The Unique Story of Unique Games
A Designer Journal by Christian Petersen
With the advent of the “Unique Games” label and the upcoming releases of Discover: Lands Unknown and KeyForge, I thought FFG’s audience would be interested in learning how this bizarre, unconventional, and wonderful new game format came to be. So, here goes.
For me, the first serious discussion of what was to become the “unique game” concept happened during the GAMA Trade Show of 2015 in Las Vegas.
During one of my free moments, I’d gotten together with long-time friend, collaborator, and frequent FFG design contributor, Mr. Eric Lang. As the two of us often do on such occasions, we caught up, shot the breeze, talked industry, and spitballed possible future projects together. I’m always interested in what Eric’s fecund mind is brewing.
Then Eric floated an idea that would take flight.
He’d been contemplating on whether it would be possible to create a booster-pack of cards or, even better, some physical component by which each instance of the product would be completely distinct (that is, one-of-a-kind in the world). It would be something that a player could claim only he/she owned. Eric felt this would bring about a sense of product engagement and wonder to games that had never been seen before. Wow.
We bandied his idea back and forth. Could procedural 3D generation and 3D printing be used for this? Not yet, I opined, because the quality of most 3D prints is very sub-par, and, for cost reasons, using high-end machines with UV-hardening resins wouldn’t be feasible for consumer products (it wasn’t in 2015, and still isn’t in 2018).
Could you make print-on-demand components with randomly generated unique stats and effects? Technically feasible, but how to create a good game experience with this, not to speak of a balanced one? Additionally, on-demand printing is very expensive and does not practically work on most common game materials, such as counter-sheets, game-boards, plastic bits, etc. At the time, I’d developed some experience in digital printing, having established The Factory (our print-on-demand/short run production facility in Roseville, MN).
I suggested perhaps we were thinking too small. Perhaps we could create an entire game that was unique, not just a component. If the design was built from the ground up with such a concept in mind, we should be able to craft a completely unique product by clever assortment of different (traditionally produced) components.
Eric immediately took this variation of his idea and began to run with it. Perhaps each game represented a unique planet in a galaxy that would be colonized by players? Perhaps we could augment with a digital interface?
It was an exciting conversation.
At the end of the meeting, I committed to Eric that FFG/Asmodee will do this.
That was not lightly said. I was aware that such endeavor would be risky, take significant research and development in both game design and manufacturing, and would entail a big financial bet.
Yet, the concept was fascinating. Over the years, FFG has built a valuable combination of design, manufacturing, technology, and talent. If FFG/Asmodee could not assume risk in pushing boundaries, then who could? Who would?
Normally, a boxed game includes 6-12 “items” of component bundles, each such item being a rules-set, a pack of reference sheets, an individual deck of cards, a game board, a bag of plastic miniatures, a bag of dice, a sheet of cardboard tokens, etc. In a typical production, such items are designed, mass-produced, and then placed individually into game boxes, creating identical products for which variation is sought to be minimized.
In the “Unique” game concept using the assortment method, each such item would be drawn from several “pools” of different items—to form a unique final item sequence of individual items composing each final instance of the game product. The above illustration provides a simplified example of this concept.
The item sequence to go into each game box would be determined by an algorithm designed from scratch to facilitate the desired gameplay and variability. Individual items could, in some cases, have down-stream dependencies, such as [If X is selected for Pool1, then draw either a, b, or c from Pool2; If Y, then draw from a, d, or f; If Z, then draw either b, e, or f] and so forth.
Further, such a system could maintain a database of product instances to ensure each new instance be unique to a given minimum points of differentiation. By that, I mean how different each copy would be from the most similar other copy. The greater number of points of differentiation, of course, the exponentially less possible instances will be possible for any given set of item pools.
From a manufacturing and financial perspective, this posed a number of substantial problems:
- We’d need to design and create 5-6 times the amount of content of a normal product (i.e. different boards, cards, scenarios, characters, etc). Consequently, if we printed the same amount of copies as a normal game, each interior item would be printed 5-6 times less than normal––significantly affecting volume (and thus price) of each item.
- How would the physical collation happen?
- Because such a product would be exceptionally challenging to manufacture affordably, could we publish the game in languages other than English? Sales of English language FFG products typically constitute roughly 60% of the global market, with all other languages combined constituting the remaining 40%.
This was challenging, daunting even. Yet, FFG has come as far as it has during the last 20 years because we love such challenges. So, let’s go!
