I've reacted badly to the idea of triple-A development being stale and uninspired because I never saw anything wrong with it. I ate up the live-action Halo shorts and bought the Legendary Edition (in part to try putting the Master Chief helmet on my cats. Didn't work.). I looked forward to the annual Call of Duty title. When I hear pundits talking about these games as guilty pleasures, implying that these games are beneath them and tantamount to wallowing in the slums of the videogame world, I get offended.
It's kind of like eating McDonald's. You know you're not getting the highest-quality burger in the world but you know precisely what the burger is going to be, and I love McDonald's. I have plenty of reasons to resist this idea of The Problem with triple-A development being rote and dull, but it's one thing to hear pundits making the argument and quite another to have an example dropped straight in your lap.
I had just finished a private demo of an upcoming triple-A title, a game that's been on the preview cycle since early this year and which I'm sure has multi-million-dollar budgets for both development and marketing. Normally after the end of the demo is when I ask questions, where I find some thread to tug on to inform my preview coverage, but this time I had absolutely nothing to say. That has never happened to me before.. And I didn't realize precisely what had happened in that moment until I played Card Hunter late Sunday afternoon.
At PAX East 2012, a collection of indie developers pooled their resources to create an indie megabooth on the Expo floor, which was really just a bunch of small setups each with a few monitors and chairs but chained together into one contiguous space, ostensibly to inspire Expo attendees to move from game to game and really take notice of the indies. The PAX Prime 2012 Indie Megabooth was almost as large as the booth of any major publisher at the Expo. The card-based tower defense game Go Home Dinosaurs, the stealth platformer Mark of the Ninja, the MOBA-style game Airmechs and the strategy game Skulls of the Shogun all caught my attention but the star of the Megabooth, and my personal Game of Show, was Card Hunter.
It's the brainchild of Australian developer Jonathan Chey, a former member of the famed Looking Glass Studios, who co-founded Irrational Games with Ken Levine and Robert Fermier back in 1997. Card Hunter is billed as "an online collectible card game" and blends role playing games, tabletop miniature games, and card mechanic games into a single experience. When I first heard the pitch I thought it sounded a little crazy - talk about three genres that have absolutely nothing to do with each other - but Chey pulled it off, and that's partly what makes the game so completely brilliant.
The game is played on a 2D map that looks like something you might find in an old Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Your characters are 2D tabletop miniatures, slotted into plastic bases like Games Workshop Warhammer models, and everything you do in the game is tied to cards. Each model on the table is dealt a hand of cards from their deck at the beginning of every round, and they play the cards to take actions. If you want to move a character, you play a Move card that tells you how many spaces the character can move, and then you move them on the board. If you want to attack, you choose an Attack card and select your target, and when characters take damage they lose hit points.