Yesterday, we got our first taste of the Red Gradient Base Variant, which will end up as the 9th base variant that has been released for Series 3. From what we have seen with series 1 and 2, we know that this is far from the last variant that will be released, and there is good reason why that is the case.
The main issue right now is the delivery of these variants, which has been an incendiary topic among the vocal parts of the community, and I wanted to get a word in edge wise. As much as people have invested in this game, its good to look at this topic from a bunch of perspectives.
Why Are There So Many Variants?
This is simple – people want them. You may hear a lot of people who spend all day on twitter being very critical of another variant being released, and yet, their collection still has quite a few. Regardless of how many people want to bash Topps for dropping these on a consistent basis, the cards are popular – especially among character collectors and hoarders.
For lack of a better explanation, base variants are the way Topps can monetize a program built for these type of collectors. Because so many people have a character they like and a character they hoard, this adds an item that the person must get to have a complete collection. This obligation is a powerful tool they use, and it should not be surprising that they want to make sure they get as much revenue as possible out of the variants.
Although we can fight with them about the constant sales or the odd packout structures, in the end, these cards are an easy way to continue to generate purchases. Remember, Topps is about one thing and one thing only, they are a business and they have to make money. As long as that is happening, all is well. This shouldnt be taken personally, and this shouldnt be seen as a negative. It is what it is, and its the reason why many businesses exist.
This is where things get really interesting for me, because I havent really seen this in many of the apps. For the base variants, or direct purchase in general, you have a lot of collectors who REALLY want to buy, but dont feel like they can get value out of the way Topps wants them to do so. In many cases, it leads to them being sad rather than mad, as oddball price structuring tends to price people out rather than satisfy that obligation mentioned above. When you have a product that a lot of people want, but arent willing buy, something isnt working right.
A lot of it stems from the inherent value associated with the cards themselves. Because people expect low count variants to come eventually, the comparative value of paying 50 dollars for a 100 count silver just isnt there. Because of the precedent set with constant sales, the value of price reduction as the cards age doesnt work either. When most silvers can be had for 10-12 dollars on eBay, pricing them high to start isnt reflecting anywhere close to the way the public is understanding the variants.
We know that the silvers sell, but would they have sold MORE had they been priced appropriately from the beginning? I say appropriately because the average 100 count card sells for about 10-20 dollars as it is, save a few special inserts. Money is becoming more and more a factor in people’s perception of card VALUE, and that doesnt spell good things for a program like base variants.
If the buyer is being asked to pay to purchase another part of the rainbow for their character, they will have differing value of cards that generally offer nothing new. Rarity is the sole determining factor of value with base variants, and pricing needs to be more conscious of the way the secondary market performs. Otherwise this whole “sad vs mad” situation is going to continue to drive people into a free to play type of mindset. Moreover – “although I really want this card, the amount I would have to pay to get it doesnt equal the investment I would have to make. If the investment was equal I would purchase at most prices.”
Moving Past Sales
Right now, SWCT offers sales on many cards multiple times per day. Because I would guess that they analyze the data from the structures, I am curious about one specific thing. If the cards started lower, would they generate more revenue over time than starting high? Sure, when you have a 49.99 introductory price on a 100 count variant, you will get some bites. However, if the intro price was 19.99, would you sell more off the bat, and prevent the constant barrage of sales?
At this point its going to be very difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Topps will go up against a number of vocal members of the online community that will undercut any pricing structure available unless some clear communication about the release structure is had up front. The mentality might be that they represent a small portion of the buying public, but when 1500 people all get the same message from these individuals, and they go out into the trading market, they can change the tide of the entire app pretty quickly. Its a mob rules setup and the mob is getting bigger by the day.
Here is the message being communicated, one that will have to be explained in every variant type release:
- Dont buy now, sales are coming!
- Sales are annoying, why do they harass us like this?
- Even with the sales, its still not worth buying now, keep waiting!
- This sale looks like rock bottom, im still not sure this is worth it.
- Oh look at this sale, they are getting desperate!
- I got my card, im out.
How does this change the way a variant is released? Here is the messaging I would use.
- Here is the introductory price – early bird gets the worm!
- If you buy X times now, we will add your user name to a drawing for X prizes on X date.
- There will eventually be a price drop to X price on X date. You will not be eligible for the drawing. This price will not change, there will be no sales.
- The first X people to shred X copies of a character’s variant will get a special prize card of that character limited to X copies
- If all copies of the card are not sold out by X date, all versions will be sold out at current count.
What this type of structure requires is an introductory price set about 25% above the eventual final price. The final price must be in line with user perceptions of monetary value. It cant be exorbitant. The sale of the variant cant be more than a few weeks. People get their card and that’s it. Dont draw out the process. The longer a variant sits, the more people understand it to be devalued. Better to sell out before that, then make a few more sales after that point of no return. Maintaining user perspective of value and novelty is insanely important.
