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以弱勝強:這個書呆子顛覆了游戲業,打造10億美元市場

以弱勝強:這個書呆子顛覆了游戲業,打造10億美元市場

Robert Hackett, 駱杰峰(Jeff John Roberts) 2020年06月22日
數十年來,游戲玩家可以在現實世界中交換卡片。但不管是法律還是其他原因,網絡游戲卻一直堅決拒絕該功能。
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尚未發行的原創漫畫小說“Emergents: Legacy”頁面,由史蒂夫?埃利斯和專門研發游戲的Bottled Lightning Studio創作。根據漫畫的悠久傳統,初版在上等紙板上手工繪制,上色由電腦完成。圖片來源:Art by Steve Ellis and Bottled Lightning Studio. All art is tm and copyright Emergents, Inc.

茲維?莫肖維茨“啪”地一聲把骰子砸在木桌上。這一擲非常幸運,他牌組里的兩張撲克牌能獲得特殊的力量。他把過了塑、保持跳躍姿勢的超級英雄卡片橫置,也就是進入戰斗模式。虛擬角色發動攻擊,給對手致命一擊,對手無法防備。勝利!

在美國的任何地下室或游戲商店里,都有可能出現這一幕。書呆子們聚在一起,指揮卡片上的巫師、戰士和女武神馳騁戰場。但這場游戲還不一樣。4月中旬的早晨,地點是位于曼哈頓托尼?翠貝卡街區的豪華閣樓,對戰雙方是時尚的風險投資家和嗓音沙啞的流行文化歷史學家。用游戲玩家的話來說,這是一場“游戲測試”。

兩人的商業伙伴兼臨時對手是莫肖維茨。現年41歲的莫肖維茨可不是普通玩家,他頭發蓬亂,戴著黑色眼鏡,時常爆發大笑,與20世紀90年代的卡通劇《德克斯特的實驗室》(Dexter’s Laboratory)里的天才小男孩曼達克非常相似。莫肖維茨喜歡創意T恤衫,今天他穿的T恤衫上寫著“向權威提問:問我什么都行”。他在極客圈里以擅長萬智牌知名。(編者注:萬智牌是一種集換式卡牌游戲。它是同類游戲中最早發明的,也是極受歡迎的卡牌游戲之一)。

莫肖維茨最出名的是以弱勝強。他的絕招是用低價值卡戰勝強大的對手。

如今,莫肖維茨正在玩更大的游戲,希望在超過1000億美元的電子游戲產業里同樣以弱勝強。莫肖維茨的目標是被稱為數字收藏卡游戲的小眾市場,據估計,今年該市場將從去年的15億美元增長到20億美元。最知名的例子就是突破性手機游戲《爐石傳說》(Hearthstone),據稱截至2018年11月,玩家已經達到1億。

莫肖維茨的計劃激進又簡單,即創造完全專注的游戲,拋棄傳統的掠奪性戰術。在游戲里,玩家可以用數字交換的超級英雄和機器人卡牌互相戰斗。玩家能在在線市場中購買、出售或交易不需要的數字產品。即便是大熱門免費游戲《爐石傳說》,也并無類似功能。

想法出現的原因似乎很明顯。數十年來,游戲玩家可以在現實世界中交換卡片。但不管是法律還是其他原因,網絡游戲卻一直堅決拒絕該功能。

莫肖維茨召集了兩位追隨的伙伴。其中之一是之前提過參加游戲的歷史學家布萊恩?大衛-馬歇爾,他是Emergents的產品主管。大衛-馬歇爾的功勞之一是在曼哈頓切爾西區的一處閣樓里開辦名叫Neutral Ground的店面,雖然現在店面已經關門,但在初創人員的心目中擁有神話級的地位,相當于游戲界的 Studio 54俱樂部。(有時大衛-馬歇爾會為萬智牌玩家營業到凌晨兩三點,在一場又一場戰斗中甩出自己的神獸卡牌,玩家里有中年數學書呆子,也有很難適應環境的中學生。)

三人組中的另一位成員是30歲的凱薩琳?布萊特曼,在開發游戲的初創公司Coase擔任首席執行官。這家公司的名字是為了紀念著名經濟學家羅納德?科斯。

如果說莫肖維茨和大衛-馬歇爾為項目注入了游戲血統,布萊特曼則幫公司與風險投資和游戲世界以外有影響力的人們建立聯系,其中包括億萬富翁、密碼愛好者蒂姆?德雷珀。布雷特曼曾經在金融領域兩大知名機構《華爾街日報》和對沖基金橋水工作,最出名的是跟丈夫領導加密貨幣項目,2017年曾經籌集2.34億美元。她非常善于交際,也很有魅力,去年還跟法國丈夫亞瑟登上《連線》雜志的封面。布萊特曼常年穿梭于紐約和巴黎,留下一串串雞尾酒和各種妙語。

布雷特曼、莫肖維茨和大衛-馬歇爾攜手向游戲業發起挑戰。業內資深人士預測,如果這款目前正在向早期測試人員推出的新游戲能流行開來,那么它有望開啟以數字產品交易為中心的新興產業,規模可達十億美元。而其他人則不那么樂觀。有人指出,新游戲要面臨強大的競爭對手。結局往往是失敗。

莫肖維茨并未受懷疑論者干擾。他一邊洗著超級英雄卡牌,一邊回憶自己有多少次絕地逢生。他打算再來一次,只不過這次要顛覆傳統的數字游戲設計邏輯,將萬智牌的魅力注入軟件,引領新一輪虛擬卡牌收藏狂潮。

創造奇跡

20世紀80年代末,數學家也是貝爾實驗室的校友理查德?加菲爾德開始構想一種新型游戲。他想到將可收藏卡牌與幻想戰斗游戲結合。跟棒球卡一樣,可以設置稀有卡,卡包能夠隨機開出稀有卡,這也是與當代大多數桌游相比最顯著的創新。由此,萬智牌誕生了。

1993年,當萬智牌的第一張卡牌出現在西海岸時,就立刻收獲了狂熱的粉絲。青少年和成年人都被游戲里類似“龍與地下城”的超凡神話吸引。他們開始沉迷購買“補充包”獲得新卡牌,用在個人的卡組里。隨著玩家們在全美各地漫畫店和大學校園里推介,游戲通過老式的口碑傳播流行起來。

對于粉絲來說,玩萬智牌是非常私人的事。“萬智牌比其他紙牌游戲或桌游都更接近角色扮演。每個玩家的牌組都像個角色。”《紐約客》文章引用游戲發明者加菲爾德在《紐約客》的話表示。

玩家扮演叫“鵬洛克”的幽靈角色,可以召喚虛擬的野獸和魔法進入戰斗。幻想背景以及復雜的分層規則是游戲最吸引人的地方。對很多人來說,搭建卡組相當私人。根據玩家個性不同,容易受魔法“色輪”里的五種顏色之一吸引,而“色輪”有點類似霍格沃茨的分院帽。舉例來說,白色角色與法律和秩序有關,而黑色人物體現了無情的權力,綠色角色代表公共價值等等。

萬智牌很快變得非常狂熱。“我在漫畫店做活動營銷時就發現了。人們都在拼命收集卡牌。有人因為我們沒有某張牌而憤怒地找我抱怨,他氣得抓住了我的衣領。”大衛-馬歇爾回憶說。

雖然萬智牌代表著豐富且充滿幻想的文化,但在現實世界中也不斷升值。萬智牌推出后不久就出現市場泡沫,引起了麻煩。投機者不斷拆開3美元的補充包,尋找能倒賣獲利的稀有卡。簡直就像極客圈的郁金香狂熱。瘋狂收集卡牌促進了銷售,但也可能破壞游戲的完整性和潛在的樂趣,把萬智牌變成變成像Pogs一樣曇花一現的游戲,如今的Pogs只剩下懷舊,而不再是游戲。

對掌握該款游戲的Wizards of the Coast公司來說,打造可持續的品牌要像央行行長一樣思考。公司本可以不惜一切利用萬智牌泡沫撈一把就走,但最終選擇了不同的策略。他們向市場投放某些卡牌以降低轉售價值,這讓投機者非常惱火。公司還引入了錦標賽規則,要求玩家使用最近年份的卡片,這意味著不能通過購買搭配強大的卡片,例如人人渴望的黑蓮花卡來獲勝。Wizards公司故意戳穿泡沫,其實是一種冒險,但事實證明,此舉是先見之明。

調整卡牌市場的策略成功了。萬智牌一直很熱鬧。如今,萬智牌世界的運營非常類似于擁有3800萬人口、管理良好的斯堪的納維亞國家。3800萬是全球玩家數量,還催生了豐富的粉絲文化和一系列模仿者。二級市場仍在走強。2019年,eBay上一張黑蓮花卡的售價超過16.6萬美元。

盡管萬智牌很早就已經獲得成功,但進入電腦時代后,它做得并不好。多年來,Wizards of the Coast的母公司孩之寶一直提供電腦版萬智牌游戲,但一直相對小眾。去年9月,孩之寶發布了《萬智牌:競技場》(Magic: The Gathering Arena),希望學習競爭對手《爐石傳說》激活老游戲。不過,雖然早期反饋不錯,但該款游戲只能在電腦上玩,不可以在移動設備上玩,而且像《爐石傳說》一樣,玩家不能像在實體世界里一樣通過二級市場交易和轉售卡牌。(萬智牌的發言人布魯斯?杜根表示,“會考慮移動端”。雖然存在購買《爐石傳說》和《競技場》賬號的黑市,但賬號并不保險,而且買賣行為違反了游戲的服務協議。)

Emergents團隊希望開發新數字游戲復制萬智牌的樂趣,所以正在密切研究萬智牌的經驗教訓。“就像所有哲學都比不上柏拉圖一樣,所有卡牌游戲都比不上萬智牌。”布萊特曼說。

團隊和不修邊幅的領導者莫肖維茨都認為,新游戲破解了行業密碼。當船員們向游戲業巨頭傾斜時,莫肖維茨卻手持長矛對抗。他不僅是專家玩家,用布萊特曼的話說,他是“游戲圈的勢利者”,而且是馬丁?路德式的人物,他喜歡直言其他游戲設計師的剝削和操縱行為。也許他還有點唐吉訶德的氣質吧。

阿爾法版本測試期間游戲的起始手牌。圖片來源:Art by various artists. All art is tm and copyright Emergent Inc.

