02 de julio, 2014
Jonathan Chey, «It is sad to be working in the game industry knowing you won’t work directly in a game any more.»
Jonathan Chey, «It is sad to be working in the game industry knowing you won’t work directly in a game any more.»

Jonathan Chey is the founder of Blue Manchu, and the creator of the collectible card roleplaying game Card Hunter. He began his career at the legendary Looking Glass Studios and later co-founded Irrational Games, where he helped to produce the blockbuster franchise Bioshock. I’ve caught up with Jon to ask him about those times, the legacy of Looking Glass and the developing process of Card Hunter.

Hi Jon, thanks for answering our questions. Some time ago we made an interview with Randy Smith here at Indieorama. We talked a lot about Thief series and his time at Looking Glass Studios. We couldn’t pass the occasion to ask you about those times as well. Please, tell us a little about how did you get there.

It is quite an unusual story. I didn’t have a plan to work on the game industry. I was a graduate student in America doing a PhD in Psychology. And in the end of my degree I was approached by Looking Glass Studios who were recruiting at the time; they were looking for someone to do AI programming for a game they were working at that time called Terranova. Do you know that game?

I don’t think so.

Ok, yeah, so Terranova came before Thief. just look at it if you like Looking Glass Games, I think it is quite interesting and unusual. It’s a squad based combat game. It’s a shooter but you control a team of characters. Anyway, Looking Glass were very interested in simulation and in creating kind of complex and interesting simulations for the player, and part of that extends in creating interesting characters, so wanna build the expertise in AI, so they approached me because I was a graduate student studying psychology that they though has some knowledge in AI. And in fact I knew a little bit because I had studied it previously. But I wasn’t really an AI programmer. So, it was some kind of lucky for me. I thought it was a great job but I wasn’t really called of how to do it. So, I got that job and I started working at Looking Glass in this game Terranova but I end working on it just for a week and at the end of that time they decided they needed me in another project. Then, I move for other projects and kind of went from there, I worked on a couple of other games and at the beginning of Thief I was actually involved in the developing of the Dark Engine, which is, you know, the direction of the 3D First Person engine that uses Thief and System Shock 2 as well. So I worked in the physics systems and the AI and a bunch of those kind of things in the Dark Engine. So yes, that was my role at Looking Glass, I worked on some other games that you probably are not familiar with, one of which didn’t came out, and the other who was a golf game. Which were out of the norm there, as boring games.

You have worked in a whole range of games: System Shock 2, Thief series, SWAT 4, Bioshock, Freedom Force, etc. So you have been credited as programmer, producer, director, designer… those are a lot of roles. In which one do you identify yourself the most, or are you more happy with?

Yeah (laughs) I think that I’m most happy right now, because I’m now an indie and I have to do all of them. And I think that kind of my strength. I’m not an expert in anything, but I could do a little bit of everything. And I think it is the most useful place you can be if you like that, is to be an indie developer. I think it is ok too running a studio because you can kind of know a little bit of what everybody is doing and that makes easy to be in management. For example, I think it is quite hard to manage programmers if you don’t know anything of what they are programming.

But as I said I think I’m not fantastic at any of those jobs, but I think I’m ok at all of them. It’s been an interesting career to go through doing a little bit of all things. I mean I entered in the industry as a an AI programmer, but on System Shock 2, which was the first game we did after Ken Levine, Robert Fermier and I started Irrational Games. We were a very small team, we had to do a little of everything so I had to become more than a programmer, I had to do project management, as well to be an ad-man, work with paint people, pay the bills, do the banking and the taxes and at the same time I tried to do the programming, help with the IA and a bunch of the other game systems of System Shock 2. So, that was why I travel that far, I have to do 3D objects sometimes… It was a very interesting time for me.

Jon Chey by Ben Lee

So, why did you go from Looking Glass and Irrational to become indie and fund your own studio?

