Blizzard taps into collectible card game market with freemium “Hearthstone”

A few of the cards found in "Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft." Image from the "Hearthstone" official website.
A few of the cards found in “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.” Image from the “Hearthstone” official website.

In a departure from real time strategy games and MMORPGs, Blizzard Entertainment is expanding its Warcraft universe into an online collectible card game.

In Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, players will build decks of virtual cards to compete, in the vein of Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! or the Pokemon trading card game.

The game is currently in close beta for PC and Mac, with an open beta set to be released in December.

A version for iOS and Android is scheduled for the second half of 2014.

The game operates on a freemium model. Players can earn booster packs of new cards by playing the game, or they can buy new cards with real money.

Hearthstone Lead Designer Eric Dodds said the game is designed to remove of the barriers of entry CCGs have and appeal to a wider audience.

Dodds has a good point. Magic is fairly complicated to learn and the volume of cards available for it can make deck building kind of daunting, especially for people who do not have a more experienced player to help them.

Richard Cobbett of EuroGamer echoed Dodds’s sentiment, saying, “…there’s a massive audience scared off by those concepts for whom something that can be picked up in an hour is a huge advantage—especially when the lore and major characters are familiar after so many years exploring World of Warcraft.”

Created in 1993, "Magic: The Gathering" was the first collectible card game. These four cards were packaged as part of a standard (60-card) deck, but players can customize decks to their liking by adding and removing cards. Image uploaded from my iPhone.
Created in 1993, “Magic: The Gathering” was the first collectible card game. These four cards were packaged as part of a standard (60-card) deck, but players can customize decks to their liking by adding and removing cards. Image uploaded from my iPhone.

The idea of a simpler, more new-player-friendly CCG is positive for players wanting to check out the genre and for CCG industry. Playing Hearthstone might be some fans’ first step to getting into one of the game’s more complex offline counterparts.

The bigger question is whether the freemium plan will work for the game.

My inclination is to say it will. After all, it’s worked for games without the kind of pre-existing fanbase that Warcraft has, and that kind of real-world branding goes a long way in strengthening the life cycle of a game.

Perhaps more importantly, paid content has proved viable for video games for several years. Game developers have made enough downloadable content to expand on PC, Mac, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360 games that DLC has become ubiquitous in the video game market.

And that content was for games people had to buy.

For a free-to-play game, paid content is even more inviting because the initial cost of the game is eliminated.

Riot Games’s League of Legends, for example, brings in an estimated $200 million in revenue and has enough fans that the game’s official championship was held in Los Angeles’s Staples Center.

Blizzard will likely succeed in getting people to play and buy cards for the game, but it is less clear whether the game will reach the levels of fandom the rest of the Warcraft series has.

"Hearthstone," as seen on the iPad. Image from Polygon.
“Hearthstone,” as seen on the iPad. Image from Polygon.

With any form of digital media held entirely on a platform owned by its creator, there is a concern that people who buy the digital content will lose it if the platform goes under. That concern has not stopped the MMORPG genre from exploding in the last decade, but the possibility of financial loss is still there.

The financial restrictions within the game may be somewhat limiting too. There are no plans for Hearthstone to allow players to trade cards, and I would guess, then, that buying and selling cards between players is off the table as well.

For some players, these limits will make Hearthstone a less attractive CCG option than its tabletop counterparts, where players can trade, buy, and sell cards for $27,000 on eBay as they please.

Nevertheless, the game should be a good starting point for new CCG fans, and it can always be developing and expanding.

Fantagraphics funds 39-book “season” with Kickstarter campaign

Six of the books Fantagraphics is planning for its spring/summer 2014 season are shown in this image from the project's Kickstarter page.
Six of the books Fantagraphics is planning for its spring/summer 2014 season are shown in this image from the project’s Kickstarter page.

Alternative comics publisher Fantagraphics Books is on pace for a highly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a run of its books, set for release from April to August 2014.

The campaign reached its $150,000 funding goal in one week and has currently raised more than $168,000 with 19 days remaining.

Fantagraphics experienced financial troubles after the death of Editor and Co-Publisher Kim Thompson. According to the company’s Kickstarter page, 13 books Thompson was editing at the time of his death had to be postponed or canceled, causing the company to lose income from the revenue these books would have brought.

Founded in 1976 by Gary Groth and Mike Catron, Fantagraphics has made a name for itself as a publisher of bold and innovative comics of the cartoonist tradition.

It has published the work of iconic cartoonists of the last 30 years, such as Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, as well as historically important works like The Complete Peanuts. Fantagraphics also publishes The Comics Journal, a periodical dedicated to in-depth criticism of comics as literature.

"Ghost World" by Daniel Clowes, released in 1997, is one of the company's better-known books. A film adaptation was made in 2001. Image from Fantagraphics.com
“Ghost World” by Daniel Clowes, released in 1997, is one of the company’s better-known books. A film adaptation was made in 2001. Image from Fantagraphics.com

With the success of the campaign, it is clear that there is a substantial fanbase for the company’s niche. Though I primarily read comics from the major publishers and big independents, I’m very happy Fantagraphics is around, because I want that kind of variety in the comics industry.

I’m also happy to see Fantagraphics offer quality rewards for its backer levels. It is common for books coming from publishing projects to cost more at the Kickstarter level than they will when released, but “markup” (for lack of a better term) here is reasonable. An extra $10 or so for a signed copy of a forthcoming book is an attractive reward for potential backers.

