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Magic Evolves in a Struggle to Remain Relevant, Part 2: A Brief look at the Business of Magic - Gaming News & Views - Pair O’ Dice Games

Magic Evolves in a Struggle to Remain Relevant, Part 2: A Brief look at the Business of Magic

Continuing from Part 1: Magic’s Evolution, here I’ll briefly examine the business side of gaming that these changes to Magic: the Gathering expose.

On the whole, the changes probably aren’t that bad (some definitely feel positive), even though some are a rather irritating. What I find interesting is the glimpse into business at Wizards that these provide, some of which Mark Rosewater describes in his post.

Take a step back for a moment and remember that Wizards is a big company (300+ employees). Big enough to have been acquired by Hasbro, Inc., and to have acquired such properties as the most popular role playing line in our industry. You can buy their stock, if you wish. In turn, they are then under obligation to serve your interests, which in that context means make you money.

Thus far that is what this site is, an expensive hobby – or rather, a cheap one, in all save, perhaps, time. Good thing it’s fun for us!

Nothing wrong with that. Even the smallest gaming businesses need to make money, otherwise they’re not businesses, merely expensive hobbies.

The part where it can go wrong is an area which, having next to zero background in business (unless you count my having held a variety of jobs, in companies ranging from IBM-size to a tiny startup), I find difficult to grasp and may not get right. That area is roughly where the interest in making money shifts from a fantastic side benefit of having a really cool and fun business you can enjoy, to the main reason said business continues to grow and proliferate product.

This is also roughly the point companies start to become big, evil corporations which games like Shadowrun tell us so much about. I’m going to try to skip the value judgement and refrain from the “automatic evil” associations, as much fun as they can be in producing role playing material under the umbrella of large-scale villainy.

Snapping focus back to Magic and its recent changes, we learn from Mr. Rosewater they were largely made with the “acquisition” of new players in mind.

Player Acquisition

Office Space Boss

So wait, why does Magic need to focus on acquiring new players? I mean, sure I understand some changes (intro packs) make sense in this regard and won’t impact existing players much… but to say that the raft of new changes is focused on acquisition of new players does seem rather off-putting to the rest of us (who make up the audience for Mr. Rosewater’s post). In fact it sounds a little bit like your boss at work saying, “Yeah, hi, umm, we just need to go ahead and change your project around a little, bring in some new people, you guys just aren’t doing it for us – but don’t worry, it’s no big deal, we’ll still keep you around.”

Has Magic been suffering that much that new players aren’t entering the game? I don’t know, I have no idea what the figures look like. But that’s the level we’re talking about here, figures in a spreadsheet and graphs with red and black lines on them, numbers representing growth percentages. What do these have to do with the way Magic is produced? It would appear they have quite a bit to do with it, with Wizards (and thus Magic) being profit-driven.

Again I’m not going to judge them by the presence of their stockholders, Microsoft is a huge for-profit company and Halo is a great game franchise so one does not automatically indicate the quality of the other.

My feeling is more that people at Wizards probably had something of a rude awakening. Perhaps they were unprepared for demands to satisfy X% growth in Q4, having previously done their own thing and been rewarded by legions of appreciative gamers. Only to find out more recently that keeping those gamers happy wasn’t good enough, more players were needed, and still more.

Relevancy in the Information Age

I think that being acquired by Hasbro was just one aspect of a shift in the environment at Wizards. At a certain point they gained enough popularity, enough mass or marketshare or whatever you prefer to call it, where they went through a scope change. Instead of just producing the most popular TCG ever, maybe they became aware of the possibility to compete with more of the “gaming market”. Rosewater may be alluding to this when he mentions mindshare.

Role playing? D&D acquired, got it covered. Board games? Well their own weren’t enough so Avalon Hill was brought over. Online games? Hmm, Magic made the transition mostly okay, but beyond that they started to realize they didn’t really know what they were doing in that arena, and Gleemax got pulled.

But is it necessary for Wizards to pit their games against other popular entertainment? Is D&D becoming more like World of Warcraft in an attempt to steal “mindshare”/marketshare?

Lest I forget to mention, Magic: the Gathering has indeed seen electronic incarnations other than Magic Online, including several computer games and an appearance on the Xbox. Yet it seems that, Magic’s videogames aside, Magic the CCG is being positioned as a rival to “mainstream” games (perhaps the videogames are attempts to establish a beachhead and draw players into the card game).

What Games do You Play?

Yehuda has a post on the available selection of video games vs. board games. This imbalance, in availability, representation – in retail shelf space, has been developing over a long timeframe.

Personally I play all kinds of games, including videogames and (some, outdated) computer games. I’ll play, and buy, whatever strikes my fancy. For me Magic is no more or less relevant than Halo, it’s all about the mood I’m in when I’m seeking an afternoon’s entertainment but I don’t ignore one because I’m a fan of the other. Yet younger gamers with less disposable income may be forced to choose one game or the other, and in that battle videogames seem to have won the mainstream some time ago.

Of Platform Loyalties

This idea reminds me of a news post at Penny Arcade, which I can’t seem to find, where they talked about console zealotry as a result of limited spending money.