That’s a good question. I think there are lots of different reasons. I really enjoyed working in Bioshock, I’m very proud of it. You know, I probably would never do a game that is as popular as it, so I feel very lucky. But Bioshock was a very large project with a lot of people working on it and it was very stressful; I took a lot of it, but It took a lot of me as well. I felt I was not enjoying too much working at that level and I knew that if I stayed at Irrational Games… you know, we were part of Take-Two, we would continue to work on those kind of very large, very complex games with teams of hundreds of people. You know, large projects are exciting but very draining. It is a lot of responsibility which I felt very deeply. And it is also that, the further you go with it, the further you get away from the game itself. You know you are sucked into office politics, studio politics, projects, marketing, dealing with management, etc. I mean, It is very interesting stuff, but…

…it is sad to be working in the game industry knowing you won’t work directly in a game any more.

So for me it just became more and more clearly that it would be kind of interesting and probably more exciting actually to head off on my own and be something different. And also I really wanted to work on turn based games, strategy games, card games and so and I don’t think I would had the chance to do it if I stayed where I was, because my whole career was pretty much working on first person shooters. And I felt like I would probably working on First Person Shooters for the rest of life if I stayed (laughs)… so a lot of reasons.

In the interview with Randy Smith, we talked about the legacy of Looking Glass, and that that legacy could be seen in today games in strange places as Card Hunter. How do you believe that Card Hunter continues the legacy and design philosophy of Looking Glass?

It is a good question. I would imagine that he was obviously saying that because Randy and I know each other, so there it is an obvious legacy that existed because everything I learnt about making games initially came from Looking Glass. And when I was there, you know, it was an incredible learning experience because the people who were there making games were some of the most intelligent, creative people I’ve met in my life. So it is kind of an obvious legacy because without them I would never have been in the position of making games. But I don’t know, this is a different kind of game from those made by Looking Glass.

I would say that Looking Glass main contribution to the industry was the development of this very massive simulations.

If you are into Thief, and that’s the kind of thing that appeals to you, the game is very systemic. The player has a lot of freedom, you know, you’re not on rails shootings at things. You are involved in the world making the decisions that matter. Card Hunter, turn based games, strategy games, really, obviously walk down that kind of the path.

On the other hand, I think everything I do as a designer probably carry those kind of ideas around, even it they are not expressed obviously. Card Hunter still has the goal of giving the player lots of choices, of providing a lot of different ways to solve problems. I don’t know if you have played it. It’s not just a card game, there are thousands of different items you can collect, giving different permutations of cards you can use. And it’s not a very tightly controlled experience for the player, so every player will experience the game in different ways because they collect different things and have different tools available. And that’s why that kind of game design is different from the mainstream, specially if you look at mobile gaming nowadays, which usually has a very tight structure or experiences and they want to control exactly what the player is gonna see and do, and make sure you not devious from the path. They want to hook you on a steady road of rewards, small challenges and such. Card Hunter is more old school and in that sense it’s quite hard, it does not hand hold you, it is a difficult and complicated game with a lot of choices and a lot of opportunities to do things the right way or the wrong way. And that’s very Looking Glass.

With all those cards, there are almost infinite variations in each deck and the cards a player can play with. How does Card Hunter balance this?

Oh, that’s a very complicated questions. I cannot respond it fully because it is very very complicated.

Oh, sorry. Yeah I imagine…, maybe you can give us just some clues.

It is the most complicated balancing problem we ever have to deal with. Because a collectible card game is very hard to balance, and it’s so complicated because it’s the kind of game which can only be balance by play-testing. You can start with some analysis, but ultimately you have throw a lot of people at it and see what they come up with. But Card Hunter is even more complicated than that because, as I referred to you before, it’s not just a card game, it also has a layer above that with a lot of items you can collect, and with combinations of different cards. We have a lot of constraints we have to respect, like the different classes and the races, and you can equip different types of items, so all that is kind of very complicated and multidimensional balancing problem. And then we have an additional thing that really makes it more than twice as hard, we have a very extensive and involved single player campaign and the multiplayer, and all of the items and cards have to be working with both of them, both must be balanced.

