Saturday, December 17, 2005

Holy Squidoo Batman!

If you've read my one and only entry in my 'personal' blog, you'll know that I'm a fan (I'm not sure fan is the right word, but it's all I can manage) of Seth Godin. His latest venture is called Squidoo, and I'm jumping right on board.

While there's more to it than this, the site's primary function is to allow folks to set up a page with links and information on any topic they like. With the help of a sturdy search engine, people can find this personalized information and (hopefully) it'll be a lot more useful than the machine generated output of automated sites like Google. These sites with the personalized information are called Lenses. I've built three so far. (Gotta make a living!) This one's probably more to your liking. Just to provide contrast, and to set in stone how insane I really am.

I plan on putting together a few more. For one thing, I want a site where all trading game organized play sites are listed. Remember how I commented that unlike BGG for board games there's no one place to find trading game information. This might be a small part of a remedy for that.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Trading Game Experience: Part 1

The Trading Game Experience
Part 1 - The Customer Experience

With the release of Magic: The Gathering back in 1993 and continuing well into the 21st century with the Anime themed Yu-Gi-Oh and Full Metal Alchemist, trading card games have been a staple of the entertainment industry for well over a decade. How did this relatively new form of entertainment become so popular, and how has it managed to stay popular for years in an industry where fads come and go with the seasons? Why are people paying hundreds of dollars every few months to stay competitive when other types of games can be purchased and enjoyed for a fraction of that amount? I can explain.

Experience Nirvana
It’s possible you’ve noticed it. The term “experience” has become a marketing buzzword in the last couple of years. Its thrown around like the new “best seller” or “4 out of 5 doctors”, but what does it mean? The customer experience comprises of every aspect of a customer’s contact with the product (or service or whatever.) Those experiences directly impact the customer's view of the product and company, and their likelihood to purchase once and purchase again.

The Trading Game
The most common sort of trading game is the Trading Card Game, or TCG. Other trading games include collectable miniatures games such as D&D Miniatures, Mage Knight, and HeroClix. A few newer games don’t fit so well into the established categories, like the so-called constructible games including Pirates of the Spanish Main and Rocketman, and poker chip based Clout: Fantasy. No matter the medium, all of these games revolve around collection and play with a large assortment of individual, collectable, playing pieces, normally of varying rarity and value, sold in randomly assorted packages. Players know what game they are buying, but they never know exactly what playing pieces they will get. While these collectable pieces differ radically from one category of trading game to another, they all fit neatly into the trading game niche. For ease of discussion, I will default to the term ‘card’ throughout this document, though unless pointed out otherwise, card will mean any trading game playing piece, whether it be a die, a miniature, or a card.

What is the Trading Game Experience?
The Trading Game Experience is the interaction between the player and every aspect of the game. Unlike typical board games such as Monopoly or Parcheesi, where the experience is largely limited to the purchase at the store and the play at the family table, trading games are complex products requiring a great deal of interaction between the publisher, the retailers, the players, and of course the game itself. At each point of interaction, there is chance for the player to impressed and a chance to be disenchanted. The strongest possible trading game will have the best possible experience planned by the publisher at every point of contact. If a game is being sold by independent retailers, those retailers will be educated about the game and will know the sort of player that will most enjoy it. Online content will allow interested players the ability to learn about the game, and quickly and easily find a place to buy it, once they decide it is for them. Tournaments will be will run by enthusiastic and capable tournament organizers who, supported by the publisher, strive to make the tournament experience as entertaining and rewarding for the players as possible. The game itself will be clear and understandable, with engaging design and graphics. The rules of the game will be built with a specific sort of player in mind, and tailored to meet those players needs above all others.

In short, every aspect of the gaming experience is crafted into a unified total process with a single goal of entertaining a specific kind of customer. If you’re a publisher, do you know who those customers are? Do you know what they really want? Are you asking them? If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll fail.

A key concept in ‘experience management’ is this simple fact: The customer is getting an experience whether you are doing something about it or not. A publisher can manage those experiences, or they can be left to chance. Regardless, they do happen. The choice is simple, roll the dice or work a lot harder. When it comes to customer experience, most publishers roll the dice.

