The basics of any deckbuilding competitive card game are always along the same lines: pick your cards to best deal with the situation in front of you, play them at the right times, try to avoid screaming too much when everything inevitably, semi-randomly, goes against you.
In that respect, Monster Train is no different from what’s come before. But in its actual setting, things start to veer away from the well-trodden path.
You are in charge of one of five monster clans attempting to repel the assault of a faction of rogue warriors from heaven, all while barrelling through hell on a train. Your goal is to protect your pyre – or engine – from attacks, defending multiple floors from these vertically encroaching enemies.
It is very literally a monster train. Fail a run? You will. Pick it all up and start over, because the other sprinkle on top here is that of the roguelike. It’s an intriguing mix, at first glance.
This is developer Shiny Shoe’s second ‘traditional’ release since its formation eight years ago, with the studio mainly focusing on support for other teams and titles. Founder and CEO Mark Cooke tells us the atmosphere is optimistic in the team: “I really enjoy working with everyone on the team I’ve built, and this is a game genre we really love.
“Many of us have played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, for example – I started with the Magic Revised set in 1994. Developing an original, traditional game isn’t completely new for many of us though – around half our team are industry veterans, myself included, and we’ve been on the development teams for full price PC and console games from publishers like LucasArts, EA, Activision, Sony, and Sega in our careers.”
With prior experience on larger projects, as well as experimental streaming-only titles like the team’s two Death’s Door releases, the approach to development is focused on areas that might not traditionally be thought of first: “Tailoring the user interface of Monster Train to quickly communicate the state of the game to a streaming audience,” Cooke says.
“Since viewers can pop in and out at any time, it’s important for them to be able to quickly understand the context of what they are watching. That means key statistics and metagame state need to be immediately obvious. We’re working to make that as clear as possible in the UI to make the streaming experience as both a broadcaster and a viewer enjoyable.”
There is a focus on streaming and multiplayer – with an eight-player mode offering real-time battles that ramp up the whole ‘frantic’ aspect of things. But Monster Train does still offer a fair chunk of focus on its single-player aspect. “Single-player has a number of progression goals separate from multiplayer,” Cooke explains.
“You can level up your monster clans, unlock cards and artefacts, and aim to complete all challenge levels of the Covenant. The Covenant is our single-player elder game. It’s a system of ramping difficulty for those who really want a challenge. Our goal is to have two appealing elder game tracks. On the single-player side, the elder game is unlocking all content, completing all Covenant levels, and earning all achievements. On the multiplayer side, it’s beating everyone else in direct competition.”
It’s not necessarily the engine most would jump to when thinking of a deckbuilder, but Monster Train is indeed built using Unity. “The main pros are that you get a lot out of the box and the tools are quite good overall,” Cooke says.
“The biggest con is that we don’t have the engine source code. There have been numerous times where we’ve wanted to be able to see how the underlying engine works to understand run time behaviour or debug performance issues. If you’re a larger studio, it’s possible to get access to the engine source code for Unity, but we’re not big enough for that yet.”
Nevertheless, Shiny Shoe has been progressing apace with Monster Train and most recently offered the game up in public beta form for some extra help testing things with the community. “Balance is a very challenging problem in a game like this,” Cooke says.
“Many different game systems come together to determine how balance ultimately feels to a player, and when you make a major change in one area, you end up having to change the others half the time to compensate.” To tackle this, the team has three approaches: the dev team playtests “all the time” and shares internal feedback, beta testers (private as well as public) offer more feedback, and data collection are all used in tandem.
“Monster Train is packed with analytics about gameplay,” Cooke explains. “We have internal dashboards with all sorts of graphs and tables telling us things like card pick rates, win rates with certain monster clan combinations, median amount of player health lost on a certain battle, etc.
“It can be hard to interpret the data in a way that is deeply meaningful at times, but there are lots of obvious problems you can identify quickly from the data. I’m talking about things like noticing a card is never picked, or a battle is way too easy or hard.”
There can never be a guarantee that something will be good, of course, but Shiny Shoe appears to be making all the right moves in ensuring its deckbuilder has all the ingredients necessary to both stand out in an ever-more crowded field, and to actually be pretty good. We’ll find out if it lives up to this potential later this year.
Developer: Shiny Shoe
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Release: Q2 2020