Going to California

Making Magic — 8

The year before, when I was selling ads for the first two issues of Pyramid Magazine, at my boss’s recommendation I’d reached out to a small company that was working hard to innovate in the early 1990s game industry. They were based out of Seattle, something like seven people in a basement studio.

It was a drawback at the time that there were so many role-playing games — they were all so different that it was hard to share monsters and adventures and other material from one game to another. When you wrote role-playing game material, you had to write it for a specific game. This little company had taken a novel approach by putting out a book that focused on cool material, and then including rules for a wide variety of popular games. Sadly, one of the game publishers thought that they should have exclusive control over creating content for their game, and sued the new publisher. I was glad to report in Pyramid #1 that they’d won their case, though it took a real toll on the small company. I was happy to help provide them with an inexpensive promotion, seeing how a full-page black-and-white ad cost something like a couple hundred dollars.

You didn’t have to be a designer to think poorly of them because of the ad. It was crap: a not-great illustration of a thoughtful robot set against a white void, alongside a column of text thick enough to cross your eyes. But buried at the bottom was a mysterious line, encouraging fans to watch out: “It’s going to be a magical summer!” Something about that stood out to me, echoing back over in my head not four months later that summer when Doug Barnes approached me at the Origins convention holding something new.

“It’s interesting,” he said, fumbling with a garishly designed deck of cards — they hadn’t really upped their styling much from where they were with that ad, beyond moving to full color.

“It’s a card game?”

“Sort of. It’s a collectible card game. You can buy a deck, but you can also buy these booster packs of something like eight random cards — sorry, not-random cards. That’s the trick.”

“That they’re not random?”

His face lit up. Something cool to explain! Doug lived for that.

“Yes! There are something like 400 different cards, so you only get some in any given box. Some cards are more common than others. Most cards are pretty common, a good number are uncommon — you get maybe two in a booster pack — and a few very powerful cards are rare, so you get, like, one rare card per booster. Then based on the powers of your cards — see the colors; similar colored cards work together well — you build custom decks optimized for one strategy or another.” He blinked. “Probably the best thing to do would depend on how much you could find out about your opponent’s deck.”

“So this drives people to buy the cards, okay. Is the game any good?”

“I don’t know.”

“The graphics suck.”

He winced. “Yeah. They’re paying their employees in stock right now, though, so there’s probably not a lot of free cash lying around to pay designers. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere — it comes out in a month, so I guess we’ll see. I was talking to them about doing an online version, through io.com. It wouldn’t be too hard to do. It’s a formula that would work even better as a computer game.” He sighed. “They’re all really excited about it over there at their booth.”

Game conventions could be boisterous scenes, large exhibition halls with row after row of game publishers trying to promote their newest thing to all the fans — and generally also to the distributors, who held the keys to the retail kingdom in terms of which companies and products got promoted to the stores, or not. Our company was a fan favorite, and the show was in our home state, so we had a larger booth with a lot of attentive fans. A ways away I could see their booth, small but decently manned enough to make up for the lack of floor traffic they were getting.

“I wish ’em well,” I said, even though it turned out they didn’t need it, not nearly at all. They believed enough in the promise of their game that they were happy to press five or six decks and a bunch of boosters into my hands of the first print run of their game, which if I kept would be worth many thousands of dollars today.

The company was Wizards of the Coast. They called their game Magic: The Gathering, and in a handful of months it had completely transformed the entire gaming industry.

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