*I am unaffiliated with Konami and the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise. This is a passion project meant to improve the game while recognizing that my design decisions were made without the knowledge of the original team's process and constraints. I claim no credit for any original work on Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel.
Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel launched in early 2022 with massive player numbers, but in the months since launch the game has seen its active player base sharply decline.
Adding new modes of competitive play and QoL improvements could entice lapsed players back into playing Master Duel.
What is Master Duel?
Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel is a free-to-play digital card game developed by Konami for PC, iOS, Android, Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch. It's based on the trading card game (TCG) of the same name, and was released in January, 2022.
Going into the project, I assumed I would be designing for hardcore enthusiasts of the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game, but research revealed that most of the users dropping off were more casual players and/or those who hadn't played for years.
Free-to-Play Economics 101
Master Duel uses a free-to-play business model that revolves around earning, buying, and spending "gems." Finding ways to create new modes with new rewards that didn't break the game's economy was a challenge.
Balancing player needs & expectations
People play Master Duel with differing levels of skill and for different reasons, and on different platforms. Designing features that would appeal to a broad audience and work across platforms proved difficult.
At launch in January, matches in Master Duel would be made in less than a second, but by March, it could sometimes take upwards of fifteen seconds to find an opponent. To understand why, I looked into the player counts on Steam Charts, a site that keeps track of a game's player count for Steam games on PC.
While Steam concurrent players don't offer the full picture of a game's performance — the PC market is only a fraction of the 10+ million downloads Master Duel has recorded to date — they still painted a worrying picture: Since January, Master Duel had lost >60% of its peak concurrent players on Steam.
But who were those users? Why had they decided to quit playing? And could they be brought back?
To get a sense of the general sentiment toward Master Duel among players, as well as why so many of them seemed to be quitting the game, I browsed Reddit and Discord communities.
One of the complaints I saw pop up over and over again was a general lack of content added to the game since launch — and a nearly non-existent line of communication from the development team about the game's status and roadmap.
The Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG has been around since 2002, and new cards and mechanics have constantly been added to the catalogue in the decades since. Many of the cards are so complicated that their text barely fits on the card (like the one pictured).
New and returning players often have to read every card in a match, and still might not fully understand what's happening or why. And with thousands of available cards, this gets overwhelming very quickly.
Due to time constraints, I wasn't able to interview users for this project. Instead, I created a survey and shared it among a few online communities for Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel players.
I asked one simple question: "What does Master Duel need to do to keep you from quitting the game?"
From the >400 responses I received, I identified three major areas of improvement to staunch the player bleeding:
Across the board, players were frustrated with the lack of updates from Konami about the state of the game, when they would add new events, add new cards, etc.
Outside of private duel rooms and limited events, Master Duel currently only offers a "ranked" player-vs-player mode. Less skilled players felt discouraged competing against long-time players, and even pro players wanted ways to play other than in ranked.
Currently, Master Duel only has one in-game event per month that lasts for ~2 weeks. Players got tired and/or maxed out their rewards in these events quickly and wanted more.
Based on the key takeaways from my research, I decided to examine how the two most popular digital card games, Magic the Gathering Arena and Hearthstone, handled Draft modes. Specifically, I wanted to know how they approached:
Both competitors had central areas where players could check and learn more about Draft events, in addition to other game events, which Master Duel doesn't have.
MtG offered several different types of Draft play based on different formats and rules, and card availability varied by type of Draft. Hearthstone offered only one type of Draft with a limited selection of cards from their entire pool. It wasn't clear how cards were chosen or excluded.
Both games required players to pay a modest entry fee to play their respective Draft modes. Hearthstone allowed players to pay with either in-game currency or USD, while MtG only allowed players to pay with in-game currency.
Both games rewarded players even if they didn't win any games. They also used a tiered prize system that gave players more rewards the more they won.
