Saturday, July 14, 2012

Illuminati: The Online Game?

A few months back I wrote a lengthy scribe about converting the Illuminati board game into a Living Card Game. Clearly, my powers of persuation have not worked (YET) as there has been no movement from Steve Jackson Games on this front.

So, as an alternative idea, I've thought about this, and I think there is a pretty decent and potentially lucrative format the game could be re-introduced as: an online game powered by microtransactions.

So, let's back up a little bit. Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of Team Fortress 2. I won't get into the specifics, but its business model is what we are going to be examining. It appears to be quite successful and also seems particularly well-suited for Illuminati. Basically, Team Fortress 2 is a game that is free to download and play. There is absolutely no gameplay advantage based on how much you've spent. However, you can upgrade to a premium account by buying anything in the game store, including something that's worth 50 cents. A premium account lets you trade with other players and expands your inventory.

It's a combat-based game; you gain new weapons randomly for free. If you want a specific weapon, you can wait for it to drop or trade with someone. You can also combine other extra weapons to 'craft' a weapon you want. Alternately, you can buy it.

And that's the trick. The microtransaction model allows players to make small purchases--usually in the $1-$5 range--to enhance the game. Well-designed games make these transactions cosmetic, or at least do not give a specific advantage. TF2 does it right: There are three free ways to get a weapon (drop, trade, or craft) and one way that you pay for. And since no one weapon is better than another--any advantage is offset by a disadvantage, for the most part--you don't get an advantage in the game by spending money. It gives you more options, sure, but no actual benefit that you couldn't eventually get for free. Plus, you can only have one weapon in a slot at a time, so if one person with three different shotguns goes up against another player with only one, they both still only get to choose one for that battle. Other things, such as hats, keys, and name tags are also available--and they're fun, and at only a buck or two lots of people are willing to spend the cash. The Team Fortress 2 model is so successful and robust that the company hired an economics consultant to handle their marketplace.

Okay, with that in mind, many of these ideas could easily be translated into the Illuminati universe.

[I will note here that I'm actually talking more about the CCG version of the game. Since the microtransaction model is more or less going to be customized, I'm going to pull most of the inspiration from Illuminati: New World Order, not the base game. Aside from the customizable aspect, of course, anything from the base game (like the megabucks model) could also be used in my proposal. Also, I'm referring to everything as "cards" although in online reality they will be something different.]

I won't go into the details of the rules of Illuminati here, except that to note that the game involves organizing various groups (such as the Mafia, the Democrats, and the Post Office) around your Illuminati. In addition, Plot cards, Resources, New World Order cards, Goal card, etc. are also present, so there are plenty of customizable options players have.

You start the game by customizing your deck. When you start playing, you're given one free Illuminati and maybe 60 or so cards. (These could probably be quasi-random, having a core set that everyone gets plus a bunch of random cards.)  So when you start playing, your card selection in and of itself probably isn't very high, but the actual game you play won't be any better or worse than anyone else. (This would be a good time to generate some income: when players first start, they could pay, say, $9.99 to immediately get all the basic Illuminati cards. Or, select the ones you want at two bucks a pop. Not required, but it makes your customization much more robust.) The important thing to note is that a player's "deck" is a set number of cards: regardless of whether a player has 60 cards or 500, they still only get to choose 45. So while a player with more stuff certainly has more options, once the game starts everyone has the same amount of cards to use.

Because of the nature of the game, customizing your game before you play is a must, and that's where the microtransactions come in. As you play, you are awarded new groups, plots, etc. You don't need any of them, but since they have different abilities and alignments, you'll have more options as you gain cards. You can simply wait to "drop" your favorite group, or you can trade other people for it, or even craft it (say, discard three Criminal groups and a Violent group to create a Mafia card). Or, if you are impatient, or you have an idea for a perfect deck but don't have a key card, you can spend a couple bucks on it.

And here's the beauty of it: since it's an online game, it can be updated instantly. Some new celebrity pops on the scene? A new organization is created or a meme gets in the headlines? Pop it in the distribution and it's ready to go. No need to wait for a printer or an expansion; they get added every month, or week, or day.

I could easily see adding (to take this past week as an example) a "TomKat Divorce" plot card. It could have some relevant effect on the game (distract Media groups, maybe). It would be topical and funny, and people would desire it, but it would also be dated very quickly. So after a week or two anyone who has that card would have it removed from their inventory and a token good for another card draw (or some such bonus). You'd give people an incentive to keep playing the game (to get any of these "temporary" cards). Some people might buy them in case it doesn't drop (knowing ahead of time they are dated, of course), and then they get some compensation when it expires. Cards would also be periodically updated; Dan Quayle turns into Sarah Palin, for example, or the Fred Birch Society becomes the Tea Party. Also, special abilities could get added or removed as the times change.