In concluding the ‘15 GAMA meeting with Eric, we agreed he’d begin designing a game using this new concept, while I’d get the process started to understand the science and cost needed to make it happen.
For good reason, Eric is an “in-demand” designer, and 2015 was no exception. He was engaged in numerous other commitments at the time, so we knew that early progress on the “Unique” game design would be slow.
Other FFG executives and I would talk on-and-off with Eric about high-level design concepts for the following two years. Alas, life and other design commitments on Eric’s part were in conflict, so design on the “Unique” game remained in high-concept form (core ideas and play pattern) only.
In early 2017, Eric announced he was joining rival-publisher CMON as Director of Game-Design in Singapore.
I was jealous. I’d tried to hire Eric for over 10 years, but was never able to overcome U.S. immigration and work-permit policies. To make matters worse, Eric’s job with CMON would preclude him from working on competitors’ projects, including FFG’s.
This meant the “Unique Game” design from Eric would not be forthcoming after all. Sigh.
Many ideas and projects die in such ways. The oceans of creativity are littered with such abandoned hulks, lonely and gray, sleeping on muddy bottoms.
Fortunately, that was not to be the case here.
Because from stage right, another tentacle enters our unique story.
Since 2011, I’d been discussing an entirely different concept with FFG’s lead designer Corey Konieczka. Corey had smelled the burgeoning promise of Minecraft before it became a global phenomenon and was inspired by its core concepts of “explore, build, survive” (no 16-bit cubical bricks included).
In 2014, Corey finally pitched an innovative game from this concept. It was titled “Outcast” and expressed the theme of discovering an unknown land combined with the mechanic of persistency—the notion that your next game would build upon the discoveries and stories introduced in games prior (unlike “Legacy” game systems, persistent games could be re-set to their original position).
“Outcast” was approved, but slow-tracked due to a heavy FFG release schedule that required Corey’s insight and oversight, and in some cases, his personal design skills.
After learning that Eric would ultimately not be designing the “Unique” game that we’d been waiting for, we considered whether the “Outcast” game could be merged with the “Unique” game concept. A winning formula?
Eric graciously agreed that we should proceed without him.
I expect (and hope) Eric will create his own vision of a “Unique” game one day, be it with CMON or otherwise. I can’t wait to play it when it arrives.
That is how work began on what would become Discover: Lands Unknown.
Discover would retain most aspects of Corey’s original “Outcast” design, but parts of the experience were rebuilt from scratch to accommodate the “unique game” model.
Creating Discover has been hugely challenging, but Corey and the FFG team made a heroic effort to design, develop, engineer, and finish the game with its immense amount of “item pool” content. The Asmodee North America production and software teams also contributed in a major way to this complex production. I’m very proud of what they’ve have accomplished, and hope you’ll give Discover a try to see what they brewed up.
Then, dramatically entering from stage left, comes another tentacle.
In early ‘15, renowned designer Richard Garfield pitched a concept for “collectible deck game” to Adrien Martinot, Days of Wonder’s Head of Studio.
Like FFG, DOW had recently become part of the Asmodee Group, so when Adrien passed on Richard’s ambitious pitch (deeming it too ambitious for DOW’s resources at the time), Adrien kindly referred Richard to FFG and myself.
On a frosty March morning in 2016, it was an honor for us to host Richard Garfield and a few of his close compatriots for a presentation of a game he called “Technic.”
Technic was a head-to-head game involving a single random deck for each player, with a fun, if early, game design. But here’s the kicker: each deck was envisioned to have a completely unique collation (from a fixed pool of cards). The contents of each deck were not to be customized by players whatsoever, not before, not during, not after, play.
What more, Richard’s prototype included random name generation and procedural illustration of card backs for each deck. In other words, each deck would have its own unique name, its own unique art, and its own unique play personality!
Lo and behold, parallel to Eric Lang’s early uniqueness concept and our joint exploration, Richard had been working on his own flavor of unique games––one in which every deck would be unique in the world. The stars must have been right, that winter of ’15.
And somehow, both of these initiatives had landed with FFG! Humbling.
Needless to say, we committed to the brilliant Technic.
Technic had its own idiosyncratic (great word, also means unique) problems. Unlike Discover, which receives its uniqueness by algorithmic collation of conventionally printed materials, Technic had to be printed on an individual level, as each deck contained unique artwork and printed names. Software would need to handle not only the algorithm of item sequence, but also random name generation and a procedurally generated unique image, all of which would need to be automatically collated and prepared for output.