避開激烈競爭

莫肖維茨很小就開始玩游戲,小時候他跟父親下棋。不過都是改版的游戲。剛開始玩時,莫肖維茨的父親只用國王和一個小兵,他則能用所有棋子。后來,當莫肖維茨學會將死父親的殘軍時,父親再增加更多棋子,逐步提升難度。

他十幾歲時也遇到過類似的實力錯位,當時他沉迷于萬智牌,在紐約市參加各種比賽,希望獲得獎金,然后出名。雖然他的父母都是哥倫比亞大學教授,生活相當舒適,但莫肖維茨的零花錢相當少。由于他太窮,搭建60張牌的卡組時只能用其他人的棄牌,也只能用非正統策略獲勝。

莫肖維茨擅長用低價值卡贏得比賽,這種策略也成了他的成名絕技。后來出品萬智牌的Wizards of the Coast等游戲公司紛紛邀請莫肖維茨試玩。有好幾次,他“破解”了游戲。(所謂“破解”是極客術語,是指發現設計上的缺陷導致自動獲勝。)在美國西部工作期間,莫肖維茨玩過不同的游戲。他在丹佛郊外的印第安式賭場玩撲克賺了一大筆錢,然后在拉斯維加斯從事賭博行業。莫肖維茨不愿談及他工作細節,只表示跟數學有關。

這并不奇怪。莫肖維茨在說話時,會分析周圍每種情況的概率,幾乎能看到他腦中蹦出一連串的方程式。由于數學能力超群,他談起某些整數時格外溫柔。“17歲在我心中地位比較特殊。因為17是最隨機的數字。”他在回憶高中數學俱樂部的生活時順口說了一句。

莫肖維茨離開拉斯維加斯,在量化公司Jane Street工作,后來在很快倒閉的醫學研究初創公司MetaMed當過首席執行官。現在,他把所有的數字運算能力都用在Emergents上。他的任務是設計新游戲,顛覆此前游戲制作者賺錢的基礎。

莫肖維茨要廢除“戰利品盒”。批評人士稱,“戰利品盒”能開出特殊武器或增強功能的摸彩袋類似彩票。他們指責游戲行業操縱玩家,特別是兒童,花費數百甚至數千美元(或游戲時間)獲取數字垃圾。戰利品盒引發的爭議導致美國和歐洲的政治家呼吁全面禁止。

莫肖維茨說,戰利品盒利用玩家的弱點實施操縱。他提出了“斯金納箱”實驗,“斯金納箱”是指把老鼠放進盒子里,訓練采取某種活動以換取食物。

在電子游戲中,斯金納箱使用的是虛擬獎勵。游戲制作者提供游戲中的金錢、武器、升級、催眠聲音和各種小飾品,誘使玩家在游戲中花費更多時間,通常都是乏味重復的活動。這并不是莫肖維茨提出的陰謀論。只要在網上搜索“斯金納盒和游戲”,就能發現該理論在游戲設計討論中很常見。對游戲制作者來說,操縱玩家玩更長時間有助于推動部分人購買更多戰利品盒,從而提高收入。但在莫肖維茨看來,結果是游戲變得單調乏味。

Emergents等游戲產品市場似乎不太可能解決既有問題,但莫肖維茨相信,類似市場將具有革新意義。“如果不允許交易,就會強迫人們‘肝’時間。”他解釋說,玩家可能不得不在游戲的一個小角落里耗費數小時,才能獲得某種工具或武器。

莫肖維茨還認為,行業未能建立游戲內交易選項,削弱了想象力。他說,每個玩家都努力獲取商品時,會傾向于從游戲博客上介紹幾種已嘗試、真實的、被證明是成功的卡牌搭建策略中選擇一種。在他看來,如果玩家可以購買或交換工具和武器,就能探索非正統戰術并獲得優勢。這正是莫肖維茨玩萬智牌時做的事,他相信該經驗同樣適用于在線游戲。

不過,有個問題也很明顯,如果二手數碼產品能開啟十億美元的產業,而且提升游戲的趣味性,那么為什么之前沒有人這么做?

左起:布萊恩?大衛-馬歇爾、凱瑟琳?布萊特曼和茲維?莫肖維茨。圖片來源:Jeff Roberts

其他人為什么失敗

游戲行業不愿為玩家提供銷售和交換產品的方式,其實是有充分理由的。

不出所料,第一個原因就是合法性。首先,明確說明卡牌價值可能等于不小心承認公司私下賣彩票。這在世界某些地區是非法的,包括美國的很多州。因此,Wizards of the Coast等公司明智地選擇“不說明”也不否認,把市場業務留給獨立經銷商。其次,相關市場可能會被欺詐者濫用。《反恐精英》(Counter-Strike: Global Offensive)的制作者最近就發現,市場上幾乎所有交易員都是洗錢者,試圖套取不義之財。

此外還有一系列商業原因導致游戲市場比較少見。比如說,游戲制造商擔心二手游戲市場會影響新游戲發售。

傳統上,類似的銷售行為主要通過劍或者《魔獸世界》(World of Warcraft)里的金幣,但近來更多的銷售是以游戲玩家稱之為“美化”或“皮膚”的形式出現,主要用來裝飾玩家的角色,如太陽鏡或新鞋。在游戲《堡壘之夜》(Fortnite)里買皮膚的熱潮中尤為引人注目。學生玩家極其重視,如果游戲形象沒有經過修飾就會被嘲笑“默認”,從而被迫花錢裝扮角色。僅在2018年,《堡壘之夜》的皮膚銷售額就達到24億美元。《堡壘之夜》里每雙運動鞋和太陽鏡的收益都會直接進入制造商Epic Games的口袋。在Epic Games看來,何必冒險允許商店轉售商品降低利潤?奶牛要用來擠奶,而不能殺雞取卵。

韋德布什證券公司的分析師邁克爾?帕切特表示,蠶食利潤的擔心真實存在,但也有所夸大。“就像假太陽鏡。有些人花10美元買假冒的LV,但不能說如果沒有假貨那些人就都會花200美元去買正品。”他說。

但是,即便相信二手貨不會侵蝕銷售,游戲制作者遠離二手貨市場,以及《爐石傳說》和《競技場》等游戲禁止任何形式的交易還有個原因。主要擔心是單獨個人或機器人擁有多個賬戶利用規則與系統博弈,先是辛苦收集稀有卡,然后將所有卡片集中到一個賬戶。如此一來卡牌可能失去價值,也影響游戲的初衷。

在提供游戲內交易平臺方面,游戲設計師對前輩的失誤記憶猶新。2011年,游戲巨頭暴雪在暗黑型角色扮演游戲《暗黑破壞神3》(Diablo III)內推出了“拍賣行”。本來拍賣行是希望替代eBay和其他未經授權的交易論壇,提供內部選擇,也為了在《暗黑破壞神3》里增添有趣的新經濟元素。不幸的是,拍賣行導致了意外的結果,一些中國和俄羅斯的經濟雇傭兵在機器人幫助下,加入游戲僅僅為了獲得和出售二手武器。這些人在官方拍賣行兜售數字產品,購買方則是富有的商人,為了打敗游戲里最強悍的壞人購買最好的武器。很快,暗黑破壞神的精英隊伍中出現了越來越多的“氪金”玩家,也是游戲界的禁忌。該現象引發聲討浪潮,導致暴雪在2013年關閉了拍賣行。

與早期幾乎摧毀萬智牌的投機泡沫一樣,暗黑破壞神拍賣行的慘敗也凸顯了反常的經濟力量如何摧毀原本受歡迎的游戲。后來多位游戲行業人士得出結論:游戲內交易市場行不通。實際上,莫肖維茨承認潛在投資者已經詢問過Emergents 團隊,打算如何避免暗黑破壞神式的崩潰。

莫肖維茨的回應是,將游戲世界比作現實世界。“在萬智牌里,有個我們稱之為‘手提箱先生’的家伙,他帶著所有牌參加錦標賽。”他說。在萬智牌的世界里,Wizards of the Coast可以利用錦標賽的規則,限制比賽中能使用卡牌的種類,從而控制手提箱先生。在Emergents里,莫肖維茨設想將玩家分成不同的等級,讓擁有卡組價值相似的玩家互相競爭。(系統不會阻礙擁有適當資源的聰明玩家挑戰“手提箱先生”,但會確保多數競技均衡匹配。)

