Archive for category: Uncategorized

The Passive Protagonist Problem

24 Nov
November 24, 2013



“The Passive Protagonist Problem,” try saying that five times quickly!

As many of you know, I’m in the final stages of building System Crash, the cyberpunk, story-heavy collectable card game I’ve been working on for about two years now.

The end of an artistic or creative project can be a tricky time, because it’s difficult to know when to call it “done”. An engineering project is simpler, you’re judging utility, ticking items off of feature lists, testing stability. Qualities that are directly and objectively measurable. With art, you’re dealing with subjectivity and nebulous principles. Read more →

Do Not Be Alarmed

19 Nov
November 19, 2013

I’ve grown bored with my old site/theme, so I’m changing things up a bit.

The old blog will be in a transitional phase for a while, while I play with settings and so on. Don’t panic, you should always be able to read the blog by going to the home page (

The problems of a rock-paper-scissors CCG design

13 Nov
November 13, 2013


A lot of strategy games use a core design that basically boils down to rock-paper-scissors.

If you have three types of units, A, B and C –

– A beats B

– B beats C

– and C in turn beats A.

A, B and C might be called Knights, Cavalry and Archers in your game, but this simple relationship is often the core of the mechanics.

Of course, it’s usually more complicated than this simple ternary relationship, with elaborations like “hard” vs “soft” counters, different costs for different units, tech trees, special abilities and multi-unit type relationships, but this is still a foundational, and fun, way to approach it.

So I thought it would work well in System Crash, being a strategy game in card form, after all. Turns out I was wrong. Read more →


30 May
May 30, 2013

Rather lovely little video. My hometown. 🙂

So what now? After the alpha release.

27 Feb
February 27, 2013

As I said in the previous post, getting some good feedback on the first alpha release. So, what now?

Well, I’ve collected all that feedback into a large spreadsheet, classifying the bugs/issues based on priority, type of issues etc.


There’s a bit over 60 so far, which I’m going through and fixing as quickly as I can. As you can see from the stats, GUI issues are the majority right now.

Which is pretty much what I expected. The first real test of the GUI is when you open it to lots of people to hammer on. Developers are blinded by their own intimate knowledge of all the systems and design choices, they can’t see the points where their assumptions aren’t obvious to players very well. You need the feedback from people going in with a blank slate.

Once the GUI issues are sorted, I expect more bugs and balance issues to come rolling in. A good metaphor for a GUI is that it is like a window into your game systems. A bad GUI is like that window is dirty, obscuring the game systems seen “through” it. A great GUI is transparent to the player. Right now, in this rough state, the GUI is too “dirty”, which will prevent a number of players from digging too deep into the game.

So, in the interests of “cleaning the window”, my primary focus has been upgrading the GUI based on players’ feedback, concentrating on the issues that are resulting in player confusion or “what now?” moments.

Things like upgrading the Player Hand UI –

( old version for comparison )

And adding in animations to make it clearer to the player when and how they score OP (Objective Points), and to draw their focus to their OP Total.

I’m aiming to get a new version to testers later this week, hopefully Friday.

How Keys Work

23 Jan
January 23, 2013

Huh. So simple. Can’t say I actually knew that. Well, now I do!




Deck Archetypes

17 Jan
January 17, 2013

After settling on the cyberpunk theme, the first thing I did was sit down and brainstorm ideas for cards, all the while immersing myself in cyberpunk media. Books, movies, music and artwork helped to get the old creative juices flowing. Every idea went into a big spreadsheet I maintain in Google Docs.

But of course time and money are limited, so I couldn’t implement every idea I had. Card art is the second largest expense on the project, after my own time. So what I did is identify 5 core deck archetypes that I wanted to support in the initial release. By ‘support’, I mean provide a good selection of cards for. Even within an archetype, there needs to be enough cards to choose from to make for interesting choices, so that there are differences even between decks built in the same archetype. And, of course, to allow mixing and matching of archetypes.

There are cards in the set that don’t fit neatly into these archetypes, certainly, but most cards in the first release fit somewhere within them. Future expansions will focus on expanding the number of archetypes available, probably focusing on one new archetype per expansion. At least at first.

