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 rec.games.frp.misc, 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)?


  1. So good to see new content here. In Media Res, such a great and appropriate phrase. Thanks! Looking forward to those decklists...

  2. Thanks, Bandana8472. I found my recipe lists, so I'll be able to give you accurate decklists for my old decks and approximations of other early Wizards decks. I also found my old beta and gamma decks on xeroxed cardstock, so that will be fun.

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