rom November 18 to 23, 2009, in Rome, Italy, we held the sixteenth Magic: the Gathering World Championships. Everyone who is anyone in the Magic world was there. Well, except me. I was on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean. Interestingly enough, I was traveling on a ship named Magic—the Disney Magic to be precise.
When I got off the ship, I posted a message on my wall on Facebook.
One of the replies was from Glenn Godard, a tournament organizer from Albuquerque whom I've known for a long time:
To which I replied:
That's all it took to get my creative wheels spinning. I was very impressed with the Disney cruise—so much so that Glenn's post made me think back to a quotation from a book by a man named Roger von Oech. No, not a Whack on the Side of the Head (my favorite book for those of you just joining us). This quotation was from the follow-up book, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants—well worth reading if you enjoyed Whack. The quote:
Each culture, industry and organization has its own way of looking at the world. Often the best ideas come from cutting across the disciplinary boundaries and looking into other fields. As journalist Robert Weider put it, "Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative explorer looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport." In what outside areas can you look for ideas?
In my article on creativity (Connect the Dots), I talked about how I believed creativity was tied to the skill of connecting things others had not thought to connect. Well, part of doing that is looking for lessons to your field even when you are well outside it. What does a cruise ship have to do with making better Magic design? Nothing and everything. It's all how you choose to look at it.
I had just walked away from a very positive experience, one that had exceeded my expectations. Couldn't I find lessons from their success? I could and I have. That is what leads us to today's article. How did a relaxing vacation teach me how to make Magic design better? Easy: I looked at what they did right and I examined how I could apply the same techniques to Magic design.
Lesson #1 – Know Your Audience
To explain this first lesson, let me start by giving you a little backstory. Eleven years ago, I married a wonderful woman named Lora. (You might see her in a few of the pictures.) For our honeymoon, we decided to go on a cruise. I had gone on one cruise before with my family and had a wonderful time. Our honeymoon cruise proved equally enjoyable. So much so that one night under the moonlight up on deck, I made a fateful promise to my wife. I promised that every five years I would take her on a cruise.
Flash forward four years. It was time to pick our next cruise, but this time we had a new concern. Her name was Rachel. Rachel is my first child, and at the time of the cruise she was going to be 3. (Adam and Sarah would also be on the cruise, but in their mommy's belly. We had the doctor write down the sex of the twins and put it in an envelope, and we opened up the envelope on the ship—again in moonlight.) Cruise ships are wonderful places for adults to have fun, but we found out that most of them really weren't interested in dealing with children, especially small children.
In the end, we found only two cruise lines that seemed to cater at all to families: Disney and a cruise line I'll call Cruise Line X. (This was several years ago, so there is some chance some other cruise has stepped up to the task.) Disney was a little pricier, so we opted for Cruise Line X. All in all, we had a good time. I felt Cruise Line X did a decent job providing for families. That is, until I took a Disney cruise.
Now we get to the first lesson. Having now seen Disney cruises in action, I realize that Cruise Line X was merely accommodating families. (And mind you, as no one else was even trying, I still give them props.) Disney was catering to families. The experience of a Disney cruise was built with the family in mind. For example, on the Cruise Line X cruise, we had the ability to drop Rachel off in a playroom whenever we wished. While there, she would play with the toys that were in the room. Disney, on the other hand, had a schedule of activities (broken up by age, but I'll get to that part later). Cruise Line X was providing daycare. Disney was providing camp. Multiple times during the cruise, we would take Rachel to the kids' area (for her age group) not because we wanted her there but because she wanted to be there.
From having scheduled times with Disney characters in the lobby to having shows appropriate for the whole family to having a staff trained to deal with kids, Disney made the whole experience one that was tailored to families. They succeeded because they understood who they were trying to please.
Interestingly, this lesson has been one of my themes since coming to work at Wizards. One of the questions I asked when I was put on my very first development team (yes, I started as a developer, for those who haven't heard my entire Wizards tale) was "Who is this card for?" My desire to answer the question led to my creation of the psychographics (Timmy, Johnny, and Spike). and pushed R&D into a different mindset. Instead of just making cards, we started making cards that met the needs of our players.
But that was only answering one aspect of the question, the psychological one. Who are our players? Physically? Socially? Environmentally? Where do they play? Why do they play? How do they play? The key to providing our players what they want is knowing what that is. A big reason we started up magicthegathering.com eight years ago was that we wanted a direct link to our players. I read my mail not out of some kind gesture, but because it's important that I know what our players want, what they are feeling, what they need.
