Marvel Snap, Space Lion, and Convergent Design

This is the fourth and final post in my Marvel Snap week series. I want to take this opportunity to answer a question I asked in the first post. Why have a Marvel Snap week? Why direct four full posts of coverage if not for personal gain of some sort?

Well, as I mentioned in the first post, there were just too many things it made me want to talk about, and I didn’t think I could fit them into one post. One of the biggest ideas that I wanted to discuss was that of convergent design. Convergent design is the phenomenon where different groups of individuals working in completely different circles, end up making similar things.

So let’s talk about that. Marvel Snap is a game where you have a hand of cards, with various power values and abilities, and your goal is play them to locations, and then have the highest total power value at those locations.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a board game I liked. In it, you have a hand of cards, with various power values and abilities, that you play to locations, with the goal of having the highest total power value at those locations. It’s called Space Lion.

To be clear, because this seems important, and since I’ll be talking about something much less pleasant in a bit: I do not believe that either Space Lion or Marvel Snap took or stole mechanics from the other in any way whatsoever. I just think the fact that both of them have some similar mechanics is an fascinating example of convergent design.

And despite both games having gameplay with some interesting parallels (such as both relying on hidden placement, and trying to read your opponents’ plays and options) there are also tons of things that set them apart!

Space Lion is a longer form board game, and has no deckbuilding or drawing cards. Instead, your entire set of cards starts in your hand, and the decisions to make about when and where to play them are entirely up to you.

Marvel Snap, on the other hand, has the traditional drawing from a deck, and energy/mana system that’s used in games like Magic and Hearthstone.

In this case, both games just happened to use similar mechanics as part of their primary systems, and it’s neat to see how despite that, they’re both very different games.

So let’s talk about the opposite.

Flowering Heights, Towering Perfection, and Stolen Designs

Several weeks ago, I saw this tweet.

Click to go to the actual twitter page. Due to world events unrelated to this minor scandal, it may or may not exist by the time you go to read it, so I’ve also go the screenshot above.

For me, it was an interesting sort of philosophical question. What constitutes copying someone else’s design? Was there actual theft going on here or was this someone being over protective of a mechanic?

I chatted with some folks, had some discussions, and assumed that it would never really be clear who was in the right in this situation.

After all, it’s not like the person who claimed they were being ripped off would post about it right?

And it’s not like their post about it would have exact comparisons, right?

And it’s not like they would have a full set of screenshots of the person accused of stealing the game, playing the game in question in a tabletop simulator playtest session, right?

Oh.

Oh dear.

The Kickstarter for the stolen game in question is down now. It was at a bit over half its goal at time of cancellation, and based off my research*, this seems to be the end of the whole affair.

*Reading Connor Wake’s twitter posts from the last few weeks, and literally nothing else.

Now we’ve moved out of the arena of convergent design. I still find this really interesting. Because outside of the community action and outrage, there’s no other real way to resolve something like this. Board game mechanics aren’t protected by copyright, trademark, and probably not by patents (although there’s some debate). There’s nothing outside of community outrage that actual stops me from just completing ripping off the gameplay of, say, Glory to Rome, naming it Honor to Carthage, and running a Kickstarter.

I also found how people feel about cases of board game copying. Most board game designers I saw talking about it see this as a somewhat necessary state of affairs. Few designers want to make playtesters sign expansive NDA’s, or to stop playtesting in order to deal with possible theft.

The biggest concern I heard was the fear that at some point, someone too big to stop, such as Hasbro, would rip off an indie design, and just bring it to mass market. Hasbro can’t be canceled on Twitter. And to be clear: there’s no legal framework or tools to stop this. Right now this shit operates entirely on the hope that corporations won’t see it in their best interest to rip off an indie designer’s board game.

Anyway, with that series of paragraphs that have absolutely nothing to do with Marvel Snap, this concludes Marvel Snap week! I’d say that you should follow me on Twitter, but it’s possible that platform is literally dead by next week. Or even if it hasn’t died, that it should. You could also watch my stuff on YouTube, but that’s almost entirely Magic: The Gathering. So maybe you can just stay here on this site. Browse the archives. Wait for next week’s post.

Yeah, maybe do that instead.

Marvel Snap and Dark Patterns

Marvel Snap has its fair share of dark patterns and skeezy progression design. Let’s talk about them for a bit.

Welcome back! It’s time for part two of Marvel Snap Week! Did anyone who worked on the game see part 1 and think “Wow, that review is positive,” or “He’s an illiterate hack, but at least he appreciates the game?” Well now it’s time to get rid of those nice feelings.

Mobile games are unique in that they’re the only platform where the games are usually “Free,” but have the potential to end up costing you more than a full ticket to Disney Land. As a result, the only sane approach is to enter with caution. They’re the only games I engage with while actively looking for a reason to NOT play them.

