Thursday, August 27, 2009

Interview with Geoffrey MacDougall, Lead Designer of Rise & Ruin

By Clinton Ma


There is a thriving audience for trading card games, or TCGs, either as a face-to-face hobby with real paper cards or as a digital experience. One only needs to look at the enduring popularity of Magic: The Gathering and the recently released Live Arcade adaptation, Duels of the Planeswalkers to see how widely the appeal has spread to encompass everyone, from the lapsed Magic geek to the complete neophyte who only has a starter deck to their name.

As much of an institution M:TG has become, the TCG genre has grown to such a degree as to allow many new ideas to take form. Game creators are not merely content to follow in Magic's footsteps any more. Toronto-based Veil Entertainment is one such company to forge a different path with the trading card game formula. The result is Rise & Ruin, a browser-based, multi-player TCG that blends the traditional card gaming system with RPG character development and the visual impact of a one-on-one fighting game.

Much more than a TCG decked in fancy wrapping paper, R&R boasts a surprising number of innovations that address the many attractions and limitations inherent to the genre. There's a real focus on play balancing to keep things fun for both experienced and new players. Furthermore, the added depth of building up avatar skills to take advantage of more powerful cards introduces an addictive, persistent element that just can't be done with paper card systems.

Rise & Ruin recently celebrated the first month of its open beta. To find out more about this ambitious, independent game, I caught up with Veil Entertainment CEO and Lead Designer, Geoffrey MacDougall, for a short interview session. We chat about the beta, the art of game balancing, what it was like working with Telefilm Canada, and a new feature reveal...

NextGen Player: The Open Beta for Rise & Ruin has been running for over a month now. What's the feedback been like from the players?

Geoffrey MacDougall: Very, very positive, thankfully!

They are impressed with what we've been able to deliver as a small, indie team. Our players like that R&R is presenting a type of game they haven't seen before. They have faith that we'll continue to grow the product and have expressed they are pleased with our response times to bugs and feedback into core features.

Most importantly, they are providing us with carefully thought-out feedback on how to build the game, small but important tweaks like introducing battles that cater to casual players by removing the bonus timers, through to identifying inconsistencies and unintended consequences of the core game math.

NextGen Player: There are a large number of skills and features not yet available in the beta. Is the plan to roll them out as the beta continues or will they be unveiled with an official release of the game?

Geoffrey MacDougall: They will be rolled-out as they're completed. Our launch date won't be based on a defined set of features so much as a point where we - and our existing players - feel the game is stable, deep, and a lot of fun. It's already a lot of fun, but we have a lot of features we want to launch over the fall. This is the beauty of delivering a game to a web browser; we can keep working on it.

NGP: What other valuable insights have you gleaned from player data collected so far?

GM: One of the more interesting insights so far relates to the differing expectations of TCG players vs. RPG players. R&R is built with elements of both - the value of your cards in battle is affected by the skill level of your avatar - so we get a bit of culture clash within the game that keeps things exciting.

For example, if you've been playing an MMORPG for two months and I've been playing it for two weeks and we meet in battle, what percentage of the time would you expect to win? Like 95%+. It wouldn't even be close. TCG players don't want that kind of dominance in their games. They want the new players to have a good shot at beating the experienced guys.

So, one of our immediate and unexpected insights was that we needed to change the game to make avatar skills important, but not dominant. We're in the process of developing different types of games that will put new players and experienced players on an even playing field. Players will be able to choose what type of game they want to play when they challenge each other. This way, we're going to be able to cater to both sets of interests.

Actually, I might as well just announce the new feature here. There are going to be two types of battles - Pure and Balanced. A Pure battle will assign both players the same hit points, which will make your character level really important. A Balanced battle will assign different hit points to each player, giving more HP to the lower-level player. This will let each player hit each other with everything they've got - their full skills and deck strength - but each have a shot at winning. A Balanced battle will also show new players what they can look forward to once they gain more experience.

NGP: One of the planned features for R&R is the ability to train and interact with your character through Twitter and other mediums outside of the game property. What else can you tell us about this intriguing feature?

GM: One of the great joys of paper-based TCGs is their mobility. You can play the game at school, work, on the road, etc. R&R is an online game so, laptops aside, you need to be at a machine to play. We looked for ways we could let our players interact with their characters while they weren't at a computer and decided to include SMS-based features. The emergence of Twitter has given us a simple way of achieving these goals. Twitter will be used to let players train their character's strength, intelligence, and dexterity, as well as trigger short-term performance bonuses. We gain a 'Tamagotchi' element to the game this way - players can start getting their players ready for battle before they sit down to play.

My lead coder will probably kick me for saying this because we haven't fully tested how the the Twitter integration will work, yet, but we'll get this type of experience into the game one way or another. However, this will likely not emerge until later in the development cycle of Rise & Ruin.

