Failed Brother of Minecraft: Scrolls

Mojang, the studio who was valued at $2.5 billion dollars by Microsoft in 2015, the studio who is responsible for sweeping hit Minecraft, which has shipped over 70 million copies is also responsible for another game. That game is Scrolls, one that Mojang would likely rather forget.

The lost brother of Minecraft, Scrolls could not have had a more conventional start to life than its big brother. It was designed with a specific plan in mind, for a specific market, by a well-funded development studio and with an already eager audience awaiting any chance to play it. Minecraft lacked all of these advantages. So why was Scrolls such a failure?

Announced in early March of 2011, Scrolls was described by the creative minds of Mojang as a blend of ‘collectible card games‘ and ‘traditional board games‘, something that they saw as missing from the market. In early December of 2014 it left the Beta development phase, and was officially released. Then only six months later in 2015, Mojang announced defeat. They revealed that active development on Scrolls would be ceased, and that they could not guarantee that the servers would run past July, 2016.

So where did Mojang go wrong? On the surface Scrolls had everything going for it, from a development studio literally awash with money to a massive audience who were excited to try whatever Mojang could produce. It should have been a surefire success. Yet what we have seen is evidence that regardless of the backing, no development project is an assured success.

The development behind Scrolls was extended for a game of it’s size, not an overly ambitious project it still spent four years in development or ‘beta’ before being considered ready for release. The release itself perhaps gave a clue that the game was not experiencing a perfect start to life. The release date was suddenly announced by Mojang on the 10th of December, 2015. Foregoing any build up period, they chose to release it only one day later on the 11th. At the same time they reduced the price down to just $5 dollars. Usually the price would go up, or at the very least stay the same with a move out of beta…

Then there is the much publicised lawsuit with Bethesda over the trademarking of the word Scrolls. Obviously this is not necessarily a sign of poor development, but it again demonstrates issues with planning and development behind the scenes. It certainly would have been an unneeded strain on the management team.

Ultimately though the issue that caused the failure for Scrolls is simple. They did not have enough players to sustain the game. As the post describing their decision to stop development states “the game has reached a point where it can no longer sustain continuous development“. This is a clear indication that their player base, along with any profit being generated was not enough to justify continued expenditure on the game.

The sudden decision to release the game reinforces this theory, as their hope would have been to generate interest in the game with the announcement of a shift out of beta. But as seen by the announcement half a year later, it did not provide the outcome they hoped it would.

We do not have any concrete numbers on how Scrolls sold, other than a tweet from developer Henrik Pettersson that it had shipped 100,000 copies on the 21st of July 2013. This is during the beta period of the game, and we can only assume that it grew by release. But is 100,000 copies enough to support what is essentially a multiplayer board/card game?

Assuming a very rough one week retention rate of 15%, based on figures for PC games from here. We would be looking 15,000 players continuing to play the game after one week. After several months the figures are described as a retention rate of 3-5% players. So optimistically we would be looking at 5,000 players playing Scrolls for more than a few months. Obviously this is a percentage taking from one game, vastly different from Scrolls and so the rates are likely very different. Still, it demonstrates how 100,000 copies does not necessarily mean a healthy player-base.

A multiplayer game requires enough players for easy matchmaking around the clock, and at the time of writing the online player count is hovering around 25. This is not dissimilar from when they announced the cessation of development. The number of copies sold for Scrolls could have been considered a success for a single-player game, but ultimately for an online game like Scrolls the active number of players is more important. Unfortunately this number was just too low.

The lack of player retention and overall low player-base can be contributed to several things, firstly whilst Scrolls received mixed to reasonably positive reviews from critics, it was plagued by problems with balance and missing or otherwise lacking in aspects that for many made it a less than enjoyable experience. The released content patches such as ‘Echoes’ were designed to some extent to fix this, but came too slow or were lacking themselves.

Secondly, a lack of clear communication from the developers and leadership in taking the game forward. Minecraft being a very open-ended game, one that thrived with a single-player mode and a player led multiplayer did not require developer leadership, it grew organically with players creating mods, creating servers and creating adventures themselves. Yet Scrolls being a multiplayer and semi-competitive strategy game meant that the developers had to take a different approach, something they perhaps were not experienced with or expecting.

Thirdly, it did not receive the extensive marketing it required as a multiplayer strategy board game. Minecraft was a game that went viral, for a long time it was the game on YouTube and as a result Mojang never had to market it. On the other hand Scrolls did not receive this free marketing and Mojang was not prepared for this. They did not anticipate that to sustain a constant supply of new players for an online game you must market it. Hearthstone, a very similar game from far more experienced Blizzard is still heavily marketing with advertisements, something that Scrolls always lacked.

Finally Scrolls was a strategy game, a competitive game. Mojang perhaps expected the large community of Minecraft to sustain Scrolls without marketing, but the communities largely did not match. The initial success of Scrolls came from excited Minecraft players giving it a try, but what they found was a very different sort of game. Scrolls needed a different audience, but Mojang did not seek this audience out.

Scrolls was not necessarily a bad game, and it has found a small but devoted fan base dedicated to keeping it alive. Maybe they will. In the end though, what we have seen is a studio not appreciating the full scope of what must be done to produce a successful multiplayer game. Maybe to make it free-to-play would have been the way to go…