When a game is “Free,” you should always keep in mind panel 2 of XKCD #870.

Just replace “typeset” with “Spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and put on the app store.”

To be honest, Marvel Snap isn’t that bad. It wouldn’t rank anywhere in my list of worst video game business models. But not being at the bottom of the barrel shouldn’t be the standard for this stuff. So let’s talk about Marvel Snap’s prices, the concept of dark patterns of design, and how the bar for mobile games is so unbelievably low that something like Marvel Snap seems “Fine.”

Let’s start with pricing. Marvel Snap currently sells two objects. Battlepasses, and Gold. Battlepasses work like most battlepasses in games do, but they can only be bought with real money for about $8. Complete quests that unlock over time to earn battlepass experience points. Level up the battlepass to get additional resources. It’s a fairly standard design, even if it does reinforce a lot of the dark patterns we’ll be talking about later. If you pay the $8 you get some gold, extra resources, and special card styles and avatars.

Now let’s talk about gold, and how Marvel Snap’s progression and collection works, because it’s a bit more insidious.

Marvel Snap has a very unique design for its progression system, one that I’ve actually never seen used before. Instead of opening booster packs to get cards, or pulling from boxes, or having a wildcard system, Marvel Snap has a single value for your collection level.

Your collection level increases as you acquire new cards, and level up your cards. As you travel along the collection level track, there’s a variety of rewards, and some of those rewards are mystery cards. What the game doesn’t really ever tell you, though, is that those mystery cards aren’t random. Instead, they’re random from a pool, and removed once you get them. So as your collection level goes from 1-216, you’ll unlock cards from pool 1. And once you reach 216, you’ll have unlocked them all, and you’ll move onto pool 2. This part is reasonable.

What’s not is how the tracker changes.

As you travel down the collection level, the amount of levels you need to unlock a new card starts to shift. First it’s every 4 levels. Then every 8 levels. I’m currently collection level 358 and I unlock a new card every 12 levels.

This means that even if you play the game the same amount every day, you’re going to start making progress far, far slower. This is because gaining card level comes from upgrading cards, which requires two resources: boosters and credits. And while technically boosters are a limiting reagent, you can get them fairly easily by playing games. Credits are limited by daily quests.

Guess what they sell in the cash shop for gold?

So if two players play, and one spends money, and the other doesn’t, the one spending money will progress their collection faster. This, combined with the fact that your progression is designed to get slower over time, feels scummy. They claim, “You can’t pay to win.” And technically, that’s true. But you absolutely can pay to speed up your collection progress.

Oh, also. The game sells alt-art styles for cards at between $10-$20 in fake in game money. Yes, the expensive art alt styles are 1200 gold. And yes, the closest purchase in gold to buy those styles is $20. So it counts as $20. Skim is a real trick.

Man, I’ve written like a page, and I haven’t even gotten to the game’s dark patterns. There’s nothing super egregious here, but they use a lot of the standard stuff. Daily quests force you to play daily. Limited-time battlepasses make you grind. The aforementioned bullshit where the in-game currency that you purchase is always just a bit more than the expensive item’s cost, so that there’s always some leftovers.

All of this sucks, because Marvel Snap is actually quite fun to play. And that’s what we’ll be talking about tomorrow.

Sector’s Edge

Sector’s Edge is a fascinating combo of Battlefield and Minecraft, even if the beta still has some rough spots.

I generally like Sector’s Edge. I think I should probably make that point early, because I’m going to be complaining about it a fair amount. But overall, I enjoy the game, and recommend it.

Sector’s Edge is a free to play FPS with fully destructible terrain, and building. On the sliding scale of FPS’s, it plays much closer to something like Call of Duty or Battlefield than Halo or TF2. What this means is that time to kill is low, and getting one-tapped is pretty common.

Let’s also talk about the F2P element real quick as well. I’ve played 10 hours, and as far as I can tell, money only buys you cosmetics. There’s no way to buy more powerful guns in the cash shop.

There’s also a point-based loadout system. The game gives you a bunch of starting loadouts, but you can also build your own. Loadouts consist of weapons, armor mods, throwable items, and your digging tool. These can all be customized with various attachments, and even the digging tool can be upgraded or downgraded to change the number of available points. Sector’s Edge has some of the worst grenades I’ve ever encountered in a video game, but all the other weapons I’ve tried have felt pretty good, so I’m going to call it even.

Okay, now that we’ve covered both of those, let’s talk about the biggest difference between Sector’s Edge and other shooters. The fully destructible terrain and ability to build. Every Sector’s edge map is effectively made up of Minecraft-style blocks, and players can also place blocks.

Believe it or not, not only did the stairs and hole not exist at the start of the game, there used to be an ENTIRE BUILDING.