首席執行官布萊特曼也曾經對游戲氪金問題進行過深入思考,不過她的觀點更具學術性。在她的研究中,以及創立加密貨幣公司Tezos的過程中,她廣泛閱讀了有關金融和博弈論的書籍,結果發現書中知識對理解經濟學在游戲設計的作用很有益。

布雷特曼說,暗黑破壞神拍賣行的失敗是因為游戲的免費模式很容易被機器人和流氓玩家利用。盡管Emergents提供免費版本,新玩家可以免費獲得一把牌,但她表示,游戲的機制下,玩家不能使用機器人來“肝”,或者積攢物品轉售。

但即使Emergents找到了擊敗機器人的方法,也要先有人玩游戲才能實現目標,而吸引玩家并不容易。從長遠來看,《爐石傳說》仍然是最受歡迎的數字收藏卡牌游戲,而莫肖維茨輕視的一些戰術正是玩家能連續數小時沉迷手機的原因。其他模仿的游戲(也就是所謂的“克隆爐石”)幾乎沒有成功的。

“很多游戲都在模仿《爐石傳說》,卻沒有自己的特色。”NPD游戲(NPD Games)的分析師馬修?迪納爾說。“模仿的路上有一堆烈士。在這個領域里,暴雪占據了絕對優勢。”

成功機會之渺茫可能令人望而生畏,但除了莫肖維茨和大衛-馬歇爾過往的從業經歷和布萊特曼的經濟頭腦之外,Emergents團隊還有一個有望打贏突圍賽的優勢。他們相信自己手握王牌,那就是名叫區塊鏈的新技術。

打出游戲里的“掃蕩者”卡牌,可以移除多張敵對角色的牌。圖片來源:NOVA ART BY STEVE ELLIS AND BOTTLED LIGHTNING STUDIOS. OTHER ART BY VARIOUS. ALL ART IS TM AND COPYRIGHT EMERGENTS, INC.

區塊鏈賦能游戲世界

2017年,“區塊鏈”一舉變身流行語,在很多人眼里成為了時尚。但與其他新技術一樣,區塊鏈既被夸大,也有被誤解的地方。至于Emergents團隊,布萊特曼認為區塊鏈技術可以應對二手商品市場和游戲規則改變的挑戰。

從本質上看,區塊鏈只是可以在多臺計算機上運行的新型軟件,能創建永久防篡改的賬本。最著名的例子是比特幣區塊鏈,也有很多其他例子,包括2014年布萊特曼和丈夫創建的Tezos。諸多區塊鏈都可用于創建公開可信的交易記錄。目前,金融、航運和貴重寶石等多種行業都在使用區塊鏈跟蹤產品并建立原產地證明。

在游戲世界里,區塊鏈可以用來創建不受篡改的記錄,記錄某項數字財產的擁有者,不管財產是寶劍、怪物,還是稀有的太陽鏡。在Emergents里,區塊鏈能隨時提供某位玩家擁有某張卡牌的權威記錄,就好像游戲監管者擁有可靠的會計團隊,可以確保游戲經濟的完整性。

游戲中使用區塊鏈還能提供有趣的可能,即為粉絲創造新的數字收藏品。具體來說,玩家可以付費獲得精英玩家在錦標賽中使用的數字卡牌或劍,反正區塊鏈能夠確認出處。其實類似于購買明星球員在世界大賽上使用的球棒。

雖然區塊鏈是新的游戲技術,但值得注意的是,區塊鏈和加密貨幣領域里的很多高手都是萬智牌迷。其中包括以太坊的創始人維塔利克?布特林,以太坊是僅次于比特幣的流行數字貨幣。加密貨幣交易所Kraken的首席執行官杰西?鮑威爾回憶說,他曾經在萬智牌比賽中與莫肖維茨對決。(Mt.Gox是早期主要的比特幣交易所,最開始是萬智牌在線交易所。)相關名人和身后龐大的社交媒體粉絲可能會大力推廣支持區塊鏈的新游戲。

當然,最后都取決于游戲制造商能否第一時間無縫集成區塊鏈技術。Niantic Labs的首席執行官,也是精靈寶可夢(Pokémon Go)的創始人約翰?漢克警告稱,“游戲必須排第一位。”他的意思是,如果游戲本身無法吸引人,背后支持的技術并不重要。

其他也有人意見相同。“到最后,還是要有頂級質量的游戲,并且玩起來要非常有趣。這一點不能妥協。”Coinbase和Naspers支持的初創公司Immutable的首席執行官詹姆斯?弗格森說,該公司正在研發基于區塊鏈的數字卡牌游戲,名叫Gods Unchained。

這還不是Emergents唯一的競爭對手。2018年,加密貨幣公司Ripple跟長期從事游戲行業的聯盟宣布為游戲制造商提供1億美元,用于整合區塊鏈技術。曾經擔任Kabam聯合創始人兼首席執行官的周凱文目前在領導區塊鏈游戲初創公司Forte,Kabam是熱門的移動游戲制造商,曾經與《星球大戰》、漫威和《指環王》等知名品牌合作。《使命召喚》的前主管約翰?林登擔任Mythical Games的首席執行官,負責監督內置區塊鏈的新游戲。

“區塊鏈的優勢在于可以轉變范式,而不只是提供新平臺。使用區塊鏈跟蹤和交易游戲資產能改變出售資產的類型。”他說。

林登、布萊特曼和其他人都在賭,區塊鏈將在游戲領域帶來技術飛躍,級別類似于之前引入的游戲手柄或多人在線游戲。在他們看來,問題并不在于區塊鏈能否改變游戲,而是誰能第一個成功。

來一張莫西就能贏

在翠貝卡閣樓上,莫肖維茨邀請風險資本家跟他對抗桌上的另一位投資者。她坐在桌旁,兩人在工匠、前鋒和閃光風暴等實體卡牌周圍調整兵力。目前團隊用實體卡牌演示游戲,與此同時,開發人員也在搭建數字版。

“我們會用長棘龍打掉對方的燈塔,這樣就能用自己的燈塔了!”莫肖維茨告訴困惑的搭檔。他抽牌時眼睛閃著光。這張卡牌上的角色是莫西。顯然,她很強大。幾分鐘后,一切都結束了,莫肖維茨打出莫西,消滅了對手的最后一支部隊。

隨后幾人在布魯克林著名的Dough bakery吃甜甜圈,投資人向莫肖維茨問起游戲的推出計劃。有個關鍵決策是,Emergents團隊要不要跟知名品牌合作,比如漫威或《權力的游戲》(Game of Thrones),還是單純靠大衛-馬歇爾設計的工匠,長棘龍之類鮮有人知的卡牌。

他們說,Emergents同事一直在跟知名片方談判,但目前不太受重視。“沒有人愿意第一個吃螃蟹。”布萊特曼說,她的預測是,如果首款區塊鏈游戲在市場上施展吸引力,吸引知識產權授權會更容易。

與此同時,莫肖維茨身心自己能打造出更優秀的在線游戲。他早已習慣遇到懷疑者,然后用被證實的預測讓對方驚訝。如果莫肖維茨能笑到最后,就像以前很多次他獲勝后突然大笑,在場所有人都可以聽到。如果Emergents大獲成功,則可能會在龐大的游戲產業里打開巨大的垂直市場,而2018年游戲行業的收入就已經超過全球電影行業。

Mythical Games的首席執行官約翰?林登曾經領導Tony Hawk Skateboarding等大型品牌,其實他見過類似場景。他舉了亞馬遜旗下Twitch的例子,數百萬粉絲在Twitch上觀看游戲直播,購買在線游戲贊助的品牌也在增加。林登認為,在熱門游戲里引入二手商品市場,可能會引發另一場金融盛宴。

他說:“每次只要讓人們更深入玩游戲,還能賺點錢,就可以催生數百萬美元的新產業。”(財富中文網)

譯者:夏林

茲維?莫肖維茨“啪”地一聲把骰子砸在木桌上。這一擲非常幸運,他牌組里的兩張撲克牌能獲得特殊的力量。他把過了塑、保持跳躍姿勢的超級英雄卡片橫置,也就是進入戰斗模式。虛擬角色發動攻擊,給對手致命一擊,對手無法防備。勝利!

