One of the most memorable experiences of my gaming career happened in the Winter of 1998. There’s not a lot I remember about the day, as happens with the passage of time, but you remember a few of the big things, and a few of the small things.
It was definitely cold that day. I think- but can’t be certain- that it was slushy, too. I’d traveled over an hour on Metro North to get to New York City from Connecticut. And while I know I wasn’t alone, I can’t really remember who was with me.
Those are some of the finer details, none of them especially important. What was important was that this was the first day I was going to get my hands on some genuine, 100% real Magic: the Gathering cards from the new Stronghold expansion. It was my first-ever prerelease (a tournament before the official release of the set, where you can get the new cards), but it would become the first of many.
Stronghold was a great set. Nearly twenty years on, the “block” (or story arc of sets) it was a part of remains my favorite. The set had been teased in the pages of Duelist Magazine, the game’s official house organ. This being the dawn of the Internet, the hinting images of the few cards they’d run in the ads were all we knew about the set- and they were tantalizing.
I remember laying on the floor of my room, looking at the advertisements over and over. What will this card do? How strong will it be? What’s the cost, power, and toughness? In the absence of information, the imagination ran wild.
A lot has changed in the last couple of decades. Magic seems as strong a game now as ever it’s been, and Wizards of the Coast has had release after release, fine-tuning the prerelease experience with each successive block. When I went to the prerelease in New York City, it was one of only less than a dozen or so nationally. Now you can find one at just about every Friendly Local Game Store.
One area where Wizards has excelled is in the release of information. Over time and experience, they’ve gotten a very good sense of just how much information to dribble out ahead of time, to keep the players salivating for the upcoming set. In fact, at time of writing we’re smack dab in the middle of a preview season. Let’s take a moment to see how that’s unfolded.
The 74th Magic expansion, Amonkhet is set for release on 28 April, 2017. Set on an ancient Egyptian-themed world, Wizards of the Coast has adhered to the following game plan to generate interest, hype, and enthusiasm for the set.
- Twice a year, Wizards has an “Announcement Day” where they disclose the names of product releases slated for the next year. Amonket was disclosed as the name of an upcoming set on the Announcement Day on 31 August, 2016- though (importantly) no other details were given. But players had a name and apparent theme, and that set the Magic community’s social media hubs ablaze.
- Then on 27 March, the first Amonkhet-related article went up on the Magic website. This was the week before the previews started rolling out, but this article served to set the banquet table. It revealed a small handful of cards from the new set, seen for the first-time ever, as well as some other accessories like token cards and a playmat.
- A week later, on 03 April, the preview season kicked off in earnest. This included a blitzkrieg of promotional activity all intended to produce a surge of excitement and enthusiasm on the eve of a new product launch. Measures included the following:
- New articles on the set, its cards, and the world it takes place in each weekday on the Magic website
- New fiction stories showing the game’s primary characters interacting with the unfolding narrative of the set
- New spoiler cards on the website
- Single spoiler cards given to prominent content creators in the Magic community, letting them spoil a new card and drive traffic to their sites
- Content on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr
- An Amonkhet-themed casual “open house” staged at gaming stores that are part of the Wizards Play Network (WPN, basically stores with an official sanction to host events)
- The Amonkhet Prerelease- with exclusive promotional cards- on 22 April at WPN stores
- The following week, Amonkhet officially releases, and is available for public purchase
A lot to digest, isn’t it? And that’s kind of the point. Wizards stage-manages this right down to the wire, and as a result anticipation and excitement about the set is at a fever-pitch right before consumers are asked to open their wallets.
Now, that isn’t to say things always go according to plan. Sometimes sets just don’t catch the enthusiasm of the community as well as previous ones had. Other times, something unusual happens, such as in 2011 with New Phyrexia when the entire set was leaked to the public before preview season even began (whoops).
Here’s the part where I ask the now-customary question: That’s great, but what does all this have to do with War Robots?
Followed, of course, by the equally customary answer: everything!
Now, obviously, Pixonic is not Wizards of the Coast. I certainly don’t expect them to have their event release playbook fully developed in Year Three, and there are some significant differences in what’s possible given the products of each company. But that said, there are certainly some lessons to be learned. To find out what those are, let’s take a look at the current situation for what may or may not be the “Easter Event.”
