State of the Game: A Critical Reaction to Gwent’s First Year in Release (Part 1)
October 22, 2019 by Lothari
Thirteen months ago, I wrote my first Gwent article about the then upcoming Project Homecoming, and whether or not we as an audience needed to be worried about the direction it was taking Gwent: The Witcher Card Game based on my experience both as a fan and as a game developer. Though many of us have been playing it for a lot longer, this week Gwent officially turns 1 year old, and we at Team Aretuza thought it is the perfect time to take a look back over the highs and lows of Gwent’s first year in release.
Over the course of two articles, we’ll look at what I think are some of the major topics that have shaped the state of Gwent over the last year, as well as how it is perceived, again looking at things both as a player and developer to analyse the state of the game. Throughout the article, I’ll also be joined by Team Aretuza’s own Kolemoen and Crozyr, giving their views as active Gwent pro players and personalities.
As a developer, the only part of the Homecoming announcement that made me genuinely nervous was the announcement that Gwent would go live when Project Homecoming completed. Complete redesigns are incredibly scary, and there’s always a threat that if they don’t work, the project is dead in the water. Attaching the word “beta” provides a safety net, and by releasing Gwent immediately, CD Projekt Red removed that. It put pressure on the development team to get it right straight out of the box.
By the time I felt truly confident about the game and my abilities again, many others had given up, simply frustrated with how Gwent had changed so drastically. It's a loss we are still recovering from today. – Crozyr
I imagine then that there were some nervous faces when Gwent’s launch was shaky in some important areas. Though the game looked much better and the game had a healthier overall design, it was slow and clunky and many took issue with the way game and card mechanics like the mulligan system and Reveal worked, as well as how the game was balanced towards gold neutral cards, with Vesemir, Eskel and Lambert, as well as Unicorn and Chironex, prominent in many meta decks.
I stand by my words in my Homecoming article, that some of beta Gwent’s complexity had to be stripped away in order to provide a more stable platform on which to build a solid card game, but this particular implementation not only led to the same cards defining so many decks, but to a narrowing of the number of viable deck types and to a stripping away of individual faction identities. Variety is the best defence against staleness, and when the different but casino-style NG Reveal was inevitably dialled down, not a lot of variety was left.
The game changed drastically compared to its beta state, so in a lot of ways it felt like learning a completely new game. Personally, I did not like the initial state of the game a lot, mostly because it felt bland. Removal was really overtuned and archetypes not developed enough. – Kolemoen
Thronebreaker is worthy of mention because of its origins. It may have become a standalone game in its own right, but it began as the Gwent equivalent of the Hearthstone adventures. I’m reasonably sure it could have done better had Gwent just been removed from the picture entirely, but as it is, it always felt like it was, at least in part, meant to act as a tool to bring more people into the standalone CCG community.
If it only hadn't been for ridiculously easy difficulty even on the hardest setting, it could have been a perfect game, but alas, nobody seemed to care about the fact that for veterans of the online variant, it would be a breeze to play through. – Crozyr
We may never know for sure how well that actually worked, but a year on I still see more Gwent players saying they bought Thronebreaker in order to get quick access to that card set than I see Thronebreaker players saying they were so impressed with the game’s combat / challenge system that they decided to invest in Gwent. A quick look at the Steam reviews tells a similar story; a lot of good to say about Thronebreaker, but a rather muted reaction to its card game aspects. With that in mind, it’s difficult to say that Thronebreaker worked well as a “speaks for itself” marketing tool for Gwent, particularly when Gwent received little to no marketing of its own at the same time.
The Mulligan Update
[The mulligan system before the update] felt bad because more powerful leaders were stuck on very few mulligans, making their decks very inconsistent. Overall, however, I think the Mulligan Update didn't change the gameplay too much. It is a bit overrated. – Kolemoen
Moving along chronologically, the Mulligan Update saw Gwent switch to the easier, fairer mulligan system that we are still using now, whereby the number of mulligans you have is less varied, round-based and balanced according to the number of cards you draw. It was a change that a lot of the community applauded, and, to me, felt like the first time in a while that the game had some real, positive momentum.
From a development standpoint, it represented a paradigm shift; it was the culmination of a good effort from Gwent’s management team to lay down a consistent development cycle, which is crucial to success for continuous development projects. We’re still seeing monthly iterations generally holding to the pattern Jason Slama spoke about when CDPR released Gwent’s roadmap. This is the real legacy of the Mulligan update – it signalled the development team’s ability and willingness to develop, maintain and adapt an ever-changing game, even if some things don’t take as little time as the community would like.
The Mulligan Update showed that the devs were willing to backpedal a bit, even when it came to their most drastic changes like the new mulligan system, in order to find a compromise with the players... – Crozyr
Communication of that development to us as an audience is also important, and at least for the general Gwent community, the team is continuing to keep a consistent line of communication open. We may not get a development stream late in the evening every month anymore, but there are still monthly development videos that talk about and explain changes and Gwent’s direction, and in recent months we’ve even been getting patch notes before an update’s release. Communication with Gwent Partners who have to stay on top of the game’s development in order to create their best content leaves a lot to be desired, but we’ve still come a long way from the months of silence that were the Homecoming drought.
