Game Influences (7/6): Warstorm

I thought I’d finished the six post series on games that influenced Athenge, but I soon saw a game that changed my plans. This post is about how I analyze games by verbs, decision timing, and business concerns.


The fundamental difference between games and most other media is interactivity. When I want to understand a game, one step is to list all of the verbs available to the players. For example, the verbs in Super Mario Brothers are:

I was thinking of this because I played the browser-based trading card game Warstorm and I was astounded when I realized what the available verbs are on the site (ignoring the account management common to any site with user accounts):

The first six verbs are common to any trading card game. The last item is the interesting one: play. It looks like I didn’t descend into the same level of detail I did for Mario, but I did.

The player selects which of their decks they’d like to use and the duel proceeds like War. The computer turns up the top card of each deck, applies their effects, and repeats. The only thing the player can do is fast-forward to the end to find out if they won or lost.

I was floored when I realized this, I thought the site was hollow. It’s all about a card game but there’s no game at its heart. It reminded me of gambling in that nearly every verb you invoke involves paying, but unlike gambling there’s no chance you’ll ever get any money back.

I babbled about this to my friends for a few days, trying to make sense of it. Eventually I realized I hadn’t seen where the game was hiding.

Decision Timing

In real-time games (rugby, StarCraft) players are constantly able to take action (maybe with asymmetrical actions, like the separate roles of offense and defense in American football). In turn-based games (Chess, Scrabble, Civilization) players alternate who is allowed to act.

Magic: The Gathering had clever game mechanics that gave players new actions in a preparatory phase called “deckbuilding” prior to playing cards (incidentally inventing a business model). The players make decisions about what actions they want available to them in the matchups.

Warstorm is designed so that all of the actions are up-front, there is no phase of the game besides deckbuilding. It didn’t feel to me like a game because no game mechanic involves direct interaction with the opponent, I didn’t see that I could ever make and change a decision in response to my opponent’s actions (unless we played multiple duels, I suppose). I didn’t even see the game because it was too different from what I was expecting.

But it made me wonder how business concerns drove the game design of Warstorm, a game where there’s little to do besides pay more money.

Business Concerns

When I turned my attention back to Athenge, I saw that my game design implied a lot of business decisions. I like games that require a lot of thought and analysis. I look at the most popular Facebook games and only see pastimes, idle toys requiring action with little thought, minimal direct competition, and even rarer losses. Oh, and tens of millions of players.

Warstorm reminded me that my taste in games is not common. Athenge will be a complex game, lots of instructions and options. It’ll take a lot of time for me, a lone developer, to build. Plus money to buy art, and more resources in marketing to find its non-mainstream audience. There’s risk to anything I choose to build, but Athenge looks to be more risk than it’s worth when I look at the current crop of simple, successful games. I could cut it down more and more, let these business concerns change my game’s design, but I’d rather let them replace my game’s design.

Instead of starting the programming of Athenge now, I’m continuing to improve the successful NearbyGamers and starting on a simpler, much more accessible game I’ve been tinkering with the design of for eighteen months. (Though it’s simple enough that’ll sound ridiculous when you see it, that’s fodder for another blog post). I still plan to build Athenge, but I think it must wait until I’m solidly in the black, until I’m not risking quite so much.