The Creation of Wizards of the Coast by Peter Adkison
    • A Brief History of Wizards of the Coast by CEO Peter Adkison


      Retrieved from Usenet in 2003. Original post was 23 Jan 93. By Peter Adkison.

      James A Seymour writes:

      > 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.

      Jeez, this could take hours--make that days! Asking a gaming company president, er, I mean janitor, for a brief history of his company is like asking a historian for a brief history of the world. :-)

      Thanks for being interested; I'll try and be brief.

      Along about 1979 or so a product came out called "The Overlord's City" or something like that from Judges Guild. A friend of mine named Terry Campbell saw that and was really excited about it--thought it was an incredible piece of work and was really inspired to make up his own city module. He suggested to myself and two other friends, Darrell Judd and Ken McGlothlen, that we start a gaming company.

      Darrell came up with the name, Wizards of the Coast, from the name of a mage guild that one of his characters belonged to in another guy's campaign. We sat around and discussed it but figured that there was no way we had the time, experience, or funding to pull something like this off. The discussion sorta ended with a "maybe someday after we have real jobs." Little did we know.

      Over the next few years we sorta used Wizards of the Coast as an informal name to attach to various amateur things we did. In fact, we actually published one amateur game back in 1981 called "Castles & Conquest," which forms the basis for some of the thinking that's going into *The Military Order,* which is what I'm working on right now.

      Our byline was "What's D&D without C&C?" It was really really amateur, made Arduin and Judges Guild stuff look like Time Magazine, but I managed to sell enough of them to make my way at conventions and such. Eventually I quit doing it because I wasn't satisfied with the product and this wasn't something I took very seriously at the time.

      Other uses for the Wizards of the Coast logo over the next few years included a campaign newsletter that I published for my *Chaldea* campaign, "sponsorship" of some convention events and tournaments, etc. It basically came to symbolize the gaming group I played with, which at one time included about 50 active players. From about 1982 through 1990, *Chaldea* was my life (when I wasn't going to college, and then working at Boeing as a systems analyst). Even when I was taking 20 credits of college classes I'd GM three or four times a week, and a lot of that was power gaming where the fundamental principals of The Primal Order were playtested and developed. Yes, we played and ran deities, even as PCs--I can admit that now. :-)

      In the spring of 1990 I was starting to go through that phase where I'd paid off my college loans, I was getting married, and I'd worked at Boeing long enough to feel that my career was secured. At this time I started thinking about life and the thought of being a computer programmer for the rest of my life was really starting to scare me (it was becoming really boring). I realized that gaming wasn't something that I was going to "grow out of," but I was starting to feel a need to justify it in light of the incredible amount of time I was spending on it. Fortunately my wife plays, but I guess that was inevitable since I refused to date women who wouldn't play--roleplaying games that is. :-)

      So, one day in April of 1990 as I was talking back and forth with Ken McGlothlen (Terry and Darrell had left the scene by this time, although we're still friends and have occasional contact) on internet during my Boeing lunch hour, Wizards of the Coast came up. We started reminiscing about the "good old days" and then the idea popped into my head, "Why don't we do it?" So I typed it accross the internet to Ken, "Why don't we start a gaming company? Wizards of the Coast, only for real this time?"

      There was a long pause.

      Ken knew me well enough to know I was serious, and that I also realized the implications of starting something like this. His response was, "Something like 90% of all businesses fail within the first two years, but if anyone could pull if off, you could." Ken is someone who very rarely gives complements, and that statement was something I emotionally fell back on many many times over the next couple of years. So, we spent the next couple weeks talking to each other over internet for a couple of hours every day. Some of those conversations are still logged somewhere. :-) We talked about every conceivable thing, like what we wanted to do, who we'd need, pricing, fund raising, etc. One thing that came out of that conversation was that we "wanted to do it right." That we were going to approach it as a business venture, spend ample time planning it out, raising money, print professional quality products, and find professional editing, art, typesetting, printing, binding, etc.

      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 2 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 Dawd 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 Los Vegas. This is a wonderful show and its 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 Compandium 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 Dawd, 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 did 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.

      Then in March it came time to go to the GAMA trade show. We scrapped 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 internet since Ken McGlothlen, a networking god, was able to get her connected up through 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 revived one or more of them as part of our upcoming pandevelopment line some day), put TaoGM on indefinate 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 and 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. 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.

      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 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 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 a local con (DragonFlight in 1991). 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.

      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 immagination, 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 winer 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 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 accross 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 specks--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 hollaring 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...)

      Well, that fall I got the critiques back from the writers I'd sent 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 1st 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 house mates) 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.

      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; its 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 put 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 and I end up paying back the loans for the next 20 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 percenage 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.

      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 as we could of, although its 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). 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.

      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.

      But a couple of weeks ago for some reason things started picking up. I'm not sure why, but partly its 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 indefintely, 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 80 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 free lancing too (she just edited a book for TSR, for more money than I'd been paying for for three months worth of work!).

      Also, we picked up a couple of investments and our printer and our attorney have each given us some very good payment terms. And recently we've received some news from GAMA about the lawsuit, which I probably should keep under my hat for now, that will help out on that front considerably.

      With all these things coming together there's been a flurry of activity here. Jesper's just about got our next book, The Compeat Alchemist (a rework of an old Bard Games product) ready to go to the printers, and we're in very good shape on our next four projects. We havn't been this busy since September, and I once again feel very positive about where the company is going and our chances of success.

      As you can probably see, starting up a gaming company is a tremendous amount of work and is filled with highs and lows. I don't recommend it unless you're truly a workaholic and know a few others who are too. Unless you're rich, you'll always be struggling with money--we're only just now finally getting to our break even point, where our monthly sales equals or exceeds our monthly overhead (of course the part of the overhead that would otherwise go to salaries is now going to feed lawyers kids), and we've got a significant debt to work down.

      Of course I'm very anxious to see how this card game goes. We've just about got the business plan for it finished so I'll soon be able to start trying to raise financing for it. If that comes along quickly, this summer is going to be a very exciting one for the gaming industry, and the 1993 GenCon will probably be one of the funnest gaming conventions of my life if we can premier it there like we're currently planning on doing.

      Of course one of the things I've enjoyed most is all the friends I've met here on the net. I believe in computer networks and think that this type of communication and sharing is one of the most powerful things a company can get involved in (even if it does burn a tremendous amount of time). I've particularly enjoyed the two times I've traveled out of state and posted ahead of time where I'd be, and then got a chance to meet internet people and place a face to a name.

      Anyway, that's a part of the WotC story. A lot less than the whole story, but certainly a lot more than you probably expected. The good, the bad, the fun, the heartache--its all there. And I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

      --Mavra!
      Peter D. Adkison
      Janitor, Wizards of the Coast
      ma...@wizards.com