Inside a bland, non-descript office building on the border of Newmarket and Epsom a fantastical, yet brutal, world has been forged. The lands of its eight distinct regions aren’t roamed, they’re fought over by great champions, evil brutes, tinkering machinists, smirking wizards, nimble ninjas and hundreds of thousands of players around the globe. It is a world made out of cards.
Go up the stairs, press the buzzer, wait for the soft click of the glass security door unlocking and step inside. Welcome to Rathe.
Or, rather, welcome to the offices of Legend Story Studios (LSS), the small Kiwi company behind Flesh and Blood, America’s No 1 trading card game (TCG). Their international success makes for a classic Kiwi underdog tale, complete with audacious dreams, small successes, total catastrophe and overcoming overwhelming odds to ultimately triumph.
“There have been plenty of moments when it’s been scary,” says James White, the chief executive of LSS and creator of the game.
Sitting beside him at the long table in his sparse, spacious, sun-drenched office is friend, business partner and LSS chief design officer Robbie Wen, who nods and says, “Getting started is easy but then the month after you’re like, ‘Oh God what have we done?'”
“I don’t think you’re pushing hard enough if things don’t get scary,” White continues. “You’ve got to take risks. Sometimes they’re little risks, sometimes they’re big risks, but at the end of the day, the two of us are very, very good at just getting things done. That revolves around just making a decision and doing it.”
Their first decision came eight years ago when they decided to make a collectable trading card game with the goal of dethroning the long-standing industry leader, Magic: The Gathering (M:TG). This was a laughably ambitious idea, a pipe dream. The equivalent of an enthusiastic yachtie deciding to build a boat in his shed and enter the America’s Cup.
Over its 28 years at the top M:TG had proved resistant to changing trends, times and tastes. Many companies had risen to take a shot at the king but, until now, all had missed.
But, like David sizing up Goliath, White had identified a weakness in the giant’s armour. As a former high-level competitive M:TG player he was uniquely qualified to not only see the weakness but to know how to capitalise on it.
“Magic has been the industry leader for a long time but it’s going more and more digital. They even present themselves as a video game company now. They’re all about their online adaptation,” he explains. “They’ve been aggressively marketing to get people out of the gaming stores, away from kitchen table gaming and online.”
This rankled the former player. He saw their moves as, “pleasing the Wall St analysts”. He doesn’t say it but it’s clear the weakness he’d identified was simple: Magic had sold out.
“Computer gaming is great, but it’s not the same as getting together with your friends and having that tangible experience,” he says. “Trading card games bring people together.”
Such is White’s commitment and belief in this philosophy that he named the game after it.
“It’s the core essence of what Flesh and Blood is about,” he says, “people coming together in the flesh and blood through the common language of playing great games. We’re an indie studio made up of passionate gamers and we haven’t forgotten that the things that make these games great are the communities. Those face-to-face human relationships that forge over the gaming table.”
“This experience brings people together, face to face, is something that’s different than what you get on the screen,” Wen adds. “We want to preserve that. We think it’s really important for many people.”
One of those people is sitting right beside him and I notice Wen giving him a small nudge and smiling encouragement to share his story.
“I grew up in Napier, small-town New Zealand, not a lot of money,” White says. “In my teens my social circle started to go off the rails and down pathways that I’m glad I didn’t follow. The thing that kept me guided was that I got involved with Magic: The Gathering. It created a social circle outside of my school network. It allowed and enabled me to travel all around New Zealand. I was travelling to Wellington and Auckland for tournaments and going all over the place. It introduced me to a lot of really good people, positive people, ambitious people, and broadened my horizons of what was possible in my life.”
White stopped partying and instead spent his money on new cards and his time practising. He caught some flak from his peers but didn’t care, instead of hiding it, he proudly flew the flag.
“It was a very different time and a very different culture,” he recalls of the mid-90s. “Gaming had all these terrible stigmas associated with it. But myself and my friends were proud to carry the gamers banner and say, ‘You know what? I get to travel all around New Zealand and all around the world, playing games, winning prizes, meeting people and having a great time. Playing games is awesome.'”
He competed against the world’s best in places like Sydney, Los Angeles and London for eye-watering amounts of prize money, before parlaying his high-level success into a 20-year career behind the scenes working in marketing, sales and distribution in the TCG segment.
It’s also how he met Wen. The pair quickly became friends, starting various businesses before forming Legend Story Studio.
“We liked playing games, we were working in games, so we thought let’s make a game we can be proud of and enjoy. That’s how it started, in the very beginning,” Wen recalls.
