Critique of Brian Kibler’s Advice for Card Game Designers


Introduction

Brian Kibler, for those who don’t know, is one of the most accomplished CCG players of all time. He is in the MTG hall of game, he is a highly popular HS (Hearthstone) streamer, and he also helped design or acted as a consultant for numerous CCGs over the years, including VS System, SolForge, Ascension, and WOW TCG. He is almost 40 years old and will proudly say that his entire career has revolved around gaming. Most importantly, he lifts weights and has great hair.

In a recent Q&A on his YouTube channel, he answered the question, “What is the most common mistake you see in new card games?” Despite my respect and appreciation for him as a game designer and player, as a businessman I found myself in disagreement with his answer. Below I’ll provide quotes from Kibler and explain what I disagree with.

Kibler lists three closely related mistakes that new card games make:

  1. Making the game too niche / inaccessible.
  2. Focusing too heavily on competitive play.
  3. Thinking randomness is the enemy.

Making the Game Too Inaccessible – Part 1

There is a tendency for designers to make games for themselves. If you want your game to be successful, its important that its accessible. It can’t be overwhelming for players without a deep background in games.

Before we can analyze Kibler’s answer, I need to tell you something about his career: he spent most of it playing MTG competitively, but I am fairly certain that he didn’t hit it big (financially) until he started streaming Hearthstone. (Professional MTG players make barely any money.) Consequently, I believe his answer carries a tremendous bias toward Hearthstone. That’s a big problem because Hearthstone’s success is only repeatable by huge corporations like Blizzard.

For those not familiar with Hearthstone, its basically a shiny, simplified version of Magic: the Gathering set in the World of Warcraft universe that Blizzard advertised to its massive fanbase. Let’s walk through that again: a shiny, simple game with tried-and-true mechanics in a familiar universe, produced and marketed by a company with unlimited resources and a built-in audience. That sounds like a formula for success… if you’re a corporation whose primary is goal is to maximize profit and not necessarily create a great game.

That HS isn’t a great game isn’t a controversial opinion, even within the HS community. Reynad, a former HS pro player turned game designer, reviewed Artifact a couple of years ago and noted that Artifact would probably be a polarizing game — great to some, terrible to others — whereas HS design philosophy was basically to be “good enough” to as many people as possible. Unsurprisingly, any player of more complex card games like Gwent or MTG will tell you that its too bland and strategically shallow to hold their interest for long.

The fact that Kibler won’t play HS competitively might be an implicit admission on his part that he agrees with this. Everyone knows Kibler loves competition. He stated in the same interview that he misses playing competitively. Yet he doesn’t play HS competitively, even though absolutely nothing is stopping him. He’ll tell you that streaming is more enjoyable for him (translation: it makes money), but reading between the lines, it appears that he considers competitive HS an unsatisfying pursuit. In short, he probably plays HS instead of MTG for financial reasons, not because its a superior game. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. He’s already proven himself a top competitor in a more complex game, why does he need to prove himself in a less complex game?

I write none of this to throw shade at HS. (Well, maybe a little.) I write it so you appreciate why Kibler’s advice might actually be dangerous to new designers. His entire answer, both this part and the later parts, seems to boil down to “be like Hearthstone”. Well, aside from the fact that I don’t want to be like HS, since I don’t consider it interesting or innovative, the reality is that I can’t be like HS because I’m not Blizzard Corporation. I don’t have the luxury of tapping into a massive built-in audience that will literally buy any game they produce that isn’t a dumpster fire. (And even then, a lot of people bought Warcraft III: Reforged, which probably would have gotten better reviews if it actually was a dumpster fire.)

Amusingly, Mark Rosewater (head designer of Magic: the Gathering) gave the exact opposite advice at his popular GDC talk: if you make a game lots of people like, but nobody loves, you’ll still fail. Incidentally, I actually dislike Mark Rosewater as a designer in most respects, but his advice is definitely more applicable to small developers. If you’re Riot, Valve, or Blizzard, then Kibler’s advice is probably better. Mark’s advice certainly corroborates with my experience as an self-funded entrepreneur: its better to start off with a niche product beloved by a small, deeply loyal audience, then try to make as many people happy as possible with a safe but largely unoriginal product.

Making the Game Too Inaccessible – Part 2

One of the big problems that Artifact had is that the game is way too hard. They say Artifact wasn’t F2P. Well, a lot of people bought Artifact and then immediately stopped playing. That’s not a symptom of the paywall. They played it and then they stopped.

