Tuesday, August 16, 2005

MLB Showdown 2002: Broken & Bloated

2002 was in my mind, a real low point for the MLB Showdown brand.

Tom Wiley the game’s inventor had left Wizards and the rest of Wizard’s R&D was not fond of the game at all. They disliked the game’s base mechanic, the game’s primary focus on luck and dice, but in particular a lot of people at Wizard’s R&D just felt a sports game was incompatible with Wizards as a whole.

In 2002, after Wiley's departure, the brand was given a temporary steward and a new card format. While the 2002 card format was superior to the treatment given in 2001 and 2000, the cards still suffered from ‘over-treatment’. In 2002 it had these awful ‘lines’ around the top of the card that just obscured the photo and in particular, made non-foil cards look rather cheap and tawdry.

The game also went under a small revision, players complained about the lack of ‘action’ on the batter’s card, because even the best batters only rolled on the batter’s chart 25% of the time, the game largely boiled down to high rolls on the pitcher’s chart. To combat that, the OB number on batter’s was extended higher but more outs were added to the batter's card.

This revision however made a huge mistake, it kept the 2001 cards (designed to work on the older statistical breakout) legal in tournament play. Those cards were a little broken to begin with, but when combined with more action on the batter’s chart they became lethal.

The game also had too many open ended rules, rules many of us (including myself) clamored to have changed. Cards that allowed you to draw an open number of cards based on some sort of trigger, cards enchanted an entire inning, but there were no specific cards to break enchantments and cards that could be put into stackable play. The game had never really defined how its ‘stack’ worked, which is amazing since the company created Magic, (the game that first invented the ‘card stack’ and the resolution rules within).

As an aside, I’ve always argued Showdown should have a ‘non-stack’, or in other words, have immediate resolution rules. The idea is all cards resolve immediately and in the case of resolution triggers, resolve in the order in which they were played when the trigger fires and resolve immediately. This rule, (the exact opposite of how Magic resolves a stack) solves 99% of all rule ambiguity that has arisen in the game.

The game also had useless defensive cards. In fact, the best defensive cards were used to GIVE UP runs, in favor of card draw, or ridiculously defensive cards actually used on OFFENSE, like doubling a person’s defensive ability just to increase swing pump, a combination actually ALLOWED in original tournament rules and to this day, I use a poster child of just how sloppy Wizards R&D can be with any non-Magic TCG.

The key problem with the game's strategy, (still to this day), is +’s to the pitch (the bread and butter of defensive cards) are statistically miniscule in advantage compared to +’s to the swing. Also the strength, scope and playability of +’s to the swing were far more rich and far more complimentary. Offense also had mechanisms to reroll outs in 2002, but defense had no ability to reroll hits.

It lead to the worst era in MLB Showdown history, the 2002 Aggro years and also one of the most embarrassing moments in Wizards R&D history, a national tournament, where a baseball simulation game was yielding on average over 50 runs a game. Meanwhile stunned members of Wizards R&D were forced to watch their own game butchered, hacked and exploited, making a mockey of baseball in the process.

Curt Schilling, an all-star pitcher who ACTUALLY PLAYS MLB SHOWDOWN, stopped considering the game seriously after the strategy card mess. Aggro players in their 20’s were literally crushing 10 year olds in tournaments by a score of 48 to 13 and we’re doing it by starting the game with 16 intentional walks, (another open ended rule Wizards never addressed)!

Sadly, the best tournament player that year, wasn't even a baseball fan. The 2002 national tournament prize was season tickets to your favorite team, the national winner that year proudly boasted he would just sell the tickets right away and as such wanted Cubs tickets, even though he lived nowhere near Chicago and indeed, had not attended or even cared about baseball in many years. He just knew Cubs tickets would fetch the highest price on eBay. He didn't even know who Ernie Banks was, when I asked him.

That sad scene actually affected the brand. The brand had lined up hall-of-famer and Nego-League legend Buck O’Neill to attend the National tournament that year. However, when associates of his showed up to scout the tournament atmosphere, they promptly returned to Buck with the advice of “stay away”. Who could blame them? The game was not only breeding poor sportsmanship, (evident to anyone who lingered in the tournament room for more than 10 minutes) it was also making a mockery of the great game of baseball, something any real baseball fan would and should never tolerate.

The tragedy of 2002 wasn’t that Aggro crushed the tournament meta-game, or that it actually scared away hall-of-fame sponsors and advocates. No the tragedy was that all of it could have been avoided.