Obviously, not all aspects of the trading game experience can be directly managed. Publishers have limited influence over independent retailers and distributors, and practically no influence over the players. Players who have a massive amount of influence over the quality of the gaming experience (more on that later.) Not everything can be controlled, but everything can be considered. Once there is a list, you can start working on it. Start with the easy stuff.

What is your game experience like?
If you're a gamer, think about the games you play, even if they’re not trading games. What do you like about them? What annoys you, or keeps you from enjoying them as much as you think you otherwise could? Can you think of anything the publisher could do to fix those problems? Are you willing to pay an extra few bucks for each game to get exactly what you want?

If you're a publisher, think about these things as well.

Next Installment: Part 2 - Obstacles and Solutions

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Okay, maybe just one video game.

Samorost 2

Yet another find from Boing Boing, which if you don't read, you should. I've played the first few levels, and the game play isn't breathtaking, but the visuals are. I'm a visuals guy, so I really like it and intend to play through the 'free' version. When I'm done, I'll decide whether or not to buy it. I'm leaning towards yes, because I'd love to see what they could do with these amazing graphics plugged into a 'real' game.
Check it out at -
Also from Boing Boing, it appears the Battle Pencils are being imported. Yeah! Got ta get me some o' dat!
Coming up: The Trading Game Experience, Part 1 I'm putting together an industry eye view of trading games (like trading card games, trading miniatures games, ect.) as an entertainment experience. I expect it to come in four parts, over as many weeks. The series will attempt to explain why they succeed, how they can fail, and different opportunities exploited and missed by publishers over the last dozen years. I hope my work will shed light on where trading games might be headed in the future. This essay is the reason I started this blog in the first place, so I hope it turns out well. (I wish I was a better writer!)

Friday, December 09, 2005

I ask for new, I get new...sort of!

Battle Pencils!

"Jeshii, a teacher in Japan, discovered his students playing "battle pencils" ("Batoen") a game where you "roll" a standard-shaped octagonal pencil and then gain or lose points based on the face that comes up. They're like long dice. "

I love it! I want some! I bet my local anime store will have them before too long.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Waiting for the revolution...any time now...yep...

I'm sort of annoyed with myself because the tone of my posts so far have been so negative. One of the things I want to do with this blog is find, identify, and in my own little way promote really impressive and ingenious ideas in the gaming industry (I'll then steal those ideas and use them myself!)

Some examples:

* The Role Playing Game - A new gaming genre
* The Trading Card Game - Another new gaming genre
* The DCI (Magic: The Gathering tournament system) - One of the main reason Magic's still played today.
* WizKids coming up with Mage Knight - A seriously ingenious twist on miniatures gaming
* Everything Games Workshop did in the late 80's to early 90's - Sure, we know they're evil now, but at the time it was pretty impressive!
* Whoever brought Eurogames to the US - Did it start with Mayfair and Settlers? Not sure, but whoever did it, they did a great job.
* Taking kids TV anime shows, and turning them into trading card games - Again, evil, but you have to admit it was a big idea!
* The d20 system and the Open Gaming Licence for D&D

These are all specific cases where a specific game company did or started something really special and impactful. The one thing they all have in common: None of these ideas will work again. Their time has either passed, or their full impact is already upon us. Another RPG isn't going to set the world on fire, more Eurogames are coming but it's not revolution, and while anime card games are here to stay, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh mania isn't going to happen again anytime soon.

It's pretty well documented that the hobby game industry is in a down-turn right now, with local game stores closing up and publishers feeling the hurt. The industry needs something new. Something that will get existing gamers excited or something that will draw in new gamers (I'm not picky!)

I'm not so interested in a new game, because I know there are lots of great new games being released in all gaming categories. I'm more interested in new categories...

I'm also interested in new ways to bring people into gaming. Marketing, to be specific. Not magazine ads or direct mail campaigns with go-faster stripes (that's old-school garbage.) New ideas, even if they don't work.

