Tuesday, March 4, 2014

History Repeats Itself, But Never the Same Way Twice

My little nonprofit, the VISTA Expertise Network, just went through its dark winter. From April last year through now, we have weathered a tough time.

This was not the result of any lawsuit, the way it was with Wizards of the Coast. We are highly respected in the VISTA community, and had just completed phase one of a contract to upgrade the toughest application in VISTA - File Manager - which we did on time, on budget, and with all promised features delivered. We got glowing reviews from our contract officer, and we were riding high, but then all the cards fell wrong for us on the table, so that suddenly no one had any full-size VISTA gigs for us to work on. The sponsors of our VA project all simultaneously left VA, leaving our project without a champion. Multiple sure things fell through. Other projects were a year or more late in actually starting, leaving us with very little income for most of 2013 and the start of 2014.

In November, after we put on our successful VISTA Expo and Symposium in Seattle, we had to lay off most of our staff, because we just did not have the income to pay them. We shrank down to a small core and stayed there for four months, but now things are finally turning back around, and we are beginning the process of bringing everyone back on board.

The parallels with what happened to Wizards did not escape me during that time, nor did the irony of my previous post - that I was celebrating my restart of this blog right as my opportunity to do so was taken from me, and that I quoted Ward Proctor's insight about why simple survival is the key to success, so that we get the chance to execute when the right time comes along.

It took all my concentration to keep our little nonprofit afloat, and the hard work of Sam and Linda, and the sacrifices by those staff members who agreed to go on unemployment, with only our shared faith that this was only an aberration in our economy that when corrected would let everyone come back. It also took the small but vital opportunities given us during that interregnum by our allied organizations in the VISTA community, who found small projects here and there for us to do, which brought in the small stream of revenue we needed to cover the costs of the small core, from which we can now rebuild. That left no time for written reflections on Wizards's history, though we spoke of it often during the past year.

Paradoxically, although this means things are about to get a lot busier for the Network, it means I can go back to normal hours and income, which gives me back the time I need to pick this story back up and carry it further for you all.

In light of the recent untimely death of beloved Wizards alumnus Cliffton Anthony "CJ" Jones - about which more soon - many of us felt it was time to resume telling the Wizards story. Beverly and I are discussing the right sequence for the next series of posts, and in the meantime I have some housekeeping posts to do, to link in other discussions from the past year about Wizards of the Coast and its history.

I hope you will enjoy them.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wizards: The Moment Pregnant with the Future


They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and they say brevity is the soul of wit, but they aren't always right. Some things that are important can only be explained in words - in more than a few words - because we don't have precisely the right words to explain them, and because there can be no sufficiently illuminating pictures of them.

The answer to this question is one of those things:

How did things for Wizards of the Coast go from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic)?

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A wise friend of mine from the South, a painter named Ward Proctor, once told me that the secret to success is survival, not because survival is success, but because no one knows when opportunities to succeed will come along. You have to last long enough, until they do, and when they happen you have to be healthy and competent enough to know what to do with them.

Gamblers are losers, because what looks like the right opportunity will actually be the wrong one more often than not; even if you win now, you'll lose later. If you bet the farm on one moment in time, on just making it to some arbitrary goal post, then you're going to fail, because you can't control when the real opportunity will come, as opposed to the illusions that lure us into overextending ourselves. Murphy's Law is no joke. Most of the "sure things" are just traps to lure you into commiting yourself to a failure. Life ain't like it is in the movies; most of the time, we can't know what the genuine thing looks like until it has already happened.

You have to have a lot of lines in the water, because you don't know which one the big fish is going to bite - you certainly can't tell the size of the fish from the pull on the rod. And when you seize the moment, you have to do it in a sustainable way, in case it isn't the real thing, so you don't lose track of the other lines. While you're attending the pole that has a tiny fish tugging away on it like anything, the big fish might be quietly nibbling on the rod that's hardly moving at all.

You have to play the long game, the patient game, learning what success looks like, learning the landscape, gaining experience, improving your ability to survive, and making yourself better able to seize the moment when it comes. Above all, you have to protect and develop your capacity to do your job well and to go on doing your job. You have to keep your feet under you and not get carried away by hopes and first impressions.

---

The ancient Greeks had a word for this; they called it kairos, which means the moment in time you need to seize, the one that's different from all the others, the time when what you do matters in a way it just doesn't most of the time, the time you have to prepare for your whole life sometimes just to be good enough to be able to handle it when it comes.

Kairos is hard to recognize unless you're a master in your field, and even masters often fail to recognize it. Most people who act at that moment have blundered into it by accident. Most people who have the chance to act at that moment miss it; they don't recognize it at all.

Most people who do act at that moment, whether they recognize it for what it is or not, screw it up. It is so very easy to screw up. Usually they're just not ready. Kairos has arrived too soon in their lives; if it had arrived a few years later, when they knew more, they could have been wildly successful, but instead they squander the moment and everything falls apart. Sometimes it arrives too late.

But even when it arrives exactly on time, and we act on it then, when we should, kairos is fraught with peril. When people say power corrupts, they do not realize they are actually talking about kairos, the time when all the threads of our lives and the world around us seem to fall into place, when we are magnified. It's the moment when what we do matters, when the things we do right suddenly make a difference.

The good is magnified, yes, but so is the bad. The things we do wrong are also magnified, and we make mistakes on a scale we normally never could have. The bad habits we let slide, that we defensively hid from others instead of dealing with, the things we put off, the things we didn't bother to learn, all those things suddenly matter now, bad habits seeming to burst out of us, like seeds frantically flowering in a brief Arctic summer. We are put under pressures we never before experienced, and our true character is revealed, warts and horns and clay feet and all.

That's why even when kairos arrives in our lives at the perfect time, the results are never perfect. Even when they're wildly exciting and successful, they're also simultaneously more confusing and difficult than we ever could have dreamed, because until then, until we were put to the test, we did not really know ourselves and each other as well as we thought we did.

---

That's why things for Wizards of the Coast went from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic). That's the most concise explanation I have for everything that happened. The details of the story - the interesting part to most people - illuminate kairos with a clarity few things can, once you understand how to interpret them, because the story of everything that happened at Wizards of the Coast around Magic: The Gathering is the story of how my friends found themselves in that rare moment that matters; suddenly everything good and bad about them was magnified. Their successes or failures, their enlightenments or benightednesses, friendships shattered or forged, the overcoming of obstacles or squandering of opportunities, the painful lessons or naive mistakes - all of this came from who they were at the moment when it mattered as it never had before.

So with my break from this tale complete for now, let's go back and shed some more light on what happened, why my friends did what they did, and why things played out as they did.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Freeport and Other Great RPG Cities


In fantasy role-playing games, dungeons get all the love for adventuring in, but as Fritz Leiber taught us, cities can be incredible places to adventure in. They heve some of the same advantages - a (semi-)pinned down geography that frees up the DM's cognitive real estate to focus on the players' reactions to suggest further adventure embroidery. An RPG city occupies that sweet-spot middle ground between the structure of a dungeon and the structurelessness of wilderness adventures, creating one of the best kinds of sandbox environments for player-driven gaming.

Consider Freeport, one of the classic FRPG cities. If you've ever tried to develop an entire city suitable for role-playing, you know how hard it is, but Chris has done a great job of it. Freeport has its own distinctive character as a fantasy city, and it's a rich environment for catalyzing adventures.

Also, pirates! Arrrrrh!

Green Ronin and Fiery Dragon want to treat it right with a new, hefty sourcebook. My friend Chris Pramas has just forty-five minutes left to raise the last $3,000 to make his final Kickstarter stretch goal. If you enjoy role-playing games, you should go pledge to help him get there (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1780208966/freeport-the-city-of-adventure-for-the-pathfinder).

