Connect with top gaming leaders in Los Angeles at GamesBeat Summit 2023 this May 22-23. Register here.
Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, teamed up with other gaming veterans to launch a new game studio called Popularium.
The studio’s first game will be Chaos Agents, a PC and web strategy game that aims to restore a sense of magic to playing digital card games, Garfield said in an interview with GamesBeat. The game will be a mix of genres, with multiplayer elements dubbed “auto battler royale.”
We’ll get to what that means in a bit.
Game industry veterans Skaff Elias, Arka Ray and Jon Bankard have also joined as cofounders for Popularium, which has a virtual team with 11 people. The four cofounders each worked on and led teams behind some of the most recognized games and franchises in the world, including Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Xbox Live, and more. Ray is CEO and technical director.
GamesBeat Summit 2023
Join the GamesBeat community in Los Angeles this May 22-23. You’ll hear from the brightest minds within the gaming industry to share their updates on the latest developments.
“The core philosophy behind Popularium is to empower gamers, instead of treating them purely as customers,” said Ray. “We’re building games and experiences that blur the lines between gamers and creators. We want to give gamers the kind of joy, flexibility and depth in our games that they would expect from the creators of Magic, Hearthstone, and more.”
The formation of Popularium was announced at a closed-door “First Look” event, where team members showcased Popularium’s launch title Chaos Agents. More is expected to come from Popularium this summer for gamers signing up on the waitlist at popularium.com for an invitation to the Chaos Agents community.
Players will be able to play Chaos Agents from any device due to Popularium’s platform technology. It can be played in a browser. Chaos Agents is a digital auto-battler. There is no physical element.
“Ever since Magic was published I’ve been trying to recapture something that I thought was lost after release,” said Garfield. “When Magic was first designed everyone had their own treasured collection, but those treasures became commodities, and we lost some of that magic.”
Garfield added, “Since then I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back to that. Now digitally we can bring back that unique collection idea with Chaos Agents. When everyone has the same thing, these experts say that when you want to play well you have to hew to the standard, which is very prescriptive and doesn’t leave much room for discovery and play. In Chaos Agents, expert advice has to be much more general, leaving a lot more room for players to discover something interesting about what they uniquely own.”
Each of the founders felt similarly about the magic that Magic lost.
“We are now thrilled to share the incredible progress the team has made,” said Bankard. “The Chaos Agents Simulator and tech as well as the expansive IP, game universe, and metagame systems that are coalescing.”
During the recent small crowd unveil event on April 5, Garfield, Elias, and Bankard took participants through a complete game loop using the Chaos Agents Simulator and gave a preview of Popularium’s unique heroes and character generation system.
The art and narrative teams, comprising veteran creatives such as Chris Ryall (formerly chief creative officer at IDW Publishing), Jeremy Cranford (formerly art director for Blizzard and Wizards of the Coast), and Peter Orullian (creator of the Vault of Heaven series). The team also revealed details of the game universe, races, character motivations, and the official name and theme music for Chaos Agents.
“Collectively, we’ve worked to achieve deep games where each player’s experience is unique, and yet there is overall balance,” said Elias. “We’re striving to deliver interesting gameplay that is always changing at the level of the individual player and the play environment in general. The metagame challenges of creating the community and economy associated with this type of game is not easy, but the opportunity excites us, and we have interesting solutions we’ve been working on for a long time.”
Popularium’s core values are aimed at delivering gameplay full of unique world-building and character development, fun, meaningful gaming experiences and active community engagement that blur the lines between gamers and creators. In short, they’re making the kinds of games they have always wanted to play.
Backgrounds and origins
Ray served at Xbox between 2006 and 2013, and helped with the launch of Xbox Live and the Xbox 360. He worked on the architecture team there, and later he was part of the third party portfolio game development team, where he helped developers integrate the new platforms and new features for Xbox Live. Then he moved to the Windows gaming team, where he worked with Bankard.
Bankard left and joined Blizzard, where he worked on Hearthstone from nearly the beginning. Ray went into the adtech space where he created and sold an enterprise tech company. After a decade, he wanted to get back into games. He saw there were so many innovations in business models for games.
“What struck me is we haven’t we been able to recreate the phenomenon like Magic, which has been around for decades now, in a digital format,” Ray said.
So he asked Garfield and Elias what they could do to re-create the magic. And from those conversations came the ideas for the game and the company.
“It was one of those amazing conversations that changed the course of a lot of things,” Ray said.
They were thinking about a game with globally unique characters with unique decks.
“What if something like a deck represented like the unique DNA for a superhero that was globally unique,” Ray said. “And that immediately connected with me because it was exactly what I was thinking and dreaming of building for a long time, a game that would naturally generate unique, valuable characters, assets, other things that would have a real emotional connection with the player.”
The game would feature 64 globally unique superheroes at the same time, with the multiplayer, auto battler, and battle royale elements.
“It took a little time for me to realize that something about Magic had shifted,” he said.
Ray reached out to Bankard because Hearthstone had a similar kind of magic at the outset. And Bankard decided to sign aboard as a founder.
Bankard spent 11 years at Blizzard. A lot of the joy was working with teams on fun experiences, like playing a league of Magic. Over time, with secondary market buying, it lost some appeal. At Hearthstone, the team wanted to get some of that magic back. Bankard had moved on from card games to auto battler and battle royale games. They came from a strategy background and could see some interesting combo of auto battler with battle royale mechanics presented in a MOBA-like or RTS view.