在美國的任何地下室或游戲商店里,都有可能出現這一幕。書呆子們聚在一起,指揮卡片上的巫師、戰士和女武神馳騁戰場。但這場游戲還不一樣。4月中旬的早晨,地點是位于曼哈頓托尼?翠貝卡街區的豪華閣樓,對戰雙方是時尚的風險投資家和嗓音沙啞的流行文化歷史學家。用游戲玩家的話來說,這是一場“游戲測試”。

兩人的商業伙伴兼臨時對手是莫肖維茨。現年41歲的莫肖維茨可不是普通玩家,他頭發蓬亂,戴著黑色眼鏡,時常爆發大笑,與20世紀90年代的卡通劇《德克斯特的實驗室》(Dexter’s Laboratory)里的天才小男孩曼達克非常相似。莫肖維茨喜歡創意T恤衫,今天他穿的T恤衫上寫著“向權威提問:問我什么都行”。他在極客圈里以擅長萬智牌知名。(編者注:萬智牌是一種集換式卡牌游戲。它是同類游戲中最早發明的,也是極受歡迎的卡牌游戲之一)。

莫肖維茨最出名的是以弱勝強。他的絕招是用低價值卡戰勝強大的對手。

如今,莫肖維茨正在玩更大的游戲,希望在超過1000億美元的電子游戲產業里同樣以弱勝強。莫肖維茨的目標是被稱為數字收藏卡游戲的小眾市場,據估計,今年該市場將從去年的15億美元增長到20億美元。最知名的例子就是突破性手機游戲《爐石傳說》(Hearthstone),據稱截至2018年11月,玩家已經達到1億。

莫肖維茨的計劃激進又簡單,即創造完全專注的游戲,拋棄傳統的掠奪性戰術。在游戲里,玩家可以用數字交換的超級英雄和機器人卡牌互相戰斗。玩家能在在線市場中購買、出售或交易不需要的數字產品。即便是大熱門免費游戲《爐石傳說》,也并無類似功能。

想法出現的原因似乎很明顯。數十年來,游戲玩家可以在現實世界中交換卡片。但不管是法律還是其他原因,網絡游戲卻一直堅決拒絕該功能。

莫肖維茨召集了兩位追隨的伙伴。其中之一是之前提過參加游戲的歷史學家布萊恩?大衛-馬歇爾,他是Emergents的產品主管。大衛-馬歇爾的功勞之一是在曼哈頓切爾西區的一處閣樓里開辦名叫Neutral Ground的店面,雖然現在店面已經關門,但在初創人員的心目中擁有神話級的地位,相當于游戲界的 Studio 54俱樂部。(有時大衛-馬歇爾會為萬智牌玩家營業到凌晨兩三點,在一場又一場戰斗中甩出自己的神獸卡牌,玩家里有中年數學書呆子,也有很難適應環境的中學生。)

三人組中的另一位成員是30歲的凱薩琳?布萊特曼,在開發游戲的初創公司Coase擔任首席執行官。這家公司的名字是為了紀念著名經濟學家羅納德?科斯。

如果說莫肖維茨和大衛-馬歇爾為項目注入了游戲血統,布萊特曼則幫公司與風險投資和游戲世界以外有影響力的人們建立聯系,其中包括億萬富翁、密碼愛好者蒂姆?德雷珀。布雷特曼曾經在金融領域兩大知名機構《華爾街日報》和對沖基金橋水工作,最出名的是跟丈夫領導加密貨幣項目,2017年曾經籌集2.34億美元。她非常善于交際,也很有魅力,去年還跟法國丈夫亞瑟登上《連線》雜志的封面。布萊特曼常年穿梭于紐約和巴黎,留下一串串雞尾酒和各種妙語。

布雷特曼、莫肖維茨和大衛-馬歇爾攜手向游戲業發起挑戰。業內資深人士預測,如果這款目前正在向早期測試人員推出的新游戲能流行開來,那么它有望開啟以數字產品交易為中心的新興產業,規模可達十億美元。而其他人則不那么樂觀。有人指出,新游戲要面臨強大的競爭對手。結局往往是失敗。

莫肖維茨并未受懷疑論者干擾。他一邊洗著超級英雄卡牌,一邊回憶自己有多少次絕地逢生。他打算再來一次,只不過這次要顛覆傳統的數字游戲設計邏輯,將萬智牌的魅力注入軟件,引領新一輪虛擬卡牌收藏狂潮。

創造奇跡

20世紀80年代末,數學家也是貝爾實驗室的校友理查德?加菲爾德開始構想一種新型游戲。他想到將可收藏卡牌與幻想戰斗游戲結合。跟棒球卡一樣,可以設置稀有卡,卡包能夠隨機開出稀有卡,這也是與當代大多數桌游相比最顯著的創新。由此,萬智牌誕生了。

1993年,當萬智牌的第一張卡牌出現在西海岸時,就立刻收獲了狂熱的粉絲。青少年和成年人都被游戲里類似“龍與地下城”的超凡神話吸引。他們開始沉迷購買“補充包”獲得新卡牌,用在個人的卡組里。隨著玩家們在全美各地漫畫店和大學校園里推介,游戲通過老式的口碑傳播流行起來。

對于粉絲來說,玩萬智牌是非常私人的事。“萬智牌比其他紙牌游戲或桌游都更接近角色扮演。每個玩家的牌組都像個角色。”《紐約客》文章引用游戲發明者加菲爾德在《紐約客》的話表示。

玩家扮演叫“鵬洛克”的幽靈角色,可以召喚虛擬的野獸和魔法進入戰斗。幻想背景以及復雜的分層規則是游戲最吸引人的地方。對很多人來說,搭建卡組相當私人。根據玩家個性不同,容易受魔法“色輪”里的五種顏色之一吸引,而“色輪”有點類似霍格沃茨的分院帽。舉例來說,白色角色與法律和秩序有關,而黑色人物體現了無情的權力,綠色角色代表公共價值等等。

萬智牌很快變得非常狂熱。“我在漫畫店做活動營銷時就發現了。人們都在拼命收集卡牌。有人因為我們沒有某張牌而憤怒地找我抱怨,他氣得抓住了我的衣領。”大衛-馬歇爾回憶說。

雖然萬智牌代表著豐富且充滿幻想的文化,但在現實世界中也不斷升值。萬智牌推出后不久就出現市場泡沫,引起了麻煩。投機者不斷拆開3美元的補充包,尋找能倒賣獲利的稀有卡。簡直就像極客圈的郁金香狂熱。瘋狂收集卡牌促進了銷售,但也可能破壞游戲的完整性和潛在的樂趣,把萬智牌變成變成像Pogs一樣曇花一現的游戲,如今的Pogs只剩下懷舊,而不再是游戲。

對掌握該款游戲的Wizards of the Coast公司來說,打造可持續的品牌要像央行行長一樣思考。公司本可以不惜一切利用萬智牌泡沫撈一把就走,但最終選擇了不同的策略。他們向市場投放某些卡牌以降低轉售價值,這讓投機者非常惱火。公司還引入了錦標賽規則,要求玩家使用最近年份的卡片,這意味著不能通過購買搭配強大的卡片,例如人人渴望的黑蓮花卡來獲勝。Wizards公司故意戳穿泡沫,其實是一種冒險,但事實證明,此舉是先見之明。

調整卡牌市場的策略成功了。萬智牌一直很熱鬧。如今,萬智牌世界的運營非常類似于擁有3800萬人口、管理良好的斯堪的納維亞國家。3800萬是全球玩家數量,還催生了豐富的粉絲文化和一系列模仿者。二級市場仍在走強。2019年,eBay上一張黑蓮花卡的售價超過16.6萬美元。

盡管萬智牌很早就已經獲得成功,但進入電腦時代后,它做得并不好。多年來,Wizards of the Coast的母公司孩之寶一直提供電腦版萬智牌游戲,但一直相對小眾。去年9月,孩之寶發布了《萬智牌:競技場》(Magic: The Gathering Arena),希望學習競爭對手《爐石傳說》激活老游戲。不過,雖然早期反饋不錯,但該款游戲只能在電腦上玩,不可以在移動設備上玩,而且像《爐石傳說》一樣,玩家不能像在實體世界里一樣通過二級市場交易和轉售卡牌。(萬智牌的發言人布魯斯?杜根表示,“會考慮移動端”。雖然存在購買《爐石傳說》和《競技場》賬號的黑市,但賬號并不保險,而且買賣行為違反了游戲的服務協議。)

Emergents團隊希望開發新數字游戲復制萬智牌的樂趣,所以正在密切研究萬智牌的經驗教訓。“就像所有哲學都比不上柏拉圖一樣,所有卡牌游戲都比不上萬智牌。”布萊特曼說。

團隊和不修邊幅的領導者莫肖維茨都認為,新游戲破解了行業密碼。當船員們向游戲業巨頭傾斜時,莫肖維茨卻手持長矛對抗。他不僅是專家玩家,用布萊特曼的話說,他是“游戲圈的勢利者”,而且是馬丁?路德式的人物,他喜歡直言其他游戲設計師的剝削和操縱行為。也許他還有點唐吉訶德的氣質吧。

避開激烈競爭

莫肖維茨很小就開始玩游戲,小時候他跟父親下棋。不過都是改版的游戲。剛開始玩時,莫肖維茨的父親只用國王和一個小兵,他則能用所有棋子。后來,當莫肖維茨學會將死父親的殘軍時,父親再增加更多棋子,逐步提升難度。

他十幾歲時也遇到過類似的實力錯位,當時他沉迷于萬智牌,在紐約市參加各種比賽,希望獲得獎金,然后出名。雖然他的父母都是哥倫比亞大學教授,生活相當舒適,但莫肖維茨的零花錢相當少。由于他太窮,搭建60張牌的卡組時只能用其他人的棄牌,也只能用非正統策略獲勝。

莫肖維茨擅長用低價值卡贏得比賽,這種策略也成了他的成名絕技。后來出品萬智牌的Wizards of the Coast等游戲公司紛紛邀請莫肖維茨試玩。有好幾次,他“破解”了游戲。(所謂“破解”是極客術語,是指發現設計上的缺陷導致自動獲勝。)在美國西部工作期間,莫肖維茨玩過不同的游戲。他在丹佛郊外的印第安式賭場玩撲克賺了一大筆錢,然后在拉斯維加斯從事賭博行業。莫肖維茨不愿談及他工作細節,只表示跟數學有關。

