Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wizards: Nostalgia, Part One

A page from Castles and Conquest by "Wizards of the Coast" in 1983

Let's turn back the clock a bit.

On Monday, 16 October 1989, Ken McGlothlen was working three jobs: (1) at the University of Washington (UW) Biostatistics department typesetting a biostats textbook in TeX, (2) being a computer consultant/operator at NOAA/PMEL on Sand Point, and (3) working as a system/network administrator at StatSci. Peter was working at Boeing.

Ken was living in an apartment in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood (at 5603 7th Avenue Northwest #1, fourteen blocks from where Beverly and I live now). His apartment was a three-bedroom, two-story unit in a triplex. It was evening, and Ken was alone upstairs on the computer in the southeast bedroom. Internet access was not as easy to come by in those days as it is today, but Ken had access to the Internet via Unix machines at the UW thanks to his job there, and Peter had access through his job at Boeing. That evening (in the days before Facebook and Skype) they were nevertheless chatting electronically.

Peter remembers this initial conversation taking place over his lunch break at Boeing, but both Ken and Peter agree the followup discussions went on for days and weeks thereafter, so who knows which came first - the lunchtime chat or the evening one.

Although Ken and Peter had been best friends for years, things between the two of them had been difficult since 1986 (for reasons we won't get into here), and their conversations had been pretty rare since then. By October 1989, though, the two of them seemed to be moving beyond their past difficulties, which came as a relief to both of them because they both had a lot invested in their long friendship.

In their chat together, Peter was waxing nostalgic about Castles and Conquest, an amateur Dungeons and Dragons supplement they had worked on together between 1982 and 1984. At the time, Peter had taken some game mechanics out of two wargames; he added some original content after Ken pointed out that what they had was uncomfortably close to copyright violation. Ken hand-drew the cover on fine graph paper. Peter's tagline on C&C was "What's D&D without C&C?"

This was long before affordable laser printers, much less scanners. Castles and Conquest was printed out on a pin-fed dot-matrix printer, on the old green-and-white-striped landscape printer with the tear-off hole-punched strips on each edge of the page. Here's a sample chart from the supplement that shows the combat stats of different types of units, by "level" (D&D style).

Peter sold maybe fifty copies, never through retail but at various gaming conventions, and used the proceeds to cover the cost of attending the cons. As a young college student, being able to sell enough copies to attend cons for "free" made him feel like success, so he was very happy with the project.

From the perspective of this history, though, Castles and Conquest was important for two reasons. First, it was published by "Wizards of the Coast," which at that point was a private amateur imprint used by Ken and Peter for their projects. Second, chatting about it together over the Internet was fun and nostalgic, and led both of them to remember their dream of some day starting a game company.

They then began to reminisce about the day they first dreamed that dream together.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wizards: In Media Res

Real stories begin in the middle.
Altogether now: "Once upon a time . . ."

No, forget it. Like tragedy, like life, our story begins in medias res.

That's in the middle for all you who never took English Literature in school. It means we showed up late to the story and it's already been going for a long time now. We don't get to start things just the way we would like, because we're not at the start of the story, but instead find ourselves already committed to all kinds of things the moment we show up, before we get to make our first decision.

Starting in medias res may entertain the reader, but it's traumatic and confusing for our protagonists. They don't know how things got this way, or what's really happening to them, or how to change things for the better. They don't even know who they really are inside, and they're going to be disappointed to find that most of the ways they try to make things better end up backfiring.

Starting in medias res - as we all do in our lives - means we are in the position of being able to act, and wanting to act, yet understanding hardly any of the consequences of the actions we're about to take. We set things in motion that end up surprising us. It was the ancient Roman poet Horace who taught us that great epics begin here, at this moment in the middle of our story.

That's where our story is, poised between two moments.

Peter wrote "We're not dead yet."
The first moment is December 3rd, 1992, when Peter reluctantly sent a memo he hated to send, a memo that admitted that they were in trouble, that Palladium's lawsuit had forced Wizards to miss payroll, and they were about to miss another one. He candidly laid out their options, which included bankruptcy. But he also showed several ways the company could keep going, even in a scaled-back state. His most important two sentences were these:

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.

He writes these words dead center in the most important period in the life of Wizards of the Coast, in the middle of the year and a half that changed everything for them. Our protagonists don't know it yet, but that sad memo Peter had to send and the staff's response to it comprise the most important moment of their most important year.

This moment is the crossover point, the turning of the tide.

From Palladium launching their lawsuit to the grim December of this memo, everything seemed to get worse and worse until this terrible thing dominated the life of the company and seemed poised to blot it out.

But it was an illusion, because things were also getting better, quietly, in ways that only began to flower at this tipping point and become visible a month later, when the good things gradually began to overwhelm the antagonism in their lives. In the years leading up to this reversal, Wizards had been developing things and setting them in motion, things they did not realize they would need to survive this test, things they did for other reasons, but that bore life-giving fruit that sustained them through their darkest hours.

In this second series of posts about the history of Wizards, we're going to focus on this year and a half from 2 April 1992, when The Primal Order arrived from the printers, to 16 July 1993, when the first shipment of Magic: The Gathering arrived at the Origins gaming convention barely on time to demo and sell on the last day. That journey is balanced right on this first moment, when most of the threads that led them into trouble and most of the threads that would lead them to success were just about to change places.

