Tobold's Blog
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Limiting monetization for fairness

When you hear talks on game developer conferences you might think that the concept of giving the player with the biggest wallet an advantage in a game is a recent invention from casual and mobile games. In reality the idea is over 20 years old (not counting gambling, where unlimited funds always were an advantage). Magic the Gathering is to a large degree "Pay2Win", and many people (me included) spent thousands of dollars on that game. So it comes to some surprise that the current combination of money-grabbing Magic the Gathering on a money-grabbing mobile platform in the form of Magic Duels isn't an unlimited money grab.

When back in the early 90's Magic the Gathering, was invented, you could read interviews from the developers like Richard Garfield on how they intended that game to be played. It turned out that they believed that people would only buy a limited amount of cards. Therefore a "rare" card, which was rare to find in a booster, would also be rarely found in a player's collection and thus be rarely played. The devs were then completely surprised by people buying cards by the box-load and stuffing their decks by 4 of each rare. It actually "broke" the game, as many of the early rares like the Black Lotus or the Mox artifacts were simply too good and too useful to allow 4 of them in each deck. They had to fix that by first restricting the use of those to 1 per deck, and later banning them. Over time "rare" cards in Magic evolved into being powerful, but highly specialized, so 4 of one rare basically determined the theme of the deck and couldn't be used in every deck. But the basic design flaw of "commonly played rares" remains until today, and has perpetuated into many other trading card games. Needing multiple copies of rare cards gives a huge advantage to players who bought large amounts of cards, the "Mr. Suitcase" syndrome.

In order to make Magic Duels a more casual-player friendly game, they fixed that design flaw in this variant of Magic the Gathering by changing the deck-building rules. You can't put 4 of each rare in a Magic Duels deck. Rarity now doesn't just mean "rarely found in a booster", but also "rarely played". You can put 4 of each common into a deck, but only 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. And because cards are virtual the same restriction also apply to player's collections: You can't even *own* more than 4 of each common, 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. Of course you can still use that 1 legendary card you own in multiple decks, as you never play with more than 1 deck. Now while paper Magic the Gathering has boosters of 15 cards with 11 commons, 3 uncommons, and 1 rare, Magic Duels has boosters of 6 cards with 3 commons, 2 uncommons, and 1 rare or legendary card. And the "complete set" of any expansion is a multiple of that, for example the complete set of the Origins base set is 72 boosters. 72 boosters gives you 216 commons, and there are 54 different commons in the set, so you will have exactly each common 4 times. 72 boosters contain 144 uncommons, which gives you each of the 48 uncommons 3 times. The same is true for the rares and legendaries, just that they share the same rarity slot in the boosters.

As a result opening a booster in Magic Duels does *not* give you a really random selection of cards. It gives you a random selection *of cards you don't own yet*. And after 72 boosters the game refuses to sell you any more boosters, as your collection is now complete. As you can buy a big bundle of 50 boosters for € 40 / $ 40 a complete set of any expansion doesn't cost you a fortune, or you can earn a complete set in about a month of regular play. So there are no "whales" in Magic Duels. The overall effect is a bit like that of a level cap in a MMORPG: People get to that level cap in a reasonable amount of time, and then everybody is equal. Huge advantage of perceived fairness, no more Mr. Suitcase. Buying a full expansion becomes like buying a "buy to own" game, there are no further costs.

It is for that reason that I have kind of forgiven Magic Duels the 2-month outage of last year, and gotten back to playing it regularly. I'm just 6 boosters away from having the full set of Zendikar, and while I bought the first set of boosters, I'll get to the full set just by playing and doing the "not-so-daily" quests that pop up every two days. Compared to another game I am currently playing, Dungeon Boss (/shakes fist angrily at Jeromai who mentioned the game to me) where it is far too easy to spend endless amounts of money for advantages, Magic Duels has a much more restrained and fair business model.

Permit me a chuckle about Dungeon Boss because I almost fell down that rabbit hole myself. Looking foreard to a future post about it perhaps?
You're doing something wrong if you're even tempted to spend more than a few bucks on Dungeon Boss to get one of the first VIP levels. It's a small bonus and after that money does nothing at all except let you be impatient and rush to the end of the game. Spending $8 total I've gotten to the level cap in 3 months and had a great time. The packs they sell are all ludicrously overpriced but I guess they work for parting impatient new players from their money.

[if this double posts, apologies, it glitched when posting and I tried to confirm that it didn't actually post the first time]
It is interesting that back in the Zynga/Farmville days, it was basically regarded as "accepted fact" within the industry that only a very small number of players will spend anything, but you can bilk them for hundreds of dollars. Now, you have a lot more pricing models that try to get a reasonable amount out of most players.
"It turned out that they believed that people would only buy a limited amount of cards."

This is my problem with a lot of, if not most, developers. They fail to critically analyze the design for faults and "gameability" and instead fall back on the canard of "Well, that's not how we designed it."
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