I want our cards, our mechanics, our sets, our blocks, our themes to connect with all of you. R&D works really hard to make Magic the game that the players want it to be. This is quite challenging as you don't all exactly agree on what you want, but there are some common grounds and we work hard on hitting those as solidly as we can.
This lesson is important not because it's something we don't already do, but because it hammered home how important understanding your audience is to the success of your product—be it pouring ketchup in the shape of Mickey's head or turning out mechanics like landfall that deliver on what the audience is seeking.
Lesson #2 – Have Something for Everyone Inside Your Target Audience
To Cruise Line X, a kid was a kid. They treated them as a single commodity. Disney divided up children into six age groups (0-2, 3-4, 5-7, 8-10, 11-13, and 14-17), each with their own play space, their own counselors, and their own schedule. The activities that Adam and Sarah (age 5) participated in were completely different from the ones Rachel (now 9) attended. The ship also had activities for the parents, including areas on the ship where children weren't allowed. In addition, there were activities planned for families with the intent that the parents would participate in them with their kids. For example, Sarah and I competed as a team in a Disney trivia game show. (We would have won if we only knew Donald Duck's middle name—Fauntleroy, if you're interested.) The point here is that part of what made the cruise such a pleasant experience is that they anticipated our needs as a family and then provided them understanding that different members would require different things.
In some ways, we are designing not one but many games. Standard is not Vintage. Draft is not Elder Dragon Highlander. The Pro Tour is not the kitchen table. The trick is that each of these games requires the same thing: new Magic cards. That means that each set that comes out has to deliver to each group. How do we do that? For starters, we have to take measures to identify what the groups are. Then we have to take the time to communicate with representatives of each group to understand what their group wants. Finally, we have to take this knowledge and make or tweak cards to provide what the group needs.
Let's take an example from the not too distant past. With the rise of EDH and other multiplayer formats, R&D has been a lot more conscious of how our cards work outside of a traditional two-player scenario. This concern can stretch from what effects we put on the card all the way down to the template chosen. A common discussion, for instance, will have to do with making something targetable where the choice seems always obvious in a two-person game. When someone asks, "Why would we want to make the effect targeted?", we answer, "For multiplayer play."
The most important take-away from this lesson is that we need the players to take ownership of the game. We want each of you to feel that Magic is your game even if how you choose to play the game is a small subset of the overall audience. We need to make sure that every set has cards that speak to your experience and that excite you to do whatever it is you do when you play Magic. The Disney Cruise might be a wonderful place to honeymoon, but I left feeling as if it was a ship that catered to families.
Lesson #3 – Understand Your Brand
Let me tell you about my worst experience with a Disney employee on the cruise. First a little background. My mother came on the cruise with us to keep us from being outnumbered by the kids. As she lives in Florida, she rented a car to drive us from her home to the boat. (My family was too big to fit in her normal car.) This meant that she had to drop off the rental car while we checked in. It turns out that we were unable to check her in without her passport, so we had to wait for her to arrive before we could get on the boat. Trying to speed us up, I inquired with the woman at the line if I could stand in the line and then exchange places with my mother when she showed up.
The woman had a smile on her face, but she was a little curt when she explained that I wasn't allowed to do that. She wasn't outwardly rude but I could clearly read that she was a little annoyed with me. She said to just bring my mom to her when she showed up, which I did. She then took my mom directly to the desk so that she could sign in without waiting in the line. My mom got through in under a minute. That was the worst experience I had with a Disney employee on the cruise.
Disney has worked hard to play up its key brand points: 1) It is family friendly, 2) It is customer-service-oriented, and 3) It provides the upmost of quality. The cruise did nothing but reinforce each of those points.
This brings up an interesting point for Magic. What are our brand's key selling points? What do we want people to think when they play our game, or participate in our events or read our website? What do we want Magic to represent?
After much thought, here's what I consider the top three. My caveat here is that I'm talking as an individual and not for the company here. Here is what I personally see as Magic's key selling points. I've stuck to three because, well, if it's good enough for Disney, it's good enough for Magic. Without any ado, here's what I'd like Magic to represent:
Fun – Many days on my Twitter account, I will ask a Question of the Day. One day, for QotD I asked for my followers to list the top three adjectives that they felt described Magic. Far and away the number-one answer was fun. In the big picture that's important because at heart we are an entertainment property. You come to us because you want an enjoyable way to pass the time. If Magic isn't fun, nothing else is going to matter, because we won't have an audience. As such, this goal is always forefront in my brain when working on design. When I'm playtesting a new card or a new mechanic or a new set, I always ask the same thing: "Is this fun?" Only when the answer is "yes" do I move on to solve other problems.