As of what tools we use in order to balance all of that, it is just a lot of hard work with spreadsheets and then give it a lot of playtesting. We have been doing it for months. We have forty thousand of people in the beta, so we could get it balance before releasing it. But I think we have definitively balancing issues, so I’m actually still working on it. That is one of things I’ve been doing in the last week of two, making balance changes. Because I think one of the great things about the boundaries in this kind of game is that it’s alive and you can keep working on it, you can keep balancing it. And definitely one of the great strengths we have now, opposed to other paper cut games like Magic, is that we have access to the server where everybody plays the game. We can run a database query and find exactly what people are using, what people are winning with, you know, that data is at our fingerprints. And I think there’s no better way of balancing something than using actual data, so… to think that you can balance something like this in an analytical way is foolish.

I wonder how the work of Garfield and Elias as consultants influenced the balancing of Card Hunter.

They came in a very interesting time, later in the development. I asked them to give us consulting and feedback on the game. We had been developing it for a year and a half, so at that stage we had basically the game working in a very rough state. And they gave us some very insightful feedback that made us to make major changes in the design as a result. Then Skaff Elias stayed and worked on the game with us for the next year or so, and he did a lot of low level work which we hope could help with the creation of the cards and the items. That kind of work is very important too, but I think the initial feedback was critical of how the game developed.

Blue Manchu

The artwork by Ben Lee is amazing. Where did you find the inspiration for the artistic design in Card Hunter?

Yeah, I think Ben have done an amazing job with the art of the game. It’s been an interesting process because at the very beginning I knew I wanted to make a card game. I had some ideas about the mechanics but i did not have very strong ideas about the aesthetics of the game. I used to play Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games back in the seventies, when it all started, so for me it was like my first love, my primary taste in the genre. I think it is very hard when you make a fantasy game now to find a unique look that is not overused and tired, there are just so many of them. So I basically said to Ben, «what could we do instead of trying what everybody else does with those incredible looking fantasy games?» And we looked back to these games and found that the problem is they are very badly drawn. If you are like me, if you played them when you were a kid, you think of them very fondly, but when you look back at them they very crude, generally quite badly drawn. Mostly because sometimes the illustrations were done actually by the game designer. They didn’t have the money to hire a proper artist.

We had a problem there because I guess we could done it like a joke, deliver drawing everything very badly and there has been games that made that and it’s quite interesting where it go, but we kind of though that’s has been done. We didn’t want to make a joke from all of it, because we really like the genre so we were looking for send it up, so what we did, and I should give credit to Ben most for the ideas that appeal to me.

We decide, as Card Hunter is a board game and also a card game, to represent it as a board game that would not look as a computer game. So we decided it would look like this kind of old fantasy roleplaying games. Not literally look like them, but as you image they might look. So it would be an idealized illusion more than an actual version of it. Ben can draw very well, so he must draw in the style of these old games but actually doing it right. It also need to appeal to people who don’t know that reference, people who didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons or any of those other games, so it has to be both.

It has to have some aesthetics for appealing to people who do know the references but also be good enough on his own so people who don’t know the references would also find it appealing.

This path took a lot of time to develop, to achieving the look and feel we were looking for, and a lot of trying things out and see what would work. One of the ideas we have was that we would use real miniatures for the figures and for the characters in the game. We were actually looking into working with a miniature manufacturer, to use real metal and plastic miniatures and paint them, take photos of them and put them in the game. I think it would have worked very well, but we couldn’t do it because it tends to be complicated to do the licensing deal with the miniatures’ providers. So that’s when the direction went to use cut out paper figures instead.

Tell us something about Joe McDonagh and the development of the story. I liked a lot the existence of several layers in it, what kind of topics did you want to cover in Card Hunter?