Gwent Skirmish, Faction Ambassadors and Gwent Partners
In an age where social media dominates so much of our lives, having personalities that an audience can look to, helping to build a brand, makes so much sense it’s almost painful. This is particularly true for games that aim to stay relevant for a much longer period of time, which should be the case for competitive multiplayer titles. This is the role that content creators fundamentally fill, consistently drawing people into playing Gwent via discovery on Twitch, YouTube and various article sites. On paper, it was right for CD Projekt Red to get the ball rolling quickly on initiatives like Gwent Skirmish (an ill-fated tournament series for Gwent content creators that fizzled out after a single round), the Faction Ambassador title and the Gwent Partners programme, but it’s an area where the company continues to have problems.
I think it is a great idea to keep the community and its content creators engaged like this. I only wish that tournaments like the Gwent Skirmish will come back eventually, as they serve as a great motivator for both content creators that have already invested a lot of their effort into the game and those who have yet to give streaming/writing/ video-making a shot. – Crozyr
I think it’s good that CDPR tries to help out content creators by promoting them with various programs. Content creators help keep people interested and playing the game, so I would like to see more of this in the future. – Kolemoen
Someone recently asked me whether Royal Envoy, as Gwent Partners are labelled in the official Gwent discord, was a competitive esports team. It really made me question how much exposure Gwent content creators have, which in turn makes me doubt their impact. We work very hard to elevate Gwent above other titles, a lot of us for very little incentive, but aside from a weekly Twitter and Facebook post that has so far applied only to streamers and YouTubers, there’s no counterbalance to properly utilise us as beacons to potential players. Where can I go to find out what a Gwent Partner or Faction Ambassador is and what they do? What incentivises me to follow and support them? Why should I, a potential investor in Gwent and CD Projekt Red, care about the people you have given these elevating titles to?
I leave these questions open as a challenge, because at the moment I see these initiatives as a missed opportunity for CD Projekt Red to highlight why the Gwent content creation community is worth following.
In the space of a year, we’ve had three Gwent expansions: Crimson Curse in March, Novigrad in June and Iron Judgment in October. Each has added a boatload of new cards to the game and greatly broadened Gwent’s mechanical and thematic scope.
Expansions serve the purpose of renewing interest in a game, invigorating the audience, bringing new fans in and bringing old fans back with new or revitalised mechanics, themes and characters. They’ve always been a huge money maker for CCGs, where players buy packs to make sure they have access to new cards quickly, so they can stay competitive or just experiment with them in the environment changed by their inclusion. It’s another area which on paper was good for CDPR to nail down quickly, and unlike their personality programmes, the expansions have, to date, had a real, positive impact on the Gwent experience.
I think all of the expansions so far significantly improved the gameplay experience as they introduced more interesting cards into the card pool, as well as powercreeping the game (especially bronzes) a bit, which I think was needed. It would be nice though if there were fewer bugs at the start of every expansion, and sometimes the balance is a bit off on some cards. – Kolemoen
At least from inside the existing community, reception to all three has been very good. All three have been lauded as thematically very strong and, even if they lacked a competitive impact, all three did a good job in broadening Gwent’s scope in the way they should. Novigrad, introducing a brand new faction into an already released title, was always going to be a bit of a strange experience, and there was a wobble in that Syndicate really highlighted how much work needed doing to other Gwent factions in terms of both power level and identity, but overall it’s safe to say that this area is probably one of the best received parts of Gwent’s first year.
While I loved every single expansion so far, I wish they would only release 3 each year instead of four. We'd actually have time to fully explore the new card pool, people would have time to catch up with their card collections. Additionally, it would probably be easier to polish, and might even allow for a longer and more thorough PTR. – Crozyr
In terms of bringing in new players, it’s a different story. CD Projekt Red of course keep the raw numbers to themselves, so we may never know for sure, but with Twitch viewer numbers still flagging, particularly in comparison to Gwent’s competitors, it’s hard to think that the expansions’ impact has been spectacular. Not knowing the internal structure of how Gwent is managed, it’s hard for me to say what’s missing, but a key area for improvement could be marketing campaigns. I’ve seen one advert for Crimson Curse in the seven months its been out, and that was just after Novigrad was released. While I applaud community card reveals as a really good way of spreading the word, the word just doesn’t seem to be reaching far outside the Gwent communities that already exist. Perhaps the upcoming mobile release will change that, as expansions that offer a pay-to-play-quickly strategy on an otherwise free-to-play game do very well in that casual market, but only time will tell.
Until Next Time
In order to keep things readable, we’ve split things up across today and Wednesday. I’ll be back then to talk about more of the highs and lows of the last year, what it all means for Gwent and to talk a bit about its future.
Meanwhile, I encourage you to think about your own highs and lows with Gwent over the last year, and discuss them both with fellow Gwent players. There should always be room for constructive reflection in the wider gaming community. After all, how are developers to know our passions and concerns if we all just stay silent?