I play a lot of digital card games. When I was working on Runescape Chronicle, I played that, as well as Hearthstone, Duelyst, Faeria, Magic Duels, Elder Scrolls Legends, Infinity Wars, Gwent, Solforge and, most recently, Eternal. Recently, from a professional point of view, I’ve been fascinated with the different ways that these games run their free to play economies.
Hearthstone, of course, set the benchmark for generosity and card acquisition rate. It’s interesting to see the different ways that these games approach the problem of getting cards and currency to the player. Some run a similar setup to Hearthstone (Elder Scrolls), whereas games like Eternal are trying to innovate (offering players a mode where they draft cards, then keep all cards they draft).
One thing that strikes me is that, in general, these delivery mechanics seem focussed on the velocity with which players earn cards, rather than creating the core retention loops seen in games such as Clash Royale. I know that this was something we came up against when working on Runescape Chronicle. We had a very clear picture of card acquisition rates, but ended up leaning on Daily Login bonuses as a means of encouraging players back.
I have been thinking about an elegant solution for including solid rewards and a compelling retention hook in a CCG. I want to learn from mobile games whilst maintaining the authentic feeling which games like Hearthstone provide.
I think this can be done by introducing a “card fragment” mechanic. For every first win, the player earns a fragment of a card. For every three “first wins”, the player earns a new card. By mixing this in, the designer can create a set of return hooks that ensures the player always has a task in progress and always has an incentive, outside of the core game, to return.
The model I will be using is shown below:
This model is simply showing that all free to play games should have a quick way to do something meaningful (the on ramp), a rewarding play session (playtime) and an incentive to wind down the play session (off ramp). The off ramp can be seen as unintuitive, but it does two things for us. First, it prevents burnout; we want people playing our game as a valuable hobby for years. Second, and perhaps more important, it allows us to plant the return hook, encouraging players to return everyday. The player should always, always have something to do.
[What follows assumes you have been through the reward dump of the first time user experience]
Card game players care about cards. Whilst some CCGs allow you to purchase cosmetics, I cannot imagine spending my currency on anything but cards. This is going to be a governing principle of this retention loop. My aim is to provide, via different mechanisms, a steady stream of cards to the player.
My suggestion is to use the following delivery mechanics:
- Card Fragments
- This is the new mechanic (so far as I can tell – I have not seen this in any other CCGs).
- With the first win of every day, the player receives a “card fragment”
- This will be represented by a torn section of card back:
- For every three wins, the player earns a new card.
- The exact delivery mechanism should be iterated.
- It could be a purely random card.
- It could give the player a choice of three.
- It could give the player a random card of a specified rarity.
- It could allow to choose any card of a randomly determined rarity.
2. Daily Quests
- Here, think Hearthstone.
- A new quest should be added everyday, up to a maximum of three.Weekly Quests
- Here, think of Eternal or Runescape Chronicle.
- These should be themed quests that require, either, significant effort from the player (10 wins as a specific character/deck type) or a win every day as a specific character/deck type.
- These should have really impressive rewards.
- Possibly multiple packs, crafting materials etc.
3. Win Rewards
- When players win games, they should be rewarded currency.
- The currency rewards should be significant for the first few games they play, then should drop off precipitously.
- After 15/20 wins in a day, there should be no further currency for wins. This resets daily.
The rewards should be distributed as follows:
- On Ramp
- Player earns a card fragment (⅓ of a card) for their first win.
- Player plays approximately four games, winning twice, and earning enough currency for half a pack.
- They will also progress their weekly quest.
- Off Ramp
- Rewards drop off, and player can leave, if they choose.
- Return hook
- If the player returns tomorrow and plays the same amount of game they will earn:
- Enough currency for a pack.
- Another ⅓ of a card (⅔ of a card, in total).
|Day Playing||On Ramp||Playtime||Off Ramp||Return Hook|
|Day 2||Player earns ⅓ card. Now has ⅔ total.||Player earns enough gold for a card pack.
Player progresses weekly challenge.
|Player purchases a card pack
Player adds new cards to deck
Player plays a couple of games
|Returning tomorrow gives the player the last card fragment, and a new card.
The player can try the new cards earned.
|Day 3||Player completes their card with first win of the day||Player completes Daily Quest, and is now half way to a card pack.||Rewards drop off.||Card pack half in progress.|
|Day 7||Player restarts card fragment task.||Player completes weekly Quest. Player completes Daily Quest, and is now half way to a card pack.||Weekly Quest is finished, no rewards to be gained from staying||Card pack and Card fragments in progress.|
4. Weekly Quests
- These are more in-depth, longer quests.
- These could be themed, for example; get a win with each Class, get X wins with these specific classes, beat all other classes once in PvP etc.
- These could offer a range of rewards, from cards to currency.
The aim is to give players numerous loops, all overlapping each other, so on any given day the player has a different return hook. All these hooks have the same net result; more cards, but the variety of delivery mechanics should reduce the feeling of the grind.
On the first day, the player kicks off their loops, gaining gold, card fragments and starting their weekly challenge. Every second day the player can afford a pack (assuming they stop when off-ramped, after rewards drop). Every third day, the player gets a new card of their choosing. Every 7th day, the player can complete their weekly quest.
This way, in five days out of seven, the player gets the tangible reward of new cards. In the other two days, the player is one day away from completing a task to gain new cards. The player is never more than a day away from new cards, and at some points, is close to closing all three loops in one.
Crucially, from a design perspective, the player always has another task in progress. There is always a job half done. Often, in Hearthstone, Eternal any many other CCGs, you can finish up your dailies and leave the game “complete” for the day. The only return hook is the knowledge that more dailies are coming tomorrow.
My real innovation here is earning the cards in fragments. By using this second card delivery mechanic, it is possible to reliably offset the rewards so the player always has an active return hook.
Obviously, Daily tasks, weekly goals and rewards for wins have all been done before. However, by using these mechanics and introducing card fragments, I have presented a way that hardcore CCGs could borrow from retention mechanics mobile games, without losing their generosity or seeming to grinding or money grabbing. By always giving the player something to do, they will always have a reason to come back to your game. This mechanic enhances what we see in games like Hearthstone, without moving too close to games like Clash Royale and making the hardcore CCG playerbase feel uneasy.