Trading it all away? – An opinion on Doctor Who: Worlds Apart

Image Credit: TheDigitalArtist (Pixabay License, Pixabay)

Image Description: The franchise goes into the blockchain…

Sam Flower’s opinion of Doctor Who: Worlds Apart

On August 13 2020, a Doctor Who trading card game was announced. This in itself is nothing new – you may remember the Battles in Time trading card game back in 2006. I was a big fan of the Monster Invasion cards, released to accompany Series Five, and even have a copy of the super-duper-rare ‘Infinite’ card (depicting the Cyber-Sentry head from The Pandorica Opens) that I pulled from a pack. But this time it was different, for we live in an online age, and the days of paper cards for kids are apparently long past. No, this was Worlds Apart, and it would be a digital trading card game powered by the might of blockchain!

The mention of blockchain, which featured prominently in the initial press release, caused some confusion and alarm among members of the Oxford Doctor Who Society. The word blockchain gets thrown around a lot at the moment, usually accompanying the bizarre roller coaster that is Bitcoin. But the two are different – Bitcoin uses blockchain, but not all blockchain applications are for Bitcoin. 

Fundamentally all a blockchain is is a digital ledger, made of ‘blocks’ of information that record all changes or transactions of an object, secured together in a chronological ‘chain’. They are generally very secure and hard to tamper with and are used in many industrial applications far less dramatic than the latest cryptocurrency. The use of blockchain itself is not a massive cause for concern, outside of the well-documented environmental implications of this energy-hungry technology, but it does lead to a big question. Why does a trading card game even need a blockchain? The answer gets to the heart of why some people, myself included, are rather concerned about Worlds Apart.

If you head to the Worlds Apart website, the first thing you will see is a spinning Thirteenth Doctor card and a big button to purchase packs. This is what you’d probably expect. Scroll down a bit, and you can see the four different pack types and their cost (which we’ll definitely be discussing later) and yet more buttons to purchase packs.  Beneath that is a description of the contents of each pack, with an emphasis not on the cards themselves, but on the frames that go around each card. This itself is a bit weird, as you’d expect a trading card game to want to talk mostly about the cards themselves, not the shiny Dalek, Cybermen and TARDIS themed pieces of virtual plastic that surround them. But then we get to the, shall we say, interesting bit. Before even the slightest whiff of the actual game, we get a mention of “True Ownership for Players”. 

As the website explains, this means that unlike games such as Fortnite and their character skins, you actually legally own any card you buy, instead of the game company still technically owning it. This is where blockchain comes in. Each card is imbued with a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) secured on the blockchain, which means your ownership of the digital ‘asset’, such as a copy of the rare Cyber-Bill Potts card, is secure and unarguable, and you can do with the card as you wish – as long as what you wish is virtual. For instance, you can sell it on the marketplace, for real money. Yes, here comes my first big issue. We have ourselves a marketplace. 

If you scroll down the ‘The Game’ page on the website, it shows a Strax card with an ‘estimated value’ of $3.21. Quite why every price on the website is quoted in dollars is a mystery, but ultimately beside the point. The fact that this is an estimated value, along with other categories detailing the card’s original value and latest sale price, suggests the real-world price a card is bought and sold for is governed by those participating in the transaction, and hence we have a deregulated, free market situation. This brings to mind the hugely popular game Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), a first-person shooter where weapon ‘skins’ are regularly sold between players on a marketplace, often for large sums of real money. 

A friend of mine says he has £500 of weapon skins, that he could resell on the market like you would a share on the stock exchange, with the value of each skin varying due to supply and demand. This in itself is interesting from an economics viewpoint, but also raises potential legal issues. As an example, in November 2019, the makers of CS:GO, Valve, stopped the sale of ‘keys’ on its marketplace after it was realised that criminals were using this as a means of laundering ill-gotten cash. 

While speaking of CS:GO, a potentially more pressing concern is that Worlds Apart may face the wrath of regulatory bodies, especially in the EU. In 2018, Valve removed item trading and the marketplace for CS:GO, as well as the game Dota 2, from the Netherlands, after the Dutch gaming authority, The Kansspelautoriteit, threatened to prosecute Valve. The Kansspelautoriteit (try saying that five times rapid) argued that the contents of the game’s ‘loot boxes’ were determined by chance and as the contents could be sold outside of the game for real money, the prizes had a market value, and hence the loot boxes were gambling. As it was possible for children to engage in this ‘gambling’, it violated Dutch law. While the UK authorities are yet to take any action against loot boxes, there is growing pressure for them to do so, with the House of Lords Gambling Committee calling for them to be regulated under gambling laws in July 2020. 

