Before you ever heard of NFTs, maybe you heard about the $225 jpeg of Han Solo. Back in 2015, I wrote an article about a Han Solo card worth over $200 in an app called Star Wars Card Trader by Topps. At the time, I spent most of the article explaining how a person could own something that they merely have on their phone. It was not easy.
Fast-forward seven years. Digital goods are mainstream, Star Wars is bigger than ever, and Star Wars Card Trader is still going strong. Oh, sure, now Topps is owned by Fanatics and there surely are not as many active users as back in 2015, but there are hundreds if not thousands of loyal users who log on every day to open packs, trade, and spend money on digital Star Wars cards.
I should know. I’m one of them. After two years out of the app from 2018-2020, I dove back in hard during the pandemic. I focused my collection and things got very silly. I also ended up joining Facebook and Discord groups about the app where every day, fans dissect every little thing that happens with new releases. So, when Star Wars Celebration rolled around last month, was I going to seize the chance to talk to a few people who actually work on Star Wars Card Trader about those things? Of course I was.
What follows are the edited highlights of that discussion with Card Trader’s lead designer Brandon Bernard and content producer Lisa Granshaw. But beware, if you don’t know what “dupes for needs” means, the difference between a Legendary or an Uncommon, or what 54321 is, this is not for you. This is deep, nerdy shit for a select few. My people.
What are the conversations like about having the app be friendly to both the casual fan, who doesn’t pay a cent, and the super nerdy fans who spend a lot?
“We actually are actually having conversations around that right now,” Bernard told me. “We don’t want everybody’s collections to end up being identical. So we don’t want it to be an issue of if you’re in there long enough, you have the same stuff everybody has. So we’re looking for ways that people can begin to differentiate their collections.”
“I think some decision-making is going to have to start happening on the level of the collectors themselves,” he continued. “I think we’re going to have to start releasing things that force people to choose to chase this thing and not this thing or vice versa. And I think you’re right. There is a cohort of people that expect to be able to get everything that comes out—and we’re trying to figure out how to dissuade people from thinking that way, and encourage people to sort of express their personal enthusiasm about Star Wars through what it is they decide to chase.”
I don’t know that we have a perfect answer for that right now, but rest assured that the conversation is happening. That’s part of the experimentation that’s going on... just trying different levers, trying to engage people in different ways, trying to make things up for new users that log in and just want to be free to play for them to feel like they’re having an enriched experience. But then also people that are spending some real coin to feel like there are things out there for them too. Everything is just such a balance, and we’re constantly trying to find that.”
Why has the amount of content in the app slowed down compared to previous years? And why are the weekly marathons always the same?
When I came back on the app in 2020, almost every day at 2 p.m. EST you could count on a new set being released. These days though, those are much rarer, and oftentimes you only get one release a day: The weekly set that comes out that day every week and has been the same for years. So, I asked about that change.
“I think what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to focus on quality content,” Bernard said. “And to some extent, there are certain decisions that we’re making, such as re-using broad categories of weeklies is one of those decisions we’re making to avoid burning great ideas for a set on a weekly. So we can develop those into box sets, or to more premium sets, because the idea and the concept behind it is so strong.”
“We were really struggling in the past couple of years back when we used to really change up the weeklies every single time,” he continued. “It would just be like, ‘Oh, that was such a great idea for us and we just burned it for a weekly.’ So we’re trying to shift to those more broad categories like Heroes, Villains, Droids, because those are always going to be around. They’re staples and we figure, we’ll redesign the templates for those as much as we can. With all the new shows coming out, we’ll try to stock them with new characters that people haven’t seen yet. Of course. You’re going to see R2-D2 pop up again in Droids... you’re going to have your standards, your staples.”
“That’s sort of like a baseline heartbeat, and that’s allowing us to sort of pour our creative energies into more premium sets for people. To really dig in on those, develop them, really hammer out the designs, even expand if we can, tie them to events. So a lot of what you’re noticing and describing there is that pivot—so we’re trying to pivot to more quality content.”
