The Collectible Card Games Thread: Pay-to-Thing

Welcome to the *CG thread, where we talk all manner of Card Games – Collectible, Trading, Living, and otherwise! Feel free to chat amongst yourselves about the card games you’re playing or anything card game-related that strikes your fancy.

A couple weeks ago, Richard Garfield made some comments in an interview about the failure of Artifact, and how he doesn’t see “pay-to-win” as the inherent problem. Understandably, as the Artifact model is essentially the same as his more successful game – Magic: the Gathering – which you may have heard of.

I’m not going to discuss whether Artifact, Magic, or any other game is Pay-to-Win this week (though I may come back to that in the future) but rather I wanted to talk about The Systems of the Modern Digital CCG.

There are two basic systems that Digital CCGs run on: the Economy and the Engine.

Each of these engines turns Something into Stuff.

Note that when I talk about Stuff, primarily that refers to the actual cards or card-like objects, but it also refers to Currencies, which only serve the purpose of being fungibly converted into Different Stuff, and Cosmetics, which serve no real purpose, but act as a Currency Sink for removing currency from the economy.

The Economy is how Money gets turned into Stuff. Generally it involves at least one currency (often more than one) and it is the basis for how the game Actually Stays in Business, for obvious reasons. Usually paying players are able to buy a particular currency (sometimes one that only they can obtain) and then use that currency to get Stuff. The particular mechanics of that differ, but often involve randomized packs in some fashion, and some deterministic (and less “efficient”) “crafting” method. Sometimes The Economy includes an actual economic trading system.

The Engine is how Time gets turned into Stuff. When players talk about how “Free-to-Play” a game is, they’re usually talking about The Engine. Quests and Rewards tend to be the most reliable and accessible conversion of time to money, but there will also usually exist some way to turn Skill into Profit via tournaments or events (usually at a cost). Often the engine will overlap with the economy, but in many games there is a “privileged” currency that can only be bought for real money. Since many players are unwilling to spend significant amounts of money, The Engine can be a good way to get players into the game – essentially buying their Time with Stuff. It is important to note that in a functioning game, as with a functioning universe, there can never be an Engine that allows perpetual motion – if the playerbase as a whole could sustain itself entirely on The Engine’s output, the game will die.

So back to Artifact: Artifact emphasized The Economy over The Engine – Gabe Newell in his early conversations about Artifact talked about how the Free Stuff from other games’ Engines devalued the Stuff that paying players were acquiring with their Real Money. In a lot of ways, this mirrors Paper CCGs, where you can only buy in with Real Money and while you can sometimes get rewards for winning tournaments and other such events, there’s almost no Free Stuff. However, it differs in several key ways from Paper games – chiefly in the health of The Economy, which quickly ran into demand problems. Again, mirroring “real life”, Artifact used the Marketplace instead of crafting cards from thin air – the primary way that cards were created were by getting them from packs, and cards would need to be traded around, often for more Real Money (which Valve took a percentage of). Artifact took the Direct Economy business model of Magic Online and ran with it, using the Steam Marketplace instead of ad-hoc user-created bots, and giving away even fewer rewards that weren’t tied to skill.

Compare this to Magic Arena, which went the opposite direction from its predecessor, fully embracing The Engine of modern Digital CCGs, and enjoying massive acclaim and audience. Sure, it also benefits from Magic’s brand recognition and market presence, but it’s difficult to claim that the ease of entry didn’t help.

This week’s prompt: Have you ever spent Real Money on a Digital CCG? What Engines and Economies do you particularly like in the Digital CCG space?

Or, as always, feel free to talk about anything going on with you in the world of *CGs.