Physical Echoes in Modern Games

This post was originally a series of tweets on 3/10/2014. I’m repackaging and expanding on them for posterity.

Collecting items in video games is nothing new, but in the past several years, many video games have designed these items to resemble artifacts from the material world. For example, Titanfall has ‘burn cards’ that resemble baseball or Magic: The Gathering cards (including illustrations and flavor text). These burn cards are bundled in blind ‘packs’ that are ‘opened’ when purchased using in-game currency. Burn cards can be used during Titanfall matches to provide a boost or special ability, and are consumed when used. The idea of cards providing bonuses makes no sense within the in-game world of giant mechs and soldiers fighting a civil war, but the concept of collectible cards is familiar to the player. Furthermore, the concept behind burn cards could easily exist without invoking physical cards, yet the developers chose to have a material aspect.

As an aside, it is interesting that Titanfall 2 removed the burn card concept while at the same time planning to release a Titanfall 2 collectible card game. Why would you lose the card aspect in the video game and then try to make a card game? There could have been some fantastic #branding #content synergy if both pieces were operating at the same time.

Titanfall is far from the only game right now with ‘physical’ collectibles. Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare has a ‘sticker book’ that players fill out as they accomplish in-game feats. Forza 6 has a system similar to Titanfall called mods. Though Forza 6′s mods aren’t explicitly called cards, they function the same in terms of appearance and packs. I’m sure there are other games using these concepts that I’m unaware of.

Something that’s interesting about this shift to ‘physical’ collectibles is it occurs at a time when games are increasingly becoming digital only. Digital copies of games are becoming the new standard, even on consoles. The Xbox 360’s Live Arcade was the first console storefront to feature games that couldn’t be purchased on a disc. Every single Xbox One game can be purchased from day one digitally directly through Xbox Live. In fact, I don’t own a single Xbox One game disc, all of my purchases have been digital. On the PC side, Steam has largely replaced the need to buy physical games from a store. So, even though games have less materiality, they are referencing the physical world with increased frequency. I don’t have some grand point to make; I just found it worth pointing out.

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