It’s 1997. Magic: the Gathering is flying off the shelves. (I mean, it’s flying off the shelves even more today, but now we’re used to it). And this despite its seemingly customer-unfriendly practice of selling cards in randomized “boosters” with arbitrarily-assigned card “rarity”. Well a plate on a door affords pushing, and the thing to do with unsatisfied customers is to offer them a superior product. This is what Ryan Dancey (then of the Five Rings Publishing Group, later the driving force behind Dungeons & Dragons‘ unheard-of Open Gaming License) did, using the Legend of the Five Rings Collectible Card Game and a few others as guinea pigs.
The whole saga is an entertaining read, but most important is its conclusion:
So here’s what turns out to be the truth: There is a segment of the population that happens to overlap quite spectacularly with the segment that enjoys hobby games, that derives an intense personal feeling of satisfaction from the pursuit of the difficult to acquire. They need it. They thrive on it. When denied this feature, they seek out other products that deliver that feature.
And something else I learned: To people who don’t have that interest and need, the interest and need seems completely irrational and those who cater to it seem unethical.
I too used to complain about artificial scarcity. But would I have taken up the hobby without the thrill of booster cracking, or the satisfaction of a good trade? Would all my friends still be playing it? Do I really believe that it would feel just as good casting a mythic rare spell if the card was trivial to obtain?
There’s another side to that story though. In 2008, Fantasy Flight Games released A Game of Thrones: The Card Game as a “Living Card Game”, a suspiciously familiar “innovative” distribution model where small, non-random, packs of new cards are released every month. It was soon followed by Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game, Warhammer: Invasion, The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Android: Netrunner (currently 5th best board game ever according to boardgamegeek’s voters) and Star Wars: The Card Game, with presumably more to come just as soon as FFG can get their hands on the rights to every popular fantasy/sci-fi franchise on the market. (Doctor Who: The Card Game? You heard it here first.)
Is it the pre-existing popularity of the franchise and/or the high quality of the game itself? In other words, would a collectible Game of Thrones or Netrunner have done even better than a Living one? I give more credit than that to FFG’s marketing team. Is it the lessened barrier to entry? But then you’d expect a hybrid system of decent non-random starter packs + random “advanced” boosters to do even better. In fact, that’s pretty much what Magic does these days.
I really wish I knew what they got right that Rolling Thunder got wrong.