“From a personal level 2012 was significant for me because that’s when my daughter was born,” White says. “That was a milestone and I really wanted to be an example to her that it’s worth pursuing your dreams. Even if they’re big and crazy. If you believe in something and you’re passionate about something then you should have a crack. I really wanted to be that example for her so that was the catalyst. It was like, ‘come on, let’s do this!'” he says, laughing.
Riding that excitable rush of initial enthusiasm, the pair jumped quickly into action to slowly and methodically work on their game.
“We’re both very patient,” White says. “with a very long-term view of things. That’s why we sank seven years into it.”
Neither was prepared to rush the game to market and during the seven-year creative period, they pushed the release back multiple times in their pursuit of excellence.
“The quality standard had to meet our expectations, which is industry-leading,” White explains. “We wanted to be there from day one. I think we achieved that.”
To keep production going, they incubated the game inside their other companies, building time for it into their business plans.
“Every single day there was time dedicated to Flesh and Blood,” White says.
“At some point in the past two years we turned the switch and said, ‘Now we’re going to do it full time,'” Wen says. “We were very deliberate about our pathway from saying, ‘Yes we’re going to do this,’ through to ‘everything else is gone. Now it’s only about this’.”
Every move the pair has made has been reasoned and deliberate, from the game’s mechanics – which they’ve patented – through to its art direction, packaging and presentation and the development of the world itself and the surrounding IP.
For example, players may never learn of Rathe’s rich and deep lore that stretches hundreds of years into the past and centuries into the future but it informs every aspect of the games storylines and card design.
“The entire game design is integrated into our world-building,” says White. “They really dovetail completely.”
About the only thing the pair weren’t prepared for was 2020’s global pandemic.
“The timing was unfortunate,” Wen says, with considerable understatement. “Our release was March 27 and we went into lockdown the week before. We couldn’t come to the office.”
“It was a massive speed bump,” White says. “We had a huge amount of momentum and the hype was enormous but then Covid kicked in and undercut it and we lost all of that momentum.”
They also lost all of their sales.
“When lockdown hit New Zealand and around the world, our sales literally went to zero,” he says, before repeating it in disbelief. “For the entirety of April, it went to zero. This was concerning.”
Competitive TCGs require regular new releases throughout the year and Flesh and Blood’s second season was due for release in August. The duo were at a crossroads. They’d launched a competitive card game that required people to congregate together to play, right at the start of a global pandemic. Their sales were sitting on zero. Their dream had turned into a nightmare. Instead of slamming down the brakes, they decided to step on the gas.
“We thought we can’t stop making products. Let’s just do it and hope we can get it out,” White says. “If the world had gone to Armageddon we’d have put it in the warehouse and waited until it was good to go.”
If he who dares win, the duo have hit the jackpot. A month after the sales tanked, things slowly began picking back up as stuck-at-home American influencers and YouTubers started regularly streaming themselves playing the game. A second wave of hype, much more intense than the first, swelled as people clamoured for product they couldn’t get due to the pandemic-induced scarcity.
This set the collectors market ablaze with desirable and rare cards from the first edition selling for more than US$3000 each.
Flesh and Blood had literally gone from zero to hero in just over a year. The game White and Wen beavered away at for over seven years is now the biggest trading card game in America. They ‘d done it.
“I hope that we can serve as a role model for people to aspire to. Like for my daughter, the whole reason I did it was to create an example for her that you can aspire to achieve big things and that it’s worth trying your best and working really, really hard to achieve things,” White says. “As a small New Zealand start-up who’s created something that’s being enjoyed and loved all around the world, we can show other New Zealanders whatever your passion is you should follow it. You should really do everything you can to try and do something with that passion. My passion is trading card games, for someone else, it’s going to be something different.”
“I feel the same” Wen says. “I also hope people can make their own stories and live in our world for an hour or two.”
I look around the room, their world. There are artists creating its stunning cards, a writer mapping everything out, behind the closed door of the only room they don’t let me look inside, are the game’s three designers – all former Magic: The Gathering champions – imagining the cards and running the numbers that will keep players hooked for potentially decades. There are shiny gold trophies to be presented at the New Zealand Champs and large colour banners with some of the game’s characters hanging from the walls. One has the Flesh and Blood logo, a portion of Rathe’s map and the words, “Proudly made in New Zealand” emblazoned on it. These are going out to retail stores in the US to drive excitement for their planned worldwide tournaments with big cash prizes.
Almost as an aside I say, “you guys are really taking a run at Magic, eh?”. White grins but his voice is steely and determined when he answers.
“Oh yes. Yes we are.”
Flesh and Blood may be a game but his reply leaves me in no doubt that he and Wen are not playing around.
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