The MODO Fiasco: Corporate Hubris and Magic Online

As everyone is well aware, Magic Online has been experiencing quite a bit of difficulty as of late. Well actually, not as of late – as of the last nine months, to be truthful. The server crashes sporadically, matches pause arbitrarily for extended periods, abusive cards with game-winning bugs somehow make it into the live server code, and two thirds of the game’s major functionality (Premier Events and Leagues) aren’t even available as of this writing. It has not been a happy time for Magic Online and its denizens. The one question on everyone’s mind is: Why?

As everyone is well aware, Magic Online has been experiencing quite a bit of difficulty as of late. Well actually, not as of late – as of the last nine months, to be truthful. The server crashes sporadically, matches pause arbitrarily for extended periods, abusive cards with game-winning bugs somehow make it into the live server code, and two thirds of the game’s major functionality (Premier Events and Leagues) aren’t even available as of this writing. It has not been a happy time for Magic Online and its denizens.


Many would point the finger at those currently responsible for the programming and development of Magic Online. As soon as Wizards of the Coast decided that they no longer required the services of Leaping Lizards (Magic Online’s original developer), Magic Online feature development ground to a halt and stability problems were soon the norm rather than the exception. Natural cause and effect logic would yield the conclusion that those presently in charge of programming the game are simply not as competent as their forebears. However, that explanation is a little too facile and doesn’t get at the true root causes of why Magic Online is in its current condition (critical, by the way). Though they must bear at least partial responsibility, the development team was thrust into a difficult situation dictated by those higher up the Wizards food chain – a situation that reeks so foul of corporate hubris that anyone from Seattle to Charlottesville can detect it.

Exhibit A – The decision not to retain Leaping Lizards as Magic Online developer

This is the biggie – the one that’s the most glaring to the general public and the chief reason why most feel that Magic Online is where it is now. Leaping Lizards were (and still are) a top shelf development house who provided an excellent product, stable service, prompt bug fixes, and feature additions commensurate with the challenges of running a 24/7 production service. I’ve worked on game development before. I attend E3 each year and know a bunch of people in the industry and get a lot of the inside gossip. A lot of computer game development houses are rudderless shipwrecks. These guys had their sh** together.

[a man in a suit sipping on a tiny cup emerges from the shadows]

“Boy, these guys know what they’re doing… they need to be terminated post-haste so we can move everything in-house. What say you, Johnstone?”

[espresso machine noises]

The decision to internalize all Magic Online related affairs simply can not be defended. Leaping Lizards were doing an excellent job with the service and everything was running smoothly prior to their termination. Wizards of the Coast did not, according to my sources, save any money by bringing development in-house. That fact pretty much nixes the usual corporate cost-cutting explanation touted by some. So why do it?

hu·bris (hybrs)

(n) – Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance.

Hubris. Pride. By any name, it still smells the same.

Wizards of the Coast erroneously believed that their domestic employees could do a better job developing and managing Magic Online than Leaping Lizards. I would dearly like to obtain whatever substance that fueled this decision, for it surely must be prime choice. If I ran a computer game publishing house and decided to make a paper card game, I wouldn’t hire a bunch of paper card designers, printing people, and paper card marketing staff. I wouldn’t want my company mixed up in an enterprise that we knew nothing about; I would contract a company like Wizards of the Coast to handle things. That’s shrewd business.

WWTDD? (What Would The Donald Do?) He sure as hell wouldn’t follow Wizards of the Coast’s example.

Exhibit B – The decision to not contact Leaping Lizards during the initial crisis

When things first started going sour around the time of Magic Online 2.0’s release, Leaping Lizards definitely should have been contacted to help fix some of the underlying server issues and challenges still befuddling the current development team. As was stated by Daniel Myers in this article, there have been two versions of Magic Online under concurrent development for some time now. One version uses the old code base originally by Leaping Lizards and runs the current live server and the other is strictly developmental, set for release sometime in the (distant) future. We’d be fools to believe that the development team hasn’t propped some of the new code to the existing code, so keep that in mind going forward.

Why would Wizards of the Coast not contact Leaping Lizards to fix a very sudden and damaging rash of problems? Why not reach out to them to see if they could work hand in hand with their own developers to fix the problems? My guess is that if this had happened, we would have had the”simple” features like trophies and casual trade matching added long ago. We probably would also have working Premier Events. Magic Online users could have had months of stability, but it was determined that this would rather be mortgaged for months of crashing, set release delays, and the like. That makes sense. I would hazard a guess that the Magic Online development team would rather have spent their working hours adding cool features and functionality to the game instead of debugging cards and hunting down game crashing bugs.

