I’m not playing Hearthstone: Doctor Who and Vinnie Mac got me covered (for a 1-2-3)

When I were a young ‘un the Star Wars films were re-released in the cinema. I went with the Beaver Scouts and found myself watching A New Hope, despite actually wanting to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit-aping basketball extravaganza Space Jam. You see: our lovely-yet-rapidly-aging leaders thought a film about a traffic jam in space would be a bit boring for a bunch of eight year olds, which is fair enough, however off-target their interpretations of the conspicuously vehicle-free poster were. At the same time the lovely people at Walkers crisps decided that all the children, regardless of their moviegoing preferences, would benefit from sharing in the great warmth generated by the beloved cinematic series. They started hiding little plastic Pog-like disks in bags of their delicious snacking aids, all of which were emblazoned with a precious image from the hallowed Star Wars history books. I never managed to get a full set of fifty, but that wasn’t really the point; I satiated my internal hunger to seek stability and security for a bit and managed to help a $10billion-plus corporation achieve its lofty profit goals for the year. That’s a win-win all day long in my mind.

The Star Wars franchise has, according to the Internet, generated almost two and a half times more revenue from everything but the films (that’s merchandise, licensing deals and the like) than it has from everything that is the films (that’s theatrical and home releases). It’s this titbit of information which leads us on to the WWE and Doctor Who; two more ‘entertainment products’ squarely aimed at children but which are nevertheless widely enjoyed by adults, whose continuing financial viability is significantly aided by the waves of tat upon which they ride. Both provide their avid fanbases with ample opportunity to declare their financial allegiance to them. Their collective merchandising offering ranges from simple action figures, DVDs and t-shirts, to the more worrying products for the watch, jewellery and belt buckle demographic. Eventually we end up at the ludicrously esoteric levels of tasteless celebrations of fallen employees you never really liked, Christmas danglies and fetching thirty quid TARDIS jumpsuits, all of which I find distasteful for varying reasons. Oh yeah, they both have card-based free-to-play games for your mobile phone as well.

 Doctor Who: Legacy and WWE SuperCard are both very different really. The former is a twist on match three puzzlers, while the latter is basically Top Trumps with wrestlers replacing the classic cars or notable roundabouts of yore. However, and here’s the rub: both games’ mechanics - Legacy’s being matching orbs in a novel way, and SuperCard’s being, hmm, comparing numbers I suppose - are heavily entwined with a collectible card game (CCG) framework. Herein lies their more nuanced similarities and differences and, it could be said (I am), where each of them will live or die in the long run (at least inside my phone).

Legacy operates in a very similar way to Puzzle Quest (though it’s not as good as, say, 10000000), in that you match up coloured doodads in order to power attacks. FOR INSTANCE: Rory “All The Non-Dorothy Characters Form The Wizard Of Oz” Pond is green, so matching a load of green orbs allows him to attack. You build a team of six characters, each of which is trapped inside a coloured collectible card, and take them into battle against all of your favourite foes from the television series. Each success grants you experience points with which to upgrade your team, allowing you to fine tune their Attack, Heal and Health stats, which when combined gives you your overall battle-readiness-ness. It’s quite simple really.

SuperCards is markedly less involved. As with every other version of TopTrumps you’ve ever played, you make a hand of cards with a few different stat categories, here they’re wrastlin’ stuff like Charisma and Power, and you compare them sight-unseen to another player’s hand. A couple of booster cards can be taken into ‘battle’ as well, which can be used once within a best-of-three match to top up your stats for a single bout of card comparing. Win a match and you get two randomly-generated cards as a reward, lose and you only get one. That’s about it for the base-game and it doesn’t get any more complicated the longer you play: three bouts (regardless of whether someone wins the first two, bizarrely), five cards and thirty seconds of your life.

The hooks really come out in these two games when it comes to upgrading your digital paper men and women. As I said, Legacy handles stat increases in the time-honoured RPG way of experience points gained from battlin’. The stickler comes when you hit a card’s level cap, which is initially at an easily attainable level ten. Instead of waiting eighteen months for an expansion, however, you can punch through this gender-neutral glass ceiling by collecting time shards wot get dropped randomly while you battle. Each episode-themed chunk of the fun drops specific shards, so you’re going to have to get used to playing the same three of four battles in a loop if you want to prevent all that juicy experiential goodness going to waste. This is despite it still going to waste as you fruitlessly grind the episodes, such is the miserly rate at which these precious trinkets give themselves unto you. For context: the first cap lift requires, I think, five or six shards of differing types, which left me replaying the Snowmen level over forty times just to get the four shards I was missing for two (TWO!) of my cards.

