The Mak­ing Of...

How Cygames’ col­lectable card game be­came the Ja­panese


At dark­ened af­ter-hours bars, videogame de­sign­ers of­ten tipsily dis­cuss what might hap­pen if they were able to leave their em­ploy­ers to strike out on their own as a start-up. In the sober light of the morn­ing few act upon their fan­tasies. Of those who do make the leap, still fewer are suc­cess­ful enough to make a tale worth telling. The co-founders of Cygames, who left Sil­i­con Stu­dios, cre­ator of 3D Dot Game He­roes and Bravely

De­fault, are a daz­zling ex­cep­tion. Re­leased in 2012, the stu­dio’s first game, Rage Of Ba­hamut, was a strato­spheric hit, hold­ing the top spot on the Amer­i­can iOS charts for 16 weeks and earn­ing more than $5 mil­lion per month dur­ing its first year. A high-fan­tasy ad­ven­ture, it used dig­i­tal cards as its bat­tle mo­tif, with play­ers se­lect­ing at­tacks from a deck of op­tions. De­spite ap­pear­ances, how­ever, it was a card game in aes­thetic only, a source of grow­ing frus­tra­tion for its CCG-ob­sessed de­vel­op­ment team.

This cre­ative frus­tra­tion was shared by Cygames founder Yuito Kimura, a keen Magic: The Gath­er­ing player. “There was a clear de­sire within the de­vel­op­ment team, which was shared by me, to make a true card game, rather than one that just used cards to rep­re­sent its me­chan­ics,” he tells us. The tim­ing was for­tu­itous. In spring 2014, Bl­iz­zard En­ter­tain­ment launched Hearth­stone, a CCG set in the uni­verse of World Of War­craft. The scep­ti­cism with which the game’s an­nounce­ment was ini­tially greeted soon dis­si­pated; in a few short weeks Hearth­stone be­came a glit­ter­ing pil­lar in Bl­iz­zard’s busi­ness model, draw­ing a gen­er­a­tion of PC play­ers to the strate­gic com­plex­i­ties of the genre. For Kimura, the time was right to ex­plore a col­lectable card game for the Ja­panese market. “Dig­i­tal card games were just be­gin­ning to trend on the PC at that time, but there weren’t yet any ma­jor ti­tles specif­i­cally for smart­phones," he says. “And in terms of the de­vel­op­ment abil­ity on the team, and the in­creas­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion of smart­phones at the time, the tim­ing felt right.”

For all Kimura’s en­thu­si­asm for CCGs, Cygames lacked a mas­ter de­signer. In the sum­mer of 2014, soon af­ter Hearth­stone’s re­lease, for­mer card-game de­signer Naoyuki

Miyashita was work­ing at an app de­vel­oper in Tokyo when a col­league asked him if he might be in­ter­ested in meet­ing Kimura to talk over an idea for a dig­i­tal card game. Miyashita, who had been a pro­fes­sional CCG player, agreed to a meet­ing. Over a match of Magic: The Gath­er­ing, Kimura care­fully laid out his vi­sion for the game that would be­come Shad­ow­verse. It would be, he ex­plained, a true CCG, set within the Rage Of Ba­hamut uni­verse, which used me­chan­ics that would only be pos­si­ble in the dig­i­tal realm. Miyashita was con­vinced. The next day he quit his job to join Cygames.


“When we sat down to be­gin the de­sign, the first ques­tion was how to make a card game that could be played on a smart­phone screen,” Miyashita re­calls. “Not only that, our aim was to de­sign a game that felt best when you were play­ing on a phone.” The team, in other words, didn’t want the fact the game was be­ing played on a mo­bile de­vice to feel in any way like a compromise. Nonethe­less, Miyashita be­gan to pro­to­type the game on pa­per. The process proved to be chal­leng­ing. “Rage Of Ba­hamut had an evolve me­chanic, where it was pos­si­ble to up­grade your cards dur­ing a match, which is some­thing we wanted to bring into Shad­ow­verse,” he says. “That’s tough to do on pa­per.”

For Kimura, the chal­lenge was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of op­por­tu­ni­ties. “We wanted to make sure that our game de­sign had fea­tures that would not be pos­si­ble in a reg­u­lar card game,” he says. The Spell­boost me­chanic, for ex­am­ple, buffs cards that are still in your hand, which isn’t prac­ti­cally pos­si­ble in a phys­i­cal card game, while the Por­tal­craft class fea­tures an abil­ity, Res­o­nance, that de­pends on the num­ber of cards left in your deck. In­vo­ca­tion pulls cards from your sup­ply and puts them in to play when cer­tain con­di­tions are met. “These sorts of ef­fects sim­ply wouldn’t be pos­si­ble out­side of a dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment.”

