State of the Game: A Critical Reaction to Gwent’s First Year in Release (Part 2)
October 23, 2019 by Lothari
Yesterday, we started looking at the highs and lows of Gwent’s first year in release, talking about its state on release, the Mulligan Update, it’s personality programmes and expansions. Now we continue with the philosophy changes we’ve seen, Gwent Masters and Gwent’s user experience, as well as drawing some comparisons as to what it means and talking a bit about the future. Once again, I’ll be joined by Kolemoen and Crozyr to discuss their thoughts.
Reworks and Philosophy Changes
One of the things I disliked most about Gwent on release was the focus on units that dealt damage as a significant part of their value. It was incredibly limiting to viable deck type variety and a big contribution to why unit-light decks proved so frustrating to so many people. One of the advantages of a digital game with a continuous development cycle is that the developers get to recognise and fix these kinds of fundamental problems without much fuss, and CD Projekt Red have done so, along with a raft of changes earlier in the year to artifacts and deck-building, and more recently to bronze cards, which represents a fundamental change in Gwent’s design philosophy.
When it comes to overall gameplay, the game is in a much more balanced state than it was during beta, and gameplay is fun. However, I see how some people that enjoyed beta Gwent's craziness feel underwhelmed... Compare all this craziness with what we have now. Sure, we still have some interesting combos but everything has become much tamer now... – Crozyr
Particularly with the bronze cards, where the development team also took the opportunity to reintroduce some of the faction-specific flavour that had been found lacking after the release of the far more flavourful Syndicate, CDPR were incredibly mature in the way they handled this redesign process. Jason Slama spoke multiple times across multiple development videos about taking their time and giving themselves room to catch and fix design and balancing errors, as well as to get a feel for how such changes were being received by the public. This not only made them look good in the eyes of their audience, but provided the safety net they’d denied themselves on release. It’s a spotlight, if nothing else, on how the development team are learning to cope better with a continuous development project.
The biggest part of the faction reworks was to buff the majority of weaker bronzes... This, I think, was a good change, since the original power level of bronzes was too low, which meant games were quite often decided by who drew more golds. – Kolemoen
Especially for Northern Realms, the first faction to be examined in this process, the changes have been an overwhelming success in the eyes of the Gwent audience. At the time of the 3.1 and 3.2 updates, there were so many comments about making bronzes relevant again. Players felt comfortable playing cards from hand instead of using them as mulligan-fodder, factions felt different from one another again. Personally, it also felt great to be able to play a viable old-school, full-on greedy deck again, in the form of Greatswords, and not have it immediately shut down by midrange point-slam/control hybrids. Once again, the scope of the game and its design space opened up, and that was refreshing for the entire Gwent community.
And that’s it.
The meta for Open #8 was relatively boring... Almost all decks were just point-slam or control variants, so I can imagine that the viewer experience was not too great. [Challenger #5] was a different beast, since it happened relatively shortly after a big balance update. Intense preparation was required. – Kolemoen
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Gwent as an esport. Out of the gate in 2016, it started on a very strong footing, but Project Homecoming saw the competitive scene grind to a halt and it’s since failed to really get going again. The community has tried its best to fill in the gaps, but in the esports world resources are hard to come by when a game is visibly struggling to gain traction. People who are new to Gwent or play it more casually may be unaffected by this, but it has been an incredibly frustrating year for those of us more invested in competition, and for pro players it has been either maddening, or worse still completely disillusioning.
I think it is painfully obvious how much it has been neglected over the past year, with an ongoing official tournament drought and a perplexing silence by those involved in its organisation. It's understandable that CDPR doesn't want to make large-scale tournaments for an ever decreasing community, but at the same time it was these tournaments that were keeping so many people invested in the game in the first place... – Crozyr
In some ways, it’s a symbiotic relationship and a catch-22 wrapped up into one. A game needs to be in a healthy, competitive and popular state in order for an esports scene to be worth the investment, but to some degree a thriving esports environment is necessary to drive forward the game’s health, competitive balance and popularity. In this regard, there are no two ways about it. CD Projekt Red have got it completely wrong.