這并不奇怪。莫肖維茨在說話時,會分析周圍每種情況的概率,幾乎能看到他腦中蹦出一連串的方程式。由于數學能力超群,他談起某些整數時格外溫柔。“17歲在我心中地位比較特殊。因為17是最隨機的數字。”他在回憶高中數學俱樂部的生活時順口說了一句。

莫肖維茨離開拉斯維加斯,在量化公司Jane Street工作,后來在很快倒閉的醫學研究初創公司MetaMed當過首席執行官。現在,他把所有的數字運算能力都用在Emergents上。他的任務是設計新游戲,顛覆此前游戲制作者賺錢的基礎。

莫肖維茨要廢除“戰利品盒”。批評人士稱,“戰利品盒”能開出特殊武器或增強功能的摸彩袋類似彩票。他們指責游戲行業操縱玩家,特別是兒童,花費數百甚至數千美元(或游戲時間)獲取數字垃圾。戰利品盒引發的爭議導致美國和歐洲的政治家呼吁全面禁止。

莫肖維茨說,戰利品盒利用玩家的弱點實施操縱。他提出了“斯金納箱”實驗,“斯金納箱”是指把老鼠放進盒子里,訓練采取某種活動以換取食物。

在電子游戲中,斯金納箱使用的是虛擬獎勵。游戲制作者提供游戲中的金錢、武器、升級、催眠聲音和各種小飾品,誘使玩家在游戲中花費更多時間,通常都是乏味重復的活動。這并不是莫肖維茨提出的陰謀論。只要在網上搜索“斯金納盒和游戲”,就能發現該理論在游戲設計討論中很常見。對游戲制作者來說,操縱玩家玩更長時間有助于推動部分人購買更多戰利品盒,從而提高收入。但在莫肖維茨看來,結果是游戲變得單調乏味。

Emergents等游戲產品市場似乎不太可能解決既有問題,但莫肖維茨相信,類似市場將具有革新意義。“如果不允許交易,就會強迫人們‘肝’時間。”他解釋說,玩家可能不得不在游戲的一個小角落里耗費數小時,才能獲得某種工具或武器。

莫肖維茨還認為,行業未能建立游戲內交易選項,削弱了想象力。他說,每個玩家都努力獲取商品時,會傾向于從游戲博客上介紹幾種已嘗試、真實的、被證明是成功的卡牌搭建策略中選擇一種。在他看來,如果玩家可以購買或交換工具和武器,就能探索非正統戰術并獲得優勢。這正是莫肖維茨玩萬智牌時做的事,他相信該經驗同樣適用于在線游戲。

不過,有個問題也很明顯,如果二手數碼產品能開啟十億美元的產業,而且提升游戲的趣味性,那么為什么之前沒有人這么做?

其他人為什么失敗

游戲行業不愿為玩家提供銷售和交換產品的方式,其實是有充分理由的。

不出所料,第一個原因就是合法性。首先,明確說明卡牌價值可能等于不小心承認公司私下賣彩票。這在世界某些地區是非法的,包括美國的很多州。因此,Wizards of the Coast等公司明智地選擇“不說明”也不否認,把市場業務留給獨立經銷商。其次,相關市場可能會被欺詐者濫用。《反恐精英》(Counter-Strike: Global Offensive)的制作者最近就發現,市場上幾乎所有交易員都是洗錢者,試圖套取不義之財。

此外還有一系列商業原因導致游戲市場比較少見。比如說,游戲制造商擔心二手游戲市場會影響新游戲發售。

傳統上,類似的銷售行為主要通過劍或者《魔獸世界》(World of Warcraft)里的金幣,但近來更多的銷售是以游戲玩家稱之為“美化”或“皮膚”的形式出現,主要用來裝飾玩家的角色,如太陽鏡或新鞋。在游戲《堡壘之夜》(Fortnite)里買皮膚的熱潮中尤為引人注目。學生玩家極其重視,如果游戲形象沒有經過修飾就會被嘲笑“默認”,從而被迫花錢裝扮角色。僅在2018年,《堡壘之夜》的皮膚銷售額就達到24億美元。《堡壘之夜》里每雙運動鞋和太陽鏡的收益都會直接進入制造商Epic Games的口袋。在Epic Games看來,何必冒險允許商店轉售商品降低利潤?奶牛要用來擠奶,而不能殺雞取卵。

韋德布什證券公司的分析師邁克爾?帕切特表示,蠶食利潤的擔心真實存在,但也有所夸大。“就像假太陽鏡。有些人花10美元買假冒的LV,但不能說如果沒有假貨那些人就都會花200美元去買正品。”他說。

但是,即便相信二手貨不會侵蝕銷售,游戲制作者遠離二手貨市場,以及《爐石傳說》和《競技場》等游戲禁止任何形式的交易還有個原因。主要擔心是單獨個人或機器人擁有多個賬戶利用規則與系統博弈,先是辛苦收集稀有卡,然后將所有卡片集中到一個賬戶。如此一來卡牌可能失去價值,也影響游戲的初衷。

在提供游戲內交易平臺方面,游戲設計師對前輩的失誤記憶猶新。2011年,游戲巨頭暴雪在暗黑型角色扮演游戲《暗黑破壞神3》(Diablo III)內推出了“拍賣行”。本來拍賣行是希望替代eBay和其他未經授權的交易論壇,提供內部選擇,也為了在《暗黑破壞神3》里增添有趣的新經濟元素。不幸的是,拍賣行導致了意外的結果,一些中國和俄羅斯的經濟雇傭兵在機器人幫助下,加入游戲僅僅為了獲得和出售二手武器。這些人在官方拍賣行兜售數字產品,購買方則是富有的商人,為了打敗游戲里最強悍的壞人購買最好的武器。很快,暗黑破壞神的精英隊伍中出現了越來越多的“氪金”玩家,也是游戲界的禁忌。該現象引發聲討浪潮,導致暴雪在2013年關閉了拍賣行。

與早期幾乎摧毀萬智牌的投機泡沫一樣,暗黑破壞神拍賣行的慘敗也凸顯了反常的經濟力量如何摧毀原本受歡迎的游戲。后來多位游戲行業人士得出結論:游戲內交易市場行不通。實際上,莫肖維茨承認潛在投資者已經詢問過Emergents 團隊,打算如何避免暗黑破壞神式的崩潰。

莫肖維茨的回應是,將游戲世界比作現實世界。“在萬智牌里,有個我們稱之為‘手提箱先生’的家伙,他帶著所有牌參加錦標賽。”他說。在萬智牌的世界里,Wizards of the Coast可以利用錦標賽的規則,限制比賽中能使用卡牌的種類,從而控制手提箱先生。在Emergents里,莫肖維茨設想將玩家分成不同的等級,讓擁有卡組價值相似的玩家互相競爭。(系統不會阻礙擁有適當資源的聰明玩家挑戰“手提箱先生”,但會確保多數競技均衡匹配。)

首席執行官布萊特曼也曾經對游戲氪金問題進行過深入思考,不過她的觀點更具學術性。在她的研究中,以及創立加密貨幣公司Tezos的過程中,她廣泛閱讀了有關金融和博弈論的書籍,結果發現書中知識對理解經濟學在游戲設計的作用很有益。

布雷特曼說,暗黑破壞神拍賣行的失敗是因為游戲的免費模式很容易被機器人和流氓玩家利用。盡管Emergents提供免費版本,新玩家可以免費獲得一把牌,但她表示,游戲的機制下,玩家不能使用機器人來“肝”,或者積攢物品轉售。

但即使Emergents找到了擊敗機器人的方法,也要先有人玩游戲才能實現目標,而吸引玩家并不容易。從長遠來看,《爐石傳說》仍然是最受歡迎的數字收藏卡牌游戲,而莫肖維茨輕視的一些戰術正是玩家能連續數小時沉迷手機的原因。其他模仿的游戲(也就是所謂的“克隆爐石”)幾乎沒有成功的。

“很多游戲都在模仿《爐石傳說》,卻沒有自己的特色。”NPD游戲(NPD Games)的分析師馬修?迪納爾說。“模仿的路上有一堆烈士。在這個領域里,暴雪占據了絕對優勢。”

成功機會之渺茫可能令人望而生畏,但除了莫肖維茨和大衛-馬歇爾過往的從業經歷和布萊特曼的經濟頭腦之外,Emergents團隊還有一個有望打贏突圍賽的優勢。他們相信自己手握王牌,那就是名叫區塊鏈的新技術。

區塊鏈賦能游戲世界

2017年,“區塊鏈”一舉變身流行語,在很多人眼里成為了時尚。但與其他新技術一樣,區塊鏈既被夸大,也有被誤解的地方。至于Emergents團隊,布萊特曼認為區塊鏈技術可以應對二手商品市場和游戲規則改變的挑戰。

從本質上看,區塊鏈只是可以在多臺計算機上運行的新型軟件,能創建永久防篡改的賬本。最著名的例子是比特幣區塊鏈,也有很多其他例子,包括2014年布萊特曼和丈夫創建的Tezos。諸多區塊鏈都可用于創建公開可信的交易記錄。目前,金融、航運和貴重寶石等多種行業都在使用區塊鏈跟蹤產品并建立原產地證明。