The story is really interesting because we didn’t really start with the story, we ended with it. We hadn’t the intention for the game to have a particularly strong story, because card games do not usually tell a story, but when we were developing it we realized we had an opportunity to actually tell a story. Because the visual representation of the game was a natural board game, we thought to be more interesting no to tell a fantasy story where it would be wizards or dragons, because there are so many of this kind of them and they are often not very interesting. So we thought it would be more interesting to tell the story of the people who are playing the game with you. It was Jared Woods’s idea. He is an indie developer named Farbs. He came with the idea that instead of having a fantasy character to play the game against, you will have actually a supposedly real person that would be your partner and the person who will play the game with you, who turned out to be Gary, who is the main character in the game. And once we have the notion of Gary, Joe, Ben and me developed the idea of the story involving Gary, his brother and the pizza girl, the main three characters in the game, as well as you. You are all playing the game together, and through the table where the game is played you learn the story involving this characters. I think it worked pretty well. For me it’s a relief that the game is not constantly trying to make you interested in someone’s silly fantasy universe. I mean, all that stuff is there, it is to be enjoyed, it is to be appreciated but you should not be really worried that some lizard guy was going to destroy the nearby village. It is not that kind of story. It draws from that, but it is telling a story of more modern, real world kind of people.

Another aspect I like a lot is that real life story mixes with all the fantasy. For example, when Gary make his own modules and makes fun of his brother. That was quite fun.

A lot of that story is about things that Joe or me had experienced in our lives playing this kind of games with this kind of people. When you are a teenager you have a lot of things on your mind. The fantasy of this roleplaying was an important factor, but the things going on in your lives were important too, like if you have a rival with your sibling or a romantic infatuations or whatever. So we wanted to be sure that the real world were intruding into these escapist fantasies and mixing up sometimes.

Card Hunter is a flash game, but it isn’t the kind those little amateur games at any flash portal, and it apparently doesn’t have the same technology as an acclaimed game such as The Binding of Isaac. Card Hunter looks, sounds, and plays amazingly. It does not seem a flash game at all, so please, tell us about the technical aspects behind it.

I think that flash is very competent since they released ActionScript 3. I know that flash has been historically a source of simple games because it is very easy to build simple web games or animations, so people think that flash games are shallow and silly. I don’t think we did something particularly clever, we just used the tools that were there. We think flash tools are very good because we have there all the tools we needed.

But on the other hand, I think a lot people could discard card hunter because it is made in flash, specially because it is free to play and it’s a browser game, I think this has holded us a lot, people who would like the game because they are our target audience might think that is not interesting to them. If you are into a genre and you’re not delivering through the medium which people normally expect for that genre it can actually hold you back a little bit sometimes. You do not probably expect to find a good FPS in mobile, so If you make a FPS for mobile, and it is a great FPS, you might have a problem reaching people there because nobody expect to find it there.

Yeah, well, sometimes people put barriers in their minds, «I don’t play free to play games, I don’t play browser games…»

Well, I understand why because you don’t have an infinite amount of time, so if you think 90% of free to play or flash games are gonna be terrible you probably don’t want to try them all. So I understand why people has this attitude and it’s up to us to find ways of reaching them. For example, just this week, the guys of YOGSCAST youtube channel have been playing Card Hunter, and you know, a lot of people have seen them playing and though: «I’ve never heard of that but that it’s really interesting». So we have a lot more people came to the game. Another thing we are hoping to do is to make a downloadable client for the game that we’d be releasing on Steam soon. I think that also will help people understand this is a more sustainable game because, you know, Steam is a place for more hardcore games.

That’s great news, and a great move. The banner of Card Hunter’s website is impressive, there is a lavish board game, with real figures, surrounded by polygonal dices. I bet you have a real card hunter board game that you play with your partners every night after crunching (I’m half joking here).