You can build by placing blocks one at a time, or by putting them down in configurable structures that can be designed in sort of home base area called the Ship.

This means that maps will start out nice and pristine, and depending on how things progress, they will end as combination sunken crater and modern art installation. In one of the most memorable games I’ve played, an entire section of the map ended up being so destroyed that there was a literal air-gap between attackers and defenders, with both sides trying to build across, but also not let the other team cross.

One big difference between Sector’s Edge and Minecraft is that you can’t build floating structures connected to nothing. If a building ends up connected to nothing, it comes down hard, usually leaving an impact crater. These moments are surprisingly smooth (even if the audio can go a bit nuts) and fun to watch. But it does bring me to my biggest problem with Sector’s Edge.

Now you see me.

Not all of the game’s maps are set up in a way that takes advantage of the destructible terrain, or is even fair to both teams. As an example, I’d offer the desert map. It’s a large flat map, with two bunches of smaller houses on opposite sides. If the game mode is capture the flag, one team’s flag starts atop a small house within a cluster of chokepoints, and the other team’s starts in the middle of the desert, with no cover or obvious defenses.

Additionally, because the map’s so flat, and the “houses” are packed with an incredibly hard to destroy material, digging and destruction feels pointless. And while you can tunnel a bit, it often doesn’t help.

Now you don’t.

This is my biggest issue with Sector’s Edge as it is right now. Some maps feel incredibly fun and interesting, and some are boring slogs where individual contribution feels meaningless, and whichever team is better at not running into the meat grinder wins.

I still have some other small issues, which these are the sorts of things that might change in a beta. Let’s go through them real quick.

First, there’s almost no indication you’re being shot except for your health decreasing. Second, the game has a movement system that allows sprinting and then crouching to slide. But since you can’t hit both keys at once, you can’t really use the slide without rebinding keys. Third, and this is just a personal dislike, I wish there was more support options like droppable ammo-boxes available. I get why they made this choice (probably to discourage snipers that never interact), but right now when you run out of ammo, you’re pretty much useless.

Ignoring all of those, though, there’s one really big thing that the game needs: some sort of squad system. The game’s 12 v 12 pacing is pretty chaotic. When I play with friends, I’d like to be able to actually play with them. Right now, it feels like we’re just playing parallel on the same map. And when I’m playing with 11 randos, I’d like to be able to find my friends, squad up, and be able to work with them. To be clear, I’m not asking for the ability to respawn on them or anything. I just want to be able to pick out specific teammates whose location and status are highlighted on the map.

I recognize that I have a lot of complaints here, but I want to stress I still like the game. The main reason I have these complaints is because I played it for 8 hours straight yesterday. It feels like a good game. There are things about it I like (most of the guns, the destructibility) and things I don’t (some maps, grenades being uncookable and on a microwave timer), but overall I enjoyed Sector’s Edge and recommend playing it.

If this got you interested, you can find it here on Steam.

Omega Strikers

To my mind, soccer is one of the world’s simplest games. Put the ball into the net without using your hands. On the other hand, MOBA’s are one of the most complicated. Sure, the general goal is pretty simple: destroy the Ancient/Nexus. But everything else is a complex mishmash of systems, paved cowpaths, general fuckery, and meta-weirdness.

Omega Strikers is effectively a synthesis of these two systems. Score five points (or two more then your opponent in a tie breaker) to win. Score points by hitting the disc into the goal. A nice simple win condition, with theoretically simple gameplay.

But it Omega Strikers also feels a bit like a MOBA. Instead of being a generic soccer player, you pick a Striker in a pregame draft. There’s a not-quite leveling system based on picking up powerups from around the map, and some of your abilities do “damage” to enemy strikers. You can also temporarily knock out enemy players by depleting their health, and also by hitting them into walls.

There’s not too much else to be said for Omega Strikers. It has the same sort of art style as Eternal Return, with the 3D anime and sorta cel-shaded look. It has a battlepass. You can pay money to unlock characters, but it’s not just real life money, it’s funbucks which can only be purchased in random amounts.

Oh, and it has a “Rune System.” You know, that terrible system from League and Multiversus where you have to spend your in-game currency on passive buffs to put onto your character instead of, I don’t know, unlocking more characters to play.

You want my simple opinion on Omega Strikers? I think it’s fine. I think as a game that seems to run fairly well, it was fun to download and play with some friends for a bit. I don’t fully understand the game’s damage systems. I also don’t have any huge desire to return to it. I do think it’s by far the easiest MOBA style game I’ve ever played, and convincing non-gaming folks to try it would be probably be pretty easy.

Omega Strikers is Free* on Steam.
*If you get into its gonna cost you more than a triple A game, so good luck.

