Steve Horvath on the UFS CCG

With a number of additions coming up soon to Sabertooth’sUniversal Fighting System collectable card game, Steve Horvath recently took the time to reflect on the game’s first year in circulation as well as the future of the game:

Aaron Auzins: First, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to answer these questions.

Steve Horvath: My pleasure Aaron. I’m always happy to talk about UFS.

Aaron: Before we start, could you introduce yourself and explain your role with the company?

Steve: Sure, I’m Steve Horvath, the CEO of Sabertooth Games. I am also very involved in the creative side of the business deciding what games we publish, which licenses to go after, etc.

Aaron: To start back at the beginning, how did the concept of the UFS series begin and what was the motivation to involve video games as the source?

Steve: The original idea actually started with video games as I wanted to do a one-on-one fighting CCG, as most of the CCGs out there are not one-on-one focused in that direction, we thought this was an exciting avenue to explore. Once we started down that path it was clear that video games were a perfect match for that type of game.

Aaron: What was the company’s reasoning with launching the series with the Penny Arcade, Street Fighter and Soul Calibur licenses?

Steve: Some of our guys have known the PA guys from our time in Seattle and had always wanted to find a way to work with them. The video game tie-in seemed to make this perfect opportunity. We approached them and they were excited by the prospect. As you can see from the results they did a killer job on the artwork and flavor text and were very helpful naming cards and such. They are great guys to work with.

Street Fighter was a clear choice for us as it is the elder statesman of fighting games so to speak. It has been around more than 15 years now and still a huge presence in the fighting game category. Most of us hear in the office grew up with those characters and still play the game.

With Soul Calibur we wanted something that would provide a good contrast to Street Fighter. Soul Calibur not only provides a great visual contrast to Street Fighter but it also defined weapons-based fighting games, allowing us to cover a huge spectrum in the genre.

Aaron: When you first started approaching companies (Penny Arcade, Namco and Capcom) about UFS, what was their initial reception to the card game?

Steve: After explaining the advantages of the multi-property system to everyone they were excited by the possibilities but with Namco and Capcom the process took a very long time as there was some fierce competition with another company over getting the CCG rights for those properties. Fortunately, we won out in the end.

Aaron: How long did it take to complete the first UFS series and what does the development of a new card game entail? Does an expansion take just as long to develop?

Steve: We have been working on the game system itself for more than three years. At the time I was head of product development and my boss at the time wanted to go in a different direction, so we put it on hold.

When I was promoted about a year after that we started working on it again and started pitching Capcom, Namco and others. The good thing about all of this is it that the basic mechanics of the game have been thoroughly play tested and are really strong. The initial base sets themselves took seven months of development and each expansion takes about three months.

By far the best part is playing countless hours of both games for research. Yeah, that’s it – research (I threw that in case my wife reads this). The funny thing is she actually plays even more than I do.

Aaron: How exactly did your team decide on the series’ first characters? Additionally, how are expansion characters chosen?

Steve: We got some good input from Capcom and Namco, then a group of us locked ourselves into a room and fought, I mean talked, it through for a few days on what the best line up would be. I sit down with Erik Yaple, who is head of product development, along with designers Dave Freeman and Seth Morgan. We get input from several people in the company, add in online research we have done and match that up against what characters work best being released together theme-wise both from the game background point-of-view and game mechanic point-of-view.

Aaron: What kind of reception did you receive from fans prior to the release of UFS based on your promotional efforts and demo decks? What kind of reception did you receive from the companies who you licensed the characters from? Have you heard of anybody from the companies (PA, Namco, Capcom) actively playing UFS?

Steve: The demo decks were a big deal as it showed we had enough confidence in the game to give you a deck to try it out for free! They were very successful for us as people started organizing events and tournaments with the demo decks before the main game came out, which helped build a lot of buzz for the game and gave retailers confidence to order the game. It also helped that the base set of the game was fully returnable for stores and distributors; again, it showed how much confidence we had.

Capcom and Namco are extremely pleased, in fact I hope to have an announcement in the next month or so that is a direct outgrowth of that.

As far as playing is concerned the guys from PA came out to the launch event in Seattle and played the game with fans, which was great!

