From BioShock to gardening to Card Hunter

Irrational Games Co-Founder Jon Chey returns with a new indie studio and a plan to invent a new type of card game.

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Jonathan Chey opens a clear plastic bag and pulls out what looks like a folded black hairdresser's apron. Unfurling it like a matador's red cloth, he exposes the red trimmings and big logo printed on one side. The fabric is lightweight and shiny. The cloth tapers on one end to fit snugly around a person's neck. It looks like a bib for a giant baby.

"It's a cape!" he says, holding it up. "We're giving these away at [Penny-Arcade Expo] in a few weeks. They're prizes." Chey turns the cape around. "That's the Card Hunter logo."

He hands the cape to Ben Lee, an artist who is, to date, the only full-time employee at Chey's independent studio, Blue Manchu. Lee performs the same fwooshing motion, making a face as if to say, "Not bad; not bad at all." He folds it up, slides it back in its bag and returns to it a shelf stacked with more of the Card Hunter capes.

The team behind Card Hunter is gearing up for the game's first public outing. Chey and Lee have been working on the game for almost two years and are taking it to Seattle to show it to the press and public at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). They've got capes. They've got a big Card Hunter sign for their booth sitting in the corridor of their programmer's house 180 miles away. They have a virtual card strategy game no one knows about.

Jonathan Chey co-founded Irrational Games with Ken Levine and Robert Fermier in 1997. Even in its nascent stage, it was a studio few in the games industry could ignore. Built by developers like Chey who had cut their teeth at Looking Glass Studios working on critically acclaimed titles like Thief and System Shock, Irrational's first game was System Shock 2, a widely celebrated first-person shooter that won game of the year award after game of the year award, including one from USA Today. The creativity, storytelling ability, design talent and business acumen of the three founders made Irrational a growing force in the industry. By the time Irrational released BioShock, there was little doubt in anyone's mind the studio would spiral to dizzying heights of success.

Card Hunter will be Chey's first game since leaving Irrational. It will be the first game from Blue Manchu, a studio he started with his own capital, employing former 2K Australia developers like Lee and Farbs (of Captain Forever and Rom Check Fail fame). Chey is used to working on games that have big build-ups and enormous anticipation. With Card Hunter, the opposite is true. Instead of an army of marketing and public relations personnel storming the PAX show floor and flooding media channels with Card Hunter messaging, the team is on its own.

They've got a sign for their booth. They've got an almost-beta-ready build of their virtual card game. And, of course, capes.

Blue Manchu at PAXJon Chey (right) setting up for PAX

Gardening leave

Early on, indie development never seemed like an option for Chey. Throughout the 2000s Irrational Games was a growing force in the games industry. In Boston, Ken Levine headed the company's design and story-focused operations while Chey ran the more tech and level-design oriented Australian arm of the studio in Canberra. The teams complemented each other, bringing different strengths to a studio that eventually created the award-winning BioShock. In 2006 2K Games bought the company. Two years later, Chey quietly left.

"I just really wanted to do something different," he says. "Pretty much my entire game development life, with a couple of small exceptions, I've been making these really complex first-person, simulation role-playing shooter games like System Shock. The first game I worked on at Looking Glass Studios in Boston, which is where I met Ken [Levine], was a Star Trek game.

"Management is OK, but it's not really what I got into the industry for."

"From there I worked on Thief and System Shock 2 and SWAT games and BioShock ... so most of what I've done is really heavy duty, first-person 3D simulation stuff and that's really great; it's fascinating, but I didn't feel like I was getting up in the morning excited to go to work, which if you're working on a game you really should be."

Under 2K, both studios faced pressure to grow. When System Shock 2 was in development, Chey managed 15 people — the entirety of the team that made the game. When Irrational established an Australian studio and Chey moved from Boston to Canberra to manage it, it had 20 people — the same 20 who would go on to make Freedom Force.

Jon Chey
Jon Chey working on an Apple 2 as a childJon Chey
The team at Irrational in the early days
BioShock Jon Chey
A young Jon Chey

"It just kept getting bigger and bigger," Chey says. The studio grew to more than 100 developers for BioShock, and Irrational's upcoming BioShock Infinite had upwards of 300 people working on it.

"Management is OK, but it's not really what I got into the industry for," he says. "I think this is true of a lot of indie developers. They actually like programming and designing and drawing pictures."