Fantagraphics’s campaign is different from most projects, in that it is funding a full “season” of 39 books rather than one project.

This difference from Kickstarter norms has led some to question whether the campaign is in the spirit of the platform.

San Francisco comic book retailer and Comic Book Resources columnist Brian Hibbs expressed concern over Fantagraphics’s pragmatism in conducting business.

“This is at least the third, and maybe the fourth, time that FBI has come to the market, hat-in-hand, needing a cash infusion to continue publishing,” Hibbs said. “This is a bad habit, and one that I very much want FBI (and almost all of their contemporaries) to avoid going forward.”

Despite his reservations, Hibbs also said he pledged $25 to the project.

"The Comics Journal" #302 was released in 2013 and featured an 80-page interview with renowned author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Image from Fantagraphics.com
“The Comics Journal” #302 was released in 2013 and featured an 80-page interview with renowned author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Image from Fantagraphics.com

Matt D. Wilson of Comics Alliance posed the question of whether Fantagraphics is setting a precedent for other publishers in financial trouble.

Wilson points out the criticism leveled at past campaigns that were designed to fund “an ongoing, successful concern,” such as Penny Arcade’s campaign to make its site ad-free.

Though Wilson wonders whether the campaign would be seen as appropriate if the immediate financial trouble weren’t so apparent, he concludes that because Fantagraphics is “more interested in the intrinsic value of art than profit,” its Kickstarter use is in the right spirit.

The argument that the validity of Kickstarter projects is ultimately up to the audience probably seems like a cop-out, but in this case, it applies.

Concerns over whether it is proper for a for-profit company to ask for money to continue operation are legitimate (the comments on this article from Robot 6 made some interesting points), but if people want to back companies that use Kickstarter this way, should they be prohibited from doing so?

The very concept of Kickstarter is based on audience participation, so shouldn’t the audience be the people who decide whether a campaign is worthwhile?

Fans Kickstart their own superhero successor with “City of Titans”

A group of fans of the now-defunct online game "City of Heroes" used Kickstarter to fund a new MMORPG, "City of Titans." Image from the "City of Titans" Kickstarter page.
A group of fans of the defunct online game “City of Heroes” used Kickstarter to fund a new MMORPG, “City of Titans.” Image from the “City of Titans” Kickstarter page.

Driven by a dedicated fanbase, superhero-based MMORPG City of Titans finished its Kickstarter campaign this week with about $678,000—more than twice its funding goal.

Developer Missing Worlds Media is a group of fans of City of Heroes, the first MMORPG to feature a superhero setting and characters, who wanted to fill the void in the genre after City of Heroes shut down in late 2012 with the closing of its developer, Paragon Studios.

For the eight-and-a-half years of its existence, City of Heroes had an enthusiastic fan following (as evidenced by this account of its final night) and persisted in a genre where many games struggle to maintain an audience.

City of Titans was conceived as a spiritual successor to City of Heroes, but the developers stress that it is a not a clone of the old favorite.

“We have an opportunity here to build a modern game, respectful of the play style, lessons, and fun of the old game, while taking advantage of the more than ten years of industry development since our spiritual predecessor started development,” said the project creators on their Kickstarter page.

Characters from "City of Heroes." Image from GameSpot.
Characters from “City of Heroes.” Image from GameSpot.

Missing Worlds Media is staffed entirely by volunteers, with more than 100 people working on the game.

City of Titans is slated for release in November 2015. The plan is for the game to be sold through its website and other digital distribution platforms such as Steam. It will be free to play but will include “VIP” subscriptions with premium features.

The concept of a community-driven game is the kind of utopian idea Kickstarter champions. Though it does tend to have a store-like quality about its projects, Kickstarter wants to promote feelings of community between creators and backers.

I generally do not feel like Kickstarter facilitates all that much of a participatory culture between parties (did people feel like they were creating Cards Against Humanity, or did they just want a good deal on a cool-sounding game?), but fan influence on City of Titans seems exceptional.

An online multiplayer game made by a fan community of people each contributing their skills to an interactive whole? Henry Jenkins would lose sleep from all the excitement.

The game has its detractors, too, and they raise some compelling points (as seen in the comments sections of Polygon and Joystiq).

Missing Worlds Media's staff will be made up entirely of volunteers, as indicated in this image from the "City of TItans" Kickstarter page.
Missing Worlds Media’s staff will be made up entirely of volunteers, as indicated in this image from the “City of TItans” Kickstarter page.

Some wonder if the creators, having limited experience with the developer side of video games, will be able to create new in-game content at the same rate people play through it. Another concern is that operating costs will prohibit the game from being around very long.

How the game’s development plays out remains to be seen, but Missing Worlds Media appears to have thought things out well—its Kickstarter page features an extensive review of its budget and staff.

Also at issue is where the money will go if the game makes profits. Will the money be distributed to all the volunteers who work on the game? Will the game be able to sustain a volunteer-only means of operation?

If I were playing City of Titans, I would not be too concerned about the volunteer system. I doubt the game will make profits; it seems more likely that any money made beyond covering expenses would be used for more in-game content. And if some volunteers did not want to work on the game anymore, there is a fanbase in which to find new ones.

What do you think? Will a for-fans-by-fans game work?