Friday, July 15, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Seven

The Primal Order, Wizards's First Product
The Primal Order was a tough first pregnancy for Wizards of the Coast. Peter's gaming group came up with the original concept and first draft, but the system was so ambitious that it exceeded the writing skills of its authors. The text was too complex and confusing, which is why Beverly blasted it in her first review.

So Peter worked with Ken to improve his writing skills and they rewrote it to create the second draft. Then Allen Varney, Graeme Davis, Jonathan Tweet, Ken Rolston, and Nigel Findley reviewed it again with a mix of praise and criticism.

Then Dave Howell and Peter rewrote it to take their criticisms into account to create the third draft; they also added game-system integration notes from a host of contributors who were experts on different role-playing-game rule systems. Then Peter showed it to Beverly again who agreed it was now on the road to a publishable product but still needed a lot more work.

Then began a long, grueling cycle of editing and rewriting by Beverly and Dave to create the fourth and final draft. Or perhaps we should call it the hundredth draft, because their work passed back and forth across the text over and over and over again. One thing led to another in complex cycles of changes. The work proceeded in chain reactions like dominos falling, in which they would be rewriting one section, then notice one thing that was inconsistent with another. While correcting that, they would realize that they should have done it differently to make the next part easier to explain. So then they would go back and rewrite it, which made them realize they should also rewrite something else. The process of combing out the tangles and inconsistencies in this complex work seemed endless, but they persisted.

When Dave suspected the text was stabilizing, he began typesetting it in TEX, but he was wrong. It wasn't close to stabilizing, and now editing, rewriting, and retypesetting all began to overlap one another.

As the work went on and on, Peter came to realize that their deadlines were at risk. He then made a crucial decision most CEOs would not make; this was their flagship product, their calling card to the world, so it was more important to do it right than to do it on time. Instead of cutting his editors/rewriters/typesetters off, he trusted their judgment that it was not yet ready to go to press.

Still, in an effort to salvage their deadline, he asked them both to move into the spare bedroom in his and Cathleen's house until it was done. Beverly worked during the day and Dave at night so editing and rewriting and retypesetting proceeded twenty-four hours a day for another two and a half weeks!

During this time, the Wizards team took care of Beverly and Dave so they could stay focused on their work through long hours every day. Food would magically appear on the desk or table beside them while they worked. Toward the end they began to get punch-drunk and giddy, so Peter would sometimes take them out to Las Margaritas to help them unwind. Dave didn't drink, but Peter and Beverly did, and both reached that special happy state you can only reach when you are both sleep-deprived and drunk.

Dave Howell, who rewrote & typeset
The whole thing was one enormous blur for Dave and Beverly. Other people in the basement worked on other aspects of the project, people came and went, but it's all a vague impression to the two of them now.

The Primal Order got a lot better during that time. Most of the rat's nests, inconsistencies, and confusing language were cleared from it until in the end the elegance and power of the system shone through to the reader. They never worked that hard in their lives for that long, but it resulted in a sense of triumph at the end of the long slog.

When it was finally done, Peter said Okay, I guess you can call your peeps and tell them they can have you back. I drove over to pick up Beverly, and Peter took Dave, Beverly, and me out to Las Margaritas one last time to celebrate. Dave, who didn't have any drinks, had only his bone-deep exhaustion to contend with afterward as he drove off homeward, only mildly menacing the other motorists in his groggy state. Tired and tipsy, Beverly needed my help staggering to the car after dinner. When we got her home, she collapsed into a long, troubled sleep, only to awake with a severe case of bronchitis. It lasted through two different rounds of antibiotics for two weeks before finally trailing off. Afterward, she suffered from persistent breathing problems for so long that she began to wonder if she had contracted asthma, but as the weeks passed the symptoms slowly disappeared.

Here is a gauge that editors particularly will understand about the level of effort involved in cleaning up the text of The Primal Order. Beverly bought a brand-new editorial red pencil to begin editing The Primal Order. The text went through so much editing that the pencil was used all the way down until it was about an inch long, with no eraser and no unsharpened wood left, just a point and a metal eraser grip. She was determined to finish editing the book with a single red pencil, so in the end she had to resort to tricks to get it in and out of the sharpener. To this day she still has the tiny red pencil stub in her treasure box.

Peter's 1993 narrative about this time continues:
Well, that fall I got the critiques back from the writers I'd sent them to. These critiques helped a lot, since they included two important elements: (a) pages of constructive criticism on how to make it better, and (b) a statement saying that the product had tremendous potential and that they wished us the best of luck. The letter from Ken Rolston was especially encouraging, and led to us asking him to write the foreword for the book.

One of the major criticisms of the draft I'd sent out was that it was very dry and that it was too oriented toward AD&D. At that time I brought Dave Howell into the loop and started working on yet another redraft of the book, this time with the intent of "lightening it up" and removing all the AD&D flavor. Also, about this time I started studying other game systems to write integration notes and quickly came to the realization that I need a lot of help. That's when we started up the famous experts-l mailing list, where I called for gaming-system experts on the net to help us out. By December 1991, we finally had a complete honest-to-god professional-quality first draft of TPO. Time to go see Beverly again.

This time Beverly didn't throw up on it, but actually declared it as "having potential." The editing soon turned into redrafting/editing, and Beverly and Dave both actually moved into my house (much to the chagrin of Beverly's husband and housemates) and worked on TPO night and day. Dave was helping with the redraft and doing the typesetting too. I helped where I could, but they were able to work fulltime while I had to go to Boeing and run the company. The book was supposed to be released in January, but it didn't go to the printers until late February, and the shipment arrived at my house on April Fools Day, 1992, perhaps the greatest day in my life other than my wedding day. To hold that book in my hands and see thousands of copies in boxes after working on it for over a year and a half was just incredible.

1 comment:

  1. Beverly and I walked Green Lake last night with Dave, who's willing to help out with the history.

    He pointed out that it was not his decision to set it in TEX, nor did he choose the timing. When he first received the manuscript, it was already in TEX, which means it was almost certainly Ken who did so. Dave says it was not meticulously typeset when he received the second draft, but there weren't any errors either. His best guess, which I'll confirm with Ken, is that Ken planned to fully typeset it later, but that he was so comfortable with TEX that he used it like a word-processor to save time later, so he would not have to transfer it from a word-processor into TEXT when he was ready to begin seriously typesetting it.

    If true, it reinforces a theme we'll be exploring in the series ahead - Wizards of the Coast was a high-tech RPG company. Peter, Ken, and Dave were all extremely tech savvy (with serious computer science and programming backgrounds) and it showed in Wizards's activism on Usenet, in online forums, in setting up BBSes, and in bringing a lot of technology to bear on the problem of publishing, which helped them squeeze as much horsepower out of their computers as possible in supporting their cutting-edge layouts. This became especially clear in the intense merging of graphic design, art, and text on the Magic cards.

    Another correction Dave offered is that he did not move into Peter and Cathy's house. It only seemed that way. One of those TPO editing-from-Hell weeks he worked seventy hours, the other ninety-four and a half. He admits he probably did just decide to sleep there three or four nights out of the two weeks, but since he lived close by he went home to sleep most of the time.

    Dave also pointed me to some narratives he wrote about the challenges of some of the Magic projects, which we'll find and fold into this series when we reach that part of our history.