Volition is an upcoming collectible card game (CCG) from Cryptogogue, a Seattle startup founded in 2017 by Patrick Meehan, a veteran software developer who’s worked on mobile titles like Wolf Toss and Crimson: Steam Pirates; and Ken Pilcher, one of the designers who created The Spoils, a 2015 Origins Award winner for Fan Favorite Game.
Unlike other CCGs, Volition will not ship on physical media at all. Instead, cards are cryptographically assigned to their owners via blockchain technology. They can then print them off in order to play the game. In turn, players can use the same blockchain to buy, trade, sell, and even customize their cards, adding new art or tweaking a card’s mechanics.
Volition is intended to be a “best-of-breed” CCG. Players will collect cards in order to build a deck around their chosen hero, which possesses certain passive abilities that define a given deck’s strategy. You receive a certain number of actions per turn that you can use to make attacks or deploy units, and win the game by depleting your opponent’s stock of shields. However, any successful attack on a player only removes one shield at a time, and more importantly, any shield you lose will also grant you additional resources that you can use to your advantage. (Pilcher compares this to a comeback mechanic from fighting games like Mortal Kombat X.)
As of this writing, the game is being beta-tested in house at Cryptogogue, and all details about the rules are subject to change.
Meehan sat down with us at a coffee shop in Seattle to discuss Volition, the game’s business model, and decentralization. Continue reading for excerpts, edited for length and clarity.
Thomas Wilde: Your PR team sent over a big folder full of the art for Volition, but most of the literature that you’ve sent over is your business plan, not information about the actual game—
Patrick Meehan: Right.
TW: –which strikes me as weird. So, the way you’re planning it, if I’m following this correctly, every time you put out an expansion, you throw out a bunch of booster packs and people mine them for cards.
PM: People will be mining booster packs themselves. We’ll release a set, and put out the parameters of how many packs are mine-able. It’s up to the people to mine those packs. The pack is a miner reward.
TW: And you guys profit off of this because you’ll be getting a piece of the transaction?
PM: We’ll be able to participate in the transaction, that’s right. We’re not planning to produce and sell packs ourselves, which is a little bit different from what other people are doing.
TW: The first thing that comes to mind… most card games I’ve ever seen, sooner or later, somebody puts together an online database with stuff like the official art and the cards which is just a lineup of what cards are possible to collect. But the way you’re planning to put it together, everybody is just going to print out their own cards.
PM: Correct. The card exists as a digital asset, and people can create a temporary physical embodiment of it by printing it.
TW: Aside from obviously wanting to stay tournament-legal, what’s keeping a fanatic for the game from just doing what we used to do back in the day. For example, I would really like this rare Magic card, so I’m just going to take this land that I’ve got a thousand copies of, write the rare card’s information on it, and say no, it’s actually this — and we’re all just going to pretend that it’s the case.
PM: It’s up to the players to decide how they want to do that.
TW: Doesn’t that torpedo your entire business model?
PM: Well, it hasn’t torpedoed Magic. It hasn’t torpedoed other card games’ business models. It’s really up to the player community to develop their own etiquette around whether or not they value collectibility. As you pointed out, certainly in organized play there’s an opportunity to force the issue.
When you get into a collectible game, you want to value owning something. So sure, you could forge a collectible, but then you don’t really own that collectible. It doesn’t have any collectible value.
TW: Are you planning any sort of virtual play?
PM: Yeah, we would like to not get distracted by developing an elaborate electronic environment. We’d welcome the community to build on the protocol. The protocol’s open, and people own their assets, so it should be very easy for them to do integrations with popular desktop simulators, or even build their own games based on the protocol.
To me, it was just kind of an experiment in digital collectibles in their purest form. It feels pure and clean to be able to use your printer, [then] play the game, without an elaborate piece of software that somebody else has to maintain, or then if it goes away, your game’s valueless. This game will be valuable as long as you’ve got a printer.
TW: Do you have a beta tester community right now?
PM: Yeah, part of our outreach now is to start building our community. We came up with the idea last summer, and it was part of an ideation process for blockchain. We got interested in it early last year, and really put a lot of momentum behind the project internally last fall. It’s at the point now where we’re bringing people into the community and doing paper beta tests of the game itself, getting people involved.
TW: It seems like you’re putting a lot of faith in your community to do most of the heavy lifting here. Most of the game designers I know of are leery of giving that kind of control over their work to anybody but themselves.