After you go pledge, come back here and tell me about your favorite RPG city to game in and why. Tell us a story about something that happened in a game set in that city that helps us to understand why you like it so much.

Here is a list of FRPG cities to help stimulate some memories:

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977, Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen; Judges Guild)

generic city in (in Cities: A Gamemaster's Guide to Encounters and Other Rules for Fantasy Games, 1979, Stephen Abrams and Jon Everson; Midkemia)

Carse (1980, April and Stephen Abrams; Midkemia Press)

City State of the World Emperor (1980, Bob Bledsaw and Craighton Hippenhammer; Judges Guild)

Haven (in The Free City of Haven, 1981, Richard Meyer and Kerry Lloyd; Gamelords)

Sanctuary (in Thieves' World, 1981, Greg Stafford, Dave Arneson, Steve Marsh, Midkemia Press, Marc Miller, Steve Perrin, Lawrence Schick, Ken St. Andre, et al; Chaosium)

the Citybook city (in the Citybook series, 1982-1997, Ed Andrews, Dave Arneson, Norma Blair, Grant S. Boucher, Stuart Bute, Deborah Cady, Thessaloniki Canotas, Deborah Christian, William W. Connors, Brandon Corey, Steven S. Crompton, Kevin Crossman, Liz Danforth, Lawrence DiTillio, Lee Duigon, Panda England, Joe Formichella, Janrae Frank, Greg Gordon, Bob Greenwade, Jeff Halsey, Beth Hannan-Rimmels, Scott Haring, Ed Heil, Dave Helber, Paul Jaquays, Stefan Jones, Thomas M. Kane, Mike Keller, William Kerr, J.D. Kirkland-Revels, Rudy Kraft, Randall G. Kuipers, Charles de Lint, Rick Loomis, Seng Mah, Anita Martinez, Dennis L. McKiernan, John Merkel, Shawn Moore, Ashley Morton, John Nephew, Paul O'Connor, Mark O'Green, Stephan Peregrin, Bill Paley, Jim "Bear" Peters, Glenn Rahman, T.L. Riseden, Jennifer Roberson, S. John Ross, Tom Rushford, Jason Sato, Richard Shaffstall, Lester Smith, Warren Spector, Michael A. Stackpole, Lisa Stevens, Hank Stine, Brent Stroh, B. Dennis Sustare, Tim Taylor, John Terra, Allen Varney, Lisa Walker, James L. Walker, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Don Webb, Wayne West, Allen Wold, Debora L. Wykle; Flying Buffalo)

Aleath (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Cherafir (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Coranan (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Golotha (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; and in City of Golotha, 2003, N. Robin Crossby, Ed King, and John Sgammato; Columbia Games)

Pavis: Threshold to Danger (1983, Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin; Chaosium)

Shiran (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Tashal (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; and in City of Tashal, 2005, N. Robin Crossby, Ed King, and John Sgammato; Columbia Games)

Thay (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Lankhmar: City of Adventure (1985, Bruce Nesmith, Douglas Niles, and Ken Rolston; TSR)

Laelith (in Empires & Dynasties, 1986, Patrick Durand-Peyroles)

Middenheim (in City: A Complete Guide to Middenheim, City of the White Wolf, 1987, Carl Sargent; Games Workshop)

Minas Tirith: Cities of Middle-earth (1988, Graham Staplehurst, Peter C. Fenlon, and Angus McBride; Iron Crown Enterprises)

Waterdeep and the North (1988, Ed Greenwood; TSR)

The City Of Greyhawk (1989, Douglas Niles, Mike Breault, Kim Mohan; TSR)

Tantras (1989, Ed Greenwood; TSR)

Arkham (in Arkham Unveiled, 1990, Keith Herber, Mark Morrison, and Richard Watts; Chaosium)

Eldarad: The Lost City (1990, Chris Watson; Avalon Hill)

Kingsport: The City in the Mists (1991, Kevin A. Ross; Chaosium)

Bral (in The Rock of Bral, 1992, Richard Baker; TSR)

Waterdeep (in Volo's Guide to Waterdeep, 1992, Ed Greenwood; and City of Splendors: Waterdeep, 2005, Eric L. Boyd; Wizards of the Coast)

Huzuz (in City of Delights, 1993, Tim Beach, Steve Kurtz, and Tom Prusa; TSR)

Sigil (in In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil, 1995, Wolfgang Baur and Rick Swan; TSR)

Zhentil Keep (in Ruins of Zhentil Keep, 1995, Kevin Melka and John Terra; TSR)

Daggerford (in The North: Guide to the Savage Frontier, Slade; Wizards of the Coast)

Calimport (1998, Steven E. Schend; Wizards of the Coast)

Palanthas (1998, Steven Brown; Wizards of the Coast)

Ravens Bluff (1998, Ed Greenwood; TSR)

Skullport (1998, Joseph Wolf; TSR)

Mordheim: City of the Damned (1999, Alessio Cavatore, Tuomas Pirinen, and Rick Priestley; Games Workshop)

Freeport (2000, Chris Pramas; Green Ronin)

Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers (2001, Ethan Skemp; White Wolf)

Mithril: City of the Golem (2001, Deidre Brooks, Ben Lam, and Anthony Pryor; White Wolf)

the city (in Urban Blight, 2002, Doug G. Herring and Andrew Thompson; Mystic Eye Games)

Bluffside: City on the Edge (2002, Jim Govreau, Curtis Bennett, Jeff Quinn, and Andrew Troman; Mystic Eye Games)

Geanavue: The Stones of Peace (2002, Ed Greenwood; Kenzer and Company)

Marchion (in Splinteres Peace, 2002, David Chart; Atlas Games)

the city (in Citycraft/Cityworks, 2003, Mike Mearls; Fantasy Flight Games)

the city (in A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, 2003, Joseph Browning, Suzi Yee; Expeditious Retreat Press)

Dun Eamon (in The Grey Citadel, 2003, Nathan Paul; Necromancer Games)

Loona: Port of Intrigue (2003, Ed Greenwood and Phil Thompson; Kenzer and Company)

Endhome (in The Lost City of Barakus, 2003, W.D.B. Kenower and Bill Webb; Necromancer Games)

Parma: Streets of Silver (2003, Thomas Anderson, Evan Bernstein, Shayne Brown, Marcy Canterbury, Jacek Chodnicki, Celeste DeAngelis, John Faugno, Larry Fitzgerald, John Fornish, Mike Grenier, Inger Henning, David Hoenig, Steve Kubat, Lee Lucsky, Steve Novella, Edward Povilaitis, Joe Unfried; Living Imagination)

Shelzar: City of Sins (2003, Dave Brohman and James Maliszewski; White Wolf)

Liberty (in Thieves Quarter, Temple Quarter, and Arcane Quarter, 2004-2006, J. D. Wiker and Jonathan Kirtz; The Game Mechanics)

Sharn: City of Towers (2004, Keith Baker and James Wyatt; Wizards of the Coast)

Yggsburgh (in Castle Zagyg Volume One, 2005, Gary Gygax; Troll Lord Games)

Bards Gate (2006, Casey Christofferson, Scott Greene and Shane Glodoski; Necromancer Games)

Five Fingers: Ports of Deceit (2006, Doug Seacat and Wolfgang Baur; Privateer Press)

Ptolus: City by the Spire (2006, Monte Cook; Malhavoc Press)

Cillamar (in Castle Whiterock, 2007, Chris Doyle and Adrian Pommier; Goodman games)

Shadowdale: The Scouring Of The Land (2007, Richard Baker, Eric L. Boyd, and Thomas M. Reid; Wizards of the Coast)

The Great City (2008, Mario Barbati; 0one games)

If you can think of any other classics I'm missing, let me know about it. My thanks to the good folks over at ENWorld for their FRPG city discussions, which helped me build this list far beyond the ones I was familiar with.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wizards: Nostalgia, Part One


A page from Castles and Conquest by "Wizards of the Coast" in 1983

Let's turn back the clock a bit.

