SolForge is a “free to play” strategy card game. Most of the standard f2p financial mechanics are present, but how they interact with the cards is interesting and novel, but not fully realized.
First, a word about SolForge’s use of the word “Rare.” The cards they call “Rare” are not actually rare. Using a scale similar to those found in the twenty-year history of trading card games, they are more properly called uncommon. These articles will use their words, but I will draw the distinction when necessary. SolForge is not the only game to do this; Hearthstone uses the word “Rare” in place of “Uncommon” as well.
Card Rarity Structure
||Set 1 on release
||Set 1 “Tarsus” Update
||Set 1 final
||Set 2 on release
||Set 2 currently (as of June 3rd 2014)
There has been a lot of work done to reverse-engineer the rarity structure of SolForge, since SBE doesn’t publish the rate at which each rarity will appear in a pack. The exact breakdown of the rarity structure and its financial implications are beyond the scope of this document — indeed, it would be its own 20-page report! Here are some highlights from the community’s work:
SolForge user jermbug has a fantastic spreadsheet filled with information about his collection and card acquisition. From his data, he describes several rates of booster pack odds:
||proportion within an average pack across all sets
Assuming that Heroic is 5% and Legendary is 1% (which is giving the benefit of the doubt to SBE in terms of this math), it would take 5200 packs to get one of each Legendary or 15600 packs for a complete playset. Since a pack costs $0.71 on average (see below), a complete playset of the first two sets would cost over $11,000 if paid in cash alone. Of course, due to login bonuses prizes for tournament play, and the ability to get cards using silver, I assume no one has chosen to pay five-digits just so they can build every possible deck.
There is another “pack tracker” spreadsheet that has been posted by another member in the community, with similar results.
Gold is purchased with real money, either through in-app purchases through Steam (for PC) or the App Store (iOS). You can also purchase through the game’s website. Prices are identical across platforms, and anything you buy on one platform is accessible through the others.
Silver is earned through login daily bonuses, and for winning games. With the exception of a special two-week event in May 2014, it cannot be purchased. Silver is also earned through “deconstructing” (selling) cards though the “forging system.”
Event Tickets can be purchased with gold or silver, and are required for entry into any of their tournaments. In addition to buying them, players earn one event ticket through their first online win each day.
Resource Units Analysis: This is a simple system. Unfortunately, the real-money-to-gold calculation is needlessly complex. Purchasing them for $5, you get about 260 gold per dollar. If you spend $100, you get 300 gold per dollar. Based on how they price their items, it appears they are treating the average gold to be worth 280 per dollar. This was likely done to follow the “obfuscation leads to incorrect choices” model of f2p monetization, but this seems like a relic of 2011 product design.
Items For Sale
Event Tickets are used for events. They can be purchased with gold and silver, and are also earned by logging in and winning an online game (once each day). One ticket costs 30000 silver or 200 gold (about $0.71), while a bundle of 10 can be had for 1800 gold ($6.45)
Booster Packs contain randomized collections of cards. There are several different types of packs available, some of which can only be won in events. The default booster, which current contains cards from both sets, costs 5000 silver or 200 gold ($0.71). The Rise of the Forgeborn booster cannot be purchased with Silver, and costs 560 Gold ($2).
Skins change the look of the game interface. These are purchased with 15000 Silver or 280 Gold ($1). Unlike “skins” in many games (like League of Legends), these purchases only impact what the purchaser sees. This doesn’t change anything their opponent sees.
Decks help players get started by providing a deck (rather than requiring players to build a deck to begin). These cost 3600 Gold ($12.85) and in my opinion, are not a good value at all.
Chests are “super boosters.” The Legendary Chest (2500 Gold – $8.90) contains 10 cards including 1 Legendary, 3 Heroic and 3 Rare cards. Interestingly there is a Rise of the Forgeborn chest for only 1750 Gold ($6.25) — usually the Rise content is sold at a premium.
Single Cards are also sold. There is a “card of the day” available for some gold; these are usually not a good value. They also sell Alternate-Art cards, which are also gold-only and give the player a chance to show off their “bling.” Their prices vary and seem to be based on their rarity. You can also purchase (“forge”) cards using Silver from inside the Deck Builder.
