MODO.

I'm about to bitch and whine.... just so you know.

So in a round about way I have come to the conclusion that Magic Online sucks. Yeah I know, what took me so long? I've actually ignored it for a while, but I have given them the benefit of the doubt because Magic is an incredibly complex game - and the code interactions required for every card means that that as a digital game it is incredibly hard to develop, test and deploy. Especially on the product schedule Wizards is currently on.

On that note, the digital team at Wizards of the Coast does an amazing job. Remember... every one of the cards in Magic Online have to understand the rules and how to interact with one another - and its a miracle we don't have more instances of it being buggy as they fight their aging platform.

What's a MODO?

"Magic Online" went live in the Summer of 2002. The technology world has changed a lot since then. Originally branded as "Magic Online with Digital Objects" the concept of owning a "digital product" was so new that Wizards went to great pains to explain it - even calling it out in its name. Players called it "MODO" a nickname still occasionally heard from the "old-timers".

As one of the first digital analogues to a real product, Wizards made the decision that digital cards would cost the same as paper - and monetized the system just like its real life counterpart. The decision met with some consternation at the time, but I'm sure that Wizards was worried about cannibalizing sales or wrecking the paper card economy. To Wizards, a digital card was the exact same as its paper counterpart. In fact, they "doubled-down" on this idea by allowing any digital player who completed collection of a digital set to exchange those cards for their paper equivalent. A policy that is still in place to this day. Over time, Magic Online's user base grew, and an entirely separate Magic community developed in parallel to the "paper Magic" one. After-market economies developed around the cards. Strategies developed around the subset of available cards. "MODO" had taken hold.

Sounds successful. What's the problem? 

99 Problems, but money ain't one.

Flash forward 14 years. Wizards is extremely profitable, but Magic Online is a stagnant mess. Active Magic Online players have leveled off - if not dropped considerably. How did this happen?

  • Complacency. With no true competitor, Wizards didn't have to try very hard to keep its online player base. When you are the only digital game in town....
  • Technological debt. Wizards did not keep up with new technologies and refresh the game "under the hood". This left them unable to adapt to new platforms and new devices.
  • Economic entrapment. By insisting on an equivalent economy, Wizards has locked themselves into the idea that if you play paper Magic you must "double dip" and repurchase product to play your digital decks.

All these problems came to bite Wizards in 2014. As the platform became increasingly older and worn around the seams, a new player emerged from the shadows - Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Based on Blizzard's World of Warcraft franchise, this digital trading card game played fast and was available on most mobile devices. Blizzard poured cash into its launch and its "Pro Tour" and many of Magic Online's most dedicated jumped ship. Hearrthstone now has 50 million registered users.

Blizzard's entry into the genre was proof that a "Magic-like" game was possible on modern platforms. Most damaging to Wizards was its inability to counter the threat. It was painfully obvious that Magic Online's technology stack was so fragile and so locked into the Windows infrastructure that it could never be ported to Mac, much less modern platforms like iOS or Android.

A few months after Hearthstone's launch, Magic Online released the final version of a new client for their service. Despite being "all new" and "re-written" it was a mediocre upgrade at best and the interface still looked positively archaic compared to the standards of the rest of the industry. While the timing of the release was coincidental, it proved a sad reminder of just how much work needed to be done to revive digital Magic.

The back-breaker.

So that brings me back to my revelation that Magic Online is an awful experience. Last week I overheard someone talking about Pokemon Trading Card Game Online and how great it was. Intrigued, I downloaded the iOS version to my iPad to take a look - if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity. I've never been a fan of the card game. The closest I have ever come to the game itself was buying about a million packs for both my kids as they were growing up. They were both strictly collectors though, and completely uninterested in playing. Playing Pokemon? They had their Nintendo DS for that. 

Imagine my surprise after a couple of hours when I realized I was really enjoying myself. There is zero barrier to entry, with a single player tutorial (the "Trainer Challenge") and a few theme decks immediately available to play against other players. The real shock came when I decided to buy some digital cards - you can't. Nope, there is no in-app purchase of product. So how do you get cards? You buy them. In a "brick-and-mortar" store. Every single Poke-product comes with a code. Enter it on pokemon.com and you can immediately log into the app to find an equivalent amount of digital product to open. This is an integrated experience, not a parallel one and it is magnificently done. Pokemon Online feels like a love letter to the game and not one that is holding my digital world hostage.