Kibler is referring to Valve’s ill-fated foray into the CCG genre. This comment is half-correct. Artifact had design issues that have been covered well here and here. I agree with Reynad when he implied that while Artifact would have never touched Hearthstone’s player numbers, it probably would have found a small but loyal fanbase, much like Gwent. Nevertheless, its also true that Artifact’s business model prevented early mass adoption. Artifact not only had an paywall upfront, but a paywall that never ended. There was basically no way to get free cards in Artifact. Considering that Artifact was marketed first and foremost to Dota 2 players, who would expect a F2P game, since Dota 2 is F2P, the decision to use a never-ending paywall was nothing short of tone-deaf.

Focusing Too Heavily On Competitive Play – Part 1

People will also say they want to make a game for hardcore competitive players. The problem with that, such as with the Versus System that I worked on years ago, there aren’t that many of those players.

In other words, a game reaching competitive players is too niche.

A lot of what I said in the last section applies here, but allow me to elaborate further: Its absolutely OK to start off by reaching a niche audience, such as a subset of gamers within an already popular genre. As legendary entrepreneur Tim Ferriss says in his magnum opus (which I recommend to anyone with entrepreneurial aspirations), you have two options for creating a successful product or service:

  1. Be first to market.
  2. Be best in market.

I agree with Tim Ferriss that it is a LOT easier to pull off #1 than #2. I think this is especially true in tabletop gaming, in which many consumers appear to belong to The Cult of the New. Consider massive successes like Magic: the Gathering, Dominion, Warhammer 40k, D&D — what do all of these have in common? They were first in their genre because they created genres. They have not been dethroned to this day. Subsequent entries into a genre can’t be a little better, they must be a LOT better if they want to dethrone the king.

The list of dead CCGs that tried to be a better MTG or Yu-Gi-Oh is massive. Its horrifying, actually. I could name 15 off the top of my head, some of which are still struggling along, and will probably be put to rest within the next year. Trying to be the best in an existing, saturated market is extremely dangerous unless you’re a big corporation with a built-in audience. Indeed, look at the list of CCGs that Kibler has worked on. They’re all dead.

Today, its extremely rare that someone develops a completely novel genre. That means you have to go niche — you have to market to a subset of an existing genre, which basically means you’re going to be the first to market in that sub-genre. So why not design a game specifically for a particular niche, if that’s a niche where you see a need? What other good option do you have? And honestly, “competitive players” barely qualifies as a niche, in my opinion.

Focusing Too Heavily On Competitive Play – Part 2

For example, games were the best player almost always wins. What happens is you end up losing lots of players who realize they’re not very good. The game is too hard for them.

Why can’t a difficult card game attract new players just like difficult computer games? The most difficult game I’ve ever played, without a doubt, is the MOBA known as Dota 2. (Speaking of first to market — Dota 2 is the successor to DotA, which was the first MOBA.) It is no exaggeration that players with under 1,000 hours are regarded as complete garbage at the game. An average skill player typically has 2,000-4,000 hours in the game.

Dota 2 has very little randomness, an absurd amount of information to remember, unending layers of strategy, and yet new players keep coming back. Why? Just because its “fun”? Well, Dota 2 has perfected feeding the player a steady diet of gratifying moments, but more importantly, the game is emotional. I have never played such an intense, emotionally exhausting game in my life. The wins take you to the highest of gaming highs, and the losses take you to the lowest of gaming lows. That intensity is addicting, and I think that is what keeps new players coming back even if they get pummeled their first few (hundred) games.

The other example we should consider is chess. Its hard to find a more pure competitive experience than chess, yet it remains immensely popular. Some of this popularity is due to its strong legacy and culture, but part of it is due to the game itself. The people passionate about chess actually enjoy the game. They didn’t become passionate after a parent convinced them that being good at chess has a prestige to it or after hearing stories of Bobby Fischer. Even if chess can’t be imitated, it still tells us something about what some people want in a tabletop experience.

I welcome this challenge as a designer: how do I make my game emotionally intense? How do I make it more than just fun, but actually satisfying? How do I make players demand another game even after they have lost? Again, Kibler’s comment carries the strong odor of Hearthstone bias: HS isn’t the deepest card game, which in turn attracts a boatload of casual players, so its not surprising that the audience Kibler has come to view as a correct audience wouldn’t be attracted to hardcore competitive games like the ones I enjoy.