Myself, and many others in the company had warned Wizards of the broken nature of the game, but our fears were ignored. In fact, some at Wizards actually thought a “breakable” set of strategy combinations would be good for the game, suggesting it brought ‘skill’ to the game. The same reasoning I suppose, that Wizards used when it was revealed just how broken the Pyschotog deck was in Magic around the same time.

You can’t develop a sports card product that way. While Aggro players were having a ball and patting themselves on the back for their strategy decks (and sometimes boasting about being the strategy's creator, when in fact most had copied the deck off just one player), that same small core of players were shredding the brand’s credibility. Remember as stated in earlier posts, if your tournament environment is not rich, your product’s longevity is doomed, that is a TCG industry rule, that I have as yet, never seen broken.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame Aggro players. They just wanted to turn a 200 dollar investment into a 1 in 10 chance at earning a prize that could be converted into 10,000 dollars with a simple posting on eBay. There were probably 10 decent MLB Showdown players on the national tournament scene in 2002 and not much more, so the odds were very high you could succeed.

No, like I say, its not the fault of Aggro players at all. I blame Wizards. I blame their R&D, their marketing and their brand management, the whole kit and caboodle. They had turned MLB Showdown into a disaster and the ever so important bottom line was getting worse.

The game's initial inertia and small growth atrophied in 2002, the game's audience was shrinking.

Miraculously, despite all this, MLB Showdown survived into 2003 and we enter the Worth Wollpert era.

2003: Wollpert Downer Syndrome

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Death of MLB Showdown: 2001 – A STEP BACK, A STEP AHEAD

2001 was a tentative year for the brand and in my view, one of the worst.

The brand did not meet the expectations of the 2000 forecasts and many of the brand’s opponents within the company were crowing about how they were right.

2001 was also the year Wizards realized that the Pokemon money-bath was about to take a dive. The little yellow rat was still making money, but the company could no longer roll marijuana in 50 dollar bills at the Christmas party.

Like any Wizards brand, one of the key focuses in terms of the brand’s potential longevity was the attendance it could muster for its tournaments. Anyone in the hobby game industry will tell you that it doesn’t matter how much you sell in a given quarter, if your tournament structure behind the game is weak or poorly attended, your brand will have no longevity.

In the hobby game industry, sales of course are the bottom line; we all like sales, but if you want to know if those sales will last, look at your tournament support. If its not there you can expect your brand to die within 2 years, maximum. If the tournament support is there, you can expect steady sales numbers, even some growth over the long haul.

MLB Showdown’s tournament participation was horrendous and it had the company concerned. It meant the lower than expected sales could likely fall in its second year. Now, my apologies to hardcore Showdown players who might be reading this, who feel I am insulting them when I say the tournament scene was awful.

The fact of the matter is though, the tournament scene for Showdown was always a giant mess and 2001 was the genesis of the scene becoming an utter disaster, which culminated in the 2002 Nationals, which were one of the lowest points for the brand.

Anyway, in 2001 Wizards focused on making strategy cards more compelling. Hard code Magic players dismissed MLB Showdown immediately as a simple game of dice. The Magic snobs in Wizards would frequently mock the game, by suggesting you could reduce the game to one simple die roll, who ever rolled highest would win.

There was a large element of truth to their criticism. Indeed, MLB Showdown displayed no more real skill than say Monopoly. The problem is people at Wizards wanted the game to increase the skill capacity by creating more complex strategy cards. It wanted to lure Magic players into the game by providing mechanics such as the Hung It strategy card. A card that a non-ATCG player would look at and consider it to be a wasted card, but even a reasonably seasoned TCG player would see “CARD ADVANTAGE” in a giant neon lights, printed over the card and gravitate to it.

The thinking in 2001 was so flawed from the start and really I think the brand would have died in 2001 were it not for one saving grace, which I’ll save to the end.

Not only was providing more ‘TCG-like” mechanics to the game not the answer, it was entirely the wrong focus. The real problem with the game was not the luck factor. People play games based almost entirely on luck all the time. There really is NOT a lot of strategy to backgammon once you master the basics. There really is NOT a lot of strategy to RISK once you master the basics. People play those games anyway, because of the meta-game attached to them, because of the social ties to the game etc. etc.

That actually, was the audience MLB Showdown was starting to cultivate, social gamers, who loved baseball and loves to simulate a baseball game with dice and cards. Wizards on the other hand, still felt the power gamer was the right profile for the game. Now for a football game, that’s entirely true, but for baseball it was wrong. Seam-heads, real seam-heads are stat freaks and if you provide mechanics whereby Bret Boone can produce a 1200 slugging percentage and a 625 batting average, you are immediately destroying your base customer.

