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The Game Design of Zems





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Zems Development

The Game Design of Zems

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The Foundation

Every video game idea starts off with a set of core rules, also called the ‘core mechanics’ of the game. Zems is no different, although the inspiration behind Zems originally developed not from a desire to simply innovate in an already-established genre, but instead from a desire to address perceived problems present in physical card games and their distribution (http://www.zems.com/blog/zems-development/zems-a-new-fantasy-online-trading-card-game/). However, this doesn’t mean that we skimped on the actual game fundamentals, which are addressed here.

The mechanics at the heart of Zems gameplay are based on the popular and successful Magic: The Gathering, created by Richard Garfield in 1993. In fact, nearly all fantasy card games are derived from the core gameplay Garfield created, and it’s hard to imagine such card games being any different. In Zems we try to innovate in a lot of areas such as lore, artwork, and music, but the one area where we don’t try to deviate is the gameplay. We feel that in order to create a welcoming gaming experience, we have to base our game on principles similar to card games people are already used to.

While most people know what Magic: The Gathering is and tend to cite it as the most successful game design as far as fantasy card games are concerned, both myself and Richard Garfield disagree. What many people don’t know is that Garfield left Magic a few years after its first release and has since then developed card games for several different titles such as Star Wars and Netrunner. While each card game Garfield has developed is radically different in appearance from each other, if you toss out the game jargon and break them down into a series of rules, you’ll notice that they are all quite similar to Magic but with slight differences. During the conceptualization of the Zems core gameplay, these rules were analyzed and deciphered from a practical and psychological point of view in terms of how they affected the players. The results we came up with are quite interesting.

The Game Nobody Knows About

In 1994, one year after the release of Magic, Richard Garfield created a card game set in the World of Darkness setting that, according to an interview with Garfield, addressed what he saw as game design flaws in MTG. That game was called Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, and while its core gameplay was nearly identical to that of Magic‘s, it differed in the following ways:

  • No land card dependence. Garfield saw land cards as a hindrance to skillful play because it made resource acquisition a luck factor. Card games by default are based on luck since each player must draw cards from his or her deck and hope to get a useful one each turn. By making resources (land) actual cards, this decreased the dependence on pure skill-based play and increased the amount of luck needed to win a game.
  • Lack of multiplayer focus. Magic is primarily a one-versus-one player game, and the core rules are obviously based around two player competition. While there are rules for multiplayer games that go beyond two parties, the accommodations made simply extend the single player experience instead of greatly enhancing it by introducing new complexity. Vampire was designed multiplayer gameplay from the very start, but it also retains the player-versus-player mechanics that made Magic a hit success.
  • Rapid deck drawing. Garfield noticed that Magic strategy tends to wane as the game goes on, simply because the amount of cards in each player’s hands’ becomes low. While there are cards in Magic that allow the player to replenish their hand, the fact that this capability is card-dependent decreases skillful play and places greater emphasis on luck for execution of dynamic strategies.

Clearly, there’s a lot of room for debate as to whether these were good design changes or not. Magic players can argue that good deck design reduces the amount of luck involved in winning a game, but the end result is that the players are being forced to adapt to a design concept in order to play competitively, as opposed to playing competitively within a design concept. This is something every developer needs to realize: when players are creating workarounds to both enjoy the game and be competitive, perhaps the game mechanics need to be reevaluated.

Building Upon Lessons Learned

The gameplay behind Zems assumes that the decisions Garfield made in creating Vampire: The Eternal Struggle were the right choices as far as building upon an established set of game foundations. While multiplayer (3+) is certainly not a focus for the initial release of Zems, the multiplayer aspects of Vampire are still highly influential on the game itself. If we do release a multiplayer (3+) system sometime in the future, we will definitely take the multiplayer concept of Vampire into account.

In regards to the single player vs. single player system in Zems, we have decided to address the perceived problems in Magic in a manner that forces the player to make choices. Whereas Vampire seems to automate a solution for each problem, we use a sacrifice-gain model that allows players to scale the magnitude of the solution to suit their current situation:

  • Resources are central part of the winning conditions. Wars are generally fought over resources, so in Zems we make resources the key factor behind a win or loss. This is handled by having a resource income rate that scales in proportion to the amount of resource structures each player controls. This rate itself can be modified by passive actions in a turn, such as not attacking (this forces all creatures to ‘gather’ which provides additional income next turn). As a result, each player has a set amount of resources coming in, but this rate is not set in stone as the player can modify the rate temporarily to set himself up for the next turn or provide a sort of safety blanket if needed.
  • Deck drawing rate is proportional to resource income rate. It only makes sense that if you have more resources coming in, you’re going to be spending more. What we’ve done in Zems is set the deck draw rate to be proportional to the player’s income, this way the player doesn’t end up with an unnecessary imbalance between spendable resources and available resources.

