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

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