Wednesday, September 10, 2014

MTG Digital Offerings: What Was YOUR Breaking Point?

(Conversation below between me and Magic: The Gathering Hall of Fame member elect Paul Rietzl discussing the website and Magic Online).  

Matt Sperling
So, I don't know whether to start this State of the Magic Technology Union exchange with the website or the MTGO software. What's on the top of your list at the moment?

Paul Rietzl
My Grandfather and the rest of my family. They like to follow my progress at the tournaments, but are so frustrated by the inanity of the Magic website that it makes it hard. They wish it was possible to find what they want to read about. My Grandfather has multiple advanced degrees, but this website is uncrackable.

Matt Sperling
Old people don't love change, and I'd be ready to blame your grandpa’s likely advanced age for some part of this except I myself also cannot find the coverage 9 times out of 10. used to redirect to the event coverage page, which had simple links. It can't be difficult to point to the new event page, can it? That doesn't seem like an intractable problem, but you also end up on the old website if you click the first Google result for many key searches. Wizards owns these formerly popular pages, why don't they redirect them? Maybe if their website just displayed cat pictures or something it wouldn't matter that they changed the layout and organization so much, but I need to LOOK THINGS UP. I need information. Maybe if I click this banner at the top 10 times it'll take me somewhere....

Paul Rietzl
This is not to mention all the broken links, bugs, and generally baffling UX/UI decisions. Similarly to MTGO, I sometimes feel the website is part of a large social experiment, like they are trying to determine the commitment level of the player base. Only the deeply enfranchised or clinically insane would continue to attempt to use magic.wizards.hasbro.screwyou.whatever it is these days. I took it off my bookmarks some time ago and hope all relevant information will be tweeted. It makes me feel really bad for the hard-working people in R&D that make this awesome game, only to be confronted daily with soul-crushing negativity.

Matt Sperling
I also feel bad for Wizards employees not involved in these decisions directly. At first I thought, "Someone should have stood up in a meeting at some point and yelled WE CAN'T SHIP THIS. The blame ultimately rests on the decision-makers' shoulders, but this thing is so bad that there needed to be some canaries flying out of that mine." But here is my best guess at why it didn't actually play out that way: when the design team handed this off internally and they said to the regular Magic teams "you guys can try it out now" they didn't have Google to help them out so they wouldn't go searching for obscure stuff, they would just probably click around and check it out - and they probably had "dummy" articles and/or static pages like "Learn How to Play!", not a bunch of live material. So early testers were (I am guessing) not clicking on banners with broken links, not trying to view top 8 decklists for recent events because decklists are not being automatically loaded in, etc. They're not trying to find coverage of the Grand Prix going on that day because that information isn't hosted on the dummy/sandbox website yet. I can see how this maybe slipped past them.

They probably decided to ship this atrocity because the layout feels more modern and the static pages mostly work. But the layout doesn't matter if you can't find the page you're looking for. And for those of us who use the site often, unless we're looking for a giant picture of Garruk against a black background, we end up very frustrated.

Paul Rietzl
Let’s hunt bigger game. Magic: The Gathering’s online game offering has some shortcomings.

Matt Sperling
Around the MTGO version 4 (v4) release, I was among the people beating the drum of "cmon guys, it's not THAT bad ... it's maybe only a few tweaks away from actually being better than v3, and now those tweaks can actually arrive." Is the blood now on my hands, too?

Paul Rietzl
I blame you, but only a little. I blame you, and everyone else who defended this atrocity, for making me so optimistic. Until now, I’ve taken the approach “What can I personally do to help WOTC get V4 to the point where it’s fun for me to use?” But all the positivity has been sucked out of me. Here’s a recent experience I had. I like to sell cards that I own >4 to bots, so that I have a supply of tickets. These tickets allow me to play basically at will, with the exception of during new set releases, when I’ll have to bust out the credit card. On V4, when I used any filters, it wouldn’t let me select all of my cards. So I tried adding all the cards I own more than 4 copies of. This crashed the program. I tried again, and it worked after freezing for a few minutes. However, now I had almost all my basic lands in my trade binder. To remove them, I had to go version by version, picture by picture. I gave up after a while, and tried to delete the trade binder (you can’t). So I created a new trade binder, deleted the old one. Now I filtered to just green, white, blue, black and red cards to avoid adding basic lands to my trade binder (I accepted that I’d have to add artifacts later). Well, MTGO V4 reads Basic Forest as a green card. I broke. I started angrily tweeting that I was going to take up Hearthstone. Then I got this response:

This is what I’m talking about. It's MY fault for not learning that forests are green? Forests are fucking colorless bro. So yea, I blame you [Matt] and all the V4 defenders a little.

