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).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Nine

Cathleen Adkison, one of the three original principals
Writing poised between hope and despair in January 1993, Peter narrated his history of Wizards in fits and starts, pausing over the moments, people, and problems that resonated with his current circumstances, passing lightly over other periods, people, and issues that didn't come to mind when he thought about his hopes for Manaclash (soon to be Magic: The Gathering) or his fears about the Palladium lawsuit. Most of the missing details I'll explore when I finish covering his narrative, but I will take an intermission from the narrative for the next few posts to spotlight two topics that should not wait.

The second topic is Talislanta, which dominated Wizards's activities in 1992, but which Peter's 1993 narrative dispenses with in three sentences. We'll take a closer look at Talislanta next post.

The first topic is the other people who made it possible for Wizards to produce The Primal Order, the ones who he didn't have to bring in from the outside because they were already present. There are three in particular I want to pick out in this post for how central they were to helping support Wizards of the Coast between late 1991 and early 1992, the time frame when TPO was being finished.

Cathleen Couch, Beverly's childhood friend in Walla Walla since fifth grade, married Peter Adkison on Saturday, 11 August 1990. Peter and Cathy had been together for years before that, and their families and friends were present, including most of the early Wizards gang. Understandably, one of the topics of discussion was Peter's new company. Beverly, as one of Cathy's bridesmaids, and I shared a table with Peter and Cathy. This was when Peter first told Beverly that he was starting up a game company and told her who all was doing it with him. After a pause during which she thought to herself "But none of you can write!", Beverly diplomatically asked "Do you have anyone who knows anything about how publishing works?" In the conversation that followed, Peter learned that Beverly had studied publishing arts at Pacific Lutheran University under Megan Benton. It was this conversation at Peter and Cathy's wedding that set the stage for Peter later seeking out Beverly's help in reviewing the early Wizards manuscripts and eventually recruiting her as an employee.

This also might have been the first time I learned about Wizards. It probably didn't come up in our conversations before then, but you never know. Human memory is unreliable.

Michael Cook, quality-improvement guru
Cathy was there when Beverly and I learned about Wizards. She was also there when most of Peter and Ken's gaming group learned about Wizards, on that kickoff brainstorming session the night of Wednesday, 23 May 1990 three months earlier. Since she and Peter were living together long before then, she was also a part of Peter's life when he and Ken were putting together the initial ideas for Wizards of the Coast over the Internet. Although she was not part of Peter's gaming group in Walla Walla back in the early 1980s, she was just a few years later, and she and Peter would have discussed the emerging plans for Wizards soon after he and Ken began formulating them, which makes her pretty much the fifth person (after Darrell, Terry, Ken, and Peter) in on the dream of starting an RPG company called Wizards of the Coast. And when you look at her longevity with and contributions to Wizards over the years, it makes her one of the original three principals with Ken and Peter.

Mike Cook never starred in a lead role at Wizards (no media exposure, that is), but contributed much over the years in important supporting roles. Like Cathy, at Boeing he studied the work of William Edwards Deming and brought Continuous Quality Improvement, Plan-Do-Check-Act, meeting facilitation, and many other tools for focusing on and improving quality at Wizards of the Coast. Cathy and Mike worked hand-in-hand to keep Wizards focused on learning from their mistakes and always searching for ways to do better. This focus on high and improving quality made Wizards of the Coast attractive to top-notch game designers like Richard Garfield and Jonathan Tweet and to other game professionals like Lisa Stevens. What many organizations fail to realize is that the very best professionals feel stifled in organizations that focus on delivering the minimum quality for the maximum return and long for the chance to do their best work. Mike Cook helped turn Wizards into the kind of company that could give them that chance, and they noticed and responded. Without Mike and Cathy pushing this core focus of the company, many of the things that Wizards did right over the years could not have happened.

George S. Lowe, "Primal Caterer" (and friend)
George Lowe was another supporting actor at Wizards of the Coast who contributed more to the survival of early Wizards than most people realize. Like Jay Hays, he was a Jack of all trades who shifted roles frequently to fill in wherever the company was lacking - and when you're a small company, you're more holes than substance in most areas, like Swiss cheese. Among the areas George worked on in 1991 and 1992 were retroactively building a financial database to get their financial tracking under better control, and cooking for Dave and Beverly during their marathon editing session when they moved into Peter and Cathy's house. In these and many other ways, George helped hold the place together.

