The First Death:
The failure of the first incarnation of Rage is very difficult to pin on one specific thing. A large part of it had to do with timing. With the blockbuster success of Magic: the Gathering, everyone was clambering to get onto the collectable card game bandwagon. This produced a huge glut of CCGs that all hit the market at the same time. The sheer number of games out there meant the bottom fell out of the market as there simply weren’t enough people in the hobby to support so many games. The games put out by smaller publishers were the first to go, but more and more games dropped out as time went on.
The problem seemed to be that the publishers had set their sights too high. Magic was turning an incredible profit for Wizards of the Coast and the assumption seems to have been that any CCG could be just as profitable. However, Magic was the first, so would always command a huge market share. Many of the publishers didn’t seem to understand the idea of market SHARE however and dropped otherwise profitable games because they couldn’t dominate the market like Wizards of the Coast. They focused on cannibalizing the sales of other games rather than trying to bring totally new people into the game.
The other problem that Rage ran into, also related to overestimation problems, was that the first few sets were massively overprinted. The base set for any CCG should always have the largest print run, but WW overestimated how well Rage would sell and was left with more cards than they knew what to do with. This problem continued through the first two expansions, with Umbra and Wyrm being overprinted as well. To combat this problem, White Wolf then printed the next set exactly to advance orders which resulted in it being badly underprinted. Retailers had gotten so used to being able to backorder a few more boxes of Rage that a great many failed to order any War of the Amazon at all. Today boxes of Unlimited through Wyrm can commonly be had for around $15 on ebay. Expect to pay $150 to $200 for a box of Amazon however.
The last set printed, Legacy of the Tribes, finally reached a happy medium between the two extremes, but by then, it was too late. White Wolf went through a restructuring and the entire card division went under the ax. The overprinting of earlier sets had left WW with too much product sitting in their warehouses. Too much of Rage’s profit was tied up in cards gathering dust in the warehouse to justify keeping the game alive.
Most of the CCGs that died during the market glut died without a fight. Rage went down kicking and screaming as it still had a very loyal fan base. As it was already attached to a well known and popular property, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, it had more staying power than many other titles. White Wolf simply didn’t want to divert resources from its main game lines into the CCGs anymore, so sold the license to Five Rings Publishing Group, who already had experience in the CCG field.
Five Rings vowed that they would avoid alienating the fan base of Rage and promised 80-90% compatibility between the old game and the new. Jyhad had run afoul of the compatibility problem when it switched publishers. The game remained exactly the same, but the name was changed to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle and all the card backs were changed. This effectively made all the old cards unplayable as they counted as marked cards now. Loyal fans were thus forced to buy reprints of cards they already owned just to get the new backs, which greatly irritated many of them, and drove quite a few more to abandon the game. Five Rings swore up and down that they would keep the backs the same and avoid making any such mistakes. They promised that the new and improved Rage would debut at GenCon that year.
GenCon came and went, and Rage did not appear. It looked like Rage would never see print again, and so many of the fans drifted away to other games or gave up CCGs all together. GenCon came again and finally Rage made its appearance, to very mixed reviews...
Five Rings had completely redesigned the game from the ground up so that about the only thing compatible between the two versions were the card backs. Five Rings swore they’d put out a compatibility document so people could play the old cards in the new game, but that did little to mollify many of the fans. Five Rings had lied so far as they were concerned. Not only had they not met the promised 80-90% compatibility, but had also been a year late releasing the game. Things only got worse from there.
A slow death for a newly revived game
Five Rings’ first mistake had been in alienating the existing fans, the second was in alienating the retailers. Five Rings was so late on their release that many retailers had assumed that Rage had died the final death and never ordered any when it finally did come out. They’d already failed to release their product on time once, odds were against them getting it out on time the second time around.
The release schedule also served to drive retailers away from Rage. Five Rings decided to release Rage under their new Rolling Thunder program, which saw a release of a small set every month as part of the Rage Across Las Vegas storyline. They didn’t release a base set for the new game, yet expected retailers to carry a new expansion for an untried game every month. Many retailers balked at this and either only bought the first one or two releases, or refused to carry it altogether. This meant that Rage was very difficult to find and few but those who were already fans knew where to find it. Some new people joined in, but they were usually sucked in by old fans introducing new people to the game.
Reportedly the Rolling Thunder schedule nearly drove FRPG to bankruptcy and nearly crushed its flagship game, Legend of the Five Rings. It's a miracle that Rage survived through 6 sets of Rolling Thunder considering it was an untried game.
The third mistake was in alienating the fans altogether through a mix of lies, broken promises, and complete lack of communication. Five Rings had promised compatibility and failed to deliver, but made up for it by promising that a compatibility document would be forthcoming. The months dragged on and on and the document never materialized. Even now, the little information available on compatibility is entirely fan based. The company never officially released the promised document.