I maintain this is, to this day, the key error Wizards has always made with MLB Showdown, that and it never focused on time to market. There is a 6 month cycle between getting an MLB Showdown set out the door. In the baseball card industry that’s a death knell. 6 month cycles work fine for Magic, but baseball is different. The fact Wizards can’t crank out product faster than Upper Deck, is a total logistical failure for Wizards in my opinion, one that to this day, they spend very little energy addressing.

Wizard’s problem, at its core is it only understands one business model: Magic the Gathering. Now they have a right to want to shoe horn every game they make into the MTG business model, because MTG is a 200 million dollar annual machine. The fact is however, a sports game and the MTG model are *not* compatible and never will be, but to convince just about anyone that matters at Wizards of that basic fact is next to impossible.

2001 catered to the power gamer in spades. The strategy cards in 2001 were a power gamer’s delight and the game began to attract that kind of gamer to its tournaments. The problem was the brand had little to no R&D budget, which mean play testing was non-existent. In fact, I have some evidence that Wiley knew he had broken the game with his strategy card combinations but didn’t care, he felt it would help sales.

Because MLB Showdown had no hand size limit, had no limit on the number of cards played per at-bat, or at the time, even a restriction on playing the same card at the same at bat, because it had powerful enchantments with no specific cards to dispel or remove enchantments, because it had all the power of card draw and board control as Magic, but none of Magic’s balance, countering or hand restrictions MLB Showdown was heading towards a meta-game nightmare.

The strategy card combinations produced such inflated scores and games, that anyone who played the game internally began to ban cards left and right in their internal leagues. The high-offense game were also longer and generally, because lower score games produce more 1-run deficits, the games were often blow outs and less intriguing.

2001 sales initially did not move from 2000 and Wiley’s involvement with the game was soon to be at an end. When the game’s creator abandons the game and the sales are stagnant, you can start to hear a brand death knell.

But, MLB Showdown was given a saving grace and his name was Ichiro.

Ichiro lit up baseball in 2001 and provided the Pacific Coast rim, with a genuine star. Ichiro was introduced to MLB Showdown in 2001 Pennant Run and for whatever reason the set and that card in the set produced a notable sales spike. It was enough of a spike that people began to project serious growth for the game, hell even the word ‘hit’ was tossed around by the end of 2001.

The tournaments had shown some growth as well, because the game picked up some power-gamers along the way, mainly frustrated Magic players that found more success in the much smaller fish-tank of MLB Showdown.

But there were problems lurking underneath the veneer. The brand still had major problems that nobody was addressing, because nobody thought they were problems. Those problems were:

1. The few kids who played in tournaments were getting destroyed by adults who had found broken strategy combinations in the game.

2. The cards designs were ugly and confusing. Wizards literally had the ugliest baseball cards ever made in 2000 and 2001.

3. There were no subsets, no thematic cards and no rare vs. non-rare version of star players. It meant your average booster back yielded a plethora of Michael Tucker and Sidney Ponson, but you could spend 200 dollars and not see a single Alex Rodriguez card. The thing is Wizards thought this was great, it meant their repeat-purchase model was preserved.

4. To this day, Wizards fundamentally doesn’t understand how a set of baseball cards are structured. One 2005 Upper Deck release I saw had 5 versions of Randy Johnson in it. The 2005 base set of MLB Showdown contained no Randy Johnson at all. Then, the brand brains at Wizards scratch their head and wonder why the penetration of MLB Showdown amongst baseball card collectors is so low.

5. There was no association at all, with just about every baseball fan’s point of entry into baseball. Most people become baseball fans because they discover or adopt a favorite baseball team. But Showdown was constructed via ‘points’. In fact, even if you wanted to build your favorite team (the Astros lets say), Showdown didn’t provide enough cards for you to even field an entire Astros team. This last point is still controversial, but I maintain, there needed to not only be a team format, people could compete with their favorite teams with in tournaments (an alternate format to points, not a replacement to it), but there needed to be a SKU that catered to team play.

6. The biggest problem of all though, was strategy cards had bent so far to lure power gamers, new players (especially kids) were abandoning strategy cards altogether. Citing them as too confusing, too clumsy and most of all, citing that they slowed the game down and made it ‘boring’.

By the end of 2001, MLB Showdown had cultivate a few frustrated Magic players, who bought the game on a whim to see if they could win some tournament prizes and collected a few actual baseball card collectors who were attracted by the book value in Beckett for the Ichiro card.

In fact however, the game’s health was more precarious than it had been in 2000 and worst of all; MLB Showdown was about to make the same mistakes in 2002 and this time the result would lead to a PR nightmare. The game had taken a step ahead in sales by the end of the year, but a step back in terms of its overall product strategy.