Magpie131 winning Gwent Challenger #5.
In an attempt to capitalise on what must have been seen as a massive shift in the market, when competitive players were positively fleeing from Hearthstone in 2016, CDPR threw way too much money at Gwent’s esport scene before realising the game was so fundamentally broken that they’d have to redesign it from scratch. They set expectations for themselves, the pro players they gathered and their audience that quickly became too unrealistic to fulfil, and were locked into a contractual agreement that meant they have to carry on with it, even if it’s to their own detriment. At least in my eyes, Gwent Open #8 and Gwent Challenger #5 were both fantastic tournaments, but they were also the least watched of all the official tournaments. To be at – to be a part of – Gwent Challenger #5 was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life, but on its Twitch stream it was a painfully obvious downgrade from previous Challenger-level events, sorely missing the colourful host of cosplayers and the vibrancy of a Moszna Castle or Wieliszka Salt Mine to give it the same atmosphere as its predecessors.
The game right now would be a really good competitive game. Of course, I'd prefer it if there was more communication, but I think they probably don't know themselves yet what exactly their plans are, so they can't really communicate much. – Kolemoen
The long stretches between official broadcast competitions, the utter silence on Gwent’s esports future and, above all, the very apparent nervousness from the higher echelons of CDPR to invest in the scene further have completely killed all of its momentum, and I fear it’ll drag the game further down with it if it continues. I do believe Gwent and CD Projekt Red have a lot to offer the esports world, and I do think there will be a Gwent Masters Season 2. But there have to be changes to its handling, and they have to be good.
Playability and User Experience
Playability and user experience measure how easy the game is to play. How usable is its interface? How smoothly does the game run? How easy is it for new players to pick up and how often do things break?
The term “user experience” has become a buzz phrase under Jason Slama, particularly with the push to mobile platforms where it becomes make or break for a game’s success. To make it work is very important, and it’s a constant effort across all areas of the game development team.
I think the Gwent user experience is pretty good. Especially the Deck Builder is a lot better than it was in beta. A very big issue however is that you can't queue actions up while animations are playing in games, so it feels quite slow and unresponsive compared to other popular card games. – Kolemoen
It’s also one of the most difficult things to gauge when it comes to how well it’s going, as general audiences tend to be less vocal about things they like when it comes to games. There have been a number of playability bugs that have frustrated users because they were introduced with other changes, most notably Barnabas Beckenbauer refusing to boost all three valid targets for months on end. It’s a common symptom of what’s known as “spaghetti code”, and it’s the one hurdle in this area that the development team seem to be struggling to clear. I can safely say this makes sense. Due to its nature, spaghetti code always causes problems and is never easy or quick to fix, which makes it a nightmare for prioritising time for in a continuous development cycle. Programming band aids are common, and can be just as unstable.
Gwent's game board during the first few weeks of its initial release (above) and during Patch 4.0.3 (below).
That said, the development team has done a good job at hotfixing where and when they can, and the area of playability and user experience is a definite positive for them. The game is less clunky now than it ever has been, runs as smoothly as ever (as long as you don’t overload your machine limits with premium art) and already looks like it plays well on mobile. User experience has improved as well, with a good Deck Builder in place, tutorials and Starter Decks ironed out over time and an interface where a lot of information is packed onto the screen in a very clear and concise way. I, for one, think the game is in a good place, technically speaking, and I don’t doubt it will continue to improve as things stand.
So what does this all mean?
I look back at all of these areas and I think that some very good progress has been made in some key aspects of the game, and no one should try to take anything away from the development team for that. With Iron Judgment, the game feels like it has reached the point we hit after the May balance patch before Project Homecoming: There’s a lot of room for deck variety and, though we might not see it yet, the groundwork is there for the game to be more balanced than ever before. In addition, there’s a large scope for future design and future themes. Looking at the game, standing on its own, there are a lot of reasons to be excited.