On Monday, 16 October 1989, Ken McGlothlen was working three jobs: (1) at the University of Washington (UW) Biostatistics department typesetting a biostats textbook in TeX, (2) being a computer consultant/operator at NOAA/PMEL on Sand Point, and (3) working as a system/network administrator at StatSci. Peter was working at Boeing.

Ken was living in an apartment in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood (at 5603 7th Avenue Northwest #1, fourteen blocks from where Beverly and I live now). His apartment was a three-bedroom, two-story unit in a triplex. It was evening, and Ken was alone upstairs on the computer in the southeast bedroom. Internet access was not as easy to come by in those days as it is today, but Ken had access to the Internet via Unix machines at the UW thanks to his job there, and Peter had access through his job at Boeing. That evening (in the days before Facebook and Skype) they were nevertheless chatting electronically.

Peter remembers this initial conversation taking place over his lunch break at Boeing, but both Ken and Peter agree the followup discussions went on for days and weeks thereafter, so who knows which came first - the lunchtime chat or the evening one.

Although Ken and Peter had been best friends for years, things between the two of them had been difficult since 1986 (for reasons we won't get into here), and their conversations had been pretty rare since then. By October 1989, though, the two of them seemed to be moving beyond their past difficulties, which came as a relief to both of them because they both had a lot invested in their long friendship.

In their chat together, Peter was waxing nostalgic about Castles and Conquest, an amateur Dungeons and Dragons supplement they had worked on together between 1982 and 1984. At the time, Peter had taken some game mechanics out of two wargames; he added some original content after Ken pointed out that what they had was uncomfortably close to copyright violation. Ken hand-drew the cover on fine graph paper. Peter's tagline on C&C was "What's D&D without C&C?"

This was long before affordable laser printers, much less scanners. Castles and Conquest was printed out on a pin-fed dot-matrix printer, on the old green-and-white-striped landscape printer with the tear-off hole-punched strips on each edge of the page. Here's a sample chart from the supplement that shows the combat stats of different types of units, by "level" (D&D style).

Peter sold maybe fifty copies, never through retail but at various gaming conventions, and used the proceeds to cover the cost of attending the cons. As a young college student, being able to sell enough copies to attend cons for "free" made him feel like success, so he was very happy with the project.

From the perspective of this history, though, Castles and Conquest was important for two reasons. First, it was published by "Wizards of the Coast," which at that point was a private amateur imprint used by Ken and Peter for their projects. Second, chatting about it together over the Internet was fun and nostalgic, and led both of them to remember their dream of some day starting a game company.

They then began to reminisce about the day they first dreamed that dream together.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wizards: In Media Res


Real stories begin in the middle.
Altogether now: "Once upon a time . . ."

No, forget it. Like tragedy, like life, our story begins in medias res.

That's in the middle for all you who never took English Literature in school. It means we showed up late to the story and it's already been going for a long time now. We don't get to start things just the way we would like, because we're not at the start of the story, but instead find ourselves already committed to all kinds of things the moment we show up, before we get to make our first decision.

Starting in medias res may entertain the reader, but it's traumatic and confusing for our protagonists. They don't know how things got this way, or what's really happening to them, or how to change things for the better. They don't even know who they really are inside, and they're going to be disappointed to find that most of the ways they try to make things better end up backfiring.

Starting in medias res - as we all do in our lives - means we are in the position of being able to act, and wanting to act, yet understanding hardly any of the consequences of the actions we're about to take. We set things in motion that end up surprising us. It was the ancient Roman poet Horace who taught us that great epics begin here, at this moment in the middle of our story.

That's where our story is, poised between two moments.

Peter wrote "We're not dead yet."
The first moment is December 3rd, 1992, when Peter reluctantly sent a memo he hated to send, a memo that admitted that they were in trouble, that Palladium's lawsuit had forced Wizards to miss payroll, and they were about to miss another one. He candidly laid out their options, which included bankruptcy. But he also showed several ways the company could keep going, even in a scaled-back state. His most important two sentences were these:

But we're not dead yet, so in the meantime let's put on the best face we can and continue to give this our best shot. Many many times great success stories come on the verge of what seemed like a great tragedy.

He writes these words dead center in the most important period in the life of Wizards of the Coast, in the middle of the year and a half that changed everything for them. Our protagonists don't know it yet, but that sad memo Peter had to send and the staff's response to it comprise the most important moment of their most important year.

This moment is the crossover point, the turning of the tide.

From Palladium launching their lawsuit to the grim December of this memo, everything seemed to get worse and worse until this terrible thing dominated the life of the company and seemed poised to blot it out.

But it was an illusion, because things were also getting better, quietly, in ways that only began to flower at this tipping point and become visible a month later, when the good things gradually began to overwhelm the antagonism in their lives. In the years leading up to this reversal, Wizards had been developing things and setting them in motion, things they did not realize they would need to survive this test, things they did for other reasons, but that bore life-giving fruit that sustained them through their darkest hours.

In this second series of posts about the history of Wizards, we're going to focus on this year and a half from 2 April 1992, when The Primal Order arrived from the printers, to 16 July 1993, when the first shipment of Magic: The Gathering arrived at the Origins gaming convention barely on time to demo and sell on the last day. That journey is balanced right on this first moment, when most of the threads that led them into trouble and most of the threads that would lead them to success were just about to change places.

Before Facebook: Usenet
The second moment is seven weeks later, January 23rd, 1993, when on the Usenet group rec.games.frp.misc, James A Seymour asked Peter:

Peter, could you please post a brief history of your company? I'm curious from both a casual standpoint, and from a game writer wanta be viewpoint.

And Peter responded with the short essay we followed in the previous series, "Peter on the Cusp." Unconsciously, Peter answered his own memo by describing how Wizards managed to scale back and survive. Because it's been almost a year since that post about the memo, and since it's been nine months since the last installment of the first series, I'm going to requote this paragraph from his 1993 narrative:

But a couple of weeks ago for some reason things started picking up. I'm not sure why, but partly it's because we realized that we can actually move forward and continue publishing products with all of us working on a part-time basis. Probably because we've gotten pretty proficient at our respective tasks here. Jesper's living at home and said he could go without pay indefinitely, particularly since his involvement here at WotC has gotten him some free-lance contracts for other companies (an upcoming White Wolf book is being entirely illustrated by him, and I hear they liked it well enough that he's going to be doing another one). I'd been working full time here and at Boeing (I've averaged over eighty hours of work a week for the last two years) and didn't need WotC income, Jay said he could work part time for WotC and full time elsewhere and manage Design & Development from home through e-mail if he could take home one of the computers, Beverly said she could probably get by with her husband's full-time job if she could pick up some free-lance editing, and Lisa's working part-time freelancing too (she just edited a book for TSR, for more money than I'd been paying her for three months worth of work!).

Here, at this second moment, seven weeks after things looked so dire, Peter admits he senses the turning of the tide but does not understand it. He has some ideas about how they survived, but living and working at that moment and planning for his immediate next steps he cannot stop to fully explore how it happened. Nineteen and a half years later, we can.

How did things go from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic)?

Monday, July 9, 2012

So What?


The storyteller spreads his lies. Or truths. Or both.
Most stories lie to us. They tell us what we want to believe, not what's really so. They teach us false ideas about reality, about success, and then we go into business and expect it to work that way. No wonder 90% of new businesses fail; their founders and staff think they're living in a fantasy world.

For example, running a game company is not at all like playing a game, yet most who dream of founding one think it will be. Even if we manage to overcome that most common delusion, it's still nothing like we imagine. Truth is stranger than fiction; it must be experienced before it can be understood.

