The Failed Follow-up to Minecraft: Behind the End of Scrolls

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On June 29, Mojang—the creator and curator of Minecraft—announced that it was stopping active development on Scrolls, its turn-based card battler. “We won’t be adding features or sets from now on, though we are planning to keep a close eye on game balance,” reads the announcement. The game has only been officially released for six months.

Scrolls will still be available to purchase for the time being, and our servers will run until at least July 1st, 2016. All future proceeds will go towards keeping Scrolls playable for as long as possible,” the announcement continues.

The game is still playable and very fun, but it’s clear that Scrolls is on life support. Mojang is responsible for one of the most popular games in the world, but Scrolls only has a few thousand people playing on any given day and sometimes as few as 150 at a time. What happened?

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What is Scrolls?

At its core, Scrolls is a collectible trading card game, roughly similar to Magic: The Gathering. In short, you’ll open booster packs, trade cards (called “scrolls”) and build decks of creatures, spells and enchantments to battle other players. Scrolls really sets itself apart from the norm in two ways, however: resources and combat.

All card games have some sort of resource system which determines which cards you can play and when. In Magic, for example, you have “land” cards which are used to generate mana. In Blizzard’s Hearthstone, each player automatically gets one mana crystal each turn.

Here’s where Scrolls gets weird: once per turn, you’ll have the opportunity to “sacrifice” one of your cards for either one point of mana or two new cards. This presents an immediate dilemma: sacrifice for mana too often, and you’ll run out of cards; sacrifice for cards, and you won’t have the mana you need to play any of them.

From there, you have to choose which cards to burn. If you discard too many weak, early game scrolls, you may lose before you get a chance to play the expensive, powerful creatures in your deck. If you sacrifice your late game cards and focus on getting an early lead, you may run out of steam against more patient opponents. Or you could stock your deck with a few junk cards to sacrifice, but then you’re putting useless cards in your deck on purpose.

There’s more.

Every card in Scrolls belongs to one of four factions that mostly fall along your standard fantasy fault lines: Growth, Order, Energy and Decay. The Order faction, for example, focuses on armored knights that buff each other, while Decay trades in necromancy and poison. Your custom deck, however, can include any card from any faction. In multi-resource decks, not only must you sacrifice scrolls for mana, you have to choose which type of mana you want: you can’t play Growth cards with Energy mana.

After all of this, you are finally ready to start laying down shambling undead liches and trudging copper-plated death machines—precious, evocative figurines in a diorama. You’re in tactical RPG territory now: when you play a unit, it pops into existence on a 3×5 hex-tiled grid, complete with special abilities, statistics and attack cooldowns. At the end of each row are “idols,” and you win the match by destroying three of your opponent’s five.

Once per turn, you can move each of your units to an adjacent tile. Units automatically attack in a straight line as soon as their timers are up, so you may want to shift them around to take advantage of a Royal Vanguard’s health bonus or to avoid a Blightbearer’s poison effect.

Keeping all this in mind, here’s how a turn of Scrolls generally plays out, with some situational variance: you’ll sacrifice for resources or scrolls; play and position units; cast spells; and attack. Eventually, someone’s idols are cast down and the match is over.

It’s useful to think of Scrolls as a tactics game that uses cards and decks as an abstracted way of collecting, organizing and distributing resources. You’ll need to be smart with your positioning and timing, but CCG concepts like tempo, value, board control and card advantage are all at play as well.

Scrolls’ sacrifice mechanic is knotty, dense and difficult to learn, and it makes for long, sometimes arduous matches. However, it also allows for rich, varied, elegant and flexible strategies. When your elaborate machinations snap into place, Scrolls is almost aesthetic in its joy, like a symphony or architecture. When they don’t, it’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

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Is there anybody else playing it?

The obvious (and perhaps facile) summation of Scrolls’ problem is that not enough people are playing the game. Matchmaking takes too long, veterans are thrashing new players and no one’s having fun.

And yet, being part of a small, niche community is appealing for a lot of people and a great way to learn the game. In my experience, the general chat in the Scrolls client is full of friendly, helpful people. Crucially, volunteers moderate the chat, and I’ve never seen anything gross, toxic or aggressive in there.

There are other small touches throughout that suggest that Mojang tried to cultivate a generous, welcoming community. A code of conduct greets new players, and it’s easy to spectate high-level games and chat with other people while doing so. A scrolling feed in the game client provides links to community-run blogs and forum posts.