One of the surest ways to succeed (some would say the ONLY way to succeed) in today's world of business is to come up with an idea that nobody else has. Something that shouts "NEW!" when people glance at it (otherwise they won't think it's new at all.) Does anyone in the game industry have an idea like that?

I think there are a lot of people with ideas fitting that description. I just have to find them.


Sunday, December 04, 2005

If I ever run a game company, kick my ass if I do this!

I may be posting this because my current views on WotC aren't all they could be, that said, this is exactly the sort of thing that results in layoffs because you don't sell enough games.

If you have fans so happy with your product that they'll create internet sites advertising it (or giving away free versions, free samples are GOOD!), you're on the right track. Sending cease and disist notes to those so much.

If a site is so bad that it's threatening your copyright, you find a way to work out a licence with the fan. Seriously, is there any chance Hasbro is going to lose their rights to RISK?


Pay them if you have to.

In case your wondering, when I rule the gaming world, if you create a site that allows people to play my game for free, I will insist you provide large, obvious links to my site that say "If you like this game, click here to buy it."


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Wizards of the Coast "Reorganizataion"

The report:

Edit: Somewhat ironically, I originally posted a link to a layoff notice from 2002, which gamingreport has listed as the "most read story" regarding Wizards. Oops!

This bums me out. Partially because I still have a lot of friends that work there, and I'm sure they're bummed out. Partially because I still see 'ol time Wizards though rose colored glasses. From my perspective, which is hopelessly skewed, Wizards has become a game production machine. Cold, efficient, effective, but it's hard to feel the love. I know the people who make the games still really care about the work they do, but it's tougher and tougher to see that through that ever thickening corperate shell they've self-imposed upon themselves. That press release is rubbish.

"Today’s organizational changes are designed to help drive our business into the future to improve our performance and our long-term profitability."

Improve performance and long-term profitability? Talent makes capital dance, and Wizards has scuttled several members of the band. Wizards paid a lot of money to send me to a customer management seminar back in 2003 (it changed all my views on business). One of things that stuck with me from the event was this statement: "Take care of your employees first, your customers second, and ignore the bottom line because it will take care of itself." This came from the a Vice President at T-Mobile wireless, and while she seemed like a nightmare to work for, I believe she was right on target there. Point of note, I lost my job less than a year after hearing those words.

Hasbro never 'got' Wizards. Now, Wizards was no bowl of peaches before Hasbro. There were layoffs and product shortages and all sorts of nonsense. When bad things happened back then, it was really was just as bad. It just seems like it was "Wizards bad" and not "Hasbro bad", and "Hasbro bad" seems worse.

The people who have lost their jobs are all amazingly talented and I really believe they'll find success just as quickly as they choose to. Regardless, I wish them all luck. I'm better off without Wizards (obviously), I think they will be as well.

I'm still bummed though. I'm just not sure why, anymore.


The Rise of the BoardGame

Board games are back. If they’re not yet, they will be. I went looking on the internet to see if there is any sales information published that would back that statement up, and I couldn’t find any. Sales information on board games compared to other sorts of games isn't readily available. My guess is that hobby board games as a whole compare favorably to a single successful trading card game. If it hasn't happend already, I predict that soon each sub-category of board game (Eurogame, Wargame, ect.) will catch up to the successful TCGs. I do not predict that any one board game will ever sell as well as a single successful TCG because of the genres format just doesn't support that sort of situation. Not super news for board game publishers. That doesn't mean a thing to the board game players, who'll still be getting better and better games to play.

Why do I think this?

First, the remarkable website, which I am proud to be a new member. I am consistently knocked out by not only the website itself, which is tremendous, but the amount and quality of the user comments, which the site is elegantly crafted to support. If you do a google or blog search for most any game, multiple hits from BGG come up. Even non-board games are covered, to some extent. The information provided there often well written and surprisingly impartial. And there’s lots of info. Tons.

