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.