NGP: R&R is unique in that it's an online TCG with a heavy emphasis on developing avatars and showing them in battle. Was there a conscious decision from the start to create a TCG with a lot more visual flair than similar games, or did the decision to focus on TCG-style game play evolve later on in development?

GM: There are a few factors at play here...

Our design team had a mixture of TCG fans and RPG fans, so the combination of avatar-driven card battles was always the founding idea of the game.

Paper-based TCGs are limited in their complexity by how much math you want to make the players do during battle. We felt most online TCGs were just paper-based games on a computer; they don't take advantage of how a CPU and graphics card can impact the player experience.

Finally, the idea of the action sequences triggered by each card was based on one of my favourite games when I was a kid - Battle Chess. We wanted to do to TCGs what Battle Chess did for board games... Gave them life!

There's a trade-off to this, of course, which is that it takes us more time to develop new content to the game than some other TCGs, but we feel it's worth it.

NGP: TCGs have a certain barrier to entry and require a level of commitment in terms of always buying new cards to stay competitive. In many games this creates a gulf between new and old players, dedicated and casual. Are there systems in place or in the works that will help players connect with others of similar skill and experience?

GM: Characters are given battle ratings based upon their skill level. This helps players figure out who would be a good opponent to challenge. If the Battle Ratings are too far apart we don't award skill points to the players. The Pure and Balanced game types mentioned will also help to solve this issue. Finally, as with all RPGs, it gets harder and takes longer to level your character over time. This presents a chance for the new players to catch the experienced guys and level the odds.

Our design team has been working in the 'Freemium' market for more than a decade - before it even had a label. We've gone through RMTs, micro-transactions, virtual asset sales, etc. We operate under the dual currency model developed by Matt Mihaly at Sparkplay Media. We award a time-based currency based upon in-game achievements (skill points) and sell a money-based currency (credits). We make some things available only to people with skill points (levelling your avatar) and some things available to people who want to buy credits (new cards) and then we let people trade. This lets people choose whether or not they want to invest time or money into the game. We also award new cards, skill points, and other prizes through daily events and tournaments.

NGP: What have you observed so far with the in-game economy? Are beta players doing a lot of trading? What do you see as being the ideal mix of trading vs. buying when the game is released?

GM: Trading will be driven by players investing in different skills as well as by large level differences between characters. A new player who wins a high-worth, high-cost card will be better off trading that card for several cards closer to their level than keeping it.

However, both of these drivers aren't really in place in the current build. The game will need to be live for a longer period before we get significant skill gaps between the new and experienced players. We're also working on launching the new skills.

NGP: How are you using tournaments to enhance the game experience for your community?

GM: Our community manager, Joe "Burdenday" Wagner, has come up with all sorts of ways to use events to add to the game. Last week we used our Friday Night Fights to launch a new battle arena - The Abyssal Hive. A couple of weeks ago we had a high-level NPC jix'Su named Septu trash talk all of the other players on the boards during the week. Septu showed up at Friday Night Fights began to beat on all of the Ralak characters. Just when the jix'Su players were reveling in their glory and the Ralaks were feeling down, we had an even higher-level Ralak NPC show up WWE-style to beat on Septu. The players /loved/ it. This event has triggered two new storylines and the creation of new player guilds devoted to each of the NPCs.

NGP: I've noticed that you've put a lot of attention to the story and lore behind R&R. Can you cite any games, movies, books or other media that has influenced this aspect of the game?

Adam Welsh wrote the world history behind Rise & Ruin. In an interview we conducted with him he stated he wanted to explore the power of jealousy, greed as a form of survival, resistance to compromise, and the dissolution of family. There is clearly a very melodramatic theme to the stories akin to the TV series Dragon Ball Z, or your favorite soap opera.

Burdenday, our community manager, has picked up the story from where Adam left off, and continues to involve the players in its progressing, even providing hints at future game updates through short fiction pieces.

NGP: You've produced R&R with the financial support of Telefilm Canada (Canada New Media Fund) and the Department of Canadian Heritage. It's amazing to see this kind of government support for the local video games industry. What was your experience like when approaching Telefilm and other government ministries with your concept?

GM: I'm glad you asked this question because it gives us a chance to plug the great people at Telefilm. The Canadian government invests pretty heavily into Canadian culture - even Canadian pop culture like games. Telefilm has mostly been about movies and television, but they launched a New Media Fund several years ago.

Approaching Telefilm was like approaching any other investor - they asked to see detailed business plans and design documents, checked out our management team, etc. The huge benefit to working with Telefilm is their understanding of and patience regarding what it takes to launch a new games company. They provide access to GDC and E3, and help you work through any challenges that come up during development.

They're a great partner.

NGP: Thanks for speaking to us, Geoff, and best of luck with Rise & Ruin!

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