At the heart of Shad­ow­verse sits the evolve me­chanic. This al­lows each player to spend one of their lim­ited num­ber of evo­lu­tion points to strengthen one of their cards where it sits on the field. Evolv­ing a fol­lower en­hances its power, en­ables it to at­tack en­emy fol­low­ers on the same turn, and of­ten trig­gers abil­i­ties unique to the card. The first player starts with two evo­lu­tion points and can evolve from their fifth turn, while the sec­ond player starts with three evo­lu­tion points and can evolve from their fourth turn. It’s an in­ge­nious so­lu­tion to an age-old prob­lem in CCGs: how to mit­i­gate the ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage of be­ing the player who gets to go first. “Evolve helps us to solve the tra­di­tional prob­lem of bal­anc­ing the odds of go­ing first or sec­ond, but also mak­ing the game ex­cit­ing through ev­ery stage of a match, from the early game through the midgame right up to the endgame,” Miyashita says.

Sup­ported by Rage Of Ba­hamut’s on­go­ing fi­nan­cial suc­cess, Kimura was able to give the

Shad­ow­verse team an en­vi­able length of run­way to de­sign, test and tweak the game be­fore launch. The de­vel­op­ment, how­ever, was not with­out dif­fi­cul­ties. Fol­low­ing feed­back from a closed beta test in Fe­bru­ary 2016, Kimura de­cided to scrap the en­tire an­i­ma­tion sys­tem for the game, con­clud­ing that it was too fussy and in­el­e­gant. “It was our first time mak­ing a visual card game,” he ex­plains. “For a long time we couldn’t fig­ure out how to do ba­sic things like dis­pense of a card dur­ing bat­tle. At times it felt like it was maybe an im­pos­si­ble task.”

Af­ter 18 months of de­vel­op­ment, there was also the is­sue of the game’s scal­ing, nearun­man­age­able com­plex­ity. Prior to launch the team had de­signed 400 cards across seven classes, which re­sulted in a vast num­ber of deck per­mu­ta­tions. “We de­signed some re­ally in­ter­est­ing leader class skills, like the Vengeance me­chanic, which as­so­ci­ated with the Blood­craft class, in which cer­tain cards are buffed when your health drops be­low half,” says Kimura.

“This pro­duced some re­ally in­ter­est­ing con­trold­eck archetypes, where play­ers use cards to move in and out of Vengeance when needed, but also some re­ally fast ag­gro decks that deal dam­age to both play­ers in the hope of clos­ing a game out be­fore your op­po­nent can re­cover.” Man­ag­ing the game bal­ance, how­ever, soon be­came an is­sue. “It was tough to keep each of the seven dif­fer­ent leader classes bal­anced in terms of win rates and pop­u­lar­ity,” Miyashita says. To help en­sure bal­ance, Cygames hired a ten­per­son team of pro­fes­sional Ja­panese Magic: The Gath­er­ing play­ers to re­lent­lessly test dif­fer­ent deck builds, al­low­ing the team to tweak val­ues.

Fi­nally, there was the is­sue of what to call the game. “We needed a name that would work in Ja­panese and English, and sound strong in both lan­guages,” Kimura says. “We had a longlist of around 300 ti­tles, which we slowly whit­tled down. In the end we im­ple­mented a vot­ing sys­tem within the team. That got us down to three ti­tles.” Fi­nally, Kimura asked the game leads to pick their favourite. “Sky Fortress was a pop­u­lar choice, but Shad­ow­verse won out in the end.”

De­spite the lengthy in­vest­ment of time, and the size­able team, Kimura’s ex­pec­ta­tions for the game were mod­est. “When we launched there were no ma­jor PvP card-based smart­phone games on the Ja­panese market,” he says. “Our long-term plan, in all hon­esty, was to ap­peal to core CCG play­ers and over the course of a year or so, build out from that core into the main­stream.” For this rea­son, Cygames did not book any TV spots, only tak­ing out a small num­ber of poster ad­ver­tise­ments on the Tokyo sub­way. As such, the speed at which the game took hold came as a ma­jor sur­prise. Just four days af­ter its re­lease on June 17, 2016, Shad­ow­verse had reached a mil­lion down­loads. “There were about four mil­lion matches be­ing played a day,” says Kimura. “Al­most im­me­di­ately we were run­ning at break­ing point.”