The party line has been that the old code structure of Magic Online is inadequate to accommodate the strain of a growing user base, more cards with more complicated interactions, and ill-equipped to host the new features planned by the current development group. As far as I can tell, this is all bunk, too. The old beta builds of Magic Online were battle tested; remember the two day tournament with over a thousand players that was held during beta? What about the huge number of people that were logged in to watch the Invitational last year? Something has been done to the live server code, and I doubt very much that the problem lies in the past but rather the present. Magic Online can’t even run a two hundred and fifty six person league without crashing, now.

I’m fairly confident that if Wizards of the Coast offered a mea culpa and decided to contract Leaping Lizards on retainer to fix the current disastrous Magic Online situation, they would be happy to do so and have things running correctly in short order. However, I think that we’re probably well past the point of no return on the”new code” project such that even extending the tiniest olive branch to Leaping Lizards would be such a tremendous blow to the development team that it couldn’t even be considered. Guess who suffers for their desire to save face? Have a look in the Panoptic Mirror.

Exhibit C – The decision to discontinue using a professional testing group

This one’s another doozy, folks. Back in the days of the old Bugzilla database for Magic Online, one could easily see tons of being bugs entered by (user)@hardboiled.net. I’ll give everyone three guesses as to who Hardboiled are, and the first two don’t count. If you said,”Why Jim, Hardboiled are a professional software testing and quality assurance outfit!” then you get a gold star. Of course, their presence seems to have disappeared entirely from the operation; one can only surmise that they too were let go. I used to see those guys online during beta right about up until the release of Scourge; not coincidentally, this was the first set to have a ton of card bugs. Now all card and server testing is almost certainly handled by Wizards of the Coast’s parent company, Hasbro. I think the job that they’re doing sort of speaks for itself, so I won’t touch that.

Why discontinue using a professional testing group?

[the man stirs his cup with a ludicrously small silver spoon]

“Don’t you see, we can do it all ourselves! We don’t need anyone else – that way just costs us money and now we can at least find some work for some underutilized people! Splendid! Johnstone, another double espresso…”

Angry yet?

Let’s be clear – I love Magic Online. I think it is a phenomenal piece of software, all things considered. Just like everybody else, I want to see it return to its former glory sooner rather than later. Yet, it has been almost nine months since the beginning of the Dark Times (Magic Online 2.0’s release was in July 2003), and we are getting daily updates from poor Daniel Myers (job description: human dartboard) telling us that there’s still rough water ahead. We will wait because it’s simply all we can do at this point.

What burns me endlessly is that this all could have been avoided, were it not for these three prior decisions.

pride (prd)


1) A sense of one’s own proper dignity or value; self-respect.

2) Pleasure or satisfaction taken in an achievement, possession, or association: parental pride.

3) Arrogant or disdainful conduct or treatment; haughtiness.

4) An excessively high opinion of one’s self; conceit.

No matter the definition, it’s still an ugly word.

Jim Ferraiolo

[email protected]

Dobbs on Magic Online / IRC

[Editorial PostScript:

There have been rumors coming from Wizards side for some time that Leaping Lizards left them without commented code and full documentation for the product. I’ve never verified these rumors either way, but in a past life, I was an IT Project Manager for a Pharmaceuticals firm, where you absolutely had to get things right the first time, or you could end up costing the company millions of dollars a day in lost products and governmental fines.

If I had been PM for Magic Online, I would have made certain that we had all the commentary and documentation necessary before signing off on the transfer of control of the codebase. This is actually standard operating procedure for IT projects, since control of products does transfer among development teams from time to time. All of this should have been placed in a contract somewhere as an obligation to be met by the developer, which would then have to be signed off on by the dev team and by the Project Lead. If it wasn’t, then whoever was managing made some massive oversights. If it was, there would be a big lawsuit that we probably would have heard about by now.

Obviously we don’t know exactly what went on behind the scenes to contribute to the sad state that Magic Online is in now (8-Man Queue or no?), but excuses like that only serve to further the idea that management didn’t have a clue what they were doing when the transition occurred and when Version 2.0 was released. It seems like what they’ve been doing is nine months of damage control, and we’ve been told that there are another eighteen months to go until the rebuilt codebase will be ready. Eighteen more months of broken ass product, waiting for weeks on recomps (yeah, we’re still waiting for comps from the Darksteel release leagues), getting sets online two months after the real world release… you know the drill. Expect more of the same.