Now, having worked for Wizards of the Coast for so many years, I’m a fan of trading card games. That's not so much a trend on BGG. In fact, being a ‘trading’ game to the BGG crowd is generally considered at the very least a shortcoming, and at worst a vile affront to the nature of gaming. That’s a shame because the tools and support provided by BGG are so powerful that similar tools would be a huge boon to the trading card game fan. In theory TCG players could invade the BGG website, but it wouldn’t be welcome and besides, it won’t happen. Here’s why:

Trading card game players are largely monogamous. The fact is, the games are expensive…and time consuming…and require a dedicated fan-base single mindedly devoted to just that one game in order to be successful. Those factors not only feed the genre’s critics, but are also the cornerstones to their success. A game you’ve invested in is a game you’re likely to be loyal to. The time spent is worthwhile, fun time. The dedicated fan-base provides a network of opponents, play-locations, and events that support a successful and engaging community. This is why trading card games can be so successful, where other types of games struggle. Almost no non-trading game can generate a user base large enough to support a community on its own.

Enter BGG. Its very strength lay in the massive variety of games that are reviewed, discussed, played, and generally enjoyed by the membership. Click on any member’s user profile and you’ll see their top 10 (!) games, the number of games they own, usually in the dozens…or more, and other general info all pointing to the fact that this person plays a lot of different games, often. Click on any game, no matter how obscure and you'll find that BGG members have played it and rated it. Most games have at least one fully written review, some have several.

Trading card game sites, like their players, tend to focus on a single game. The games require that sort of attention, and if you have a great TCG site, the people going to that site won’t care if you’ve also got information on something else. They want info on their game and their game only. You won't find reviews, because everyone there already knows about the game. You won't find comparisons, because there's only one topic.

For years, board game sites followed a similar model, a site dedicated Blue Max, or a site dedicated Civilization. They failed because the interest level wasn’t high enough to make it worthwhile to keep the sites updated. The sites are still there, but most haven’t been updated for years. There weren’t enough players for any but the most successful games to support an active forum (IMHO, the litmus test for a successful site.) Since it didn’t appear anyone was reading the pages, their authors sensibly abandoned them.

Now, with Blogs taking the stage, the general board game site or blog (BGG supports several Blog lists, I subscribe to two) are popping up. Typically run by game stores, they talk about what they played recently and how it went. Reviews and general game impressions abound. It took natural selection to come up with how the internet can support board games, but it happened. I think it's happening big. I predict big things for board games.

Other sites with multi-game information: - Covers all sorts of gaming, from a manufacturer’s perspective. - Great example of a retailer Blog. Well written.
and a new one I’ve got high hopes for: - They’ve got a nice start, but they better come up with something to set them apart from BGG.


Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Open Development - Legal Trouble?

While talking with one of my Hidden City Games R&D associates yesterday I mentioned a "new ability" thread on our Forum, and how interesting some of the ideas were. He quickly responded "My lawyer informed me I shouldn't read those. I don't want to get sued by somebody who says I stole thier idea."


The very notion that we must be afraid of lawsuits from our fans...our the point where we must ignore them on certain topics is frightening. What if a fan said we should have bigger boxes? What if they request a 1-800 customer service number? Do we risk legal action if we listen to those ideas?

Has any game company *ever* been sued by a fan for taking a suggestion and publishing it?

In the last decade, the open-source model on the internet has set up a healthy precedent of idea sharing for the mutal benefit of all. I suspect any non-protected concepts we 'lift' from our message boards would be safe, provided we don't claim exclusive rights to them.

Where's a lawyer when you need one?

Friday, November 25, 2005

Open Development

Game companies love keeping secrets. They don't want anyone to know anything about what their doing, until the last possible minute. There's a few reasons for this, the primary one is what they call "building anticipation". They want customers to be in a frothing frenzy to find out what the new thing is so they'll run out and buy it as soon as it becomes available.

Wait...that doesn't make any sense. How does just finding out about something translate into wanting it extra bad, extra now? Maybe this culture of secrecy has been a big mistake. Maybe the answer is to keep your customers in the loop about exactly what's coming the moment you can reasonably tell them. Maybe that notion can be taken even farther...

What if the entire R&D process for a game expansion were public. Throw out the usual bunch of playtesters (great as they may be!), throw out the non-disclosure agreements, and throw out the notion that if the public doesn't know what's coming, they'll be more apt to buy it.