NEXT POST: MLB Showdown 2002: Broken and Bloated

Monday, August 01, 2005

Death of MLB Showdown - Part 1

I want to talk about the death of MLB Showdown.

MLB Showdown is a trading card game, designed by Wizards of the Coast. It’s a baseball card game, similar in concept to the old Strat-o-Matic baseball game, but with actual baseball cards and a collectable scheme of booster packs and starter packs.

The game is the only game where I played some role in its design and layout. It also recently died, that is to say its latest release, the 2005 Trading Deadline release, is the last release of the game you will ever see.

I am saddened by the death of this product. I also think it’s death taught me a lot about the gaming industry and both the good and the bad of a company called Wizards of the Coast.

I know a lot about how and why MLB Showdown failed and thought it might be interesting to write down what I know. I am going to break this post up into several parts, as I have a lot to say.

First of all a disclaimer:

There are some who will say that some of my criticism of Wizards in these posts is jealousy, specifically because I no longer work at Wizards of the Coast, and therefore my criticism is rooted in that. Well, that’s a difficult accusation to defend, I’ll just say that my job now pays better, has more prestige and makes me happier than any gig I had at Wizards. Not to say I didn’t enjoy working at Wizards, I did, I enjoyed working there a great deal, but I’m happy where I am now too.

So yes, I’m going to criticize Wizards in my posts, but I am also going to praise them. I am the first to admit Wizards has great people in it, great ideas in it and still has my overall respect and admiration.


The game was released in the late spring of 2000 and was originally designed by Tom Wiley. I don’t have much to say about Tom Wiley, I did not know him well. I watched him demo the game a few times to kids one day and he seemed genuinely proud of his game.

Wiley developed the pitch/swing die roll mechanic that is largely the trademark of the game and he came up with the idea of the strategy deck. It was RE Dalrymple, a play tester for the original release of the game, who came up with the Showdown brand name.

The interesting story behind the Showdown name is it was originally disliked by many people at Wizards. Now however the name ‘Showdown’ will be extended to new games that will actually replace MLB Showdown. These will be non-sport games.

MLB Showdown was released with much fanfare and ballyhoo. It was released during WOTC’s “hey day”, the company was still knee-deep in riches from its Pokemon trading card game.

Because Wizards was ‘fat’ from the Pokemon earnings, the company’s optimism and its expectations were vastly inflated. I saw earning projections for such horrible IPs as the X-Men TCG that Wizards’ produced that were outrageous and thus fell far short of expectations. WOTC just kept thinking they could crank out smash hits back then, when in reality Wizards really hasn’t had a “hit” in years and survives these days solely off of the revenue from Magic the Gathering and the few pieces of change that D&D delivers on an annual basis.

MLB Showdown suffered from inflated expectations as well, and indeed, in retrospect, it’s a miracle the game survived as long as it did. WOTC expected huge sales numbers for MLB Showdown and while initial base set sales were arguably quite healthy, the bloated expectations surrounding Wizards at that time, made MLB Showdown a disappointment in the eyes that matter most in the company.

One of MLB Showdown’s saving graces however was it received some fairly strong reviews from the gaming community as a whole (as opposed to other IP related games Wizards came with in 2000, which were universally panned). The game also out-performed any other Wizards product that year, other than their core stable of product. In short it was the strongest ‘new game’ , totally outperforming even strong intellectual properties such as Bugs Bunny, the Looney Tunes game associated with Bugs was an outright flop.

The game also seemed to open up a new channel, the baseball card store. This wasn’t nearly pervasive as people might think most Showdown sales were channeled through regular gaming stores and online sales. However, it was enough of a ‘new’ opportunity that once coupled with the fact Wizards license with Major League Baseball could extend for five years, meant Showdown would continue into 2001.

So at the end of 2000, despite a lot of problems and despite a slew of product being shredded and destroyed because it was left 'unsold', Wizards decided to continue with the brand in 2001.

This was a significant decision, because when the numbers were all tallied, the fact of the matter is, MLB Showdown cost Wizards money. It not only was *not* profitable it was taking money away from Wizards. Also it was a significant decision because MLB Showdown was not liked by many significant personas in Wizards.

Many of the ‘high minds’ at Wizards felt there was no cross-over between an average ‘gamer’ and an average ‘sports fan’. Indeed, many exhibited downright disgust that Wizards was attempting a sports-related IP. In their minds, it was breaking the ‘heart’ of what Wizards was, or at least was in their minds.

To this day, some of the antipathy towards sports related games still exists within Wizards and while those people are few in number and are by far, a small minority, I can tell you some of them are downright happy that Wizards decided to finally pull the feeding tube out of MLB Showdown.