Innovation – Magic is a game that constantly reinvents itself. As such, it's crucial that we do so in a way that makes the journey pleasant and exciting. A key part of making that happen is finding ways to do things that you all can't easily predict. That requires design to be agile and unconventional. We have to constantly innovate. It's this part of the game that gives me the creative challenge that has kept me so interested for so long in my job. You guys are a smart group, so it's a challenge staying one step ahead of you.
Quality – Our goal is nothing short of being the best game in existence. Wizards supports us in this goal and gives us resources that most games can only dream of. Back when I used to do design on other games, I would get design assignments that would last all of three weeks. Large sets for Magic, in contrast, get a year. Everyone who works on Magic understands how special the game is, and we all have a strong personal stake in it. We spend a great deal of time analyzing and debating and playtesting and debating and fine-tuning and debating because we want our work to measure up to the game we are working on. Magic is something special, and we intend to always keep it that way.
Lesson #4 – The Details Matter
Every night, when our steward would turn down our room, he would leave little chocolates on our pillow. The chocolates had a picture of Sleepy (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). The sign in the bathroom asking you to reuse your towels to help cut down on pollution and preserve the ocean had Ariel from The Little Mermaid on it. The French restaurant on the ship was called Lumiere's after the animated candelabra in Beauty and the Beast. The whistle they used when they needed to make a ship-wide announcement was the first few bars to "When You Wish Upon a Star," Disney's theme song. Disney never missed a beat to instill Disney wherever they could. That dedication to their theme strongly contributed to the overall effect of the cruise. The cruise made you feel a part of something bigger and it was very comforting.
I believe that design has the same responsibility to create the sense of immersion. All the little details should be accounted for, even if the players are not aware of them all. Why? Several reasons. First, some players are aware of them, and having the sense that design and development took the time to plan it out implies that the same was done for parts of the game that they might not see. Second, players will feel the aesthetic of the design even if they don't understand all the pieces that went into it. Third, the discipline of filling in all the details will force the designers to be more careful of their craft. When details matter, artists learn to make them count. This results in tighter and cleaner designs.
Lesson #5 - Find Solutions for Problems, Not Reasons
The ship has three restaurants (actually many more than that if you count all the different places on the ship to get food, but three main dining areas for dinner). The way dining works is that you rotate what restaurant you are in each night, but your wait staff and dinner companions always move with you. The first night I was in Lumiere's, I was served a Coke. Now, I'm a bit of a Coke snob, and I'm extra sensitive to fountain mixes of syrup and carbonation. The mix was off, and it was not enjoyable to drink. I reported this to the person who handled my drinks.
Within a minute I was talking to her boss, who was very interested in why I didn't like my Coke. Then within another minute I had a can of Coke and a glass of ice sitting in front of me. While they took their time investigating what was wrong, they wanted me to have a Coke that I was happy with. Once they realized that the problem was not something that could be fixed on the ship, they made sure that every time I ate in that restaurant all my Coke came from cans.
A common mistake in this circumstance would be to explain to me why the Coke tasted bad. That's a mistake because it wouldn't address my problem. I didn't really care why I didn't have the drink I wanted. I cared that I didn't have the drink. The staff was well trained to make me happy rather than provide me with answers about why I was unhappy.
This issue comes up in design because a game like Magic is destined to have mistakes. With so many moving pieces and so many new ideas, it's impossible to never have anything go wrong. This means that a lot of what we do is problem solve past designs. This is why we love feedback. This is why we do market research. This is why we read everything we can about what players think about the game.
Understanding the problem is only the first step, though. As the staff on the cruise showed, the reason for a problem is only valuable if it leads you to the solution. Fixing a problem means finding the thing that does work, not just removing the thing that doesn't. If a certain card makes the environment less fun, we want to study it to understand what about the card is hurting the game, and then use that knowledge to create something that not only offsets it but that actively leads the game towards being more fun.
When You Wish Upon a Star
There is a saying that "quality is quality." What the saying means is that the act of creating quality does not vary from thing to thing. The root of what makes one thing of quality applies to everything else. The lessons to be learned are universal. I hope today's column showed how I could turn my vacation into a model for my creative work. I want to be inspired to do quality in my own work, so that I can inspire another and pass it along. I believe it is this line of thinking that leads to a better world.
That's all I got for today. Join me next week when we all go down to the old mill stream.
Until then, may you know the joy of quality.