"The main reason that we bought them was not the games that they had going, and it was definitely not to stay in the CCG [collectable card game] genre - although we have some big things planned around that. The future is around digital items and the power that those bring - the idea of people being able to create things of their own and the idea of people possibly being able to sell things. To me, that's where the real future of this stuff is coming from."
Selling the Idea
Scott Martins offers me something I really want.
Across the massive conference table at Sony Online Entertainment's Denver studios, he slides me an uncut sheet of Stargate trading cards. I don't collect cards and have never seen the Stargate television series and don't know much about the franchise, other than Kurt Russell was in the original movie and he wore a beret.
I want these cards, nevertheless. They look cool. Like a foam finger handed out at a sporting event, you don't know what you will do with it once you get it home; you just know you want it. But after a lifetime of collecting videogame swag, I realize I don't need them, and besides, I walked over to SOE's downtown Denver digs and I don't want to lug the sheet around.
Still, I want them.
This makes it all the more strange that, while SOE Denver designed the cards, their real business is making digital collectable trading card games. Just like the foil-wrapped packs of cardboard goodness you can buy in your local hobby shop, the Stargate online game plays the exact same way, with the exact same cards, just in the perfected form of the digital ether.
A few days later, I log onto the Stargate TGC site and download some cards. Then, like the kid who realizes that he can, in fact, swim without water wings, I'm having fun, playing with digital property, stuff I only own in the cold, empty spaces of some database server on Sony's computer network.
"The concept of owning something that's entire existence is online, and I cannot actually touch, that's a big paradigm for shift for people to make," Smed tells me. "They've got to get their heads around that, and it's not always easy."
While Smed doesn't say it, the challenge he faces has less to do with convincing people to spend money on intangible stuff - the game industry does that every time it promises to let you clean up a crime filled New York City or to race the Suzuka Circuit . Check your iPod lately? It's filled with digitally managed, digital property. We know and love digital property with all our hearts. The issue, rather, lies in reprogramming people taught to think of paper cards and plastic figures as something of value in and of themselves.
Economists have long understood what's going on, even if the game business acts like it has just discovered gravity. The term is "exchange value," and it works like this:
What makes diamonds more valuable than bread - and the reason someone will spend $10,000 on an ultra-rare Magic card - is people pay for what they want. It's the wanting that produces the value. Diamonds, bread and a Black Lotus card don't have any real value, other than what people will pay. In a world with a lot of bread, fewer diamonds and even a more limited supply of Magic cards, the values float around what people will exchange to get them.
Just having a piece of cardboard in your hand doesn't make it any more valuable than the rights to a digital card that lives in a computer. It only matters that someone wants what you have.