Ben Brode bets super speed will make Marvel Snap stand out

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Marvel Snap is a new digital collectible card game from Second Dinner, a team headed by former Hearthstone lead Ben Brode.

Hearthstone became the undisputed king of the digital CCG world. So Brode’s next project was always going to come with some big expectations. Add the Marvel license, and you have the makings of a juggernaut.

I had a chance to chat with Brode about Marvel Snap. You can read an edited transcript of that interview below.

GamesBeat: You were the public face of Hearthstone. What was it like being in the trenches for a while, being in development without having that public-facing role?

Brode: It was a lot of fun, actually. I went through the phase of being focused on management, and then when we first started Second Dinner, it was just me and Hamilton [Chu] sitting in this room, this couch and that couch, thinking up ideas for new games and imagining what a cool Marvel game could look like. The pace was totally different. I had no meetings. No people to meet with. Just me and Hamilton.

As we started adding the rest of the founding crew and growing the studio over the last four years, it’s been slowly growing and growing. Now we have an incredible team, firing on all cylinders on this game that we had the first idea about four years ago.

GamesBeat: You led a team before. Did that prepare you for this role, leading a whole development studio? Were there some challenges you didn’t foresee?

Brode: In some ways yes and in some ways no. It’s certainly a different level of responsibility to run a studio. But also, I did, for sure, learn a lot about leadership and management, and I was able to apply those learnings to running a studio and the Snap development team. Hamilton is an incredible leader. He’s the CEO of our company. He’s been in leadership positions for a long time. His depth of knowledge was really helpful toward making what I think is just an incredible studio.

Marvel Snap promises to be a snap for players to learn.
Marvel Snap promises to be a snap for players to learn.

GamesBeat: For your first game you were able to pick up the Marvel license. How did that fall into place?

Brode: Obviously we’re very lucky as a brand new studio to work with such an incredible group, such an incredible universe. Marvel has been making cooler and cooler stuff year after year. The Spider-Man games for PlayStation are some of the best games of that type ever made. The guy in charge of Marvel Games, Jay [Ong], is somebody we used to work with at Blizzard. When he saw we were popping up to make something new, he knew that our goal of making something really humongous and high quality on mobile aligned well with their goals, which is to make awesome games on every platform. We felt like this could be a fantastic partnership, where we could help Marvel make awesome stuff and Marvel could help us have the most fun ever making a video game, because playing in the Marvel universe is super fun.

GamesBeat: What about Marvel Snap is going to feel familiar to people who are used to playing other digital CCGs?

Brode: You’re collecting cards. You’re building decks. You’re having a lot of fun. But there’s a lot that’s super not familiar. Speed is one of the biggest things. It’s so fast, playing a game of Marvel Snap. But it doesn’t feel like you’re not making a lot of decisions. Instead, it feels like we took the same amount of decisions and stuffed them into a much faster game. Instead of spending half your time doing nothing, making no decisions, waiting for the opponent, instead the turns are combined. We have simultaneous turns. While you’re making your decisions, your opponent is making their decisions. It’s double the speed, but not half of the decisions.

GamesBeat: I was guilty of alt-tabbing away from Hearthstone sometimes when it was my opponent’s turn. Was that a player behavior that you noticed a lot? Is this the solution to that problem, just making the turns simultaneous?

Brode: The simultaneous turn stems mostly from wanting to add really interesting mind games. If you are making decisions at the same time as your opponent, you’re not just responding to what your opponent has done. You’re trying to put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they might do. You’re also trying to get them to make a bad decision based on what they think you might do. Leaving hints for them as to what your strategy might be, trying to force them down a line of play that’s bad for them, and you respond on that second and third level, trying to catch them. That’s super fun. And it’s twice the speed. First we were chasing that mind game aspect, which we thought was a really fun element for a hard game. It just happens to also mean there’s no waiting.

The Future is MODOK!
The Future is MODOK!

GamesBeat: What is the average match time in a game of Marvel Snap?

Brode: Three minutes. It’s super fast, yeah. When you hear it, you think, can you really have a satisfying game in three minutes? Absolutely, yes. It’s wild how much fun every game of Marvel Snap is. I think the max amount of time is five minutes, if you wait the maximum length of time on every turn. But average is about three minutes.

GamesBeat: The other interesting idea is how there’s not going to be duplicate cards. If you have one card, you can just put the max number in your deck. Is that right?