What if people who had gone through the experience of having their fantasies about starting a game company shattered and replaced by reality, people who had survived the experience, who went on to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, what if they could be the ones to tell you a story about what it's like? Would the people who heard that story be more likely to beat those odds and succeed?

That's what this blog and the book that will follow are exploring. We're going to try to tell a story about a game business, a story that lies less than most. Maybe what the founders of Wizards learned the hard way, you can learn the easy way, from a story. Probably not, but it'll be fun to try, don't you think?

And even if the experiment fails and all your businesses fail, it's still a fun story about a bunch of wacky people defying the odds and winning. And win or lose, you can still have fun. There are worse ways to pass the time until you die.*

So that's what.

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* "Helping you pass the time until you die" was proposed as a possible mission statement for Wizards of the Coast, at the meeting** held one night in Peter and Cathy's living room. We sat in a circle and tried to figure out what Wizards was about. Jesper, force of chaos that he always was, suggested it.*** Everyone in the room laughed appreciatively but dismissively, then kind of got quiet and thought about it, then laughed uncomfortably and moved on. At that moment, Jesper's darkly humorous phrase became the never-before-officially-admitted unofficial mission statement of Wizards of the Coast, at least in the minds of all those present that night.

** That's one of three or four meetings that I will eventually be describing in detail, because of how much it revealed about Wizards of the Coast and its founders. Along with the one where we realized we didn't know how to make decisions involving more than one person. It's surprising the things you think you know when you go into business that it turns out you really don't know. Embarrassing things, things the founders of most companies would never tell you later, even though those things sometimes have the most to teach us about what it's like.

*** Actually, he had suggested it before with equal almost-success. Remind me later to do a post about Lisa Stevens's clip-art and advertising taglines, so we can discuss why "Helping you pass the time until you die" barely did not get published as ad copy, but "Well, it's better than broccoli" did.

A Few Words from Our Author . . .

Historical mischief-maker and wife.
First of all, I want to thank all of you who expressed an interest in this project. It's nice to know someone else is interested in this history.

Also, second, thank you for your patience during this long period of waiting, during which I was focusing on helping to get my little VISTA nonprofit through its next growth spurt. We're very close to done with that growth spurt (almost back in the black after bringing on new staff - whew!), which is fortunate because my brain is about saturated with it from working long hours for so many months in a row (despite two most excellent vacations during that time). As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote two and a half millennia ago, "It is weariness to keep toiling at the same things so that one becomes ruled by them" (Heraclitus, translation and commentary by Phillip Wheelwright, Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 83).

So, third, to help rekindle my brain I'm resuming my Wizards history project this week. While eating Camarones a la Mojo de Ajo at a small table in Peso's restaurant before last night's Seattle Storm game, I sketched out for Beverly what I think the next section of the history is about, how to approach the material, and some remedial work I need to do in flashbacks to flesh out section one and the prehistory (which I barely touched on in section one). In her usual good-natured editorial fashion, she helped me polish the approach up a bit, so now I'm ready to resume writing.

Here we go. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Interlude: Commitment

There are great men in the world - I've met some of them - but caught like everyone else in the vast Titanic millwheels of our world-spanning culture they can do nothing alone. One person's intense, passionate commitment is necessary but not sufficient to change the world.

It took a community to keep Wizards of the Coast alive through the bleak winter of 1992-3. Friends, family, fans, and colleagues pooled their resources to keep this tiny venture going through the worst crisis it ever experienced. This crisis wasn't resolved with the creation of Magic: The Gathering. Late in 1993, many months after Magic had already become the phenomenal commercial success it's now seen as, Wizards itself and its staff and contractors were still suffering financially for reasons we'll discuss in the coming year. Friends, family, fans, and colleagues continued to keep Wizards alive, helping it cross the chasm from creating a great game to creating a sustainable company.

We'll explore how Wizards survived the lawsuit, how such a tiny, cash-strapped company managed to create and bankroll the hit of the decade, and what they hoped for at the time - why they did the things they did. We'll see some of the crude, xeroxed cards that predated the final, fantastic graphic design, explore the essential but ill-examined role of Cornish College of the Arts in Magic's success, and follow the Magic road show as the Wizards team toured small game shops and conventions introducing people to their little labor of love, building their fan base one person at a time. Along the way, we'll flash back to the earlier years and fill in some of the story that I skimmed so blithely past in my July posts, including the vital role of the Internet in Wizards's survival. We'll see pictures of items from Wizards's history never before shown, and we'll read contemporary accounts of small, quiet, little-known events that set in motion the big splashy results that made the papers. We'll peek inside an early staff meeting that would not end, in which Wizards began wrestling with the sometimes intractable problem of how to get a group of passionate people with different ideas to agree on a single decision. As Lisa Stevens said in that meeting, "But what if in the end you can't agree? Who gets to make the decision when the process falls apart?" We'll start working on the problem of bringing these people to life for you, so you better understand who did these things and why.

But what we'll come back to over and over is the role of commitment, how very much commitment it takes to do something like this, not just the intense commitment of one or two or a dozen people but also the vast, persistent commitment of an entire community to back their plays and hold them up when they would otherwise fall down. Peter used to laugh when people praised him for this thing "he was doing," because he knew how very many people it took to do it. The search for simple answers, sound bites, and sufficiently scanty column inches strips the truth from our understanding of the world, leaves us believing in caricatures instead of characters, truthiness instead of truth; let's rip those veils aside and see who the Wizards really were.

But before we continue this journey, let's be honest with one another.

This project is not my top priority. I have many commitments ahead of it - to principles, to people, and to the same professional quest that in the 1990s led me to repeatedly turn down Peter's offers to come join his so very happily lost boys and girls. I am committed to those higher priorities in my life, and I will put them ahead of this history project whenever I am forced to choose, but I will often not be forced to choose. Because I have no children, I have room in my life for more than the usual number of commitments. This is one of them. It will not get lost in the shuffle, though it may come and go like a recurring haunting.

I live a life of tides, and if you join me on this journey you will too. Sometimes I will post every day for weeks on end when the demands of higher priorities on my time ebb, sometimes silent months will pass by when they flow. But I will always be thinking about this project, talking to Wizards folks about what it was like back in the day, looking for the time to post, searching for the thread of the narrative.

This project matters to me for reasons that may be clear to you by the time you read the book at the end of this road. I'm committed to it, even during these quiet times. During the winters of this blog I'm putting down roots to prepare for the riotous blossoms of its springs.

Here it comes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Thirteen

Whether they realize it or not, businesses plan in layers. When times get rough, when the pressure's on, we can give up our shallow plans readily enough, but we're reluctant to surrender more deeply laid plans. If things go badly enough for long enough, our layers of plans are stripped away from us.

Eventually we come to the bottom of our conscious planning and are left with what we think is our foundational desire for our company. That one we do not give up lightly. That one, if we surrender it, we do so with despair, ready to give everything up. But it's only the conscious foundation of our company; it's not our real deal breaker. This "last" plan contains too many optional components to which we are emotionally attached, so though we would never dream it at the time, when the "worst" comes to pass we discover to our surprise after a period of grieving that this too we can give up, because there was a deeper unconscious bottom line that can keep us going so long as we do not have to surrender it. It's only when we must give up what we thought was our bottom line that we discover our real bottom line, what we really care about.

This is the point of the ancient Greek admonition Gnothi Seauton - know thyself: that we think we know ourselves but we are wrong. It is not until we are fully tested under the right kind of pressure that we begin to discover how many of our attachments are inessential, that we begin to discover what our true bottom line is.

In December 1992, Peter did not want to move backward. After the long, hard struggle to put together a great team, create a steady stream of products, and approach break-even, he did not want to give that up again. He wanted to move only forward, but the lawsuit gave him no choice. He had to surrender and grieve.

