Why Magic The Gathering has become an annual gaming franchise
Amid the trials of Microsoft's submission process, Duels of the Planeswalkers dev lays its cards on the table.
Stainless Games' digital version of cult card game Magic the Gathering is one of the most popular titles on Xbox Live. This summer will see the developer pump out the series third incarnation, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013.
It's the second title in just two years of what could now be an annual franchise. But it wasn't always supposed to be that way.
"What we wanted to do originally was, as we're living in the modern digital download era, make a game and just carry on releasing DLC for it, and go on forever," Ben Gunstone, the game's production director, told Eurogamer. "That proved in the real-world to be very difficult, within the constraints of Xbox, mainly."
Not only does Microsoft limit the amount of DLC packs that a developer can release, it also has a notoriously expensive system for managing game updates.
"It's to do with title update limitations," Gunstone continued. "You can get around it, and we did get around it, but it became such a complicated affair. If you ever updated the original Duels game it essentially deletes itself and re-downloads itself.
"Submissions aren't free and if you keep on doing them it becomes a sliding scale... the tail doesn't make so much money towards the end."
Discussing Microsoft's update fees, which Double Fine boss Tim Schafer previously pegged as costing as much as $40,000 (about £25,500) per patch, Gunstone admitted it was "a lot of money for a studio, for anyone. It's a lot of money for products which cost 800 Microsoft Points [about £6.80]. You have to be really sure about it, so when you're continually doing it..."
Duels 2013 will launch on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and, for the first time, iPad. It's been hard work, Gunstone admitted. "QA becomes a big strain, when you're pumping things out on multiple platforms at the same time. It's growing like a beast.
"We have quite close relationships with the guys at Xbox, at Sony and the guys at Valve for Steam as well. With XBLA we'll have weekly conference calls with Microsoft. They give us some high barriers to jump but it always makes for a better game in the end."
"Submissions aren't free and if you keep on doing them it becomes a sliding scale..."
Both Sony and Microsoft are involved in projects like Duels from the moment a game's concept is submitted. This relationship continues through to the game's final compliance testing, which determines when the title is ready to launch. Both Microsoft and Sony can excise a "veto" on submissions.
Even games that aren't first-party products, like Duels 2013, work with Microsoft Studios on the game's launch. A copy of the title is spirited away by an "elite test group" that works on compatibility testing.
"They'll take it away and come back in a couple of weeks and say how likely you are to pass compliance. Once you've got it past those guys you're pretty sure you'll be alright," Gunstone revealed.
There are plenty of upsides to a new, annual release of the game too, Gunstone explained. A fresh launch will draw far more attention to the game than simply launching a new DLC pack. It also allows quicker response to fan feedback.
"You know the internet, we get equal measures of hate and love mail. There's some vociferous angry people, and some vociferous happy people.
"800 Points is a relatively trivial amount of money these days. To charge that once a year is not a big ask," Gunstone reasoned.
"In the end it's Wizards' product and we're working for them. So if they want to carry on doing yearly updates - and I don't see at the moment why we wouldn't - we should be able to make it happen."
"800 Points is a relatively trivial amount of money these days. To charge that once a year is not a big ask."
Duels 2013 will tie in to Wizard's main Magic the Gathering 2013 launches, with some spoiler-filled cards also included. There's also a new campaign, new challenges, 10 fresh decks to unlock and an extra multiplayer game mode, Planechase, which replaces Archenemy from last year's offering.
The game is being readied for launch this summer but is already near completion. This is due to the complexities of launching the game on so many platforms, Gunstone explained. "Our plan involves guaranteeing it comes out at a certain time so we have to plan for things to go horribly wrong and then make sure things don't go horribly wrong."
Stainless Games is optimistic of Duels 2013's future. "The game is a fantastic collaborative approach, without that sounding like w**k-words. We work directly with Wizards' R&D team who are the ultra-nerdy game designers who create Magic cards. They know their stuff."
The recent surge in popularity for XBLA could also help Duels 2013's chances. "Whenever big games come out it always raises the profile", Gunstone said, namechecking recent XBLA releases Trials Evolution and The Walking Dead.
"We've been on XBLA from the beginning with Crystal Quest, so we're very aware of the ups and downs of the visibility on the dashboard. It's never been promoted as wholly as it could be.
"If people are driven there once who've never been there before, they're more likely to go back again. It's like the Double Fine Kickstarter, the new people that were drawn to Kickstarter have gone on spending money there."