Brode: Yeah. Deck building, traditionally, is the hardest thing, especially for new players in a card game. Here’s 800 cards. What are your favorite 30 of those? I don’t know! That’s a lot to figure out. In Marvel Snap, we realized that traditionally, card games have 60 cards with four copies of any card, so about 15 unique cards. That’s come down to 30 cards with two copies of each in some games. Again, about 15 unique cards. For Snap we said, what if we just had 15 unique cards? The games are so fast that we can give you 12 cards, and it’s still about the same amount of strategic depth. It sounds like a very small deck, but each card makes such a huge impact on the deck that you’re building. You have tons of options for combining interesting cards. Thousands of different interesting strategic decks.

GamesBeat: What kind of cards are we getting here? Is it just heroes, or are there still things like ability cards, stuff like that?

Brode: There’s just one card type. It’s just heroes and villains. We don’t even have the concept of card type. They’re just cards. They interact with locations in an interesting way. This is one of the most fun parts of the game. There are more than 60 locations in the game The crux of the game is, can I win two out of these three locations? You don’t know what the three locations are going to be. Each game, they’re totally different. It means that every time you play, you’re experiencing new problems to solve.

Normally if you play the same deck against someone else’s same deck and you play a bunch of games back to back, you reach a point where you figure out what they’re trying to do, you know what you’re trying to do, you’re just executing. You’re not solving new problems. But because of the locations, you’re always solving new problems. We play these decks against each other over and over again, but never at Baxter Building, Nova Roma, and Sewer System. The way that works with my deck and your deck and how you’re trying to pilot your deck and how I’m trying to pilot mine, this means there are new problems to solve every single game.

GamesBeat: Did you have a lot of freedom in deciding which heroes and villains you wanted to include? Was there anything mandated by Marvel, or was that mostly up to you?

Brode: The way you phrase that question kind of implies that Marvel is over here mandating stuff. But the relationship is super different, actually. It feels like we’re one development team. We’re all working together to make the coolest Marvel game. Often we’re like, wouldn’t be cool if we had this? And they say, oh, that’s so rad! Have you seen this character? This would be really cool. There’s going to be a TV show about this character. Oh, sweet, we’ll put him in, that’s great. It’s very collaborative. We wanted to build a game together that was representative of the whole Marvel multiverse. That means characters from Fantastic Four and X-Men and Avengers and all these major groups in the Marvel universe. But it also means characters that are deep cuts, like Infinaut or Leech or Armor, characters that maybe fans of the MCU haven’t heard of yet, but are really fun from deep in the pages of the Marvel comics.

Multiple cards from Marvel Snap.
Multiple cards from Marvel Snap.

GamesBeat: The name Marvel Snap is interesting. I guess it symbolizes the snappy nature of the game, the fast pace, but the Snap also has this meaning in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the events of Infinity War. What is the correlation there? What does this name mean for the game?

Brode: We liked the connection to Marvel history and lore, but we also liked the feeling of energy, the feeling of how fast — it’s a “snap” to learn. There’s a bunch of connections to the game’s speed and accessibility.

But the main mechanic it references is the snap mechanic. Every game is played for Cosmic Cubes. Those are the rank points in the game. When you win a game you get a Cosmic Cube. When you lose a game you lose a Cosmic Cube. The more Cosmic Cubes you have, the higher your rank, so you want to get more Cosmic Cubes and rank up. But during the game, if you’re feeling confident, if you think you’ll win this game, you can snap. That means you’re telling your opponent, I’d like to double the stakes. I’d like to play for more cubes. And they can decide to retreat and say, no, you’ve got it. Clearly you think you’re going to win. I’ll lose the one cube right now. Or they can say, I’m feeling good, let’s go, and stay in to play for two cubes. They can then snap back and say, I’m confident too. Let’s play for four cubes. The thing is, it might be that you snap because you’re confident. But your opponent doesn’t know. You might snap to try to convince your opponent that you’re confident, hoping that they’ll retreat, and then you’ll win even though you were on a losing path. You just bully them out of the game by snapping.

That bluffing mechanic adds this humongous level of strategy on top of just how I play my cards to try and win two out of three locations. That’s difficult to do at the highest strategic level. The skill cap is very high there. This raises the roof on the skill cap massively. Bluffing is a very hard skill to master. It’s super fun.

GamesBeat: How did that idea come about? Is that a solution to mass conceding? Is it the opposite of conceding?

Brode: This was one of our first ideas when we started working on the game. Hamilton, our CEO, said, you know what, I love the idea of this meta-level bluffing applied to strategy games. And so we just played some strategy games where we could bluff each other at the end of every turn. We said, this is really fun. What if we build a Marvel card game that has this bluffing component layered on top of it? It’s super simple. It’s the kind of thing that new players just ignore. They play for whatever cubes, win some and lose some, and it’s fine. Hardcore players who are into the strategy can get really into it, though. Do I snap this turn? Do I concede this turn? What’s the exact optimal strategy every turn of the game? It works really well. It lets us make a more accessible game, because there’s so much depth in this very simple mechanic.

