When MCV was invited to a King press event, we figured the Candy Crush giant was about to unveil yet another match-three game.
Afterall, this genre was the one that made King the mobile behemoth it is today, with colourful and massively popular releases like Candy Crush Saga. And it's this success that attracted the attention of Activision Blizzard and prompted the Call of Duty maker to shell out $5.9bn for the company.
So imagine our surprise when the firm revealed its next big title was something entirely different. Named Shuffle Cats, it is an online multiplayer card game developed by its London-based Monarch Studio.
Basically, we wanted to diversify King's games portfolio,” says lead producer Regis Geoffrion (pictured, above far right).
That was the one line pitch. The original idea came from Sebastian Knutsson, our chief creative officer. He had the idea of multiplayer card games. It's an untapped market really. People play Solitaire, but there's not really a mass casual card game out there.”
‘Casual' is the key word in that sentence. The card game genre has exploded recently largely thanks to Blizzard's Hearthstone. The sector has attracted other players, too, with CD Projekt Red releasing a standalone of The Witcher III's Gwent, Bethesda launching The Elder Scrolls Legends and Flaming Fowl working on Fable Fortune.
But these titles target a core audience. King says that Shuffle Cats will appeal to a similar, casual audience to its existing titles, but may well attract some new gamers.
It's for a similar audience to Candy Crush,” Geoffrion says.
It's definitely for the casual market. We did some initial surveys and 85 per cent of respondents were interested in classic card games. There is a big cross over between our existing network and casual card players.”
Lead designer Ben Hollis (pictured, above right) adds: We're appealing to our existing users. But we didn't want to exclude fans of other card games. We will get players through the tutorial fast and straight into multiplayer.
We hope it's just as fun as the other card games they have played before. We've just tried to modernise it and add some of the King magic. We can't just have standard rummy out there, this game is going to be played for however long. People need to have that variation and depth, and develop their own playing style.”
Shuffle Cats features a mode called Walter's Workshop, an area within the game that mixes up the normal rules with weekly challenges. Sound familiar? That's because it's the same set-up as Tavern Brawl in Hearthstone and Overwatch's Brawl mode. So it should come as no surprise, then, to find out that King and Blizzard have exchanged notes during Shuffle Cats' development.
That's one of the great things about King being part of Activision Blizzard: those channels are now open,” Hollis explains.
I've had some great meetings with some of the designers from Hearthstone, talking about some of Blizzard's features in the game and exchanging ideas. It's been fantastic.
Walter's Workshop is also a great toolkit for the team where we can experiment with new ideas. Each week, players can expect something new in there that gives them a deviation from the core progression.”
Geoffrion adds: What is really cool about working with Activision Blizzard is that we did get to talk to the Hearthstone team. They're an awesome bunch of people. We did talk about exchanging information. Like how long you run experimental rules for, or what to do if an experiment isn't going well. We had a lot of good discussion with the lead game designer and producer on Hearthstone. That's one of the benefits of working for Activision Blizzard.”
As well as being its first card release, Shuffle Cats is also King's first online multiplayer title. In fact, Geoffrion was hired by King specifically to offer insight into developing live multiplayer.
What King does really well is games with a super large infrastructure,” he says. That part of the business is something we have really nailed. Multiplayer was really a learning experience for a lot of people. I was brought in because I have shipped many multiplayer games in the past and have a good idea of the pitfalls and what to keep an eye out for. It's definitely new.”
"We hope it's just as fun as other card games - we've just tried to modernise it and add some of the King magic."
Ben Hollis, King
With its stylish multiplayer gameplay, Shuffle Cats could potentially be an eSport.
In fact, it could be a good addition to a sector, given that King's titles tend to attract a more casual audience than other pro-gaming releases.
We've thought about it and aren't sure it's right for the audience,” lGeoffrion says. But we did seriously think about eSports during development. We brainstormed about what form it would take, whether it would be fun and whether people would really be interested in it. We decided for the time being that it wasn't compelling enough. Over time, it might come to be, but not right now.”
Hollis argues that much of King's learnings from Candy Crush et al applied to Shuffle Cats.
A lot of the stuff we have learnt from building Candy Crush and Farm Heroes still applies in multiplayer,” he says.
We wanted to go with a portrait set-up, so it's nice and easy to hold the phone and flick the cards. We want it to be easy to connect with other players, we want it to be easy to learn and understand, but also have a lasting appeal. We spent a lot of time in play-testing ensuring that the game was fun and had depth and that players were being matched in good time with each other. It's certainly a change in mindset from designing levels to having players as the experience in the game, and making sure that the content is rich.”
When asked about how he thinks Shuffle Cats will do, Geoffrion has some rather high hopes.
Honestly? I would love it if Shuffle Cats became [King's next pillar franchise],” he laughs. I don't know whether it'll be that. We need to wait to see the results from the market. Let's not get ahead of ourselves basically.”
He continues: I want to make this the biggest casual card game in the world. Then we'll see how we do. We've definitely done our homework and we want to make sure we have great KPIs (key performance indicators) across the board. As we're launching, we're quite confident it's going to do really well. But time will tell.”