Hey everybody, and welcome to something a little different!
Today I’m going to be doing something similar to what Esa did back in October for The Deck Out and post something on SixPrizes as a way to introduce you to the blog that the post is from. Today’s post is from my new personal videogames blog, WittzGaming.com.
For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with my life (I really can’t blame you if you haven’t), I’ve been pursuing a career in videogame journalism. If you’re deeply interested in videogames and want to share a conversation about my different opinions on them, stop by sometime and leave a comment! If you’re not really that into games, don’t worry if you’re not into the site! While I’m sure Adam would let me shamelessly self-promote here if I wanted to, I have a little more of a purpose today.
Every now and again, I’ll be stopping by here to write articles outside of Underground. I can’t promise a specific deadline or anything, but if a subject in the realm of Pokémon or card games interests me down the line, I’ll share my thoughts here for you guys to read. Long, long ago I wrote an article on SixPrizes about Gardevoir/Gallade and I really enjoyed sharing my work with you guys (way back in September 2009!). I never wrote a second article because I ended up going straight from that into episodes of Prof-It!. While technically most episodes of the show had a written script, I feel like it’ll be nice to return to a written format for everybody to read every now and then.
The articles will likely have nothing to do with strategy, but rather about more abstract concepts, such as commentary on the state of the game as a whole, an analysis on card games, or the occasional joke article making fun of the stupid things we all do playing this game. As I’m looking to move forward to writing about videogame journalism, I’m already finding myself writing over 20,000-30,000 words a week. As much as I love games, changing things up to write about my favorite hobby now and then should be a nice way to break the pace while still letting me work on my writing craft.
Sound good? Good! Today’s post is a nice hybrid between the two things that I love—Pokémon cards and videogames:
As I’m sure most of you are aware, I am a huge enthusiast of the Pokémon Trading Card Game. I’ve been playing since the game’s creation in 1998, I’ve been running an online show about the game for over two years, and I even ended at 5th place for last year’s world championships. Because of this, it was only natural that I would be much more excited than the average person about the release of the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online program earlier this year. Conversely, it also meant that if the release was poor, I’d be extra critical of the game. Unfortunately, the latter is true.
As a game journalist, I’ve been looking for ways to integrate my best game-related skills into what I write. With the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online program alive for a handful of months now, I can think of no better way to share my knowledge. Today, I’ll be talking about the major factors behind PTGO’s lackluster introduction, and comparing Pokémon’s major problems to another online trading card game that executes it’s problems a little better: Shadow Era.
At face value, both of these games exist on entirely different scales. The Pokémon TCG has been around for over a dozen years in physical form, with organized competition existing in one form or another for at least a decade. Technically, it’s only been in open beta since August 2011, but I’ll address later why I feel that doesn’t excuse PTCGO from being judged as a brand new videogame. Shadow Era, on the other hand, has been around as a program only for the past year or so, and has only just recently announced physical cards. However, at the basest level, both games are still in essence the same thing: collectible online deck building videogames. Both games contain entirely different mechanics and fundamentals, and I won’t waste any time talking about which game functions better as a tag alone. What’s more important (for the sake of this website, at least) is examining the success and failures of both products as videogames.
Let’s look at some crucial categories, shall we?
Single Player (offline)
Nothing helps integrate a player better into an online card game’s universe than allowing them a chance to practice the game’s mechanics. Allowing a player to learn your game against an AI opponent instead of a human opponent right off the bat helps decrease confusion and frustration.
This is actually one of Pokémon strongest points, in my opinion. Dubbed the Pokémon Trainer Challenge, PTCGO’s single player mode allows you to select from a handful of pre-made decks and compete against a large handful of AI opponents. Players face off against every other opponent in a “Mortal Kombat” style bracket until they’ve completed that specific “league” of opponents, and are then given more challenging opponents to face. The experience is complete with achievements, awards for your deck, and a great range of challenge needed to slowly learn and understand the game. It’s colorful, fun, and a great way at getting a new player hooked on the game.
