How do you feel about the state of variance in the game? What are your plans to address the perception of variance problems?
In order to answer that question, it is important first to clarify what we are talking about. When people use the word “Variance” they can be talking about a variety of things. I break these communications down into two categories along with my thoughts on each below:
How much does skill determine the outcome of a game? How much of it is based on random chance?
Our design and development goal with SolForge was always to have some variance in the outcome of games. As a ballpark, we used the metric that a player in the top 20th percentile of skill level should beat a player in the top 50% of skill level about 70% of the time. Skill makes a big difference in the outcome of games, but there is still a lot of room for any player to win. This is just a ballpark number, but its useful to have a target to shoot for when developing a game.
Why do we want this kind of variance? Variance helps make the game more fun for many reasons. It allows there to be surprising outcomes, forces players to react to these outcomes, and gives every player a chance to win. For every time you have a frustrating loss from random events not going your way, there is another time that variance pulls you out of a tight spot for a dramatic comeback, or you are forced to make unusual / interesting plays based on an unlikely board position. Variance will sometimes make games less fun, but, on the whole, a good balance of expected outcomes and unexpected outcomes adds excitement and enjoyment to the gaming experience.
So how close are we to our target with Solforge? We’ve been able to dig into matchup results based on player rating to see what the actual win % are for our top players, Based on the data we have, SolForge is actually *more* skill based than we had initially targeted. In fact, it is more skill testing than most trading card games we have been able to measure. A player in the top 20th percentile will currently beat a player in the top 50th percentile about 85% of the time. We see even more extreme win records when player ratings are further apart.
These numbers, while a bit off from our initial targets are well within the acceptable range for a skill testing game with random elements. In short, as far as the reality of variance affecting games goes, we are pretty happy with the current state of affairs.
That, however, does not tell the most important part of the story. In gaming, perception is reality, so we have to also take a look at the second part of the equation.
How much does it “feel” like variance is determining the outcome of a game? How happy or unhappy does this make me? How much control do I have over how variance will influence me?
This is the more difficult and important question. When designing Solforge, one of our goals was to reduce the instance of “non-games” that occur in other TCGs. The most prominent example is in a game of Magic, when one player doesn’t draw enough lands (or spells) and they basically do not get to play the game. This kind of front-loaded randomness means that a decent percentage of games are over before they begin, which is not very much fun.
SolForge solves this problem by “back-loading” much of the game’s randomness. After the first turn, each player is able to play 2 level 1 cards during the first 4 turns of the game, and it is only after the board has developed that randomness and variation in level draw starts significantly impacting the game. This means that there are no “non-games” even when variance goes against you.
Overall, I think this back-loaded variance is a huge positive for gameplay. Players can become engaged in a game and have some back and forth with their opponent in almost every game of SolForge. That being said, there are some big downsides to this approach. When most of the variance is back-loaded, you only find out how variance will go after you are mentally invested in a game. It psychologically “hurts” a lot more to draw a hand of all level 1s and lose a long game that you have become invested in than it does to open up a game with a “bad draw” and have it end in two minutes.
I believe this is the core of many players’ frustrations with variance in SolForge. To some extent, this will always be a part of the game. Even when players have a great back and forth game the feeling of drawing a hand of all level 1 cards late in the game overwhelms that experience and becomes a source of anger and frustration.
This type of feeling is something we are very focused on mitigating and we are working to find ways to improve the overall experience. This is no easy task, because we want to reduce the negative feelings of variance without further reducing the actual variance! That being said, we believe we have some great solutions on the way in upcoming set that help address this very problem.
The key is the feeling of control. If I as a player feel like I have tools to help mitigate variance in my favor (even at a cost) I feel less bad about being subjected to it.
Towards that end, I am excited to preview our first major mechanic and card from Set 3:
Iron Maiden is the first card to feature the Consistent mechanic. Consistent cards, once leveled up, are guaranteed to be shuffled into the top 20 cards of your deck, ensuring they will be drawn sometime during the next player rank. This card is one of my favorites, asking you to sacrifice levels one and two for a beastly level three creature. One of my favorite cards from our first set was Chrogias, but I always felt bad when I spent the effort to level him up but then never drew him during player rank three. Iron Maiden has no such problem, and her ability to reflect damage dealt to her along with breakthrough ensures that the game will quickly be put away in your favor. I’ve crushed many an opponent during our playtesting of the set after being at a significant health disadvantage once Iron Maiden hits the table.
Consistent is just one of several exciting mechanics that allow players to manipulate variance in their favor (or to take more risks in exchange for more power). The world of SolForge has changed a lot since release, and this new set promises to be even more format defining than anything before it.
You’ll see previews of more cards, more mechanics, and more features from the next release in the coming days. I’ll also be back again next month answering more of your questions and showing off more of the upcoming features in Solforge. In the meantime, we’ll see many of you at GenCon this week and we’ll see the rest of you in the queues!