- On 29 March, a Pixonic account posted a piece on Reddit about how they wished to improve communications between the company and the player base going forward
- Although the initial piece had no content about events, a user replied to Pixonic’s post asking when the next event would be. Came the answer, “the next one is set for mid-April”
- The community picked this up, making the natural assumption that the event would be tied in some way to Easter
- Community speculation was rife that the “Dash bots” would be the new Event bots this time around, replacing the Wild Bunch
- There was no further mention of any event from Pixonic, leading one Wiki Forum veteran on 06 April to wonder if the event even existed (I confirmed in the thread for him)
- On 10 April in a conversation with us Pixonic Insiders, a Pixonic representative confirmed in response to an Insider question that the upcoming event was a small event, that the “Dash bots” would not be featured, and that the Wild Bunch would be making another return
And…that’s current until today. The upcoming event is about a week to ten days away, and the contrast with Wizards of the Coast could not be starker. In fact, I would say that by allowing speculation- and expectation- to flourish unchecked and unguided, a small event is likely to come across as a disappointment simply because of the lack of new robots. In the absence of communication from Pixonic, when players get their hopes up for steak, they won’t be happy with a cheeseburger- even if it happens to be free.
And we have. My six-year-old son has been scrimping and saving his allowance, doing lots of extra jobs around the house, because it seemed apparent the Dash bots would be right around the corner. He’s talked about this every day for a week or two, barely able to conceal his excitement. We’ve talked strategy together, watched videos together. Bursting that bubble today was not the most pleasant experience.
Now, as noted above there are some substantial differences between the two companies and products that makes a 1:1 comparison somewhat less than fair. For one thing, Wizards gets to deal with a large quantity of cards- over two hundred and fifty of them. That’s a lot of opportunity for community engagement. Pixonic appears to have adopted a system that sees new waves of bots come out in threes.
Second, the cards Magic is releasing are completely unknown quantities. Sure, each set has reprints, but the cards they typically send out to prominent members of the community to spoil are brand new. Pixonic has no such luxury. In order to even get the new bots in a state where they can be released, they’ve had to have a number of test server sessions where players could try out the new bot, explore it’s special ability, and get a feel for what it’s capable of. Even if Pixonic decided to deliberately obscure the final, balanced version of the bot, the surprise factor is largely diminished.
Even with those significant differences, there is plenty of opportunity for Pixonic to improve their handling of new expansions and events. Let’s round the horn here by putting this into practical terms, and see what a “best of both” approach might look like.
Let’s go back in time to the Christmas event. I don’t remember the precise start date, so let’s go with 25 December. This was the first time that the Wild Bunch was available, so there was a lot of excitement around Jesse, Doc, and Butch– even if they didn’t overwhelm the community in terms of raw power. Here’s the timeline for this Magic-inspired War Robots prerelease experience. The imagework will be just some quick and dirty mockups to represent ideas, not a finished product (probably obvious, but needs to be said just in case).
The Wild Bunch have been released in advance on the test server, as is necessary, but never with anything resembling an actual skin. Players test the robot’s capabilities, but everything else about it remains secret. By the end of November, Pixonic have the bots dialed in, and public testing concludes.
01 December: Teaser
Players may have a decent idea of what the bots can do, but the look and flavor of them has been withheld. What are they? What do they look like? On 01 December, Pixonic posts a cryptic image on their Facebook page.
We know now that’s Butch, but it wouldn’t have been immediately apparent then. But visually, this conveys three elements. First, the novelty of a new bot. Second, the theme of the event, in this case Christmas. And third, the date. Now we all know when Christmas is, so clearly the date points to something else. That something else? Why, Ol’ Saint Butch, of course!
08 December: Teaser 2
The following week, another teaser appears on social media. This time, maybe it’s on the War Robots Twitter account instead of Facebook, but when it’s spoiler season they’ll make the rounds as soon as the first person sees it.
Kitschy? Sure, but remember this is a fun and festive time of year. We’re not needing to write Shakespeare here. Here’s Jesse as a reindeer, but the ad campaign otherwise hits all the same notes. And now there’s a pattern appearing. Players will begin to anticipate the next teaser, one week later. They won’t be disappointed.
