CCG crunch continues with a vengeance

Couple of news bits coming hot-ish on the heels of the Upper Deck layoffs: Tenacious Games has folded – apparently The Spoils were too meager. Also, and this one’s a bit more surprising, the publisher of the former Fullmetal Alchemist and 24 CCGs has formally closed its game-publishing arm.

Maybe now, would-be new entrants into the CCG space will pause for a minute to rethink their business plans? Yeah, I know, never happen, but it’s a nice thought.

18 comments

  1. When we talked with people about our customizable game Powerstorm, some gamers said anything with any foil on it smelled random. They didn’t say that during pre-release investigations, but said it after the game’s release. Even if the packs were non-random by the box some people felt this way. Non-random by the box is not enough.

    Any large enough and expensive enough set of non-randomized cards is perceived as “collectible” by many fans, regardless of the lack of randomization and the lack of chase value for the cards.

    Our pre-publication research, plus our post-publication experience has taught us that to get decent market penetration a new customizable game has to:

    1) be distributed in starter decks only (with an optional two-player starter set that can have more bells and whistles like playmats)
    2) appear by every measure to be non-collectible (maybe even mostly non-customizable)
    3) have a low price point per unit
    4) be playable, fun, and competitive with only a small number of cards
    5) have expansions solely for diversity and not for power (i.e., wholly optional)
    6) potentially hide the fact that the publisher has any intent to offer expansions initially
    7) arguably have a license (but maybe not — see below)

    Now #7 is almost a MUST for a collectible game, however, at the same time, I think that a license can sometimes scream “Collectible” by its very existence. People know that a publisher will try to milk a license for all it’s worth — there lies expansions and generally collectibility (at least in the minds of fans).

    There was one game consistently named by every nay-sayer of collectible games as the anti-collectible customizable game: Reiner Knizia’s “Blue Moon” (the card game, not the board game). While there are rules for deck customization, people rarely seem to use the game that way. Blue Moon was sold as expandable, not “customizable”. The decks cost around $10.00 each.

    Strangely enough, if you bought all the Blue Moon expansions you’d have the card pool of a middling large CCG launch, at a comparable price. So, for the same quantity, it’s not really a cheaper route for the same level of customization. However, fans perceive the expansions for Blue Moon as wholly optional, whereas they automatically perceive that in a collectible game you need ALL the cards of EVERY expansion to play. This fan perception comes from years of poorly playtested CCGs with ultra-powerful chase rares. Even if you don’t fit that mold as a publisher, fans will presume that you do if you publish any type of explicitly customizable game unless it fits most if not all of the above criteria.

    If you see Fantasy Flight moving that way with the Call of Cthulhu and Game of Throne card games it is because they publish Blue Moon!!

    I would prefer it if licensors reduced the costs of their licenses for these types of properties and handed out multiple non-exclusive licenses. I think the games would be less likely to end up being collectible. With an expensive license you feel the need to make the game collectible to drive up profit to pay for your risk with the license. In many other categories of board games and clothing, licensors typically allow for multiple, competing non-exclusive licenses. Publishers desire licenses in a customizable game not only because of the marketing pull of the license, but because the art demands are so vast for a customizable game that many people want a fixed price for a large pool of art.

    Were we do to another customizable game, I for one would vastly prefer a lower cost license with competitors who have access to that license as well, as compared to an expensive license that has a cost that can sink you if you take one false step.

    Just my 2 cents. Your mileage can and probably does vary if you are one of the handful of people with an anime television license that’s actually making money using a collectible card game.

    Lee

  2. I think Lee pretty much hit the nail on the head. I got burnt out long ago on the CCG craze after spending WAY too much money on Magic and Jyhad cards. I own all of Blue Moon and its expansions (thank you Tanga!) and the price is probably comparable but that game is complete and I don’t have to look forward to buying a new set yearly. Also, for the price of Blue Moon and all its expansions, I can buy a single box of boosters and I can certainly tell you that its impossible to get a full set of cards from one box for most CCGs. I just don’t have the disposable income or patience for it like I used to. I just want to play the damn game!

    Its got the point where I now will wait for a CCG to die before buying it cheap off of Ebay rather than go through the collectible mess and the prices that entails.

  3. Hmmm… I’m gonna have to write at some point about why and how Blue Moon didn’t turn me out. I guess I could just review it, but I’d have to get several more decks.

  4. Mike — There’s a free authorized electronic version of Blue Moon on board game geek. They got permission to include pictures of the cards. So you can probably review it based on the print materials you have plus the online version..