Scrolls also features in-game trading and a “black market” where players can sell their excess cards. Both of these features are made possible by the fact that Scrolls isn’t free to play. Actual, schoolyard-style trading would be anathema in a game like Hearthstone, which depends on selling randomized booster packs to make money, but Scrolls costs $4.99 up front. You can buy a few things with “shards,” Scrolls’ in-game currency, but in general, you can’t buy cards with real money.

On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to track down and acquire specific scrolls to fit your decks. On the other, Scrolls’ trading and black market features give players cooperative, mutually beneficial and non-competitive ways to interact.

Taken individually, none of these features seem like a big deal—plenty of games have auction systems or spectator modes. Taken in total, though, they provide a framework designed to facilitate pleasant and helpful experiences.

The most outsized example of the Scrolls community’s benevolence happened during my first ranked game.

I was playing a basic Growth deck that, in theory, got plenty of small units—woodland creatures, mountain men, elves—out on the board and snowballed for an early victory. My opponent was a European player using a more sophisticated Energy deck that mostly consisted of “Lobber” units: monstrous, stationary catapults that can hit multiple tiles at once. In short, I sacrificed poorly and he used his area damage to zone me out of contested areas until there was no safe haven for my miniature guerilla army.

I sent him a congratulatory “GG” after a few rounds, but it was hardly a game, much less a good one: it was a massacre. He graciously told me to keep trying and explained that he had been playing since the game’s overlong beta phase: his experience and card collection was out of sync with his matchmaking rating. After that, he noted that my Growth deck seemed a little barebones and sold me dozens of cards for a symbolic 1 gold.

Not every Scrolls player is as patient and generous, obviously, but it’s clear that one of Mojang’s goals was to cultivate a helpful community and provide features that allow it to work in meaningful ways. It’s a nice way to approach competitive multiplayer games.

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If Scrolls is good and the people are nice, why is no one playing it?

That’s a good question, with two related but distinct answers. Not enough new people are discovering Scrolls (player acquisition); on top of that, the new ones that do aren’t sticking around (player retention). Combined, these issues create a nasty little feedback loop.

In a Twitch stream from early July, Scrolls community manager Gary Morris was blunt about the game’s biggest issues: “Even without being behind the scenes, without knowing the numbers, you can just see as a player that retention numbers are not high enough to sustain continued development without drastic changes.”

It’s hard to pin down why exactly new players aren’t sticking around, especially since Mojang weren’t able to comment on this article. I don’t want to speculate, but Scrolls forums and communities have offered a number of possibilities: some combination of its complexity, match length, wait times for multiplayer, monetization and character progression is pushing people away.

The player acquisition problems are a little bit easier to piece together and exemplified by this widely-circulated collection of responses to news of Scrolls’ impending shutdown.

Scrolls’ public relations problems began In August 2011, almost nine months before it entered closed alpha: Bethesda Softworks filed a suit claiming that the game’s title infringed upon their Elder Scrolls series.

Mojang and Bethesda settled the suit a few months later, but the affair was treated as another footnote in Minecraft creator Markus Persson’s on-going hagiography—plucky indie developer cheekily stands up to puffed up mega-corporation—and didn’t do much to spread the idea that there was a pretty neat game underneath the conflict.

(Coming full circle, Bethesda announced its own competitive card game at E3 this year)

Fast forward to September 2014, when Mojang was bought by Microsoft. Persson famously left the company immediately, as did co-founder and Scrolls creator and Lead Designer Jakob Porsér. At the time, Mojang’s official comment on the status of the game was “We don’t know yet. We’ll share any news as soon as we do.”

All of this happened before Scrolls was officially released in December 2014.

As the sophomore follow up the world-eating black hole that is Minecraft, Scrolls was always going to be somewhat overshadowed. While Mojang declined to comment on this story, I did speak to a few members the team last fall. “Replicating the success of Minecraft is impossible.” Henrik Petersson, Scrolls’ project manager, told me. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon.”

“There’s never been internal pressure to live up to that, because tactical games are more niche,” he explained.

In Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus “Notch” Persson and the Game that Changed Everything: Second Edition, however, authors Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson describe a different sentiment within Mojang. “[Scrolls] had found a dedicated fanbase of a few thousand players,” reads an excerpt published by Wired. “Not bad for an independently developed video game, but an abject failure next to Minecraft.”

It doesn’t help that Scrolls was playable for an incredibly long time before its official release. Mojang started a closed beta in July 2012. A year later, in June 2013, the game moved into open beta, where it stayed until December 2014.