Thinking Randomness Is the Enemy – Part 1

This is tied to another mistake, which is viewing randomness as the enemy. For example, people ask me, “How would you fix Magic’s land problem?” Well, this assumes it is a problem and not a feature. Randomness is important because if there is no way for new or bad players to win, they’re going to stop playing. You can’t tell these players, “Just get better,” but unless there are sufficient incentives, like a tournament structure, telling someone “try harder, get smarter” isn’t going to motivate.

Kibler and I are in complete agreement that if a game is going to cater to competitive players, randomness needs to be reduced. He and I are also in complete agreement that MTG’s resource system, in which the resources are in the same randomized deck as all other cards, is part of the game, and not a bug that needs to be fixed. Where we disagree is in his belief that new players always need a way to win. This claim is borderline insulting, since it insinuates that most gamers aren’t willing to rise to a challenge. We’ll go home hurt, apparently, if we know we can’t luck our way into a win.

The most popular genres of computer games — MOBA, FPS, RTS — have zero or minimal randomness in them. Chess has almost no randomness. Kibler thinks that CCGs have high randomness because this is how you keep players interested. Well, if your world is CCGs, I suppose you might think that drawing from a randomly shuffled deck is an indispensable mechanism. I disagree. For starters, CCGs don’t have high randomness because players always need a way to win, they have high randomness to minimize analysis paralysis (by limiting your options to the cards you’ve drawn) and to create variance.

MOBAs minimize analysis paralysis in the same way that chess minimizes it by using a chess clock: they put you under time pressure. (In a MOBA, if you sit around trying to determine the optimal move, your base gets overrun or your hero gets killed.) MOBAs create variance in the same way that Dominion creates variance: giving you a huge number of options to work with, plus the uncertainty of how your teammates and/or opponents will behave. Randomness isn’t necessary to retain new players, minimize analysis paralysis, or create variance.

Thinking Randomness Is the Enemy – Part 2

A lot of game designers fail because of this mistake — not recognizing that randomness is inherent to card games and is a big part of the appeal of the entire genre. If it weren’t for randomness you wouldn’t have surprises or big lucky moments.

Here we see that Kibler is attached to randomness not just because it gives new or bad players a way to win, but because without it, we couldn’t have surprises. This may be the nadir of Kibler’s insular outlook because anyone deep in the world of sports (esports or regular) knows that randomness is not necessary to create emotions. I’ve been to the Dota 2 world championships twice, held in the Key Arena in Seattle, and the intensity and emotion is off the charts. League of Legends, Counterstrike, Overwatch, and countless other esports regularly create such emotions, as do most physical sports.

Notice that I keep referring to ’emotions’ and not ‘surprises’. I don’t think Kibler is looking for surprises per se as much as he is really looking for emotion. If sports can create such emotions through acts of skill, why do we have to insist on card games creating emotions through randomness? I’ll be the first to admit that creating emotions in card games is more difficult than in sports, but I do believe that a fair number of people prefer the emotional intensity created by skill-based games.

More to the point: the most cherished HS plays of all time were acts of skill, not randomness. Even MTG’s famous “topdeck of the century” is less about randomness and more about clawing your way into any favorable position, no matter how unlikely the chance of winning. My favorite part of that clip isn’t even the topdeck, it’s actually Randy Buehler explaining to his co-commentators why Craig Jones needs to go all-in on setting himself up for the slim chance that he topdecks a burn spell.

Conclusion

As much as I appreciate Brian Kibler, his implied answer to the question, “What common mistakes do card games make?” seems to be, “They’re not enough like Hearthstone.” This is problematic because Hearthstone’s success is not repeatable by small developers, nor are accessibility and randomness essential for success.

I’m not ashamed to say that the game I’m designing, Legacy’s Allure, violates every single one of Kibler’s “mistakes”:

  1. I am designing it for myself — i.e., it solves a personal problem. I started with my own interests, not what I perceived the interests of the mass market to be.
  2. The core mode is designed with the competitive player in mind. Again, this is what I personally wanted, because I got fed up with competitive MTG — both its randomness and CCG model.
  3. Aside from a single die roll at the start to determine who goes first, it has no randomness. I want the excitement to come from outplaying your opponent, not from lucky draws or rolls.

If my game fails, it could be because not enough people find the core experience enjoyable, but it could also fail for a number of other business-related reasons. Should it fail, I’m still thankful for the experience to design it and I’m proud of what I have created. I thoroughly enjoy my game — it is the game I wish had existed — and that has to count for something. I believe that the best businesses are those that solve problems very familiar to the entrepreneurs involved.