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Interview: Magic the Gathering -- Duels of the Planeswalkers

Kevin Kelly

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Duels of the Planeswalkers was released at the beginning of summer on Xbox Live Arcade, and it's a surprisingly competent take on the traditional Magic card game. The XBLA game is immediately familiar and also easy enough for first-timers to jump in and learn the ropes. There's a robust tutorial, all of the cards are real Magic cards, and the multiplayer features multiple modes of play, including four-on-four battles and "Two-Headed Giant," where a team of two faces off against another team of two. In short, it's addictive.

We recently spoke with Worth Wollpert, senior business manager for Magic Online, and Mark Purvis, associate brand manager, both at Wizards of the Coast. The subject at hand was all things Duels of the Planeswalkers: there's some DLC on the way, and possibly other changes to the game -- but no deck customization (boo!). For now, the team is happy to let the game bring lapsed players back into the fold, and to introduce new players to the tapping and shuffling of Magic: The Gathering. Continue reading for the full interview.

Gallery: Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers | 9 Photos

Magic has been around for a long time and spawned other computer versions, including Battlegrounds for the original Xbox, which wasn't very successful. What prompted you guys to develop a new adaptation for Xbox Live Arcade?

Worth: There is Magic Online that has been around since June of 2002, and that is really just a direct translation of the paper game. It is not arcadey at all. It is really just as if you and I were playing across the kitchen table or at "Friday Night Magic" or something like that.

There have been a couple other forums in the digital space for Magic. Battlegrounds, which was many years ago now on the original Xbox, and then Shandalar, which was the PC game that was back in the late 90s.

So what brought you back to the Xbox platform?

One of the reasons we got back into the space was that a lot of our market research had shown that we had a huge penetration crossover with Xbox 360 console owners and either Magic players proper or people who we thought fell into our demographic. We just figured it would be a great way to deliver them content in a relevant way. So that was kind of the genesis of it.

So that data led you to Xbox Live Arcade in lieu of creating another PC version or expanding onto the PlayStation Network?

Worth: Well one of the main aspects of Magic, and I am sure you know this because it sounds like you have played for a while, is that it is a multiplayer kind of community focused thing. We just like the ability that Xbox Live brought to connecting people and leveraging MS technology to connect Magic players all across the globe.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is very familiar to people who have played Magic for a long time. What was the development process like for deciding which sets and cards, etc. to include?

"We knew that a lot of people playing Planeswalkers would be new to Magic."

Worth: It was an interesting one. We employed our vast personnel. There are a bunch of guys down there who kind of think about this stuff for a living. We did a ton of focus testing. We treated it the same way we treat a core game intro product. We knew that a lot of people playing this would be new to Magic for the first time. We tried to make it as fun as we could. We focused on the fun.

We really had kind of a breakthrough while we were focus testing with stuff. One of the tactics that we have taken for the demo in particular is that a lot of times before we focused on the nitty-gritty, like the untap, upkeep, draw a card. We sort of used the technology that Xbox provided and focused on taking some of the minutia out of it and just focus on the big picture and everything. You know, the fun part of Magic.

Mark, I don't know internally how you guys view Planeswalkers, but it's almost like a completely separate product. How did the two teams view it? Did they view it as a competitor, or just something that compliments the paper game?

Mark: This is definitely a compliment. It is yet another way for our players to enjoy Magic: The Gathering the brand overall. This is a really exciting time for Magic and it is a really great time to get into the brand, or if you are a previous player, return to the brand. And we know that this game is reaching a lot of those people that are familiar with Magic and maybe have played it in the past. This is getting them excited about it again.

One of the features of the game is that if you live in North America, there is a code you can use to redeem for a foil Planeswalker promo card. It is a very powerful and is a really good card. And our expectation is that a lot of people out there who have played in the past will get this card and get excited and reinvigorated about the paper game. When you get the promo card there is also information about how you can go to a local retailer and get some sample decks so that you can learn how to play the paper game if this is your first time playing it. So our expectation is that we are going to be growing the brand overall through this game and its success.

Does that go two ways? If you buy any of the new Magic card sets these days, are there any cards or any notifiers in the pack that tell people, "If you like this, try Duels of the Planeswalkers on Xbox Live"?

Mark: There is actually. In every one of our 15 card booster packs we have a 16th card which has tips and tricks or a token card with game functionality on it on one side and the marketing messages on the other. So one of those that has been in Magic booster packs for the last couple of sets has been talking about Duels of the Planeswalkers and how you can download it for free.

Are any of the cards in the game created specifically for the game, or are they all references to the real life cards?

Worth: They are all pickups from stuff we have done already.

There are a lot of familiar cards in Planeswalkers from different sets. Were there any specific sets that you used as the basis for this?

Worth: Not really. We took a smattering of a bunch of stuff like you said. We tried to focus on a lot of the core set stuff because we felt that was the simplest. Certainly the tutorial focuses on the simplest of the simple just so that people get the idea of creatures and spells, like a Ghost or a Grizzly Bear; that is about as simple as it gets. But once you get in the game there are certainly a lot more complicated cards. Some of our old cards, some of our brand new cards. There is a really wide spectrum.

We asked our readers, what they wanted to know about the game, and overwhelmingly the question that comes back is what sort of DLC is coming up? Are you going to be able to add new cards? Are players going to be able to build their own custom decks?

There are some obvious places where we throw a nod to the fact that DLC is coming.

Worth: There is not much I can say officially. I will say that if you take a look through the game, there are some pretty obvious places where we kind of throw a nod to the fact that DLC is coming. We certainly will commit to the fact that DLC is coming. Right now our focus is actually fixing some of the bugs that have cropped up.

With a game as complicated as Magic ... in fact, it is probably one of the more complicated games on Xbox Live Arcade ever. It is pretty reasonable with the success we have had with all of these thousands of players playing that they have found some bugs that we didn't find the first time around. Before we focus on releasing DLC additional content, we want to make sure that the folks who have paid for the original game and are enjoying that have a good experience and it is all fixed up.

With that said, I will say that there are some spots in the game right now that point to extra decks in the future. Certainly that is a plan. Like you said, there is a lot of crossover between the way Xbox Live's marketplace runs with DLC and the way the Magic business model works. So certainly we have plans to support the title with DLC long term, but nothing I can really officially announce right now.

There have been bugs, but it seems like your team is quick to address them and maintains a very active presence on the Xbox Live forums for the game. Is community support a key focus for your business?

Worth: It is funny. Community support is one of the things we do very well here. I have been pretty active in the Xbox forums and in our forums as well, although the Xbox forum is where most of the threads are. It was kind of interesting to see the reaction of the customers, because they really do appreciate the fact that we are there and listening. Like you said, most people don't do that. And it seemed to me like why wouldn't they? It is a great way to talk to customers. You can't run your business through the forums, but you can certainly take the pulse of your game through the forums. Like I said, community support here is one of the things we do really well, and it is really showing through.

One of the features that players really want in this game is the ability to build custom decks, especially since you unlock cards as you progress in the game. Why did you guys not include this feature? Is it going to be added in a future update?

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