Five Rings promised prize support for tournaments and demos, but these prizes too often never appeared. They were abysmally slow at certifying judges or demo team members. The tournament at Origins ‘99 was a prime example of this. Five Rings provided prizes but failed to furnish a judge. Instead, a Legend of the Five Rings judge presided over the game, even though he had no comprehension of Rage’s rules whatsoever. Five Rings had a large booth set up in the dealers hall at the convention, complete with a large demo area, but refused to demo Rage or sell it at their booth. This was pretty typical of how tournaments were handled.
The fan club, Garou Nation, was just as badly handled as the tournaments. Five Rings had been gracious enough to grant an automatic first year’s membership in Garou Nation for all the old player's who’d bought membership in the club when it was still handled by White Wolf. However, overseas members and new players bought memberships, expecting to receive a t-shirt, a membership card, and a quarterly newsletter with promo cards. In two years, Five Rings sent out membership cards twice, one promo card and one newsletter.
Communications with the Five Rings people frequently broke down. Rage had so many different brand managers and “official contact people" over its tenure with Five Rings that it was often very hard to figure out who to direct questions to. Even if you could figure out who to ask, the questions often went unanswered or were answered in a vague, noncommittal way. It took nearly six months to drag out of Five Rings that Rage had been officially declared a "Classic" game.
This was in part due to the massive restructuring going on the company and the CCG business in general. Wizards of the Coast patented the "tapping" mechanic used in Magic: the Gathering and required all games that used it to pay royalties. This is sort of akin to requiring people doing specialized versions of Monopoly (like Star Wars Monopoly) to pay a percentage to the company that owns Monopoly. Rage did not happen to use this mechanic, but about 80% of the CCGs in production at the time DID use it, resulting in many folding or their publishers suddenly having their costs jump through the roof.
Five Rings Publishing Group was somewhat immune to this shakedown however because they were bought out by Wizards of the Coast. Wizards was then in turn, bought out by Hasbro. They had no problem with their mechanics, but Hasbro had almost no experience in the CCG market, so was disinterested in supporting smaller games. Wizards had been bought out to get its two most lucrative products: Pokemon and Magic: the Gathering. Five Rings was a mere subdivision. Of perhaps two dozen games controlled by Wizards and Five Rings, only three remained active after Hasbro's take over: Pokemon, Magic, and Legend of the Five Rings. All the rest were declared "Classic" games.
Being put on Classic status meant that Rage had been consigned to CCG limbo. Classic status meant that it was no longer being officially supported as an "in print" game. Classic games were supposed to receive one expansion per year, rather than the three or four active CCGs did. However, this was a new idea so they decided to test it out on one game, Netrunner. Netrunner had never been that popular a game. It barely managed to even qualify as a CCG since it had such a small card set. It was a bit of a hybrid between traditional card games and CCGs. The sales for the expansion were generally poor and all Classic games were officially declared dead. Rage and Jyhad/Vampire: the Eternal Struggle were among them. (more on Jyhad later)
Five Rings did finally agree to do a severance package for Garou Nation members, in part to avoid having charges laid against them with the Better Business Bureau. Those who had paid the club fee and had never received a refund or any of the promised items had a quite legitimate grievance and there was some rumbling about possibly reporting this breech of business etiquette to the proper authorities. The severance package consisted of a foil promo card and a corrected version of the misprinted card Griff Murphy. The letter asked that you return it with an address confirmation in order to receive a t-shirt and some other “stuff”. Said "stuff" being whatever random Rage things they had left when they received your confirmation of address back. No one ever received the t-shirt. Most people received a random assortment of foil cards.
White Wolf reclaimed the license for both Rage and Jyhad/Vampire: the Eternal Struggle from Hasbro. The loss of the license meant that any back stock of cards could no longer be sold by FRPG, so most of the cards in the warehouse were destroyed so they could write it off as a tax loss. This is part of the reason that the final set of FRPG Rage is much harder to find than earlier sets, it's in far shorter supply.
Azrael Productions took a shot at getting the license from White Wolf, but to no avail. They were granted the rights to support the game at tournaments, but were not allowed to print new cards, effectively hamstringing support. Azrael kept fighting to get the license and soldiered on as if they would get it any day now, but White Wolf never released it. However, the tenure with Azrael did produce two good things.
One, Azrael had planned to release both games as seperate incompatable versions. The plan was to keep the card backs the same, but change the packaging to have TWO games with different but similar names. This was to prevent people from purchasing "Rage" cards only to find out they were for the other version. The terminology has more or less stuck, and the original edition is now commonly refered to as Rage: Apocalypse and the Five Rings version as Rage: Tribal War.
Two, Azrael had started the playtesting process and had produced a backlog of about 200 Apocalypse cards. Tribal War had not got as far along in playtesting, but Azrael had managed to get their hands on the playtest cards Five Rings had in production at the time of Rage's cancelation. Azrael was gracious enough to relinquish rights to the cards, leaving the door open for the playtesters to release them to the Rage public at large.
Hopefully making new cards available will bring old players back to the game and introduce new players to it as well.
Third time’s the charm?
Well, the Egyptian's think four is the luckiest number...
