No one understands this better than Smed.
"I recently bought - this is no joke - 3,000 (digital) cards online, from an eBay auction. I won't say what I spent," he says.
A year after the Worlds Apart deal, SOE readies to announce new products and plans coming out of its Denver shop. With a nod to all that Magic has accomplished in the collectable game world, the next step for SOE focuses squarely on how this will play out in massively multiplayer online games.
"We're no longer in what I call the 1.0 years of online gaming, the EverQuests and World of Warcrafts, that kind of stuff."
Now SOE wants to out-WoW WoW the way WoW out-EQed EQ. With little left to do in terms of the traditional RPG model, Smed wants to uncover a new magic formula for online gaming. SOE titles like The Agency hope open up roleplaying beyond elf improvement, and Free Realms looks to attack digital property head on with an MMOG where joining is free, but equipment costs money.
SOE Denver fits into the picture with its skills and experience around collectable objects. Grind all you want, Martins understands that collecting remains the missing ingredient that makes the whole digital property concoction work.
People like to collect. Butterflies, coins, matchbook covers. I've known people who collected credit card receipts and cereal box dust. Sometimes the news covers maniacs who collect body parts. Everyone collects something. Making digital property collectable unleashes a subconscious urge to accumulate that overpowers any need to hold cheap paper in your hand.
Still, Martins thinks the "collectable" part of collectable trading card games can take away focus from something else tucked into the genre's success.
"These are strategy games, but strategy games that you can customize the way you play them. They allow you to bring in your personality into the game."
This principle is well enough understood by your average junior high school girl who fills her closet with clothes, not just to have them, but to provide the maximum range of self-expression. Somehow, in the male-dominated world of games, we forget half the fun of customizable gaming lies in playing dress up. Allowing players to build decks of cards that suit certain play styles or even narrative predilections - I'm trying out a fire burn deck, or prefer a black speed deck - is what really sets Magic apart from chess.
The Sea Change
Joe Hauck, WizKids' VP of Sales and Marketing, was one of companies Martins approached prior to the Sony deal. And WizKids seems to get that collectability and customizability together motivate digital property sales.
Even though WizKids stakes its name in the collectable market with its Clix series of miniatures-based games, the title they signed on with Martins' company to produce was the Pirates Constructible Strategy Game.
Unlike the collectable card games, Pirates cards punch out into pieces players use to build mini 3-D swashbuckling models. By going digital, WizKids gambled that players would be willing to give up handling cool styrene models, and they wouldn't give up buying the real thing. Hauck seems happy with the results.
"Players are certainly willing to play both, because they see them as different experiences."
Which, if you are in the habit of decoding tantric business speak, might mean something akin to: "Cool. People will pay for programs and we don't have to stamp plastic in China. Hooray for the internet."
Even as online slowly sucks the life out of the hobby shop (Again. See: Russ Pitts' "Paper Gaming and the Hypnic Jerk" - ed.), sending players online for the joy of round-the-clock play and the convenience of computer-based management of cards, the shrewd businessman smells opportunity. Smed, with an online trading card company safely on his payroll, is ready to play his most powerful card yet.
"That's why we think merging these things with [MMOGs] is a huge new direction, because what it is going to enable us to do is introduce this gameplay to a much broader audience than have ever seen them before."
David Thomas is the founder of the International Game Journalists Association. He also provides commentary and criticism at buzzcut.com.