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Justin Webb: Why No Magic: The Gathering MMO?

Column By Justin Webb on March 02, 2010

The journey to bring the Magic: the Gathering game online has been a bumpy one.

The Microprose “Shandalar” game was a promising start. In this 1997 PC game (and its two sequels), players ventured across a large 2D landscape in search of the planeswalker Azarkon. Monsters were killed by defeating them at Magic. New cards for your deck could be found from NPCs, stores, and as loot from monsters. Players could also fight their way through dungeons, trying to get to the final boss while managing their health between fights (kinda like an instance). There were rudimentary attempts at character progressions, deck building, inventory, gold, towns, etc. Players couldn’t play in the world together, but there was a multiplayer matchmaking option where players could duel online. The best bit was that you could play with all the old power cards. Sounds quite MMO-ish in places, right?

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Then there was nothing for five years, until Magic Online. For its first few years (until v3.0), because of an engineering snafu, Magic Online could only have one server, which limited the amount of concurrent users at about two thousand. This was a huge shame as the Magic Online client itself does an amazing job of replicating the table-top experience. It also makes bundles of cash, as the cards (digital objects) sell for exactly the same as their real-world paper counterparts, but cost a fraction of the cost to make. Magic Online, as well as being a top-notch simulation, prints money. There were a couple of other Magic-based console games during this period, but they weren’t very good.

Then, in the mid 2000s, while working with Turbine on DDO, Wizards decided to make a push into the online space, creating a Digital Gaming department. Online-game production was pursued internally, centering around an ambitious gaming social-networking portal/hub called Gleemax (the name of the brain in a jar that reportedly runs the R&D department). However, the Digital Gaming department reached too high and underestimated the scope of such a lofty project (online game production is really hard) and was essentially closed down in early 2009.

After the failures of Goblin Game and Gleemax, Wizards refocused their efforts on their core brands, concentrating particularly on Magic and Dungeons & Dragons. Since then, there has been resurgence and several significant successful releases (for example, check out D&D Tiny Adventures on Facebook) and announcements, but nothing about a Magic MMO.

What’s up with that?

To get to the bottom of it, I contacted some old colleagues at Wizards and asked them. However, secrecy is strict there and I had to also navigate (in parallel) the PR department. After a few email exchanges, they put the kibosh on me. The end result being that there are no plans to release a Magic-based MMO any time soon, or if there are, they wouldn’t tell me (and rightfully so: I wouldn’t tell me either).

I didn’t really expect anything different. WotC is really good at keeping stuff secret. And really good at designing stuff. Of all the places I’ve worked, the R&D department at Wizards is easily the environment most conducive to effective iterative design. After all, they’ve managed to pilot flash-in-the-pan fads into (almost) 20-year old mega-evergreen brands … twice (the Magic & Pokemon TCGs). Dungeons & Dragons is still going strong too.

So why hasn’t there been a Magic MMO

At face value, the Magic game seems like an obvious candidate to be turned into an MMO.

  • It has extensively developed pre-existing worlds and content (Dominaria, Mirrodin, Ravnica, Alara, etc.), with a colossal amount of concept work already done;
  • It has pre-existing lore and epic storylines (go to a bookstore and check out the Magic section – its huge);
  • It has the concept of the player as a powerful planeswalker (a wizard who kicks ass and can perform ground-rattling actions);
  • It has players using/selecting/choosing spells (abilities) during combat. (This feels very MMO-ey.)
  • There is already the built-in concept of (item/card) rarity, which arguably MMOs stole from Magic in the first place.
  • There is already an awesome Magic Online client that could be transplanted into an MMO as a downtime meta-activity.

However, the Magic experience does not translate perfectly. Playing a game can be a slow strategic process; a tournament Magic match can take 45 minutes. And, each match is thematically between two rival planeswalkers (and is therefore PvP). MMO grammar doesn’t really support fights that take that long, so some design heavy lifting would be required to retain the Magic feel while also ensuring swift face-paced combat resolution.

Also, there are some unanswered questions regarding PvE. Do players explore the land, or are they above it controlling everything at a metaphysical level? When a monster is “summoned”, does it fight FOR the player or is it controlled BY the player? Do the things represented on each of the player’s cards physically manifest during combat? Not sure, but that’s not important right now. Clearly, to me at least, there needs to be an awful lot of abstraction to make the Magic experience fit into an MMO-shaped hole, and a lot of design gymnastics.

Regardless of the design specifics, the concept of “cards = abilities” and “players collect cards” is really strong. Guild Wars has been using it for years.

WotC has also previously allowed an MMO to be made out of another of their marquis brands: Dungeons and Dragons. Launch opinion on DDO was mixed. Was the game MMO-ey enough? Was it “too faithful” to its IP? Regardless, Wizards is/was open to making MMOs out of their brands, and that D&D, in their eyes, was a better candidate than Magic. Decisions have been definitely been made not to make a Magic MMO and to concentrate instead on making Magic-based game in other video-game genres.

My guess is that Wizards thinks that the Magic experience doesn’t quite fit into the currently expected MMO mold – it’s not “WoW shaped”. And that Wizards would rather not make a Magic MMO at all than risk getting it wrong. As far as brand management goes, this is a smart move. However, as a consumer, it sucks – I’d love to see someone try to make a Magic MMO and take some design risks along the way.

It’s not all bad news. In the last couple of years (while many of us have been arguing over the right way to make a Magic MMO), Wizards has quietly got their video-game act together, and released some great titles. And, like the PR person said, Magic IS thriving. Magic Online is still going strong after eight years, while Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBLA has been tremendously successful.

However, Magic: the Gathering – Tactics might be the one to watch. Little published information regarding this product exists. The press release makes it very clear that the game is turn based and will be “tactics”ey. It sounds a bit like a Magic-based version of EA’s Battleforge game. The big thing to note though is that it is being made by SOE, who have a track record of making compelling collectible online mini-games (for example, Legends of Norrath and Pox Nora) and successful MMOs. Apart from these few crumbs of data and a short video that contains no information, the only other “news” about this game was featured in a Penny Arcade article back in November.

So while there’s no news regarding a Magic MMO, that might not be such a bad thing … for now.

Would you play a Magic MMO?

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