Mouse N Joypad is at it again with what is the most insightful interview we’ve ever had the chance to conduct. Ever heard about Combat Monsters? It’s a free-to-play turn-based TCG that’s not been getting as much exposure as it should have. Two years after release, we’ve had a conversation with Rubicon, the developers behind this project and they told us a surprising amount of info on how it all comes together.
How did you come up with the idea behind Combat Monsters? Even though the game’s been out for a while now, surely you’ve got a story or two to share?
Oh many, it’s been quite a ride. The original game we had in mind was to be a much smaller affair, but one good idea followed another in a stunningly rare example of the reality matching how people probably expect this stuff goes all the time. The game we designed initially was a little like the fight stages of Pokémon. You’d recruit a team, equip them, and then enter a fight in a room.
No story, no exploring and grinding, just stab, stab, smash, job done. Player engagement was to be picking a smaller team from a wide variety of collectable monsters and equipment and fighting them against different combinations of bad guys in ever-increasing difficulty levels. A fairly simple game really, designed for mobile gaming on the go. That was shaping up well enough technically, but there was something missing.
We had no X factor, that unknown quantity that transforms something decent into something special that makes you smile. During one of many discussions about what that missing element might be, I fell back on my own game playing heritage and dropped two words into the conversation that changed everything – “deck building”. There was instantly a ton of beaming smiles and we knew we had it.
I understand the game is filled to the brim with content, especially now with the latest (and rather large) update being out and about. What hat do you pull all of that out of? Can you give us some insight into the creative juices, perhaps?
It’s mainly about the cards of course. After the initial excitement of that deck building revelation mentioned above, we composed ourselves and sat down to design a game that could be expanded indefinitely. The first thing that became apparent was we needed to have lots of monster races and classes and other stuff that exist in essentially list form that could just be extended naturally over time.
Within a given monster class of a given race, we still wanted to build in scope for making a ton of monsters within that group, so we picked a bunch of special abilities we could permutate with other standard stats (health, attack, etc.) to allow for a wide variety of combos.
Monsters are monsters at the end of the day, but the spells and runes are what make the game buzz and are where most of the fun comes from in the deck builder. Spells are one-shot events and runes are kinda permanently on spells – you play them to the board and they stay in effect until somebody kills them.
Given how we put all this together technically, so it’s easy to expand, we’re having new ideas for abilities, spells and runes on a more or less permanent basis now. In fact whenever we’re having some boring meeting about a bug fix or whatever, it usually ends in discussing the merit of a spell to change your hero on the fly, or one to change all your orcs into bananas.
I honestly believe we can keep expanding this game quite literally forever, and we intend to do just that because it’s bloody good fun doing it.
And what about balancing all of those cards? Do you consider that to be an insurmountable task or do you generally have it all under control?
Oh man that’s funny; I had a genuine LOL moment when I read this the first time. Yes, it’s all perfectly under control. Ahem. I resent the implication. Ahem. Etc.
Back in the real world this is a constant nightmare, but a nightmare we knew full well we were volunteering for right off the bat. We have a very small team here and we push out a lot of content on a regular basis – there’s just no way we can playtest it all at the depth we’d like.
I mean, if you ascribe a score of 1 to an orange, how do you work out what the score should be for a lemon for wednesday, or for a small family saloon car?
The way it usually goes is that we get it roughly right and then push out a beta to the regular players on our forum. They play it a while, try to break it all and make dominating deck strategies, succeed at that and then we fix it. After a few iterations of this we get to a point where we think we’re final and push out the official update. And after that, we patch it a week later when even more people have found even more devious ways to break a certain card or mechanic.
It’s part of the fun though, our contributing players feel engaged and we get a better game out of it, so it’s win-win.
Combat Monsters has been released back in 2013, yet it’s been getting a steady supply of additional content from the get-go, with all of it being available for free in one way or another. Is the monetization of the game working out for you as it currently stands?
(I’m asking this because I bet people would like to hear how the developer of a truly F2P game gets by, in comparison to those who demand monies every step of the way.)
