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GDC 2011: Interview - Mojang's Jakob Porser on New Game  Scrolls

GDC 2011: Interview - Mojang's Jakob Porser on New Game Scrolls

March 1, 2011 | By Mike Rose

March 1, 2011 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, GDC

[Gamasutra talks to Mojang's Jakob Porser about upcoming game Scrolls -- the genesis for the idea, how it will play, and when we can expect to see it released.]

With the enormous success of open-world sandbox title Minecraft, it's clear that Sweden-based Mojang's just-announced next game Scrolls is going to feel the "difficult second album" strain.

Players are set to build decks of "scrolls," and challenge opponents to one-on-one battles via a grid similar to the layout of a chess board.

Jakob Porser, game developer at Mojang and head developer on the new title, sat down with Gamasutra this week to discuss the digital card/board game mashup with UK editor Mike Rose.

How did the idea for Scrolls come about?

Jakob Porser: Five years ago, me and Markus [Persson, creator of Minecraft] were both working at, and we got to know each other and became really good friends, and we were both into the collectible card game genre. We started talking about common flaws in the genre, and how we would like to improve them.

So, then five years have passed, and we started talking about this again, and we got to the point where we were saying, "We really want to do this game together, and it will be really fun."

But, you know, the problem with these types of games is that you need to have a critical mass of users. If you get one hundred users, they're not necessarily online all at the same time.

And if the game requires you to play against someone, then now we have enough of a spotlight on the game to get enough players... [loud bangs coming from the main Mojang offices] Oh sorry, that's the sound of Nerf guns [laughs]. They were all like "I've got a great idea, I'm gonna buy a Nerf gun!", and then someone else says "Yeah me too!", and then it all gets blown out of proportion, so there are Nerf guns everywhere [laughs].

But anyway, that's basically how it came about, pitching ideas back and forth for this amount of time. And I think that, you know, the next Mojang game will be so drastically far away from Minecraft. It wasn't like we said "So, what are we gonna do next?" It was more like, "We should start a company so we can make that game as well."

So, yeah, hopefully Minecraft fans will enjoy this game as well, and if they don't, then hopefully other people will. I mean, I love Minecraft, but I also love platformers, and first-person shooters, and turn-based, and MMORPGs.

But, you know, I see these games on consoles that look beautiful and very polished, but they don't really do it for me -- I want to feel that what I do can influence the game, and I think that's why I like strategy, or Minecraft for that matter. I mean, the game is what you make of it -- you don't just sit along for the ride.

So for Scrolls, it will be up to the user what they make of the game.


So how does the fighting happen?

You've got a game board that is kinda like a chess board but not. You each have one side of the game board, and if I have a scroll that summons a demon, for instance, I pay some resources -- I have resource management -- and then I place it on the game board. And when it attacks, it will attack in a straight line. If the other player has buildings in the way to block that attack, it won't get to them or hurt them. But if the attack gets across to the other side of the playing field, it will harm them.

This sounds easy enough, but it's not as easy as, you know, I put a scroll here and you put a scroll there and then we sit back and relax. Each unit comes with abilities, so it could be, for instance, that maybe this unit has the ability to move one step each turn, or maybe its attack can't be blocked by another unit, unless that unit has more life than it. And it's all these different kinds of scenarios that can throw curveballs at you.

Maybe you build an offensive line of units that you lump together as a spearhead attack, but maybe I can build a siege weapon that does area damage, so it will hit everyone. So then you'll want to spread them out.

So, you've got to roll with the punches and build a deck that counters certain elements, so you know that "well, my opponent might try to do this, but if I can add this thing into my deck, it will prevent that outcome at least." It's all about balancing your set of scrolls, so you have a strategy about how you're going to win, but also fill in some blanks in your defenses.

Each team, then, has a sort of 'king' unit that you need to destroy to win, or do all the units need to be destroyed?

I can summon scrolls, and it doesn't matter if those are destroyed -- to win the game, it is me you have to kill. So your units can kill me. But that's only one way to win -- there's going to be multiple ways. You can use spells or remove all my scrolls so I don't have any scrolls left.