Ironically, Scrolls’ open beta was wildly successful, earning back the game’s development costs (at the time) in less than a week. Still, two and a half years is enough to make a game feel long in the tooth, even for diehard fans. In an industry that thrives on excitement for the new and upcoming, Scrolls was old before it was even released.

By late summer of last year, however, a plan was in place: the game would be out in November for Windows, OS X, iPad and Android, and Mojang told players they could expect “our marketing campaign to begin in full force.”

After an immediate delay, Scrolls was officially released on December 11, 2014. Right away, this caused marketing problems. “When the launch became delayed until December, we decided to hold off on ads, because they are expensive as hell in December,” wrote Petersson, in a thread about the launch on the game’s dedicated subreddit.

“Being delayed into December meant that ad prices go up to a level where we’d get fewer users for our marketing budget,” Petersson explained in a different thread around the same time. “‘Full force’ gives the impression that you’d be blown away by a storm of ads on all the web and TV. That wasn’t quite our plan. It’s more like we were planning to start buying ads, and learn how to do it efficiently over time.”

By mid-December, the marketing schedule had shifted into January, and Microsoft didn’t seem interested in bailing the game out. “What I can say, is that [Microsoft] has so far had no impact at all, when it comes to Scrolls,” Petersson wrote at the time, “They have huge marketing departments, but to use them, you also have to match expectations, which we are not ready for.”

Ultimately, the ads Mojang bought didn’t have a big enough impact. “We had marketing planned and followed through on it in the sense that we ran advertising tests that seemed to show it wasn’t viable,” wrote Måns Olson, the game’s (new) lead designer, in a recent subreddit thread. “I would have loved for the team and company to spend more time and effort there, but circumstances made that impossible.”

To make things worse, the iPad version wasn’t ready for launch, despite the fact that Mojang had lowered the price of Scrolls, across all platforms, specifically to appeal to mobile users. “Our current price of $21 isn’t feasible for tablets,” read the blog post announcing the price change. “As you probably already know, games are cheap on those things.” The price was changed to $4.99, a 75% drop.

When I spoke to the team late last year, the hope was that the player base would expand enough to cover the drastic change in price.

Unfortunately, changes to iOS and Apple’s certification processes had totally derailed the iPad version of the game. Mojang’s account and log-in systems weren’t compatible with Apple’s, and reconciling them would have required time and money and the Scrolls team didn’t have.

“So far, we haven’t found a solution that won’t require us to make changes to the core of the game,” Petersson told Roasted Bean Potion, a Scrolls blog, in early 2015. “Frankly, we’re not keen on rebuilding everything to conform to what is basically bureaucratic red tape.”

Six months later, there’s still no iPad version of the game, and Gary Morris, the community manager, recently said the project was “in limbo.” A similar issue is keeping Scrolls off Steam, as well.

Overshadowed by Mojang, Minecraft and Microsoft, Scrolls was released after two and half years of alpha and beta testing with a desultory marketing plan and missing from one of its most anticipated platforms. In June of this year, of course, came the news that the “Echoes” set of scrolls would be the game’s last, and that servers are only guaranteed to stay up until July 2016.

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What’s next?

It’s tempting to blame Microsoft for scuttling Scrolls—most of this happened under their watch after all, and it was clear from the outset that they were almost exclusively interested in buying Minecraft.

For what it’s worth, Peterrsson was publicly optimistic about Microsoft’s involvement with Scrolls when we last spoke, saying that the publisher was “super enthusiastic” about the game. “Scrolls development is continuing as usual,” he explained.

Still, it’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, the decision to halt development was made. In their book, Goldberg and Linusson explain that Scrolls was on shaky ground even before Microsoft bought Mojang, before Måns Olson inherited the troubled project from the departing Jakob Porsér.

“Why had Microsoft bought Mojang? Simply because it was up for sale. What would happen to Scrolls? We’ll see,” they write. “Such a vague answer was less controversial than it may seem from the outside. As a matter of fact, the future of Jakob’s collectible card game had been up for discussion many times in the past already.”

In the meantime, plans for Scrolls servers are up in the air past July 1, 2016. All future revenue from the game will, ostensibly, be used to keep the lights on for as long as possible. It’s possible, then, that the player base may grow large enough between now and next year to further sustain Scrolls. Maybe the game will go free-to-play, or be released on Steam or make it to the iPad.

At least one fan is developing a server emulator named “Relentless,” after an in-game trait that allows units to attack multiple enemies in one turn. Right now, players on Relentless servers can join lobbies and look through their collection of scrolls, but they can’t play any matches.

The same, unfortunately, will soon be true of Scrolls itself.

Joseph Leray is a freelance writer from Nashville.

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