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Title: Magic's Kingdom
Source: Newsweek, 5/26/97
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With 2 billion cards sold and legions of fans, the
Wizards of the Coast try to cast a new spell
It might not have wowed Newton, but
what Richard Garfield, then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania,
did over three months back in 1991 surely ranks among the great achievements
by a mathematician, right up there with the discovery that people will
pay 18 percent interest on their credit cards if you call it 1 percent
a month. What Garfield invented, more or less on a dare from a struggling
Seattle game manufacturer called Wizards of the Coast, was the formula
for a game based on an infinitely expandable line of merchandise. Taking
advantage of the fact that even teenagers who live in their own fantasy
worlds get real allowances, Magic: The Gathering has since its introduction
in 1993 sold more than 2 billion game cards,
Garfield's other great feat was to give meaning to the lives of alienated misfits all over the world, who if not for Magic would probably be wasting their lives playing Dungeons & Dragons. People like the upstate New York teen who recently wrote to the game magazine InQuest thanking Garfield for "creating a game that a poor kid with a hellish home life can use as a means of escape from the stresses of the real world." To bring the benefits of Magic into more such lives, Wizards of the Coast last week opened the supermarket-size prototype--in Seattle, naturally--of what may become a nationwide chain of game centers and video arcades, intended to emphasize the game's potential for fostering social intercourse. "I've made a lot of friends, probably a thousand friends, through this game," said Tasheene Jones, an 18-year-old who regularly haunts the New York gaming parlor Neutral Ground. Wizards also recently announced the acquisition of TSR, which produces Dungeons & Dragons. And it has just introduced a card game based on the comic strip "Dilbert," hoping to go beyond the teenage market to that other great concentration of alienated Americans, grown-ups with jobs.
Behind this expansion, say analysts familiar with the company, is the suspicion that Magic in less than four years has become a "mature" product--a dreaded concept at Wizards' headquarters in a suburb of Seattle, where employees still stalk one another with Nerf-ball pistols. From its founding in 1990 as a threeman operation in the garage of CEO Peter Adkison, a young systems analyst at Boeing, the privately held Wizards grew, on the strength of Magic, to revenues estimated at $100 million last year. But Adkison and company "need new product lines, because their main pony is getting tired," says Wayne Godfrey, CEO of Wargames West, a major distributor of Magic cards. "The market is becoming saturated."
Which is, in a way, the measure of Garfield's success in harnessing the simple, innocent greed of sports-card collecting to the competitive impulse that leads people to spend $2,000 on a set of golf clubs tobeat the other players' brains in with. Magic is a strategy game set in a vaguely Arthurian science-fiction world of spells and mythic beasts. Players compete with decks of 40 or more cards, which they assemble individually out of their own collections of cards bought, bartered or won in competition. ("I'm just in it for the money," says a 13-year-old hanging out at Neutral Ground, although he admits all he's won so far are other players' cards.) "I like learning to play a game and, once I get used to it, changing the rules," says Garfield, who recalls playing a variation of chess in which players were allowed to place imaginary land mines under certain squares, which would blow up any piece that landed there. This concept clearly leaves sports-card collecting in the dust; in any season there are fewer than 1,000 major-league baseball players, whereas the potential population of giants, dragons and amulets is limited only by how fast Wizards' artists can churn them out. There are more than 4,000 cards in circulation. The Black Lotus, one of the rarest cards, so powerful that it has been banned from some tournaments, sells among players for as much as $400.
But is that enough for Magic to take its place in the national pantheon of rainy-day pastimes alongside Monopoly, Scrabble or even thumb wrestling? Wizards "uses words like 'Mattel' and 'Parker Brothers' " in talking about its future, says Doug Sharpe, owner of National Collector, which makes a secondary market in Magic cards. But sooner or later everyone gets a Monopoly set; the appeal of Magic is, by contrast, an inch wide and a mile deep. Already it is under attack in a New York suburb, where parents have sued a school board over listing Magic as an after-school activity. "Magic introduces unwilling children into the terminology of the occult," says one of the parents, Cecile Di Nozzi of Pound Ridge. "My kids would come home and say, 'Other kids are holding sticks up to the sky and saying, "Spirits enter me" '." Garfield himself, now head of research and development at Wizards of the Coast, talks--albeit reluctantly--about the appeal of Magic in terms of addiction. Yes, he agrees, games can act like narcotics, or they "take over your personal operating system, like a virus." If he's right, of course, he's an even greater genius than he's gotten credit for. The only other force capable of doing that in American society isn't even Monopoly. It's TV.
With Adam Rogers in Seattle and Leslie Kaufman in New York
Newsweek 5/26/97 Society/Games: Magic's Kingdom
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