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.
“WE COULDN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO DO BASIC THINGS LIKE DISPENSE OF A CARD DURING BATTLE”
“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