Before Facebook: Usenet
The second moment is seven weeks later, January 23rd, 1993, when on the Usenet group, James A Seymour asked Peter:

Peter, could you please post a brief history of your company? I'm curious from both a casual standpoint, and from a game writer wanta be viewpoint.

And Peter responded with the short essay we followed in the previous series, "Peter on the Cusp." Unconsciously, Peter answered his own memo by describing how Wizards managed to scale back and survive. Because it's been almost a year since that post about the memo, and since it's been nine months since the last installment of the first series, I'm going to requote this paragraph from his 1993 narrative:

But a couple of weeks ago for some reason things started picking up. I'm not sure why, but partly it's because we realized that we can actually move forward and continue publishing products with all of us working on a part-time basis. Probably because we've gotten pretty proficient at our respective tasks here. Jesper's living at home and said he could go without pay indefinitely, particularly since his involvement here at WotC has gotten him some free-lance contracts for other companies (an upcoming White Wolf book is being entirely illustrated by him, and I hear they liked it well enough that he's going to be doing another one). I'd been working full time here and at Boeing (I've averaged over eighty hours of work a week for the last two years) and didn't need WotC income, Jay said he could work part time for WotC and full time elsewhere and manage Design & Development from home through e-mail if he could take home one of the computers, Beverly said she could probably get by with her husband's full-time job if she could pick up some free-lance editing, and Lisa's working part-time freelancing too (she just edited a book for TSR, for more money than I'd been paying her for three months worth of work!).

Here, at this second moment, seven weeks after things looked so dire, Peter admits he senses the turning of the tide but does not understand it. He has some ideas about how they survived, but living and working at that moment and planning for his immediate next steps he cannot stop to fully explore how it happened. Nineteen and a half years later, we can.

How did things go from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic)?

Monday, July 9, 2012

So What?

The storyteller spreads his lies. Or truths. Or both.
Most stories lie to us. They tell us what we want to believe, not what's really so. They teach us false ideas about reality, about success, and then we go into business and expect it to work that way. No wonder 90% of new businesses fail; their founders and staff think they're living in a fantasy world.

For example, running a game company is not at all like playing a game, yet most who dream of founding one think it will be. Even if we manage to overcome that most common delusion, it's still nothing like we imagine. Truth is stranger than fiction; it must be experienced before it can be understood.

What if people who had gone through the experience of having their fantasies about starting a game company shattered and replaced by reality, people who had survived the experience, who went on to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, what if they could be the ones to tell you a story about what it's like? Would the people who heard that story be more likely to beat those odds and succeed?

That's what this blog and the book that will follow are exploring. We're going to try to tell a story about a game business, a story that lies less than most. Maybe what the founders of Wizards learned the hard way, you can learn the easy way, from a story. Probably not, but it'll be fun to try, don't you think?

And even if the experiment fails and all your businesses fail, it's still a fun story about a bunch of wacky people defying the odds and winning. And win or lose, you can still have fun. There are worse ways to pass the time until you die.*

So that's what.


* "Helping you pass the time until you die" was proposed as a possible mission statement for Wizards of the Coast, at the meeting** held one night in Peter and Cathy's living room. We sat in a circle and tried to figure out what Wizards was about. Jesper, force of chaos that he always was, suggested it.*** Everyone in the room laughed appreciatively but dismissively, then kind of got quiet and thought about it, then laughed uncomfortably and moved on. At that moment, Jesper's darkly humorous phrase became the never-before-officially-admitted unofficial mission statement of Wizards of the Coast, at least in the minds of all those present that night.

** That's one of three or four meetings that I will eventually be describing in detail, because of how much it revealed about Wizards of the Coast and its founders. Along with the one where we realized we didn't know how to make decisions involving more than one person. It's surprising the things you think you know when you go into business that it turns out you really don't know. Embarrassing things, things the founders of most companies would never tell you later, even though those things sometimes have the most to teach us about what it's like.

*** Actually, he had suggested it before with equal almost-success. Remind me later to do a post about Lisa Stevens's clip-art and advertising taglines, so we can discuss why "Helping you pass the time until you die" barely did not get published as ad copy, but "Well, it's better than broccoli" did.

A Few Words from Our Author . . .

Historical mischief-maker and wife.
First of all, I want to thank all of you who expressed an interest in this project. It's nice to know someone else is interested in this history.

Also, second, thank you for your patience during this long period of waiting, during which I was focusing on helping to get my little VISTA nonprofit through its next growth spurt. We're very close to done with that growth spurt (almost back in the black after bringing on new staff - whew!), which is fortunate because my brain is about saturated with it from working long hours for so many months in a row (despite two most excellent vacations during that time). As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote two and a half millennia ago, "It is weariness to keep toiling at the same things so that one becomes ruled by them" (Heraclitus, translation and commentary by Phillip Wheelwright, Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 83).

So, third, to help rekindle my brain I'm resuming my Wizards history project this week. While eating Camarones a la Mojo de Ajo at a small table in Peso's restaurant before last night's Seattle Storm game, I sketched out for Beverly what I think the next section of the history is about, how to approach the material, and some remedial work I need to do in flashbacks to flesh out section one and the prehistory (which I barely touched on in section one). In her usual good-natured editorial fashion, she helped me polish the approach up a bit, so now I'm ready to resume writing.

Here we go. I hope you enjoy it.