Items For Sale Analysis: SolForge goes beyond the simple “cards and decks” that most digital TCGs offer. The only improvement I would suggest is a way for users to express themselves through purchases, either by making their battlefield skins appear to their opponents (maybe just on their side of the screen) or by giving user the ability to enhance / upgrade their player profile picture and frame.
Forging (how to “trade” for individual cards)
It is difficult to call SolForge a trading card game, because you literally cannot trade the cards between players. You can “deconstruct” cards, deleting them from your account, in exchange for silver. You can turn around and use that silver in the store, or in the deck builder to acquire (“forge”) individual cards. In theory, this is a nifty way to bridge the gap between “having no way to get individual cards” and “letting players create a marketplace through trades.” In practice, there are many problems with the feature.
The rates of return for selling cards for silver and turning that around into new cards is very, very painful. Obviously trading at a rate of one to one would be too generous, but this chart below shows how cost-prohibitive this system is:
||Silver from selling
||Silver cost to buy
|Legendary (very rare)
The rates for the commons and uncommons (“rares”) are mostly ignorable — players get a couple of thousand silver each day by logging in and winning games online. Trading four legendaries for one new one is very steep — and that steepness is compounded by the fact that you are not allowed to deconstruct a card until you own at least four copies of it.
Can’t Sell Until You Have Four
You must have more than the maximum amount you need for a deck (a “play set”) before you are allowed to cash any in. This is a strange decision — if I don’t want them, I don’t want any of them. Obviously being able to sell “my extras” is a common, and useful, aspect of trading card games. But by forcing me to keep cards I don’t want I feel like SolForge is going out of its way to make it more expensive to create the decks I want to build. Is this good business? I doubt it, though obviously they have the numbers to see. No trading card game has ever worked like this before, and my instinct tells me the money lost by the number of customers turned away by this decision is greater than the money gained by making them wait.
Can’t Easily Sell Your Extras
There is no way to sell (“deconstruct”) all of your extras at once. You need to go into each individual card to do this. With hundreds of commons and uncommons (“rares”), this is a chore. And to do this after each drafting session is an additional chore.
Some Cards Are “Account-Bound” In Nonobvious Fashion
There are other aspects that do not make obvious sense: “Account-Bound” is not adequately explained in the app at all. You need to poke around on the website to learn that cards you get through drafting are “Account-Bound” if you get them through drafts paid for by event tickets which you earned through logging in (and not purchasing). Is that clear? It… really isn’t clear at all. There is no distinction between “gold tickets” (purchased with money) and “silver tickets” (earned through play). This is just some background accounting that Stoneblade is doing, and exposing just a small piece of it through the user interface.
And does any of that Account-Bound stuff matter right now? Not really — it only will matter once trading comes to the game, and while that is scheduled for later this year there are never any guarantees.
Players Are Made To Wait To Forge Cards From New Sets
Players were not allowed to forge cards from the Forgeborn set until about seven weeks after the set had debuted. This meant that players could only get the individual cards they needed by opening packs and/or through their draft format. This made certain high-rarity cards nearly impossible to get without spending large piles of actual money, thereby heightening the “constructed is for big spenders only” problem.
Forging Analysis: The entire forging system appears to have been added in as a reaction to Hearthstone’s forging system. It has many deficiencies in its implementation and its monetization model. The fact that it exists at all is a good thing, but it feels like SBE is leaving lots on the table.
SWOT ANALYSIS FOR BUSINESS MODEL
Entry into the system is free and easy.
The client costs $0, and players can get some cards just through playing.
Many varied options for purchases.
This part of the business model should inspire other products’ designs. I think it can even still have more options (see “Weaknesses”).
Purchases are tied to a player and not to a platform.
I have purchased through Steam at my desktop, and have played with the same decks and cards on my iPad. Compared to Magic Online and its complete disconnect from Duels of the Planeswalkers, SolForge gets this right.
There is a system to acquire individual cards.
The forging system has many flaws, in my opinion, but it is better than nothing.
Players have the ability to spend a lot of money.
Epic-spenders have a large collection of cards to collect, and new expansion releases makes this an unending quest for some.
“One free draft each week” gives people incentive to keep logging in and to try out the draft format.
By giving an event ticket for a user’s first online win, users are incentivized to return each day and play. If they do this for a week, they have enough to play in the draft format. It is a way for zero-spenders to be competitive in a format that does not reward owning a large collection.
