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PAX East 2011: Cryptozoic Entertainment's big year

Michael Sacco

It's been almost exactly a year since it was announced that Cryptozoic Entertainment, a new company founded by former employees of Blizzard Entertainment, Upper Deck, and DC Comics, would be taking over the license for the WoW Trading Card Game from Upper Deck. With no other products under the company's belt, players were understandably skeptical that a startup would be able to develop the TCG effectively, but looking at the actual talent behind the company rather than the age of the company told a different story. Cory Jones, one of the company's founders, was the director of global business development and licensing at Blizzard, for example, and John Nee was DC Comics' head of business development. Couple that with designers and other employees who came over from other successful card games and companies, and you have a dynamite combination.

I caught up with Ben Cichoski, head designer for the WoW TCG, at PAX East.

WoW Insider: It's been a pretty busy year for you guys. What do you consider the company's biggest accomplishment so far?

Ben Cichoski: I think just the transition of the TCG is our biggest acomplishment. Most of the people who originally worked on it at UDE transferred to Cryptozoic, which let us pick the game up where it left off when the license changed, but that doesn't mean it was easy getting it up and running -- we were designing and developing cards at our kitchen tables because we didn't have an office yet. It was important to us and the community that the transition be mostly seamless, so we had to work hard. But the fans have been psyched. They're getting their prizes on time, they're getting support quickly from people who understand the product, they understand that we care about building the community. Players were patient and waited while we got our feet under us, and we love them for it.

Cataclysm shook up the World of Warcraft MMO, but the Cataclysm block also shook up the WoW TCG. What spurred the changes to the game's rules?

Well, originally, we tried to make it as true to the MMO as possible. Looking back, we realized that some of those decisions were mistakes because they didn't make for the best gameplay. As the game evolved and we realized those mistakes, we wanted to fix them. And Cataclysm was a perfect time to do it, to match up with the changes to the MMO. But it's much harder with a card game. You can't hotfix a card game. It's harder to unring the bell. We talked about at length; we had a list of about 35 things changes we wanted to make, and Scott (Gaeta) and Cory (Jones) chimed in. We ended up narrowing it down to just a few rule changes, changes we thought would make the game better. And I think we were right. Danny Mendel, who made the original game engine, even got a hold of us and said "thank you for making those changes."

Beyond just fixing mistakes, though, a big push is for accessibility for new players. TCGs can be hard to get into, and the easier and incremental changes we made to the rules make the WoW TCG easier than most to just pick up and play.

WoW's expansions have a limited lifespan in terms of relevance, and you guys obviously have to race against time to make sure that you're releasing relevant material for the players. What kind of lead-up does each set require? Each block?

Normally the life cycle of a set, from start of design to the cards being printed, is 14 months. But Blizzard and we at Cryptozoic worked really hard to get Worldbreaker out so soon after Icecrown to match up with the Cataclysm release. We did Worldbreaker really quickly, with an 8-month turnaround, so some stuff didn't make it into the TCG that made it into game and vice versa. For example, there was no Cataclysm gear that early on in development for the Worldbreaker set, and we can't make artwork for cards when there's no model for them. That's one of the reasons why we chose so much heirloom gear for this set. It was just a good time for it.

With leadup time for sets being as long as it is, how do you handle player feedback to make sure complaints are addressed for the metagame in a timely manner? It's hard to hotfix a card game.

It's super-challenging. The best we can do come to things like PAX East show people the game, and see what they like or dislike. There are lots of new players here, and it really helps to see what are people struggling to wrap their heads around. If they can't pick up the game pretty quickly, that feedback is important to us. Our hardest challenge, and that's why our devs are so amazing, is to try to catch these things before they're released. Errata can be troublesome, so we have to take it really seriously and only use it when absolutely needed. It's not a good experience for players to play a card and have someone tell them "no, that card does something else now."

With the Worldbreaker set released and in the wild, you guys are obviously working on the second and third sets in the Cataclysm block. What, if anything, can you tell us about War of the Elements, the second set in the block?

War of the Elements is pretty much locked down; it's about to be sent out for printing. We've added some more dragonflights -- the blue and bronze, and their leaders Nozdormu and Kalecgos. You'll also be able to recruit elemental lord allies, which are insanely powerful. We've also included Elemental tokens in each booster pack, and lots of cards either utilize or create those elementals.

We wanted players to be able to make, say, a fire elemental deck, and to have elementals be meaningful in limited play. It's definitely a challenge in balancing, because we added all this stuff in Worldbreaker, then two new dragon types in War of the Elements, and we're focusing on a particular damage type like in previous sets. But it's a lot of fun.

The format for the TCG "raid decks" changed up slightly with the Assault on Icecrown Citadel Four-Player Game, which gave players the opportunity to play as lore heroes rather than using their own deck. What was the reasoning behind that decision?

It's based on new player friendliness. We love raids like they were before, and competition-level players did too, but it was daunting for a new player to just up and make a deck for a raid. Plus they take longer than a normal game. It can be scary! The decision was made to give people everything they need to just play. And the Sylvanas, Tirion, and Jaina decks are simple, like class decks. The mechanics are very easy to learn. It's also a very distinctive experience; people are invested in these characters and it's neat to fill their shoes. And it never gets old explaining the game to new players as "You and two friends are fighting the Lich King, who's played by another one of your friends." They go "whoooaaa!"

Getting away from the gameplay for a second, what made you guys decide to change around your loot card model? You're now providing permanent non-combat pets as the common loot cards.

The consumable rewards were not super-popular, so we got enough feedback to want to change things around a little. People are crazy about achievements, and now that there are achievements for pets, there's a lot more interest in the loot card prizes, since they're unique pets. Plus, compared to buying the pet off of the Blizzard Store, you also get a really great card game with your pet! It's a good deal, I think. (laughs)

When I last spoke with Cory Jones, he said that Cryptozoic was looking into other IPs besides Blizzard games, and it looks like other projects are finally starting to materialize, like the CBLDF Liberty cards you're producing. Any other projects you can tell us about?

Well, Cory is a big Penny Arcade fan, and is a huge fan of the Lookouts comics that Gabe and Tycho made, so we're partnering with PA to produce a Lookouts game. Cory loves the concept -- he says "is there any cooler setting than 'Fantasy Boy Scouts'?" We're really excited. We've already put quite a bit of work into it.

Thanks for sitting down with us, Ben.

You're very welcome!

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