Here's the thing - I know Pokemon and Hearthstone had the advantage of almost 15 years of technology and no baggage of a "game economy" to deal with. The problem here is Wizards never pivoted their business model, never attempted to adapt and now Magic Online, while still serving a lot of players, is quickly becoming a relic of the past. Like "Everquest", when I mention MODO in public people say "That's still around?" A terrible situation for a company with perhaps the number one game in the entire world.

I know Wizards would say they are "protecting the players and their investment" but the question is quickly becoming "Who are they serving?" as they cling to their business model of the past. They need a new platform that is widely available, based on modern technology and is inherently approachable by everyone - and fast. It is time to integrate digital and paper. Magic is one game and one community.

What of Duels?

Magic: Duel of the Planeswalkers is a yearly product that started on game consoles and migrated to iOS. It contains a single player experience as well as a way to play online. While much closer to the ideal than Magic Online, it still suffers from having to buy digital cards for retail prices and the game is an extremely slow pace for expert players. It is truly a way to teach beginners and doesn't feel like a platform people will remain active on. Internally, Wizards probably wants players to migrate to Magic Online - but there is huge gap in interface complexity due to Magic Online's aging design. Playing your first games of Magic Online is hard. Even for experienced players. The real deal-killer of this "migration path" is that cards from Duels don't carry over to Magic Online. This is a colossal failure of product design and game experience. If a digital card is the same as paper, your digital collection should be your digital collection. Duels is a great introduction to the game, but for enfranchised players its like Magic's appendix - totally unnecessary.

Future-proofing.

Here is the good news. Wizards realizes they have a huge problem. Even if its probably 5 years too late. Magic Digital Next was previewed to investors in 2015 so I'd be willing to bet someone, somewhere is chugging away making things better. They say it is going to be a product that slots right in between the two that exist now.

The first step is realizing you have a problem....

The first step is realizing you have a problem....

So I don't know if this plan has all the answers - but its a start. Digital Next will really be measured in its execution. Here are the three keys to its success.

The Collection - Magic Digital Next needs to centralize its ownership of digital objects. If I acquire a card in Duels, I should "own" it everywhere. This will be a huge undertaking of infrastructure. A secure database as a card repository across products and development teams with a private (but common) API is no small feat. It has to be done though, if Wizards wants to be seen as taking digital seriously.

The Platform - Magic Digital Next needs to standardize their offering across modern platforms. There is an expectation today from digital gamers that they can play anywhere - whether on iOS, Android, Mac or Windows. Blizzard has been doing this for years. It is doable, but it requires a modern, portable code base. Magic Online will be the challenge here, but if they truly see that product as their "professional" platform, they need to make a deep investment there. After all, people playing on that product will be doing it with an expectation of it as a tool they use to make a living. Wizards needs to wrap their head around that.

The Economy - The hardest of the three. Wizards is going to have to upend the current Magic Online economy. This is going to be a PR nightmare, but it has to be done. Digital needs to adopt a model closer to Pokemon. Every single physical product needs to come with a code for the equivalent digital product; whether it be a pack, a deck or a gift box. This gets the player invested in Hasbro and Wizards core business model - paper Magic. It keeps players going to their retail partners and it encourages them to be active in Friday Night Magic and the larger community. If this means "buying out" current Magic Online players with free product, then so be it. That community has seen so much pain in their hobby over the last five years that they deserve at least that much from Wizards. Executing here means that the overall game and community will grow - as well as Wizards pocketbook.

Wizards is on a serious deadline. They need to execute on this new digital vision - and fast. Magic is on the verge of breaking out from "geeky game" to Mainstream pop-icon. There is a movie on the horizon. That is going to be their big chance to introduce the game to "the rest of the world". Magic Digital Next needs to be ready for that launch.

Last year The Guardian claimed there were "over twenty million active players". I have seen other estimates put this as high as thirty million in 2016. Magic Online's numbers are not even a blip on that radar. I am begging you Wizards... don't let the current economy of Magic Online be another "Reserved List" albatross around your neck. Make a clean break. Do what is right for digital. Make Magic players one community.

Until then, I'll spend my time in digital gaming playing Pokemon.