Originally posted in the Sidebar, "AlpineR" shares this interesting story about Wizards of the Coast's Magic Online 3.0...
You may have heard of a collectible card game called Magic: The Gathering. It's sold in packs of 15 cards for $4. Each card represents a creature, artifact, magic spell, or resource. You choose sixty cards from your collection to build a deck and duel with another player, drawing from your deck to summon creatures and attack your opponent.
Many of the cards alter the characteristics of cards in play or even change the rules of the game. There are over 9,000 cards in the Magic universe with 200 more released every three months. So the interactions quickly get complex.
Magic was invented my Richard Garfield and is made by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro. Wizards hired Leaping Lizards to develop an online version of the game that was released in 2002. It works the same as the paper version: you buy 15 cards for $4, sort and trade them with other players, then build decks and duel. You can also redeem complete sets of digital cards for the paper versions.
Magic Online was quite impressive and successful. It handled all the collecting, trading, playing, tournaments, leagues, and chat for a faithful computer rendition of Magic. But it suffered from too much success: if more than a couple thousand players were online simultaneously then the system would crash.
Wizards learned this after taking over development from Leaping Lizards. They coded up a new set of cards, added a few features, and released the new Magic Online 2.0 with a grand party of tournaments and special souvenir cards. Thousands of players joined and the system crashed hard. It took days of rollbacks and feature removal just to get it playable again
Wizards said the architecture that Leaping Lizards designed just wasn't scalable. It ran on a single server and the load couldn't be shared between more machines. So in February 2004 they announced that they would be rewriting the game in a more expandable way.
And they would be developing the software in-house. And they had no experience with developing software, much less for a complex game like Magic. And while they were changing the server software they would also completely redo the user interface, to make it 3-D and be sure not to waste any of the extra CPU cycles or memory available with modern gaming rigs.
This took a while. The original estimate was 18 months from February 2004. But it wasn't quite ready and they wanted to get it right, so the release date moved back. And back, and back, and back.
In January of 2008 they finally started a countdown to launch. Public betas of the interface were pretty gruesome: gloomy brown and black, blurry text over busy backgrounds, buttons that act like menus, custom window controls, vertical chat, wasted space. They also removed many features like leagues, multiplayer formats, and card redemption.
The old version was terminated and the new version went live in April 2008. The reaction to Magic Online 3.0 has been loud and negative:
- The "I hate V3" thread
- UI Complaints, Questions, Suggestions
- An Open Letter to WOTC Management
- Is Wizards tanking MTGO on purpose?
- How much school is required to be a decent programmer?
- Money where your mouth is... (job openings)
In summary, after four years of development Wizards of the Coast has released a new version of a successful game with fewer features, worse interface, higher system requirements, and unproven scalability. And now that it's done they're looking (not very far) for somebody to do it right.
And on an unrelated note, after blowing through nearly three hundred million dollars trying to develop a Microsoft Word killer, Simdesk Technologies finally closed it's doors on March 31st, laying off its final fifty five employees. Rumor has it that Junior (as in, Louis Waters Jr... certainly not Virtudyne's Junior) kept around twelve employees, the last $4M, and s-drive.com in a last ditch effort to succeed.