Exceeding All Expectations: Talking ‘Star Wars’ Card Trader With Topps [Interview]
I have a problem. That problem is my addiction to the Star Wars Card Trader app. Not once in my life did I ever expect to fall down such a deep rabbit hole for virtual trading cards I'd collect on my phone, but I also never thought Back to the Future II was capable of actually predicting (potential) World Series winners. These things happen.
I freely admit that this all started when Topps sponsored some of our video content last month. Those little advertisements worked as Topps intended, and they got me to try out the app out of sheer curiosity. It's been a bad year to try and convince me not to buy something with the words "star" and "wars" on them. I've got a stack of comics and novels I'm still working through, and a lot of toys on order, much to the chagrin of my shelves.
For the past few months, I've been in the app every single day, multiple times day, earning my free credits, chasing down inserts, and trying to complete my collection. I had been out of the trading card collecting game for some time. When I was younger, my cousin and I would go to local mall shows with our grandfather, who, as grandparents are wont to do, fed our habit of football, baseball and comic book trading cards. There are still binders full of my collection sitting at my parent's house. While the Star Wars Card Trader isn't quite that same experience, it's pretty damn close, and there's a lot less clutter. There's just something about the nature of opening these cards that feeds directly into my lizard brain and delivers all the right chemicals to make me feel good.
When I saw that Topps was going to be at New York Comic Con, I immediately knew I needed to head to that booth. There was bound to be some sort of cool exclusive cards, which there were, and I needed to make sure I could get them. While I was there, I figured I might as well attempt to make it look like I was working, so I also chatted up Ian Hundiak, app producer for all of Topps Digital, and Matthew Petz, one of the designers for the Star Wars Card Trader (also a 2015 Eisner nominee for his work on Top Shelf's The Leg) about the app, its success, and what to expect for the rest of 2015.
ComicsAlliance: There are numerous apps in the Topps Digital family, including football and baseball, but it seems that Star Wars' popularity in the digital app space surpasses even the major sports.
Ian Hundiak: The Star Wars app is something we wanted to do since we got into apps, and it was our first entertainment property, which was a big deal for us. There's no bigger first entertainment property than Star Wars. All that being said, we had our projections going into the launch back in March, and reality blew our projections right out of the water. We've spent a few months catching up to our own success a little bit, but it's been an awesome experience for us.
CA: Not only do you have a basic set, but you have tons of insert cards. Unlike a normal physical card series where there are X number of inserts available all at once, you dole yours out slowly and introduce new ones almost every week. What's the thought process for taking that tactic for the app versus the old-style physical method?
Matthew Petz: I think the great thing about it being an app is that there's no print time. We don't have to design something, send it to the printer, wait for the printer to send it back, package it, ship it, put it into stores; we can come up with ideas and move at the rate at which our users are in the app. If there's a ton of people in there, if we see more coming in for one reason or another, Ian will come to me and say, "We gotta think about something for this week." And we start brainstorming on what we can do and how we should do it.
IH: It's also us wanting to take full advantage of the medium. With digital cards, we can be really reactionary, especially in the sports apps. If something awesome happens in a Mets game...
MP: Like [Jacob] deGrom, last night [note: this interview took place on Oct. 10, the day after deGrom and the Mets outdueled Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS], after he pitched this amazing game, they put out a card this morning. You don't see an instantaneous reaction to something that's happening in real time with physical cards. I think that's one of the huge assets we have in all the apps.
CA: That's something you've done here specifically at NYCC, too. You've introduced special cards based on Sabine's art, and you also teamed with Her Universe for some exclusive cards at this show. That's not something you really see happen anywhere else, so how do partnerships like that come about for the app?
IH: One of the ways those things happen is through our partners at Lucasfilm, which handles a lot of those relationships. One thing that we found is that a lot of people, just in the entertainment industry in general, are on Card Trader. A lot of times these partnerships happen because those same people will come up to us, and want to work together.
That's actually how the Star Wars Battlefront cards came to be. When we were at Celebration...
MP: Yeah, those guys were like, "We're in it every day. We're grinding. We're taking out packs." And we were like, "That's great. Let's talk. Let's see what can happen." I think the same thing happened with Her Universe. We knew we wanted to do something for New York Comic Con; you don't just want to go to the con and the app is just sitting there. You want to do something really great, and do something exciting. It seemed to be really well-received.
CA; Within these special variants that you're doing, what's the process behind figuring out what these inserts are going to be, and also determining the run? We're in digital. Technically the run could be infinite like it is in the base set, but you have "print" runs on these inserts.
IH: When we release cards that have say 50 copies, we are creating value. Our cards are hugely valuable to collectors, and are something we see traded for years. We want to make sure that we retain that same physical value that people love in the physical cards digitally.
