Learn more about Wizards' plans to avoid player burnout with yearly instalments.
By Tim Colwill on August 6, 2013 at 5:39 pm
At this year’s PAX Australia, we had the chance to sit down with Aaron Forsythe from Wizards of the Coast. As Senior Director of R&D at the gaming giant, Aaron oversees all the design, development and creative work on the entire Magic: The Gathering range. Aaron talked us through what they were doing at PAX, how their digital games have affected their card game sales, and who would win in a fight between them and Blizzard.
GON: What has your experience been like with the conversion rate from digital players to card players? Do you see a big crossover where people come into digital and end up playing the card game at a really hardcore level? Or do you find that it’s card players that then pick up the digital game as a separate part of their lifestyle?
Aaron: The digital game has been awesome. It’s been at its best at re-acquiring lapsed card players, so people that have played back in the 90s and then the digital game is great at reintroducing it to them and they catch fire and jump right back in to playing cards again. We don’t have a great way of tracking individuals, so we know we sell a tonne of digital games and we’ve seen our paper player number go up as well.
It’s hard for us to know who, what and where and which of those people are, but we’ve been having tremendous growth ever since 2009 in Magic and that was — not coincidentally — right when we came out with the XBox and Steam PC version of the game. So there has to be some incredible correlation there between the two.
GON: So what are you doing today here at PAX? People are playing the digital game and then they’re walking away with the physical card game as well?
Aaron: Yeah, we’re letting people learn how to play on either platform, whatever appeals to them the most. We have a dozen iPads over there where they can test out Duels of the Planeswalkers or we have a dedicated demo team here that’s teaching people how to play the paper game. And either way they get to walk away with some free cards, some sample decks, try it out and then they’re going to be able to go home and try it out.
GON: Have you tried on those Planeswalker goggles (the ones that Shandra is wearing in the images)? They hurt like hell.
Aaron: Yeah, they’re a little small. I’ve got a big head.
GON: Yeah, they don’t bend at the nose, so they’re super uncomfortable. I’ve seen some people wearing them and all I can think is, “You’re a brave man.”
Aaron: Yeah, but you know, promotional con, promotional items, you get what you pay for! (laughs)
GON: How do you manage the artificial scarcity in the digital game, when you compare that to the rares and the uncommons in the actual card game? Is that a thing that you have to carefully manage when you’re designing it and thinking about the transition?
Aaron: In Duels of the Planeswalkers, we don’t really have the same kind of purchase model that we do in the paper game. We’re just trying to show off the game, so the scarcity is not really built in in the same way. You can unlock cards through defeating different enemies and some of them are obviously more splashy and powerful than others, but it’s not the same sort of booster pack model that we have going on in the paper game.
We have another digital platform called Magic: Online which is a full transliteration of the paper game, where we do have a booster pack model, where you get one rare per booster and it maps exactly to what’s going on in paper. But for right now, in Duels of the Planeswalkers, it’s not about opening boosters and building your collection, it’s more about taking the decks that we give you and learning how to play the game.
GON: Did you already have Magic: Online before you made Duels of the Planeswalkers?
Aaron: Yeah, Magic: Online has been around since about 2000 or 2001.
GON: So what was the key motive in making Duels of the Planeswalkers instead of just continuing with what you had?
Aaron: Just the different platforms that it would allow us to be on.
GON: Like iPads and things like that?
Aaron: Yeah, and the fact that we could disconnect it from the economy of the trading card game and say, “We can give you whatever we want.” If we want to start you off with a full collection of decks to play with, that’s fine because it’s kind of a self-contained experience, whereas Magic: Online has a very robust, long-term economy at work, where cards have value and some of them are very hard to get.
With the iPad and Steam and XBox version, we can just say, “What would get you to play right away? Here, have all these decks, have access to all these cards, try it out,” and it’s worked out great.
GON: So it’s very much a intro piece of kit, you’re never aiming to fully replace the card game with digital?