Mobile Game Double Feature

I spend a lot of time on this blog tearing into things that are probably a work of passion and love. As such, it seems only fair that occasionally go the other direction, and spend some time tearing into things that were a work of “How much fucking money can we make selling lottery tickets to children?”

Maybe this approach won’t be great for optics. But if I can analyze indie games that have interesting mechanics buried under crude art or lackluster technical implementations, it seems only fair to look mobile games that have mechanics locked in Skinner boxes.

Mobile games are kinda like indie games, but there’s an entry fee of how much your kidneys would currently go for on the black market.

Starting with…

Knight’s Edge

There’s a GDC talk somewhere in Knight’s Edge. It might be about how they managed to add in a cash shop, battlepass, and a billion other pieces of bullshit. Maybe it’s art direction-related. They could make a “How To” guide on ripping off that Clash of Clans smooth minimalistic art style that somehow has less personality than a furry OC that’s just a Sonic recolor.

Or maybe they could do one about how their cool little 3v3 battle brawler ended up tied to all the bullshit above. Actually, I can do it for them.

Anyway, now that I’ve done their presentation for them, they can spend some time talking about their actual mechanics. Knight’s Edge is effectively a combo of micro-brawler and roguelike. Your team of 3 is pitted against another player’s team, and you’re thrown into a tiny little dungeon. Whichever team makes it to the end of the dungeon and kills the final boss first wins!

It’s a simple little idea, and there’s really only two other things to mention about it. First up is that at certain points, you can invade the enemy, and attempt to kill them or mess with them to slow them down. But at the same time, it’s risky because your team won’t have your DPS during the invasion. The second one is that whenever you destroy enemies, you get EXP. Get enough, and you’ll level up, which gives generic stats. More importantly, leveling up also lets you pick between various buffs, which are determined by the weapon you’re using. This gives the whole thing a sort of micro-roguelike vibe.

Before you say “That’s kind of a lousy screenshot,” know that I took it from their app store page. This isn’t on me.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about Knight’s Edge. Is there a cool idea here? Yes. But it can’t make it out from under the monetization. Also the controls sort of suck. Your actual agency to influence a given round often feels like playing a slot machine with the upgrade system.

But anyway, enough about Knight’s Edge. Let’s talk about…

Cross Duel

I’ve written about Yu-Gi-Oh mobile games before on this site. There are a surprising number of them. Their monetization ranges from “Something resembling reasonable” with Duel Links to “Its own category in a list of shitty business models” for Master Duel.

Anyway, Cross Duel manages to sit somewhere in the middle of trashy pricing, which is to say “Typical Gacha.” But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Cross Duel itself.

If you’re going “Wow, seems dynamic!” that’s because I stole this one from their app page, and Konami is better at marketing then whoever makes Knight’s Edge.

I think one of the most interesting things about Cross Duel is that it shares very little with Yu-Gi-Oh mechanically. While ideas like like Monster Cards and Trap Cards are present, it’s easy to see how Cross Duel could stand as a separate game, or even potentially as a legacy board game. The deckbuilding only allows 20 cards, and only 1 copy of any single card.

Cross Duel is a four player lane based game. Everyone draws a hand of cards, and simultaneously places them. At the end of the starting “Main Phase,” monsters move down their rows if they were in attack position, or stay put if they were in defense position.

While many of the terms sound similar to Yu-Gi-Oh, there are a lot of mechanical differences. For starters, while the game can end if one player manages to knock out 3 others, it also just ends after 8 rounds are played or if even a single player ends a round with zero life points remaining. In addition, everyone starts with a single “Special” card in their hand serves the role of a panic button or can be used to apply heavy pressure.

Those aren’t the only differences. Players gain life points when their monsters inflict damage to enemy players. Unlike normal Yu-Gi-Oh, this only happens when a monster hits an opponent directly, not when they just attack another attack position monster and win. Damage is also maintained between rounds, meaning that a powerful bomb card can quickly be chipped down by multiple weaker cards.

Anyway, the result of all these mechanical changes is that you can actually do decently in some games of Cross Duel without selling your kidneys. Often, the players with more powerful cards are forced to fight each other, instead of wasting resources to knock you out.

The game also has what seems like a fairly interesting system for playing around with card skills and abilities. Unfortunately, it’s locked behind the usual grind and bullshit, so I don’t have much to say about it other than it seems neat.

In Conclusion

I was going to close with “There’s no moral to today’s writeup.” But that’s wrong. There is a pretty clear moral: interesting game mechanics can be found everywhere. In every terrible prototype, or miserable whalebait app store installation, it’s possible to find something interesting or clever. Is worth going to try to find those mechanics? I mean, for most people? Probably not.

People who play games casually would rather just play good games. People who work on games would probably rather be making games than playing other designers’ terrible ones.

But I guess for me, someone I view as sitting in the middle, it can be interesting. Hell, at least it’s something to write about.