Most of us have played a trading card game (TCG) at some point or another. Whether it’s the venerable Magic: The Gathering, or something based on an anime like Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!, TCGs have long been a staple of geek culture.
It’s also one of the keystones of the Unplug Yourself campaign, alongside tabletop strategy and traditional boardgames. I sat down with Stefan Roets of Blowfish Entertainment this weekend at rAge in Cape Town to chat about how the campaign is going.
Stefan Roets: Blowfish Entertainment
Blowfish is South Africa’s premier supplier of trading card games, founded in 2006. Stefan has worked with them for the past four years, starting as a game demonstrator and working his way up to commercial manager.
NAG: How’s Unplug Yourself been going for Blowfish?
SR: It’s been very good for us. Throughout the years, Blowfish has really tried to be out there in the markets. Particularly because we work with the trading card games, the play experience has been very community driven. It’s all about socialising with your friends and family around a common focus point. The best way to introduce people to a community is to expose them to the experience, you want to have that direct engagement. You tell someone a game is awesome, or you can show someone a game is awesome. Throughout the years we’ve tried to take those direct marketing approaches, and we’ve always been at a number of gaming conventions. We’re gonna be at rAge Joburg in October, this year will be our seventh year, and it’s all just about doing demos and showcasing the products, giving people an opportunity to experience it for themselves.
What Unplug Yourself has done is let us take that to the next level, brand that experience itself as something that is more than just a demo. In the future, if you see an Unplug Yourself event you will have a certain expectation in terms of what it is, and what you will be able to find there.
NAG: Have you seen much growth in sales over the last few years?
SR: The TCGs don’t necessarily show that much major growth, but it’s because they come from much larger fan bases. TCGs are fairly well established, such as Magic: The Gathering celebrating its 20th year anniversary last year. So they have these massive fanbases, and they continue to show growth, it’s just at a smaller percentage point. From Blowfish’s side, we’ve seen double digit growth year upon year. It’s been absolutely incredible. As these games are becoming more popular, they’re being designed to appeal to larger groups. It’s no longer something that a couple of nerdy, or geeky people do. It’s something that families are looking for, a boardgame to spend some quality time with.
NAG: What’s next on the Unplug Yourself roadmap for Blowfish?
SR: We’re going to be attending a lot of the conventions for this year. So far it’s been Hobby X, and rAge in Cape Town. But there’s going to be a few conventions later in this year where we’ll be present. FanCon, as an example, is taking place, and we’re gonna have a pressence there. We’re gonna be at rAge Joburg as well. Now that we’ve gained some momentum with the (Unplug Yourself) brand, now we have to instill it into the minds of the customers at these shows. That’s really the main focus now: to establish the brand, and make the close association between what you can expect and what the brand is all about.
NAG: In the past few years, digital TCGs have become really popular, Hearthstone in particular. How does the physical market compete against the digital one?
SR: We’ve seen this in the past, and a lot of our brands, Magic as an example, use a digital introduction tool. Really what that does is it serves as an easy entry point for someone. A lot of people won’t come to an expo and ask for a demo, but they will explore the digital side a little bit. And some of the digital games have limited player functionality, so if the bug has bit and you want to explore a little more, it will eventually drive you towards the paper product.
Hearthstone obviously operates a little differently because it is a self-contained unit. From my side, I don’t consider the industry to be under threat in any way. We’re not necessarily just selling a game, we’re selling an experience, we’re selling a culture. That is something the digital experience is never able to offer, that social element. You have online communities, but the interaction on a personal level is just something that’s not there.
NAG: What advice would you give to South Africans who want to make their own TCG?
SR: The most important thing you need to do is keep your audience captivated. You need to continuously be able to re-engage them. In order to do that, the game has to stay fresh. To keep the game fresh, it needs to go through a metamorphosis. If the game is the same over a year, people eventually lose interest, and it’s just a matter of running through the motions. If the game changes, and it forces the players to adapt to those changes, it’s offering them a brand new experience.
You need to look at all aspects of the game, new cards, rules, ban lists, and make small tweaks to it. If there’s no change to the gameplay, but you just release new cards, it becomes a race to collect the cards that are out there. It’s no longer a case of: “The game is changing, and I want to change with it.” If the game remains stagnant in the way its played, then there’s no innovation, and you can’t express your creativity through the game. Eventually, you grow bored of it, and you seek out a new game.
Being able to re-engage players with every new set is the important thing. You want to keep them captivated. The initial interest is there, and you want to make sure you maintain it.
A big thanks to Stefan and Blowfish for his time, and the great interview. If you’re visiting rAge today do make a stop at the Blowfish stand and try out a few trading card games.