One development team’s journey to create the perfect combination of playing, streaming, PvP combat, and cards
There’s an epic landgrab in space that breeds battles near and far. You’ve got to coordinate your armies and advantageously place units in hopes of defeating your enemies and laying claim to strategically sound strongholds to protect your queen. And after that, the real fun begins! This is Shardbound, an online adventure unlike any other that combines some of the best features of games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Hearthstone to create a game uniquely positioned to connect streamers and viewers in a way never seen before.
Two members of the Spiritwalk Games team, Shardbound’s gameplay designer, Dan Gibson, and the CEO, Dave Cerra, talked to Geektime about what inspired such an amalgamation of concepts and what the team expects from the game in the future.
But first, you need to know a bit about the game itself. In Shardbound, players control characters on a board in a turn-based PvP showdown. Each player controls a hero on the battlefield and also has a hand of cards like you would in a collectible card game. The concept is simple: defeat the enemy’s hero and protect your own with a combination of tactical positioning, clever attacks and retreats, and a strategic summoning of units for backup. You get these units, or minions, by spending mana and playing cards that either put minions on the battlefield or use special abilities. Different heroes and minions have different abilities, attack and defense values, and strategic use. The game offers a myriad of opportunities for gaining or losing tactical advantage, and a skilled player can really shine when it comes to outsmarting their opponent. Whether units are ranged or melee, have line of site, use cover, or activate special abilities all have an effect on your success in battle. You’re given a few starter decks in the beginning, but eventually can create your own personalized decks based on your desired attack plan and preferred hero, so it’s almost certain that no two match-ups will ever be alike.
This combination of features is innovative and entertaining and keeps players strategizing with every turn. Where to move your characters? Which minion should be aggressive and which should hold back and retreat to a less vulnerable position? Whom should you sacrifice to protect your hero? Which card should you play next? How much mana do you want to spend on abilities versus more minions on the field? It’s clear how easily the game engages its players from the very first hand and keeps them thinking on their feet throughout the various battles they encounter.
But the ingenuity of Sharbound doesn’t stop there. The designers have worked hard to bring something totally new to the gaming world, and that’s Shardbound’s unique ability to bring streamers and players together to interact, live. The game gives streamers and players the ability to work with each other on the “Shardfalls,” which is where players can complete quests and gain rewards. I asked Dave Cerra where this idea came from, and he explained that the Spiritwalk team knew they wanted to utilize streaming before they had even fleshed out the idea of a tactical card game. Cerra recounted his experience with some fellow Spiritwalk team members on a game called Dawngate. “While I can’t share specific numbers, we saw a significant number of players come into that game due to community development work on Twitch. The game was in Beta and wasn’t really marketed, yet we had this vibrant player base. It didn’t all come from Twitch, but a lot of it did. That experience changed us forever as developers and we thought ‘what if we designed that into the game itself?’”
So from that seed the idea of Sharbound grew. Cerra explains that “we love the bond between broadcaster and audience,” and a major goal of Shardbound was to contribute to that relationship directly.
However, the team wanted to find a balance not only between streamers and their audience, but also with players and the game itself. Cerra said, “we’re also competitive gamers,” so they set out to also create a game that is set up to be played very competitively. The Spiritwalk team understood that there’d be no audience at all if the gameplay itself didn’t excite its players. Cerra explains, “we tackled the tactical CCG gameplay first, because if that wasn’t great then none of the streaming ideas would matter at all.” He explains the team only turned to the streaming features once they were confident the gameplay was on the level they had aimed to achieve.
At this point, however, the team encountered the hard truth that even a great idea needs a lot of reworking before it can be made reality. “What we found was that a lot of our design assumptions around bringing audiences into the game simply broke it. It sounds great to say ‘make it like the Hunger Games’ on paper, but once you get into it, you find that what works brilliantly in a novel can make for a poor user experience. At least for our game, allowing the audience to actively affect gameplay violated the competitive experience between the two players. It was ruining the esport potential of Shardbound.”
This is where the game’s unique “Shardfall System” was born. Cerra explains that it “is collaborative questing mixed with player guilds and Twitch integration.” He continues, expanding on how the feature “allows players of all different skills to progress in the game together while match-making in their respective skill-brackets.” And, amazingly, “it also allows players to interact directly with streamers and get in-game loot from them.” The game is set up so streamers get positive value from having players interact with their Shardfalls, while players get to earn reputation with their favorite streamers’ houses. Basically, it’s a win-win for all involved.
Dan Gibson explained to Geektime how excited he was about the Shardfall Systems and where they’re headed in future development. According to Gibson, there will be “Tournament Shardfalls, Competitive Shardfalls, Draft or Sealed Shardfalls,” as well as several other unique features that really make the game stand out from anything else currently on the market. Gibson explains, “I’m particularly excited about the chance to play with streamers in modes beyond the base PvP game mode. I love the ‘Blame The Deck’ Twitch quest we have in the game currently that pits you against the streamer with both of you wielding completely random decks. Since streamers are often really skilled (and better than me!) that’s a fun way to put us on more even footing and have a wacky unique experience.” Gibson adds, “everything about that is exciting to me.”
If their Kickstarter success is any indication, Gibson isn’t the only one excited. With less than a week left in the campaign, the game already has raised a whopping nearly $70 thousand more than their original $50 thousand goal with over 2.5k supporters. Undoubtedly the instant game key delivered to every backer is a real draw to support the game. Fans on Reddit are already posting strategy discussions, asking for feedback on their decks, and even passing around some fan art and fan fiction for the game – which is still only in pre-alpha at the moment, by the way. Registration for what appears to already be the 6th Shardbound Community Tournament is underway on Reddit as well. With this sort of following so early on in development, Shardbound’s potential to take off as a leader in the streaming community is clear.
That’s why right now, the team is really focusing on seeing how the game’s unique connection between players and streamers works when tested, so they’re moving on to Steam Early Access in the near future. According to Cerra, “we need to iterate on this first-of-its-kind feature to find what really works for both players and streaming ecosystems,” and the team is excited to see what feedback they receive because listening to and engaging in the community is one of their top priorities.
In fact, Cerra says that while people often discuss games and their communities as separate (albeit connected) entities, “at Spiritwalk, we don’t think of online games as having communities: online games are communities. Spiritwalk is a team of gamers making a game we think is fun and compelling for other gamers.” Everyone working on Shardbound is proud and honored to have a dedicated fanbase that returns to support Spiritwalk games as they move through development, and that loyalty and input isn’t lost on the team. “The only way to make a game that we’ll all want to play for years to come is to do it together.”
So, as old Spiritwalk fans and new Shardbound players come together, the Spiritwalk team will keep their eyes and ears open to do the best to bring their communities something both exciting and unique. “As a studio, nothing makes us happier than having a passionate player base helping to make the game better.” As far as the game’s longevity and success are concerned, Cerra ends by noting, “we’re looking forward to carrying this forward for as long as our players will let us.” With such a unique integration of game concepts, an already increasing fan base, and the potential for never-before-seen interaction between streamers and players, keep an eye out for Shardbound to grow fast in popularity and spread quickly across the gaming world.