But he found when his back was against the "wall" that it wasn't really a wall, that he could step further backward with his team and they could still survive and still keep working (albeit more slowly) on keeping Wizards of the Coast going. They did not know their future anymore, the lawsuit might eventually do them in for good, but at that moment they could keep going, could keep making plans and searching for ways to make things better.

They discovered that they did not have to surrender when they thought they would, that they could reposition themselves and keep trying, remaining open to opportunities.

A wise businessman once told me that the most important secret to succeeding in business is just to survive long enough, because opportunities cannot be precisely predicted. You may go through very long droughts that seem endlessly dire, but sooner or later opportunities do come along, and when they do they go to the company that found a way to keep going and to remain open to the unpredictable possibilities that lay ahead. The commitment to survive - avoiding despair, avoiding gambling with your future - is the key to survival.

During the 1992-1993 drought at Wizards of the Coast, everyone found other sources of income to keep them going while they slowly pushed the company forward through its difficulties.

Peter Adkison continued to work at Boeing full time, as he had since the beginning of Wizards.

Lisa Stevens edited Volo's Guide to the North (AD&D 2nd Edition, Forgotten Realms, TSR).

Beverly Marshall Saling edited Werewolf: Drums around the Fire (White Wolf) and White Wolf Magazine Issue 37 (White Wolf) and proofed a book for the University of Alaska, but she was largely able to focus on Wizards full time or near full time thanks to my job at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jesper Myrfors contributed art to Vampire The Masquerade Second Edition: Players Guide (White Wolf), Vampire: The Anarch Cookbook (White Wolf), Vampire: Chicago by Night (White Wolf), and Sentinels (Role Aids, Mayfair Games).

Jay Hays worked at a club.

Cathleen Adkison, Lisa and George Lowe, Ken McGlothlen, Rich Kaalaas, Dave Howell, Mike Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and the many other people who had not been working full time recently for Wizards continued to rely on their other jobs to pay the bills. These other jobs, these other gaming products, and friends and family kept Wizards alive through this dark time.

Peter's 1993 narrative about this (in which I make my own oblique appearance in his narrative):
But a couple of weeks ago for some reason things started picking up. I'm not sure why, but partly it's because we realized that we can actually move forward and continue publishing products with all of us working on a part-time basis. Probably because we've gotten pretty proficient at our respective tasks here. Jesper's living at home and said he could go without pay indefinitely, particularly since his involvement here at WotC has gotten him some free-lance contracts for other companies (an upcoming White Wolf book is being entirely illustrated by him, and I hear they liked it well enough that he's going to be doing another one). I'd been working full time here and at Boeing (I've averaged over eighty hours of work a week for the last two years) and didn't need WotC income, Jay said he could work part time for WotC and full time elsewhere and manage Design & Development from home through e-mail if he could take home one of the computers, Beverly said she could probably get by with her husband's full-time job if she could pick up some free-lance editing, and Lisa's working part-time freelancing too (she just edited a book for TSR, for more money than I'd been paying her for three months worth of work!).
Postscript: Looking at that list of editing and illustration side projects, once again you can see Lisa Stevens contributing crucially in the clutch to keep Wizards alive. Her experience, rolodex, relationships, and networking savvy continued to make the difference in the survival and development of Wizards.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Interlude: Work and Research

Fear not. My series on the history of Wizards will resume in a couple weeks.

This coming weekend is the annual meeting of the board of directors of my nonprofit, so I've been focusing for the last several weeks on preparations for it and on associated support work.

During this time, however, I've also been continuing with my research, including interviews with Carol Monahan and John Miller and digging through Beverly's Daytimer archives for 1993 and 1994 to help pin down events and dates. After the board meeting I'll start scheduling a series of interviews with various Wizards founders and early alumni, so we'll have plenty of eyewitnesses to history helping to develop the story of how it all came about.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Who Will Speak for the Dead?

Paul Randles, 1965-2003
When I began this project, I wanted to include the words, stories, pictures, and perspectives of the people of Wizards of the Coast themselves. That would help the reader break free of my perspective and observations, break free of my voice and diction to let the people speak for themselves. It will take some time to put together all the interviews and collect all the writings to make this possible, but it's part of why I jumped into my first series by writing around Peter's 1993 narrative; it gave me a way to start immediately practicing what I want to do in the book itself.

When I began this project, I also knew to do this I would have to give special consideration to the dead, to those who were just as alive, just as real, just as much a part of Wizards as those still living but whose mute lips no longer give voice to their memories, whose still fingers cannot write their stories, whose candles no longer light our way. The dead are so quiet now, it is easy to forget that they are there, that they have stories to tell, that their lives and perspectives still matter, despite the difficulties we now face in learning and sharing them. Of the many people whose tales I must become custodian to, must help shepherd into this community's shared story, I have known from the beginning that these are the people I must help the most, must not forget, must bring to life on the page so that in today's pretense of an eternal present at least in this one story we will remember our silent friends, their words, their deeds.

They deserve special consideration because that's the only way to compensate for their silence now, the only way to give them their fair share of our attention now that they cannot speak for themselves. The past is just as real as the present; what they did then is just as vital and complex and interesting as what we do now. They cared as much as we care, thought as much as we think, worked as hard as we work, loved as much as we love. The past in which they still live and breathe is the larger story of which our lives at this moment are just a tiny part, and their present is our future.

Judy Sorenson, 1954-2011
Because we all walk the same road they have traveled before us. We will all pass through that mortal veil they have stepped through.

Blind Homer wrote that we are ephemeroi, creatures of a season, very like the leaves on a tree. We are all born. We all live. We all die. We are one people, quick or dead. We are bound together not just by the ways we touch each other's lives but also by our shared story, our one human, mortal frame within which we work the art of our lives. We are defined not by the nobility of our births or the ease of our deaths, but by the good we do with the time we have, by the art and justice and love we create and share. That is our legacy to the future. That is how we show our gratitude and respect for the past. That is the debt the quick owe the dead.

When I began this project, I knew we would have to work together to speak for Papa Christmas, to write for Judy Sorenson, to remember the others who should not be forgotten.

That much I knew, but I never dreamed that Bobby would be among them. Now he has left us to join them, so we must speak and act for him, too, so that his art and justice and love live on, so the part he played in helping Wizards of the Coast become what it was and helping us become who we are is remembered.

Ars longa, vita brevis, Bobby. Your candle is dark now, your fingers still, your lips silent, but our candles will illuminate you, our fingers will write your stories, our lips will give voice to your memories. The good you would have done, now we will do. We will laugh for you now, dear friend.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Robert McSwain, Junior, 9 September 1955 - 22 July 2011, Rest in Peace

Mr. Bob, rest in peace
I just found out this morning that our dear friend Bob McSwain, Jr. (known to many in Walla Walla and at Wizards of the Coast as Mr. Bob) died from cardiac arrest on Friday afternoon at 3:25 pm. It had been a difficult time for Bob recently. He contracted a flesh-eating disease in May and had to have a foot amputated on May 8th, and then his father passed away on June 22nd.

He is survived by his sister Peggy Stimach, his son Robert McSwain III and daughter Sandra Mejorado. Peggy is planning a memorial and will let us all know the details when she has them figured out. As soon as I know more about the memorial I'll post them, including where flowers or donations can be made.

I know many of you loved Mr. Bob and will share our grief at this sad news.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Memorandum

Peter Adkison, 29 March 2011
Most startups go through a period that feels like the turning of a vice. We start with excitement and hope and begin to carry out our plans, and fairly quickly we begin to run into the tasks we need to resolve to get where we want to go. We begin to run into obstacles we cannot solve and must instead go around; our goals begin to shift as we search for ways to continue in the general direction we had in mind. Along the way we pick up burdens we have to carry, worries, debts, and responsibilities; just when we get used to carrying the load, we are surprised and disappointed to discover we must carry yet more.