With the online format, the rules can change as well to allow for more complicated things. Bonuses can be percentage-based, for example, or you can do away with action tokens or megabucks and allow each point of Power be usable in whatever way you wish (i.e., a group can spend 3 of its 6 Power instead of it being all-or-nothing). It can be as simplified or as complicated as needed. Battles can be more convoluted since the computer is doing all the paperwork.

Not to stray too far from the core of the game, but it also opens up other, new possibilities. Maybe your Illuminati can earn bonuses. Cthulhu, for example, might get a bonus to attack Nations, or The Network gets additional snooping abilities. However, you only get to choose one or two of these bonuses per game, so you're never more powerful than anyone else; still, you get the longevity of "customizing" your Illuminati as time goes on.

Many of the variants provided by Steve Jackson Games could also be implemented easily. I remember there being an evolution variant, where you play a series of games and you could only change one or two cards once the game is over before you move to the next.  Maybe you can buy an Evolution Token for a dollar or two that you can slap on a deck, and that deck can only play other Evolution decks in specific games.

Of course, the online format causes some challenges as well. Most likely, the game would have to be action-based instead of player-turn-based. (In other worlds, everyone gets to take one action at a time, rather than each player taking all of their actions at once.) This will allow the game to move quickly and be more compatible with the online format. (It would also make cards such as New World Order cards much more interesting.) There will have to be some rules alterations to accommodate this, of course, but I think that can be mitigated pretty easily (and may actually present some new, additional opportunities). 

The bigger challenge, of course, is the graphics. I'm not exactly sure how something like this would look. On the one hand, simply looking at a bunch of cards is not going to be in the least bit visually appealing. On the other hand, it would be prohibitively expensive to animate each and every single card. I think as long as people know what to expect it won't be a bad thing, and if the interface can be made to look slick and easy I think this can be overcome.

Also, given the nature of the game (and unlike games such as TF2), not every card will be balanced. Some will be more useful than others. Now, the CCG had a built-in balancing feature; a very useful card (such as, say, the Nuclear Power Companies) can be mitigated by copies, so if everyone adds it to their deck it becomes less powerful. Even beyond this, it can easily be turned into a benefit: add a crafting element, so if you have a handful of duplicates or less-than-useful cards, you can simply convert them into one useful card. It's not very efficient, but it will certainly be a welcome option. (Also, remember, that regardless of how many cards a player has in their inventory, they can only bring a set number into each game.)

I'm also not sure how many "cosmetic" things you could purchase. I'm sure more creative minds than mine could think of something, but offhand I can't think of much. Maybe you could buy "scribe" tokens to use on your groups/Illuminati to keep track of the number of successful attacks or under what Goal they won. You can't really rename the groups, but maybe you could add flavor text, or get to add historical figures that once ran your Illuminati. I don't know, but I'm sure there are options. I don't even know if any sort of "crate" system could be implemented, mostly because I can't think of a way to enhance a group without changing its effect on the game. (Maybe some sort of Elite status?) There's always inventory expanders and other sundries that can be regularly purchased to provide a steady stream of income.

The pitfall is, of course, to get too greedy. The important thing to note is that no one likes a game where, if you pay more, you win more often. The game should be as balanced as possible without having the spend the money, while encouraging fans to spend small amounts multiple times over a lengthy period of time. I'm torn whether the cards should have a rarity or not; I don't like that it might alter how the game is played, but it would make trading much more interesting. If there is rarity, I wouldn't make it nearly to the scale as the traditional CCG; rare cards would only slightly be more rare than uncommon, and so on for common cards. I also don't know if you could buy packs of cards, or if sticking to buying individual cards is the way to go. There's no reason why both can't be done: buy a pack of random cards where you're guaranteed one rare, or buy the card outright and know exactly what you're getting. However, I don't want it to devolve into just a CCG in an online format.

So there you have it. Online Illuminati. The customizable aspect could lead the game to be very lucrative, as players crave the powerful cards, cards that fit their deck ideas, or just cool-sounding current events. The online component can allow new rules and make existing rules much more efficient. And the theme has always been very interesting, especially amongst gamers. While there are certainly high development costs, the core game is more or less already designed, and it's all digital content for real money after a point. I'm not saying that it's fool-proof, but it's a proven business model if effectively done.

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