I’ve reacted badly to the idea of triple-A development being stale and uninspired because I never saw anything wrong with it. I ate up the live-action Halo shorts and bought the Legendary Edition (in part to try putting the Master Chief helmet on my cats. Didn’t work.). I looked forward to the annual Call of Duty title. When I hear pundits talking about these games as guilty pleasures, implying that these games are beneath them and tantamount to wallowing in the slums of the videogame world, I get offended.
It’s kind of like eating McDonald’s. You know you’re not getting the highest-quality burger in the world but you know precisely what the burger is going to be, and I love McDonald’s. I have plenty of reasons to resist this idea of The Problem with triple-A development being rote and dull, but it’s one thing to hear pundits making the argument and quite another to have an example dropped straight in your lap.
I had just finished a private demo of an upcoming triple-A title, a game that’s been on the preview cycle since early this year and which I’m sure has multi-million-dollar budgets for both development and marketing. Normally after the end of the demo is when I ask questions, where I find some thread to tug on to inform my preview coverage, but this time I had absolutely nothing to say. That has never happened to me before.. And I didn’t realize precisely what had happened in that moment until I played Card Hunter late Sunday afternoon.
At PAX East 2012, a collection of indie developers pooled their resources to create an indie megabooth on the Expo floor, which was really just a bunch of small setups each with a few monitors and chairs but chained together into one contiguous space, ostensibly to inspire Expo attendees to move from game to game and really take notice of the indies. The PAX Prime 2012 Indie Megabooth was almost as large as the booth of any major publisher at the Expo. The card-based tower defense game Go Home Dinosaurs, the stealth platformer Mark of the Ninja, the MOBA-style game Airmechs and the strategy game Skulls of the Shogun all caught my attention but the star of the Megabooth, and my personal Game of Show, was Card Hunter.
It’s the brainchild of Australian developer Jonathan Chey, a former member of the famed Looking Glass Studios, who co-founded Irrational Games with Ken Levine and Robert Fermier back in 1997. Card Hunter is billed as “an online collectible card game” and blends role playing games, tabletop miniature games, and card mechanic games into a single experience. When I first heard the pitch I thought it sounded a little crazy – talk about three genres that have absolutely nothing to do with each other – but Chey pulled it off, and that’s partly what makes the game so completely brilliant.
The game is played on a 2D map that looks like something you might find in an old Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Your characters are 2D tabletop miniatures, slotted into plastic bases like Games Workshop Warhammer models, and everything you do in the game is tied to cards. Each model on the table is dealt a hand of cards from their deck at the beginning of every round, and they play the cards to take actions. If you want to move a character, you play a Move card that tells you how many spaces the character can move, and then you move them on the board. If you want to attack, you choose an Attack card and select your target, and when characters take damage they lose hit points.
There are also defensive cards like blocks and armor, which you don’t play. They’re automatically activated whenever a character receives an attack, and are followed by a d6 roll to determine whether the block is successful or whether the armor mitigates the damage. The round goes back and forth between player and computer, and if they don’t want to play a card in a given turn they can Pass. When both sides Pass one after the other, the round ends and new hands of cards are dealt to all the surviving miniatures on the board. There will also be a PvP component to the game which I didn’t get to see but am made to understand follows the same basic rules.
Your characters gain experience and level up and you can attain and equip different gear, and the way cards work is they are tied to pieces of gear. One sword will add a set of cards to your deck and a different sword will add a different set of cards to your deck. One sword may be more offensive in nature and grant a bunch of attack cards but no block cards, and a different, more defensive sword might have the opposite card ratio. You don’t actually “build” your deck card by card. Your deck is constructed based on the gear you’ve earned or unlocked. And as the game progresses you will unlock new and better cards.
What’s amazing about Card Hunter is that even though the mechanics are unlike anything I’ve seen before, the game still plays precisely the way you’d expect it to if you know the fantasy game genre in terms of basic tactics, character classes and strategy. Jonathan Chey started the demo giving me advice on how to play but within a few minutes was just watching as I completely owned the dragon in the second half of the demo. The game was delightfully intuitive. I finished the demo feeling energized and inspired. I just wanted to go home and play more Card Hunter.
That’s when I remembered the feeling I’d had right after the triple-A demo had ended, that silence, that utter void of curiosity, questions, or enthusiasm. I had just played the demo of a huge release and it was a completely empty, throwaway experience. By comparison, sitting in a little space in the Indie Megabooth the following day I was excited and smiling and happy because I’d just played something different, something interesting, something engaging. That’s when I realized, with a sigh, precisely what everyone meant when they’ve criticized the boring, stale world of triple-A development.
I won’t argue that all indie games are great and that all triple-A games are uninspired garbage. I think it comes down to character. I can’t wait for my copy of Borderlands 2 to arrive because while it’s a shooter filled with bullets and blood and guts it also has tons of character. It’s just more difficult to find other triple-A games that can say the same, whereas you can practically throw a dart into a room of indie developers and find someone with a game that’s loaded with character and heart, and those things matter.