Aaron: No, not with Duels of the Planeswalkers. It is, first and foremost, an on-ramp into the rest of Magic. So we didn’t put in the very complicated cards, the rules aren’t 100% exactly arbited the same way as they are in Magic: Online or in the paper game. We just wanted it to be a seamless, fast, almost arcade-style introduction to Magic.
GON: So sort of the gateway drug of Magic for people who might not play a lot of card games.
Aaron: That’s one way to put it, sure.
GON: Are you concerned about player burnout, doing yearly installments? Are you concerned that you’ll eventually see the numbers just plateau, and people are going to stop buying them because they’re roughly the same every year with the digital version?
Aaron: We are doing our best to give each version its own kind of cool thing that the other ones don’t have, in the same way that say, Madden football has to deliver the base. “Guess what? It’s football. But here’s a cool new tweak or a cool new feature.”
So this year, for instance, we have sealed deck play, which we didn’t have before, where you can just open boosters and build your own deck with them out of what you get. Whereas last year, we had different multiplayer formats. So we have a rotating bunch of features that we’re trying to add and make each one appealing, even if you’ve bought the last four or five.
Plus, we’ve just seen that Magic players love new cards and each one’s got the latest sets worth of cards and that’s often reason enough for people to plop down the ten bucks to give it a try.
GON: Is the ultimate goal, then, to make Duels of the Planeswalkers something that people play long-term? Do you envisage supporting it with more DLC down the line like other long-standing games, or is it just a once off $10 purchase that people make, they play it for a bit and then they decide to go into the other game?
Aaron: From the outset it was mostly as an on-ramp. There is some DLC, we come out with some expansions a couple of times a year. But to date, it has been mostly “Here’s how you’re gonna learn how to play, here’s how you can re-introduce yourself to the game.” From there, once you’ve fallen in love with it, you need to go on, either find a game store, download Magic: Online or go to one of the more robust offerings.
We are certainly seeing the way digital TCGs from other companies are working, and we’re going to have to re-examine how we offer Duels and we want it to be a more persistent platform where people can play Magic longer term or put more hours into the game. So we are definitely exploring that and we’re going to be coming out with it every year so, we’ll do what we need to do to stay competitive.
GON: You’ve got Blizzard deploying Hearthstone now and we’ve got Ubisoft with Duel of Champions. Do you play competitors card games? Do you look at what they’re doing in the digital space and rub your fingers together and say, “Hmm yes, let’s have some of that,” or, “That’s a terrible idea, we’re doing really well”?
Aaron: We are definitely aware. I personally don’t spend a tonne of time on them but I have a large R&D department that is aware of what’s going on out there. In some ways it’s flattering that all these companies want to move in on the space that we’ve obviously shown you can be successful in. And we’ll keep our eyes open and we’ll do what we need to do to stay on the cutting edge of trading card games.
GON: So if I was to ask you who would win in a fight between you and Blizzard, you would say…?
Aaron: Blizzard is a heavy hitter in the industry. I believe we are excellent at catering to the audience that we currently have and we’re growing every year. I know that we couldn’t make an MMO as good as they could, but as far as trading card games I am confident in our team.
GON: Have you seen development costs for the game go down over time, now that you’ve mostly established how the engine works and you’ve established a lot of the base? I don’t know whether the costs are part of your role but have you seen that it’s easier to develop each year, or is it taking roughly the same amount of time?
Aaron: We’ve stuck with the same studio, Stainless Games, on every iteration of this so they have got some efficiencies as far as putting the game together. But we take any efficiencies that they gain from making the game work and we try to invest it in additional features, whether it’s just more polish, better AI, more options, things like that. We’re not trying to make this on the cheap, by any means. We absolutely want to make it the best game we can, year in and year out.
GON: Have you had a lot of feedback about the AI? Because in the first game, the AI was just a cheating bastard and in the third game it seems better. Have you overseen any of that?
Aaron: I don’t oversee it, but I am aware of what it’s good at and what it’s not good at and they are doing what they can to take feedback in and make it as competitive as they can. The truth is, on an iPad, for instance, it just doesn’t have the processing power to brute force tonnes and tonnes of moves into the future. So it does cheat a little bit here and there.
Check out our review of Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers right here.