WotC are a smart bunch of people who got rich with Magic: The Gathering. But it wasn’t the brilliance of the game’s design that got them rich. It was how they sold it.
Magic: The Gathering should of been called Crack: The Gathering but not because of its addictive game play. The addiction is in buying the packs not playing with them, a situation that WotC are more than happy with. Cards were rated as to their rarity (common, uncommon, and rare) and each booster pack had a random selection of fifteen cards. This turned the act of buying a pack from a simple transaction in to a gamble. Every purchase brought a thrill of anticipation. To the new fan this anticipation was strongly rewarded as each pack always contained new cards but the experienced players had to keep buying more and more packs to find the cards they didn’t have. Just like a drug addict needing more and more drugs to reach the same high.
In psychological terms, WotC were training their customers with operant conditioning using a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. In English, this means that the behaviour of buying a pack of cards is reinforced by sometimes rewarding the purchaser with a rare card.
This behaviour was first observed in pigeons by B. F. Skinner. In a simple experiment he placed three pigeons in three separate boxes and each box had a lever for the pigeons to pull. In the first box, pulling the lever always resulted in a pellet of food being supplied and quickly the pigeon learnt to pull the lever when it was hungry. In the second box, the lever did nothing and pigeon soon learnt to ignore it. But in the third box, the lever sometimes delivered a food pellet and sometimes didn’t. This pigeon constantly pulled the lever even when it wasn’t hungry because it was addicted to the potential reward. It was so addicted that when the lever was changed so that it never gave out food, the pigeon would exhaust itself to death by continually pulling the lever even though no food was coming out of it.
Magic: The Gathering uses exactly the same technique to train its customer to buy more packs. So clearly there isn’t much difference between a pigeon and a MTG player.
WotC have used this technique repeatedly in different products including the range of D&D Miniatures. Up until now, the minis have come in random packs with the customer having no idea what they are buying other than a pre-defined ratio of common and rare figures. However they are changing and Critical Hits were first with the news that packs are now being themed between heroes and monsters. There will still be a random selection but hero packs will only contain heroes and monster packs only have monsters.
Does this signify that treating D&D players like pigeons hasn’t worked? No. This is just means that WotC are now supplying two levers for the pigeon to pull. Whether a pigeon uses one or the other or both the levers, it doesn’t matter, they are still addicted. However I think this move does signify that D&D Miniatures are not that successful.
Why Magic: The Gathering became the huge success it did was more than just how it was sold. The game was good enough that people who avoided the buying-addiction still brought cards so that they could play the game. It was also the right product at the right time. A stroke of luck that cannot be repeated. With miniatures, it is a different story. D&D Miniatures simply is not that good a game. The uses of the D&D brand probably hurts sales as much as it helps them because it carries so much baggage. And they are expensive. A Magic booster pack costs about £2 for 15 cards where as minis cost about £8 for five.
In setting up 6d6 Fireball to sell fantasy miniatures Rob & I were adamant that we should be ethical. We have both spent too long working for companies we did not respect because of the way they treated their customers. This is why we don’t do random packs and why the pictures on the web site show the figures exactly* what you will receive.
WotC focus is making money and that is a good and honourable thing to be doing. But using exploitative marketing techniques such as random packs is a step too far. 6d6 Fireball wants you to buy our products because we make a good product. WotC just wants your money.
*We do clean the figures and apply a thin coat of boot polish to ensure you can see all the detail.