Is Magic Losing on the Digital Plane?


This Week in Popculture’s Cube: Is Magic Losing on the Digital Plane?

twtw117_mtgoThough we like to think of ourselves as a unified community, there is one clear, irrevocable divide in Magic: that between Paper Magic and Magic Online. Between the physical game, and the game that exists out there in cyberspace.

If we’re all honest, neither is a perfect game. All have their divine brilliance and their ignominious faults.

But, to a man (or woman) I think that we can all agree that MODO (an old name for MTGO – standing for Magic Online with Digital Objects) could be better.

I started playing MODO in 2012 and loved it – initially. With a couple of my regular Magic playgroups having fallen apart due to members moving away or scheduling issues, I gloried in the fact that I could, at any time I wanted, go online and do sorcerous battle.

Except that it wasn’t that easy. First, MODO isn’t Mac compatible, so I had to fire up my creaky old HP laptop. So on top of everything else, it was slow (it took 20 minutes to load on my computer).

Second, I discovered, to my displeasure, that I had to start all over. While I understand that the idea is quite infeasible, it’s a little irritating that you simply can’t somehow import your Paper Magic collection into the digital world. So I had to buy cards. Add the fact that the digital cards cost the same as the physical ones, and that the mechanism to trade cards is counter-intuitive, I began to find that MODO simply wasn’t the panacea that I wanted it to be.

(Also, the less said about how buggy it is, the better.)

The problem is, of course, that MODO is 12 years old (despite the “updated” version released in 2008). It’s essentially remained the same, while the digital world has evolved.

It’s difficult to find figures for how many folks play (or have accounts on) MODO. One figure I found said that between 2002 and 2007, MODO rose to 300,000 users. I’m sure that number is much higher (surely over a million?) but let’s put it in perspective through comparison to a similar game by a different company: Hearthstone, published by Wizards of the Coast competitor Blizzard (the maker of World of Warcraft) has garnered 10 million user accounts since premiering this year. Ten. MILLION.

How is this possible?

Well, first, Hearthstone is playable on a number of mobile devices; it can be played in small nuggets; and it can be played anywhere.

Second, MODO can do none of those things.

MODO is not available on any mobile devices; games can be cumbersome to join; and unless you take your laptop to McDonalds to get free wifi, you’re pretty much stuck playing MODO at home or (gulp) at work.

For years, tech writers have commented about the decline of the video game console and the rise of mobile gaming. The “play anywhere, in small bites, for incremental payments” paradigm has taken over the gaming industry, leading insiders to speculate that the current generation of stationary gaming consoles, including the Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Wii U, will be the last of their kind.

While so-called “computer gaming” on a PC continues to be a force, it’s not as powerful as it once was. World of Warcraft subscriptions have declined, for example, from a height of 12 million to a current number around 8 million. This at a time when gaming on a phone or tablet has become not only the norm, but basically the most visible means of digital gaming.

Thus having a flagship card game thats’s tied to laptop and desktop computing simply doesn’t make sense.

And this follows an unfortunate trend not only for Magic, but for Wizards of the Coast in general. WotC did previously offer a Magic mobile app – not the game, but a life counter with a card search feature. However, they seemed to lose interest in it: the app was not updated after the end of the Innistrad block, and was discontinued. I’ve been unable to find it on app stores. Similarly, despite a flood of third-party apps, WotC’s other flagship product, Dungeons & Dragons, has yet to produce an app, and is known for having a buggy interface for its online D&D Insider subscribers.

But, you may say, what about Duels of the Planeswalkers? That’s a WotC Magic product that’s accessible via an app, right?

True, but DotP, while fun, is not meant to be a full-on mobile MODO client. More an introductory product to get players into Paper Magic, DotP lacks a robust interface and the ability to really design a gaming experience like MODO can.

Which brings up another point – why wouldn’t WotC decide to just scrap DotP and introduce a MODO app? Surely it could be done.

My point in all of this is to express concern for a part of a game that I love. D&D is, by some sales figures, trailing behind other RPGs essentially because WotC took their eye off the ball and didn’t evolve with the times. It seems that WotC may be falling into the same trap with Magic. Case in point: right on the Magic homepage, it notes that MODO is only accessible by North American PC players, killing off many potential players who could have been interested. And at the same time, the number of digital mobile card games available to fill the void is legion – I counted upwards of 80 in the Apple app store alone.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, Magic is facing competition in the digital plane.

And it’s not something that Jace can help them with.

1 thought on “Is Magic Losing on the Digital Plane?

  1. When will Wizards listen to their audience and make a DotP-style interface for MTGO? “It’s hard” is NOT an excuse. I *love* Magic. But my god, an 8-old-from the early 90’s could make a better UI than that. Now the world is storming ahead and Wizard’s aren’t even trying to catch up as far as I can see. It took them almost 6 years to get Leagues back online ffs…….. So frustrating.

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