Shadow Era’s single player option isn’t the flashiest, but it still gets the job done. Just like PTCGO, Shadow Era begins with the player selecting a deck out of a pool of pre-constructed options. The game places you in a single player world map, where the player can decide between five different challengers at a time to battle. It’s simple, but it’s all you really need to make sure that a player can practice against multiple types of decks. One fantastic feature that’s also included is the ability to make custom AI decks to test against with the game’s entire card pool, but this is more a resource for a more serious player than a tool for someone trying to learn the game for the first time.
Being able to play a game from a variety of platforms and formats isn’t critical to a game’s success, but it only helps. Being able to jump into a new card game from as many different ways possible is a great way to get a large and diverse audience playing your game. It’s also convenient for players who have multiple different platforms for gaming, and don’t always want to use the same one connection to play.
Pokémon immediately severs itself from a core audience by making its game entirely flash-based. Because PTCGO is a fairly complex program, it takes a heavy toll on browsers, and is extremely slow on fairly capable machines. Flash makes it non-compatible from all iOS devices (even with browsers that claim to run flash-based elements), and it also doesn’t run very well on flash-enabled tablets, from what I’ve heard. In addition, I’ve found that the flash-based PTCGO has never jived well with my Macbook Pro whatsoever, despite it’s more than capable gaming and browsing specs. In order to get an experience that has minimal slowdown, I have to either play PTCGO on a PC, or emulate a PC on my Mac and play using that.
What PTCGO desperately needs is a separate downloadable client for both PC and Mac, which would prevent slowdown due to a rapidly filling browser cache. Flash has been a great way to play plenty of solid independent games on Newgrounds.com, but a major worldwide card game deserves a better way to perform.
Despite being a smaller release, Shadow Era is available for every major computing device that makes sense for playing a card game. To date Shadow Era is available in-browser through Unity Web Player, downloadable as independent clients for Mac and PC, and is offered as a free App for both Apple and Android marketplaces. As someone who loves playing on-the-go, I’ve spent most of my time playing Shadow Era on my iPod and iPad, and I love it. Touch screens make for the most immersive and integrated way to play a card game, because it most accurately mimics the way you’d play a game in real life. Simply tapping a screen takes substantially less physical effort than gripping a mouse for hours on end, and I highly recommend downloading the Shadow Era app if you haven’t already. As a longtime player of Pokémon, I can’t help but be extremely jealous that we don’t have nearly as many options to play our official game.
Cost vs. Free
Due to the continual expansions featured in TCGs, cost is almost always going to become a factor. When companies create a paid system for obtaining all of the items necessary for playing their game, they should make the ability to purchase new cards as simple as possible. In addition, I feel like every online game should have the ability to enjoy their game on at least a semi-competitive level for free (Think League of Legends). Players able to compete and become engrossed in a game will be much more likely to seek ways to pay for the game’s exclusive content.
This is where Pokémon really begins to drop the ball. It’s also the major reason I don’t consider Pokémon safe from judgement, despite its “beta” status. Pokémon currently offers just two ways to obtain its cards, and both exclusively require you to purchase physical product. You cannot obtain new cards in any other way, and thus cannot experience the trading card game as a whole without making a considerable investment into it.
At the time of writing this, the only way to get new online Pokémon cards is through code cards found in physical structure decks and booster packs. Structure decks come with a code that allows you to redeem the same 60 cards as your physical counterpart online, while booster packs allow you to redeem a single randomized 10-card pack from any legal set of your choice. This is a fantastic marketing tactic: every time someone buys a pack of Pokémon cards, they’re introduced to an advertisement for the online game. However, limiting yourself to ONLY physical product leads for plenty of problems.