To paraphrase: Kids who buy, or more likely whose parents buy for them, all three of the latest consoles play whichever games they want, with little “loyalty” toward one system. Kids who can only manage to own one console tend to do some emotional backtracking and develop loyalty to that console while putting down the others, as a means to make themselves feel good about their selection (ie. they own the best system, the only things they’re missing are garbage anyway, etc.).

In this way might gamers’ minds have done some scabbing over toward traditional games, and the card game of Magic as a “gaming platform”? Well, the monetary argument doesn’t really fly since videogames are more expensive, with a much more expensive up-front investment, than traditional games. Even taking into account continued costs of buying more Magic cards it’s not an easy argument to make, the individual purchases can be much smaller. Thus it’s hard to say one would exclude the other, and indeed when Josh and I were in high school we’d spend allowances and paper route money on both Magic cards and Sega Genesis games.

How about an argument for mindshare competition derived from some other resource such as time, and, by extension, attention span? Most videogames fail utterly if they require more than two minutes of learning to get started, while veteran players would be hard-pressed to explain even the basic rules, much less begin a game of Magic with a new player, in that amount of time.

While I think that learning Magic’s nuances can be a rewarding experience, there’s no doubt its rules form tangled knots and it’s surely a challenge for new players to learn. Place it next to mainstream videogames and fire a flare gun in the air, you’ll probably find the kids with the videogames reach the destination of “fun” somewhat more quickly.

What this says to me is that, for this situation to change (if that’s indeed what Wizards is after, and I fear that’s what I’m hearing), Magic basically needs to be dumbed-down. Not a prospect which I relish.

Final Thoughts

I want to give Wizards the benefit of the doubt. Mark Rosewater says they know what current/veteran Magic players want, and will continue to do their best to give it to us. At the same time other aspects of the message sound a bit off, and suggest that the timing of my group’s new Magic card hiatus may be more apt than we knew when we started discussing it a few tournaments ago.

Hopefully Magic will continue to thrive, and Wizards will continue to design and develop fun and exciting cards which can be enjoyed by seasoned players, as well as newbies.

In the meantime however it’s “vote with your wallet” time, and I will continue my campaign to bring the next box purchase in my group to Magic: the Gathering’s Greatest Hits: Odyssey.

I don’t have all the answers, and I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to share them in the comments below!

  1.  

    Some of our readers may not know this but I actually have a degree in Business. My final year at school I needed to do a project analyzing a business and determine if it was a solid investment and I chose Hasbro. In reality, Wizards makes up a rather small part of HasBORG Co. but not a completely insignificant part.

    It seems that someone somewhere told Wizards in general (in other words not specifically Mark Rosewater and the Magic Gang – that could totally be a band name… Mark and Magic Gang!) that it was time to look at acquiring new players. D&Ds most recent addition is considered by some to be “dumbed down” while others would prefer the phrase “simplified”.

    I guess for that it is a matter of perspective and taste. I love the new D&D but I didn’t like the old version so in some ways my opinion is tainted. I don’t love it because I found the last one too complicated (I’m also playing Shadowrun… so I’m obviously not exclusively into simple games or anything) but rather I enjoy the way 4.0 plays as compared to 3.5. I’ve often found that simple elegant games trump cumbersome, rules heavy crunch fests but that doesn’t mean this is always the case.

    Back to my original point, both D&D and Magic seem to be going through changes intended to bring more people into the hobby. In general this is only a good thing for those of us that currently participate in gameing because we will have more people to play with and if the industry expands we will have more options of games to play. There is of course the argument that the games we like now will change and no longer be to our liking but that just leads to two options: a) we change to line up with the new game or b) we find a new game to line up with. I feel that if Magic does become too simple for some then it just opens a door for a new game to come alive. Not that this will be easy for a any new game…

    A similar argument has been made when it comes to World of Warcraft. Some people feel that the game is being made too simple to appease the massive fan base. If this is so then another game will eventually come out that is more “hardcore” and the hardcore players of WoW can move over to that game.

    I think I have rambled on enough. Back to work.

  2.  

    Under the hypothesis that Wizards is dumbing down games to draw in a wider audience, Josh is right that in the long run we the loyal gamers would win. By having more people participating in our hobby we would see more diverse gaming options, and more designers, developers, and publishers enter the space.

    The flip side would be seeing those games get simpler. I’m not a D&D follower but it seems like Wizards has been steadily making the rules more concise since they got the rights, something D&D sorely needed. Magic, on the other hand, has been at what felt like a very satisfying challenge and complexity level, and I’ll be sad to see that drop off (Shadowmoor indeed seemed to be a nod in that direction). However that won’t stop me from getting my fix in other ways.

    Thanks for the perspective Josh. By the way, care to sum up your Business degree project’s results? Was Hasbro a good investment, at the time?

  3.  

    We did conclude that Hasbro was worth investing in. I honestly don’t recall the full details of our assessment as this was over four years ago. I did okay in the class though, if that tells you anything. Of course it was certainly an interesting experience, being the single liberal in a class filled with conservative business types that constantly looked at me and said “What are you doing here?”. The instructor for his part would just grin and keep quiet, most likely thinking the same but enjoying the fact that I was a decent student that payed attention and at least stimulated discussions.