SolForge field (big)

Plopping $500 down on a game meant to be played on your phone or tablet may seem, perhaps, 500 times too much. But a handful of excitable (and apparently, well-off) gamers are doing just that for SolForge. The nutty thing is, this digital-only collectible-card game (CCG) is actually free. That’s right, you don’t have to dish out any cash play it — payments are purely for optional virtual goods. Even nuttier: SolForge isn’t even out yet. It’s due late summer or early fall for iOS and PC and then later for Android.

What would get people to drop a half-grand on an otherwise free game that’s still months away from being released? If you’re nerdy enough, then the names Richard Garfield and Stone Blade Entertainment might do it. Garfield is the famous designer behind the megapopular Magic: The Gathering CCG. Stone Blade (formerly Gary Games) created the also-popular Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer deck-building game, whose iOS version saw 2 million play sessions in December alone. The two have joined forces to create SolForge, which started off as a Kickstarter campaign looking for $250,000 in crowdsourced funding and ended with nearly double that at $430,000.

The project is now, of course, a go, and prospective players can preorder bonuses on the official website. Stone Blade won’t say exactly how many have opted for the most expensive buy-in (that’s the $500 package), only that “many have” — and that’s not including the 81 backers who pledged $500 or more on Kickstarter.

We talked to Stone Blade founder and Ascension creator Justin Gary to find out what exactly these game designers — who are relatively new to the digital business, by the way — are doing to put gamers into “please, take my money mode.” Here are his thoughts …

Justin Gary (Stone Blade Entertainment)… on how he made a tabletop gaming experience work so well on iOS:

Justin Gary: It’s going to be a long time before people give up the value of sitting around a table and the tactile feel of having a deck of cards. But the fact that the iOS version lets you play it so much more easily and so much faster is great. It’s part of the designed intent: to make this game faster than any of the others that are out there.

Look at the other games in the deck-building category: Dominion, Thunderstone, or any of the others. With a typical match of Ascension, I can set it up, play it, and put it away in the same time it takes to set up one of those other games. I’m very proud of the fact that I could make Ascension playable in under 30 minutes in the physical version. When we finally converted it over to mobile, a mobile user could play it in less than five minutes.

… on whether $5 iOS sales can cannibalize $40 physical sales of the same game:

Gary: There’s a little more infrastructure required to build out the physical games, but we do make more selling a $40 game than we do a $5 download that Apple takes 30 percent of.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe it’s a cannibalistic thing. We’re able to expand the tabletop world in a way that’s never been possible before. There are hundreds of thousands of people now playing Ascension who never would have seen it otherwise. I find a lot of them actually tend to want to come over and try out the physical experience as well. We’ve seen a consistent increase in our sales of the physical game along with the sales of the mobile game.

There are people who never would have looked at a hobby game. They never played a trading-card game, never played a deck-building game, never played anything like it, and they discover Ascension on their iPhone or iPad and then get exposed to a whole new world. They don’t just buy the physical Ascension — they start looking into other games and other things in the space. It’s helping to grow the hobby that I love and that I grew up in.

… on whether digital-first SolForge can become a physical product:

Gary: While I will tell you that it is something we do have on the table, one of the design directives for SolForge was to do things with a trading-card game that you could never do in a physical space. That’s why the main mechanic of SolForge is that cards evolve and transform and get new powers and new art when you play them. Stuff can … modify cards permanently, changing the nature of the game. These are things that are really difficult to do physically.

I know this because when we were first working on SolForge, we didn’t have programming in. We had to mock everything up physically. In order to simulate leveling-up cards, we would put multiple little pieces of paper inside the card sleeve and move those out and change them. It was a pain in the butt. It would take an hour to set up and play a game as opposed to now, where it’s five minutes to play. I wouldn’t subject anybody to that exact experience.

SolForge Sentries - card evolution

Above: When you use or cull cards in SolForge, they evolve into a higher-level form for later use.

… on how a competitor like Thunderstone can have similar ratings on BoardGameGeek and be successful as a physical card game yet languish in the digital space:

Gary: There are a couple of factors. One of them is a pretty big one that you already mentioned [Editor’s note: that Thunderstone requires many more stacks of cards displayed on the table for players to choose from]. Ascension is designed so that you have a lot less information that you have to process and handle all at once. It makes it much easier to display on a phone.