The first is simply convenience. Every physical PTCGO code card comes with a 13-character code that can be redeemed one of two ways: by typing or by webcam. Scanning via webcam has rarely worked for me despite attempts on multiple platforms, so I’ve been left to do a lot of typing in order to play this program the way I want to. Typing out each and every individual code becomes an exercise in patience, and is one of the major reasons I currently have a stack of nearly one hundred un-redeemed cards sitting on my desk right now. All of this could be resolved by simply offering the ability to purchase packs and theme decks online. No reason to punish the customer after they’ve already paid good money for your product.
My other problem with only offering the physical product leads to a major issue: getting the cards you actually want. Because Pokémon has officially taken a stance against selling their digital cards online (they’ve persecuted major players of the game for doing so), your only way to get individual cards is either through opening a massive amount of product through sheer luck, or through the program’s trading system. Without having a cash value to go off of, the only way to judge the value of a specific card seems to be in its approximate worth in unopened packs. The only efficient way to “buy” the cards you need is by hoarding up on unopened pack codes and spamming the public market with specific offers that you hope will be accepted by someone out there in the world.
Aside from giving the hardcore players a serious hassle, it also completely locks out casual players interested in the game. You’re given a single deck to play with online, and that’s it. If you want more cards, you need to buy physical product one way or another.
On the flipside, Shadow Era does almost everything right. In the exact same fashion as Pokémon, both theme decks and booster backs are available for adding new cards to your collection. The major difference is that these items are purchased using a digital currency by the name of shadow crystals. With a simple credit card transaction, you’re on your way toward getting new cards through simple or advanced packages. No hassle, no problem. Ironically, while Wulven is currently promoting its new physical cards, you get free physical cards for the purchase of digital currency.
In addition to shadow crystals, Shadow Era offers a fantastic way for serious players to increase their collection for free. By playing matches against the AI or other players, you are periodically awarded with different amounts of coins. At any point in time, you can visit the in-game merchant to purchase any individual card in the game for coins. The price of cards fluctuates based on its popularity, simulating a real-life market fairly well. Despite the fact that you can’t do any physical trading in Shadow Era, the free in-game market more than makes up for it.
Players should be able to play a quick match against a random opponent at any given time, as well as have the option to play against their friends in private matches. Also important is the ability to play players in quick match that match your own general skill level, keeping your games constantly challenging without being overwhelming.
I can’t really say much about PTCGO right now, because it fails on every account other than offering simple random matches. This is where the game touts its giant “beta” flag on the home page, and there’s not much that can be done as a player other than simply waiting for more functionality to appear down the line. Random matches are truly that–extremely random. If I’ve had to count the number of times I’ve had to play a completely new player with my world-class decks, I’d be embarrassed at how much time of my life I’ve essentially wasted. Having no real tier system keeps both the weaker and stronger player unhappy. In addition, dedicated private matches are currently unsupported, so going online and hoping to hit a decent opponent is really your only option.
Offers random matches that pair you with someone at your relative rank. Also offers private matches. Need I say more?
Overall, there’s a lot more that I could say about Pokémon Trading Card Game online that I’d like to see improvement in, but for now I wanted to examine a few key areas where things need to be better in order to deliver a satisfactory experience to everyone. These problems (and many more) have been mimicked hundreds of times by other members of the community, but I thought that it’d be an interesting perspective to compare Pokémon to another videogame to provide a fuller perspective. Does this make Shadow Era the perfect game? No, it doesn’t, but that shouldn’t stop me from praising the multiple things it does right. I know that Shadow Era is a much less complicated game with nearly one-third the amount of total playable cards, but that shouldn’t ever prevent a major company like Pokémon from being able to deliver the same experience as an independent developer.
I can’t lie and say that I haven’t spent plenty of time on PTCGO, and I also can’t deny that I’ve had fun on it before. However, as a competitive player, I know there’s a lot more work to do. I know that things are still technically in beta, but you can’t expect to force people to pay and play your game without delivering a complete and finished product, first.
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