PM: The interesting thing about this is testing what decentralization means. We looked at plenty of blockchains building the same old centralized middleman business model… but what we wanted to do was truly decentralized, and to see if that theory was tenable.
TW: It does seem like, if I’m reading your white sheet correctly, you’re trying to make it as much a platform for independent publishing as you are a card game. You’re talking about how artists can theoretically publish original art to put on people’s cards?
PM: Yeah. We really like the idea of people being able to customize their cards and reconfigure their cards… and part of that is changing their cards thematically. The more we thought about it, the more excited we got about creating a game where, in theory, every asset could be a little bit different. You could really have a huge number of unique assets.
TW: Just the visuals? Not the systems?
PM: All things are on the table. Definitely the visuals. We might create systems where you can break apart the cards and reconfigure them, definitely power up and combine cards, maybe change certain other aspects—
TW: Don’t you still have to have some kind of central authority to determine that sort of thing? It’s a card game.
PM: The rule set can be enforced in a decentralized manner. The design of the rule set is different from the enforcement of the rule set. We can put together [a document that says] “here’s how you play the game, and here’s how you can change your assets.” Then the actual mechanics and enforcing that is done by the protocol.
TW: So there’s that infamous story about that guy playing Magic, who won a match because he tore up his Chaos Orb and threw it at the other guy?
PM: [laughter] I wonder if I know that guy.
TW: You know what I’m talking about, right? [Ed. Note: This is probably an urban legend among Magic: The Gathering players.]
TW: Let’s say that somebody figures out something like that, some weird baroque tactic that was in no way intended. It’s obviously something that you don’t want to see happening because it’s kind of degenerate, whatever the scenario might happen to be. So your goal with decentralized enforcement is just that everybody will get together and tell him not to do that?
PM: …it’s up to the organized play group to decide which cards are eligible for play. So there are a lot of ways that those things can be forced without us necessarily having to pull out our guide keys and retroactively changing people’s cards. Not that that’s off the table either. As the designers of the game, we’d still be able to do that if we want to.
But like I said, a lot of this is still kind of an experiment in decentralization, and seeing how far it would go.
TW: I think that’s part of what keeps striking me as odd about this. In any massively competitive game, you’re going to see people who will use whatever tactics they can in order to win, even if they’re borderline cheating or actual cheating, to get ahead one way or the other, especially if there are prizes on the table. What you end up having to do, is you have to have an enforcement team that works real hard to stay one step ahead of the exploits.
But in a decentralized system, it seems like you’re basically saying, go nuts. It’s the Wild West out there. Have fun.
PM: I wouldn’t say that. There’s still a centralized… organized play structure. There’s a hierarchy there. Whether or not that’s enforced by us or an organized play organization or something organized by the community itself, I expect there to be something to enforce the rules and etiquette and whatnot, whether or not we have to go in and change the game itself.
With Wizards [of the Coast], once they publish a set of cards, they’ve always got that cardboard out there. They can’t make those cards evaporate. Just because we digitally could doesn’t necessarily mean we should. We can still create a rule that says, hey, if you want to play in our world tour, for cash, here’s a list of cards that you can play. Here’s a subset of cards that we’ve determined are broken…
TW: I’m not used to this much trust being shown to the player community. They tend to be kind of ruthless out there.
PM: They’re smart guys and they’re gonna optimize the system to their advantage, but I don’t necessarily believe that this particular embodiment of the game is going to be any more vulnerable than existing paper games, or even digital games. With decentralization, I’m trusting the community to mine and set the price for transactions. That’s a lot of trust.
But, there’s a marketing point. We’re gonna test out the idea, whether or not the markets and prices will manage correctly.
As far as the game itself… there are rules. There are transformations you can apply to your card that we’ll formalize in the rules set, that will be enforced by our protocol. Robustly, in a decentralized way. So, when you think about the integrity of the game and its rules set, it’s a little different from any other, and in some ways, maybe more enforceable than other kinds of games.
So we can start with how much we want to use our powers, the arbiters of the game, and use our powers to change card mechanics, ban cards, things like that. That’s something that we do with a lot of caution. Compared to the abilities that a cardboard publisher has, there’s actually a greater ability to do that kind of stuff. I would expect that, whether we’re doing organized play or it’s community-driven organized play… they’ll put systems in place and deal with all that. People are going to try to optimize their advantage. They’re gamers [laughter] and that’s what they do.
TW: I am confused about how you’re planning to make money off of this.