Chey left 2K not sure of what he was going to do next. He was only sure that he didn’t want to work for a large company anymore, channeling his creative energy into managing hundreds of people. For a year after his resignation he was on gardening leave — a business term that describes when a company pays for an outgoing executive to stay at home and not work so they can be phased out of the business. The year after that, a non-compete clause meant he couldn't work on anything even if he wanted to.

Chey spent the first six months catching up on video games. When he tired of that, he travelled. He tried a yoga class. He actually took up gardening.

"When ... your work is your life, and then you have two years when you don't have any job, it's actually a really weird thing."

"I grew tomatoes," he says. "Chickens. We had five chickens in the backyard."

Gardening was a change of pace, but it wasn't video games.

"I didn't do very much," he says. "It was a very weird period in my life because I'm a very career-focused person. That's what I do. I work on games. It's my job and it's my hobby. When you go from working more than full-time and your work is your life, and then you have two years when you don't have any job, it's actually a really weird thing."

In between watering tomatoes and feeding chickens Chey was not able to do much, but he was able to think of what he could do next. He knew he wanted to do something small, something independent; perhaps a small game with a small number of people. Maybe that game would be a marriage of some of his geekiest hobbies. Free from the big business pressures to make a game that appealed to everyone, he could now indulge his inner geek — the same kind of unabashed geek who would wear a cape while poring over a deck of cards. Maybe his new studio should have a silly-sounding name that had personal meaning to him. (Chey's father was Manchurian and belonged to the Blue Banner clan, hence Blue Manchu.)

In 2010 2K's non-compete clause ended. Blue Manchu and Card Hunter began.

It's not magic

A dweebie cartoon human appears on the screen, thick eyeglasses resting on the bridge of his nose, a cape — the one and only Card Hunter cape — secured around his neck. His name is Gary. He's the master of Card Hunter: the keeper of knowledge, the passionate nerd who has found a realm to rule. He role-plays with such cartoonish vigor there's little doubt he was born to do this. Inspired by the kind of nerd who leads a life without fear of ridicule or not fitting in, he was designed by the Card Hunter team to say "It's OK to love the game; there's no harm in embracing your inner nerd. Just look at Gary."

After a quick introduction where Gary enthusiastically invites the player into a dungeon and explains that they control a party of monster-slaying characters, a geometric board appears.

Card Hunter is 2D and designed with a boardgame aesthetic. Even the characters are represented as cardboard figures perched on cardboard tiles. The game borrows its visual style from very early Dungeons and Dragons art — illustrations of goblins and demons that were so bad they were good. Artist Lee studied these illustrations to pinpoint where they tipped into good territory and distilled it in Card Hunter's art direction. The knights and dwarves may not be animated or particularly slick, but they have personality and conviction. Like Gary, they were made to take their cardboard selves seriously.

Drawing influence from role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, trading card games like Magic: The Gathering and board games like Carcassonne, Blue Manchu has created a hybrid strategy game that resembles neither. The comparisons to Magic — the world's most popular trading card game — are inevitable, but Chey says the use of cards is where the similarities begin and end.

"I think it's a huge mistake to try to be Magic and that's something we've always been really careful of," says Chey.

"It's OK to love the game; there's no harm in embracing your inner nerd."

"A lot of people will think, 'Well, I really like Magic, so I want to make another game just like Magic, only we're going to make it so it's 20 percent better. We're gonna put better art on the cards, or it's going to have the one feature I've always wanted and we'll fix this thing.' Nobody cares. If I play Magic, I'm so bought into that world. If another thing appears that's 20 percent better or 50 percent better, that's not enough. You're not going to draw those people out of what they currently enjoy because there's way too much holding them in there."

For Chey, giant studios like Activision and Electronic Arts are the kinds of companies that can throw their weight and resources into wrestling matches to see whether the former's Call of Duty or the latter's Battlefield will dominate a market. It's not the kind of wrestling match an indie can enter without emerging in a river of tears.

Card HunterCard Hunter
Card HunterCard Hunter

The hardest deck of cards

Magic: The GatheringMagic: The Gathering

Card games look so simple on the surface. Whether it's Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh, or even traditional decks used in Poker and Blackjack, the premise is simple: there are cards with images or text and an accompanying set of rules to follow. By this reasoning, card games should be easy to make and market.

