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The Rise of the Mobile Collectible Card Game

February 14, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

In 2012, something unexpected happened: a Japanese-developed collectible card game became a sensation in the West. Rage of Bahamut, developed in Tokyo by Cygames and published by Japanese mobile giant DeNA's U.S. subsidiary Ngmoco, became one of the year's top-grossing games on both Android and iOS.

Bahamut is an unqualified hit -- so much so that it established the genre, which already reigned on Asian phones, as a full-blown phenomenon in the West. Just as importantly, it went a long way toward proving the widely held supposition that niche-targeted mobile games can monetize reliably off of a smaller, more engaged audience.

When it comes to the game's success, says Akihiro Iino, company director of Rage of Bahamut developer Cygames, "We weren't surprised, because there was already a market overseas for card games. However, we also did not foresee the whirlwind of popularity that followed."

In fact, nobody anticipated that "whirlwind of popularity." It's clear, however, that since Rage of Bahamut hit the App Store and Google Play a year ago, the genre has become a durable facet of the mobile ecosystem. As of this week, Rage of Bahamut is still the number three grossing app on Google Play, alongside other card games like Marvel: War of Heroes (number two, also by Cygames) and Dark Summoner.

A year is a long time, but things can -- and will -- change. Is the genre itself a fad, or is it here to stay? What does it take to make a successful collectible card game? To find out more, Gamasutra spoke to the companies who know: the Rage of Bahamut partners, Cygames, DeNA, and Ngmoco, as well as DeNA's chief rival, Gree, and Japan's biggest success in the genre, Konami.

What's the appeal? "This game [genre] is considered to have high potential from user retention and monetization aspects," says Kimihiro Horiuchi, senior director of Konami's Dragon Collection Studio San Francisco, who's tasked with making Japan's biggest card game hit, Dragon Collection, a U.S. success. His words sum up the simple truth of the genre's explosion, post-Bahamut. But is there more to the story than that?

Unpacking the Popularity of Card Games

How did a game like Rage of Bahamut -- one even some of the staff at Ngmoco even initially refused to try, according to its former CEO -- become a smash?

"I can't say that we knew that it was going to become one of the most successful mobile games in history," admits Doug Scott, vice president of Marketing & Revenue at Ngmoco.

But on reflection, says Scott, the success makes sense: "Collectible card games are an incredibly elegant framework for great mobile social gaming experiences. As a vehicle for game design, they tap into many of the core compulsions that have driven great games throughout history: strategic resource collection and application, and competing with your friends in a battle of wits and skill."

DeNA's rival is Tokyo-based Gree, and its U.S. SVP of social games, Eiji Araki, does a fantastic job of explaining what appeal the genre holds for players:

"This genre of game plays directly into the player's desire to gather the ultimate set of cards," Araki says. "Among CCG fans, there's a strong sense of accomplishment when a new or rare card is collected, making for addictive gameplay that keeps players coming back day after day."

"Another reason for its popularity," Araki continues, "is the social engagement elements baked into the gameplay mechanics, such as cooperating with other players to trade cards or battling other players in PVP modes to win cards to further their collection... Similar to physical card collection games that have been globally popular for years -- like Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh -- mobile CCGs go beyond being 'just another mobile game' to players."

In fact, Cygames pays particular attention to the appeal of the cards, says Iino. "Making sure that our artwork is peerless in quality, we also pay attention to the smallest details that might not be obvious. We believe that this is one of the fundamental aspects of game design."

The games are popular because of their compulsive, collector-driven gameplay, of course, but Horiuchi also argues that it's their service-based nature that is the key to their success.

"We have continued our service improvement while observing user behaviors constantly. It's been two years since Dragon Collection started, and we think this constant improvement is another reason to gain support from many users for a long term." Marketing alone won't build success in the genre, he says; continued development will.

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Robert Tsao
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Games like Rage of Bahamut are the equivalent of taking a walking tour through Pyongyang: feel free to follow the path and go at your own pace, or hey, do some exploring for yourself... also, you can't deviate from the path, please do not explore, and please, do follow the guide's pace or there will be problems.

So, yes, this genre is a fad. No, this genre has no real staying power in the truest sense. Nobody working in the games industry has ever said, "well, I played a ton of Facebook and free iOS games a few years ago and I just knew I wanted to make games like this." There is no room for innovation in this "genre" because any sort of real, player-expressive innovation would free players from the tightly wound compulsion loops and social-networking-as-rewarding-punishment that form the backbone of the super-impulsive IAP that games like these facilitate.

To do so would effectively spell an end to the genre, because like Araki said, monetization is the key to longevity of the game. "The key to our success is making money."


Jesse Tucker
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I've played a ton of Hero Academy (made by industry vets), which is a well-done free mobile tactical game. As a AAA dev, I would love to work on a game like that. I've also been playing the free collectible Highgrounds from Spry Fox in its early form. These games are both innovative and enjoyable to play. I'm also looking forward to Card Hunter, which is a free collectible game being developed by a bunch of ex-Irrational folks. You can't say that industry veterans aren't interested in these types of games.
Free mobile games are the flavor of the year. The form is currently being flooded with a bunch of small studios that are making their first game as a free mobile game. Once the dust settles and the new hot game style appears, this genre won't end - it will become established.

Robert Tsao
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@ Jesse

I'm also looking forward to Card Hunter as well, and I do think there is potential in card games as both a genre and a conceit on mobile platforms.