At the lowest level, Zems can simply be seen as taking the rules of Magic and adjusting them by the two differences above. The result is a vastly similar yet different game that feels like a modern, refined card game. It is intended to be familiar to players of previous card games while presenting new ideas, and at the same time have a less-flawed design that will allow newcomers to the genre itself to pick up the game without having to resort to workarounds in order to enjoy the game.

Final Observations

When it all comes down to it, this is how modern games should be made. Game design should analyze the mechanics of successful previous games at the most bare-bones level (in which there will be tons of overlap in game rules), identify potential flaws in design (or things that players are having to create workarounds for), then modify the mechanics to accommodate those potential flaws. There will have to be testing and reevaluation, of course, but this method allows game designers to maintain the elements that have proven to be successful within the genre without sacrificing innovation due to the fact that often times, simply changing one or two mechanics at the bare-bones level will change the entire game itself at the upper level.

Granted, there are always exceptions (especially in the case of innovative mechanics like Portal), but for the most part this holds true.

  • user

    AUTHOR badivan1

    Posted on 4:56 AM February 8, 2012.

    Quick comment on the following point :

    “Rapid deck drawing. Garfield noticed that Magic strategy tends to wane as the game goes on, simply because the amount of cards in each player’s hands’ becomes low. While there are cards in Magic that allow the player to replenish their hand, the fact that this capability is card-dependent decreases skillful play and places greater emphasis on luck for execution of dynamic strategies.”

    While it’s true that luck plays a greater role in the late stages of a game, good deckbuilding and decision making can not only compensate for subpar draws, but take advantage of “topdecking” when you need it most – “topdecking” in the sense of drawing the right card in a critical situation. In the case of Magic: the Gathering, deck manipulation, e.g. tutor/search cards and card-drawing effects, is very useful to smoothen draws.

    • user

      AUTHOR Zemsai

      Posted on 6:46 AM February 8, 2012.

      You’re exactly right. Such cards, in my opinion, are among the most powerful cards in virtually every type of card game. However, the point I think Garfield is making is that during the later stages of the game, especially for a game like Elements, you’re not just relying on topdecks in order to have an answer, you’re relying on topdecks because you don’t have any other cards in your hand, which is the problem.

  • user

    AUTHOR badivan1

    Posted on 2:28 AM February 9, 2012.

    I have a hypothetical question. Before that, let me quote the following from the Comprehensive guide as of 12/20/2011:

    “Winning Conditions:
    Reduce the opposing player’s shrines to 0.
    Have possession of at least 4 shrines during any single point in the game for a complete turn cycle. A turn cycle is defined as one complete turn for both you and your opponent.”

    While Zems is still in the development stage, wouldn’t a strategy based on attrition/defense be predominant ? It seems easier, at least on appearance, to focus on defending our shrines and try to aim for “4 shrines” winning condition.

    Note for those who haven’t read the Comprehensive Guide :

    “Shrines form a vital aspect behind Zems gameplay, simply because they are the primary form of resource generation (zem production) in the game.”

    • user

      AUTHOR Zemsai

      Posted on 6:43 AM February 9, 2012.

      This is a very good question.

      Firstly, let me state the Comprehensive Guide is out of date as there is a more recent one we are using in development, but I haven’t gotten around to updating it on the forums because most of us developers work using email and skype now.

      The cost for buying a shrine is 10 zems. The most a shrine will ever produce for you (i.e. when the shrine’s rate maxes out) is 10. This means a player has to spend all the resources he/she gains in a turn (assuming they waited for their shrine’s rate to max out) to acquire another shrine. Not only does this give the opponent player a virtually free turn, but the new shrine that the player gets starts out with a rate of 2, meaning the benefits of acquiring the second shrine isn’t realized until 4-5 turns later.

      We designed shrine acquisition to be similar to establishing new bases in an RTS – it’s a huge risk. If you are winning and you capture a shrine, suddenly the opponent gets a major chance to catch up and possibly surpass you in field position.

      In addition, defensive strategies are viable in Zems, but they fall short of attacking decks that can coordinate and combine attacks with their creatures. Combining defenses is a lot harder to do, and frankly we don’t want to see some sort of stale waiting game between defenders. However, we don’t require decks to be aggressive in nature – counterattacking decks are also highly supported in the game. This isn’t to say we’ve removed stall/defensive decks as an option, it just means you will find it much harder to win using that sort of strategy because that honestly isn’t the type of gameplay we’re fond of (and it also isn’t very fun).

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