15 December: Teaser 3
There’s a few things going on by now. Let’s start with the public one, first. The final teaser appears on a third social media channel. Reddit, Instagram, wherever Pixonic feels like directing some eyeballs. This works great for bolstering the consumption rate of one of their lower-performing outlets. Want a few more Instagram followers? Spoilers will do the trick. Here’s what drops for the final “teaser.” Maybe it’s just a picture, maybe an animated gif of the Scrooge hat falling onto Butch, lots of options.
That’s the public face. Behind the scenes, Pixonic has spent the last week connecting with three of the creative community’s leading voices, say (picking at randomish) Stew Pendous, Shaolin Rogue, and that Dredd guy who writes too damn much about the game. Each of them gets to “preview” the new bots on a private test server session and spotlight one of them through their respective channels. Dredd, who likes Lights, writes about the Jesse on Gepard Diary. Shaolin Rogue captures some video of the Doc for one of his Crash Course tutorials, and Stew Pendous gets to make a video of him tooling around in a Butch. Through terms of the agreement, all are required to post their content according to Pixonic’s schedule. We now have 10 days before the Christmas Event.
17 December: Preview 1
Dredd 77 unveils a novella-length post about the vices and virtues of the Jesse based on his test server experience. For the first time, the community gets to see a few still gameplay pictures showing what the Jesse looks like. Remember, he was unskinned for the entire test server, and the “teaser” ads only showed a partial shot. Seeing the full Jesse is new- and so is his name.
18 December: Event info 1
Pixonic, meanwhile, hasn’t been sitting idly by. A post goes up on their Facebook page highlighting some of the features of the actual event. Here, the snowflake mechanic is discussed. How to earn them, how to buy them, all that good stuff. And what do you do with your snowflakes? it asks. Great question! Come back in two days to find out.
19 December: Preview 2
Shaolin Rogue drops the Crash Course Doc video. Now the War Robots community gets to see the new Doc in action as Rogue describes its capabilities, and highlights the bot in action with a variety of different loadouts. Giving his opinion on each, he contends that the Tulumbas are probably best but that some mad genius would probably come along and try to extol the virtues of the Hydra version. Taran Doc, he concludes, is probably not recommended.
20 December: Event info 2
Pixonic’s follow-up piece explores all of the different things you can do with the snowflakes. You can buy the bots (Butch’s name is still a secret at this point), spin for prizes, expand your clan, and so on.
What sorts of prizes? Great question! Come back in two days to find out.
21 December: Preview 3
Finally, the mighty Stew Pendous weighs in with his thoughts on the Butch. He shows some great gameplay where it’s a Trebuchet-juggling monster, and- why not, it’s Christmas- gives the fans what they want with a quad-Zenit earthshaker.
22 December: Final look
By now the cats are all out of the bags. This Pixonic article discusses what’s in the treasure chests a bit more. It can refer to all three of the Wild Bunch by name, and will be the last article to go up before the Christmas Event.
25 December: The Christmas Event begins
The wait is over! Pixonic has skillfully doled out just enough information over the course of the month to get people excited about the upcoming event. The fan community has spent a lot of time discussing what Pixonic’s about to drop, and now they get to see how close to the mark they’ve been. New bots get bought (almost certainly at a higher rate than what actually happened), the players spin for prizes, and the fun train stays at the station for a week.
So there you have it, a War Robots release in the Magic style. And this same approach can be used for the holiday-themed events, particularly if some aspects are new from event to event (and they can bring back old ideas into an endless rotation of nostalgia and innovation). And the next time there’s a bot release, Pixonic will be ready to keep the community buzzing, and feature three new community voices to preview the bots.
And at what cost or risk? Nothing’s been propagandized or oversold, but by keeping even mple design elements secret until the right time they’ve managed to create an experience for the player community that goes far beyond, “here’s some new stuff. Enjoy.”
Now I’m not saying the ideas presented today would make me a shoo-in for a Clio Award. Indeed, my only claim to marketing prowess is that when I owned my own comic and game store, we staged some truly amazing in-store events that not only got me featured on the Wizards of the Coast website (more than once), but even saw me giving advice to retailers in an official WotC retailer manual. That doesn’t mean that anyone can’t come up with ideas much better than the above, but for an off-the-cuff example, it certainly fits the bill. Here’s to hoping Pixonic takes advantage of those resources and assets they have already available to them and craft a more exciting player experience in the future.
And if Pixonic finds itself needing a little help to get started…