Excuse me while I get all serious for a moment. Financially speaking, Combat Monsters is a complete train wreck.
There is a core team of five full time veterans here at Rubicon and we’re all working on this game full time. The income we receive doesn’t pay for one of those people in full, and we’re not even that well paid. (In case you’re thinking that this doesn’t compute, we have other income streams from previous work that pays the wages and keeps the lights on.)
User feedback for the game is overwhelmingly positive, but we do occasionally get called greedy because this or that costs too much game currency and we’re trying to extort 5 bucks out of them or whatever. That sort of comment is typical to all F2P games to be fair, and is often probably true, but for me it really does hurt. If we were actually greedy and all about the money, the best thing we could do to earn more is ditch these constant updates and go work on something else. Anything else.
However, we’re sticking with this project because:
• It’s a labour of love that we enjoy doing
• We’re fortunate enough to actually be able to work on something that isn’t profitable
• We keep thinking that one day, if we stick at it, our time will come
It’s very easy to look at something like FIFA or even Hearthstone, a game in our genre, and assume we have a similar financial model, therefore a similar income. If only. Here are the last year’s sales figures on iOS right from the horse’s mouth known as App Annie. I can’t contractually show the Steam income, but you can take a guess.
How long do you plan on supporting the game? Also, are there any more substantial updates in the pipeline?
And…. Smile again.
Simply, we plan on supporting it forever. An oft-made claim perhaps, but I ask you to judge it in the context that it already doesn’t earn anything and we’re still here.
We are fortunate, perhaps even unique among indies, to have just enough other income that we’re able to do this, and we’re fully using that opportunity to spend our time doing what we love.
Despite the dire numbers above, this fact alone means we actually consider Combat Monsters a roaring success. We earn nothing because the game is too generous and our exposure too small, not because it’s rubbish, so we get to work on a great game all day long – that’s what all developers want in the end.
Yes, there are many substantial updates planned. Apart from the endless supply of new cards, imminent features are for example:
• Tournaments in various formats, paid and for fun
• More single player content with more varied gameplay
• A decent front end. We know, it’s not great.
• Co-op multiplayer campaigns
• A single player drafting variant
• New online play modes (think of “Emperor” from magic the gathering etc.)
At this stage in Combat Monsters’ lifetime, how is the playerbase holding up?
Pretty well, all the relevant numbers are all still increasing which is obviously the direction we want them to move in. But I only say ‘pretty well’ because they’re not increasing at the rate we’d like to see, sadly.
As a no-brand game by an indie studio that few have heard of, using a sales model that has been tainted by others, we understandably don’t get much in the way of gaming press publicity. (So thanks for this opportunity!)
Given the above income numbers, we can’t afford a massive ad campaign either. Hell, we can’t afford a tiny one, so for us it’s word of mouth only as a means of spreading. That’s the best way though, and it is actually happening, but we started from a very small number so there’s no real head of steam being built up yet.
How important is the player feedback to your development process? How do you deal with criticism?
It’s pretty much fundamental and we welcome it all, including constructive criticism.
We maintain an official forum at www.rubicondev.com/forum that’s used a lot by our regulars and a quick glance in there will quickly show that we design this game almost entirely by request now.
Although we have plenty of ideas of our own, our player base are very vocal about what they want, how they want it, etc., so we try to do stuff in the best order that makes sense for us technically, versus the priorities being asked for directly from the people who matter.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have the sort of engaged players that a lot of smaller developers would kill for, and I claim at least partial credit for that by actually listening to them and trying to give them what they want. It amazes me when I see other studios not doing this to be frank. Don’t hire a community manager, be the community manager – this is the important bit!
And finally, would you like to add anything else?
Yep. Go try this bloody game. It might not be your cup of tea, but it won’t cost you anything to find out and it might surprise you!
Thanks for the interview; it’s been a blast answering your questions even if I did stay up until 2.00am doing it!
— Paul Johnson.
In case this got you interested in Combat Monsters (and it damn well should have), here’s the link to the game’s Steam page. We would also like to take this oppertunity to thank Paul for his time and his very honest answers.