(laughs) Well, we did! The first iteration of the game was a real paper version, I made a few versions of the game where I printed paper version of the cards. I used fantasy miniatures that I had around and it was a great way to prototype the game. But when the game reached certain level of complexity I couldn’t bother to maintain a physical version of the game anymore. It’s something people constantly ask me about, when we are going to make a physical version of the game because it is a very obvious thing to do, and we’d like to do it, but we have not the time.

As a theoric question, is it possible to have a physical game as Card Hunter with that complex deck building?

No, I don’t think it is. I think it’s actually too complicated to work in the real world. I think it could be modify to work as a physical game. I mean the computer does a lot of the work for you so if you must do all that for yourself, move those all little pieces and such, it would be infuriating. But I think we can take the rules and simplify it to produce a pretty cool board game out of it.


Ok, and for the actual game, What about co-op play? Could the game eventually have cooperative play, or is it just impossible or not as fun as it sounds?

It is possible because we prototyped It and we have played it and it is fun. And we are committed to do it some time soon. Yeah, I think it is pretty cool, but turn based games can be tricky to do cooperatively because the more people you have playing turn based games, the more waiting they do. There is definitively a point where it becomes tedious, if you have eight people sitting around the table, one person playing at a time, you spend seven more times doing nothing. So if you don’t have too many people, three or maybe a four person cooperative game, I think it could work be fine.

One of the nice things of card hunter is that each card gets played very quickly, there are very few things you can do at a time. It’s much better if each turn take small chunks of time so you don’t have to wait five minutes until your opponent take their turn. So yeah, It works, it’s possible, I think it could be actually fun. It is fairly easy for us to do the basic mechanics but the tricky bit is the whole set of the infrastructure around: having your friends, the finding, joining up together, getting on a group and going to battle together and all that kind of stuff. So we will try to find the time to do it.

When I say we it is important to understand that Blue Manchu is basically me.

I mean… there are other people that had contributed to the game. Farbs. Joe Mcdonagh is now working for Dropforge in doing the mobile version of the game and is a different company. Ben Lee is a contractor, and Jason and Tess, the programmers and who did some of the design by contract… all these people are contracts around the world, so they come and go of the project, and right now most of the work on the game is been done by me personally, (laughs) so you know, if I say we are doing coop, that basically means, well, I will be spending the next two months doing coop, and not in something else. And now we are very focused on having ready the release of the Steam client.

You have readed my mind because that was the next question. I was going to ask if the work was harder after the release and if you had to hire somebody to help. But you have already answered me, you are alone!

Yeah, we are not peaking off to relive, to require or support a lot of people. We are on the edge of that because we have a lot of people playing the game, probably we have two hundreds and fifty thousand users online, but they come and go and I have to do the development and such. But the customer support keeps me busy.

Free to play is a ticklish thing for some people, but I think that the great thing about the monetization model chosen for Card Hunter is that your game and your company are fully independent. You have achieved something impressive, building a brand, running your own servers, and auto publishing Do you recommend this way of business?

It’s tricky because I’m in a very fortunate position, I have capital to fund the development from the work done at Irrational Games. In order to build a online service like this you need capital, and maybe you will need two or three people that know what are they doing and to be prepared to consume their own time for a year or two. It would be a very difficult thing to do on your own, I think, so I was in a very lucky position fortunately. There are other ways to do it now, obviously things like Kickstarter will make this kind of projects possible for people who don’t have the capital. Kickstarter didn’t exist when I started Card Hunter, but it does now, so I think If I was gonna do something like Card Hunter I’ll need my own cash to do it or I’ll kickstarter it. That would be the way to do it. It still has the advantage that you end owning the project while you won’t if you go to a publisher, or if someone finances it and wants to own it.

So, how’s it going? I’d assume it is going quite well because the game and the company are still active. There is a catch phrase about Team Fortress where it is said that the game make profit just of «people doing hats». So, what are the hats of Card Hunter?