There is arguably little difference between a loot box and a virtual pack of trading cards. Most other online card games, such as Hearthstone, do not have any sort of marketplace, partly in fear of regulatory action. Yet Worlds Apart seem to be wading headfirst into this potential mire. While there is nothing to suggest that Worlds Apart’s marketplace will have any issues at all, the fact that they have gone with a business model that opens the game up to such pitfalls feels problematic, especially with a game centred around what is fundamentally a kids’ show.

But maybe we’re all getting a bit ahead of ourselves with all this doom-laden talk – we should probably talk about the game itself! However, that’s more difficult than you’d think, with the website not seeming overly keen to discuss the game. You have to scroll to the bottom of the home page to actually find a mention of it, with ‘The Game’ page on the website the last of the five tabs on the page’s header, making it less important than the ‘Founders Token’ (yet another odd thing to dig into) and even the FAQs. But with a surprising amount of effort, we can get to an explanation of how this thing will play.

The website promises “Innovative Gameplay” which seems a bit generous to me, as it’s basically Hearthstone. You have a 40 card deck (referred to as your ‘Future’), from which you play cards onto the board (the ‘Present’). Your main type of cards are ‘Creatures’, which much like Hearthstone’s minions have a health value and deal fixed damage to opposing creatures or your opponent’s TARDIS, the destruction of which is your ultimate goal. There are also ‘Companion’ cards, which function like creatures, but only one of each companion card can be played while up to four copies of all other cards may be used. There are ‘Object’ and ‘Phenomenon’ cards that can also be placed on the board, which do not deal damage, but have other effects; ‘Flash’ cards to counter your opponent’s actions; as well as ‘Upgrade’, ‘Moment’ and ‘Planet’ cards, which bring to mind the Pokémon TCG’s tool, trainer and stadium cards respectively. The playing of any card involves an expenditure of your ‘Artron Energy’ supplies, which is just Hearthstone’s Mana by another name. 

This all looks fine. Quite fun even. As someone who was into the Pokémon TCG in their youth (and is very much still interested in their not-so-youth), I would go as far to say that this game appeals to me. However, there remains the small matter of what I would need to actually play the game. First, I’d need 40 cards. The cheapest ‘Core Pack’ contains five cards each, so a 40-card deck requires eight packs, at a total cost of $39.92 (£29.52). That seems like quite a lot already. Of course, there’s no guarantee that these cards would synergise well, with the Planet card Telos, for instance, only having an additional benefit if you have exclusively Cybermen, Companions, Upgrades or Planets in your Deck. To improve the functioning of the deck, you’d have to wade into the marketplace. Not that it is available yet. That’s coming in the first quarter of 2021. But say you have indeed built a perfect deck, filled with powerful, synergistic cards. Time to conquer the galaxy then and become the best player in the universe! 

Except you can’t yet. The game’s Alpha stage – a commonly used pre-release phase designed to test the game and discover bugs or imbalances – is not available until the second quarter of 2021. Even then, you can only access it if you buy one of the limited ‘Founders Tokens’ right now. The Beta phase, which is still technically a testing phase where the game is not strictly finalised, will not be available to the general public until the fourth quarter of 2021. From the point in space-time that I’m currently sitting in, that is almost a year away. I can buy these trading cards right now, which the website seems very keen for me to do, yet I cannot actually play the trading card game until late next year. 

This all leaves me at a bit of a loss. They are charging money for a trading card game, without a game any time soon. Why? Why not release the cards and the game simultaneously? I have a thought as to why. This is a trading card game where the main focus is not the game. In fact, it’s not even the cards. 

Let’s go back to the cost of the packs. The aforementioned ‘Core Pack’ is $4.99 (£3.69) for five cards, which in itself feels quite a lot when you can get a pack of 10 real world Pokémon cards for a similar price, which can also be scanned in to use in the online version of that game.  But that is just the beginning. The ‘Premium Pack’ is $12.99 (£9.61) for six cards, the ‘Exclusive Pack’ is $29.99 (£22.18) for seven cards. The big one, though, is the ‘TARDIS pack’, where 10 cards are yours for a mere $196.30. Yes, you read that right. Almost $200 dollars (over £140) for some Non-Fungible Tokens. 