Invite your customers to participate in the R&D process. If you game company owns its own intellectual property and its own game mechanics, it's not like your competition is going to be able to steal any of the ideas. Your fans, on the other hand, will get the chance to put in their opinions. Some of the are experts at your game. Then, and this is the hard part, you have to listen to them.

This does require R&D (the expansion's writers) to accept that the public's ideas are worth paying attention to, and a lets face it, a lot of stuff that you'll see won't be what you're looking for. Wait, here comes an important point: Some of it will be.

Another thing to remember is the expansion will still be in your control. The public doesn't get to make decisions, but they do get to question them. The public can't force you to use their ideas, but they do get to present them. You may be forced to better explain (at least to yourself) why you've made one decision or another. That's not a bad thing. It will be more work. Maybe a lot more.

So you've done it. You've posted weekly updates with new rules and PDF files so playtesters (that is, absolutely every fan of your product that wants to be a playtester, not just a few that you 'trust') can fabricate their own cards/playing pieces/whatever. You've read the comments based on those weekly reports and maybe even made some adjustments based on those comments. You've finished. In a couple of months, the expansion will be released.

Will a product like this, where the fans have literally been able to contribute to its content in a real way, have a better or worse chance at success than a product they've never seen before, because it's been a closely guarded secret?

I think I know the answer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Welcome to Game Guts

If you're interested in computer or console gaming, you're in the wrong place. Don't get me wrong, I love computer gaming as much as any die-hard gamer, I just don't know anything about them beyond what's included in the tutorial.

What I want to share are my opinions and observations regarding what I call "hobby games". We're talking RPGs, TCGs, wargames, miniatures, and the rest of this crazy business. The choices made by the big publishers and the small can be both inspired and insane.

Let's start with my favorite target. Upper Deck. A couple of years back they released the Vs. System – Marvel. I was working for Wizards of the Coast at the time and remember the talk. “The game that will kill Magic”, was the word. Needless to say, we were interested, if not exactly afraid. As it turned out, it wasn’t going to kill Magic. It was and is a good game with a monster marketing budget and a strong license. My issue wasn’t with what they did, exactly, but what they didn’t do.

Upper Deck conceived, planned, and executed a project designed to be #2.

The first thing they did was head-hunt WotC. I think something like 20 people were offered crazy-high salaries to jump ship from Wizards to Upper Deck. (I didn’t get an offer.) The allure of southern California being what it was, many of them left, including the head of the DCI.

What they did next is what really blew my mind.

They began to duplicate everything WotC does, to the letter. ELO tournament rankings. Check. Store Based Leagues with small, enticing prizes. Check. Million Dollar…er…TWO Million Dollar Pro-Tournament Series. Check.

And did they stop there?


Upper Deck’s strategy was to do everything Wizards does, only with slightly larger prizes and slightly more colorful ads. Nothing about what they have done has been innovative or in the least bit different. As a result, the only reason to stop playing Magic and start playing Vs. is if you really, really like the game (as in sell all your Magic cards and buy Vs. cards.)

While the game’s certainly successful, I can’t help but think the higher echelons of Upper Deck are disappointed with “The game that will kill Magic” languishing at #2. I wonder if they know why?

The point is, better isn’t good enough, because this entertainment. Nothing is ‘better’. You have to be DIFFERENT. If you look at all the most successful games in our industry, they’ve all brought something new to the table. D&D did this 30 years ago. Recently the World’s Largest Dungeon did this. It’s FRIGGIN’ HUGE!, which means it’s friggin’ cool. Magic, of course, was a revolution when it came out. Pokemon brought TCGs to the general public, and Yu-Gi-Oh perfected that process (which is what Upper wanted with Vs. and WotC wanted with DuelMasters. Clearly that ship has sailed.)

If you’re planning on making a game, or any sort of product, ask yourself what’s DIFFERENT. What are you bringing to the table that nobody else does. You've got great rules, they've got great rules. You've got great art, they've got great art. What don't they have? If you can figure it out, you've got a chance to make a big splash. It’s not easy, and it’s not guaranteed, but anything else is bound to come up short.