Having spent most of his game development career working on the interactive equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters, Chey looked to card and board games in the hope of creating something smaller, more focused. Card Hunter was significantly less taxing when it came to the technical side of things — there was nothing to animate, no 3D spaces to build and no complex levels to design. Yes, it was smaller. Yes, it was more focused. But as he soon realized, it was not easier. Not by a long shot.

"When people tell us they're working on a card game, in general we think they're crazy," says Skaff Elias, one of the first playtesters and developers of Magic: The Gathering, who now runs a consulting business with Magic creator Richard Garfield. Both are working with Chey on Card Hunter. "It takes a lot of work," Elias says. "It's almost like the creativity behind making a good card game is the easiest part, then comes the amount of work you have to put in to refine it, which is very daunting.

"Very, very, very few people, even if they have a good initial card game, are willing to put in that work."

Magic: The Gathering is the world's first trading card game, created by Garfield and published by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. It is the undisputed king of trading card games — no other one has a longer history. And no other trading card game comes close to having Magic's player base of more than 12 million people. Yes, on the surface the game consists of cards that feature monsters and spells and mana. But there's a deep complexity that goes beyond the fantastic images that grace each card. People play Magic competitively; they play professionally. This kind of depth doesn't happen by accident.

A game like Card Hunter looks simple and is easy to understand, but according to Elias it takes an enormous amount of work for a game to reach that point. Just because a game looks effortless doesn't mean no effort was required to create it.

Magic: The Gathering
Magic: The Gathering
Card HunterA Card Hunter early concept image

The list of challenges that face a game like Card Hunter seems endless. First, a good card game has to have the illusion of presenting seemingly infinite options. The developer can't guide the player through the game, it can't be a linear experience, and the developer must relinquish power and control to the player. Second, when the player is in control, the game must be so well-designed that it can't be broken or played unfairly. It has to allow for players to do the unpredictable without the game falling apart.

Then there are the challenges specific to trading card games.

"In a trading card game, you're going to begin with at least 100 different objects and people will only be playing with their choice of, say, 30 of them, and they'll have duplicates," Garfield says. "So most of the combinations they run into and most of the orders they come out with need to give you different, varied and exciting games, and that is several magnitudes more difficult than making a traditional game."

Card Hunter is not a traditional trading card game, but it's not exempt from the challenges a game like Magic faced.

To get to a point where the game was balanced, with balanced meaning that every card has a place and purpose, the math is carefully considered so no cards are outrageously overpowered or pathetically underpowered, that matches can be varied and dynamic regardless of the card combinations used, Magic: The Gathering took two years of solid playtesting before it was released. And even when it was released, Elias says it wasn't what anyone would call by today's standards "balanced."

"If a card game came out today that was as balanced as Magic was when it first came out, you would say it was not finished," he says.

Magic spent the next year being playtested and balanced live, and it has now had 20 years to be perfected. Card Hunter has had a little more than two.

Something special

For a developer with so much industry clout and so many connections, Jon Chey is taking a slow, steady, and very rational approach to Card Hunter. Having never worked on any kind of card game before, he contacted Elias and Garfield to get them involved. "I've played a lot of card and board games, and you think you know them," Chey says. "But it's a mistake to think just because you know how to play a game that you know how to design one."

He's uninterested in replicating what already exists. What he wants in his own game is what he refers to as a "Wrath of God-like" experience.

In Magic: The Gathering, there's a card called Wrath of God that, when played, kills all monsters on the board, including those of the person who played the card.

"They call it a stack," which is a term that was adopted from computer science to refer to an abstract data collection. "It's that geeky."

"I remember when I first read that card I thought, 'That's a terrible card; why would I want to destroy all my creatures?'" Chey says. "But you play the game for a bit and you realize it's one of the most powerful cards in the game because you can set up a situation where your opponent plays a lot of creatures and you haven't and then you play it and after you've played it you play the rest of your creatures and now you're in a great position. So that was a classic introduction of a strategy I'd never thought of or seen before."

Chey doesn't want a Wrath of God card in Card Hunter; at least, not literally. What's far more interesting to him is the idea that systems and objects that seem straightforward at first can be used to do complex and surprising things.

"The message from that was: 'Set up strategic tactical situations that people haven't seen before and ask them to try to figure out interesting strategies.'"