The core archetypes in the ‘base set’ of cards in System Crash are thus :

(click images to see them full-sized)


Jack of all trades, master of none. The balanced deck is a good all-rounder but can often be beaten by more focused decks. Still, don’t dismiss this option, in playtesting so far it’s doing a decent job of holding its own. A good selection of Agents at all cost tiers, Event/Tactic/Modifier cards providing a wide variety of options and counters. Bring out runners like Maddox and Nem0, outfit them with equipment like Neural Interface and the ASH Series-K Lancer rifle, then give your agents that extra edge with a Hacked Satellite.



Hacking cards are Event or Tactic cards that represent the hacking software you can bring to bear on your opponent’s secure systems, allowing you to either directly score Objective Points or deny them to your opponent. They’re powerful because your opponent can’t block these cards with Agents, though you will need to buy yourself time to use them effectively. The Hacking deck has a number of tricks to achieve this. Cards like Smoke Grenade, Electronet and a number of cheap, disposable blockers help you keep enemy Agents at bay while ICEbreakers like Hexag0n do their work.


Resource Denial

The goal of this deck is simple – starve your opponent of Credits. Whatever their strategy is, it won’t work if they can’t afford to pay to bring cards into play. Wyrm49 and Yakuza agents deny them funds, while cards like Hostile Takeover let you shift Credits permanently from their Pool to your own. Strangle their funding, then move in for the kill.


Resource Boost

The counterpoint to the Resource Denial deck is this one, Resource Boost. Here, the focus is to accelerate your rate of resource gain and get to the point where you can pull out the heavy hitters. This deck has a higher concentration of expensive cards than would otherwise be wise. Luckily, it’s also got a number of tricks like Transferred Funds to help you afford those expensive cards. Build up an army of potent mechs and top tier runners, then simply overwhelm your opponent with brute force. Opponents are advised to not let this deck build up momentum.


Agent Removal

You know what they say, the best defense is not having to fight the enemy at all. This deck is packed with ways to clear the board of any bothersome Agents your opponent can bring into play, leaving the way clear for your Agents to seize victory. Assassinate, EMP Grenade and the assassin Wei Lee are just some of the deadly cards you can bring into play.


Oh Bioware

15 Jan
January 15, 2013

To quote the author of this article, Steve Hogarty :

BioWare ends homophobia by cramming gays on to remote planet that you have to pay to access

Maybe I’m being unfair by laying this at Bioware’s feet. After all, it’s getting harder to tell where Bioware ends and EA begins, these days. You can certainly see EA’s slimy fingerprints all over the way the rest of the game is monetized SWTOR.

Seriously, limiting chat and action bars? Way to hook free players on your MMO, you clueless twits.

The basics of System Crash and CCGs

14 Jan
January 14, 2013


Before I talk about the finer details of playtesting / tuning System Crash, I thought it might be a good idea to get people who haven’t played them up to speed on the basics of CCGs, and how System Crash card duels work specifically. What I’m outlining might not apply to all CCGs, but it covers the usual suspects, Magic The Gathering, Pokemon, The Game of Thrones LCG etc.

Broadly speaking, in CCGs the gameplay is broken up into two main aspects : The pre-duel planning of deck-building and the tactical gameplay during the actual duel itself.

The one is tied to the other; just as your choices in character building affect your tactics in combat in an RPG, so do your deck-building choices in a CCG inform your tactics during the battle. A deck designed around a slow build up to a killer combo may play much more defensively than one designed around rushing your enemy early with cheap creatures, hoping to finish them before they can build up.

We’ll start by looking at the card duel. I’ll describe the physical card game, the computer games are similar with certain elements abstracted.

The Duel

At the start of the game, both players shuffle their decks so that the cards are randomized, placing them face down in front of them. Each player then draws a number of cards from their deck, being careful to hide them from their opponent. These cards are their starting hand. Your hand contains all those cards you have drawn but not yet played into the active area.


To play a card, you must have the resources to pay its cost. Doing so allows you to move that card from your hand into play. In the usual case, some cards in your deck will represent resources. Playing these cards from your hand is generally free, they can then be tapped to grant you resources for playing other cards.

