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Taking TCGs Into New Territory

Neilie Johnson Posted:
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Perception might be that trading card games are strictly for Magic-and-Yu-gi-oh-obsessed uber-geeks, but in recent years the audience for TCGs has seen a lot of growth. While hardcore TCG-ers remain the backbone of the TCG market, developers hope to increase the genre's draw with a more accessible digital format. At the forefront of this movement is HEX Entertainment, whose upcoming TCG/MMO hybrid HEX, is poised to take TCGs to an entirely new place.

Based in Irvine, California, HEX Entertainment is headed by CEO Cory Jones—Blizzard veteran, true believer, and one of the most accessible executives you'll ever meet. During a visit to the HEX studio, Jones spoke at length about the history of HEX, from its highly successful Kickstarter to next week's looming launch. From Jones' point of view, the project is something of an obsession born of his love for TCGs and the need—as an older gamer—to find a convenient, grown-up way to indulge his boyhood passion. He also admits that in the beginning, publishers didn't exactly share that passion.

“Before we did the Kickstarter, I was going around to publishers and telling them, 'Hey I'm making a TCG and their eyes would glaze over. And then I'd say, “MMO” and they'd go “Agh!” (raises hands in horror) I'm really good at selling things and I couldn't get any interest. So we do the Kickstarter, and after we do the Kickstarter and everyone saw how successful it was, I had them all come back and say, “I think we kind of get it now,” and I was like, “I tried to tell you there was audience. These are my people.”

The Kickstarter proved Jones' instincts were spot-on, and after raising $2.5 million dollars from more than 17,000 backers, HEX Entertainment was off to the races.

At a glance, HEX is a traditional trading card game executed in a purely digital format. A longer look shows it's an ambitious blend of TCG and MMO mechanics. The HEX team's goal is to augment trading card battles with story, character, exploration and atmosphere; in practical terms, that means adding a slew of complex systems that complicate the design process so much, you'd take the team for a gang of hopeless masochists. That's good news for gamers because as improbable as it sounds, HEX promises to be the kind of singular experience that can satisfy both role-players and strategists alike.

Of course, achieving such a thing won't be easy. The main issue with getting people into TCGs is the genre's overwhelming complexity. Building decks takes knowledge and skill, and choosing from hundreds of cards can be a bit much for new players. Add to that the confrontational aspects of competitive play, and you have a genre seemingly designed to deter new players. HEX's plan for removing that barrier is to draw people in with a fun and accessible single player campaign. Jones explains:

“The single player experience—the RPG experience—slowly introduces you to a number of cards. As you start to master those cards, we start to introduce you to new cards. Typically the [card collecting] exploration [after that] is fairly organic in terms of what and how you play.” Along with acquainting players with their card options in a non-overwhelming way, the new campaign mode allows players to engage in activities usually relegated to MMO territory: things like questing, raiding and character customization.

Mad as it might sound, Jones is convinced his TCG/MMO mash-up is a sure winner, not least because of its all-digital format. For Jones and lead designer Ben Stoll, the decision to bypass a physical version opened up the creative floodgates. “I consider myself an inventor,” Jones says. “I felt that coming up with ways to exploit the digital TCG concept was way more appealing than a having a physical version. Going all digital was just bigger and better; you could do things you can't in a physical version. For instance, extended art. In HEX, you can spend gold to buy stardust and then buy the extended art version of the cards so when you play them, the text boxes goes away and there's just pieces of art. For trading card game players, that's a big deal.” Going 100% digital also meant HEX could have other nifty things too like gem socketing, three sided “Double Back” cards (Note: the latter concept is still something Jones and company are figuring out.) and cards that can be altered by characters' talents and equipment.

This week is HEX's official launch and with it comes players' first chance to weigh in on the game's MMO aspects. As of this week, players can create their own fully customizable Champions whose customizations affect the potency of players' decks. Each Champion has its own back story and personality quirks, not to mention its own strengths and weaknesses. Players will discover in the new single player campaign, how these attributes affect objectives, locations, and NPC responses and will get to experiment with tweaking those attributes using equippable items and gem socketing.

While the new campaign is great for TCG novices, veteran players might wonder what's in it for them. Well, in addition to giving players a way to earn gold to buy new cards, PvE raid content (which will be available at a later date) allows two or three players to join forces against AI enemies and earn rare drops that are both tradeable and usable in PvP.

Along with its MMO-based conceptual innovations, the main thing HEX has going for it is its  community. Since the Kickstarter, HEX's community has been unusually inclusive and Jones is clearly proud of that. “The real value of Kickstarter was we aggregated this great group of people and they are super-positive,” he says. “It is the least toxic gaming environment I've ever seen and I've been in the industry 20-plus years. Everyone just acts cool, helps each other out, gives away free cards... I feel very blessed because it's easy for games to say “we're here because of our community, but with us it's 100% true.”

Lead Game Designer Ben Stoll echoes that sentiment and comments on the importance of creating a positive gaming experience: “It can't be overstated that the community is so awesome. Something that's not talked about a lot, and it's not popular to talk about it, is the moral imperative of game design. Where games are evolving to, it's really important that you as a game designer take care of the kind of emotional and mental experiences your game is offering because that's going to have an effect on the user. HEX is about creative ownership, not 'my goal is to trample you into the ground and then spit on your corpse.'”

From meeting with HEX Entertainment last week and talking to the key players, it became clear that HEX aspires not only to be the most creative TCG out there, but to support a friendly, nurturing online environment that both challenges veteran TCG-ers and welcomes new players with open arms. The blueprint for achieving those goals is its revolutionary PvE mode whose role-playing elements (they hope) eliminate the intimidation factor while softening the TCG learning curve. Although the campaign is as yet an unknown quantity, and there's still the problem of getting people beyond the “TCGs are for uber-geeks only” idea, the HEX team's enthusiasm is downright contagious. That and its focus on individual expression and creative collaboration, could well make HEX the harbinger of better, more positive games to come.


Neilie Johnson

Neilie Johnson / Neilie Johnson is a freelance contributor to MMORPG.com. She's been writing about games since 2005, developing games since 2002, and playing them since the dawn of time. OK not really, but she's pretty sure she's got controllers older than you. Witness her game-related OCD on Twitter @bmunchausen.