This article originally appeared in Pyramid #13
We are a community in transition. Again. And it's all the fault of those damn cards.
An Opportunity-Rich Environment
When Magic: The Gathering debuted two years ago (summer of '93, remember?), only a few people recognized even a fraction of the impact it and the products that followed it would have. Those that did have a clue have made an awful lot of money in the past two years, and it looks like there's plenty more to be made.
Even just a few months ago, I thought trading card games would establish themselves as a new type of game, like roleplaying or play-by-mail, and would settle down into a nice comfortable market niche in our tiny little adventure gaming hobby. I compared, in this very column a few issues back, the displacement roleplayers have been feeling over the dominance of card games with the same feeling wargamers had when roleplaying burst on to the scene 15 years ago. It turns out I've (once again) completely underestimated the phenomenon. Card games are much, much bigger. And the reason why is money. Big money.
I have no firm numbers, but my guess is that more dollars' worth of trading card games were sold in the first two years of their existence than was sold in the first 15 years of the history of RPGs. Comparing the two phenomena just doesn't work. We're talking big money here, and the big boys have started to notice, for the first time, our humble little industry.
At the GAMA Trade Show in New Orleans in March, nearly everybody had a card game coming out. There were quite a few start-up companies who were coming out of the gate with a card game as their first release, and even more small companies with just a few releases under their belt betting it all literally, because card games are not cheap to produce that they can get a card game out and catch the wave before it breaks. And circling around the edges, sizing up the competition, were the big boys.
Marvel will be doing their own game next year, the rumor mill said, and now that they've bought Skybox, they've got their own production and printing facilities. Fleer wants in. The U.S. Playing Card Game Co. (the folks that make Bicycle brand playing cards) have already grabbed a couple of hot TV licenses for their line of trading card games. Upper Deck had a rep at the show. Can Sony and Universal and Paramount and Warner Bros. be far behind?
And so we're in transition again. In the beginning, everybody was a Hobbyist/Entrepreneur. The founder of the company was the lead designer (usually the only designer), and he ran the business. Some companies grew, some just hung on as one- or two-man operations, but there was still room for everybody in the field. A few companies made a successful transition from the Hobbyist/Entrepreneur paradigm into a Corporate paradigm, with real business folks running the business side and game designers running the design side. These companies broke out and started making serious money, but there was still room for the Hobbyist/Entrepreneur. And now a new paradigm is emerging Big Business. When Marvel debuts an X-Men trading card game next year, with art by their top artists, graphic design and production by Skybox, and TV commercials on every Saturday morning TV show, how will the Hobbyist/Entre- preneurs survive? In a competitive environment where Big Business has more to spend on marketing and promotion in one year than all the Hobbyist/Entrepreneurs have ever spent put together, will there be room for them at all?
I read a wonderful tag line on some Internet post the other day. It's certainly not original, but I don't know where it comes from. The saying goes, "Don't think of it as being surrounded. Think of it as being in a target-rich environment." And that's my (perhaps overly optimistic) advice don't think of it as corporate monsters preparing to devour our humble little hobby; think of it as an opportunity-rich environment.
Because despite of the factors I talked about previously, I think there is cause for some optimism. Many of the retailers I talked to in New Orleans told me that they were able to take many new customers who first came in just for Magic cards and turn them on to roleplaying games, transforming them into long-term customers. And while card games were undoubtedly the main thrust of the trade show, roleplaying, board-gaming, miniatures and wargaming were far from dead I saw exciting new releases in all those categories from companies that are rising to the challenge of this latest transition to produce better-looking, better-designed products. It's an opportunity-rich environment out there let's take our best shot.
Article publication date: June 1, 1995
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