chat of resistances to create this system of counters: does Dark beat Psychic? Does Grass beat Ghost? I think once players internalize this chart, the gameplay becomes very good, but asking them to intuitively understand this system of counters is way too much. I looked for other ways to create a system of counters. I cut down the 17 damage types to just three: light magic, dark magic, and physical armor. There isn't even a 3x3 chart, by the way. A character is good against dark magic if he has high dark magic resistance. There is no chart. But I also added the ability to switch ranges from close to far, and made some characters good at close, others good at far, and others good at both; but with other disadvantages. It's very visual to see the characters standing right next to each other or far apart, so you don't need to internalize a big chart to understand this. Between the 3 damage types, the close/far ranges, the system of switching characters in and out, and the various special abilities of each character, there is enough of a web of counters to make the game interesting. Hopefully even beginners can grasp these concepts quickly. Why do you feel it's important that rare cards aren't powerful in regards to the game? DS: I think it's really amazing that the gaming public puts up with rare cards in CCGs. Even though I might rate games like Magic: The Gathering and World of Warcraft TCG amongst the very best designed games in the world, rare cards are simply a rip-off mechanism and a barrier that keeps players at arm's length from the real game. I have a lot of friends who love competitive games who don't play card games because they just want to play the game without an extra layer of annoyance of getting a bunch of expensive rare cards. A tournament Magic deck costs about $300, which is totally unreasonable. This is a question outside the realm of game balance also, because even Richard Garfield himself acknowledged that you can't balance powerful cards by making them rare. He only did that in the very beginning of Magic: the Gathering because he didn't realize how popular it would be and that people would spend crazy money to get all the rares. Kongregate's metagame, by its very nature, already has one layer between the players and the game. It's a harmless one though, because all you have to do is play various games on Kongregate.com to earn the cards, and that's fun in itself. I'd even say it ads another layer of fun to all those games. But adding yet another layer of rarity to the mechanism Kongregate already has would just be too much. It would be too long of a journey to get to the point where you could actually play the metagame the way you want. That said, I understand that people like to collect things and that card rarity can have good features too. If there are alternate versions of cards that are rare and hard to get, that's fine, and actually really cool, as long as the people who just want to play the game can earn the basic functional version of the card. I think it would be great to have really difficult challenges that lead to a special version of a card that lets everyone know how hard you had to try to get it, as long as everyone can get the functionally identical card in a reasonable way. So card rarity isn't out of the question, as long as it doesn't affect gameplay. What about your reasoning for not including bad cards in the mix? DS: Intentionally bad cards are another crime perpetrated on the gaming public by CCG companies. Mark Rosewater of Wizards of the Coast famously defended bad cards saying that they have lots of good properties such as giving new players the joy of realizing they are bad and not choosing them. He also said even if entire sets full of Magic cards were “good” that some would end up bad anyway because there are simply too many cards in a set to all be viable in a tournament. I don't want to give the impression I'm against Mark Rosewater in any way. He's an excellent designer, and one of the few that anyone can learn from because he's written so many articles explaining his process. I'd give Magic a letter grade somewhere between A and A+. But on this point of bad cards, I have to disagree. Players don't need the “fun” of figuring out that bad cards are bad. This is doubly true in our case because no one wants to win a challenge to earn a “bad” card. If we try our best to make all cards good, a few will be bad, sure, and we'll do our best to fix those. But to say that a game can't support all “good” cards means either a) you aren't trying hard enough or more likely in Magic's case, b) you are printing way too many cards. By offering as many types of cards as we can, all of which have at least some viable use, we're trying to give players a lot of ability to customize their playstyle. Another way to put this that I've learned from fighting game tournaments is that some players just really like certain characters and want to play them no matter what. They feel much better about that if they know that every character is viable if played right, and that they don't have to be hamstrung with some garbage character who has no chance to win. How successful do you think the game will be in bringing new users to the site? Is it possible for a metagame to have that kind of draw? DS: I guess that remains to be seen and I also think it will be hard to measure. I think the metagame is going to generally make Kongregate a little more fun overall by giving players a meaningful goal when they play the other games, and by getting people to try out new games they wouldn't otherwise have looked at. If people are generally having more fun on the site, it's more likely that they'll get their friends to join, even if it's not explicitly because of the metagame. It will certainly draw in some users just for the metagame alone, but I don't know how to guess how many. Hopefully a lot! How difficult was the balancing between accessibility and the kind of sustainability that comes from nuanced play? DS: That's always a challenge. My initial concept for the game required players to make only two clicks per turn: 1) choose your range, and 2) choose your attack/switch/intercept. This keeps the game really simple to learn. I second-guessed this choice over and over throughout development. The biggest sacrifice that comes from that 2-click system is that you can never have what's called an “activated ability” in Magic: the Gathering. For example, a character who has an innate ability you can click on at any time to do something. All our character innate abilities and item abilities are either triggered (automatically, based on various conditions) or passive (always on). Adding activated abilities would allow for a bigger design space, more variety, and more cards. I considered it many times. In the end, I stuck with my guns and kept it 2-click only. Even though we sacrificed some nuance with that decision, there is still enough left that people are having a lot of fun with the game, and it keeps it as simple as possible to learn. Is there a risk of experienced players making the game unappealing for newer players a few months down the track in the way that we've seen with, say, certain online FPS games? DS: Every competitive game has an element of this, where expert players trounce new players. Usually the answer is to implement better matchmaking to help get players of equal skill playing each other. Another easy improvement is to give players a few different rooms based on skill, even if the players use the honor system to choose a room. Magic: The Gathering Online added these types of rooms after their release. For example, a beginners room, and intermediate room, and a hardcore expert room. The nature of our game helps us out a lot, though. When you are new to a first-person shooter or a fighting game, you are terrible and you know it. Players can run circles around you. But this is a mindgame, an elaborate version of paper, rock, scissors. Even if you're terrible, you'll be able to grasp the fundamentals of attack/intercept/switch pretty quickly. Beginners will be surprised that experts can guess right so incredibly often - they can! - but I think beginners won't get that same feeling of hopelessness you get while being spawn camped and repeatedly headshot in a first-person shooter. It will feel like guessing right is within your grasp, in a way that bunny-hopping and head-shotting is not within your grasp in a fist-person shooter. How sustainable would you say the game is, and what plans are there for the long-term? DS: The game is potentially very long-lasting even without endless new cards. Because it relies so heavily on double-blind guessing, it's not “solvable” like many turn-based games. Ten years from now, it will still be satisfying to intercept people when they try to switch out. And I think it's going to be quite a surprise to most players that some players are able to win 30-0 in a game ostensibly about paper, rock, scissors. I'd actually like to work with some psychologists or brain scientists on studying that. Seriously, I would. But you probably meant how many more cards will we make for this game. While we have lots more cards in store, I don't think they can go on forever due to the game's relatively limited design space of possible variations. Rather than repeat ideas, once we reach that point, I think it would be better to launch a new, different metagame.

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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