One thing I think is interesting and that I want people to know is, the way our content management system works, when we print a card our system treats it like a print run. We can't actually adjust that print run after we printed. Fans can take comfort in the fact that if we say there are 5000, and we print 5000, there are 5000. You can't edit it at all.
MP: You can't print more at all. We've talked about it. "What if we print more?" But it breaks the paradigm. It's like a comic book. If there's 10,000 put out there, there are only 10,000. We don't want to add more to it. I think that's a huge part of what makes the app really special. There is rarity. There is real, real rarity.
IH: That's something that really makes our app different. We're one of the only card apps, where beyond our base cards, we don't rely on relative value. We have absolute value created within our cards.
MP: If there's a card set that only has 10 of them, then the hundreds of thousands of users in the app know there's only 10. It's crazy. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it. It's amazing that actually exists in a digital space. It doesn't really exist anywhere else.
CA: Recently, you started releasing these Card Trader Illustrated boxes through the app, and these boxes were selling out in like 14 seconds. That doesn't really happen in a physical realm, but did you expect that kind of response, and is that the fastest something's sold out in the app?
IH: Yes to the second question, for sure. Again, that's kind of been the trend with the app. Did we expect it to go fast? Definitely. Did we expect it to go that fast? Definitely not.
MP: We're always learning. What's amazing about working at Topps and on this app is you are constantly learning what your app is. Did we think it was going to be rare and go really fast? Yes, but it blew our minds how fast it sold out. It's like concert tickets. It's insane. I never could have expected that.
IH: Especially since it was such a premium set as well. We've had times where we put out free packs, and those sell out super-fast, but the fact that it was such a premium set that people wanted so badly really surprised us.
MP: It just shows you the loyalty of the users and the want they have. There's such a desire for this stuff, especially premium content.
IH: This isn't a thing we had hyped up for weeks, right? This was an instance where we were like, "Hey, in two hours this thing is coming." Just in that short amount of time, all of that demand was created. It's awesome.
CA: You only announced it a few hours in advance, but you knew much earlier internally that you were going to release that particular set. How far in advance are you planning variants and insert drops? Not just from a design aspect, but with regards to timing, too, so the market isn't crowed with too many inserts at once.
IH: In terms of actually planning our content, months ahead or time. Matt will create the art, and we'll share it with our partners at Lucasfilm and we'll work on it together to get it where we want it to be. Then we'll craft our weekly release schedule to track out when those things are going to happen.
MP: A good example is Force Friday. We knew that day was coming, and we sat down to stat mapping it out. How much content would we need? How long would it take to get approved? How long will it take to make? We wanted to make sure that we're not caught unaware as we need to have something every time. There's a lot of thought that goes into it, and you get a little nuts because you're thinking so far ahead. We're thinking months ahead right now, so it's pretty involved.
CA: One thing you don't really see in the digital space are misprints or error cards. Have you ever thought about releasing errors like that as a super variant?
IH: We have actually. It's come up maybe 20 times. There'll be times where we do a digital print, and there have been issues where the print didn't go well or something like that, and we thought about it. Or maybe there was an image change, and we thought, "Do we release this anyway?"
MP: Early on, when we first launched, we didn't know how many people were going to use the app at all. The system was slammed so hard, that some people got a card and other people didn't, and it becomes this weird kind of error where some people saw it and some didn't, and other people want it now. That does happen, which is crazy because it's digital, so how do you get an error? But they exist.
IH: The other thing to keep in mind is when you're dealing with a franchise as huge as Star Wars, it's really important to us that every set we put out is not only something that we're proud of, but also that our partners at Lucasfilm are proud of. We wouldn't want to put out anything that they weren't totally 100% behind.
CA: So no C-3PO accidents?
MP: That's a hard no. That's 100% no on that.
CA; There'll be new physical cards coming soon to tie into the upcoming film. Will there be any crossover between the app and the physical? Will there be special packs that offer cards in the app from the physical set or anything like that?
IH: 100%. We started by doing some loot cards where you get a free digital pack if you open a pack of physical cards, and we're only going to grow from there.
MP: It's definitely something we want to do, to integrate physical and digital as much as possible. Those conversations are constantly happening, and there's lots of things in the works.
CA: Of all the things you've done since launch, which insert series are you most proud of?
IH: It's weird because it's such a minimalist design, but I love the Shadowbox series. It's just my favorite. I don't know why. I love the characters in it, but I just love that set. I guess if we thought about the best one, it would probably be Vintage. I think Vintage sums up what's great about the app. It was inspired by vintage Topps designs but was actually completely original. That sort of melding of new and classic is what makes the app so great.
MP: I agree. When I was working on the Vintage sets, I was scanning old stuff trying to come up with a nice way to present it. I didn't want it to just be a scan because that feels like a cheat sheet a little bit. When I was doing it, I was starting to look at the printing dots, and actually had some textures of raggedy edges and some folded card stuff, and we started layering that on top. It just started to come together that this is exactly what it is. I'm making a brand new digital card, we're trying to make it as old and beat up as possible, and people really responded to that. They love that sort of nostalgia and they got the whole thing. It's layers, it's textures, but it looks like a beat up old card that was in a shoe box somewhere. I feel like that's one of the biggest triumphs.