Because so many players mentioned a lack of clear communication from the company about the game, I suspected a good portion either weren't aware of or didn't pay attention to the existing Notifications button in the upper navigation, which is where Konami currently conveys news and updates about the game; it's easy to miss.
Master Duel already consistently uses a styled layout for submenus, so I chose to keep that in place in my designs to maintain player familiarity. Rather than create a separate submenu, instead I combined the new event calendar and roadmap I'd designed with the existing "Notifications" submenu.
In my research, one of the things players consistently asked for in Master Duel was some sort of event calendar and/or a roadmap to better communicate new features and events coming to the game. I designed two different views of a calendar — calendar and list views — that could be switched at will, as well as a simple development roadmap screen.
From my competitive analysis, I learned that most digital card games that have a Draft mode charge an entry fee, either in real currency or in-game currency. The average price for entry was ~$2 USD (or in-game equivalent), and the market has decided this is a fair rate.
To stay in line with competitors, I set a rate of 120 "gems," which are Master Duel's in-game currency. Currently, 1 gem is ~$.017, making a fee of 120 gems cost $2.04.
Players can easily obtain 140+ gems per day by logging in and completing a few simple challenges, so 120 gems seemed a fair ask.
In Draft mode, players complete duels until they accumulate 10 wins OR 3 losses, whichever occurs first.
This is a similar structure to most other digital card games' Draft modes. Players may also "retire" from the Draft at any time, and they'll be awarded prizes depending on their number of wins at the time of surrender.
Deciding on the prize tiers and the prizes to be awarded proved challenging due to Master Duel's relatively scarce selection of in-game items. Players can earn or buy:
But there are so few of each currently in the game that players who Draft often would quickly run out of rewards.
So, in addition to random rewards from the above categories, I decided to include gem and card pack rewards that scale depending on the number of the player's wins. This way, even players who don't perform well or who are new to the game can still be rewarded for playing.
Yu-Gi-Oh! is a complicated game with multiple kinds of decks a player has at their disposal, which makes building a unique deck for an event a challenge. Because every Draft event would be themed and have different rules, some events might not allow for an Extra Deck or a Side Deck, so I had to accommodate for that in the design. Therefore, building a deck in Draft mode is a multi-step process.
First, users build their Main Deck by choosing 1 card from a selection of 3 until they reach 40 cards, then repeat the process for their Extra and Side Decks, if the event allows for them.
However, I realized this could get tedious for players who just want to duel, or for those who want a real challenge, so I also included an option to let the game build a deck for them by choosing cards at random from the available pool, as shown in the gallery.
To test my designs, I created an unmoderated remote test on Maze.co and reached out to several respondents from my survey to complete it. For the test, I focused mostly on validating the information architecture changes I'd made, joining a Draft event/building a deck, and the choices I'd made for the Draft rewards.
Some participants said they thought there should be cosmetics in the rewards, though that is already included; others said the gem rewards should be higher. Some users also weren't sure that the "Notifications" tab needed to be moved to the main navigation.
I didn't have enough time to build out a full simulation of a Draft duel, but I'd love to put one together and test it to ensure the mode is fun for players.
One of the most-requested additions in my research was new/different modes to play solo. Players specifically wanted more story-based content, which wasn't something I could tackle without access to the source material.
Another sore spot I didn't have time to address in this project was the new player experience. I'd love to design and test out card "summaries" to make it easier and faster for new players to understand what's happening in a duel. I'd also love to try out a "deck test pilot" mode where players can try a deck they don't own to learn how it works.
Most free-to-play games experience a significant drop in users after launch, and it's not always a cause for concern, but in this case I felt it was.
Finding a balance between what's fair for players in terms of cost and rewards and what's right for the business's bottom line was a fun and illuminating challenge to tackle.
I thought moving the Notifications tab into a main menu button would make it easier for players to find, but it just turned out to annoy them because it wasn't where they expected it to be anymore. Sometimes it's better to leave well enough alone.