Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Five

Talislanta, an established RPG product line
To those who complain about the endless succession of splatbooks and modules from game companies, here is a lesson for you, one that Lisa Stevens taught Wizards of the Coast in the summer of 1991: individual RPG products, however excellent they may be, are of limited interest to store owners. For a variety of reasons, they want RPG product lines, with a steady succession of new products to sell that fall under an established brand (or at least they did in the early 1990s; I've been away from the marketplace for a while; maybe this has changed, but I doubt it).

Companies that fail to set and keep steady schedules for releasing new RPG products suffer in the marketplace. If they can win over retailers and distributors at all, their sales usually spike and then fall off, which is not a financial model that can sustain any but the smallest companies.

This is why Lisa advised Wizards to abandon their original plan for a random collection of interesting products and instead choose one - The Primal Order - that was best positioned to launch a series of TPO products, so that distributors and retailers would support the new company. This is also why she pushed Peter to pick up Talislanta, because it already had an established product line (including inventory) and fanbase, which would make it attractive to distributors and retailers, and because it would not be hard to extend that line with new products. Distributors and retailers would see the existing fanbase as lowering the risk of taking on Wizards's Talislanta products, and since they were already familiar with and accepted the Talislanta product line Wizards would not face the uphill battle of convincing them of its viability.

Lisa's reorientation of Wizards toward product lines was important to the survival of the fledgling company. This is the kind of understanding and strategy that separates the 90% of new companies that quickly fail from the few that survive. Many of the truths of the marketplace are counter-intuitive and cannot be arrived at in any way except by hard experience. Young entrepreneurs usually enter the marketplace full of wildly unrealistic expectations about how the marketplace "ought" to work, and they base their companies' futures on these misunderstandings. Knowing how things actually already work is essential to figuring out how to make your new company survive in its market ecosystem.

Stephan Michael Sechi, creator of Talislanta
As a result of Lisa and Peter's negotiations, Talislanta, the creation of the elusive Stephan Michael Sechi became important to the survival and future of Wizards of the Coast in the year ahead. Were it not for Talislanta, Magic: The Gathering would probably never have happened, because Wizards of the Coast might not have survived long enough to produce it. And, of course, without Magic, Wizards would never have done well enough to save TSR and Dungeons & Dragons. We'll trace these threads in more detail later.

When we retell histories in short news articles in the media after brief periods of research and interview, these kinds of real-world connections almost always get missed. The later success of Wizards of the Coast is presented as emerging inexorably and all at once, like some kind of Manifest Destiny, as though Magic: The Gathering just sprang out of the forehead of Richard or Peter. In truth, as both those gentlemen will tell you, it took a lot of people and a lot of conditions coming together to make it happen.

Sometimes, though, these things seem strictly fortuitous. If White Wolf had been a corporation rather than a partnership, if Lisa had been able to rise in the company, then she would not have needed to seek advancement elsewhere. Neither Mark Rein·Hagen and Stewart Weick nor anyone else could have predicted that by structuring their company as a partnership rather than a corporation they were helping to set in motion a chain of events that would lead to Wizards of the Coast emerging seemingly out of nowhere to dominate their industry.

Likewise, I'm sure that when Stephan Michael Sechi dreamed his fevered dreams that became the storied world of Talislanta he did not imagine that he was helping in many different ways to set Wizards of the Coast on its path to survival and expansion, not least by helping to lead Jonathan Tweet and Jesper Myrfors to Wizards, but he was. So it is with all of us; the consequences of our actions go far beyond what we ever imagine.

Peter's narrative from 1993 continues:
Enter magical moment #3. Lisa asked me how I'd like to have her as an employee. Why would she want to leave White Wolf, a rapidly growing company (they'd just put out Vampire) to join a company that didn't even have its first product out the door? Ownership (there were some other reasons too). WW is a partnership between Mark Rein·Hagen and Stewart Weick and she didn't see how her hard work would get her anything in the long run, whereas WotC [rhymes with ROTC --Ed.] is a corporation and we were willing to give her a sizable chunk of stock to come work with us. A long and involved negotiating session ensued, where Lisa was able to entice us even more by saying, "How would you like to start production with an entire product line, and $100,000 in inventory? Have you ever heard of Talislanta?"

The next couple of months were amazing. Lisa and Rich went to GenCon [Thursday-Sunday, 8–11 August 1991 --Ed.] and started strategically placed rumors about this hot new gaming company on the west coast that she was helping out. By then the rumors had started flying about how she'd left WW, and I think she was offered about three jobs at that convention (Lisa has an incredible reputation in the industry as being very good at sales and marketing). We entered negotiations with Stephan Michael Sechi to acquire the exclusive English-language publishing rights to everything Bard Games had ever done, and we started raising money in earnest so that we could move Lisa out here and get started.

I was very paranoid about TPO though. I was starting to realize that there was a lot at stake, and that deities were probably not going to be that hot of a topic, and that TPO had to be awesome. So, at GenCon I got Lisa to collect the names of some key authors in the gaming industry who'd be willing to critique the draft I had at the time. As a result of that I was able to send drafts to Allen Varney, Graeme Davis, Jonathan Tweet, and Ken Rolston, not to mention Nigel Findley who I'd met at a local con (Dragonflight in 1991 [Friday-Sunday, 23–25 August 1991 --Ed.]). TPO basically sat on the shelf that summer/early fall while I waited for feedback and tried to get over feeling burned out on the book.