In the case of playing instantaneous cards, they resolve their effect at once and then are moved to the discard pile, where they cannot be used again (except by certain cards that bend the rules). Some cards are more permanent though, they enter play and stay there, providing ongoing benefits to their controller. What these cards represent is dependent on the game’s theme, but creature cards, equipment and resources are common types.


Players take it in turns to play, alternating. On each player’s turn they draw one or more new cards from their deck into their hand, then choose which cards to play from their hand, based on their strategy and available resources. Once they have played all the cards from their hand that they wish to, the cards in play that can act have a chance to. Usually, this involves attacking the opponent or contesting some objective. The controlling player may or may not get to make choices in which of their creatures attack, and the opposing player may or may not get choices in how to defend. Once combat is resolved, you check to see if one player has won (whatever the victory condition happens to be), and if not, move onto the other player’s turn.

Simple enough, but where it gets really interesting is in the other part of the game, deck-building.


The most important part of the game. While luck and your opponent’s moves will affect how you play during a duel, the deck building phase will determine what your deck can do, how good it is at certain tactics and whether it has good counters to what an opponent can throw at it. For a well-balanced game, there should never be a single perfect deck, just as in an RPG you should never expect one class to be good in all areas and have no weaknesses.

What most people new to the genre don’t realize is that deck-building is fundamentally about probabilities. For simplicities sake, say your deck size is 50. If you include 1 copy of a card in your deck, what are the odds of getting that card in a draw? 1 in 50, obviously. But say you have 5 copies in your deck, now your chances are much better, 1 in 10. With only one copy of that card in your deck, you may not even draw that card once in an entire game. By having 5 copies, you can reasonably expect to draw that card at least once.

The thing to remember is that putting a card in your deck uses up a ‘slot’ that could be filled by another card. Throwing in everything and the kitchen sink is the best way to ensure that you DON’T get the cards you actually need, when you need them. Newbies tend to make the mistake of trying to build decks that include all the cards that look ‘cool’.


Generally, you’ll want to decide on a specific strategy for your deck before you start deck building, adding only the cards that support that strategy. Well, that’s not quite true, you can include a few cards designed to help you out if the opponent throws you a curve ball, but in general you should build around a core strategy. Work out what card combos synergise well, then try to build a deck such that the odds favour getting the combos you want in a timely fashion.

And don’t forget to consider the cost of the card. Some cards represent resources you can spend to pay for other cards. Obviously, a hand full of expensive cards is useless to you unless you have enough resources to play them. So perhaps your deck needs a higher ratio of resource cards, if you want to pack it with expensive goodies? Just like other cards, try to figure out the probability of drawing a resource card, and whether that seems like a good rate of resource progression. If it’s not, adjust the distribution of resource cards in your deck. This may mean culling other cards you’d have liked to include, but difficult choices are at the heart of deck-building. No deck is perfect, generally you want to focus on being good at just one or two things.

All this will inform the decisions you make during the duel itself. If you know your deck is built around playing a certain 2-card combo, and one of the cards is drawn, you may choose to not play it immediately, waiting until you get the second card and can pull off that one-two punch. Or, perhaps you know that your deck has a specific weakness, certain types of creatures. You have included a card or two specifically to handle those types of creatures when they come into play, but you know you need to save it for those specific creatures instead of simply playing it against some lesser annoyance.

With these considerations in mind, the rules of CCGs are fairly simply, at least to the seasoned fan of strategy and roleplaying games. But there are many interesting strategies you can devise; this, combined with fresh challenges presented each game by the deck randomizing element, are why these games are so popular.

System Crash

Let me go through the specifics of System Crash quickly. First, let’s set the scene…


In a dystopian future where technology, far from ushering in a golden age, has fundamentally altered what it means to be human and allowed greedy megacorporations to practically enslave humanity under the yoke of consumerism and mass media, your character is a ‘runner’, an agent operating outside ‘the system’, one of those fighting to survive and thrive in the cracks between the shining towers of chrome and steel.

You take on the illicit, high-risk jobs that the powers-that-be need deniability on. Whether it’s hacking a secure data server, extracting a defecting researcher from a corporate enclave or sabotaging a rival corp’s manufacturing plant, you’ll take it on if the money’s right.