If you run out of scrolls, then that's you, game over?

Yeah, you can't play anymore. That's one way of winning the game. And of course, there are tons of ways you'll be able to mess with your opponent's head, like destroying his resources so he won't be able to cast any spells. There's going to be very many different strategies you can use to win the game.

Abuser.jpgHave you got a release period in mind?

I wouldn't say we have a fixed date, but what we have said thus far is, the first thing we are going to release is the closed alpha. That's basically going to be a chance for us to add content and remove content depending on how we see how it all works. There's going to be a sign-up period for the people who are interested in the alpha, which will be at

How do you think you'll pick people for that, because I'm guessing that you'll probably get quite a number of sign-ups.

Yeah! [laughs] What we've been saying is, we feel that we owe so much to the earlier adopters of Minecraft, that we haven't given a fixed number, but the first X people who bought Minecraft are going to get dibs on trying out the next game.

Now, the next game, like I said, is a lot different from Minecraft, it's not the same game and I personally feel that - well, when we talk to people in the business about this game, they keep saying that well, Minecraft is such a huge success, you've found this kind of a niche, how come you're not looking to make Minecraft 2?

But you know, for us, we don't think that players are so one-dimensional that they only want to play one type of game in one genre. And secondly, Minecraft has given us the freedom to do the projects that we want and the things that we want to do.

And Scrolls, this is the game that we really want to make. It's a game that we've been talking about for almost five years and a game that we want to make together.

So even though we feel that, like I said, the earliest adopters of Minecraft are going to get first dibs on trying this new game, hopefully they will like it. And also, starting on a small scale and adding more players in the closed alpha to kind of test our system and see how the backend holds up for many users and so on.

It must feel a bit like, in music industry terms, the difficult second album, following on from Minecraft.

JP: Yeah, obviously.

Carl Manneh [managing director at Mojang]: I mean, we're not going to see it as a failure if we don't reach the same kind of audience that Minecraft has. We know that it's probably not going to - we hope it will, but we don't think so.

But then, this is a completely different game and we can't really compare them. We want people to like it, but I think if we reach just a fraction of what Minecraft has done, then we'll do pretty well with the game.

Are you thinking about doing a physical, real game card to accompany the digital release?

JP: We're not saying a definite "no" to that, but it's not something that we're considering during the design process for the game. I think just the fact that we make this game digital and playable online and on handheld phones, we can add things to the game that would be very hard to add to a paper game.

Like for instance, say if one of the units gets damaged by another certain unit, it gets a poison counter that every round it damages by one. If this was a pen and paper game, you would have to manage that yourself. You could probably do it if it was one creature affected, but if there were ten, you'd have to remember at what stage they were affected, are they not affected anymore, and so on.

So these are things that we can add to the game to improve the game, because it is a computer driven program, and the computer can manage that for you. We're not going to say that we never will - if the game is successful, and if we have a demand for it we will probably look into it, but it's not going towards the design at the moment.

If we did, we'd probably release a side-step version that has some changes in gameplay to be more in line with the paper version.

Dwarven_charger.jpgWith the name, is it tempting to add a colon and put something after Scrolls?

We're going to leave it as Scrolls actually to start out, but I'm sure if we release an expansion for instance, it will probably build on that name.

It's not always easy to come up with a name, and with this game, from the beginning we said "Scrolls" as a working title and left it at that. But then the more we thought about the name for the game, the more we thought "Maybe we should stick to Scrolls." It kind of grew on us -- it's short and to the point, and it's easy to remember.

So maybe there will be a colon in the future at some point, but we can't say for certain. But you can take some credit for that. [laughs]

Cheers! So other than through the single player, how do players earn scrolls? Can they steal scrolls from other people when playing online, or win your opponent's scrolls?

This is something we've been talking about, because we want a lot of freedom on how you can set up games. We'd love for you to be able to battle for a card, so maybe the winner gets to draw a card from the loser's deck, or you can say in advance 'we will be playing for these cards'.