(laughs) Well, starting with your first question, yes, the game is doing well. But we haven’t made enough money out of it to return, I think it’s still a game that hasn’t achieved its full potential. I think Card Hunter is a very good game, I’m very happy with it, I think more people would hopefully find that out and play. It would be a big job for me to do in the next year or so to keep working at that.

And, about the hats of Card Hunter (laughs), we don’t have actually hats, we have cosmetic figures you can buy. We are not like a lot of free to play games where a small number of what they called «whales», you know, people who spend thousands of dollars in the game. People don’t spend massive amount of money in Card Hunter. A lot of people play for free and don’t spend any money, which is fine, but the people who decide that they like the game and want to contribute to it do it through what we called the basic edition: with one time payment you get all the original treasure hunt adventures, which are otherwise are locked. And then there’s the subscription for a month to the club that gives extra loot, so there a lot of bundle of things. You made a contribution to the game, you support the developers, you know, a bunch of stuff that hopefully makes the experience more enjoyable and gives you more of content.

But one of the points of Card Hunter is that you can get through the whole game without buying anything, we have not any sort of hard or soft walls. It is not designed that if you don’t spend enough time in it you are gonna get stuck and that you’ll have to grind in some really tedious thing, or hundreds of hours to get pass. It is not designed of the kind to squeeze money of people.

Could you tell us about the world map of Carduhuntria? In my campaign is mostly empty, and it is huge.

(laughs) Yeah. Well, when we originally designed the game we thought we would have fifty levels of character progression. But we are at level eighteen, so that’s why we made the map that big. I don’t know if we’ll get there anytime, so we will not fill that anytime soon. (laughs) So, most people who play the game don’t finish it. It’s a long game with a lot of content, so we don’t really think that building until level fifty should be a good use of our time right now. I mean, one day I would hope to do more levels to push to make the game longer and bigger than it is at the moment, but it’s probably not gonna happening any time, you know, in the next month or two.

So, about those completed levels, what fraction of the map do they occupy?

Oh… maybe 20% (laughs) Yeah, the map it’s ridiculously big, I don’t know why we made the map so big! (more laughs). Ben has been moaning because he has to draw the whole thing, and of course most of it is unused at the moment.

What’s next beyond Card Hunter? Do you have any plans of what to do next? Or maybe Card Hunter keeps you busy full time?

Jon CheyWell that’s kind of a trick, because I’m actually young and I have a lot of ideas about of what to do next but I have no the time to do it anything. I’m so busy with Card Hunter that it’s hard to get off it. I will like to in such a stage and I have some ideas of the things I wanna do. But with an online game, in some stage maybe you decide you just have to chop it down, or hand it over to someone else. But until then I guess I can hire somebody to work on it for me because it is very hard to get off of it. You know, it is fine for the moment because I love the game and there’s a lot of things I can do with it, but at some stage I would work on something else. And maybe it could be a First Person Shooter again.

Ha, ha, that was so funny!

No, I’m serious. (laughts) I don’t intent to spend the rest of my life only working on card games for the same reason I wanted to stop working in shooters and doing card games. I’ll be quite interested in working in something completely different next.

Yeah, there are quite interesting indie shooters out there…

Yeah, I think if I did a first person shooter again it would be something quite different, I mean it’s an opportunity to build shooters that are not so dependant of the past. As an indie developer you shouldn’t think in doing Bioshock or Call of Duty, you should have to be looking from a different perspective.

Acerca de Ruber Eaglenest

Es diseñador de videojuegos, co-fundador de la compañía familiar Wingless Little People. Editor de Indie-o-rama, crítico, escritor, y entrevistador, además es autor de Ficción Interactiva (o Aventuras Conversacionales) y teórico del medio, donde es conocido como El Clérigo Urbatain. En sus ratos libres es arqueólogo de mundos video-lúdicos virtuales.

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