Saturday, July 16, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Eight

Jay Hays, who deserves higher-resolution
Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. -- Thomas Edison, spoken statement (c. 1903); published in Harper's Monthly (September 1932).

The same is true of running a company. It is a lot of hard work.

Running a game company is almost nothing like gaming. It helps a lot to know gaming - that 1% that applies may not be sufficient, but it is necessary - but other than that it's a completely different kind of activity. Most gamers have no idea how different it is and are drawn to do something they would hate or simply be unable to do if they tried. It defies common sense how different they are. Wizards found that out the hard way, which (other than reading accounts like this one) is just about the only way to find out.

The first generation at Wizards of the Coast largely consisted of Peter's gaming group at the time he and Ken decided to get serious about creating a gaming company. So long as Wizards remained a part-time activity, something people could keep up with during weekends and evenings, the original team remained active. A time came, though, when Wizards had to turn up the heat and push full-time to get their first product to market and make the deals that would lead to their later products.

This put an unbearable pressure upon the original group, since it began to require a full-time effort with inadequate or no compensation (since as yet there was no revenue). None of the first generation could afford to quit their day jobs under such conditions, so most of them had to either drop out entirely or remain on the sidelines, helping when they could and otherwise trying to keep tabs on progress. Most of those who dropped out returned later, when Wizards could afford to hire them after Magic succeeded so spectacularly, but this created a temporary generational turnover at Wizards of the Coast.

The second generation at Wizards of the Coast consisted of three categories of people: (1) the few from the first generation who could afford to work without compensation, plus (2) those new employees and contractors needed to get the work done, plus (3) those who were drawn in by the excitement of the work and volunteered when they could. By mid-1992, the first category mainly included Peter, with a few others we'll discuss in the series ahead who helped out when they had the time. The second included Lisa, Beverly, and Dave. Most of those in the third category were eventually hired as part of the third generation (post-Magic), but two, Jay Hays and Jesper Myrfors, were hired as part of the second generation because Wizards needed their help so badly.

Jesper Myrfors, in high resolution & high spirits
James "Jay" Hays, like me, was a part of the Walla Walla role-playing game community, someone who gamed with Peter for years, but who did not attend the May 23rd, 1990 meeting that launched Wizards of the Coast. Five and a half months later, though, he began spending time at the Wizards office (the basement of Peter and Cathy's house at 23815 43rd Avenue South in Kent, Washington) and found that Wizards really needed his help. From project management to design to logistics to facilities management, Jay became the Jack of all trades who knitted the company together.

Jesper (pronounced "YES pur") Myrfors joined in 1992 during Wizards's push to create and publish new material for Talislanta, after Jay, Lisa, Beverly, and Dave were brought on board. In addition to doing art and design and eventually running production, Jesper built up most of the relationships with the initial group of artists who worked with Wizards of the Coast, many of whom later became famous as the artists of Magic: The Gathering. He had recently graduated from Cornish College of the Arts, and he drew upon his contacts there to create a social network of artists he felt could handle Wizards of the Coast's increasing demand for art and graphic design. Jesper's out-of-the-box thinking and taste for mischief greatly influenced the emerging in-house culture at Wizards of the Coast.

As for Peter, as his staff grew and took on more responsibilities, he was increasingly freed up to focus on the company's financial survival and expansion, which usually took a lot of work but became a severe crisis starting in June 1992.

His 1993 narrative continues:
The last part of 1991 and early 1992 was also consumed by the millions of things that had to be done to get going. Getting UPC codes for our books, UPS drop/stamp, bulk mailing permits, distributor announcements and solicitations, learning how to use a fax machine, securing financing on a copier, getting a laser printer and a couple of Macs, etc., etc., etc--all the little things that had to come together. If we wouldn't have had Lisa who knew how to do all this already, we would really have been flailing.

Of course the biggest hurdle of all was money. Financing has always been the limiting factor for our company's growth; it's very difficult to find people who want to invest in gaming. Well actually, lots of people want to invest in gaming, but most of them are gamers who don't have any money. We were never able to raise our entire stock solicitation, but we were able to get enough of it to get going and we're still paying the consequences of not having been able to raise it all. The biggest day in that sequence was the securing of a $30,000 line of credit, which was enough to guarantee publication of TPO and the Guidebook. The day we secured that LOC is a day I think of as the turning point as to whether all this was really going to be worth it or not. Before that there was always the possibility that we'd have a good product, good people, and a good plan but couldn't move forward because of lack of capitalization. But at that point I knew we were guaranteed of at least being able to make our mark in the gaming industry, that no matter what happened, I'd be able to contribute something to the industry I love so much. No matter what happens now, even if the company goes under because of this Palladium lawsuit [next post --Ed.] and I end up paying back the loans for the next twenty years, I'll always feel that I came out ahead.

Concurrently to everything I've been describing, we had our share of internal problems. Almost everyone who was initially involved with the company ended up moving on, either because they found that they didn't have the time to do the work on top of their "day job," because they didn't have skills we needed, because of personality conflicts, loss of interest, or what have you. I'm happy to say that I'm still close with everyone I've ever worked with. But now, out of the most active players in WotC, I'm the only one who was there at the beginning. Those primary people are Lisa and Beverly, of course, and Jay Hays and Jesper Myrfors. Jay came on board the earliest, along about November of 1990. He immediately dived into things head long, with tremendous ambition, dedication, and energy. He told me that he'd be a corporate officer within six months and on the board of directors within a year--he succeeded in both goals. He's consistently been one of the most hard working and fanatical members of the team, and he has a stock percentage to show for it. Jesper is the most recent arrival. He is an artist who'd always been a fan of Talislanta, asked to do art, and then just started coming down to the office and started hanging out, looking for things to do, volunteering his time. Within a couple months he was running just about all of the production department and we figured we'd better put him on the payroll. He's been a tremendous part of the team ever since.

1 comment:

  1. And by "higher-resolution" I of course mean "higher resolution." No hyphen needed or wanted in Jay's photo's caption.