Draft is also a great way for users to play with cards they don’t already own. Once I drafted my first Grimgaunt Predator I knew I wanted to build a serious Nekrium-based constructed deck…
The costs of making a competitive deck are immense.
There is a fair amount of chatter about this problem on the game’s forums, and it is surprising that this has not been addressed. Adding the forging system helps, but it isn’t enough — and it absolutely is not enough given the way forging has been hamstrung.
Forging is hamstrung.
I detailed the limitations around forging earlier in this section. It would be difficult for me to envision more restrictions and complexities for what should be a relatively-simple system.
There are large gaps in the process for converting a zero-spender into a dedicated player and customer.
There are no constructed formats that reward players for spending $10, for instance. While you can spend money to draft more often, this does nothing to address those who are not good at (or do not enjoy) drafting. SBE should investigate and implement formats that are geared towards those who cannot (or will not) spend $100 or more. Examples:
- a “Unheroic” format without expensive cards (meaning: no “Legendary” or “Heroic” cards).
- a “Champion” format with a limited number of expensive cards
- a “Salary Cap” format where players have 50 points to spend on cards in their decks, with commons costing 0, “rares” costing 1, Heroics costing 3 and Legendaries costing 7. (Those numbers are untested, of course.)
The store does not react to the user’s performance.
Many social games give financial incentives to those who are about to leave to stick around a little bit longer. SolForge can do this. For instance, when a user goes 0-4 or 1-3 in a draft, SBE can give them the option to enter again for only 5 tickets right away (instead of taking a consolation prize).
Users cannot express themselves through purchases.
There is no way for the user to purchase anything, other than alternate-art cards, that allow them to express themselves such that other players can see. Most free-to-play games release ways for users to express themselves through purchases, and release new options often.
SolForge’s engine could be the basis of several licensed card games.
As I mentioned in the Gameplay section, I feel there is a business opportunity for SBE with this engine. Almost any IP with large action and dramatic effects — comic books and the like — could lend itself to a quickly-developed game.
Among digital TCGs, Hearthstone’s business model is much more attractive (for hardcore play).
Blizzard’s TCG based on World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, is relatively-inexpensive to play. Players can earn a free arena play (similar to a “draft”) about once every three days, as opposed to once per seven in SolForge. The cards are also relatively cheaper and the highest rarity does not seem to be as difficult to obtain either in packs or through forging. Blizzard can afford to not make as much money on their product as SBE must, as SBE is a tiny company in comparison. Still, this is a major threat that can’t be ignored.
Among digital strategy card games, Duels of the Planeswalkers is a better value (for casual play).
If you are going to spend $10 on a digital card game, you would get much more value out of the Magic iPad app than you would out of SolForge. Duels of the Planeswalkers is a complete game (which can be expanded) while in SolForge a $10 purchase is only the beginning. While digital Magic products have stumbled over the past decade, Duels still stands out as the better value.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
The standard questions about revenue (ARPU, ARPPU and similar) and user acquisition, conversion, and retention (MAU, DAU, and similar) should be asked. There are specific questions that are SolForge-specific:
- If a user receives a Legendary in a booster, are they statistically more-likely to buy more?
- If a user doesn’t receive a Legendary in their first 1-3-5-10-20 boosters, are they more-likely to quit and never spend again? (Or never return again?)
- Are rarities ever skewed on purpose? (Meaning: players are certain to see a Legendary in their first 4 packs, for instance.) If so, why, and does that have an impact on player retention and/or spending?
BUSINESS MODEL SCORE: C-
There are too many ways for people to fall “out of love” with the game as a result of the business model. While the gameplay is quick, fast, clean, and easily-understood, the business model is almost the opposite of that. I don’t have access to SBE’s numbers, but it really feels like most players either spend a ton or nothing at all. While “whales” can drive a product, TCGs that survive only on the whales do not tend to last. Will that be different in digital trading card games? The jury is still out.
The reason I give a C- instead of a D is hope. There are many players that hope to see a change, and there have been some changes over the past six months. (Tickets were never given away initially. Forging didn’t exist at launch.) The fact that there are still many players that are waiting and even more that would return if given a reason to do so gives this game a chance to thrive.