Matt Sperling
And that's the problem with institutionalized incompetence on the scale we now understand we're dealing with; my assumption that Wizards will now be free to apply many fixes and will do so quickly was almost as stupid as the Hasbro executive saying on an earnings call that Hearthstone isn't a serious competitor to Magic.

If they had the talent, the organization, the leadership, the budget, and the vision to fix V4 relatively quickly, we'd never have V4 in the first place. So, mea culpa on being an apologist for V4. Please accept my apology and a free M15 prerelease sealed to make up for it.

From here, if I was in charge of Hasbro, I would acquire a third party game design studio, shout about the acquisition from the rooftops as loud as I could, and promise to release a new Magic Online client by Q3 2015. Is this an unrealistic solution because the cost would be so high? Well, whoever tells you that is exactly the person who needs to have their incentives realigned. If it comes from the out of touch leadership at Hasbro, then they deserve for Magic Online to be crushed into relative obscurity by Hearthstone and whatever else. Even though it would absolutely devastate me to see the game I love headed down the drain, if these people had this big of a golden goose and could only manage to try over and over to strangle it, why should I root for them?

They could invest a lot of money now to essentially start over in a new way (read: new people in charge and on the ground), or they can slowly start checking the golden goose for visible ligature marks and petechial hemorrhaging (I have more time to watch Law and Order SVU now that I don't play MTGO much).

Paul Rietzl
That’s the hidden rainbow in this whole storm. I used to double and triple queue MTGO all the time, and I could play fast enough on V3 that no one ever had to wait for me. Now I get to read interesting articles on the internet, I’m more productive at work, and we get to shoot the breeze about Obamacare. I’m a much more well-rounded person. I go to too many live Magic tournaments to quit MTGO entirely – I simply need it to prepare. And I hope one day the people will give us a product that I can enjoy again. But I agree with everything you just said, and I accept your apology.

Here are some specific issues I have with V4 that I could come up with off the top of my head:

1. Get rid of the Are You Sure You Want to Close Magic Online feature. When I’m done, I’m done. I’m not a child, and if I misclick I can log back on. It’s not like I’m deleting a file.
2. Why do triggered abilities require targeting require changing the size of the window before I can click a target?
3. Why can’t we see the top of both libraries at the same time?
4. Why does Courser of Kruphix cause the top card of my library to cover my entire battlefield?
5. Why is it so hard to move cards around in my hand? Why do they get stuck?
6. Why isn’t that chat permanently anchored to the right side of the screen for all formats at all times? How else can I tell what is going on?
7. Why are so many cards bugged?
8. Why is there a select all function during sealed deck building if it doesn’t work?
9. Why does the client think basic lands have a color?
10. Where are ratings?
11. Why is everything so slow and laggy? My computer is not old.
12. Why do none of the filters make any sense? I have 727 cards with Special rarity. What does that mean?
13. Why does the scroll function just stop working when perusing my collection? Why do the pictures take so long to load?
14. Why does a program that is so bad take up so much of my computer’s operating capability?
15. Why, after I click YES I want to close Magic Online, does it take 1 minute, 31 seconds (last time I timed it) for the program to actually close?

Now tell me about Leroy Jenkins…

Matt Sperling
The best thing about Leeroy Jenkins is that you can use him for a 10 minute game without setting aside 3 hours or waiting between games. You can use Leeroy Jenkins on a Mac or an iPad. You can learn how to attack with Leeroy Jenkins in a built-in tutorial mode. You can convert your extra Leeroy Jenkinses into other cards without dealing with robots or having to manually sort to find all your extra copies. You can use Leeroy Jenkins on a computer or tablet that doesn't have gigabytes of RAM waiting to be burned. When your friend sees you play a Leeroy Jenkins he or she is unlikely to ask why the game looks like it's from 1998. People are enabled and supported as they try to show Leeroy Jenkins to their friends and fans on Leeroy Jenkins, when he does appear on, has animation and sound that add to the viewing experience. You can get Leeroy Jenkins for free if you're willing to play enough and wait.

Most of those things could and/or should apply to Chandra or Jace, not just Leeroy or Ragnaros. But if Wizards keeps dropping the ball, you can be damn sure someone will eventually pick it up and run with it.