“We could squint and combine these together, we could solve some of the problems in each of these genres and come up with a with a beautiful creation of our own that we think will delight players and really sort of push the boundaries on where these two new emergent genres are heading,” Bankard said.
They have all been working for about a year now and they have a fully playable build of the game that they plan to roll out to a small curated community. Within six to nine months, the company will broaden the testing to larger crowds, Ray said.
The company expects to raise a round of funding, Ray said. The founders are aware there has been a lot of slowdown in the industry and consolidation. But they also feel like there is an opportunity for some innovation.
Lost magic in Magic
I asked Garfield to explain the notion of “lost magic.” When Magic came out, everyone had their own deck and that deck was unique. It was a random deck, and for a couple of years that was a unique characteristic. People bought a lot of cards, a secondary market for cards arose, and then everybody started getting the same kind of deck.
“There was this thing that took a little while for us to recognize,” Garfield said. “It was something about Magic that had shifted. And it wasn’t that it wasn’t there. You could recreate it by setting up leagues or something like that, where everybody kept distinct decks and get back into this mode where the cards were treasures, and everybody had this unique representation in the in the community. But it wasn’t naturally there. And, and so it took a while for printing technology to address that.”
Garfield said that Magic early on had a unique expression and a unique position inside a game community. That’s the promise that the game gives you, he said.
“You’ve got a dragon and none of your friends do,” Garfield said. “That’s pretty cool. But the more you get into it, the more that’s lost. It becomes a game where you’re manipulate and follow the [usual] decks,” Garfield said. “Rather than treasures, the cards become commodities you get on the secondary market. That’s where something gets lost.”
Elias said the sense of ownership was strong, and that carried on with other gamse like Pokemon, and there was real depth to the strategy and randomness of gameplay. You could personalize the deck.
Over time, Garfield made a total of 30 games. But he evolved his thinking about that notion of lost magic. Garfield got obsessed with auto battlers after Auto Chess and Hearthstone Battlegrounds came out.
“It showed one of the directions you could go,” Garfield said. “It solved a lot of the issues which often face games where you have either a constructible element or a strategic element,” Garfield said. “And, in particular, a unique element. The gameplay is very relaxed, very broad. That is, there’s no twitch in it, there’s no speed element. Not a lot of things which often limit your audience. You have a little bit of time pressure in the purchasing phase, or in our case, the power up phase. But then you get this resolution where you get to watch it unfold. And then you go back to this phase where you make decisions and then you watch it.”
He added, “This this seemed like a really good pacing for a game where where you were making strategic choices, and you wanted to include a lot of people in the play and not light a candle under the whole time, like StarCraft or something.”
And he said, “Another really great element of the auto battler was that you got to relax and watch. So during that period where you watched, the designers could present that however they liked and so that allows you to make that an exciting environment which really builds community. People can actually actually have a chance to chat, and it also opened the door for really constructing the game for spectators, which is something that Arka was keying in on from the start.”
Making magic with Chaos Agents
Battle Royale, of course is really quite interesting on its own, Garfield said. But auto battlers seem to be hinting at a game which involves lots and lots of people, he said.
Most of them involve eight people, which is already lots of people. But the way it’s structured is it’s really just a bunch of one-versus-one matches.
“The nature of auto battler opens opens up the possibility of having all these people playing together in a true multiplayer game, where you actually have the entire community looking at the same thing,” Garfield said. “And so it really seemed like a natural place to go to have it so that your auto battler fed into something where everybody was playing at once rather than you immediately get faced 1v1 against another player. The auto battler just it has an enormous amount of potential. A lot of that potential has been explored. But there’s a lot of room left for it. And I think this is this is one place that is natural to go.”
They want the game to be easy to get into so that it can appeal to a large audience. At the same time, the game can have a lot of depth and complexity for the serious players, Bankard said.
“It’s like smashing together genres and taking the best parts from each,” Bankard said.
The team wants to give each of the players a unique “skill map.” It’s like a skill chart you might see in an role-playing game. The skills that the player has access to are randomly given at the birth of the character. There will be different classes of characters. A player can choose to focus on a skill that has to do with chaos, or with a summoner. Those represent different paths. It depends on what they encounter. Each character winds up being unique.
“We’re looking here for for an experience where players don’t feel like they’re on a rail,” Garfield said. “And this is the balancing act of making a perfect, unique asset game. I’m pretty excited by the way this feels and I’m looking forward to people playing around with it.”
Blockchain or not?
As for blockchain technology, the company hasn’t taken a hard stand. It recognizes that games like Chaos Agents could benefit from thriving secondary markets where characters and assets can be sold, Ray said. But at the same time, Popularium doesn’t really believe that you need additional technology from the blockhain or cryptocurrency so that gamers can participate in those markets.
Players should be able to transact with each other in an out-of-game market, but there is no crypto or blockchain involved, Ray said.
“We believe we can fill that gap in a way that empowers gamers and gives them more authority over what they’re producing,” Ray said. “That is the philosophy. We see there is some potential to that technology. But there are clear reasons why gamers have not embraced it. And everything for us is driven by what gamers want. We are not necessarily looking for external technologies.”
Bankard said Web3 reminds him of the controversies around free-to-play in its infancy. But he thinks Web3 is in its infancy and it feels like a technology looking for a problem to solve.
“We’re trying to solve problems for the players,” Bankard said. “Like assets, transacting.”
But rather than condemn gray markets, Popularium wants to figure out how to embrace them in a way that works for players.