5th Planet Games create collectible card games full of high-fantasy, super powers, and deep narratives. Illustrated by famous comic book artists, packed with tons of story, and meant for players of classics. The only catch? For many of them, you’ll never be able to touch the cards. They craft digital “CCGRPGs:” games that are looking to recapture the magic of things like, well, Magic, while adding flourishes for the modern era.
At Casual Connect, I sat down with Lead Designer Brian David-Marshall and CEO Robert Winkler to discuss their latest title Legacy of Heroes, and see just what was so great about cards I couldn’t even put into sleeves.
I’m curious about the formation of 5th Planet [Games]. Brian, you had said your previous company [To Be Continued LLC] had been acquired into the fold, and I’m interested to hear how this all came to be.
Robert: “So we started the company about three years ago, and it was a group of friends that played a lot of games together. We actually met playing Everquest, and went on to run a lot of World of Warcraft guilds together, and were really just jumping as a group from game to game. At the time, there was about seven or eight of us that played all these games together. And we’d sit around together and talk about wanting to make a game some day, and about what we’d do in terms of design.
“So one day a few us just decided: we’d make a company, and make a game. We went out and found some people who would work for close to nothing, and artists – because none of us could draw – and set to work on a browser-based MMO [massive-multiplayer online game]. This was a terrible idea. We started showing up to conferences, too, and that’s when we heard of Facebook. ‘You can get a million users overnight!’ we were told. And in January of 2010, we pivoted towards Facebook, taking with us the skeleton of what we had done for the browser.
“In the end, we were one of the first text-based games – like Mafia Wars – that had used flash. So we had music, we had animation. We had no game experience, really. We made it up as we went. So we built a really strong community. We went out and talked to people directly on our forums, and on Facebook walls, and things like that. And within two months, we could get an office, and we quickly released our second game.”
And it was as Winkler and his team moved on to their third game project – a collectible card game – that they reached out to David-Marshall. With his then-company To Be Continued LLC working on board game versions of major properties like The Walking Dead, a partnership seemed a natural fit, especially with several mutual business connections between the two. To hear Winkler tell it, however, it started the way everything else with 5th Planet had: gamers meeting gamers to make games.
“I’ve been a massive fan of Magic: The Gathering since about 1995,” remembers Winkler with all the enthusiasm of a hobbyist telling a friend how he started playing. Besides taking lead on the day-to-day at 5th Planet, David-Marshall is Wizards of the Coast’s official historian for the game, and regular Pro Tour commentator. So with no shortage of things to talk about, and a shared love for fantastical worlds, the two teams set off to create to teach an old dog, new tricks. The rest, as they say, is history. As they would soon learn, however, building for digital was a whole different card game altogether.
Brian: “Clash of the Dragons was our first attempt to say, ‘ you know what, we want to do things that you just can’t do in a paper game. We have cards that are in your deck that affect your entire deck, cards that allow me to put cards into your deck, rolls that give cards a percentage chance for special things to happen. I love what we’ve been able to do with Clash and with [5th Planet’s most recent game] Legacy of Heroes that way.”
Eli: Do you feel like there’s an end game for these types of digital experiences that leads to them being analog again? Almost the way there are books today based on movies that came before them?
Brian: “Absolutely, I see that happening in some cases. I mean, if no one does it before we do, I can certainly say we’ll end up exploring it. As a team many of us are lucky to have board game experience, and the know-how to make physical object games. We’ll probably create some sort of physical corollaries as time goes on, but my point is just that: they’ll have to be different games.
Eli: A lot of the love of card games for me, it stems back to moments when I was 9 or 10 years old. I would watch my dad and my brother play Magic: The Gathering; I couldn’t play, he said, until I let him buy me a Fourth Edition starter kit, complete with the little rule book, and read it front to back. That way I wouldn’t ask questions I could have answered myself. I associate that so many sense memories with that – being at my house, resting on my couch, looking over my brothers’ shoulder. Do you feel like there’s a risk of that getting lost in the digitization of card games?
Brian: “I think it’s a different type of nostalgia. I’ve got to tell you, whenever we have a new game – and we’ve had two with 5th Planet now… I’ve got to tell you, when we get the game on the test server for the first time, for me, it’s about cracking packs! Just like, ‘oh, come on, come on, I need a legendary [card] here!’ That excitement of cracking packs is very much alive in our games. It’s a different experience, but it’s definitely there. And as Magic players, we knew from the beginning that so much of the thrill in playing card games comes from drafting…
An aside, for the unitiated: drafting is the fast-paced format of collectible card play where gamers purchase several packs of cards, group up, and open those packs with the purpose of passing them around the table. As with a sports draft, all players pick the cards they feel will construct the best deck, and by the time all cards have been cycled, decks are built from scratch.
Brian: “…so both Clash and Legacy of Heroes have drafting.”
Eli: On that note, how did you go from something based on high-fantasy to something like Legacy of Heroes? Where did that evolve from?