When I say collectible card games lacking innovation and staying power, I'm referring to "card games" specifically in the context of this article. I do agree industry veterans such as Jon Chey are interested in the potential of card game mechanics, and I doubt they would ever create something like Rage of Bahamut. I've played Rage of Bahamut (which iirc is a clone of Konami's "Dragon Collection"), as well as all of its clones such as Legend of the Cryptids and Reign of Dragons.

The fact that these post-RoB games aren't even trying to hide their clone-niness aside, what irks me about the general design of these games is the fact that they're missing out on what makes CCGs truly special in the same way gamification is reviled as distilling games into badges, achievements, and leaderboards.

Magic: The Gathering and CCGs like it (RIP L5R) are built on player expression through customization. Building a new deck around either a super-aggressive strategy or a control/combo strategy is half the fun of the game. RoB and games like it, on the other hand, are focused on the "chase" element of CCGs. The only expression to speak of in the game is basically sifting out a personal deck of playing cards and replacing all the non-face cards with Kings and Aces; it's a gussied-up version of war.

I have confidence that Card Hunter will be more of the former as opposed to the latter, but whether it is profitable or not remains to be seen. Here's to their hopeful success.

E Zachary Knight
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I played Rage of Bahamut shortly after getting my phone. I gave it up after a while because the energy requirements needed to advance outpaced my energy regeneration and I was no longer able to advance at an interesting rate. It started out pretty good. I was able to get through a chapter in a single sitting. However, after about 6-8 chapters, it started to take 2 or 3 sittings to make it through a chapter. Such energy requirements are what put me off the current crop of social games.

Other than that, the core gameplay of RoB was quite nice. I enjoyed playing the actual game. I just wish the pace of the game was consistent.

I like collectible card games and am currently working on one. You can do many wonderful things with them. Even just card games are fun. They don't have to be collectible. For instance, while the physical ccg market has faded away with only a handful of top players left, the card game genre is alive and well with a lot of great games such as Bang!, Dominion and many other gaining in popularity. Perhaps that might be a new direction video card games take.

Fredrik Liliegren
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I think the genre will evolve like any other to start offering a deeper engagement than just button pushing and stat increasing, when strategy becomes a deeper element in progression then i think the genre will flourish. We hope to accomplish this with our own title coming to Ipad soon but already available on the web here:

Kevin Carpenter
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I'm a bit puzzled by this game's success, as I gave it a try and, yes, the art is kind of neat (certainly plenty of fan service) and it was very easy to get into, but there's no depth to it. When I heard it compared to Magic the Gathering, I was expecting something more than just a fantasy version of War.

It's classic bait and switch fremium design, where it lulls you in with free and easy energy and progress, but once you hit a certain point it becomes very slow indeed, unless you start throwing down some cash. I really can't abide games that do that, and the better free to play games don't. They provide a cohesive experience that they then let you expand upon if you're willing to pay.

tony oakden
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except the better F2P usually don't make enough money to be viable. Bahamut does make money which is why it's structured that way. I hate games like this too but developers are finding out the hard way that giving away a game which is fun to play, no matter what extra payment options you offer on top, is financial suicide.

Keith Nemitz
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I was impressed by Shadow Era. I thought they did freemium 'right' for a card game. Unfortunately, I recently played the MtG app and was reminded of its greater play depth. Now I play neither. S.E. is a little too shallow for me, and MtG also reminded me of why I dislike freemium.

don synstelien
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My team and I created an engine for these types of games a few years ago. We're small and unfunded, so it took us longer to get to market than it should have, but we've always seen the value in the idea of a mobile CCG.

If you get a chance, check out Plan X -

We're still working and tweaking. The interview subject is correct that ongoing support is the biggest thing that people care about. We've done holiday specials, special card packs, events, etc. It's a lot of work.

GameViewPoint Developer
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Nice artwork, I would of thought it would of been better to be F2P though?

Steven Tu
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I'm utterly surprised by the lack of mention of one of the best CCGs on a mobile platform - Assassin's Creed: Recollection. It was a big name title, made by a big company (Ubi, of course). But it came and left in the space of a year - the gameplay, mechanics and balance were fantastic, and harkens to a real-time Magic, with so much more depth and satisfaction than Shadow Era.

But the lack of support from marketing and business left it floundering despite having an organically grown fanbase, and while the servers are still on and the fans are still playing, it seems to have been abandoned, with an AC3 expansion that was promised never ever seeing the light of day.

If anything, this has left a sour taste in the mouths of ardent fans who spent real money in the F2P model and will make future forays into the model fraught with resistance, unfortunately - for both the developers and players.

Alexander Symington
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This genre seems very at risk from the 'strip mining' effect that we've seen collapse Zynga's revenues. Like Farmville, Dragon Collection and its ilk have gameplay of very little interest or depth, and are heavily dependent on aggressive Skinnerian systems for retention. Without evolving into something more playable (Puzzle and Dragons is a start, but only a start) there is only a limited number of first-time users to cycle through.

Chris Roberts
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Well I'm hoping it's got some staying power as I've just released my new game Shelter on the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Now mine doesn't quite tap into the social aspects to the same extent, and it's not free to play, but hopefully it can be viewed as innovative and build up enough of a fan base to let me keep making games. I say innovative as it's a single-player assymetric CCG, using dice rolls and simple rules to provide a challenging opponent with some randomness and unpredictability.

It was inspired by the idea of combining the rich and deep strategic duelling mechanics of CCGs like Magic with the quick play style of castle defence games.

Take a look if you're interested:
Marketplace -
Trailer -

I'll be porting to iOS, Android and PC via MonoGame shortly.

Paul Johnson
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I certainly hope the bubble doesn't burst just yet, we have one coming out in a couple of months. We're trying to raise the bar a bit in terms of what actually happens in the battles though.