CA: Have you ever thought about releasing cards that have slight animation to them since you're in the digital space?
IH: It's definitely a frequent topic of conversation. One of the most important things about our app, on a base level, is the skeoumorphic nature of the cards and opening a pack. When you open a pack, the reason that experience feels so great is because it calls back to how it feels to open a physical pack.
While we want to embrace all the awesome technologies that being digital offers us, we don't want to move too far away from what it means to actually be a card. We want you to always feel like the thing you're getting in this pack, yes it's digital, but it's every bit as much a card. We're very conscious of making sure our cards feel like collectibles and not like files on your phone. I think you should always expect new flourishes and app animations, but the integrity of a digital card is something we're super, super firm on.
MP: That's something when I first joined Topps, I didn't understand that. The longer I've been there, that's something I definitely champion at this point. You don't want it to be a little movie file or a sound file because then it's something else. A digital card is a digital card. That's what it is. That integrity is really important, and I think that's why a lot of people like the app. You're getting an actual collectible in a brand new space.
CA: So how extensive are your collections, and how is trading within the office? I'll tell you, out on the app it's rough going.
IH: It's no easier for us.
MP: My collection is good, but since I'm in the thick of it constantly, I don't pull many cards. I have them all on my computer, so I can just go look at everything. I still have a Vintage Han Solo, but at some point I'll probably have to get rid of it. That's the one thing I'm really happy I have. Trading within the office though, it's dicey. We all know how cool some of these things are.
IH: I have endless stories of being out on date night and opening packs under the table. Listen, we're not above all that stuff. We're fans, too.
MP: We talk about it all the time, we have to remind ourselves that we're going to work at a job where we're creating a new entertainment and we're working on Star Wars. It's kind of mind-blowing. If I could tell my younger self that in the future that he was going to grow up to make Star Wars cards, it'd be like, "What? Really!?" It's kind of wild.
CA: Star Wars cards for phones.
MP: Yeah, exactly. On your little computer phone that you're going to have in your pocket.
IH: The very idea of what we do, even five years ago, it just wouldn't have connected.
MP: What's amazing is when you get someone who hasn't used the app, and they might skeptical or might not understand what you're talking about. They get in there and they start opening packs, and it's like a light turns on. They get it.
CA: That's what happened to me. I was a bit skeptical but tried this app to see what it was about. "Digital cards? Sure. Okay." Now I'm in there every day, opening packs, getting my credits, planning what inserts to chase.
IH: That's the thing. One of my biggest lines is, anyone who says they don't get it, they haven't tried it. It's one of those things, where if you're interested in Star Wars, if you've ever collected anything, open the app. Try it out.
MP: You'll understand it pretty quickly. You can walk around, I have my phone with me right now, and there's thousands and thousands of awesome collectibles just right here. They're not in a binder, I don't have to lug them around, and they're not collecting dust anywhere. And there's this crazy, vibrant community you can interact and trade with right there.
IH: The trading is something that's awesome and unique to digital. We have the ability to put you in a trading convention 24/7. You could be sitting in bed or on a bus, and you could always trade with people from around the world. It's really special.
CA: It's interesting how quickly the fan feed populates with offers. It refreshes with dozens of new requests for trades almost instantly.
MP: The community that's built up around the app is something I never expected. I just never thought there'd be websites and Reddits built up around this and trading. You know, looking at what's the relative value and what can I get for these cards, or what are these cards doing now? It's fascinating.
CA: Last one is a tough one. Any hints about what we can expect on Dec. 18 within the Topps app?
MP: I'll say this, there'll be more cards. I'll guarantee you, there'll be Stormtroopers, Leia, Boba Fett, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Also, there's this little movie coming out, and there may or may not be tons of things that people have never seen before.
As a Star Wars fan, I have resisted as long as I can to not look at things and not read things, but I've had to for my job. Which is one of the weirdest positions to be in because I don't want to do my job because if I do, I'm going to see this thing or that thing. If you're a Star Wars fan, if you're even just aware that there's this new Star Wars movie coming out, you should have our app because it's going to get crazy.
IH: Our internal goal is we want to release more Force Awakens content more frequently than any other company is going to do it. That's why you've been seeing in the app, we've been doing something like one Force Awakens card a day. We don't tend to slow down at all.
MP: It's not just going to be Force Awakens either. We have other sets based on everything else. We don't want it be just Force Awakens. There's going to be a new season of Rebels, there's going to be Rogue One, there's going to be other movies. There's tons of potential, and if you're in the app now and enjoying it, just realize we're only just scratching the surface. There's so much that's going to happen.
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