At some point, we find ourselves lost in our work, turned all about from changing directions so many times, and staggering under the load we have to carry. There comes a point when yet one more task or obstacle or burden becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. We lose our composure and begin to wonder whether we're being punished somehow.

Those of you who have never tried to start a company may think I'm exaggerating, but go ask your friends who have. Every entrepreneur knows about the long, dark night of the soul. Every classic story structure runs through this arc, because it is the arc of all our stories, the arc of life. One way or another, anyone who decides to become an actor in their own lives, who strives to change the world or their lives in some way, knows this moment.

Here is what Peter wrote on Thursday, 3 December 1992 when he faced his moment. He feared his team's disappointment when he sent it, but he stepped up to the plate, described their situation, responsibilities, and options, and helped them to see that there was still hope left, were still ways forward for their little company if only they could keep the faith.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
MEMORANDUM
Wizards of the Coast, Incorporated
------------------------------------------------------------------------

   Date:  December 3rd, 1992

   Memo:  PDA145
 
   From:  Peter D. Adkison
 
   To:    Cathleen Adkison
          Tom Des Brisay
          Jay Hays
          John W. Jordan
          Lisa Lowe
          Jesper Myrfors
          Beverly Marshall Saling
          Lisa Stevens
        
   CC:    Michael Cook
          Ken McGlothlen
        
   RE:    The severity of our financial situation

The financial situation with Wizards of the Coast has continued to deteriorate over the last few weeks. The stock solicitation is proceeding too slowly and my hopes are declining with every passing rejection. I think the company has to face the fact that we may have failed to jump immediately to that top tier in the roleplaying industry that we were hoping for.

The purpose of this memo is not to announce a major scaling back at this time, but to warn you that this eventuality may be imminent. Two days ago we went through our end-of-the-month bills and payroll and it happened to coincide with a threat about overdue taxes. It was pointed out to me by our friends in the government that if I didn't pay some of our taxes I could go to jail. Needless to say, we paid some taxes and that contributed, along with consignment fees to Steve Sechi, a payment to our attorney, and some other things, to our not making payroll.

Furthermore, unless we receive a tremendous amount of money, I'm not going to make payroll until after I return from the Palladium lawsuit preliminary hearing on the 14th of this month. At that time our employees will be due two payroll checks and I can't guarantee we'll be able to make those.

When I return from that hearing we will have to make a serious decision on how we can proceed from there. If we do not win the summary judgement then we'll be looking at a very expensive court case. And before we can even continue with the case we'll have to settle up our current outstanding balance, which I believe is on the order of $8,000 or so. Worse, because this balance has been delinquent so long, we may even have to pay a retainer on top of that. The bottom line is that I've got to posture the company to where we can pay them a sizeable sum in a couple weeks, and since we currently have a negative banking account balance (I'm hoping that some of the overseas deposits which I have no way of knowing about are covering this) this means the company basically won't be writing any checks over the next couple weeks. I think I can scrape together $100 for Beverly, Jay, and Lisa Stevens, but that's it until after the court hearing.

If everything goes well we'll win the summary judgement and we'll get ten or fifteen grand in investments by the 15th. But if we get less than that, or if we don't win the court hearing, than I think the company will have to go to a major fallback position. This would probably consist of a scenario composed of some steps along the following lines:
  • No cash salaries. This would mean we'd probably lose most of our current staff. The only work we'd be able to pay cash for would be contract work, on a by-project basis, and only for services that we couldn't find someone to do for stock.
  • Most of our cash would go first to keeping a bare-bones office open.
  • We would probably concentrate on paying off debts that various of us have personally co-signed, like the Luc Schepens loan, the line of credit, etc. The purpose of this is to try and minimize the hurt to us personally should the company go bankrupt.
  • The toll-free number might have to go and subcontractors might have to pay for their own calls; perhaps this would go even further toward encouraging people to use e-mail.
  • I'd look for a way of running the company in some sort of family or communal setting. Perhaps move into an apartment and run the office out of there with off-site warehousing and maybe talk to Jesper about having a satellite production office based out of his studio. Obviously this is an option only to the extent of my wife's tolerance level, which is already stretched to the point where I'm hesitant to stretch it any further, so I'm not sure where this option would lead.
Just so you know what the options are, if this scaleback didn't do the trick the last-resort options might be some things along these lines:
  • Look into what some of the bankruptcy-protection options are, where the company keeps going and is simply organized and protected by the court.
  • Look into merging with another company.
  • Look into a cooperative venture with another company, where we'd basically turn into a development house. This way I could perhaps devote my energy to writing only and slowly write books and pay off WotC's debts that way.
If things go sour you can rest assured that I won't be doing any fingerpointing. As president and acting financial officer I will assume responsibility for the situation and it will be my duty to explain the situation to the shareholders.

Please put up with my temper people. I've never been this stressed out in my life. I apologize for being this way, but the pressure is like nothing I've ever imagined and I don't always cope as well as I should.

But we're not dead yet, so in the meantime let's put on the best face we can and continue to give this our best shot. Many many times great success stories come on the verge of what seemed like a great tragedy. Our opportunities are still there; a couple of good breaks and we could be in great shape in no time. So let's remember our responsibility to our shareholders and do our best - we can do no less.

                                Peter D. Adkison
                                President, Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Twelve

Steffan O'Sullivan, who saw trouble brewing
In June 1992, after Wizards had released The Primal Order and The Talislanta Guidebook, with more products underway and things looking hopeful, a long-brewing crisis came to a boil.

It was set in motion on 17 November 1991, when Peter posted on the Usenet group rec.games.frp at 4:18 a.m. looking for RPG systems experts. Four hours later, Steffan O'Sullivan warned him in his reply:
If this project involves publishing, you'd better get publishers' permissions, first . . .
A day later, Peter responded:
I will be following the procedures outlined for me by my intellectual properties attorney.
Experts from all over the Internet contacted Wizards and contributed their conversion notes to The Primal Order to create the first Capsystem product. TPO hit the stores five months later in April 1992, and two months later in June Kevin Siembieda launched the lawsuit that nearly destroyed the fledgling company. The long, difficult road to their very first product release led Wizards of the Coast directly into legal trouble.

The Wizards staff had wanted to create a stronger RPG community by developing ways for people using different RPG rule systems to play together. The Capsystem line of products was created with that in mind, as was the Envoy system (though that was never published nor even written down beyond the notes stage). The marriage of the d20 system and the Open Gaming License many years later was a return to that goal.

The lawsuit's claims to the contrary, what got Wizards into trouble was not actually the system-integration notes themselves. Under U.S. copyright law, only the text - not the ideas - are copyrightable, so expressing those ideas in your own words does not count as a violation of copyright. Had Mr. Siembieda patented Palladium's rules, then Wizards would have been in the wrong, but he did not. Wizards's intellectual-properties attorney was correct, and Wizards correctly followed the procedures he outlines.

The actual problem came in two parts, which the many very smart and creative but idealistic people out there should pay attention to if they want to learn from history.

Kevin Siembieda, Palladium founder
The first part is that under trademark law, a company that does not vigorously defend its trademark can be accused of abandoning it, at which point they lose their trademark and it's up for grabs. That is, the law itself drives companies into aggressive attacks upon anyone who infringes upon their trademarks. If you have heard the saying about the Disney company Don't mess with the mouse, this is why; if Disney did not defend their trademarks, they would be considered abandoned. Even if a company will lose a court case, it also benefits by demonstrating that it cares about its trademarks.