Unlike Discover, which joined uniqueness and collaborative play, Richard’s game, which would become KeyForge, married the concept of uniqueness and competitiveness.
The concept at first was mind-boggling. The TCG/CCG and deck-building game paradigms were so entrenched in our minds. How would people react to a competitive game in which they could not customize the deck itself? How would the agency of the player express itself? How would the decks, of which some invariably would be less competitive, be received by the customer?
As with all good innovations, more doors open behind the first one. The more we thought about it, the more opportunities and excitement the “Unique” concept awoke in us.
Richard’s initial Technic served as core game design when the assigned team of FFG developers began work on the game. Richard’s original concepts, such as cards having no playing cost, three factions per deck, and the three totems (later keys) have remained intact as the principal foundations to the game.
FFG is not always the easiest game studio to collaborate with for outside designers. In our approach to game design, there are no “sacred cows.” Every stone is turned, option assessed, and we work very hard for any design to be the very best experience and value (as we see those, of course). I’d like to think that there’s a special “FFG-ness” to our work: a style and approach that cuts no corners, is not afraid of hard work, and seeks to innovate wherever possible. We are not always perfect, but we always aim to be, and do much soul-searching when we fall short.
I believe the “FFG approach” to game development was a little surprising to Richard at first. The progress and changes to the Technic design, theme, and marketing plans would become somewhat tense at times, as Richard rightfully challenged FFG’s desired changes or additions. He himself worked tirelessly alongside us to test and think through the merits of every suggested change, balancing component, algorithm weighting, and artwork style. I hope Richard will agree that he and FFG have established a terrific and productive relationship in the course of bringing KeyForge into its hard-fought life; we certainly think so.
As game design development on KeyForge began rolling, production considerations, software development, and IP development (artwork and story of the Crucible) also started.
For KeyForge, our desire was to produce a product in which every single deck would cost less than $10 MSRP. As every card would need to be custom (digitally) printed, this was not an easy goal.
While digital 2D printing has advanced rapidly over the last decade, digitally-printed cards are still typically 2-4 times more expensive than cards from traditional offset printing. Additionally, the printing is much slower per dedicated machine—so would scalability be a concern? Would we be able to print enough decks to satisfy demand, especially initial demand?
Not only is digital printing substantially slower than offset printing per se, but each unique high-resolution digital file containing a deck would need to be ripped/processed by the printer prior to starting the physical printing (not unlike pre-print processing on your local laser printer).
The software development side of KeyForge was a monster. The algorithm to create the decks would have to be built, and done so with mind to future expansion and design space. We’d also need to create a system that created procedurally generated images and names for the back of the cards (names using grammatical rules that can change from language to language). All these would need to be stored in databases with interface access for game designers for them to add future cards, names, images, algorithm weight, correlations, etc.
Finally, a software would have to gather and flatten the elements and then imposition the cards in printable file for production.
After working for nearly a year on custom software and Adobe scripting to achieve these goals, we encountered another snag––computing power.
To output the printing files for a single KeyForge deck, the various components of the deck need to be processed and rendered: that is—various elements of each card knitted together, each deck collected, and a printable file generated with correct card impositions. Unfortunately, as we are working with high-resolution, print-ready files, the processing power required is intensive. For example, if every deck would take a processor only two minutes start-to-end to build and render, rendering 100,000 decks would still take 166 days (assuming 20 hours uptime for the processor per day). With a simultaneous release of five languages, we would be printing substantially more than 100,000 copies.
To get around this serious limitation, we had to not only optimize the rendering process, but thread our rendering to multiple processors (i.e. have the software delegate rendering jobs to different targets working simultaneously). Ultimately, we built a “render farm” that would output enough decks per day to meet the production targets for initial release (and we have continued to output files, hoping the game is successful).
From that fire came the final product that is KeyForge.
The first real products in this “Unique” category of games will emerge onto the market this Fall. As with anything new, they are bound to create controversy and confusion, as is the case with all new things.
Some may find it disheartening that they cannot “own” what another player has. However, aren’t some of the most wonderful things in life unique and defy replication? Art, kids, plants, love, life, journeys?
Unique games may be akin to Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you may get (except to know that you’ll get variants of chocolate). Unique games are about discovery, surprise, and a connection to someone singular.
The “Unique” concept may not be for everyone, and probably shouldn’t be the only game experience for anyone. However, I for one, believe that we’ve created something special here, something that will evolve and improve over the years, but that will stand the test of time.
Care to try?
Christian T. Petersen
Founder of Fantasy Flight Games
President of Asmodee North America