eBooks and the Accessibility of Magic's Story

Posted in Feature on October 8, 2014

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at http://dougbeyermtg.tumblr.com/

Warden of the Eye | Art by Howard Lyon

For those who've been asking whether there will be eBooks for Khans of Tarkir:

Our goal has always been for a wide range of people to get to enjoy Magic's story. That's why we will not be producing eBooks or novels for Khans of Tarkir block.

Let Me Explain

A bit of history. Rewind to 2011, toward the end of the Scars of Mirrodin block. As we looked at our marketing and sales data, we were noticing an odd trend. We had more Magic players than ever before, and Magic sales were trending up in a big way, but readership of the novels (then exclusively in hardcover and paperback) was dwindling. The rising tide of more Magic players was not also lifting novel sales. Odd.

On the other hand, knowledge of the Magic story remained relatively high. Our market research showed us that, thanks to the internet, our set marketing and branded play, story support in the cards and videos and elsewhere, and word of mouth, many fans' understanding of what was going on in the story was still significant. Not amazing, but significant. For example, many people who did not read Quest for Karn knew about the rise and triumph of the Phyrexians, the return of Karn, the fate of Venser, and more—the story was getting out to them via other venues.

Struggling with an Outdated Model

Given that, it didn't seem to be worth the cost of producing the novels. The next block, Innistrad block, did not get novels (and yet the block broke even more sales records). Internally, we were unhappy that this amazing setting did not get a proper venue for its story, but we had been working under the same model we always had: we would focus on the characters and setting for the card set, and we'd let the novel do the job of telling the official story. Without an author sitting down with our world guide and crafting a novel, though, there effectively wasn't an official, plot-driven story. Again, that was heartbreaking for such a cool world as Innistrad, but we had to focus on what was making our card sets shine—generating world guides that would support cards.

Enter Return to Ravnica. We were looking at the prospect of another amazing world filled with amazing characters—but with no novel, and no plan to tell the story of this block in any other way. We had recently started publishing eBook versions of our Magic and D&D novels. I pitched the idea of reducing publishing costs by producing stories in eBook form only. Lower price point, hopefully greater audience, and a great chance to tell the story of an incredible setting. To test out this new strategy, I would volunteer to write the Return to Ravnica eBooks myself. That plan was given the go-ahead. That plan became The Secretist, and later, for Theros block, Jenna Helland's Godsend.

What eBooks Told Us

Sales of the eBooks were okay. Not amazing, but okay. (I thank every single one of you who bought and read them! Y'all are heroes.) But as the Return to Ravnica block rolled out, with The Secretist alongside it, we noticed two things. One, we noticed the strain it put on the creative team to have one of our writers generate the novel. Although there were some benefits to having one of those people who worked on the set write the official story, it certainly wasn't cost-free. Entire novels (even three-part novellas) are immensely hard work, especially when you're writing them in your evenings and weekends. Two, and more importantly, we noticed we still hadn't changed our model for how we produced the stories of settings. We were still operating under the model where we would emphasize characters and setting for the cards, and reserve actual plot for the novel, despite that novels weren't getting out to that many people. We had other venues besides novels for telling stories—Uncharted Realms, for example—but we generally kept the most crucial story information out of those venues, to save the plot for the book. See how that's a problem? The small audience who bought the books got 100% of the story, where the huge audiences who were playing the game—many of whom would love to know the basics of what's going on, story-wise—were getting none of it.

During Theros block, we experimented with putting a bit more of the story into the card sets and into Uncharted Realms, and a funny thing happened. Many more players were aware of Theros plot events when we focused on them in venues other than novels. Awareness of Xenagos's rise to godhood and Elspeth's fall to the underworld was overwhelmingly high—all thanks to planning story events earlier and putting them where more eyeballs could see them.

Turning the Boat Around

We started talking about a new model of story planning for Magic. Our goal was for more people to get to enjoy Magic's story, and to let Magic's success translate into more successes—like Theros's—of players' story awareness. The eBooks had been a nice attempt to kindle interest in the story, but the numbers were telling us that that's just not how most people chose to enjoy the story—and without a new strategy, no amount of evenings and weekends would make the story matter in a major way.

Current day: Khans of Tarkir block. More than ever before, the story of this block has been planned out to weave into the structure of the sets. More than ever before, we are pushing more and more of the story into venues that will be seen by more players—in particular, Uncharted Realms. (See the archive of Uncharted Realms stories organized by setting.) More than ever before, we're working with Uncharted Realms authors to coordinate telling a single, epic, continuous story. More than ever before, we're committed to building Magic's story into the ways that people naturally interact with Magic. And more than ever before, we're working to build curiosity and excitement for stories to come in Magic's future.

More Like Charted Realms, Amirite?

So for now, there will be no eBooks or novels. You've already been seeing Sarkhan's story and the story of Tarkir play out in Uncharted Realms. That is Magic's official story. That is where to look to find out what's really going on. We are not "saving" juicy story details for some other venue—you are getting it right there, for free, on the website every week. You want to find out what's going on with this world of clans and khans and the crazy dragon-mage? You want to know what tidbits of this year will set up what might happen next year, or beyond? Tune in with us. Share.

Later on, I think you'll see Khans of Tarkir as a transition point for Magic's storyline. We'll have much more to say about this in a year or so, but I think we'll look back at this block as a time when the strategy was changing for the better, and we were approaching a story strategy that was more accessible, more ambitious, and overall far more successful. I'm extremely excited about the future, but ultimately we will know if we're doing our jobs if knowledge and enjoyment of the story continues to spread—and we will know that if you tell us. Are we on the right path? Are we turning the strategy around correctly? Are we reaching you in the ways in which you want to enjoy the lore? Let us know! And as always, thank you—from the bottom of my Vorthos heart—for your continued interest in Magic's story.

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