GamesBeat: What kind of game modes are you looking to launch with? I know we have standard 1v1. Is there a draft mode?

Brode: We’re definitely going to add more game modes, but we haven’t announced all of them just yet. The one that’s in the beta right now is just a ranked mode, where you’re competing for cubes, trying to get as high up on the ladder as you can. There’s other stuff we’re currently working on that we think is very exciting. We just haven’t announced it yet.

GamesBeat: What are you hoping to learn from the beta testing that’s starting out now?

Brode: Right now we’re just testing to make sure that the servers are working, the pipes all work. Can we submit to the platforms that we want to launch on? That’s the first phase of testing. Eventually we’re going to expand the test group and go live to more and more regions over time.

GamesBeat: You almost had this reputation back at Hearthstone of being a hard-liner about changing cards. Is that still your philosophy?

Brode: This is very interesting. When you’re a spokesperson, you always have to say the company or the team line. There’s no way for the public to tell what’s your personal opinion and what’s the company’s opinion. What I can say is, for Marvel Snap, it’s a digital game. Balancing stuff is an interesting way to add new content. We plan on paying close attention to balance, but we’re not afraid to make adjustments to cards if we feel like they’re too weak or too strong. It’s not something we’re shy about doing.

He is Groot!

GamesBeat: Do you have a favorite Marvel superhero, or was there a card that you were really excited to work on?

Brode: I got this guy over here (picks up a statue of Gambit). You know why he’s my favorite hero. It’s because he’s got a deck of cards! He was one of the first cards we designed in Marvel Snap, because I really wanted the fantasy of him throwing a card at somebody. Gambit’s text is, “On reveal, discard a card, destroy an enemy card at one of the locations.” The VFX is, one of your cards comes out of your hand and he just hurls it at the enemy card and it explodes. It’s a great fantasy.

GamesBeat: Talking about the VFX a bit, that’s such a highlight of digital card games, something they can do that physical games can’t. Are you having a lot of fun with that aspect of Marvel Snap?

Brode: I should say that the art team working on Marvel Snap is absolutely unparalleled. They’re incredible, both the artists working on visual effects and our art director, Jomaro Kindred, and then the broader community of artists contributing 2D illustrations and the parallax 3D animations on cards. They’re incredible. The game looks amazing. As far as the VFX, doing VFX for card games is actually incredibly challenging. You need to be both very fast, because you’re going to be repeating animations over and over again, while also increasing clarity for the player. There’s a lot going on. This card happens, this card happens, this card happens. So what just happened?

Obviously we had to do a lot of playtesting of the cards and locations with no VFX, to make sure that we like them, so that we could then commit to do a bunch of work on VFX for them. The game is not really playable for normal people in a world where stuff is just happening and you have no idea what’s going on. The VFX do so much work to both tell players what’s even happening, but also so the fantasy of these heroes — Gambit, like I talked about, discard a card and destroy an enemy. What’s happening there, when you see the card hurled at the enemy — aha, Gambit’s throwing a card at them, I see. We don’t have to spell it out on the card. We just get to use the VFX to tell the whole story of why that’s Gambit’s card effect.

GamesBeat: What can we expect on the presentation side in terms of voice and aspects like that? Do cards have unique voice lines? Do you have unique interactions between certain characters depending on their history in the comics?

Brode: For lines, where it’s something like, if it was missing, you’d be like, where’s that line? We absolutely recorded that. Human Torch says, “Flame on!” The Hulk says, “Hulk smash!” Any of those lines, where it’s just a super iconic line, you have to have it. We bring in all that stuff. We also came up with a lot of Easter egg types of things that we’re planning on implementing. Those interactions are really fun parts of the Marvel experience. All these characters are unique, fun characters, but seeing them interact is part of the charm of the Marvel universe. We’re going to add some of that stuff throughout development.

GamesBeat: What are you most excited for players to see?

Brode: I’m really excited for players to experience this combination of a really approachable, super fast game, that has incredible depth. Our job as game designers is to maximize that ratio. We want it to just be a joy to jump into and start playing, and then also to be satisfying in a way that takes a lifetime to master. Feeling that, getting in there and seeing just how easy it is to jump into, but how fun it is to dig into for a long time, is something I’m excited for players to experience.

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