    People brought up Blue Moon not because it was a perfect game, but because players perceived the system of distributing cards as “fair” and non-abusive to the players. Many players perceive collectible games as inherently “unfair” and out to intentionally gouge players monetarily. That perception can reduce the inherent perceived purchase worthiness of a game.

    Many CCGs have two player sets that are completely playable as stand-alone games that are effectively discount priced, and yet players are wary of buying those starter sets for a perceived collectible game in a way that they would not be so wary if they perceived the game as non-collectible.

    To James — Re: buying multiple boxes for one set. You are not the only one with that attitude toward CCGs. We heard phrases like “I can’t afford to get sucked in by another money sink” and “I hate having to buy new cards all the time.” You have no idea how often we heard those at our first GENCON. Even when a game doesn’t make people buy 4-5 boxes of each set, players are now conditioned to believe that they’ll have to do this just to play. They also believe that if they stop buying other people will build decks that will beat them automatically due to “arms escalation” from set-to-set. So, fighting against the pre-conditioning is REALLY hard for a publisher.

    Lee

  5. I love CCGs. I have played many and participated in tournaments for at least four different Titles (NetRunner, Middle-earth: The Wizards, Magig the Gathering, and Doomtown). Of those four games, only one has survived. The designs of all four were absolutely brilliant and provided a style of play unmatched by any games there were released around the same time. The artwork for two of them (Middle-earth: the Wizards and Doomtown) were astoundingly good, and you couldn’t beat any of them for flavor and context. But only 1 survived.

    CCGs have a dicotomy: Casual and Hardcore. The casual players are the ones who buy your decks, play during lunch at the school cafeteria, and ask for more at Christmas time. Hardcore players are the ones who advertise and promote the game, but expect to be rewarded for doing so with tournaments and prize support. It is phenomonally hard to support both groups at the same time, and yet without both, a game is pretty much doomed to die.

    The history of CCGs is littered with brilliant games that went by the wayside for any number of reasons. It’s a shame, really. There have been some really wonderful games go out because of the cost and competitiveness of the market.

    Peace,

    -Troy

  6. It’s a sad state of affairs with the CCG industry and I hate to see it this way.

    I’ve LOVED CCGs since I was introduced to the idea of them back in the mid-90s. The idea of trading cards and an expandable game was exciting to me back then (I was in my early teens). I COLLECTED tons of them. Playing them? Not so much. I live near a mid-sized city in Alabama, and I hardly ever could find anyone to play the games I got interested in. I guess most of the players played at their homes or with the personal gaming clubs they had. The only LCS groups were Magic players, which I played with some, but it always seemed too “competitive” for me to enjoy. My close friends weren’t gamers, and if we did try out a CCG (the first MLB Showdown comes to mind), we usually lost interest. Besides, they didn’t want to spend the money to devote to games. So while I loved the idea and the games, I never had a chance to fully know the “money sink” so many players complained about, playing competitively. But I did understand it.

    The problem has always been one thing in my mind: price. And thats the problem that seems to be affecting traditional trading cards as well. These are pieces of thin cardboard (or less), and we get maybe 7-10 cards a pack…and the company wants three dollars for it? I’m not into the publishing side, but if anyone could, can someone explain the high costs of these? Could the cards not be printed on traditional playing card style stock to lower prices? Of course, many would complain about the stock being too weak and easy to tear, but most of those players more than likely use sleeves in the first place. As well, why not a more “special order” distribution like the upcoming Fight Klub.

    One of the things I enjoy most in the world is breaking into a box of boosters and being surrounded by cards, thats why, I hate to say it, I like seeing games die because the prices hit dirt cheap. I can GIVE my friends cards and hope they get into the games. Still though, nothing much has changed, I’m married, my wife doesn’t like much gaming at all, except Checkers, so I’m buying cards just because I enjoy opening them. Wishing I had the chance to use them, playing with like-minded players.

    On a side note: I think Decipher’s Fight Klub strategy seems like a sound direction to take CCG-style gaming into (other than the digital realm), and seems to go mainly point for point for what you listed in your post, Lee, except of course the gameplay points as the game has yet to even be seen really. The only downfall I see is not a big base of players and therefore maybe not enough to keep the game afloat, but who knows, we’ll see.

    Good luck to the employees out of a job on account of the CCG crunch, and hopefully you can find some good places elsewhere for your talents.

  7. Ron wrote:

    “These are pieces of thin cardboard (or less), and we get maybe 7-10 cards a pack…and the company wants three dollars for it? I’m not into the publishing side, but if anyone could, can someone explain the high costs of these? Could the cards not be printed on traditional playing card style stock to lower prices?”