Card Hunter
Card HunterCard Hunter world map
Card Hunter world map
Card HunterCard HunterCard HunterCard Hunter warrior art

Most of Card Hunter had already been designed by the time the masters of Magic were brought on board. Elias and Garfield played the game over two months and wrote up a long report detailing their recommendations. They had good news: Card Hunter — at six months into development — was a good game. They loved Lee's art direction. The concept was interesting. The cards and systems were well on their way to being balanced. They also had bad news: a major feature of the game was making it so complicated and slow to play that it could potentially turn lots of players away. It was a feature adopted from traditional trading card games like Magic, but unlike physical card games, it did not translate well into the virtual space.

In a game like Magic, when a player casts a spell or performs an action, the opponent that interrupts can cancel it by playing another card. This counter can be countered, which can again be countered and then countered some more. "They call it a stack," says Chey, which is a term that was adopted from computer science to refer to an abstract data collection. "It's that geeky."

In Magic, stacks can go on endlessly, which can result in fascinating matches for hardcore players. But in a virtual game like Card Hunter, it can be tedious. Every time a player put down a card early on, the opponent would be asked whether they wished to counter it. Often, this resulted in repeated clicks of No, No, No, No, No, Yes. It also didn't take into account whether a player could counter an attack. In a traditional card game, a player has to pore over his or her cards because no one else is going to tell them whether or not they have the right cards to perform certain actions. If a game is on a computer, why not automate that process and get on with it?

Chey and his team discussed the feedback from Elias and Garfield. The debate went back and forth, and they agreed that as difficult as it was to kill a feature they'd put so much work into, it was best for the game.

"It's very hard to give up your baby sometimes," Chey says. "You've created this thing and, I don't like where I'm going with this analogy, but it's like you go, 'This is kind of an ugly baby; I don't really want it. Let's get a better one.'"

While it hurts Chey to see his ugly babies tossed out for the good of the game, Elias says Chey's openness to change has been impressive and is driving the game to a promising place.

"There have been a lot of changes to Card Hunter over the course of development and it's all basically Jon's initial idea and his initial rule set — it's extremely rare to find someone that's as creative and successful as him who is as open to changing things on the basis of other people's ideas," Elias says. "He's sort of the driving force because he's super smart; he takes in with an open mind all sorts of data from all different quarters and all different people on the team. And even though it's his baby on the operating table, he's able to make really good, creative, rational decisions at the same time. That part is extremely impressive."

Happiness in a cape

PAX was a huge success. Over the course of the event thousands of visitors dropped by the Card Hunter booth. The big Card Hunter sign made its way from a corridor in Canberra to the Indie Megabooth where Chey demoed the game to the press and public, gave away capes (they were a hit), and received more than 10,000 sign-ups to the game's closed beta.

When Chey left 2K Australia in 2008, he didn't do it so he could start a new studio, and he didn't do it for Card Hunter. But whether he saw it coming or not, both the studio and the game are the answers to what he was looking for. Blue Manchu is the kind of small studio he missed when he was managing teams of hundreds on BioShock. Card Hunter is the kind of game that gets him excited to go to work in the morning — it may never reach the millions of players who latched onto his previous games, but that doesn't really matter. He's content.

"I mean, I would have liked to maybe be on time," he says, noting that Card Hunter has been in development for much longer than it was meant to. "But ultimately, the most important thing for me is to make a game that a reasonable number of people really like. And that sounds fairly reasonable, but it's actually really, really hard to do, to make something that people really enjoy playing. That's why I think I'm stuck in video games, because there's nothing quite like people enjoying what you produce."

If only a few thousand people enjoy Card Hunter, Chey admits he'd be disappointed. But it's not his goal to make something on the scale of the BioShock games. He says it's a bit of an experiment, and it's not an experiment if it can't go wrong. Of course things can go wrong. He's an indie now with his own studio — all problems are his problems. But that's OK. With the risks of failure and the potential for success in mind, Jonathan Chey is taking a leaf out of Gary's book and doing this like he was born to do it, cape and all. Fwoosh! Babykayak

Card Hunter is coming soon.

Card Hunter cape
The cape
Image credits: Jonathan Chey, Blue Manchu, Irrational Games, 2K Games, Wizards of the Coast