Free Range Games and the Long Search for Labyrinth

As an indie developer, it can be difficult to get your name out there. That’s doubly true when your game shares a title with seemingly a dozen other media properties, as is the case with Labyrinth, an upcoming Collectible Card Game (CCG) from Free Range Games that will soon be available via Steam Early Access. Labyrinth is already the title of a board game and a Jim Henson movie starring the recently departed David Bowie, as well as Greek myth and a slew of other labyrinth-adjacent properties like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

So why go with a title that already has so many well-entrenched connotations?

“We didn’t want to call it anything with the word ‘Dungeon’ in it because we felt that that was even more overused,” said Wayne Karo, the Director of Products at Free Range Games. “Even though there are a lot of Labyrinth media properties out there, it’s still kind of unique as far as card games and recent RPGs go.”

In other words, name recognition isn’t nearly as much of a problem as it could have been. Right now, Labyrinth is stuck on the second page of most Google searches and the team can’t file for a trademark (at least not until they add a subtitle), but Karo is optimistic because he believes that Labyrinth is the kind of word that audiences tend to remember.

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“We may find that that was the wrong choice and we’ll have to pivot really quickly, but I think it’s something that sticks in people’s minds. Maybe over time it will hit the first page.”

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If it does, it will be because Free Range Games managed to use familiar parts to make something original. In a successful Kickstarter campaign, Free Range name-checked both Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, two of the unquestioned pillars of fantasy gaming, and Labyrinth is in many ways a mashup of the two. Players battle with decks of cards, but they also raid other players’ dungeons with parties of heroes during games that play out on a grid similar to those seen in other tactics RPGs.

Some developers might be wary about competing against two of the most iconic brands in gaming. Karo sees only an opportunity. He believes that the recent growth of Magic – a game that’s far more popular now than it was twenty years ago – only proves that the market for CCGs is bigger than it’s ever been.

“I think it’s more encouraging than anything,” he said, arguing that the parallel success of Blizzard’s Hearthstone demonstrates that there’s also an appetite for more accessible CCG experiences. “Life as an indie developer is always interesting. You try to make your way in the world and make payroll and continue working on the game you’re making. Those day to day things are sometimes more intimidating than the bigger vision that you’re chasing.”

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There are also several key differences that distinguish Labyrinth from its competitors. Labyrinth asks you to build separate decks for each of your heroes and the bosses that populate your dungeon and – more importantly – games are not played against another player, at least in the sense that there’s no one at the other end of the connection. Like Mario Maker, the game is structured around asynchronous multiplayer. Players will build and upload decks for their dungeon bosses, but the dungeons are supposed to defend themselves when other players log in to see how they fare against those decks.

“Combining a CCG with a 3D game isn’t necessarily new. Combining a CCG with RPGs isn’t new. I think the asynchronous part is what really sets it apart,” said Karo, explaining that the setup will improve matchmaking and make Labyrinth more user-friendly. “You can pick it up, start playing, and if you get pulled away from your computer you can stop and get back to it when you want to. You can take your time thinking about your moves. Nobody’s rushing you to play. It has the ability to play casually and also to play strategically when we simply give you time.”

Many of the design choices were made with that accessibility in mind. The closest parallel to Labyrinth may be Jason Rohrer’s controversial game The Castile Doctrine, a bleak exercise in vulnerability and home invasion. Yet while The Castle Doctrine forced you to risk everything in order to play, Labyrinth refuses to penalize players for losing. If you die before reaching the end of a maze you’ll lose anything you’ve gained on that run, but you can cash out at any time and once an item is in your inventory, it’s yours for good.

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That’s not to say that the approach is without its drawbacks. While the asynchronicity may make the game easier to use, it forces Free Range to design two different versions of the game, each with its own distinct types of cards. For instance, while most of the cards for hero decks will be one-off spells, most of the cards in a boss deck will be minions that remain on the battlefield until they’re eliminated. After all, players will never be able to command those decks during an actual game but they still need to believe they have an impact on the outcome.

“We’re trying to give you a sense of, ‘Yes, I created this deck,’” said Karo, adding that players will be able to see replays when other players raid their dungeons. “We’re trying our best to make that link between the result and what you’ve done make sense and feel good, that you have some control over that.”

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The hero cards, by contrast, are a little more straightforward, and are “balanced to make all decks feel good for the attacker.” Figuring out that balance (should the game be weighted more towards offense or defense?) will be one of the team’s biggest challenges moving forward, and they’ll have more playtest data to work with once the game enters Early Access.

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Until then, Free Range is already planning to introduce other modes once that core gameplay is sorted out. Labyrinth has an expansive backstory that will lend itself to co-op and solo campaign adventures. The team also wants to add more conventional head-to-head Arena matches like those found in synchronous CCGs. Karo estimates that it will take roughly five years to program all of those features, and the game’s business model is designed to give them that time. Though Labyrinth will be $10 in Early Access, the game will be free to play at launch and will make money selling packs, starter packs, character skins, and other digital goods.

“The monetization strategy is very similar to Hearthstone,” said Karo, who believes the model is fair for all parties. “We like that approach. It seems to balance the needs of a developer to be able to sustain development and get some revenue and it’s not overly greedy or aggressive. It’s also very clear to the player what they’re buying.”

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Twitch was vital to Labyrinth’s Kickstarter success and Free Range will continue to use the streaming service to promote the game and communicate with fans. Thanks to a partnership with Skybound Entertainment, the media company founded by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, Free Range also hopes to produce more non-game content (think videos and websites) to flesh out the lore. With regular updates and card expansions Karo is confident that Labyrinth has enough complexity to sustain itself for a decade.

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For a group of veteran developers, that flexibility – that room for growth – is what made Labyrinth such an appealing project. They wanted to make the kind of game that they like to play, as well as a game with enough complexity to hold their interest as developers.

“As we’re laying the framework now, we’re trying to make sure that there’s a lot to keep players engaged and a lot to keep us engaged, cool innovative stuff that we’d like to try to do as an indie developer,” said Karo.

For Free Range, it’s been exciting to see what the team can accomplish when everyone is focused on a single goal. Now that it’s almost ready for the public, they just need to make sure that other players are able to find their way to Labyrinth.

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