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The Digital CCG Bubble Hasn’t Burst Yet, And Might Not For A While

In recent years, we’ve been mobbed by MOBAs and smothered with shooters. But since the success of Hearthstone, digital collectible card games have been sprouting up like boils on a Leper Gnome.

Over on Gamasutra, they ask if the digital CCG boom is a bubble – in other words, are online CCGs still a growing market or one that’s going to collapse? Is there an end in sight to the current explosion of these types of games, or will they just keep coming? Can we use the historical precedent of the physical CCG booms that came in the wake of Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon in the 1990s to predict how the digital marketplace will perform?

I worked in the CCG industry for the better part of 15 years, both for companies that made the games and for media outlets that covered them. I agree with several of the sentiments expressed in the article, such as Magic’s general unsuitability for a digital medium and that the market’s current saturation means we’re unlikely to see another breakout hit on par with Hearthstone.

Talking about Magic, Michael Pachter asks “why not before?” since Magic did have some digital presence but it never was strong enough to usher in a wave of online imitators. Another way you could phrase this question is, “Why did Hearthstone, or its equivalent, come out in 2014 and not, say, 2008, or even earlier?”

I think the general acceptance of free-to-play gaming and microtransactions is a big reason. On the face of it, CCGs are the original “microtransaction-based games.” For over 20 years, you’ve been able to buy randomized lots of game-related items for a small price for physical CCGs, which sounds an awful lot like loot boxes in online games.

A decade ago, though, selling games piecemeal like that was practically unheard of in the digital realm. These days, however, it’s… well, not loved, exactly, but more accepted overall and less likely to raise eyebrows.

Also, as we now know, many developers these days are shying away from huge, all-inclusive (and very expensive) online ventures like MMORPGs and developing smaller, more self-contained games. While Hearthstone’s success is still an admirable goal to strive for, people tend to have more realistic expectations, not to mention budgets. With their rather minimal needs and relatively simple gameplay – which helps them spread to mobile devices, which are as ubiquitous as ever this decade – CCGs are perfectly suited for this new paradigm in digital gaming.