Now simply naming a company or referring to its trademarks is not a violation of trademark law - on the contrary, the whole point of trademarks is the hope that the public will refer to them frequently. Trademark violations occur when you misrepresent your own work as falling under that trademark, or vice versa if you use the trademark in such a way that it seems to belong to you rather than its proper owners. These kinds of dilutions of the brand are the kinds of damage trademark cases are built around. Since Wizards in no way tried to represent its work as part of Palladium, nor presented Palladium Books's trademarks as though they belonged to Wizards, it did not even come close to violating trademark.

Nevertheless, for the reasons described above (as well as other less noble motives that do not apply in this case), companies are often ready to launch trademark-violation lawsuits even when they are clearly in the wrong. We live in a severely suspicious and litigious culture, in which people try to resolve with court cases what past cultures resolved through etiquette. Because of trademark law, this unpleasant quality is multiplied in the case of companies who want to survive for long.

The lesson of the first part is this: just because you're in the right legally does not mean you will not be dragged into court. As children we sometimes learn to become so focused on what's "fair" or "right" that later as adults we can lose track of what's prudent. Just because you can do something does not mean you should, or that you will not be attacked for it.

The second part is that the guarantee of swift justice - that is, of efficient determination of whether someone is guilty or innocent - has long ago devolved into a labyrinthine system of laws and procedures so Byzantine that more than a few defendants have died before being exonerated in court. The American legal system has become so complex that it has itself become the punishment.

The punishment now precedes the determination of any crime. Merely to be dragged into an extended legal process is often all it takes to punish someone financially with large debts for the rest of their life or even bankruptcy. The threat of court is often enough to make innocent people subject themselves to punitive settlements in an effort to avoid it.

Those with the money to spend on lawsuits know how to use the court system to get what they want out of the innocent. Although this was not Mr. Siembieda's motivation (Palladium Books had more money than Wizards, but not enough to squander on harassment lawsuits), the consequences were the same - both Palladium and Wizards suffered.

Publisher of numerous RPGs, including Rifts
The lesson of the second part is this: you are one lawsuit away from having your life turned upside down. Do not be in a hurry to prove your innocence in a court of law. Unless you have good legal counsel and a wise judge and are lucky, you're gambling with your future. You will certainly pay a much higher price than you expect to in time, money, and stress just to return to the status quo - if you can; today's overburdened courts are fallible. You may be held guilty of something of which you are innocent. DNA evidence in recent years had turned up plenty of convicted "murderers" who we now know cannot possibly have commited the crimes for which they have been punished. Avoid the court system if you possibly can.

Wizards couldn't. They had relied upon doing the right thing, upon following the law and trusting that it would back what they did. This approach was central to the strategy of the Capsystem product line, which in turn was central to their strategy of carving out their niche in the RPG world by doing things differently than anyone else had done them, by finding ways to grow the pie rather than fighting over it. Concerned about his trademark and copyright, Kevin Simebieda could settle for nothing less than an admission of guilt, but an admission of guilt would set a precedent and open Wizards up to lawsuits from all the other companies they integrated with in TPO.

They couldn't back down, and as things stood they couldn't settle either, so during the second half of 1992 their pride and hope in their growing line of RPG products was increasingly undercut by mounting legal costs and dread about the future. Just as they seemed poised to become financially sustainable, they became financially pressured again. The train had left the tracks and seemed headed unstoppably toward a court battle that would economically destroy them.

Peter's 1993 narrative about this time:
But just after the Guidebook came out, on June 17th, 1992, we were dealt a devastating blow (although it took several months before the full impact really started to hit). We were jointly sued by Palladium Books and Kevin Siembieda for copyright and trademark infringement due to the TPO integration notes. The further and further we got into 1992 the more time and resources this started to consume, and a cloud started settling over our office that sapped our energy and caused us to start doubting the future of the company. This last November and December were low points, culminating with the fact that the case wasn't thrown out of court on the 14th of December as we'd hoped it would be at the summary judgement hearing we had that day. We had started a stock solicitation in November, but it was proceeding slowly, and on December 28th, during our Christmas holiday, I told our staff that the payroll checks I was writing would be their last, probably for several months.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Off Sick Today

My stomach insists I take today off, so no post today, alas.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Eleven

Talislanta Geographica
What if?

Uncounted alternate histories have been written, launched from those two words.

Wizards of the Coast in 1992 begs us to play the What If? game. It was the year where the first generation's dream of forming a successful RPG company almost came true.

For about eight months in 1992, from April 1st when the boxes filled with The Primal Order arrived from the printers until December 28th when Wizards distributed their last paychecks for a while, it was an RPG company inching ever closer to success. Had other factors not intervened, Wizards would have been in the black before the end of the year.

The Scent of the Beast
Before April 1st, they were trying to be an RPG company, but until you release your first product you're not really there yet. After December 28th, they were too financially disrupted and in some ways reverted to their pre-April 1st condition (though wiser and more professional) of having difficulty keeping up a full production pace of publications, and they soon became too distracted by unexpected success to keep their focus on RPGs.

Anyone who decides to become an entrepreneur and start up a company is in for a lot of stress and unpleasant surprises on the way to success or failure. Companies start in the red and continue to bleed money rapidly long before they ever produce any income. Keeping up with the new business's urgent hunger for funds to keep it operating keeps the executive and often many of the staff distracted from being able to fully attend to the actual business of the company, because if you look away from the problem of raising funds for too long you're out of business before you realize what happened. During that period of distraction, most organizations make embarrassing mistakes because of the lack of executive oversight. If you've never tried to start a business you may be surprised that the statistic that 90% of new businesses fail in their first year of operations is so high, but if you have tried then the surprise is that the failure rate is so low. It's tough work.

Pawns, The Opening Move
From October 16th, 1989 until early 1992, Wizards began as many organizations do, holding down its pace of spending by relying heavily on part-time and volunteer labor. This is not a bad way to begin an organization, since it limits the pace at which you bleed money and gives you time to figure out how to get organized. An underappreciated factor here is that you're going to make a lot of mistakes, and it helps to do so when you don't have much money to lose doing it; mistakes become more and more expensive as an organization grows, which is partly why so many large organizations become so conservative and bureaucratic (which, yes, is also a mistake). Unfortunately, this strategy also holds back the pace at which you can produce, which in turn holds back the pace at which you can develop an income stream to offset your costs, which extends the time you will remain in the red. It's a difficult chicken-and-egg problem that is usually resolved only through loans and investment to pour in enough money to get the company on its feet (or more typically through bankruptcy).

The Archaen Codex
By early 1992, though, Wizards had increased its rate of production by shifting the balance of the core staff more and more toward full time.

Later, when we go back and cover the early history in detail, I'll get firmer dates for the 1992 releases (I'm sure some of these are wrong), but here are my guesses so far based on studying ads, the books themselves, and Internet sites:

April 1st: The Primal Order
May: The Talislanta Guidebook
June: Talislanta Geographica
August: The Scent of the Beast
September?: The Primal Order: Pawns, The Opening Move
October: The Archaen Codex
October: Tales of Talislanta
November: The Compleat Alchemist

Tales of Talislanta
When you factor in the back stock of Bard Games products they acquired as part of the Talislanta deal with Stephan Michael Sechi, that gave Wizards a respectable product catalog by the end of 1992. When you factor in the many RPG products they had planned and in production by the fall of 1992, 1993 looked to be an even better year. The Wizards team were not yet in TSR's league when it came to the experience of their production team, nor in sales figures, but by hook or by crook they were turning out well designed, well produced products and were getting better and more successful as they went.

Likewise, although the year began with their in-house organizational systems still being cobbled together - in January they were just beginning to shift from individual assignments to the concept of formal teams, and in March George Lowe was going back and entering their basic financial data from the previous year to try to get it all recorded in one place - by the end of the year their organization although simple was coherent and productive.

