Stephane Jankowski

It’s not usually a point of pride to lose at something 23 times in a row, especially in the world of competitive gaming. But for Ubisoft Quebec’s Stephane Jankowski, it’s not only a point of pride, it’s proof that Might & Magic: Duel of Champions – for which he is the producer – is working.

“We do some developer vs. player tournaments here and there, and we often lose. It’s heartbreaking because the worst thing is that we cheat; we give ourselves all the cards so we can come up with the most outrageous strategies, and we’re still losing,” he joked.

“And honestly it’s wonderful.”
Duel of Champions is the game perhaps best positioned to take the runaway success of collectable card games (CCGs) like Magic the Gathering on tabletops across the globe, and recreate it in the digital arena. Ubisoft’s investment in the game is mammoth; extending so far to organising a tournament in Paris for later this year and offering top players from around the world a ticket to attend the competition in person.

PAX Australia in fact produced one of those ticket-winning champions, with Jesse Coad winning over a field of 32 card-players to book his flight to Paris in October. Other gaming events through Europe and America will decide the other spots in the exclusive championship. 
Magic the Gathering has itself been very successful over the years in developing a “professional” tier of players. It has run its own world championship since 1994 in some format. However, it has also struggled to transition from a traditional card game, where players buy packs of physical cards to build decks, to the digital arena. For the most part, Magic’s digital games have been titles like Duels of the Planeswalkers, which are not appropriate for professional play, and Magic the Gathering Online, which isn’t attractive enough to pull in a broad digital games audience. 
This has left a gap in the market for a highly-competitive collectable card game to step in, Jankowski said. “We really wanted to create something easy to access so that players, whether veteran or new to the genre would find something accessible and free and that could also bring this kind of competition on the table,” he said. “We’ve looked around and there was nobody in that space, so we said ‘ok, let’s try to do this our own way.'”
Ubisoft is also looking to capture some of the success that has turned the likes of League of Legends into a legitimate eSport through a partnership with Twitch TV, allowing players to stream their matches online and giving the community that the game has formed over the past year the opportunity to develop personalities and “celebrity” players, and hopefully elevating the game to a mainstream competitive event. 
Jesse Coad: Australia PAX Championship winner

Free-to-play; dodging the pitfalls of the model

While courting the dedicated card gamer, at the same time Duel of Champions is free-to-play and designed to get people involved in an easy and accessible fashion. Free-to-play faces two significant challenges to credibility currently; the first is that the model disadvantages players who don’t pay money to get an advantage and this is an instant death knell for any serious competitive game where people felt disadvantaged if they didn’t invest significant amounts of money. 
Jankowski is confident that his players won’t experience that kind of frustration in Duel of Champions, claiming that while the team certainly works towards earning a player’s money, they realise that nickel and diming them would create anger in the community, making it more difficult to earn a revenue from the other players or attract new blood to the game. So focused are they on being genuinely free-to-play that Jankowski points out that some of the top-10 players of the game worldwide haven’t actually spent money on the game yet. 
“If you’re frustrated by an energy system, or a paywall, being limited to how many times you can play each day, you’re just going to resist the idea that they’ve been forced to pay money. There’s nothing fun in it,” Jankowski said. “The way we’ve designed the monetisation aspect is on the positive side. You want to go faster and get access to the content faster, we provide a way to do that. If you don’t want to, you can still play and have fun, but it might take longer to get that ultimate deck of cards.”
Doing right by the customer is one thing, but games like Duel of Champions, and anything else that features a collectable element based on random chance has a far more dangerous potential to destroy lives as people’s addictive personalities kick in, and this is the second social issue that free-to-play games face when it comes to legitimacy as an ethical business model.

New cards are acquired in Duel of Champions as they are in Magic the Gathering and every other CCG; players buy a “pack” of cards which contains a set number of random cards. Given that some cards are very rare to come by, this can mean opening a lot of packs of cards to build the dream deck. It’s not dissimilar to the concept of Kompu Gacha – a Japanese model where players will buy randomised virtual items in the hope of collecting a specific set for a major payout. Kompu Gacha is far closer to gambling than a CCG game, and has been banned in Japan to the chagrin of the social giants that made extensive use of it such as DeNA and GREE, but despite sitting far far enough on the ethical side of the scale to avoid legislation, there has always been the potential that CCGs can become a dangerous addition from the perspective of an individual’s financial health. 

Jankowski recognises that games like Duel of Champions can be addictive, but is quick to compare it to any other hobby that costs money. “There’s a balance that you need to find in any way in your personal life, whether money is attached to it or not,” he said. “You need to manage addiction to anything. You can be addicted to movies, theatre, biking, or whatever else, and whatever hobby you adopt is going to be the one where you’re going to pour a lot of money.”
With that said, Jankowski and his team don’t want to encourage unhealthy addiction. Having pockets of the community bankrupt themselves to play the game would again create a negative energy and reputation to the game, and so, if the team comes across problem people in the community, they’re prepared to help. 
“It’s not about money, it’s about creating something that is fun for everyone to play. Yes we are a businesses, but if they game is not fun and healthy for everyone, then that’s good for anyone,” Jankowski said. “We aim to be around and we talk to the players whenever we can, and we have teams that speak different languages to make sure that we don’t one let one group get away and get into a spiral where they can go very dark and start to be angry.”
“If we find this kind of unhealthy situation we’re going to take action to ensure we can reach out to that person and contact them directly and get them relevant help or contact the authorities as needed.”
The game itself

Duel of Champions as a franchise 

Communication rates highly in general for Jankowski’s vision for the Duel of Champions game. The team monitors and engages in chatroom discussions to ensure the game is balanced and is working with the community to add new features to the game as requested to keep everyone involved. 
For instance, though the game will remain a digital-led game on PC and iPad, there are plans to do limited print runs as a promotional benefit for fans. Why? Because as any serious CCG fan will tell you, nothing beats having a deck of physical cards on the shelf. 
The Twitch integration is also a direct consequence of community demand, Jankowski added. “We’ve launched the game as a Google-style Beta, where it’s live but we still call it Beta, precisely to let the players known that we’re going to keep updating the game. We’re going to do some changes and we’re going to continue to add new content and new features and basically people like that, based on what our players tell us.”
Moving forwards Jankowski sees plenty of opportunities for Duel of Champions to expand further (essential for any CCG to thrive is its ability to give players new cards to play with), and for it to feed back into the broader Might & Magic franchise that it belongs to. Ubisoft has recently come out and said that it will be focused on franchises moving forward. Duel of Champions is a snapshot of how that might work – a very different game, but one related to the broader Might & Magic universe in such a way that it’s designed to encourage people to try out more games that bear the franchises’ name. 
“We already have a huge advantage and content that you can use as game makers to be sure to create interesting content and fantastic situations,” Jankowski said.
“At the same time we are helping the IP to grow. We are currently working on the next extension, and it will feature a new faction; not a new faction within the Might & Magic Universe, but one that is perhaps less known in the previous games. We are creating new settings, creatures and so on that will help build the overall mythology of Might & Magic while at the same time expanding our own game.”

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