Robert: “So with Clash of the Dragons, we felt we had done great, but we also learned a lot from it. And no we see Legacy of Heroes as a chance to learn from those mistakes, and really deliver on a tight game. We came up with the idea maybe six months ago, and it started because Brian has a deep history in the comic book world. It really did feel like we were ten again, and we had a chance to create this whole world and allow everything to come together.”
Brian: “Almost right away we knew our next game would be about superheroes. It allowed us to take multiple decades of nerd experience and just fuse them into one ultimate project. It’s really been a dream come true that has allowed me to work with amazing figures both in the Magic community and people from the comic book industry.
“The idea is that you’re going to learn to be a superhero. You’re what we call an emergent, who’s discovered a spark within you, and it’s up to you to decide the direction in which you’ll take that spark. And there are archetypical superheroes for each of the different classes. Everything from Billy Stopless, who can warp his way the fabric of time… to professor Helios, who is the founder of the school, and a fire sculptor, who can take energy and make copies of himself, or flaming animals.”
Robert: “And the key with this experience is that we really wanted to create an immersive environment. We call the game a ‘CCGRPG’ because you’re able to level up your character, go through a full storyline, and hone your skills…and that’s all single player. But we also have ‘brawls’ that allow you and up to four friends go out and fight one enemy.”
Brian: “We really wanted to created an experience where you can actually cooperate your friends on Facebook.”
Robert: “And this is kind of counterintuitive to what some of the bigger players say. You know, the conventional wisdom is that they monetize ‘revenge.’ We monetize cooperation.”
Eli: I think this touches on what we were wrangling with earlier, about a new type of nostalgia. Card games are so naturally a cooperative activity, and with the instant connectivity of Facebook, you can bring people together over their love of these games more quickly and effortlessly than ever. Is cooperative play the link between physical and digital?
Robert: “I think it comes down to immersive play. We want to have the richest story, and art, and play experience possible. But being social, being cooperative…I mean, my best memories of Magic involve playing with people.”
Brian: “I second this idea of immersion. My mission statement going into this was to create a game that was as true as possible to the superhero genre, to the comic medium, and all in a way that didn’t simply give a wink and a nod to its existence. This meant working with some of the best comic artists available, who are all working at publishers like DC and Marvel, and I am so proud to have worked on this game. And I think the moment for me was at ComicCon, having dinner with our artists, and hearing them say, ‘when we can we tell more of these stories? We want to read the comic books for these people!’
Eli: In the days before social games, games like Magic evolved from a top down perspective. There was the physical card game, and then authors were commissioned to write books based on the universe. With a game like this, that hits the internet, there is instant potential for transmedia experiences like online comic books, with almost no distribution costs. Do you feel like that’s a distinct advantage of a digitized card game?
Brian: “Absolutely. I feel like the social games space has so much unexploited potential for the creation of a brand, and of unique worlds. It was one of the things that really attracted us to 5th Planet, to work with them in the first place.”
Here David-Marshall and Winkler begin to talk a little faster, a little more excitedly. With digital collectible card games, the pair feels they’ve really stumbled on to a unique world where players and creators tell the story in equal measure. The former with the content they give people, and the latter with their wonderful imaginations as they tinker and experiment. They’ve even gone so far as to leave subtle clues – connective tissue – that inexorably tie the mythos of a game like Clash of the Dragons to one like Legacy of Heroes. Card games are still about sitting around the table with your friends sharing strategies, exploring lore, and crafting theories. The table’s just gotten bigger, it seems.
Eli: In terms of the card game as a card game, though, have you found people are just as eager as they are in something like Magic: The Gathering to tinker with “metagame” and craft strategies around the card use?
Robert: “Oh Yeah! That was day one for something like Heroes. There are these decks that are built that are just amazing, that yield concepts I hadn’t even thought of.”
Eli: And does balance become a different concept in an online card game?
Brian: “It’s super challenging. When the game is still just an excel spreadsheet and cut out pieces of paper, it’s hard to gauge the impact of mechanics you can’t visualize.”
Robert: “We’re still a small shop, we’re still agile, but we don’t have two year development cycles. If we get something on test for a week or two in this space, that’s considered good.”
Eli: In the social games space you can’t have a two year development cycle. How do you manage the need for those cycles in a fast moving digital space with the detriment of them to a game routed around balance and testing?
Robert: “It’s a lot of work, but it’s the experience. We’ve been around this space for years. However, what’s more important is that with digital, games are a service. We can just change a card and there’s nothing we have to ban. We can rotate things really easily, because there are a lot more tools or options at our disposal.”
While David-Marshall had to depart early for a meeting, Winkler and I continued to shoot the breeze about our love of Magic: The Gathering, our time at Casual Connect, and the video game space. Crossing the street back to the convention center, I couldn’t help but let him know how I felt.
“So you’re just a big kid, then?”
“Absolutely! It’s kind of surreal.”
A kid grows up loving card games. He gets together with his friends to start a company. They go on to work with talented people to keep the love of card games alive for other kids and big kids alike. I had just conducted an interview about a card game full of superheroes and origin stories, and in the process, perhaps, stumbled on the most interesting one of all.