Monday, July 11, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Three

Tom Dowd, who directed Peter to GAMA 1990
The evening of Wednesday, 23 May 1990 was one of those pivotal moments in the history of Wizards of the Coast. It's when Peter took the concrete planning for Wizards of the Coast beyond himself and Ken, when he invited his immediate gaming circle to join him in launching Wizards of the Coast.

This first year was a time of naive, energetic optimism, in which a band of friends took on roles based on their enthusiasm and hope rather than on their abilities, experience, or follow-through. It was a time of biting off more than they could chew, a time to discover that their bandwidth and abilities fell short of their dreams, a time to discover that wanting to do something as an idea and wanting and being able to do the actual work involved are very different things. It was also a time to discover that to measure up, to become a great company that surpasses existing standards, one must first fall short of those standards and be shamed and angered, be stimulated to try harder, to do better, and not to accept mediocrity, especially one's own.

Beverly Marshall Saling, who advised Peter to do better
When Peter reacted to his disappointment and his friends' frustration by deciding to set high standards of quality for Wizards of the Coast, he laid the crucial foundation for their every later success. Many company founders are incapable of accepting their own inadequacy, of swallowing their pride and committing themselves to do better than they've ever done before, which may be why so many companies do not survive this difficult and little-discussed transition, but new organizations must go through this stage if they are to survive long enough to become successful. Later, I'll tell the tale in detail, but for now here's Peter's quick overview of the period, as he continued his narrative in 1993:
May 23rd, 1990, is a date that will forever stick out in my mind. I invited everyone in our gaming circle over to my small apartment and we sat around in a circle and brainstormed product ideas until about two o'clock in the morning. I still have that list in my files and there are enough ideas on that list to keep us in business for ten years. Out of that meeting was born our capsystem philosophy, although it was to be refined many times in the future.

In the months that followed we started putting together a corporate structure, assigning projects to project managers, and so forth. We started working on four books, and this list soon expanded to five, including The Primal Order, TaoGM, and three system-independent compendiums (one on bars, one on mages/magic items, and one on keeps/castles). Our goal was to have them to first-draft stage by the end of 1990. Meanwhile I set out to try and collect information about the gaming industry.

In August I went to a local gaming convention called Dragonflight, and at that convention was Tom Dowd from FASA. He chaired a panel called "Writing for the Gaming Industry" and it was mostly about submitting modules for FASA/Shadowrun. Still, it was fascinating to me, and I learned a lot about what was involved in writing and such. At the end of the panel I told him that I was starting a gaming company and he gave me that glazed-over look that I find myself trying not to give to the hundreds of people who tell me that. He told me the same thing I tell them--go to the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) trade show which is held every spring in Las Vegas. This is a wonderful show, and it's where you can learn everything about the industry; there are retailers, distributors, and most of the other gaming companies of note, and there are panels on how to package products, pricing, distributor relations, and so forth.

Meanwhile things were going slowly on the writing front. We started going through a phase where people learned that this was going to be real work. By the end of 1990 we had two products that we thought were at first draft stage, The Primal Order, and The Compendium of Mages and Magic. At about that time we started consulting with Beverly Marshall Saling, a professional editor who I was a friend of, but who hadn't been involved much to that point. I told her I had two books for her to edit if she'd be willing and she said she'd take a look at them. Similarly to Tom Dowd, Beverly had that glazed-over look in her eye that I try not to give to the dozens of unpublished authors who give me something they think is a "first draft."

Beverly was very polite, but she couldn't hide her amusement at our puny efforts. What we gave her "wasn't even close" to "publishable" in her estimation and during the first part of 1991 we had many internal squabbles along the lines of "What does she know?" and "Looks good to me" and "How much quality do we want, anyway?" We were getting closer and closer to our projected release date, July 1991, and things were getting tense--it was not a pretty time.

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