Monday, March 30, 2009

BattleForge - Card Based RTS

BattleForge, from what I've played of it, is an inherently fun game. It doesn't do everything right but then, as it does several largely "new" things, it can be forgiven for some of its flaws.

For those who don't know, BattleForge is an online RTS with two defining characteristics: 1) Unlike other RTS's, it is built around cooperative "PvE" play. 2) Rather than having defined "armies", (e.g. zerg, human, and protoss or GDI and Nod), players can mix and match "cards" of different types. You can have 20 cards total in your army and each card acts as a production source of that kind of unit or effect. There is no concept of a "hand" of cards. All of the cards in your deck sit along the bottom and can be used multiple times throughout the game, consuming resources each time.

Now, not all cards are created equal. Some are terribly powerful and some are basic infantry you'll want to use all the time. The cards and decks are balanced using techniques borrowed from the worlds of RTS's and CCGs. The game, in fact, borrows very heavily from Magic: The Gathering: the cards are divided into four types: fire, frost, nature, and shadow. In addition to an energy cost (top left on the card above, 100 in this case), each card has an "orb" requirement. The symbols on the card above indicate that it needs 2 shadow orbs (purple) and 1 orb of any kind (the empty circle).

You meet these requirements by capturing "monuments." Monuments are scattered across the maps, usually placed at regular intervals of when you will reach them in the course of a scenario. When you find a monument, you can spend some energy to claim it and attune it to one of the four energy types. You then have an orb of that color that lasts until the monument is destroyed. Thus, if you have two "shadow" monuments and 1 fire monument, you could summon the fallen skyelf above.

The other major balancing factors are card charges and card cooldown. Each card has a number of charges associated with it. The above card has 2. As long as you can pay the cost and meet the requirements you can produce a number of units equal to the card's charge cost without having to wait. In general, smaller more rank and file cards have a higher number - 4 or 5 - and the big nasty cards start at a single charge. After that, you have to wait for the card's cooldown to elapse. Cooldown is usually very short for rank and file cards -- your zergling analogues -- and is very long for your giant all-your-eggs-in-one-basket cards.

This all has the effect of making the game feel, unsurprisingly, like a combination of Dawn of War and Magic:TG. This combination is a great idea, but it has mixed results. On the one hand, you do miss a lot of the tactical pleasure of a deeper RTS. The deck building mechanic comes at the expense of the tech-tree real-time RPS feeling of a StarCraft. You simply don't make many tech tree/play style decisions in the middle of the game. All of those come during the deck-building phase. There's much less exhilaration of the unexpected, one of my favorite feelings in a good RTS.

Having said that, the deck mechanics are by no means all bad. The magic-like orb threshods ensure for a smooth power curve over the course of the game. Capturing another momument has a clear and immediate payoff unlike capturing another goldmine, etc., which gives you a delayed reward. Deck construction is a lot of fun. It has a lot of the pleasure of putting together a deck in a real CCG.

In his talk at GDC this yeah, Chris Hecker put forth the proposition that the notion of user-generated content covers a lot more ground than we currently talk about it covering. The juice we get from making our own little Spore creature is the same juice we get from beating someone using only Voldo's facehump. We are creating unique experiences, sometimes shared experiences, things that make us feel special and things that we can talk about, show to others.

Seen in this light, the joy of deck construction in BattleForge is very much an act of user creation and playing one's deck, especially in multiplayer scenarios, is a real act of displaying one's own "art" whether that be to impress someone with how awesome you are, or how ridiculous you are, or to just piss them off. If you've ever played a serious amount of any CCG you know the feeling.

The game has problems but the sheer freedom of deck creation and the natural ability to display creation to others simply by playing is an engaging core idea. The business model is a little off-putting but only a little in this day and age. My question is, can we have a game that has this level of "user generation" both in out-of-game time and in game as well?

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