Monday, November 18, 2013

destroy magic online and start over

Magic Online is doomed. Magic Online has doomed us all. Magic Online must die.
This is not something reformable. We have had eleven years for potential reform, and it all leads us back to the same place: a bad interface for an unstable product with a bad economy. In an age when online games are so much larger than real-life ones, there’s a good reason why Magic Online is a niche product: it is bad. Only people who are already extremely invested in playing Magic will ever bother with Magic Online.

Its badness is not limited to the recent crashes, the crashes that suddenly matter because Brian Kibler was the one to write about them. Look up announcements about previous Magic Online crashes: this sort of behavior has been going on for ten years with very little in the way of improvement since then. Tournaments should not crash due to having a thousand people in them. They should not crash with ten thousand people in them. If Wizards wants ten thousand people to play Magic Online, they should make Magic Online capable of holding ten thousand people.

Magic Online does a great job of implementing the rules system of Magic. This is overlooked, and people pay too much attention to relatively minor card-by-card bugs in the program. These are understandable, because Magic is complicated. But the outside-of-game bugs shed a lot more light on how horrific Magic Online is: if you are in the finals of an 8-4 draft in first place and drop, you get the first place prize. Instead of removing people’s ratings from the client, it simply has an image that covers them up, so if you’re really fast you can still see rating. How could this possibly happen? Why are there hacks upon hacks to keep the program functioning?

Why does Magic Online stress a new computer more than actual commercial games?

Why is Magic Online the only online game in existence that can’t handle the slightest bit of network instability?

Why does Magic Online randomly disconnect players who are on rock-solid connections, not inform the player they’ve been disconnected, and expect them to find workarounds to get back in the game?

Why are we okay with this?

Even if Magic Online was recoded from the ground up to be stable, reliable, and well-programmed, it would still be bad. The founding principles of Magic Online were made in 2002, and have barely changed since then, while the rest of online games have had a sea change in the way that we interact with each other through games, and how money and time relate to online games. Namely: “free to play” exists now.

The basic ideas behind F2P are that when a player plays a game, they should be rewarded for the time they invest in it, and not charged. But, if they want to hurry up their progress, or get cool new things, they have to spend money. Magic Online is exactly the opposite: as phantom queues show, Wizards sees the act of simply playing some Magic and not getting any cards as something they should charge for. This is insane. If people just want to play the game for the joy of playing it, the system should reward that, not expect revenue from it. If I feel like playing some games of League of Legends, not only will I not pay for it, I’ll get some points for winning or losing that, over time, I can use toward new heroes.

Why doesn’t Magic Online do this? Because it’s from 2002, not 2013.

The Magic Online economy makes no sense. Instead of players spending money for cards and getting those cards, they have to jump through a thousand hoops with a jerry-rigged “trading” system in order to spend tickets to acquire cards. There are thousands of bots offering the same things, and no in-client way to look up prices, and no way to check stock without opening a trade with the bots. Want to spend five cents on something? Fuck you. No sane person would wish for this to be the system, but it’s evolved that way, so… guess we’re stuck with it.

This is one of the plainest examples of the sunk-cost fallacy that I can think of. “We can’t just start over,” says Wizards of the Coast, about their program that desperately needs to be started over. “We’ve sunk so much time an energy into it! It’s been working just fine for eleven years!”

It has not been working fine for eleven years. It has, in fact, sucked.

If they invest the money necessary to rebuild Magic Online for the modern era, they risk making a program that could actually get players into the game. A program that allows players to play for free, and then monetizes it by having them spend money on packs. A program with an honest-to-god auction house, to buy and sell cards for in-game money, in order to build decks.

A program that isn’t a program, because it runs through a web browser, because again: 2013.

Magic Online running as an iPad app, connecting without issue to tournaments filled with players from all over the world.

This won’t happen. Wizards will keep throwing fix after fix at Magic Online, desperately trying to get it to crash slightly less often, working just well enough that only their digital division is embarrassed when a well-known player talks about it, instead of the entire company.


Unknown said...

I'm commenting on all these old posts because hey, you're saying really cogent stuff here, and in a consistently entertaining fashion, too. People should comment. As for this post in particular, you've both summed up countless diatribes and gone deeper on the issue here all in one place, and I call that good work.

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