Any team with am­bi­tions to foster a se­ri­ous com­pet­i­tive cul­ture around a free-to-play game faces is­sues of fair­ness, when play­ers who have spent no money in the game are matched against those who have. If play­ers be­lieve they can just pay to win, the com­pet­i­tive com­mu­nity crum­bles away. “Those el­e­ments of the game that you can’t ac­cess with­out pay­ing, or that are dif­fi­cult to ac­quire with­out pay­ing are never con­nected to win­ning or los­ing,” Miyashita says. “Of course spend­ing money makes it eas­ier to ac­quire cards, but it’s re­ally im­por­tant to us that we give play­ers all sorts of ways to ac­quire cards with­out pay­ing too.” Kimura refers to a rule im­ple­mented by Cygames that en­sures all cards are un­locked for tour­na­ment play. “Like many other FTP games, the main ben­e­fit of pur­chas­ing in-game items is that it saves the time that would be needed to earn them,” he says. “In any case, there are so many other card games that are char­ac­terised by ran­dom card packs and re­main com­pet­i­tive that I don’t think it was ever a big is­sue for us; I don’t think we have much of a rep­u­ta­tion as a pay-to-win ti­tle.”

The game’s rep­u­ta­tion in Ja­pan is, how­ever, for­mi­da­ble. With a spin-off TV series, and a World Grand Prix, with a mil­lion-dol­lar first prize, Shad­ow­verse has be­come ex­tremely well known. On the Tokyo sub­way you will in­evitably see com­muters play­ing one of two games: Poké­mon Go, or Shad­ow­verse. In the west, how­ever, the game is far less well-known, over­shad­owed by Hearth­stone. “When Shad­ow­verse orig­i­nally came out, Ja­panese card games were more like Rage Of Ba­hamut, and our ini­tial mar­ket­ing in the west prob­a­bly didn’t do enough to dis­tin­guish Shad­ow­verse from those types of games,” says Cygames’ David McCarthy. “An­other chal­lenge par­tic­u­lar to the west is that there is a ten­dency among core gamers and the me­dia they read to dis­miss smart­phone games. But I think western gamers have come to un­der­stand the game’s strengths, to the point where it has a pretty good mo­men­tum in the west right now.”

That growth has been helped by an un­likely group of sup­port­ers in the pro fight­ing game com­mu­nity. In 2017, Cygames founded its es­ports team, Cygames Beast, hir­ing top-flight Street Fighter pros Daigo Ume­hara, Snake Eyez, PR Bal­rog and Fu­udo, who was a Shad­ow­verse Grand Mas­ter long be­fore gain­ing Cygames’ spon­sor­ship. The game has spread through the FGC, aided by the fact that Cygames spon­sored the Evo­lu­tion tour­na­ment in Las Ve­gas this year. This has helped the game gain a rep­u­ta­tion as the com­pet­i­tive con­nois­seur’s CCG of choice. “One rea­son for its pop­u­lar­ity in the FGC is that these guys travel a lot and they can play Shad­ow­verse on their smart­phones while trav­el­ling,” Kimura says. “Shad­ow­verse can be played any­where, and it’s great for down­time.” But Miyashita be­lieves the af­fil­i­a­tion runs deeper than mere con­ve­nience. “Shad­ow­verse is not un­re­lated to Street Fighter,” he says. “Fight­ing games are about read­ing your op­po­nents, which is some­thing that is cru­cial in Shad­ow­verse play as well. There are def­i­nitely crossover skills, and learn­ing how to play well in one arena ab­so­lutely ben­e­fits com­pet­i­tive play in the other.”

Two years af­ter its spec­tac­u­lar launch, Shad­ow­verse’s main­stream pop­u­lar­ity has re­mained steady. Ex­pan­sions, re­leased ev­ery three months, have car­ried its mo­men­tum, but the im­mense scale of the game’s pop­u­lar­ity con­tin­ues to bewil­der Kimura some­what. “There was no prece­dent for any of this when we started,” he says. “But some­how we made it all hap­pen.”

For­mat An­droid, iOS, PC De­vel­oper Cygames Pub­lisher Cygames, NetEase Ori­gin Ja­pan Re­lease 2016

The Shad­ow­verse metagame is con­stantly shift­ing as new cards are added and old cards are re­bal­anced to keep up

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