Over on Gamasutra, they ask if the digital CCG boom is a bubble – in other words, are online CCGs still a growing market or one that’s going to collapse? Is there an end in sight to the current explosion of these types of games, or will they just keep coming? Can we use the historical precedent of the physical CCG booms that came in the wake of Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon in the 1990s to predict how the digital marketplace will perform?
The right games at the right time
I worked in the CCG industry for the better part of 15 years, both for companies that made the games and for media outlets that covered them. I agree with several of the sentiments expressed in the article, such as Magic’s general unsuitability for a digital medium and that the market’s current saturation means we’re unlikely to see another breakout hit on par with Hearthstone.
Talking about Magic, Michael Pachter asks “why not before?” since Magic did have some digital presence but it never was strong enough to usher in a wave of online imitators. Another way you could phrase this question is, “Why did Hearthstone, or its equivalent, come out in 2014 and not, say, 2008, or even earlier?”
I think the general acceptance of free-to-play gaming and microtransactions is a big reason. On the face of it, CCGs are the original “microtransaction-based games.” For over 20 years, you’ve been able to buy randomized lots of game-related items for a small price for physical CCGs, which sounds an awful lot like loot boxes in online games.
A decade ago, though, selling games piecemeal like that was practically unheard of in the digital realm. These days, however, it’s… well, not loved, exactly, but more accepted overall and less likely to raise eyebrows.
Also, as we now know, many developers these days are shying away from huge, all-inclusive (and very expensive) online ventures like MMORPGs and developing smaller, more self-contained games. While Hearthstone’s success is still an admirable goal to strive for, people tend to have more realistic expectations, not to mention budgets. With their rather minimal needs and relatively simple gameplay – which helps them spread to mobile devices, which are as ubiquitous as ever this decade – CCGs are perfectly suited for this new paradigm in digital gaming.
That said, the current “explosion” of digital CCGs doesn’t hold a candle to what happened shortly after Magic’s launch in 1993. In 1995, 38 entirely new CCGs were released. That’s three new CCGs every month. A similar mini-explosion followed Pokémon’s launch in 1999.
Not surprisingly, many of these games died off almost as soon as they came out. There were a lot of games, and a lot of they were really awful (like this and this and especially this), but some were decent enough games that just failed to find or hold an audience.
The difference between then and now – and the big thing that I think makes low-end digital CCGs viable where their physical counterparts weren’t – is the nature of digital gaming itself. With a physical CCG, your players have to be local. If you have a small game with six players in your card shop, that’s fine. But if one of those players moves, another loses interest in the game, and another just doesn’t have time any more, you’re in trouble. Three players can’t do even a small tournament and will probably get bored of playing against each other all the time.
Here’s another way to look at it. If you’re the developer of a CCG and have 10,000 “pockets” of players, six per town across the country, you’re in a fragile spot. Each time one of those pockets loses half its players, you’ve effectively lost all of them. You don’t go from 60,000 to 30,000 players, you go from 60,000 to zero. And new players aren’t likely to find the game on their own, if they have nobody to play with.
With a digital game, though, that’s not the case. People will drift away from the game, and new players will learn about your game and become interested, but since nobody’s bound to a single location, you can still find people to play with. And if you’re the one who moves to a different city, you don’t have to worry about leaving your old gaming group behind and finding a new group to play with. The Internet is everywhere.
I think this makes it easier for digital CCGs – and, to some extent, nearly any online game – to keep the lights on even with a modestly sized audience. That’s probably why we feel like the market is oversaturated but relatively few games shut down entirely, thus preventing the collapse of the genre. There’s room for games like Duelyst, Star Crusade, and Chronicle: RuneScape Legends alongside behemoths like Hearthstone and… well, Hearthstone. It remains to be seen if games like Gwent and The Elder Scrolls: Legends can cash in on their name recognition. I don’t think there’s a “Hearthstone killer” lurking, but there’s plenty of room for #2.
As for the original question posed on Gamasutra: I don’t think digital CCGs are a “bubble” that’s going to “burst” any more than I feel that way about MOBAs or shooters. I think we might see slightly fewer of those types of games, as the marketplace becomes more crowded, with more modest profit projections than might have been dreamed of a couple years ago, but an outright collapse isn’t… well, in the cards.