Aaron: Not only did Sabertooth do an impressive job promoting the series prior to its launch, it has continued to provide very solid support to its players in the form of online rankings, promotional cards and tournaments. How crucial has the organized play aspect of UFS been to the startup and growth of the franchise?

Steve: Organized play has been and will continue to be critical to our success. People get into CCGs to play and compete against other people and the explosion of events being run around the world are giving them ample opportunities to do that. We have set company records for OP every month since UFS has released, the variety of formats has really taken off and it’s been amazing to see the response at conventions and road trips.

I was in the U.K. last week and we decided to do a challenge event at Bugman’s Pub in Nottingham on short notice and we still had people drive from more than three hours away to play against us on a Thursday night. We didn’t stumble out of there until after 10 p.m. It was great!

Aaron: The second series of UFS cards released earlier this year. How big of a player base increase did you experience from the time you initially launched UFS to the time the A Tales of Swords and Souls and World Warriors expansions were released?

Steve: Since the release of the expansion this summer, the number of stores running events has doubled and the number of events being run has nearly tripled as each store can run multiple events a month.

Aaron: Of course releasing the new series added a good number of cards to UFS. What kind of process do you have to go through to ensure a second series of cards will work with the first?

Steve: Every set goes through an extensive play testing process. We have an amazing group of people who volunteer their time to test each set and also do a lot of internal play testing. No matter how much play testing you do, occasionally a card slips past that you will need to ban to keep the play environment in good shape. So far for us we have had to ban six cards out of the 700 cards we have released, less than one percent overall.

Aaron: What does the future look like for the Penny Arcade, Soul Calibur and Street Fighter series in UFS?

Steve: We just sold out of the PA Battle Box and they are so busy with all of the cool projects they are working on, I don’t know if we will get a chance to do another one. As for Street Fighter and Soul Calibur we have several more releases planned over the next couple of years that should blow people away.

Aaron: It has been long announced that Sabertooth has worked a deal with SNK to produce a UFS series based on the Samurai Showdown and King of Fighter franchises. How are those series coming along?

Steve: We have the SNK expansion in-house now getting ready to ship for its Dec. 1 release date and I couldn’t ask for a better birthday present (okay that was a cheap shot to remind my family when my birthday is).

We are having a blast making decks with the new characters. The universal response from everyone who has pulled a Mai character card is simply “Oh, Mai” and a big smile on their face. When you see the art on the card, I’m sure you will agree.

Aaron: What kind of response did receive from players when you announced the SNK deal?

Steve: King of Fighters has been our top requested license from the players with Samurai Showdown in the top five so they were very excited when we announced it and they will not be disappointed as this set changes the meta more than anything else we have done so far. You will see some completely new deck types come out of it.

Aaron: Is there any current word on future licenses that will be later introduced into UFS? Is Sabertooth pursuing any licenses at this time or is the team currently focusing 100 percent on the SNK additions?

Steve: I can’t give any details right now but we are in talks for three other properties right now. I’m actually leaving for Japan as soon as I’m done talking with you and hope to be able to announce something before the end of the year.

Aaron: What series would you personally like to see in UFS that isn’t already included and why?

Steve: I’m talking to the company right now so I can’t say anything yet, but, hopefully, soon.

Aaron: Since the Sabertooth staff members get to play test the cards, make the cards and are surrounded by them, I’d assume, quite often, how good would you say the staff is at UFS?

Steve: Very good, except for Alex who lost every challenge game in the U.K. last week. The head of OP Josh is currently the staff champion but his time is coming. Yeah, I would say overall the staff is very good. We do have the advantage of having played the game long before it came out.

Aaron: Several conventions have promoted the feature of tournaments where the winners can get themselves made into a UFS card. What are some examples of such cards?

Steve: So far we have Wes Victory who won the U.S. National Championship and Matt Kohls is the first World Champion. Both of their cards are finished and going to print. I think they turned out really great; the artist captured their likenesses very well and the abilities they worked out with us are cool.

Aaron: With Sabertooth introducing more franchises into the UFS series, is there any plans at this time to partner with companies for non-one-on-one fighting game titles?

Steve: Yes there is, but nothing I can talk about right now.

Aaron: Once again, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to us today and I hope you have continued success on what I consider the number one new CCG released so far in 2006.

Steve: Any time Aaron, thank you.

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