But I think we will have to explore whether we will need some form of gambling license, because if it does then that will be a 'no'. But I think it would be really cool to have that as an option.

What kind of story will Scrolls have, some kind of fantasy setting?

I'm personally a big fan of the fantasy world, and the game's base is going to be in traditional Tolkien style. But we really want to think outside the box in that area, because you know, fantasy has been done so many times, and it's not unique, and certainly isn't a new thing.

But it's a world that I'm very comfortable with, and from being eight years old and playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, and I still read fantasy novels, and I love the epic fantasy movies and games when they come out, so I think a lot of people do like that genre and we're looking to mix it up a bit, and add some weirdness to it. [laughs] We're going to just play around with it a bit and it doesn't have to be that traditional.

Is it all one vs one, or are you considering team play?

We've thought about that -- in the beginning, it's going to be one on one. But I don't think it's impossible that, in the future, if the game is well liked and gets an audience, then we can introduce three players against each other, or two vs two.

We could also set up a template where three of us are in the same team, and these other guys are in another guild. So then we play each other one on one to see whose team is the stronger. I think that people like being able to team up in communities and guilds and stuff. It's a fun thing to add to a game.

Nightly_sinner.jpgYou said there's going to be regular updates, more scrolls coming out and stuff like that. How are those going to be managed and how often will they be? I guess you may get in the situation where you've got the game balanced well, and then you introduce a new set of scrolls that alters the balance.

I'm sure it's going to need a lot of testing! But yeah, that is a constant problem with all of these types of games. In a way, I kind of like it, that certain combinations of cards can become unbalanced, because it can be really fun as a player to find these combinations and use them.

But as for tournament play or any kind of ranking game, we would have to take steps. We never want to remove or nerf cards - you know, people will invest in cards and trade cards and buy them at the auction house, and collect these cards because they think they're awesome. So that's going to be a big no-no.

Let's say we release two expansions per year, with new batches of scrolls. I think we will have to balance the batch we release with the latest two or three releases, and say 'these are the cards that will be in tournament play'. And all the other cards, you are still allowed to play with them and create decks with every scroll we've ever released, but come tournament play, you'll only be able to play with a specific set of scrolls.

That way, if the game is successful and lives on for five years and we have a couple of thousands of cards, we won't have to balance the newest card with the oldest card. We'll only have to balance the latest three hundreds cards or so.

You know, there's still room to put your foot in it. [laughs] But that gives us a better standing point.

Visually, how are the battles going to look?

We hired a great artist, jnkboy [Markus Toivonen], who has started working on this - his work is really awesome. We're going to keep everything 2D, and it's going to look sort of toonish. It's not going to look like Japanese anime, but it's going to have a little bit of that, mixed with a little bit more of the Western style of graphics. I think we're going to have a really cool look for this game.

Distribution-wise, are you planning on staying independent, or perhaps looking to make a deal with Steam?

We are planning to stay independent, for a number of reasons. We just like being indie developers, and not having to customize our products after other people's plan, so we can do our own thing.

We're more than happy to take advice from those people who can give it, but you know, we're in a very fortunate position with the success of Minecraft, that we have the financial means to create a game like this, and that we have enough spotlight and attention from Minecraft, to be able to present a game like this to the public.

We feel that we don't really need a partner for publishing. So we're going to try to do this totally on our own.

How many members of the team are going to be working on Scrolls?

Well right now, I'm working on it, and our graphical artist jnkboy, and we've hired a backing developer who's going to helping us, so I think us three for starters working 100 per cent on the game. Then Tobias [Mollstam] is going to help some, and one of the developers for Minecraft, Jens, is probably going to help a little bit, and we're also going to have an intern from Germany who's going to help us in April.

Synarian_sorceress.jpgIs there anything from working on Minecraft that has influenced how you plan to work on Scrolls?

I think the constant releases of small iterations is something that we will definitely adapt from Minecraft. You know, Minecraft started selling at a very early stage, when the game was far from complete, and there are many advantages to that.