We'll spend more time with the early Wizards personnel in the writing to come, but I felt it would be inappropriate to move on to a new chapter in the history of Wizards of the Coast without bringing Cathy, Mike, and George back into the spotlight so they could begin to be recognized for their early crucial roles. When we finish with Peter's 1993 narrative, we'll go back to the beginning of our history to get to know each of the original actors better, including many so far unnamed in these posts.

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.

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Six

Mike Davis, matchmaker
In Readers Digest in 1957, Allen Saunders wrote Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.

Saturday, 24 August 1991 found friends and family gathered together at 1714 18th Avenue in Seattle for Beverly and my wedding, where our carefully knit plans were unraveling.

Some close friends could not attend. Cathleen Adkison, Peter's wife, my friend from high school, and Beverly's friend since fifth grade, was sick at home. Jay Hayes and Bob McSwain Jr., my gaming friends since high school, could not break away from Dragonflight, the gaming convention inconveniently scheduled at the same time. Peter and Ken made it, barely, only to find themselves standing around waiting with the rest of us. We were locked out of the hall. The caretaker could not be found. Beverly and I had wanted to plan our wedding ourselves to demonstrate our adulthood and maturity to our parents, but instead we stood there embarrassed and helpless.

It all turned out well in the end. With a little help from our friends we found grace under pressure, were married on the steps, held the reception at Madison Park in perfect weather, served wedding cake on the back of a stone panther, and enjoyed the impromptu outdoor wedding we had always wanted but dared not plan in one of America's rainiest cities.

We learned that sometimes it is best when life does not go according to plan.

Peter's carefully knit plans were also unraveling.

Richard Garfield, mathematician
A week before our wedding, Peter discovered that Mike Davis was right about how incredible Richard Garfield's design was for his board game Robo Rally. Peter founded Wizards of the Coast to make role-playing games, but clearly he was going to have to find some way to publish this board game, too. He did not know how he could ever afford to do it, but he would have to find a way.

The day before our wedding Peter sat in a parking garage listening to Richard describe his initial ideas for what would become Magic: The Gathering. It blew him away. It was not a role-playing game - it was not even a board game - but clearly Wizards was going to have to make this, too. His plans fell apart in the best kind of way.

All three of us wandered through our wedding day in a bit of a daze, giddy and off-balance, wondering what shape our lives would take now. We all decided to let go of our plans and embrace the unknown. We all said "I do."

It changed our lives forever.

Peter's 1993 description of the events:
Also at about this time magical event #4 happened (although we didn't realize its import at the time). As a result of one of my posts on rec.games.design, I received a letter from a guy named Mike Davis about this game that a friend of his, Richard Garfield, had designed. The name of the game was Robo Rally, and to tell the truth it sounded kinda stupid from the description. I politely told him that we were a roleplaying company and were only mildly interested in "getting into board games some day." He was fortunately persistent and I eventually agreed to take a look at the game and meet them since they were both flying out to the west coast to see Richard's parents. Well, the game was simply brilliant, and I was immediately impressed by their intellect and imagination, which surpassed my own on both counts. We told them we'd like to publish it the following summer after we got on our feet (the projected release date for TPO had been pushed back to winter of 1991 by this time). To jump ahead in the story, we never have published this game because of the tremendous expense of putting it out, although we're working on perhaps doing it as a joint venture with another company that shall remain nameless at this time.

At this meeting I mentioned that there was going to be a convention (Dragonflight 1991) the following weekend [Friday-Sunday, 23–25 August 1991 --Ed.] and they should come up to Seattle to attend. Mike had to go back to Atlanta, but Richard said he'd come up. Then Richard, probably wanting to show off, asked me if I'd like him to design a game during the next week (!), and if so, to describe to him a game concept and he'd do it. Well, I had always thought it would be really cool to have a fantasy-oriented card game that was quick to play, easy to carry (playing cards only), fairly easy to learn, that could be marketed through the convention circuit. I had noticed that people spend a lot of time at conventions hanging out in lobbies, standing in lines, etc., and I think having a game like this could sell very well in that market. He said, "Okay."

Next week Richard came to Dragonflight and while we were in a vacant parking garage across from Seattle Center (Ken was with us and we had parked there so Ken could run in to some building and pick up something), Richard described to me a game that he'd come up with that fit those specs--and went way beyond. And this game was the single most awesome gaming idea I had heard of since 1978, when I heard of roleplaying. I started whooping and hollering and yelling, primarily because I knew at that moment that we had an idea that would add a whole new dimension to gaming, and if executed properly, would make us millions. This wasn't just a new game, it was a new gaming form. (Btw, if we can raise the capital, this game will be coming out this summer. Wish I could tell you more, but you know how it is...)

