Back in the Game

Back in the Game
Popularium co-founder, Jonathan Bankard with some of his video game collection. (Photo by Thomas Jasper)

Game studio Popularium launched last month and is working on its first video game, “Chaos Agents.” 

One of the studio’s co-founders, Richard Garfield, is the creator of fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering. He sees Popularium and “Chaos Agents” as a way to turn back the clock on the commodification of the card game genere, which, according to some members of the Popularium team, resulted in a less unique experience for players as time went on. 

Popularium Chief Executive Arka Ray said that as Magic: The Gathering became more competitive, players eventually found ways to gain an advantage. First, the rise of the internet allowed players to easily grab information from the web about the best deck of cards to have. In addition, a secondary market for cards sprang up, allowing players to buy specific cards instead of entire decks. The result? More players ended up using card decks that more or less played the same.

“Ever since Magic was published, I’ve been trying to recapture something that I thought was lost after release,” Garfield said in a statement. “When Magic was first designed everyone had their own treasured collection, but those treasures became commodities, and we lost some of that magic. 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.’”

Back to the start

Magic: The Gathering has been around for more than 30 years and has garnered tens of millions of players, becoming one of, if not the most, popular fantasy card game in the world. “Chaos Agents” is Popularium’s means of entering a niche within the video game market and harkening back to the early days of Magic: The Gathering.

Ray declined to share some details about “Chaos Agents,” as the game is still in development, but did note that it will bring a unique experience to all players through a character-generation system that provides access to playable heroes that are globally unique.

“It doesn’t really manifest as a deck of cards, it manifests as the DNA of your hero and how you go about playing that hero and charging them up during battle,” Ray said of the game. “We believe that there’s going to be an amazing blend of that core gameplay that Richard has perfected over three-plus decades at this point and the modern innovations that we found with things like battle royale and auto battlers.”

Ray and the Popularium team, which currently totals 11 employees, are coining “Chaos Agents” as an “auto battler royale” that pits several players against one other in battles of strategy. Auto battlers are strategy games whose outcomes are determined by a user’s characters, strategy and other factors. Battle royale games involve several players engaged in a last-man-standing competition. 

Popularium is still working on how its business model will support the economy within “Chaos Agents,” according to Ray. However, he emphasized that the game would not follow a pay-to-win model and that the designers would ensure that no players could get ahead of others solely by spending money to buy equipment or other items.

Sam Roberts is the executive program director for USC Games, a game design and development program at the University of Southern California. Roberts, who has experience in running and developing game studios, said Popularium would need to fit its collectible model into frameworks that address overscaling and allow the company to grow steadily and safely.

“The games industry has classic problems with overscaling — some parts of development require many more people than other parts of the process. Studios deal with this by having multiple projects overlapping at different times, trying to have large contractor bases for short-term expansion or by inventive project scoping and scheduling to create more-even development cycles,” Roberts said. “Steady growth requires not overscaling early and planning for regular content releases to not lose community momentum.”

Jonathan Bankard, co-founder of Popularium. (Photo by Thomas Wasper)

More competition 

Although video game-focused venture capital funds are not a new thing, Roberts noted that the amount of capital currently interested in investing in game studios is greater than it has been in some previous years. He added that there are now several games-focused venture capital funds, talent leaving large studios and favorable consumer trends. 

Global venture capital deal activity in the video game sector more than doubled from 2020 to 2021, to $16.6 billion from $7.4 billion, according to capital market company Pitchbook.

However, Roberts noted that competition is fierce. 

“Targeted web advertising and gaming-content creators, free-to-play mobile gaming and streaming have changed the content consumption landscape and (brought) new costs to being discovered at the moment. These forces can quickly lift a game studio with the right content and strategies, but can also make entry for studios who miss the zeitgeist almost impossible,” he said.

Dmitri Williams, a USC Annenberg communications professor who has researched and worked with game companies and startups, added that breaking into the video game market and gaining an audience without a large budget is a challenge, noting that sometimes the path to success lies in niches, rather than in trying to beat large companies in the mainstream.

Popularium general manager Jonathan Bankard said that the environment for fundraising is not perfect, but that there is an advantage in not being a large, late-stage company. Bankard held senior positions at Microsoft and Blizzard Entertainment prior to joining Popularium.

“The nice thing about our industry is that it’s a very kind industry,” Bankard said. “All of our friends are out there helping us connect to people, friends of friends, and all of that is very collaborative and wonderful. It’s a big change from the big companies I’ve worked at in the past in just how much all of these indie studios are trying to help each other out.”

Williams said that although funding is tough to secure in many sectors right now, gaming remains a generally growing vertical despite some slowness over the last couple of years.

Popularium has received financing interest from fundraisers because of its veteran leadership, according to Ray, who added that the challenges for the company are rooted in finding talent quickly and rolling out content in a timely manner. 

The game studio plans to double its team size in the next six to 12 months and is currently working remotely, something Bankard views as an opportunity to access talent from other video game hubs like Seattle and even Poland.

“I think Richard Garfield is a remarkably interesting game designer, and I think that their collectible-focused game designs may be smartly launching at a low ebb in that specific area hoping to catch a rising tide,” Roberts said. “Lots of high-level talent, which is a trend in many of the new studios cropping up, a focus on a smaller, tight-knit team of talented veterans trying new processes focused on staying lean and shipping extremely high-quality product. I’m excited to see what they do.”

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