So, what do these expensive packs offer you? Some super-overpowered, God-tier cards with 100 health points and 1000 damage? No. The website makes it clear that the probability balance of cards is the same for all packs. Any given card is just as likely to be a legendary rarity Davros in the $5 Core Pack as it is in the $200 TARDIS Pack, apparently in the name of fairness, and to make the game less ‘pay-to-win’. So why the huge price? It’s all down to frames. 

Each card comes in a ‘frame’, that is permanently fixed to the card. There are five levels of ‘core’ frames, which can be upgraded by playing with the card frequently. But then there are the eight rare ‘Alien’ frames, with designs based on, among others, Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians and strangely, the White Point Star from The End of Time. They are only available in the premium pack and above, with the odds of getting rarer frames increasing for the more expensive packs. These frames seem to be central to Worlds Apart’s attempt to be collectable. 

Scrolling through the website, it really does feel like they have prioritised collectability of these cards, or more specifically collectability of rare frame-card combinations, above all else. For this I blame Charizard. You may ask, what’s an orange dragon, that’s not a dragon, from the first Pokémon game have to do with this? You may have seen on the news recently that the value of old Pokémon cards has skyrocketed in the last year, and arguably the engine of this surge has been the desire of affluent millennials to acquire rare vintage cards depicting the fan-favourite Pokémon Charizard.  Recently, a mint condition first-edition base set Charizard sold for over £135,000 at auction.  You could buy over 900 TARDIS packs for that!

It appears to me that the makers of Worlds Collide are aiming to appeal to a similar collector’s market with these rare frame-card combinations. However, cards don’t just become valuable because they have artificial rarity coded into them. They become valuable due to age, and nostalgia, and rarity born from years of kids mistreating and misplacing them, and because those cards have an inherent value and popularity due to them being used in an actual trading card game. 

I’ve mentioned a couple of times something called a ‘Founders Token’. These limited edition super special NFTs (Ethereum ERC 721 to be precise) offer exciting perks, such as free and discounted packs, experience boosts for your cards, a special rank in the Discord server, and access to the closed Alpha testing, meaning you’ll actually be able to play the game sometime before next winter. You also get a shiny virtual coin to display on the ‘Swag Spot’ on the game board. This piece of Doctor Who history can be yours for only $250 (£184.91)! Buy them quickly, as each batch gets more expensive! So far, they’ve sold exactly 209 of these, of the 1963 they intend to ‘make’, which suggests to me that these aren’t exactly flying off the virtual shelf. These are clearly aimed at die hard fans with money to burn, so probably aren’t aimed at a student like myself. But their existence worries me. Along with the statement on the website that says the cards in this current pre-sale will not be available after this period of unspecified length, Worlds Apart seems very keen for you to buy stuff now.

Looking through the Worlds Apart website, it really feels like a product in two minds. On the one hand, the game itself looks solid, and if you dive into the blog posts linked from the website explaining the game and the frames, it does feel like a genuine effort has been made to try to make the game somewhat accessible. They talk of trying to avoid a ‘pay-to-win’ situation as much as possible. They talk of how the frames being the main driver of prices means that high level cards in low level frames will be in less demand from collectors and hence more affordable for the player base. They claim it is possible to “to win and work your way up the ranks without spending a dollar”, although they give no details of how that works in practice. This all seems noble and valid and appealing. Reading the blog posts about the game, I feel myself becoming excited, and wanting this to succeed. A trading card game based on a series I love, with the strategic depth that Monster Invasion never had, is on paper a great prospect, and the kind of thing that the BBC should be doing to promote, develop and diversify the brand.

But all the game’s merits are buried under so much collector-focused, corporate-feeling, brain-numbing junk that I fear many prospective players and buyers will do as many of the people I have talked to about Worlds Apart have done, and write it off as a “cash-grab”. In a saturated market where the game will have to compete against well-established titans of online gaming like Hearthstone, Gwent, Legends of Runeterra, Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, I worry Worlds Apart may struggle to find a player base.

In 2018 the aforementioned Valve released Artifact, an online trading card game based on their massively successful video game Dota 2. Despite having incredibly deep and well thought out gameplay, and being made by a huge, rich, world-leading video game developer, the game flopped. Why? Because players became angry at the game’s revenue systems and marketplace, and felt the game was overly expensive and pay-to-win. The Worlds Apart website, when describing the game, says that “no one wants to see their own tomb”. Sadly, I fear that Worlds Apart may suffer that fate. 

All opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Tides of Time or the Oxford Doctor Who Society.

All prices and conversions to Pound Sterling are correct as of the time of writing – December 20 2020.

References

Tides 47 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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