    Typically there are two common types of playing card stock. A true playing card stock has a resin, glue, clay, etc. interior sandwiched between two layers of paper. This is called a laminated stock (laminated referring to multiple layers, not plastic laminating film). This stuff is relatively hard to come by, has few buyers other than casinos, and is expensive in smaller quantities. Companies that use this stuff are either producing many millions of cards or else are marking up their product.

    The other type of stock is a generic C2S (coated two sides) stock. This is used commonly for many types of game cards. True playing card stock has better spring and it “remembers” its original shape better when you bend it. C2S doesn’t spring as well and tends to stay bent once it’s bent out of shape.

    Cheap game cards are C2S cards with ink on top of them. You find those in lots of board games. Better cards have either a UV coat or a card varnish on top of the printing. This gives the cards a nice slip when shuffling (so that they telescope together well after a riffle shuffle), adds to the spring, thickness, and shape memory of the cards. The press coating also primarily serves to protect the surface from getting damaged by oils on the fingers and from dirt.

    The better the stock and the press coat the more the cards cost.

    Next comes the number of distinct images in the game. This cuts two ways, both in pre-production and in production. In pre-production you may have to shell out $150.00+ per image for original art for every card in a high end CCG. Figure a 300 card release and the publisher could spend $30,000 to $60,000 on art unless they have a license for a comic or TV show which allows basically unlimited art for a flat fee. Huge cost up front. On the back end it bites you again. More distinct cards means more distinct sheets of cards that need to be setup by the printer. Each sheet you setup has an up front cost. If you need fewer copies of the cards (say to make rares) then the unit cost on those cards is also really high (unit cost only goes down a lot once you are printing 5,000; 10,000; or 20,000 of something.

    You can’t get around that need for art in a CCG. Players use it a mnemonic aid for memorizing card text and distinguishing cards. Unlike most other fixed deck cards, CCGs, by their nature, require larger pools of cards from which people take a selection and build decks. This requires many more card types and more total card art than a typical game.

    Finally comes collation and packaging. High end card printers are an uncommon lot. Among that uncommon group of printers, the vast majority can print and collate only 52, 54, 55, or 56 card decks (varies with the printers based on ad cards and jokers added to a standard 52 card deck). There are few printers who can handle creating small packs of cards without charging outrageous fees. Collation fees for boosters can get quite expensive in some cases, depending on the printer. At some printers this can be a relatively labor intensive process, and may require high measures of quality control to guarantee proper collation. That adds to the price again.

    While decks can be cheaper than boosters, they often have additional costs for rulebook printing and insertion. Another big expense for both of these types of products (decks and boosters) is the point of purchase (POP) display box they come in. POP displays are printed generally at a rate only 1/10 or so of the volume that the decks are printed in, driving up the unit cost of printing. Labor for loading decks into POP displays increases the cost again.

    Marketing is also crazy expensive. You don’t need to spend as much marketing a standard game. People buy it and play it. Done. Since the buy-in is higher for a CCG players expect to be able to play competively, meaning prizes (either cards or cash). That gets expensive fast. Traditional card games are cheaper, and a store owner can usefully order one copy of a traditional card game. To play a CCG you need a small community of players at a minimum. More sales required to make a game viable in a local area. Attracting more players requires more marketing both from the retailer and the publisher. It also typically requires more shelf space to sell a CCG than a standard card game. You have to work harder marketing to make the retailer feel that it’s worth his while to carry your product.

    Finally, in the time it took me to design one release for Powerstorm I was literally able to design about 10 other games. No exaggeration. Playtesting time for balancing a customizable card game is just ridiculous unless the game is really simple and inflexible.

    So, longer design times, higher end cards, plus scads of art, customized collation, and extensive Point of Purchase packaging really drives up the cost of these products substantially.

    Compare them to Bicycle casino grade playing cards. One back in two basic colors. 52 faces (56 with Jokers and ad cards). Never changes. No playtesting. No rules. One type of POP display. Millions of cards printed. Cheaper prices.

    It’s just much cheaper, in general, from a playtesting, collation, and art standpoint to create most other types of card games.

    So, if you are saying “How come a deck of normal cards is $3.00 and it’s $12.00 for the same number of cards in my favorite CCG?” you now have at least part of the answer for that question.

    You also know why you’ve been seeing CCG companies laying off employees and dropping like flies recently. When you fail to sell a typical card game you could lose $10,000 to $100,000. When you fail to sell a CCG you could lose $100,000 (for a small company) to $5,000,000 or more (for a big company).