在游戲世界里,區塊鏈可以用來創建不受篡改的記錄,記錄某項數字財產的擁有者,不管財產是寶劍、怪物,還是稀有的太陽鏡。在Emergents里,區塊鏈能隨時提供某位玩家擁有某張卡牌的權威記錄,就好像游戲監管者擁有可靠的會計團隊,可以確保游戲經濟的完整性。

游戲中使用區塊鏈還能提供有趣的可能,即為粉絲創造新的數字收藏品。具體來說,玩家可以付費獲得精英玩家在錦標賽中使用的數字卡牌或劍,反正區塊鏈能夠確認出處。其實類似于購買明星球員在世界大賽上使用的球棒。

雖然區塊鏈是新的游戲技術,但值得注意的是,區塊鏈和加密貨幣領域里的很多高手都是萬智牌迷。其中包括以太坊的創始人維塔利克?布特林,以太坊是僅次于比特幣的流行數字貨幣。加密貨幣交易所Kraken的首席執行官杰西?鮑威爾回憶說,他曾經在萬智牌比賽中與莫肖維茨對決。(Mt.Gox是早期主要的比特幣交易所,最開始是萬智牌在線交易所。)相關名人和身后龐大的社交媒體粉絲可能會大力推廣支持區塊鏈的新游戲。

當然,最后都取決于游戲制造商能否第一時間無縫集成區塊鏈技術。Niantic Labs的首席執行官,也是精靈寶可夢(Pokémon Go)的創始人約翰?漢克警告稱,“游戲必須排第一位。”他的意思是,如果游戲本身無法吸引人,背后支持的技術并不重要。

其他也有人意見相同。“到最后,還是要有頂級質量的游戲,并且玩起來要非常有趣。這一點不能妥協。”Coinbase和Naspers支持的初創公司Immutable的首席執行官詹姆斯?弗格森說,該公司正在研發基于區塊鏈的數字卡牌游戲,名叫Gods Unchained。

這還不是Emergents唯一的競爭對手。2018年,加密貨幣公司Ripple跟長期從事游戲行業的聯盟宣布為游戲制造商提供1億美元,用于整合區塊鏈技術。曾經擔任Kabam聯合創始人兼首席執行官的周凱文目前在領導區塊鏈游戲初創公司Forte,Kabam是熱門的移動游戲制造商,曾經與《星球大戰》、漫威和《指環王》等知名品牌合作。《使命召喚》的前主管約翰?林登擔任Mythical Games的首席執行官,負責監督內置區塊鏈的新游戲。

“區塊鏈的優勢在于可以轉變范式,而不只是提供新平臺。使用區塊鏈跟蹤和交易游戲資產能改變出售資產的類型。”他說。

林登、布萊特曼和其他人都在賭,區塊鏈將在游戲領域帶來技術飛躍,級別類似于之前引入的游戲手柄或多人在線游戲。在他們看來,問題并不在于區塊鏈能否改變游戲,而是誰能第一個成功。

來一張莫西就能贏

在翠貝卡閣樓上,莫肖維茨邀請風險資本家跟他對抗桌上的另一位投資者。她坐在桌旁,兩人在工匠、前鋒和閃光風暴等實體卡牌周圍調整兵力。目前團隊用實體卡牌演示游戲,與此同時,開發人員也在搭建數字版。

“我們會用長棘龍打掉對方的燈塔,這樣就能用自己的燈塔了!”莫肖維茨告訴困惑的搭檔。他抽牌時眼睛閃著光。這張卡牌上的角色是莫西。顯然,她很強大。幾分鐘后,一切都結束了,莫肖維茨打出莫西,消滅了對手的最后一支部隊。

隨后幾人在布魯克林著名的Dough bakery吃甜甜圈,投資人向莫肖維茨問起游戲的推出計劃。有個關鍵決策是,Emergents團隊要不要跟知名品牌合作,比如漫威或《權力的游戲》(Game of Thrones),還是單純靠大衛-馬歇爾設計的工匠,長棘龍之類鮮有人知的卡牌。

他們說,Emergents同事一直在跟知名片方談判,但目前不太受重視。“沒有人愿意第一個吃螃蟹。”布萊特曼說,她的預測是,如果首款區塊鏈游戲在市場上施展吸引力,吸引知識產權授權會更容易。

與此同時,莫肖維茨身心自己能打造出更優秀的在線游戲。他早已習慣遇到懷疑者,然后用被證實的預測讓對方驚訝。如果莫肖維茨能笑到最后,就像以前很多次他獲勝后突然大笑,在場所有人都可以聽到。如果Emergents大獲成功,則可能會在龐大的游戲產業里打開巨大的垂直市場,而2018年游戲行業的收入就已經超過全球電影行業。

Mythical Games的首席執行官約翰?林登曾經領導Tony Hawk Skateboarding等大型品牌,其實他見過類似場景。他舉了亞馬遜旗下Twitch的例子,數百萬粉絲在Twitch上觀看游戲直播,購買在線游戲贊助的品牌也在增加。林登認為,在熱門游戲里引入二手商品市場,可能會引發另一場金融盛宴。

他說:“每次只要讓人們更深入玩游戲,還能賺點錢,就可以催生數百萬美元的新產業。”(財富中文網)

譯者:夏林

Thunk—the dice land on the wooden table, and Zvi Mowshowitz cackles. A lucky roll has endowed two playing cards in his deck with special powers. He turns the plastic-coated slips of paper, illustrated with leaping superheroes, into a horizontal position indicating combat mode. The imaginary characters attack, dealing fatal blows to the overmatched defenses of his opponent. Victory!

The scene could take place in any basement or game shop in the country—anywhere nerds gather to send card-bound wizards, warriors, and Valkyries into battle. But this match is unusual. On this mid-April morning the setting is a luxury loft in Manhattan’s tony Tribeca neighborhood, where a stylish venture capitalist and a husky-voiced historian of pop culture are, as gamers say, “playtesting.”

The pair’s business partner and temporary adversary, Mowshowitz, is no ordinary player. A 41-year-old with unkempt hair and black glasses, Mowshowitz explodes frequently into laughter, eerily similar to that of the boy-genius Mandark from the ’90s cartoon series Dexter’s Laboratory. Mowshowitz has a fondness for novelty T-shirts: Today’s reads, “Question Authority: Ask Me Anything.” He’s famous in geek circles as a champion of Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game beloved by millions of people.

Mowshowitz made his name as a David among Goliaths. His slingshot: using low-value cards to triumph over opponents with more powerful hands.

Now Mowshowitz is playing a bigger game. He wants to deploy the same strategy against a video game industry worth more than $100 billion that is, in Mowshowitz’s view, exploiting fans with addictive, money-grubbing ploys like forcing them to “grind,” or engage in repetitious quests. Mowshowitz’s target is a niche corner of the industry known as digital collectible card games, which are forecast to grow to a $2 billion market this year from $1.5 billion last year. Perhaps the crowning example, Hearthstone, a breakout mobile game, claimed to have 100 million players as of November 2018.

Mowshowitz’s plan is both radical and simple: Create an utterly engrossing game that doesn’t resort to conventional, predatory tactics. In it, players battle one another with digital trading cards featuring superheroes and robots. Central to the plan is an online marketplace where players can buy, sell, or trade the individual digital goods they acquire—no hoops required. It's a feature absent in recent, free-to-play hits like Hearthstone.

The concept seems obvious enough. Game players have been able to trade cards in the physical world for decades. But online newcomers have, for a variety of reasons, legal and otherwise, stubbornly refused to support the ability.

Mowshowitz has rallied a pair of converts to his cause. By his side is Brian David-Marshall, the aforementioned historian who is working with Mowshowitz as product director for Emergents. Among David-Marshall’s credits are having opened a store called Neutral Ground in a loft in Manhattan’s Chelsea district that, though now closed, retains a mythic status among the initiated—the Studio 54 of the gaming set. (On some nights, David-Marshall would keep his store open until two or three in the morning as Magic players—everyone from middle-aged math nerds to maladjusted middle schoolers—plunked down creature cards from their deck in battle after battle.)

The other member of the trio is Kathleen Breitman, the 30-year-old CEO of Coase, the startup developing the game. The name is a nod to the celebrated economist Ronald Coase.

If Mowshowitz and David-Marshall bring gaming pedigree to the project, Breitman brings connections to venture capital and influential people beyond the gaming world, including billionaire crypto enthusiast Tim Draper as a backer. Having done stints at two pillars of the financial establishment, the Wall Street Journal and the hedge fund Bridgewater, Breitman is best known for leading a cryptocurrency project with her husband that raised $234 million in 2017. A savvy networker with the ability to charm—she and her French husband, Arthur, were featured on the cover of Wired magazine last year—Breitman flits between New York and Paris, leaving a trail of cocktails and bon mots in her wake.

Together, Breitman, Mowshowitz, and David-Marshall are throwing a gauntlet at the gaming industry. If their game, now being rolled out to early testers, catches on, one industry veteran predicts it could help spawn a new billion-dollar industry centered on the trade of digital goods. Others are less optimistic, pointing out that new games face entrenched competitors. Often they fail.

Mowshowitz is unfazed by the skeptics. Shuffling a deck of superheroes, he reflects on the many times he’s won as an underdog. He plans to do it again—this time, by overturning the conventional logic of digital game design, translating the appeal of the original nerd card game Magic into software, and potentially igniting a new virtual card-collecting frenzy in the process.