PM: Well, blockchain is hard for people to understand. It’s “everything you don’t understand about money combined with everything you don’t understand about technology,” to paraphrase John Oliver. People start to talk about it and their heads explode. You can’t separate the technology from the business model.
TW: I think part of it is that it’s not that difficult a concept–
PM: The tech is pretty straightforward, yeah.
TW: –but I do think some people are really evangelical about it and it occludes the meaning. Not that I’m saying it’s what you’re doing.
TW: Every emergent technology has that early-adopter fringe. “This is gonna change everything! We’re returning power to the people! Your toaster will run off blockchain! And the first manned spacecraft to reach Mars will be a blockchain spacecraft!”
PM: One day you’ll upload your consciousness to it.
TW: “Altered Carbon”? Blockchain people!
PM: There’s a lot out there about blockchain business models. We started researching it and it took us a long time to wrap our heads around it.
There are a couple that we see working right now. One is the classic: create a token or currency that’s necessary to do transactions, mine a bunch of it, hope that it becomes valuable because people are using it to do transactions, then slowly sell it off.
It’s a flexible model; you hear of these companies who are sitting on several billion dollars in these tokens, and you think, well, in time, they’re going to sell those off.
I really like the idea of a transaction fee, a spatial transaction. Now, for that to work, you need to get the fee in something that you can convert to dollars, or some existing currency that people value. Or, if there’s an on-chain currency, that has to have some value. Fundamentally, for the business model to work, you need one of those.
TW: Your white sheet made it sound like the entirety of your business model was based around you guys coming up with your own cryptocurrency and then profiting off of that.
PM: We need some way to reward the miners. We need some way to get paid, and an on-chain currency’s always going to be more secure. That’s not to say that we can’t integrate with other currencies.
But at the end of the day, we need to make transactions easy, in order for our currency to have value in [terms of] other currencies that have value… What’s probably going to happen is that we’ll start with other currencies, and once you’re using a lot of them, it’ll be much more convenient and less expensive if you’re using our currency, and the value of our currency will be the value of all the transactions happening in the world, every day. There’ll be a market cap for that currency. It will reflect the use of the game. We don’t know what that’s going to be, but I know it’ll exist.
TW: …I’m curious where the buy-in would be for something like that. If I remember correctly, the currency in-game is called the Vo right now…
TW: Okay. So right now you’re exploring the possibility of a buy-in, but eventually, there’ll be no need for one? Is that right?
PM: Players who are comfortable transacting in bitcoin or ethereum or whatever currencies we get integrated with, they’ll be paying transaction fees and they’ll be subject to the delays of migrating to other platforms, which are going to be variable. I think the on-chain currency, ultimately, for people who enjoy the game, is going to be easier, faster, and less expensive. So yeah, I’d anticipate that eventually our currency will be the main [currency].
TW: On your launch day, could I do something like roll up on your online store and say, here’s $10, give me an equivalent amount of Vol?
PM: Too early to say. Ask me a month before launch.
TW: What’s your intended launch window right now?
PM: We want to do a beta in late summer. There’ll be paper versions of the game available for that, and the beta will include an open-source mining node and wallet. Then we’ll probably launch for real in the fall. We’re targeting late 2018.
TW: That soon, huh?
TW: I was expecting that you were a little further out than that, just because [we’ve talked] so little about the actual game.
PM: There’s a game. We’ll just be releasing it in the coming months.
TW: You’re highlighting the technology right now.
PM: I think the interesting thing about this is the [decentralization]. The game we’re setting out to make is a best-of-breed trading card game. There are pieces of Spoils, and—I don’t know if you’re familiar with that game.
TW: That’s the one you guys made.
PM: Yeah. We released it in the mid-2000s. It was designed to be a very streamlined, easy-to-learn, deep strategy game, suitable for tournament play, and it did well. It got traction, it got good reviews. What happened with The Spoils was that we were going over our series A in 2007, and our lead investor was heavily exposed to the Japanese stock market. It crashed, and even though we were on track to be a serious contender, we weren’t able to close out our series A.
But the game itself was very good. Our idea was that [it] was a leaner, cleaner experience, so this is the next iteration of that. It’s very much the spiritual successor to that. Ken Pilcher, who’s our design lead and a founder, ran The Spoils pretty much singlehandedly for five years. He understands the space really intuitively.
…we were like, let’s further refine these ideas, of what The Spoils inherits directly from Magic, and understand what it means to make customizable, upgradable, combinable cards. That’s the interesting part.
TW: I suppose the advantage to your current business model is that… you don’t need a lot of investment capital to get off the ground.