So what are the odds of seeing Rage make yet another comeback now that the license has reverted to White Wolf? Jyhad/Vampire: the Eternal Struggle, another game that suffered through much the same problems as Rage, reverted back to White Wolf and is now a successful property. Even though White Wolf has decided to end the World of Darkness as we know it, V:tES will continue on as the only version of the 'classic' WoD.
Vampire was largely picked up because of lobbying from its fans through their fan club, The Elder Kindred Network. This is a marvel of organization. With little official support from the publisher, the Vampire fans organized one of the largest tournament and play systems in the industry and kept people interested. It was so strong in fact, that White Wolf was willing to take the chance on reviving Vampire after it was axed by Hasbro. They reopened their card division and printed Vampire again.
The entire first printing sold out before release. Pretty good for a game that Hasbro had declared dead and unprofitable. Rage is lacking that rock solid fan structure, but the release of the new cards should give a shot in the arm to existing fans and get people more interested in tournaments again. It won't be an easy struggle, but it's within reach. WW is keeping Vampire on despite axing many of its other game lines. They also have a second CCG in the works, for Exalted. If that does well, the card division may be more receptive to looking at printing Rage again.
The other helpful sign was a recent poll White Wolf hosted online. It asked what WW games people played (or had played). Rage turned in a pretty solid number, of around 2500 people, or 4% of all respondents. The number was very close to two other WW games, Mummy the Resurection and Demon the Fallen which were currently in production and being actively supported by the company. The fact that a dead game had as much support as ones they were actively printing material for hopefully gave them pause.
So what have we learned from this whole struggle? One: keep your fan base happy. Nothing will sink a game faster than alienating the fans. Two: Keep your retailers happy. Make sure you print a base set that retailers can always get their hands on, but keep the expansions within reason. Spread the expansions out and cut the print run well below that of the base set. Three: Be honest and stick by your promises. Nothing will make people angrier faster than broken promises and missed release dates.
Now, what would be the logical way to fulfill these criteria?
First, the print runs need to be evened out. The base set should always be available, but the expansions should be big enough so that anyone can get them when they first come out but not so large that they linger on the shelf for years. Along those same lines, an eye needs to be kept on collectablity as this is a COLLECTABLE card game. If needs to be relatively easy to collect, but not so easy that there’s no challenge to it. WW did a better job with this than Five Rings ever did as FR suffered from consistently horrible collation problems and a bad rarity system. WW did swing to either extreme with these, Wyrm being very hard to collect a full set, and Umbra far too easy, but finally reached a happy medium between the two extremes with Legacy of the Tribes’ distribution.
Secondly, when you say you're going to do something, do it. Get the cards out on time, at the price you said, and in the way you said. Keep your promises. Nobody likes being lied to, especially consumers. Remember, it's also illegal to lie to your customers. It's called false advertising and is against the law.
Three, support, support, support! This is frequently where companies fall down. The most successful CCGs have an active tournament scene. It's kind of a chicken and egg thing there, however. The games succeed because they are being played in public venues where they garner lots of attention (and new players), but they need an active player base to do so. A fan club goes a long way towards doing this.
Four, demos, tournaments, and play nights, oh my! Slick advertising is great, but as any marketer will tell you, the best form of advertising is word of mouth. If people see other people having fun playing a game, they want to play too. You need to encourage players to get out and run demos and tournament, which means providing prizes and special perks for demos. Even if it's as simple as something as a cool pin for official demoers, it's still more cost effective than full page spreads in slick gaming magazines. People are much more likely to pick up a game based on a friend saying it's cool than solely on the basis of traditional advertising.
Five, know your customers! It's fixed in people's minds that the typical CCG player is a teenage or collage age male. With Rage, that's not quite true. While it does have more men than women, many of the top players are female. [like the person writing this] Additionally, roughly 75% of the players have a Bachelor's degree, 50% have a Masters!. Aiming your marketing at adolescent boys is thus a waste of space, it's not your core audience! Advertising should NOT be aimed at the usual CCG crowd, but should be instead aimed at non-players in the right constituency. Stop trying to convert Magic players to Rage. Only about 10% of Rage players like Magic. It's not the same audience, no wonder it failed! It's like pitching sports cars to 12 year old. While this is a game, run it like a business, not a game.
Finally, and most importantly, a new version would have to be true to the spirit of the game. Many people complained that when Five Rings took over Rage, the game lost much of its edginess. It’s a game about violent combat and the hopeless battle of a dying race. Trying to white wash that or tone it down makes the game lose that edge that sets it apart from most of the other games on the market. It’s not intended for children and it’s not intended for mass consumption. The die hard core of fans liked the game for its brutal combat, sardonic humor, and gritty feel. There’s been no game before or since Rage that’s had quite the guts to deviate so far, and so successfully, from the norm. When so many of today’s CCGs are clones of each other, there’s a need for one that’s out on the edge and pushing the boundaries of what can be done in a game. Even if Rage never makes a comeback, some game will rise in its place to slink around the fringes of the established CCG market and appeal to those looking for something a little bit different.