The Compleat Alchemist
So the game of What If? here is a bit of a cheat. Anyone with access to the before-and-afters can see that all else being equal Wizards of the Coast would have probably been successful for at least the next year, which would have been long enough to fully get their feet under them. If they kept up the standards they'd set for themselves and kept learning lessons and making organizational and process improvements, they would have been on a long shallow curve of slow growth that would probably have been much healthier for them as an organization in the long term than the crisis followed by explosive success and growth they were subjected to instead.

That would have been more in accord with their dream for their company than what actually happened next. Until their train went off the tracks, their dream seemed to be coming gradually true. As Peter wrote in 1993:
After the Guidebook, Geographica, Tales, Pawns, and the Codex seemed to just fly out the door. Once we had Jesper, we had an incredible team and we started to really get into synch.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Intermission

I hope you've enjoyed our history so far. It has been a blast researching and writing it, and there's a lot more to come.

The Wizards gang are starting to feed me stories and information. Last week Beverly and I had dinner with Peter and Dee, where we traded Wizards stories you'll eventually be hearing, including the wise janitor, the mystery employee, and the attack cat; on Facebook Ken has been walking me through the very early Wizards history from 1989 to 1990; last night I walked Green Lake with Beverly and Dave and tonight with Beverly and Jenny Scott Tynes, and they shared some of their stories and memories with us; Lisa Lowe is hoping to get together with some of us soon to discuss the pre-history of Wizards, going all the way back to Walla Walla, including the May 23rd, 1990 brainstorming session that helped kick things off; and so on. This is becoming the community storytelling I hoped it would become.

I'm building a master spreadsheet correlating events in Wizards's history with the people who were involved so I know who to ask for more information. People are beginning to dig through their own archives for material, and some of them have agreed to begin writing down what they remember about how they joined and why. We're making lists of stories that definitely need to be included, some funny, some sad. I think you're going to enjoy it; it's certainly going to be a lot of fun to write.

I'm taking tonight off to be sure I get a full night's sleep, but our history of Wizards of the Coast will continue tomorrow with the brighter side of 1992.

Meanwhile, as an apology for not posting tonight, here is a gratuitously cute photo of our cats Rashid and Surya from when they were still kittens back in August 2006.

Rashid sleeps on Surya, 8 August 2006

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Ten

Jonathan Tweet, Mr. Creativity
For seven years as a child I studied Shorin Ryu Karate under my sensei Jerry Gould. Shorin Ryu is a very traditional style of karate, one of the original three styles developed in Okinawa. "Shorin" was more or less the Okinawan pronunciation of "Shaolin," of Kung Fu fame; the school was started by students who studied kung fu under Shaolin monks and then adapted it to the Okinawan culture's approach to fighting. The karate schools with the deepest roots tend to be the most hardline about discipline and struggle, the least softened for Western sensibilities. With that in mind, it may be less surprising to you than it was to me at the time that the very first kata the beginning Shorin Ryu student faces is the longest and most difficult, Seisan. The idea behind this is three-fold: to give the beginning student a long choreography in which to become immersed, the better to absorb the spirit of the art; to teach the student that the art is always hard work; and to weed out those ill-suited to the art.

Shorin Ryu is designed this way on purpose. Wizards of the Coast designed their own learning curve this way by accident.

The Primal Order is 231 pages (not counting front and back matter) at 8 1/2 by 11 inches of all new material, on a subject with less than the usual amount of precedent in the RPG industry to draw from, using a systematic approach hardly every tried. A hundred people are credited with contributing to its creation, including eight primary authors (Peter Adkison, Cathleen Adkison, Steve Conard, Dave Howell, Cliff "CJ" Jones, Kenneth W. McGlothlen, Beverly Marshall Saling, and W.R. Woodall). From conception to publication, it took two years to complete. This one really did take a village.

The Talislanta Guidebook is 327 pages (not counting front and back matter) at 8 1/2 by 11 inches. It is based on a prior edition and a complete initial manuscript, so in theory that should have more than compensated for the greater length. The difficulties Peter alludes to below were three-fold:

1) Although Stephan Michael Sechi was a published gaming professional and produced better first drafts than the original Wizards team could, they still were not up to Wizards's new standards and required a lot of editing and rewriting to make them sing. Although this was going to be easier than The Primal Order first draft, it might be on a par with getting from the third draft to the fourth, which was quite difficult.

2) Wizards had no idea that the text would require that much work, so they started out planning just a new chapter and some light editing, but then kept having to incrementally expand the scope of the project further and further. Peter had queried the online community about Talislanta and gotten feedback that although very creative and original it was complex enough to be difficult for beginners to know where to start. Jonathan Tweet was originally brought on because he did such a good job with the introductory module for Ars Magica that Wizards wanted him to solve this problem by having him do the same thing for Talislanta. The timelines for the project were built around just that, plus time for editing. Once Jonathan got into the manuscript, though, he realized the section on magic simply had to be rewritten. About the time Wizards began to accept that it had to shift the timelines to make time for that, Jonathan realized that really the entire text needed to be reworked to better present Mr. Sechi's ideas, so the timelines had to be changed again. The Wizards crew, who had been just about driven into post-traumatic stress disorder through this kind of repeated schedule shift with The Primal Order, began to experience flashbacks. In the end it only required one round of rewrites, not three, since Mr. Sechi's original manuscript was in better shape, but it did make the Wizards crew increasingly nervous for a while.

3) Mr. Sechi used language in very idiosyncratic ways and was very particular about what could or could not be changed, making editing and rewriting into a complex and time-consuming negotiation process. One example I remember is that he uses the word "mordant" as an adjective meaning "deathly" or "deadly," whereas the usual English definition is a noun that means a substance applied to cloth to make dyes stick to it so it doesn't fade when it's washed. Mr. Sechi had many such examples of idiosyncratic diction that needed to be preserved mixed in with genuine errors that needed to be changed, so editing required a continual back-and-forth dialog. In the end, though, Jonathan and Beverly found the right balance for the text, correcting mistakes and reorganizing confusing explanations while preserving Talislanta's unique feel and Mr. Sechi's distinctive use of language.

When Peter regrets not having done a better job with the Guidebook, he's compressing too much to be fully understood. What he means is this. If Wizards of the Coast had been inventing a world from scratch, this is not the world they would have invented, nor is it explained the way they would have explained it. However, this was not a case of original invention (Peter felt that with great RPG worlds like Talislanta out there, the community did not need another one from Wizards); it was a case of something even more intimate than an adaptation: a seamlessly authentic update. In working on Talislanta, Wizards could clean up the organization and language to a certain point, but beyond that any further changes would have been too invasive, would have crossed the line from helping Mr. Sechi's creation shine through to fundamentally altering it, which that was not their mission. Their job was to midwife Mr. Sechi's baby, which they did to the best of their ability.

Lisa Stevens was right. Talislanta did give Wizards a clear path into the future.

It was the beginning of a creative relationship with game designer Jonathan Tweet, who would go on to do many great things for Wizards of the Coast, including designing Everway and co-designing Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition.

It was also the beginning of an important partnership between Wizards of the Coast and Stephan Michael Sechi, in which Wizards helped Mr. Sechi raise the production values of his creation and Mr. Sechi gave Wizards the work they needed to survive and to improve their skills and professionalism, to build their reputation with the game industry as a company that cared deeply about doing high-quality work.

Having proven themselves on The Primal Order and The Talislanta Guidebook, two tough back-to-back projects, Wizards looked forward to calmer waters ahead.

Pater's comments from 1993:
After the release of TPO things bogged for a month or two until we got The Talislanta Guidebook out the door--another huge tome that consumed massive amounts of internal resources to get done "right." I have to admit that I'm not sure we did as good a job as we could have, although it's heads above the earlier editions (don't mean to slam Bard Games, but with Jonathan Tweet's coauthoring and Beverly's editing, it really turned out very nice).