Also, its important to reward the people who buy early with some sort of offer. Whether it be a card, coins, or something else, give them something. Inspiring a fast start through a limited shred offer is going to get people flying if they want to get in on the game. Lastly, Topps needs to show people that they arent afraid of the cards selling out lower than expected. Because variants can really be created infinitely, just move on instead of letting a stale variant linger.
What Makes a Good Variant?
There are only a few things that determine value for a variant, and this is where the whole concept can be limited in how far it can be taken. Eventually, people will tire of switching colors, like they did with Series 1 and 2, and that’s where some creativity is needed.
Value is determined by:
- Card count – first and foremost. Lower the count, more valuable it becomes.
- Card’s look – A brown variant isnt going to sell as well as a Lightsaber red.
- Packout structure – the harder it is to obtain, the more valuable it becomes
That means that there are only a few other things that can be changed:
- Character photo
- Base design
- Addition of signature
- Addition of relic
- Addition of a set reward
Once the colors get stale, changing these things could bring new life to a variant chase. For character collectors, these type of things are the way to get people back involved.
Rewarding the Rainbow!
Most importantly for all of the things mentioned above, there needs to be a systemic recognition of completing the rainbow for a specific character at the end of all of this. If a user can compile all the different copies of a variant, they should be rewarded somehow. Basically, adding a set to anything makes the individual components more valuable. Creating incremental value creates more purchases. More purchases means more revenue.
People are quite passionate about their rainbows. If anyone doesnt believe me, go check out the Reddit sub on Sundays. Its impressive to say the least. Being that so many people would love to have every last variant, adding some sort of chase will always add more pressure to get it done. That’s how Topps can capitalize on that original obligation I mentioned before, and we can get something out of it too.
In closing, the variant structure is what many people see as the face of the app, especially when the marathons have lost so much of their appeal. Hoarding and character collecting is now more popular than ever, and that means the variant chase can be quite profitable for both Topps and users if done correctly. Right now, I think its causing more problems than it is solving.
If we are still 9-10 months away from the release of Star Wars Rogue One, that leaves a lot of time to get this right.
I feel the same way, especially when I see the “Bad Feeling Pack” STILL in the market
Really nice analysis.
A couple of things I would add…
1) The pay variants are still relatively new. The neons were the first, and they came out in October, only six months ago. So, Topps is still experimenting. That’s why the silvers have been such a flop (although why they thought $100 was a good price I have no idea).
2) There are too many, and they aren’t selling that well. Even a lot of the people buying them think so, and do it begrudgingly. And the green gradients sat for about 3 days until the sales started. The majority of them have been purchased for $1 or less. Still making money for Topps, but probably not what they wanted. The cloths will likely end up under 200 count, and I am sure Topps would want more than $3 for a 200 count variant.
3) There are too many at the same time. There are 5 pay variants available right now: silver, green gradient, cloth, red gradient, pink. So, the shiny new red gradients may sell some sales, but is that just cannibalizing sales from other gradients? Would the silvers have sold more if it was the only variant available?
4) I really like your idea of ending cards with lower counts, and have long thought they should do that with inserts. End sales when the awards are given out. Nobody buys the packs anyway, and you may be able to get extra sales at the deadline for cards that are going to end up lower count.
The problem for variants, however, is that Topps wants to release new ones at lower counts. If the red gradients sell out at under 200 rather than 300, its going to be very difficult for Topps to sell a 200 count gradient next.
5) I really like the rest of your suggestions as well. Giving reasons to buy early would be smart for Topps to do. There are other things they could try…first 10 people to get x number of a card get their name on the back, like monuments. Even shelf awards would be something. Especially for the cloths, it would have been great to have some record of who was the first one to shred a given character. Little things like that could lead to more sales. The only thing about the “no sales” idea is that it doesn’t work unless they are willing to follow your suggestion about ending early. Otherwise, the packs will sit there forever (again, there are too many, and people aren’t willing to pay what Topps thinks they will).
6) One note on the sales…it isn’t just the sales, but how quickly. Topps seems to forget that there is a market beyond their selling of the cards. Forgetting about eBay, there is a trade market. That is, after all, the whole point of the game. When you have sales right on top of each other, like they did with the green gradients a few times, you don’t let the market reset after each sale. This results in people buying cards that are instantly worth less than they paid. That leads to unhappy people. If they ran a sale, then waited at least a day, preferably two, the market would settle after each sale and people would have an opportunity to get value for the cards they purchase. If a card drops in value days or, better yet, weeks later, people aren’t that unhappy. Everyone knows most cards drop in value over time. But, for it to happen immediately? Really upsetting.