The speed of play is another factor. You can play a game of Ascension very quickly and then go into another one. We’ve built it so that you can have asynchronous turns much more easily. You don’t have to make decisions and be aware of things during your opponent’s turns. There’s no defending component. We have a lot fewer numbers on every card. It’s a lot more accessible to someone who’s never played a core hobby game before.

It’s about understanding the mobile space. You have to work with smaller screen real estate. You have to work with shorter attention spans, shorter timelines. You have to be able to understand how your game meshes with asynchronous play.

Part of that is intentional on our part, and part of that was a little bit of luck. I purposefully built a game that would be fast and accessible in the physical space, and when the mobile started growing during that timeline, it was like, “Wow, this is perfect.”

… on gamers spending up to $500 for preorders on new card packs for SolForge:

Gary: It’s interesting to see how many people have committed a fair about of money toward SolForge. Many people gave us $500 dollars, $1,000 dollars, or more to be part of this process.

One of the problems with trading-card games, traditionally, is that it costs so much money to play. If you’re serious about a trading-card game, you’re spending hundreds of dollars a year, at best, to keep up. SolForge is not going to be like that. SolForge is … totally free to play. If you don’t have enough money to play a normal collectible game, you can play this game and earn access to all the competitive-level cards that you want.

Some people, rather than spending the time to unlock those cards and play through that content, will choose to spend money and make it happen faster — or spend money on cool upgrades like animated cards or lots of other neat little features that we unlock.

I’m most excited that we have a revenue model that works. You don’t have to commit to spending hundreds of dollars. In my mind, it’s one of the most important revolutions of the last few years. It’s this thing we call a freemium business model, where we can make it so if you want to spend $5, if you want to spend $500, if you want to spend zero dollars, there’s a place for you on the spectrum. Everyone can participate, and everyone can be on the same competitive level.

We’re able to give away so much more for free because of the way that this model is built.

SolForge field

… on people willing to pay so much money for cards that aren’t “real”:

Gary: I take this responsibility very seriously. People put that money down because they believe in me. They believe in Richard. They believe in my team. We have Magic Hall of Famers — Brian Kibler, Rob Dougherty — on the team. We have Patrick Sullivan. We have a ton of really influential people, people who have been in the industry for a while. People believe in us.

People are putting their hard-earned money down. It’s no joke. So we’re going to deliver the best trading-card game experience anybody has ever seen in this space. You can already start to see it. We put the demo out on iPad back in December, ahead of schedule.

To follow up, there is a little bit of weirdness, right? You and I grew up in a time where the idea of paying for something that’s only a digital object was kind of silly. Nowadays we pay for digital content when it comes to music and movies. We pay for digital content here. You’re going to get an experience that’s arguably better in most ways than when we had our physical collection back home.

… on the value of playing a card game through a digital medium:

I have boxes of Magic cards sitting at my place that are not sorted, that are hard to get together. If I want to play with somebody, I have to find a friend who also has a deck for the same format. If we have different cards, we have to set up to play. Right now, if I want to play Ascension, I can just play online. If I want to play SolForge, once it’s up and running, I can always find an opponent. I can play for five minutes. I have my collection already sorted and organized. There are a lot of benefits that you get from being in this space.

While it’s a little bit weird for us to make that transition to a world where digital objects are valuable items, what we’re providing is entertainment. The beauty is, you don’t have to pay to check it out. To try out a game like Magic, you had to buy a starter deck or two and ideally have somebody there that can teach you because trying to read a rulebook is pretty tough. Now you can download the game for free, play through the tutorial, play through some of the campaign, get some stuff for free, and see if you like it. If you like it enough and you keep playing, you can spend money to get more stuff, or you can just play to unlock stuff. It’s a transition that’s been a long time in coming.

I don’t expect the joy of the physical space — the value of shuffling a deck of cards or having a board and sitting around a table — to go away any time soon. There are undeniable advantages to the mobile and online gaming space, though. We’re looking to take advantage of both.

… on work life in 2013:

Gary: It’s going to be a busy year. I rarely leave the office these days.

Click below for a sampling of SolForge’s cards and stunning artwork.