Card duels represent ‘runs’, high-risk contracts from shadowy clientele. You are the run’s ‘controller’, the leader, the brains, the man or woman working behind the scenes, organizing and directing the run. To achieve your run’s goal you need to accumulate ‘Objective Points’, an abstract measure of how much progress you’ve made toward that goal. Accumulate 30 OP and success is yours. Conversely, the opposing controller, generally the head of a corporate security force, is attempting to repel your intrusion. When the opponent’s Objective Points reach the required amount, you have failed the run, your Agents scattering to the streets to avoid capture and your commline terminated to avoid a trace leading back to your physical location.

How the run is achieved is up to you. Recruit your agents, purchase equipment and software, execute your tactics!

Now, unlike some other card games, System Crash has a set of fixed slots on the board for bringing cards into play. As shown below, each player has 4 Agent slots and 3 Tactic slots. Once those are filled, you cannot bring more permanent cards into play until they clear.

(The top half of the board is the AI’s play area, bottom half is the player’s play area + his hand )


Luckily (or unluckily), combat is fast and lethal, Agents cycling quickly. And Tactic cards have a short, limited duration, after which they are discarded. You may only have 3 in play at once, but you will certainly have the opportunity to change Tactics as older cards decay and are removed from play.

Along with Agent and Tactic cards, there are 3 more card types in the game. I’ll list all the types and what they represent below.

1) Agents


Agent cards run the gamut, from other runners to mechs and corporate security forces, to civilians caught in the crossfire. All Agent cards have an Attack strength and a number of Health points, shown at the bottom left and right respectively, with more advanced cards adding in special abilities that can trigger in various ways.

If both players have Agents in play in directly opposing slots, they challenge each other in their controller’s combat phase, inflicting damage equal to their Attack Strength to the opposing Agent’s Health. If an Agent is unopposed during combat, their controller is awarded OP (Objective Points) equal to that agent’s Attack Strength. This is the primary manner in which a controller scores OP, but not the only one.

The picture below shows 2 sets of Agents in opposition while one Agent is unblocked and able to score OP for its controller.


2) Tactics


Tactics cards represent the combat maneuvers and software programs a controller can employ. Tactic cards cannot be attacked directly by enemy Agents, but they have a limited duration that ticks down each turn. Tactic cards might do anything from boosting the effectiveness of your Agents to directly scoring you OP while in play.

3) Modifier


Each agent has Modifier slots where they can be loaded up with equipment, augmentations and special effects. An Agent only has slots for 3 positive and 3 negative modifiers however, as displayed next to their portrait in the play area.


4) Event


An instantaneous effect that you play onto the battlefield. Event cards have a wide variety of effects. An event card played at the right moment can radically alter the battlefield.

5) Resource

(Placeholder art)

Resource cards in System Crash represent Credits, the cash you use to hire Agents and purchase equipment for your run.

Beyond these details, System Crash plays much as discussed above. Decks are 60 cards in size, and you draw 2 cards a turn. Generally, you’ll want about a third of your deck to be Credits, so that you have enough resources to play your cards.

In the coming weeks, I’ll go through individual cards and what they do, as well as discussing the design decisions behind the game.

I guess I shouldn’t beat myself up about it

04 Jan
January 4, 2013

This is a fascinating read. Well, it is to me. I love these little looks behind-the-scenes, and Deus Ex in particular appeals to me, as it is probably my single favourite game ever. My ultimate goal, as a game developer, is to make these kinds of games.

The Deleted Scenes of Deus Ex (longer version here)

It’s also comforting for me personally. I’ve made many mistakes this year (I’ll write a whole postmortem about that once I’m out of the eye of the storm), but one of the bigger ones is how much time I’ve spent “thrashing”, wasting effort. I’ve gone one way, then changed direction, then changed again, discarding work I’d done along the way. It’s not something I’m happy about, but I hope to get better at avoiding that the more games I make.

So I try not to beat myself up too much, most days. Though I’m an experienced programmer, I am a noob in many areas of game development. And it’s nice to read these kinds of pieces and realize that even some of the greats, working on titles that we’d ultimately acclaim as masterpieces, deal with similar problems and setbacks. That they experience the same “thrashing”.

I’m not claiming that System Crash will possess the same greatness as Deus Ex, but it is comforting, in times of doubt and stress.