After the Scrolls closed alpha, then there will be an open beta. And basically everyone can join in the open beta and everyone can buy the game, and at that point we will try to sell it to the audience. And that's kind of the way that Minecraft was as well - Markus didn't have a closed alpha, but the early customers will have to live through a period where we're still developing the game and adding new stuff to it.

Like for instance, the single player part of the game will not be in the closed alpha or open beta - that will come with the full release. So the open beta will be where you can acquire cards, buy them at the auction house, use tournament templates and so on, but then we're going to add new stuff to this. So maybe the player will come on a few weeks later, and new templates for setting up more exciting tournaments will be available.

So I think that's what we're bringing forward from Minecraft. And of course, one major thing is to continue to stay close to the community and to the players. With Minecraft, we have benefitted so very much from the community.

I mean, some of the items in Minecraft are things that we might have just added from a tweet, like 'Oh, this will be awesome! You're right, I'll add it!', and then pushed it live two days later, you know? Twitter is not a one way street; it's not about us giving information to the people who follow us. It's very much about receiving as well.

So we need to continue that and try to have as close a connection with the community as possible and to really listen to them.

The closed alpha, then - is that going to follow the same format as Minecraft, with a cut price to join that, and a bumped up price later on?

Well, the closed alpha won't cost any money. I think at that point we're just going to shower content on the people who are signed up and ask them to try it and play with it and tell us what they think, to see what combinations are broken and what doesn't work.

And at the end of that... well, we're gonna take everything away from them. [laughs] Then we move onto the open beta, and that's when the actual game starts.

So the closed alpha will be a bit like how normal games behave at the beta. So like, if you were the beta tester for the latest release of World of Warcraft, you can get to a certain level, but as soon as the game is finished, they will make you start over again. So basically that's how our alpha will work.


What kind of price point are you looking at at this stage?

We haven't decided on a price point yet, but the way it will work is, the game itself will be free for anyone, but the content of the game -- the scrolls -- you can buy packs of those. So we want people to be able to try the game before being able to invest in it, and we think that is the best way for everyone.

I myself have bought so many games where I've thought 'oh my god this looks awesome', then you install it and it's sh*te [laughs]. So this way, you'll be able to get a feel for the game, then you can buy it or not. So let's say -- this is no fixed number, just off the top of my head -- you invest 10 euros in the game and you get 60, 70, 80 or whatever scrolls. Then you have expanded your collection. And this will be random, so if you're lucky you'll get a really rare card.

Ah, so when you're buying packs, you're not buying a specific set - it's as if you're buying real packs of cards in a shop. So you might get a 'shiny' card in a pack?

Yeah exactly. I mean, we're gonna try to balance it up in some way so that you won't get an entire pack of only 'common' cards, but yeah, it's random, so you don't know exactly what you're going to get. You may get lucky and get a really rare card, then you might keep it or place it in the auction house, that will be up to you.

Are we looking at a PC-only release?

The first release is going to be PC and Mac, and you'll be able to install it. But there's also the possibility of playing it in a browser.

Will that be Flash?

No, it's not going to be Flash, but we have talked about having an open API so anyone can create their own client, since everything is going to be server-side anyway.

The problem with Flash is that no-one really takes it seriously. Plus of course, the performance issues. So we're going to look beyond that. We're probably leaning towards Unity. Unity has some added features, and performance-wise it outruns Flash. Plus, if you want to use 3D or particle effects and so on...

But we're also thinking that this game would be great to play on an iPad. Drawing up scrolls with your fingers would be a nice touch. We're looking at smartphones in general - the Android and the iPhone and the iPad.

Any consoles?

We're not looking at consoles right now, but if the game turns out to be successful and has a fair amount of users, then it could definitely be something that we consider doing.

There's a problem with consoles though -- I mean, on the PC and Mac and the iPad and the smartphones, everyone can play against each other. But if we get it to, say, the Xbox, then they (Microsoft) only want you to play against other Xboxs.

Ah yeah, I guess then you've got a problem with your online leagues.

Yeah exactly. We want people to be able to play cross-platform. But we will see, maybe in the future. It's not impossible.

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