SuperCards is a bit more generous with its upgrade system (can you see which way I’m beginning to lean here?). In a title where the gameplay is entirely based around fiddling with its cards, it’s quite fitting that the powering-up of those cards is wholly based around the other cards in the game about cards. In that wonderful Ouroborean loop of RPG item mechanics, cards are upgraded by sacrificing other - not necessarily lesser - cards at the altar of Individualism. Say you’ve got an uncommon Summer Rae, you can pump a load of common Daniel Bryans, Big Es and AJ Lees into her card and have her stats soar into the stratosphere of skeuomorphic pretend greatness. Do it again with a duplicate Summer Rae card and then you can combine the two bad-boy paper ladies into one, Pro Version Summer Rae, ripe for a bit more upgradin’. This can be done right up through the expected colour coded totem of RPG rising rarity, until she’s the envy of all the anonymous people you aren’t actually playing against on the Internet because the game makes all your opponents’ choices for them. MAGIC.

The fundamental difference between each upgrade system, I feel, stems from what the games want to be. Legacy wants to be a proper, respectable match three puzzle game first and foremost, just without the leper-like stigma of gating progress with an energy system (see above). SuperCards, I’d say, is pretty happy just being a quick-fire source of constant, bite sized stimulations. Without power-ups or the kneejerk “buy more goes” revenue streams, the characters and the upgrading of them is the only real way Legacy can generate some money. Character cards drop randomly and about as infrequently as the shards do, meaning that while there is indeed no energy gating, what we end up with is an ability to play for long stretches which quickly becomes an obligation; as there is no way to comfortably progress without grinding heavily or, of course, spending some cash. This problem, I feel, is further exacerbated by the locking of particular shards and characters to specific scenarios, doubling up the fatigue by making a repetitive activity formulaic, as you always battle through the same enemies in the same configurations in the same order. Every time.

While SuperCards is also heavily reliant on grinding - fully upgrading even a common card takes tens of its contemporaries - much of the strain is placated by the randomised nature of most aspects of its design. The rewards you receive from your matches are always an unknown, so too are any cards you purchase from the shop as you buy them blind, just like real life CCG booster packs. Furthermore, the matches you fight are all against AI-controlled versions of players just like you, so the wrestler cards, boosts and stats you’ll compete against are always in flux. That the pace of these matches is so brisk - thirty seconds or so, as I say - further assists the game in holding your attention. With SuperCards it’s not that you aren’t spending almost all of your time grinding for better cards, solely to enable you to attain even better cards, it’s just that the piecemeal rewards and breathless pace roll together effectively enough that you’re swept up in the buoyantly jubilant atmosphere.

I think both games as they stand now play to their respective audiences quite well. Looking at message boards and marketplace reviews it’s clear that Legacy has Whovians rapt. It has successfully grabbed them with the promise of a bit of a story (I didn’t like it); the ability to purchase and hone a very specific team of one’s favourite characters; as well as generally being filled with inordinate amounts of Doctor-related stuff. Which is great, but the game part of it is so protracted that - even with my deepish fondness for the source material - I just can’t envisage myself going anywhere near its final levels. SuperCards, on the other hand, in being distinctly average and entirely unambitious in its exploitation of loot-lust, has been created in a way that it almost entirely precludes failure. It is compulsive, constantly rewarding and imminently consumable: it’s the perfect recipe for a successful mobile game.

A couple of weeks ago Tami Sigmund wrote of her frustration at the lambasting free-to-play games receive quite regularly. I myself have written around the topic a couple of times recently, and feel that between Doctor Who: Legacy and WWE SuperCard we have two examples of free-to-play games which, as Tami was keen to stress, are “beautiful creations that delight players”. It is a fallacy to call all games of their ilk exploitative and shallow, especially when we have examples happily refuting such assertions. At their heart they are both making money from their audience’s love of and investment in characters: it’s just more merchandising, nothing more. I might not enjoy the way they gently (or not) push me towards their online stores, but I can’t fault them for trying. At the end of the day I’d rather you bought a four quid digital Hulk Hogan trading-card-that-you-can’t-trade, than a four quid Hulk Hogan keyring - or any keyring for that matter. But what do I know; I wanted to go see Space Jam over Star Wars, a film not about a massive sci-fi traffic jam. Which, Beaver Boss - just for the record - wouldn’t have been that bad in the form you imagined: Doctor Who did just that ten years later in two faasand and seven.

(Still haven’t seen Space Jam, either.)  

Because I have no personal creativity whatsoever, I’ve set up one of them Patreon pages wot a lot of other writers have got themselves these days. If you like my thought process and fancy helping me legitimise my type of video game criticism to a terribly unsupportive girlfriend and the wider world, then please consider not donating to my peerlessly altruistic cause. It resides here: patreon.com/ashouses. Chrz.