As a fantasy-themed collectible card game (CCG), Polish studio Tequila Games' Earthcore: Shattered Elements is a hardcore experience.
It wasn't always that way, however.
To wrap our heads around how this initially casual-focused game found itself competing with Blizzard's market-leading CCG Hearthstone, we caught up with Tequila's Producer Radek Smektala and PR Specialist Marcin Traczyk to find out more about the game's development.
“Tequila Games was known for casual games. We devised a series called BattleFriends,” Smektala says.
“The first game in the series was BattleFriends at Sea. It was a mobile version of Battleship.
“And then we started working on the next title, and the idea was to make a social multiplayer version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. It was called BattleFriends and it was supposed to be this very simple game where you matched elements against the enemy's elements.”
As you'd expect, the game's basis was elementary: fire scorches earth, earth absorbs water, water extinguishes fire etc.
The game itself told us that it wanted to be a CCG.Radek Smektala
The only problem was that playtesting revealed this to be a boring experience.
But over time, through the addition of new ideas and mechanics, what began life as Battlefriends Elements became something more in line with Earthcore: Shattered Elements.
“We started adding things: skills; a deck; the ability to collect those elements with different skills,” Smektala adds.
“Slowly, the game started turning into a CCG. We've worked on many games, but the guys here are gamers... this is the kind of game that most of us wanted to do eventually.”
However, despite the team being hardcore gamers at heart, Smektala maintains that the new direction for Earthcore was arrived at naturally.
“It was a slow process. The game itself told us that it wanted to be a CCG,” he states.
Kicked off Kickstarter
In February 2014, Tequila Games launched a Kickstarter campaign for Earthcore, which it would go on to cancel in March after only achieving 3 percent of its $200,000 goal.
However, undeterred, the team pushed on with development: “This is a new beginning,” reads the team's Kickstarter update announcing the cancellation. “You have given us a clear sign that what we are working on is worth making.”
Smektala reflects on the long-term impact of the campaign: “Even though we met many fantastic people and got great feedback on the Kickstarter, what we took away from it is that there was still room for improvement.”
“At some point we realised that, okay, we're very deep into this project, and it really is a great game, so it would be a shame not to invest in it further. So we just put all our chips in one place, and decided to go forward with Earthcore.
We had this gut feeling that we were really making something special.Radek Smektala
“That's when we recruited Michal [Orcaz], who is a Polish board game designer and pen-and-paper RPG designer.
“There was really no way back... we had this gut feeling that we were really making something special, something unique.”
Earthcore may have found itself heading in a completely different direction to its simplistic Rock, Paper, Scissors foundation, but ironically Smektala says this led to it becoming a more approachable game - regardless of the complexity layered on top.
“With Earthcore it was very important for us to not create a remake of an existing CCG, but to create a CCG that can exist with all the others and offer something new, something different, and appeal to different audiences,” he says.
“We found that experienced CCG players like Earthcore a lot, and we also have people who have never played a CCG before but are fans of puzzle games, strategy games, and so on, because the rules are so fresh.”
When it comes to commercialisation, Earthcore is a game that seemingly allows monetisation to take a back seat to community building.
What's the motivation behind this, and has it been working out?
“It was very important for us to create a community around Earthcore, to have people refer each other to the game, so we wanted the economy to be fair,” says Smektala.
“We didn't want anyone to have too big an advantage, which is why we decided to go so light on [monetisation].”
“The main currency is gold - we give you a lot of it - and all the booster packs can be bought with gold so you can always get new cards.”
“The only things we charge for are the diamonds, and diamonds are used for things that do add some conveneience but don't really give you better chances to win,” he goes on.
As seems to be the case with many F2P games now, the focus is retention and user experience.
When you have a lot of engaged players the money will come eventually.Radek Smektala
“What we learned in our history so far as Tequila Games is that when you have a lot of engaged players the money will come eventually,” Smektala comments.
“First you need to take care of being fun - that's the most important thing. And then, if people enjoy your game, eventually they will look in their wallets and want to reward you for what you did for them.”
Indeed, being quite open, he reveals that when Tequila has experiemented with "aggressive monetisation tactics" in the past, the results haven't been good.
"It's important for us to have a fanbase we can work with. It opens a lot of doors," he says.
And in this regard, some of the player statistics for Earthcore - particularly average session length and average revenue per paying user - are said to be be very impressive.
“The average playtime is much longer than the industry standard,” reveals Smektala.
“People who join the game like to spend half an hour, 40 minutes, an hour even, in one session - which is spectacular for a free-to-play game.”
“[So] we do see that people spend a lot of time in the game, particularly during our weekend tournaments.”
Here, PR man Marcin Traczyk takes over: “During the weekends we've had players who play 8 or even 10 hours straight, just to climb the leaderboards... we have a group of very engaged players,” he adds.
“We also try to help connect new players with the engaged players so they can discuss their strategies, give tips to each other, which I think wouldn't be possible if the game had more aggressive monetisation - it wouldn't have an active community like Earthcore has right now.”
As for ARPPU, Smektala estimates that “on very good days it's twice as big as in Hearthstone.”
“Of course Hearthstone has a lot more users at this point, so I'm not saying that we at Tequila are making Blizzard money,” he clarifies,.
And, of course, numbers vary from day to day. Regardless, he says the figures are “very healthy”.
So what's the future for Tequila Games? A return to its casual roots, or will the hardcore vision of Earthcore prevail?
“Those are very different audiences, and we do have some discussions about the BattleFriends series, its future and so on,” says Smektala.
"I have nothing to announce today,” he laughs, “But there are talks, yes.”