In the past, members of the Topps team frequented Reddit, Discord, and more to keep in touch with fans. There was even an interactive Twitch show for a while. Under the current team, however, that is not the case. Direct communication between fans and the people making the app is slim to none. And though both Bernard and Granshaw said they were unofficially available to be there for fans via Twitter (at those links), they revealed that hiring someone whose job is only that has been discussed.
“There’s a little bit of rumbling about that,” Bernard said. “I wouldn’t say it’s very advanced at this point, and I couldn’t really give you any sort of assurance that it’s about to happen. But it’s a thing that comes up in conversation. It’s a thing that we would definitely like to have. I think we’re actively trying to fill out roles that we’ve lacked for a number of years. Sort of at higher levels is where we’re beginning that. I think it’s going to start trickling down, filling, and expanding outward. I mean, one really exciting thing, this is just sort of nuts and bolts, but all of our apps are picking up a second designer, which didn’t use to be the case. So we’re starting to get out of that survival mode that we’ve been in for about a bunch of years and beginning to thrive and say, ‘What can we expand outward on?’”
Is that expansion because of the new ownership from Fanatics? How do you feel about that in general?
Back in January, the sports company Fanatics acquired Topps for about $500 million. Star Wars Card Trader fans immediately got scared the new company would shut the app down, and while Bernard is not an executive, he did express excitement about the new regime. “I think they’re really augmenting the business,” Bernard said. “I think Tobin [Lent, VP and Global General Manager of Topps Digital] uses the word ‘multiplier’ and I think they believe in the business. That’s why they picked us up. And so we just have a sort of larger corporate company now just sort of as a base for things.”
“In terms of sort of backing us, they are committed,” he continued. “I don’t think they’re going to throw just obscene amounts of money at things. I think we’re going to go careful but sort of aggressive at the same time. But it’s been really great. I mean, obviously, it was news to all of us when it happened in January. Initially, as anybody would be, we were a little skittish. Like, ‘What does this mean for us?’ Pretty quickly it became clear we’re not going anyplace, they’re keeping us and they’re just looking to sort of bolster what we already do, iron out any existing wrinkles, try to figure out what have we wanted to do in the past, and not been able to and how can we crack that nut? Can they help us figure out how to do that?”
Why do you so radically design popular legacy sets, such as Widevision and Card Trader Illustrated, when bringing them back? What’s that balance?
“It’s a good question. You use the word ‘balance’ and that’s really what it is. It’s trying to walk a tightrope,” Bernard said. “We could just release the same design over again, [but] it would get very confusing. Because people have the older cards, and then people are getting these newer cards that look the same, and they’re going to get trade offers that are going to make them mad. So any time we want to resurrect a beloved set, we’re going to have to change the way it looks in some way.”
“We always hope that we do right by people that love that set, but it’s one of those things where design is very subjective,” Bernard continued. “There are people that love it, and people that are just turned off and don’t want to participate. And that’s just sort of my job. Every day I come to work and that is the reality I deal with. So, you know, we’re always trying to do the right thing and make it look good. But we do have to always be evolving and progressing design so people can say, ‘Oh, this is the 2022 card and this was 2015.’”
There’s been a lot of Obi-Wan Kenobi content in the app tied to the new show. Any chance of Ewan McGregor signatures?
“Not at this moment, but I’d say stay tuned,” Granshaw said. “All that is in the process. Of course, we would love to have that. A lot of that is, I tend to work with the licensing team on that, [and we] discuss all the time the things not only that we really want but what the fans really want to see. And yeah it might take a little bit, but fingers crossed.”
“Expansion-wise, we have our original art that goes into the app,” Granshaw said. “That’s something that we’re definitely trying to grow and expand upon... with the original art cards, we get the chance to really focus on characters you don’t see a lot. The character in the background that everyone still loves but maybe you don’t have a lot of access to otherwise. [It] brings a lot of different art styles and perspectives into the app, so that’s something we’re excited about growing—bringing different types of artists in and just exploring with the content what else we can do with it.”
“I think more events, more of everything,” Bernard added. “We’re just looking to grow and expand everything that people are digging on.”
Star Wars Card Trader is available to download in both the Apple and Google app stores.
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