What Wizard Battles Can Teach Us About Crowdsourcing

June 13th, 2012 by

microtask_magic_the_gatheringI’d like to start with a confession: when I’m not thinking about crowdsourcing, I’m busy being a huge geek. Not trendy geek chic, unfortunately, but the old fashioned type (a trendsetter maybe?). Read on bearing this in mind.

My main vice is Magic: the Gathering, a role-play card game where players are magically-dueling wizards. The only game pieces are cards which represent classical magic spells like fire blasts and enchantments. Like I said, I’m a geek.

What does this have to do with crowdsourcing? Well, about 10 years ago, the company that makes this game turned to its fans the players, and for the first time said “you make a card”. What followed was almost a year of creative inspiration and community collaboration, resulting in two additional campaigns and a total of three extremely well-designed cards. Even today, any company that wants to tap into a crowd for creative purposes should look at Magic’s R&D team to see how to properly weigh a campaign’s incentives, barriers to entry and compartmentalization.

Incentives: all you need is love

Before the campaign, Magic’s design and R&D had always been very secretive and insular, a process conducted in such a manner that fans could neither observe nor contribute to it. Some fans turned to making their own custom cards, but they were never accepted, as Magic R&D was expressly forbidden from considering player-submitted cards. So basically here was a community that was intensely passionate, deeply creative but with no opportunity to participate in the design of the game.

In this situation, incentivizing crowd involvement was simply a matter of allowing it. That, and giving bragging rights to important people in the decision-making process, such as those who create the card’s name or key mechanic.

Removing barriers to entry

The easiest way to build a useful crowd is to find one that already exists. Magic R&D turned to the community website and blog. They were keen fans and already had some understanding of the R&D and design process from blog posts on the subject. Multiplayer games like this generally have a strong community, so Magic R&D could also count on its players to get the word out.

Dealing with compartmentalization

A common problem with crowdsourced projects is that everyone works independently, only sharing work when it is finished. This causes a lot of duplication of effort and restricts collaboration. Magic R&D avoided this by breaking the design process into 24 collaborative steps.

By controlling the process like this, Magic R&D could keep their normal, iterative design process, which may involve a card being changed dozens of times before its final print. The forum discussions between each step also allowed the community to come to a better consensus on which direction to go, and identify potential problems early on. Finally, it ensured that both Magic R&D and the community were present at every step, designing together as a unit instead of pitted against each other.

The three crowdsourcing campaigns created three new cards. All had unique effects, unlike any card that had been seen before. All were highly rated on the official card database. Each successive campaign was bigger than the last, and now some fans are asking for a fourth.

All of this happened before crowdsourcing was really “a thing”. It shows that any brand with loyal fans (and some dedication) can create something great (even if they’re not following common practice because common practice hasn’t been invented yet).

Seth has a blog, TinyWork.



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