PM: Yeah, capital helps. When we decided to incubate this internally, and really focus on delivering a great product–
TW: You don’t have to spend X amount of dollars on printing and reprinting the cards, or even having an initial publishing run, because it’s all virtual.
PM: Well, there’s a lot of work when you’re launching a traditional game, to go through the whole supply chain. Like you said, you’ve got to print them, put them on pallets, and ship them to your distributors and wherever else before that, and then you’ve got to call mom-and-pop retailers and convince them to take a risk on your game. It’s really hard to do.
TW: Especially in the pen-and-paper games industry.
PM: It’s a hard industry, and there’s tremendous inventory risk for them. I really understand their reticence to bring on new products.
TW: Will this game reach into the mom-and-pop stores at all? Will you have some kind of shelf unit, or…?
PM: Yeah, there are all sorts of ways that we can integrate with retailers. We think retailers and play space are really valuable, so there’s a lot of ways we can let them participate without having to take on the inventory risk. So everything from being able to sell special game items that you can only get at play spaces from a scannable code on a poster, to a product they can print out themselves and stick in their display case. There are a lot of really interesting ways we can let them participate.
TW: I was looking at the art, and it reminds me of characters from Antarctic Press, like Ninja High School… I was kind of curious about the lore of the game.
PM: We’ll be releasing more about that. I reached out to Ken Foo, who is a Singaporean comics artist. He worked with my team on The Spoils.
The Spoils is a big art game. We went to Singapore and built a big studio. They produced an incredibly detailed set of drawings, put a lot of thought into it. We were handing it off to third parties to color, and it’s just a tremendous amount of work.
I had worked with Ken, he’s part of the creative team there, and for whatever reason, his aesthetic really came to mind when I was thinking about Volition. I gave him a very short creative brief; I said we’re making this kind of anarchic, decentralized game with all sorts of different kinds of influences and pop-culture pastiches. I said, channel your id and just go. He came back with some very funny, eccentric, interesting characters.
There may be a philosophical connection to some of the ideas we were playing with in The Spoils. Because in The Spoils, there was the idea of bringing what we called “voidal humor” out of the cosmos through ritual.
PM: Voidal, yeah. That’s done by ritual. Industrialized magic. In the old world, your wizards and sorcerers can cast spells, and the way they do it is by channeling voidal energy. Through industrialized ritual, the voidal humor itself can be drawn, distilled, and deposited in different kinds of items. Basically, an industrial revolution of magic. There’s a whole mythos there in The Spoils.
It’s really similar to the idea of mining these cryptographic assets out of the ether. Out of the Void, as it were. So even though there’s no connection to The Spoils, there’s a tangential thread.
To make a long story short, we really want players to create their own mythos and customize these cards. So we’re gonna ship the cards with what we call reference art. It’s going to be very fun and lighthearted and free-associative. We’re gonna have a mythos, and we’re gonna develop each set, and we’re gonna have a lot of fun changing it up. We want people to get in and figure out cool ways to skin their decks, and come up with their own mythology for their deck and their cards.
TW: So you’ve even decentralized your lore.
TW: So there’s no plan right now that X character hates Y character, or Y character works for Z organization…
PM: We’ll have some of that, but you know what, if you’d rather have your character on that card, put your character there… If you get the giant purple dragon, and you’d rather put a World War II tank on that card, because you’re into that, do that. There’ll be a mythos there that people can engage in, that we’ll be developing and releasing.
When we launched The Spoils, we did two things. We did a playtest at a game store… and this was really early. This was well before we got our funding and actually launched the game, so 2001 or ’02, I want to say. We did it here at… I forget the name of the game store, in the University District.
We didn’t have any of the art. We didn’t want to test the mythos of the game, we just wanted to test the gameplay. What we wound up doing was we basically put memes on the cards. Not that we had a concept of a “meme” at the time.
TW: I think we were still calling them image macros back then.
PM: Yeah. So we just put all this goofy stuff on the cards, and it really was fun. People really got into them.
I kind of want to encourage that with this, if you can really do this with a traditional card game. I kind of want to see if there can be a creative and social aspect to it.
TW: Just encouraging people to do their own custom decks. This [the official art] is just your jump-off point.
PM: I think people are going to like the art. I like Ken’s art, I think Ken’s a genius, and his art is beautiful. I think it’s going to resonate for a lot of people. It’s very colorful… and I think people are going to get into what we’re creating, but I also do want to open the door to what people bring.