Trip Hawkins, chief executive of Digital Chocolate, isn’t shy about describing his company’s latest Facebook game, NanoStar Castles. He first conceived the game, which you could summarize as Pokemon for grown-ups, more than 16 years ago. He boldly says it is “the best idea I’ve ever had” and personally oversaw its design and production.
Those are pretty big words, considering Hawkins founded Electronic Arts, started 3DO, and is now on his mobile-social game company, Digital Chocolate. There may be a lot of bluster in that comment — Hawkins is known for that — but it’s also clear that Hawkins can’t just be laughed off.
After about four years of actual design, NanoStar Castles is finally launching on Facebook, and I have to say that it’s very clever. If it takes off, it will be part of a series of NanoStar social games.
Hawkins has taken a traditional deck-of-cards game and combined it with a trading-card game like Pokemon, adding 151 character cards that can be played on top of the original 52-card deck. Players are dealt four cards each and try to get the highest number of points. But the character cards can be used to modify the value of the dealt cards.
“The kernel of the idea is to use a regular deck of cards that can be modified by another deck of cards,” he said.
The game is a bid by Digital Chocolate, a mobile games company, to implant itself on Facebook, where lots of game companies are starting to make big profits. This game is firmly rooted in Hawkins’ long-held belief that deep, original games, not shallow, cloned games derived from console or PC titles, are the key to gaining a competitive advantage over rivals.
“I think this is the most important work I’ve done in my career,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins notes that it’s about time that someone creates a brand-new card game. But rather than do it on paper, it is best done as a social game on a huge platform like Facebook, which sorely needs addictive games that players will come back to over and over. The complaint about a lot of Facebook games, such as FarmVille, is that they’re designed to be viral — where one friend spams another to get them to play the game — but they’re not truly addictive games in their own right.
In the NanoStar Castles game, two players fight a duel and are dealt four playing cards each. They can draw a card to replace one that they already have, or they can play a modification card from a deck of the zany 151 characters. The NanoStar characters are designed to evoke emotions in gamers, making them more endearing. It’s a simple game, but the theory is that the depth of game play will keep the veteran players coming back.
“I have a great admiration for the simplicity of poker, but I also like the games with a lot of luck involved,” Hawkins said. “That’s the way I designed this one. It takes a combination of luck, skill and strategy.”
This game is designed to tap into the virtual-goods craze that has swept through social games, where players are encouraged to spend real money for purely digital in-game add-ons that give some advantage in play. The virtual-goods system in NanoStar Castles could be used in other games such as NanoTown (pictured with Hawkins at top), a new Digital Chocolate game that has been growing fast on Facebook. One of the unique things about the NanoStar Social Games series of games is that the virtual goods you buy in one game could also be used in another game. (Digital Chocolate has applied for a patent on how the NanoStars virtual currency platform is transferable to other games.)
Trading-card games such as NanoStar Castles could potentially generate far more loyalty and transactions than is typical in a virtual goods-based social game on Facebook, where maybe three percent to five percent of all users spend any money at all. By contrast, Hawkins said he knows friends who have spent $10,000 or more on Magic: The Gathering paper-based trading cards. (This is why Hasbro bought the Magic card business via Wizards of the Coast for $350 million in 1997).
“The average revenue per paying user on trading cards is just off the grid,” Hawkins said.
The tough thing about launching NanoStar Castles, Hawkins realizes, is that creating a new playing card game isn’t easy. It’s so hard to establish a new kind of game, in fact, that Hawkins is a little worried about the reception his game will get in its first commercial test after all this time. (Indeed, whether it is popular or not, it is still the best idea he’s ever had).
Playing-card game fans are especially slow to adapt to new innovations. Poker, for instance, got formalized in the 1800s but it didn’t truly take off until the Texas Hold ‘Em variant was created in the early 1900s and then institutionalized in Las Vegas in 1967. Games such as Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh have also taken off. But they have not changed dramatically in the period since they were introduced.
To create what he believed would be a truly addictive game, Hawkins had to reach deep into his past growing up in the 1960s. That was when Strat-O-Matic Baseball, a playing card game based on the ever-changing statistics of baseball players, was his favorite game. He started Electronic Arts in 1982 so that he could do sports games on a computer that would be better than what Strat-O-Matic did on paper. As a result, EA Sports became a multibillion-dollar sports game franchise on the foundation of what Hawkins started.
“I give Strat-O-Matic the credit for propelling me into games and the creation of EA,” Hawkins said.
Digital Chocolate will let you play its games on Facebook for free. But if you want to get better capabilities, you’ll have to buy more NanoStars characters in packets, like buying a pack of trading cards for about 75 cents per character. Starting about 18 months ago, Hawkins had a paper-based prototype that he used to test with a small group of family and friends. Digital Chocolate designed the tongue-in-cheek characters that go with the final game.
One cute character is the Governator (modeled after Arnold Schwarzenegger), who delivers a political speech and has a robotic arm. In the game, the Governator transforms into a barbarian with an ax and can crush two of your opponents’ cards. Another character is Pamela (i.e. Pamela Anderson), a bikini-clad blonde bombshell who distracts all male characters in the game and essentially nullifies their attacks. The satirical elements are meant to appeal to adults of a certain age.
Besides NanoStars Castles, Hawkins is also launching another NanoStars Siege defense style game on Facebook as well, where you both attack and defend with an army at the same time. Both are attempts by Digital Chocolate to come from behind on Facebook and steal away the audience from market leaders such as Zynga and Crowdstar.
A typical NanoStars Castles game lasts five or six minutes and can be played while the other player is online or offline. Since it’s turn-based, you can wait for your opponent to make a move. Having watched a round of game play, I can see how this game could prove to be addictive for lots of fans. It moves fast and requires the players to strategize.
Digital Chocolate’s other social games are starting to take off. MMA Fighter has more than a million users since its launch in December. Overall, the investment in social games is a serious one, since Digital Chocolate now has 150 of its 400 employees working on social games now. About 40 people have worked on various parts of NanoStars Castles. A couple of more NanoStars games are in the pipeline.
Will NanoStars Castles take off? Hawkins himself refers to his failed attempt to create the 3DO game console back in the 1990s as “Trip’s Folly.” He said that some folks have told him that this NanoStars effort might be “Trip’s Folly: The Sequel.” Like all things that Hawkins does, it’s a hell of a wager.