Second Dinner boss Ben Brode dazzled the GDC crowd yesterday with a Marvel Snap talk crammed full of insights.
Brode revealed that he and Second Dinner cofounder Hamilton Chu had effectively signed the Marvel license when the studio started, and had prototyped the core gameplay of Marvel Snap on physical cards in just two days. The next four years were spent getting the game built, iterating and figuring out the meta and progression systems.
Brode began by comparing the design process to a recipe, in that different chefs – game designers – can take the same ingredients and make wildly different end results.
Sticking with the metaphor, he went on to describe his previous game Hearthstone’s recipe as:
- The WOW Trading Card Game’s card types, attacking, damage and win condition
- Card game Battle Spirits’ Mana system
- Innovations sprinkled on top: hero powers, no responses, weapon durability, fatigue and low complexity
And by the end of the talk he had built out the recipe for Marvel Snap:
- Backgammon’s doubling cube
- The simultaneous reveals and mind games of board games Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation and Game of Thrones
- The ability locations of board game Smash Up
- Clash Royale’s under five minute games
- Innovations: 6 turns, 12 card decks, 1 card type
But first, he talked through the early inspirations for what became Marvel Snap. As Hearthstone launched in 2014, Brode had become a father, and sitting at a PC playing games for hours was becoming more and more difficult. Instead he said he’d have to cram gaming in between other activities – so his next project had to be a mobile game.
“Clash Royale came out a couple years later,” he said. “And I was super jealous. If you have five minutes you are 100% sure you can get a game of Clash Royale in. That was just brilliant.”
Brode said he played every possible digital card game on mobile during the ideas phase of the project in 2018, noting a game called Card Monsters: 3 Minute Duels, developed by MU77 Studio, as a big inspiration in particular.
He also namechecked The Elder Scrolls Legends and Plants Vs Zombies Heroes before talking through how he and cofounder Hamilton Chu wanted to build a game around the ‘double it’ gambit from Backgammon.
He was also inspired by the below GDC talk from his Hearthstone colleague Eric Dodds, particularly the section about ‘little victories’.
“Essentially little victories add a little joy, even if you lose,” said Brode.
The team even turned retreating from a game in Marvel Snap into a ‘little victory’ – upon retreating, players were initially shown a ‘You Lose!’ pop-up, but it was tweaked to say ‘Escaped!’
“It made losing feel like victory,” said Brode. “It’s a strategic retreat where you don’t fall victim to your opponent’s gambit – and we realised we could emphasise this with some presentation changes… you didn’t lose – you escaped! You’re a genius!”
This topic was expanded upon by Brode as he talked through on-screen text complexity. He referenced the below GDC talk by George Fan, creator of Plants Vs Zombies, on the importance of concise, clear player communication.
“This was mind blowing to me: if you put more than eight words on the screen, players will not read them,” said Brode.
“The average [on-screen] word count for Hearthstone was nine words, and for Snap it’s 11.”
This hyper focused, concise approach to Marvel Snap’s design extended to the naming and setting of the game itself. The team decided it was better to have no story at all than a bad or a shoehorned-in one, and Marvel Snap was chosen as the title because it was the most immediate of the many options they played with.
This simplification process was applied to the Snap mechanic, too. Brode ran through nine different variations of the doubling cube mechanic his team prototyped before they ended up with the more straightforward one in the game today.
Then it was onto the topic of ‘input and output randomness’ – the motivation behind adding the different locations in each game of Marvel Snap. Randomness is exciting for players and offers unpredictability and variation, said Brode, but it needs to be randomness that the player can act upon or base decisions on.
He urged the crowd to watch this talk by Richard Garfield called ‘Luck in Games’: “I said George Fan has the best to GDC talk, but this talk is my all-time favourite design talk”.
“I think most people misunderstand the relationship between luck and skill,” said Brode. “A lot of people imagine it as a scale where you’ve got luck on one side, and skill on the other…but that’s not how it works at all.”
“Games in the ‘high luck, high skill’ category I think are super fun, because they include a ton of interesting decisions, but they also have exciting moments that are different every time you play them.”
He went on to define the idea of input randomness as the player making a strategic decision in the face of a random event. Output randomness is the opposite: the player makes a decision and then they find out if it was the right decision or the wrong decision. Marvel Snap’s locations – and some cards – are designed to offer both kinds of excitement, said Brode.
And with that, he revealed the full ‘recipe’ for Marvel Snap – a mix of Backgammon, simultaneous reveals, ability locations, Clash Royale’s under five minute games and its innovations: 6 turns, 12 card decks, 1 card type.
Brode summed up by thanking his team for the last four years of hard work, and left the crowd with four takeaways:
- Chefs need ingredients – so stock your pantry
- Be the speedboat – until your direction is clear
- Embrace randomness – input or output
- Simplify – even if your team hates you