Crystal Casters was a role-playing, collectible card, dungeon-crawling puzzle-game for mobile, released in 2013. It offered a robust single-player experience including a real if briefly-told story and, at the end, an asynchronous multiplayer mode where players could invade each other’s customized houses. It was quirky and fun.
This is the story of its making.
What is a KLab?
Crystal Casters was my first released game at KLab America, and surprisingly, it was the first game I designed in years that was a completely original title (attached to no license or property). I don’t mind a good license–some are even outstanding to work with–but I did enjoy this moment of freedom.
When lots of companies in Japan (and many in the US) were literally cloning Puzzles and Dragons, I wanted to put my own spin on the newly-popular collectible-card, RPG, fusion-based, strategy game. Like those games, you built a collection of creatures and fed other cards into them to level them up, evolve them, and make them more powerful. Then you would create a deck of your best to send into the dungeon/puzzle game. In Crystal Casters, you would trace a chain of gems starting with a wizard, whose energy would damage the creatures in the dungeon. Different wizards had different abilities and by looping in special gems from the board, the chain could get very powerful indeed.
The game incorporated a lot of what I learned about the Japanese monetization model, specifically Gacha (which is a big part of Japanese culture; there are even Gacha parlors in Japan). Basically, it’s gambling, very much like slot machines or loot crates–or actually, it’s more like a gumball machine that has prizes in it. You may get a common, rare, or super-rare prize. Just keep feeding it money, and eventually you may get the prize you’re searching for.
While the scheme seems a little shady (and it is), I did like that the player always received something that would help them with every pull. I had experienced booster packs in Magic: the Gathering and Hearthstone, so I didn’t attach bad feelings to the approach. But it can lend itself to abuse (much like any gambling system), which is why gacha is strictly regulated in Japan.
Here’s a movie clip that shows Crystal Casters in action.
The premise of the game was so open-ended that we were able to incorporate lots of different themes. We had eight major islands, each with its own personality.
One of these was known as Event Island, and it could take on the personality of whatever event we created for that week. And we came up with some really crazy stuff. Here are some examples.
You may notice the bright and colorful artwork. We took a unexpected road to arrive at this style. In order to keep our art budget low, KLab Japan suggested that we reuse art from some other game they had already made. Only two options were practically possible: KLab’s Lord of the Dragons, or another Japanese game called Katatema. You can see examples below.
The first was a traditional, hard-core Japanese RPG. The art was beautiful, but also very specific and loaded with baggage and expectations–not to mention that the game had already been released in the US market and was reasonably popular. I was not in favor of reusing that art.
All that said, the alternative was straight-up goofy. The creatures were strangely rendered. People’s reactions to the art were polarized. But there were a number of factors I liked: the game never left Japan (it wasn’t even well known there), it was approachable and happy, and the style would be easier and cheaper to copy. Overall, it was just a better fit for the American audience.
Luckily, I had just worked with an artist on Usagi Yojimbo that was looking for his next project, and he was a natural for this style: Brad Fitzpatrick. Not only did he embrace the goofy designs, cartoon colors, and weird proportions, he made the style his own and created some incredible characters and locations.
Here are some of the pieces he created for this game.
Even though the budget wasn’t huge, we still pulled together a solid–and fun!–product, that even had a little bit of storytelling. At the end of every island, the player would receive a comic book “cut scene”. I managed to recover those files, so if you’re interested, here is Crystal Casters’ delightfully weird storyline.
Click on an image to expand and read all of the pages in that scene. Note that in the first scene, the caster that the player has summoned would appear in the god-rays. This was done dynamically because every player’s first pull at the gacha resulted in a different wizard.
Cut scene 1: Overlook Island
Cut scene 2: Jungle Island
Cut scene 3: Science Island
Cut scene 4: Haunted Island
Cut scene 5: Dragon Island
Cut scene 6: Flotilla Island
Cut scene 7: Legendary Island
While the game never unseated Puzzle and Dragons in popularity, it did find a group of dedicated fans. The goofy characters really connected with some people, so much that fans produced some truly amazing art in honor of the game. Here are a few items I found to be quite fun.
I’d never seen a video game-inspired bento box before, and those character hats were just amazing.
For me, creating Crystal Casters was a learning experience. I got to understand a lot about how these kind of games work, and also how to work in a company driven by Japanese culture. The experience here set me up for my next project at KLab: Glee Forever! (I’m not expressing excitement here; the exclamation point was actually part of the official name).