Making magic happen

In the late 1980s, inklings of a new kind of game began to jell in the mind of Richard Garfield, a mathematician and Bell Laboratories alumnus. He arrived at the idea to combine collectible cards with a fantasy battle game. As in the business of baseball cards, some cards would be rarer than others, and they would be sold in randomized packs—an innovation distinguishing Garfield’s design from most other contemporary tabletop card games. Magic: The Gathering was born.

When the first Magic cards appeared on the West Coast in 1993, they won instant, ardent fans. Teens and adults alike were absorbed by the otherworldly mythology of the Dungeons & Dragons–like universe. They became hooked on buying “booster packs” to acquire new cards they could employ in personalized decks. The game went viral the old-fashioned way, through word-of-mouth, as players introduced it in comic-book shops and college campuses across the country.

For its fans, Magic: The Gathering was a deeply personal affair. “Magic is closer to role-playing than any other card or board game I know of. Each player’s deck is like a character,” the game’s creator, Garfield, would later relate in an account cited by the New Yorker.

Players assumed the role of spectral beings called “planeswalkers” that can summon pretend beasts and enchantments into battle. This fantasy backdrop—and a complexly layered rule book—were core to the game’s appeal. Constructing a deck was, for many people, an intimate act. Different personalities tended to gravitate toward one of five colors on Magic’s “color wheel,” a sort of Hogwartsian sorting hat. White characters, for instance, were associated with law and order, while black ones embodied ruthless power. Green characters stood for communal values and so on.

Magic soon became a full-fledged craze. “I found out about it when I was doing event marketing for comic stores. People were desperately seeking out the cards. I was physically accosted by someone who was so angry we didn’t have it, he literally shook me by the lapels,” David-Marshall recalls.

While Magic cards were the source of a rich, high-fantasy culture, they were also appreciating in real-world dollars. Not long after Magic launched, trouble arose in the form of a market bubble as speculators tore open piles of $3 booster packs in hopes of finding rare cards they could flip for a profit. It was tulip mania for the geek set. The phenomenon boosted sales. But the mania also threatened to ruin the integrity and underlying fun of the game, and to turn Magic into a flash-in-the-pan fad like Pogs, which today is more of a historical curiosity than a game.

For Wizards of the Coast, the company that owned the game, building a sustainable franchise required thinking like a central banker. The company could have milked the Magic bubble for all it was worth, but Wizards instead chose a different strategy, flooding the market with certain cards in order to erode their resale value, much to the chagrin of speculators. It also introduced tournament rules requiring players to use cards of recent vintage, meaning no one could win by purchasing and deploying all-powerful cards, like the much-coveted Black Lotus. In deliberately popping its own bubble, Wizards made a risky bet, but one that proved prescient.

The shake-up worked. Magic: The Gathering kept thriving. Today, the Magic universe operates much like a well-governed Scandinavian country of 38 million people—the estimated number of players around the world—and has spawned a rich fan culture and a series of imitators. The secondary markets are still going strong as well; in 2019, a Black Lotus sold for more than $166,000 on eBay.

Despite its early success, Magic fumbled while crossing over to the computer screen. Hasbro, the parent of Wizards of the Coast, has offered a desktop-only version of Magic on the Internet for years, but it has remained comparatively niche. Last September, Hasbro made a new attempt to refresh the franchise with the release of Magic: The Gathering Arena, which takes cues from rival Hearthstone. But while the early response has been positive, Arena can only be played on desktop, not mobile, and, like Hearthstone, players cannot trade and resell cards as they can in the physical world—typically through secondary markets. (Bruce Dugan, a spokesperson for Magic, says mobile is “something we’ll consider.” And while technically there are underground markets where people can buy and sell Hearthstone and Arena accounts, these are rather dubious and breach the games’ terms of service agreements.)

In building a digital game they hope will replicate the fun of Magic, members of the Emergents team are paying close attention to the lessons of the groundbreaking game. “Just as all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, all card games are a footnote to Magic,” Breitman says.

The team, and its scruffy leader Mowshowitz, believes it has finally cracked the code. As the crew tilts against a gaming industry colossus, Mowshowitz holds the lance. He’s not just an expert player and, in Breitman’s words “a video game snob,” but also a Martin Luther figure who likes to call out exploitative and manipulative behavior on the part of other game designers. Maybe there’s a little Don Quixote in him, too.

Escaping the rat race

Mowshowitz’s introduction to games came early when, as a small boy, he would play chess against his father. Those games had a twist. In their first matches, Mowshowitz’s father played only with a king and pawn, letting the young boy advance with a full board of chess pieces. In time, as Mowshowitz learned to checkmate the depleted force, his father added more pieces to his side, making the task harder.

He encountered a similar mismatch of forces as a teenager when he immersed himself in Magic, crisscrossing New York City to attend tournaments in search of prize money and prestige. While his parents, both Columbia University professors, earned a comfortable living, Mowshowitz had only a paltry allowance. His relative penury required him to build his deck—the set of 60 or so cards used in a Magic game—from others’ cast-off cards, and develop unorthodox strategies to win.

Mowshowitz would make such game play his calling card, earning renown as he won matches with low-value cards. Such abilities led gaming companies, including Magic’s Wizards of the Coast, to invite Mowshowitz to test trial versions of their games. On several occasions, he “broke” the game—geek lingo for finding a flaw in the design that produces automatic victory. During a stint in the Western U.S., Mowshowitz took up a different sort of gaming. He made a modest fortune playing poker in Indian casinos outside Denver, and then worked in Las Vegas for the professional gambling industry. Mowshowitz won’t provide specifics about his job duties other than to say they involved math.

This isn’t surprising. When Mowshowitz speaks, one can almost see a cascade of equations popping from his brain as he parses the probability of every situation around him. His math prowess also leads him to speak of certain integers with tenderness. “Seventeen has a special place in my heart. It’s the most random number,” he notes in passing when recalling his days at his high school math club.

Mowshowitz left the world of Las Vegas for stints at the quant firm Jane Street and, later, as CEO of MetaMed, a short-lived medical research startup. But he is now expending all his number-crunching abilities on his crusade with Emergents. His quest: to design a new type of game that knocks down a pillar upon which gamemakers historically earn money.

Mowshowitz is doing away with “loot boxes.” Critics say these grab-bags—which offer the promise of winning special weapons or other game enhancements—are akin to lottery tickets. They accuse the gaming industry of manipulating players, especially children, into spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars (or playtime hours) to obtain digital junk. Controversy over loot boxes has led politicians in the U.S. and Europe to call for banning them.

Loot boxes manipulate players by preying on their biological foibles, says Mowshowitz. He points to the practice of “Skinner boxing”—a science term for putting a rat in a box and then training it to perform an activity in return for a pellet of food.

In the case of video games, Skinner boxing uses virtual rewards. In lieu of pellets, the gamemaker offers in-game money, weapons, level-ups, hypnotizing noises, and various trinkets to induce players to spend more time in a game—which usually leads to tedious, repetitious activity. The practice isn’t a conspiracy theory hatched by Mowshowitz. Search the Internet for “Skinner box and video games,” and you’ll discover the term is commonplace in design discussions. For game makers, manipulating players to play for longer periods of time helps convert some fraction into customers willing to pony up for more loot boxes, thereby boosting revenue. But the upshot is, in Mowshowitz’s view, the games become monotonous.

A marketplace for gaming goods—which Emergents is baking into its game—seems like an unlikely fix for these problems. But Mowshowitz is convinced that such a market will be transformative. “When you don’t allow trading, you force people to grind,” he says, explaining how a player might have to roam the same small corner of a game for hours to acquire a certain tool or weapon.

Mowshowitz also believes the industry’s failure to build in-game trading options undermines imagination. When every player has to grind to acquire goods, he says, they will gravitate toward one of a few tried-and-true, proven-to-win, deck-building strategies described on gaming blogs. In his view, a store where players can buy or swap tools and weapons will encourage them to explore unorthodox tactics and new ways to gain an edge. This is what Mowshowitz did in the physical world of Magic card games, and he’s convinced the lesson would apply equally to online games.

All of this, though, raises an obvious question: If secondhand digital goods can unlock a billion-dollar industry and make games more fun, why is no one doing it?

Where others failed before

There are good reasons why the video game industry is reluctant to offer players a way to sell and swap their wares.

Unsurprisingly, the first reasons are legal. For starters, explicitly stating card values could be a tacit omission that the company is hosting private lotteries, which are illegal in certain parts of the world, including many states in the U.S. As a result, Wizards of the Coast and other companies have wisely operated under the cover of better-left-unsaid deniability, leaving the business of marketplaces to independent resellers. Secondly, these markets can be abused by fraudsters. As the makers of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive recently discovered, almost all of the traders in their marketplace were money launderers seeking to cash out ill-gotten gains.

There's another set of reasons—commercial ones—that in-game marketplaces are rare. Game makers fear that markets for used items could eat into the sales of new ones.

Traditionally, such sales involved fare like swords or gold in World of Warcraft, but lately more sales are coming in the form of what gamers call “chrome” or “skins”—swag to adorn a player’s character such as sunglasses or new shoes. Chrome has become especially conspicuous during the craze over the game Fortnite. Owning it has became so important among high school kids that those with unadorned avatars have been mocked for being “a default,” and bullied into spending money to dress up their digital character. In 2018 alone Fortnite reaped $2.4 billion on sales of chrome. In Fortnite, where the proceeds of every pair of digital sneakers and sunglasses goes right into the pocket of the game maker, Epic Games, who in their right mind would risk undercutting that margin by allowing stores for resold goods? Cash cows get milked, not slaughtered.

Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, says the fear of cannibalization is real but also overstated. “It’s like fake sunglasses. You can’t say every person who pays $10 for knock-off Louis Vuittons would have spent $200 if the fakes weren’t available,” he says.

But even if game makers can be persuaded that secondhand goods won’t eat into their sales, there is another reason why games have shied away from used goods markets—and why the likes of Hearthstone and Magic Arena enable no forms of trading at all. It is rooted in fear that a person—or bot—with multiple accounts will game the system, grinding to earn rare cards and then trading all that loot to a single account. The cards might lose their value, the game might lose its purpose.

Game designers are very aware of predecessors’ missteps when it comes to offering an in-game trading house. In 2011, video game giant Blizzard introduced an “auction house” to Diablo III, a hack-and-slash role-playing game. The auction house was supposed to provide an in-house alternative to eBay and other unauthorized trading forums. It was also supposed to add a fun new economic element to the Diablo franchise. Unfortunately, the auction house spawned an unintended consequence in the form of economic mercenaries—often from China and Russia—who, aided by bots, played the game solely to obtain and sell used weapons. These interlopers would hawk their digital haul in the official auction house where wealthy traders took the other side of the transactions, buying the best weapons needed to defeat Diablo’s toughest bad guys. Soon, Diablo’s elite ranks featured a growing number of gamers who had engaged in “pay to win”—a taboo in the gaming world. The ensuing backlash led Blizzard to shut down the auction house in 2013.

As with the speculative bubble that almost destroyed Magic in its early days, the Diablo fiasco shows how perverse economic forces can ruin an otherwise popular game. The episode led many in the gaming industry to conclude in-game trading markets do not work. Indeed, Mowshowitz acknowledges the Emergents crew have been quizzed by potential investors about how they plan to avoid a Diablo-style debacle.

Mowshowitz responds by drawing an analogy to the physical gaming world. “In Magic: The Gathering, there’s this guy we call ‘Mr. Suitcase’ who shows up at tournaments with every possible card,” he says. In that world, Mr. Suitcase is kept in check by Wizards of the Coast tournament rules that narrow the types of cards that can be deployed in a given match. When it comes to Emergents, Mowshowitz envisions sorting players into tiers that pit those with card decks of similar value against one another. (This system won’t preclude a crafty player with modest resources challenging a “Mr. Suitcase,” but will ensure most matchups are evenly balanced.)

Breitman, the CEO, has also thought deeply about the pay-to-win problem, though her perspective is a more academic one. In her studies, and in building the cryptocurrency company Tezos, she’s read extensively about finance and game theory—good training, it turns out, for understanding the role of economics in designing a game.

Breitman says that Diablo’s auction house failed because the game’s free-to-play model was easily exploited by bots and rogue actors. And even though Emergents will include a free version—new players will receive a handful of cards at no cost—she says the game will be designed so that players can’t use bots to “grind” and amass items for resale.

But even if the Emergents crew has found a way to beat the bots, their quest will only be a success if people decide to play their game in the first place—and that could be a tall order. Hearthstone remains the most popular digital collectible card game by a long shot, and some of the very tactics Mowshowitz despises are what have kept players casting spells on their phones for hours on end. Few rival versions of the game (“Hearth-clones,” as they’re known) have gained any traction.

“A lot of games have tried to copy Hearthstone’s approach but haven’t differentiated themselves," says NPD Games analyst Matthew Diener. "There’s a lot of skeletons on the side of the road. Blizzard really has a hammer lock on the space."

The odds may be daunting, but the Emergents team members have one more attribute—beyond Mowshowitz and David-Marshall’s gaming cred and Breitman’s economic savvy—that could help them pull off a breakout game. They believe they have an ace up their sleeve in the form of a new technology called blockchain.

Blockchain in the balance

The term blockchain achieved buzzword status in 2017, and many people have since written it off as a fad. But as with other new technologies, blockchain is both overhyped and misunderstood. For the Emergents group, it falls to Breitman to make the case that blockchain technology can solve the challenge of introducing used-goods markets and transform game play.

At its essence, a blockchain is simply a new type of software that is run across multiple computers to create a permanent, tamper-proof ledger. The most famous example is the Bitcoin blockchain, but there are numerous other examples, including Tezos, which Breitman and her husband created in 2014. These and other blockchains can all be used to create a public and trusted transaction record. Currently, industries as diverse as finance, shipping, and precious gems are using blockchains to track products and establish proof of origin.

In the world of gaming, a blockchain could be used to establish an inviolable record of who owns a given piece of digital property—be it a sword, a monster, or a rare pair of sunglasses. In the case of Emergents, a blockchain will provide an authoritative record of which players own a given card at any time. It’s as if the game’s overseers have been given an army of infallible accountants to help ensure its economic integrity.

The use of blockchains in video games offers another intriguing possibility: the creation of a new class of digital collectibles for fans. Specifically, a player could pay to obtain the same digital card or sword used by an elite player in a tournament; a blockchain would confirm its provenance. It would be the gamer equivalent of buying a bat used by a star player in the World Series.

While blockchain is a novel technology for gaming, it’s notable that many of the most prominent people in the world of blockchain and cryptocurrency are Magic fans. These include Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum, the second most popular digital currency after Bitcoin. Jesse Powell, the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, recalls playing against Mowshowitz in Magic tournaments. (Mt. Gox, an early, major Bitcoin exchange, started its life as a “Magic: The Gathering online exchange.”) Such figures and their immense social media followings could give a boost to new video games that embrace blockchain.

All of this, of course, depends on whether gamemakers can integrate blockchain technology seamlessly in the first place. John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic Labs, creator of Pokémon Go, cautions that “the game has to come first.” He means that if a game doesn’t grip people, it doesn’t matter what technology might be supporting it on the back end.

Others have had this same revelation. “At the end of day, you have to have a triple-A quality game and be incredibly fun to play. You cannot compromise on that,” says James Ferguson, CEO of Immutable, a Coinbase- and Naspers-backed startup that’s creating a blockchain-based digital card game called Gods Unchained.

That’s not the only competition Emergents has. In 2018, the cryptocurrency company Ripple and a consortium of gaming industry veterans announced a $100 million fund for game makers to integrate blockchain technology. Kevin Chou, previously the cofounder and CEO fo Kabam, a hit mobile game maker that had partnerships with Star Wars, Marvel, and Lord of the Rings franchises, is now leading Forte, a blockchain gaming startup. And John Linden, the former head of Call of Duty, is now CEO of Mythical Games, and he is overseeing new games with blockchain built in.

“What’s beautiful about blockchain is it’s a paradigm shift rather than a new platform. Using blockchain to track and trade in-game assets changes the opportunity for what can be sold,” he says.

Linden, as well as Breitman and others, are all betting that blockchain will bring a technological leap forward in gaming akin to the introduction of the joystick or online multiplayer games before it. For them, it’s not a question of whether blockchain will transform gaming, but rather who will be the first to pull it off.

It takes Moxie

In the Tribeca loft, Mowshowitz invites the venture capitalist to join him in combat against another investor at the table. She sits, and the pair shuffle around physical cards—the Tinkerer and the Striker and Shimmer Storm—which the team is using to demonstrate the game while developers build out a digital version.

“We’ll play Dimetrodon to get rid of their Beacon so we can play our Beacon!” Mowshowitz tells his bemused partner. His eyes glint when he draws another card. The piece features a character named Moxie. She is, apparently, ultra-powerful. In a few minutes, it’s all over as Mowshowitz deploys Moxie to decimate the last of his opponent’s forces.

Afterward, as the small assembly tucks into doughnuts from Brooklyn’s popular Dough bakery, the investors quiz Mowshowitz about launch plans for the game. One critical decision will be whether the Emergents team can license a set of characters from a familiar brand like Marvel or Game of Thrones, or if it will rely on the Tinkerer, Dimetrodon, and others who come from a little-known collection devised by David-Marshall.

The Emergents crew have been in talks with big-name studios, they say, but so far have met reluctance. “Nobody wants to be the first penguin,” says Breitman, who predicts companies will be more willing to license their intellectual property once they see the first blockchain game gain traction.

Mowshowitz, meanwhile, is quietly confident that his quest to build a better version of online gaming will succeed. He is used to encountering skeptics and surprising them when his predictions turn out to be correct. If Mowshowitz gets the last laugh—which everyone will know by its abrupt and clamorous detonation—as he has so many times before, the success of Emergents could crack open an enormous new vertical in an already massive video game industry, which eclipsed the global film business in revenue in 2018.

John Linden, the Mythical Games CEO known for formerly heading up mega-franchises like Tony Hawk Skateboarding, has seen this happen before. He cites the example of Amazon-owned Twitch, where millions of fans watch video games live-streamed, as well as the growth of brands buying sponsorships inside online games. In Linden’s view, the introduction of a secondhand goods market into popular games could trigger another financial bonanza.

“Every time we’ve given people a chance to be more involved in the games and make some money,” he says, “it births a new multimillion-dollar industry.”

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