DEVELOPER DIARIES

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Marvel Trading Card Game

MTCG - The Beginning

Posted Mar 4 2007 11:22AM by Dave Ellis small story illustration

Hey, everybody. I’m Dave Ellis, and I was the lead designer on the Marvel Trading Card Game (MTCG) for the PC and PSP. I’ve been in the video game industry since 1992, when I started as a customer support rep at MicroProse Software in Hunt Valley, MD. I moved up the ranks through QA, test lead, and assistant manager, then finally got into game design after several years. In the 8 or so years I worked at MicroProse, I was involved in the design of a lot of games, including Civilization II, Civilization II Multiplayer, X-COM Interceptor, and Klingon Honor Guard. I was one of the original team members here at Vicious Cycle for a short while back in 2000, and I re-joined the company in mid-2005. So far, I’ve worked on several other games here at VCS—Curious George, Flushed Away (dialog), and Dead Head Fred (dialog). I’m currently lead designer on our first title for the Nintendo Wii as well.

Now that you know a little about me, let’s talk about the game. In this first entry, I’ll discuss the initial concept of the game, and start looking at some of the challenges involved in bringing MTCG to the video game world.

The Concept…

From the moment Konami approached us about making a video game version of Upper Deck’s VS. System trading card game, we knew it would be a design challenge. Most of us were familiar with collectable card games, and knew how complex they were. During my tenure at MicroProse, I did some testing on the Windows version of Magic: The Gathering, and that game was huge! Believe it or not, the rules for MTCG are even more complicated than those of Magic in many ways.

We started out with a pretty big vision of what the game would be—a deep single player game with robust AI and a comic book story (written and drawn by Marvel writers and artists), and an online experience with a huge community web site that allowed players all over the world to play against one another in single matches and tournaments. The really interesting thing about the online plan was that, originally, we wanted players on all three platforms—PC, PSP, and DS—to be able to play against one another online. The plans for Nintendo DS compatibility with the other two systems quickly fell by the wayside due to time limitations, but we still designed the game to be PC/PSP cross compatible—a goal we were able to achieve!

With all of these features in mind, the team dove in and became experts on the card game (with a lot of help from Charles Murakami, our assistant producer at Konami—one of the most knowledgeable VS. players we’ve ever met) and we began work on the design.

The Challenges Part 1: Display Issues

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was how to display everything we needed to display on the screen at one time—especially on the PSP’s small screen! (The DS was also a challenge when it came to screen real estate—but that version wasn’t developed at Vicious Cycle; it was subcontracted to and developed by 1st Playable in New York. We just provided guidance and input.)

Unlike most other collectable card games, the positioning of cards in the VS. system actually figures into the game play. At any given time, there are six rows of cards that must be displayed—two resource rows, two support rows, and two front rows. Add to that a row to display the player’s hand, avatars, scores, player names, card text, in-game messages and instructions, and…well, you can see the problem.

On top of this, there is no limit to the number of cards that can be in play at any time. In games like Yu-Gi-Oh!, there are a finite number of specific slots in which cards can be played. Not so in MTCG. You can put your cards pretty much wherever you want.

In order to accommodate the positioning rules and keep the game playable—you really have to be able to see your cards and your opponent’s cards at all times to keep track of things—we were forced to keep the card size small. Of course, you have to be able to read the cards, so we decided to display a larger version of the currently highlighted card on the left side of the screen.

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On the PC, the “big card” took the traditional form of the actual cards in the tabletop game—although we did have to add a scrollbar to the card text box. We couldn’t just use scans of the cards because the game was being localized in 5 languages and the text had to be translatable on the fly. (There are over 1100 cards in the game, and there’s just not room to store 5 versions of each one.)

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On the PSP, we initially tried this approach, but the format of the card layout was very limiting. You could only see a line or two of text, with a word or two maximum per line. It was very difficult to read, to say the least. As much as it pained us to do so, we had to shrink the card art and rearrange the elements of the card to optimize the display space available. We would have loved to keep the original card view—but we couldn’t do so without sacrificing playability.

Playability is also the reason we ultimately decided not to have a zoom view on the PSP playfield. When we had this option in place, we found that we invariably played in the zoomed-out mode (the view that we have in the final product) because the zoom mode didn’t provide a sufficient view of the playfield to actually play the game.

Before I wrap up this first entry, I guess I should address our reasoning behind windowed-only approach for the PC version. We evaluated other video game adaptations of collectible card games, and decided we wanted a more polished interface. To achieve this, we had to create a lot of elements that were not scalable—that is, they could not be stretched if the window size were increased. Hence, we had to pick a fixed resolution and run the game windowed. Based on marketing input, 1024 x 768 seemed the best choice (you always have to plan for the least common denominator). So that’s the way we went. It was less-than-ideal for players with larger monitors, but it allowed us to have a more polished UI than we otherwise would have had, and we think it works well for most players.

In the next entry, I’ll discuss some of the other challenges on MTCG, including online cross-compatibility and the evolution of the single player game.

-Dave

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