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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Four

Lisa Stevens, game-company professional
Already by the Spring of 1990, to those familiar with his management style Peter had revealed one of the main ingredients of his later success. He welcomed the idea that others knew things he did not, that others possessed skills and expertise he did not, that he needed to identify the areas in which he was lacking and then find people competent to mentor him and lead those areas.

In Spring 1991 he followed Tom Dowd's advice from seven months before, which led to finding Lisa Stevens, the seasoned game-company pro who helped Wizards learn the RPG industry, sharpen its focus to a single opening product, and much more. Peter learned a tremendous amount from her about what game companies are like, and over the months and years ahead, she helped him transform Wizards into a more professionally structured and oriented company.

Likewise, he let Beverly guide him toward higher standards for the writing, which led him to focus on improving his own writing and to focus more on those of his friends who could produce more professional text, like Ken. That shift in focus, when it comes, can be a tough transition in new companies - when the executive realizes that he has to begin separating the original founders, many or most of whom are friends, into those who can do the work the company needs done and those who cannot or will not. It can lead to hurt feelings and can even break friendships. He chose well, here, though, because Ken helped Peter to become a better writer and Beverly helped ensure he was on the right track.

Rich Kaalaas, graphic designer & charisma man
As for Rich Kaalaas, his role was not to mentor Peter - after all, Peter was never going to learn to become a graphic designer - but Rich was great at his job and he was one of the special people a startup executive learns to cherish, one of those people who gets things done. Rich did graphic design for years at Wizards; he designed the original logo for Wizards of the Coast (the tower on the seashore). We'll spend more time exploring his story later, but for now it should be noted that one of his most important contributions to the history of Wizards of the Coast - bringing Lisa Stevens and Wizards together - is one of those "other duties as assigned." Companies that enforce division of labor with too much rigidity, who insist that people stick to their job description - and there are many organizations like that, especially large ones - never get the best out of their people. You never know when your graphic designer is going to change the course of history through his charisma rather than his art.
Then in March it came time to go to the GAMA trade show. We scraped together our pennies and came up with enough money for one person to go to part of the show. Instead of going myself, I sent a guy who was involved at that time, Rich Kaalaas. I sent Rich because he's very good looking, charismatic, and can socialize very well, where I'm short, a bit overweight, and quite shy around people I don't know. Rich went to the tradeshow and magical event #2 happened--he met Lisa Stevens who was at that time working for White Wolf. Well, Lisa was single, Rich was cute, and, well, suffice it to say that they spent a lot of time together at the con. Lisa gave Rich massive amounts of advice, and after Rich came back from GAMA Lisa continued to give us advice, both in the form of phone calls and eventually through the Internet since Ken McGlothlen, a networking god, was able to get her connected to our BBS with no long-distance charges.

So, after GAMA and lots of consulting with Lisa, we completely reorganized the company's focus. We shelved all three compendium projects (we may revive one or more of them as part of our upcoming Pandevelopment line some day), put TaoGM on indefinite standby (I'd really really love to see this published, if Ken ever finishes it--hint, hint, clue, clue Ken!), and focused our attention on The Primal Order, which Lisa thought was the only thing worthy of being an opening product line.

I also about this time made a decision to trust Beverly on the editing and try to match her standards for publishable writing. Even though I'd never written much, and had pretty much ignored creative writing in college, I stubbornly decided that I'd work on this thing with her and Ken (who writes amazingly well--I'd rather read his writing than any writing I've ever been exposed to) until I got it right. I spent much of April and May that year (1991) working on that every waking hour that I wasn't at Boeing. I spent three or four sessions a week at Ken's, often crashing on his floor, and by the end of May I had essentially passed a crash course in writing. I wasn't good, but I'd at least gotten to college level. And in these months we'd rewritten about half of the book.

In the meantime I was still communicating a lot with Lisa Stevens. The flame had died between her and Rich, but I'd gotten to be pretty close friends with her by this time. She came due for a vacation at White Wolf and decided it would be fun to come to Seattle and meet all the people she'd only talked to through the net. So, in June she came to visit, and we all got to meet in real life, and we had a ball.

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.