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Tongits Wars: From street card game to online gaming giant

The increasing interconnectedness of the world has made the lives of OFWs less lonely. But sometimes, it takes more than Facebook chats to chase those blues away. You need to experience something you once shared with your friends and loved ones – be it a watching a movie, listening to a song, or even playing a game you once enjoyed together – to feel fully at home.

Game developer CodeTribe Labs had a vision to connect the world’s Overseas Filipino Workers. And it did so by taking one of the Philippines’ most popular street card games, and converting it into an experience that could be shared by anyone around the globe. The result was “Tongits Wars,” a game played on Facebook.


From hopeful beginnings to despair

Eric Asinas is the proprietor of indie game studio CodeTribe Interactive and the original developer of “Tongits Wars.” He worked as a telecoms engineer in various African countries, where he learned that the three activities his fellow OFWs enjoy the most are karaoke, basketball, and Tongits. Unfortunately, due to the demanding nature of their jobs, most OFWs are rarely able to engage in such pursuits.

“So what are they doing on a daily basis to overcome their homesickness while working abroad away from their loved ones and friends?” asked Asinas. “This scenario gave me the idea to connect OFWs through a social game that most of us are familiar with. And that is Tongits, our most popular card game. Also, since the game is virtual and free to play, they don't need to spend a cent to get entertained. Furthermore, the game is taking them away from real gambling.”

“Tongits Wars” was launched in December 2010. The original idea was to share the game with only a handful of people. But Facebook being what it is, the game went viral. In less than a year, it had attracted over 100 thousand players – despite the lack of advertising to promote the game.

But CodeTribe would soon face a horde of challenges. The game was riddled with bugs that needed fixing, not to mention Facebook banned “Tongits Wars,” for undisclosed reasons, a month after its initial release. Thankfully, it didn’t stay banned for too long.

It was also difficult maintaining a free-to-play game. The studio turned to in-game advertisements and Facebook payments to meet the upkeep costs of a game server that had to handle 1.4 million users.

It was in December 2013 when things took a turn for the worse. Unable to sustain operational costs any longer, Asinas and company made the painful decision to shut down the game server for good. And thus “Tongits Wars” came to an end.


The revival of a legacy

In March 2015, Asinas decided the game’s legacy version deserved reviving. It helped that over 150 thousand “Tongits Wars” fans on Facebook were clamoring for the game’s return.

With the popularity of mobile devices as gaming platforms, Asinas decided to launch the game on iOS and Android gadgets.

Despite a series of financial and personal setbacks, and all the struggles associated with game development, Asinas managed to build and release the mobile version of “Tongits Wars” for Alpha testing. The game lacked several features, but it was a start.

Still, the problem remained: where was Asinas to find the resources required to continue development on “Tongits Wars”?

On the up and up!

After much research, Asinas realized crowdfunding was the way to go if he wanted to raise capital for his project. And, after finding out that an independent filmmaker used Indiegogo to amass the money needed to make his live-action “Dragon Ball Z: Light of Hope” possible, Asinas knew he had found the crowdfunding platform he was looking for.

Days prior to the launch of the project’s Indiegogo campaign, however, Singaporean company Optimal Solution Pte. Ltd. contacted CodeTribe expressing interest in “Tongits Wars.” Thus, in October 2015, the two companies entered into a collaboration that saw CodeTribe receiving the funding necessary to take “Tongits Wars” to the next level. Not only that, the game finally enjoyed the support of marketing campaigns to help attract a wider audience.

On February 12, 2016, the first mobile version of “Tongits Wars” was launched on the App Store and Google Play. On its fourth week, it reached rank 4 on App Annie’s top 50 free card games in the Philippines list. It didn’t take a month for the game to be downloaded 10 thousand times and gain a 4+ star rating on Google Play.

Since its launch, CodeTribe has continued adding more features to “Tongits Wars,” such as a Basic Game mode where players face off against A.I. opponents based on characters from Philippine novels; an offline practice mode; Facebook Connect Bonuses; a VIP Club with premium benefits; an in-game Store; leaderboards; and more.



Here comes multiplayer!

On May 13, 2016, version 2.0 of “Tongits Wars,” also known as “Episode II,” was launched with a multiplayer mode. Players could now challenge each other online, invite others to play the game, send gifts to friends, and message each other. By the end of June 2016, “Episode II” had already boosted the number of game downloads to 100 thousand. App Annie also awarded it the number one spot on the list of the top card/casino games in the Philippines for both iOS and Android.

In October, Optimal Solution Pte. Ltd. presented “Tongits Wars” at the Electronic Sports and Gaming Summit (ESGS) 2016, one of Southeast Asia and the Philippine’s largest annual gaming celebrations. This additional exposure helped raise total downloads to 500 thousand by the end of November 2016.

Tongits gets heroic

Asinas hopes to revolutionize the game with “Episode III,” which adds an RPG-like mode inspired by Philippine history and literature. Known as Heroes Saga, the mode allows players to travel around a 2D world map and challenge 34 legendary Filipino heroes and characters.

“The Heroes Saga will consist of our National Heroes and other characters from Philippine Novels,” explained Asinas. “Each hero has a difficulty level and once beaten, the player will acquire an artifact which has something to do with the hero’s contribution in history or significance as a novel character.”

For example, by beating Lapu-Lapu, you can obtain his “itak,” which enhances your offensive capabilities. Defeating Tandang Sora will award you “herbs,” which increases your defense.

Initially, these bonuses will take effect only in the Heroes Saga mode. Asinas plans, however, to eventually introduce the mechanic to multiplayer matches.

“The full game mechanic for the Heroes Saga will be finalized by January and will be released by 1st quarter of 2017,” said Asinas.

In addition to Heroes Saga, “Episode III” will come with a Tournament League.

Full circle

Due to insistent fan demand, Asinas intends to bring “Tongits Wars” back to where it started: Facebook.

While the mobile version is doing great with over 500 thousand downloads, this value still has some catching up to do with the 1.4 million users who previously enjoyed “Tongits Wars” on Facebook.

“We believe that by putting it back on Facebook, we will gain back those users and have the ability to acquire new users faster,” explained Asinas. “…this time around, we have a good marketing plan to sustain the game's operational cost and still maintaining a free-to-play model.”

The Facebook version of “Tongits Wars” is expected to be deployed in early 2017.

Aside from “Tongits Wars,” Asinas is eager to design more video game experiences for OFWs.

“Once the Heroes Saga expansion is deployed, we will start the development of our next game, which will target Filipinos and other Asian markets,” said Asinas. “It is a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) that is based on a popular Filipino game as well. We are planning to showcase this game at ESGS 2017.” — TJD, GMA News