    Licensing fees for big licenses can run in the range of $50,000 to $150,000 PER YEAR. Meaning that for a 3 year exclusive contract you may be out over a quarter of a million for some types of CCG licenses. I think licensors overvalue their licenses for this type of product, to be honest. The top 2-4 CCG companies in the world constantly fight for the top licenses, demand exclusivity, and throw huge money into their games. This pretty much keeps the price of producing these games high, keeps the risk high, and keeps the list of successful CCG companies down to a very short list indeed.

    Lee Valentine

  8. Oops — there were multiple “Finally” paragraphs in that post. A sign that it was too long winded 🙂 Anyway, I hope it answered your questions.

  9. Sorry guys. That should have been $50,000 to $150,000 “per THREE years”. Spaced out when I was reviewing my costing notes to write that post and put “put year”. $50K to $150K per 3 years as a guarantee for a big license.

  10. Thank you very much for that information, Lee. I had broad ideas on the reasonings and I’m glad someone took the time to explain in it depth. That post really should be posted somewhere more “available” so that people can understand the broad depth of CCG distribution and costs. And don’t worry about Long Winded posts, they are always the most informative.

    I say it again, it sucks that CCGs actually take so much in order to just exist. My favorite “gaming genre” is just too much for companies anymore.

    Thanks again, Lee.

  11. Meanwhile, with kind of spooky timing, WotC has announced it will introduce super-rare cards (“mythic rares”) into Magic: The Gathering (http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/20080602). By my reckoning, tournament players will end up buying 30% more product in order to get a the number of mythic rares. I’m guessing a whole lot of people are going to bail out of Magic as a result. I’ll leave you to speculate on why WotC has decided to do this.

  12. Ugh. Only WotC can manage to have super rare cards plus age out huge blocks of cards players own from some of the common tournament formats. With most other companies, aging out significant blocks of cards would enrage fans. I’ve seen other companies do that when there’s a new rules edition or a major game revamp, but not with the frequency WotC does it.

    I don’t suspect that Magic will see high attrition due to this move you are telling us about, John, unless those cards are more powerful or are otherwise critical. Depending on which cards they pick, they could just allow for some strange deck archetypes. Who knows?

  13. On the other hand, Magic is the only CCG that has aged out cards regularly for ten years, and it’s pretty much the only CCG that’s currently viable. Correlation is not causation, of course, but… worth considering.

    But yeah… chase cards in Magic. This does not smell good.

  14. I’m pretty positive that they age out cards because it’s easier to playtest that way, not because players are happy with their older cards become unplayable. Players are happier with a more balanced tournament environment. New players are happier to compete against older players without older players having access to cards newer players could never hope to buy. By aging out cards they can make cards that are neat, but would interact terribly with previously printed cards from early sets and relegate that action to Type I tournaments. Aging out cards keeps people buying new cards all the time — that’s good for WotC and terrible for players. I’m just saying, Mike, that without big prize money and a tournament focus, most people wouldn’t put up with that from smaller companies.

    Yu Gi Oh also sells well. Magic is not the only viable CCG. It may be the only really strong adult-targeted CCG, though.

    I think more people would be ticked about aging cards out in Magic except, that if local trends are like national trends, people play a helluva lot of draft for Magic, and in draft none of the cards in your collection at home are legal anyway, so there’s no friction if you can’t use cards from a specific set.

    I actually think that the prize money, plus a well-developed draft format, plus the position of being the granddaddy of CCGs is what keeps Magic strong.

    I think if Magic had no draft format and no prize money, it would probably start collapsing under its own weight like many other CCGs. When Upper Deck announced it was going to pull big prize money from the Vs. System Pro Tour, tournament attendance started dwindling in our part of the country.

  15. I am so glad I came upon this post and all of the replies. This is probably some of the most valuable info for game desingers on the web. I think it should definitely be posted somewhere where aspiring CCG designers can view it.

    I am one of the CCG designers I was talking about, but with the state the industry is in right now I have shelved my major project, and I am even thinking of making it customizable and not collectible (it also keeps me away from WotC’s evil patents). My current project falls well within the realms of the criteria mentioned above, with an added twist. I am not going to steal the spotlight with a description though.

    I hope the industry recovers soon. If anything, I think the little companies should band together and help each other with cross promotion and licensing of unique characters. I am already working with a few other small companies and the liasons I have been in touch with have become like family (in a business sense of course). One of my play testers even mentioned having cards that would work in other games. Can you tell we all cater to the casual player?

    Lee, I found your site and I am going to email you right after I post this… or at least the info email address. I have a few industry related questions.

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