There are also two obvious areas for improvement. Most importantly, Gwent has to start pulling a real audience in, particularly through the proper utilisation of its content creators and brand ambassadors. Part of that will be repairing and reshaping the game’s esports scene, and that’s a full-scale project in and of itself.
It might sound strange, after some of the things I’ve written through the course of these two articles, but I actually think it is a strong position for Gwent to find itself in, as long as CD Projekt Red treat it in the right way. Riot, courtesy of Legends of Runeterra, may well be about to prove that you don’t have to rush these things to find success. Gwent is now in a state where the game is not just playable, but good, and can be fun as long as its balanced. Work on balancing and work on new content definitely shouldn’t slow down. The rhythm, I think, is perfect. However, now that the groundwork is there, some of the focus can shift to other areas which will help the game grow.
It’s impossible to say what will happen. Eyes will undoubtedly turn to Gwent’s performance on mobile platforms, and it could be that the game lives or dies by that performance. The key here is for CD Projekt Red not just to release the game to iOS and Android and hope that’s enough. It will still need investment. It won’t just grow itself.
I can’t see the future, but I can write a little about my expectations, my hope and what I think is necessary.
What I think is necessary is a stronger marketing campaign. It speaks volumes that on release it was Thronebreaker that received the big marketing push and not Gwent, as if either CD Projekt Red thought Gwent would market itself, or didn’t have that much confidence in it. The former is oddly naive for such an experienced company, and the second is simply disappointing. Gwent is a project to be confident in, and if more work is done to sell it, more traction will be gained. Even getting someone curious enough to download it on their phone is a huge win, but Gwent can, should and would do better than that. The word just isn’t out there yet.
I expect we’ll see a streamlined competitive scene with a much smaller payout, and a scene much more accessible to the general population. The pro players that a lot of us know and love might be disappointed, but new stars will rise, and even a few hundred dollars is a lot of money to a new player who just recently discovered Gwent on their phone. Streamlining also means much better consistency, with the way forward likely more broadcast online tournaments and fewer LANs. That consistency will be key to audience growth, but it will, if nurtured properly, relight that symbiotic relationship I mentioned earlier, and the esports scene could still grow the game, which could fuel bigger esports scenes in the future.
I hope, beyond anything else, for more love to the Gwent content creators. Put us on the Gwent website; tell your audience more about what each of us does and how. Not for a week. Permanently. Give us a platform we can use to help you grow your audience the best way we know how, and help us make even better content by improving the communication of major changes ahead of time. Let us get the content out there quicker and to more people to show the existing audience and potential players not just what we’re capable of, but why Gwent is better than any other game out there. Give us a feeder or event-opener tournament series or league series; one that can provide more of that consistent competitive scene, between or in addition to higher-stakes competitive Gwent. We are a resource for you to utilise. UTILISE US!
There is a lot more that could have been discussed in an article series like this one, and I leave it up to the wider Gwent community to do so, because there simply isn’t enough space left to keep going here. If nothing else, I hope these articles have given some perspective on how far Gwent has come over the last year, as well as the possibilities for where it can go in the future.
An important point I want to make is that where there are negatives, it’s important not to put the blame on one person. A software development team is a complex structure, and sometimes things just happen that snowball into an unfixable problem, or a problem that takes a long time to solve. The important thing, for developers as well as the audience, is not to become too jaded when things go wrong. I’d never advocate doing or playing something you really don’t enjoy, but also don’t give up too quickly. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Gwent’s future. It might just take some more time, and more hard work, and some convincing of the real decision makers that there are still a lot of people who care.
With that in mind, I wish everyone the best of luck or best of fun, or both, with Gwent on PC, console or mobile over the course of the next year. I myself have to take a slight step back from content creation while I find some more stable work and start taking some proper steps forward in my life, but I won’t stop playing Gwent. At least I hope I won’t.
Happy birthday, Gwent. Here’s to many more.