D&D CEOs: The TSR Years
  • D&D CEOs: The TSR Years

    With the recent announcement that the new CEO of Wizards of the Coast is a gamer, it begs the question: do gamers make better CEOs of gaming companies? History has some interesting answers for us.

    Gary Gygax: The Original Gamer CEO

    Gygax's impact on D&D goes beyond his creative contributions as co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. He was also, at different times, a leader of a corporate organization that was frequently at war with itself. Jon Peterson does an excellent job of just showing how influential Gygax was at the height of his powers in "The Ambush at Sheridan Springs":

    In the fall of 1985, Gary Gygax was the most famous and powerful figure in hobby gaming. He was President and Chief Executive Officer of TSR, Inc., the company that published Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax had personally directed the development of the game for the last decade, most recently producing new titles for its Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line: earlier in 1985, he was the lead on Unearthed Arcana, and in the fall they were putting the finishing touches on his Oriental Adventures. He had been featured in People magazine, and appeared on national television. His name and his game seemed inseparable.

    It's worth noting that Gygax was not formally trained in business:

    Neither Gygax nor Blume had any business or management education—Gygax had not even graduated from high school. In early interviews, they frequently boasted that gaming and business required the same competencies. Gygax even compared the rise of TSR through 1980 to a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with it starting out as “a low-level-character sort of company” but gaining “excellent experience” to advance towards the “really high-level game producers such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers.”

    Gygax's tenure as CEO was short-lived in any case, as he focused his efforts primarily on licensing:

    Gygax had revealed that the board was “considering the formation of a new corporate division just to handle licensing and exploitation of our products in the entertainment media” as early as the January 1982 issue of Random Events. Gygax’s new company would pursue TSR’s long-held goal creating a Dungeons & Dragons feature film—the company pegged its hopes on a screenplay penned by veteran writer James Goldman. The enterprise scored an early success with the September 17, 1983 premier of a Dungeons & Dragons CBS Saturday morning cartoon produced by Marvel. Media drawing on TSR’s intellectual property would serve both as a source of licensing revenue and as a further marketing tool to draw new fans to Dungeons & Dragons.

    Gygax's influence certainly spread the D&D brand far and wide. Unfortunately, his absence from the leadership of the company created a power vacuum that was filled by Lorraine Williams. The full tale of the story is told in Peterson's article.

    Lorraine Williams: Not a Gamer

    Lorraine Williams' hire was ostensibly from a business perspective -- or at least that's how stories characterized her arrival in TSR until Peterson's article was published. It seems the reasons behind her hiring were much more prosaic:

    Given that neither Gygax personally nor TSR could raise the capital to purchase the Blume family stock, how was Williams, a new hire, in a position to do so? The answer is that Williams came from money, and that her hiring was actually contingent on her investment in the company in several respects.

    Of particular note is that Williams was not a gamer. This would become a bone of contention when she was leading TSR. But initially, Gygax recognized Williams' talent for business:

    Flint arranged for Gygax to meet his sister, Lorraine Dille Williams, who, in addition to the Buck Rogers fortune, had experience in hospital and not-for-profit administration. Gygax asked Williams to invest in TSR; Williams demurred, but agreed to advise Gygax on how to get the company back on its feet. In May, 1985, Gygax exercised a stock option which gave him a controlling interest in TSR; he named himself CEO, and hired Williams as a general manager.

    It was not to last. To Gygax's surprise, Williams took over the reins of TSR and -- once the courts upheld the decision -- Gygax walked away from the company he helped found. Williams' perspective on what happened is illuminating, as told to Paul La Farge:

    “There’s no great, hidden story,” Williams told me, “as much as people would like there to be one.” She saw the potential for TSR to move beyond the sluggish market for role-playing games: “If you look at the track record of what has been published by TSR, and how many people in the fantasy and science fiction area got their start publishing with TSR, it’s impressive. And I found that exciting. I also saw an opportunity that we were never really able to capitalize on, and that was the ability to go in and develop intellectual property.” She moved in. “And it was my intention at that time,” she said, “and I really thought that Gary and I had actually worked out the deal, that he would continue to have a very strong role, a leading role in the creative process, and I would take over the management. But that didn’t work for a bunch of really extraneous reasons.”

    Allen Rausch picks up the story:

    Lorraine Williams was described as having a sense of noblesse oblige. While she considered gamers and most of her workers her social inferiors, and held it as a point of pride that she had never played Dungeons & Dragons, she nonetheless did have a soft side that came out in various ways during her tenure as the head of TSR. One TSR worker whose wife was severely mentally ill was kept on the TSR payroll for years, despite his long absences while he cared for her. She also loved animals. TSR would occasionally hold a "Bring Your Pet to Work" day and gave a great deal of money to animal welfare charities. Unfortunately, that softer side wasn't on display all that often during her years at the company, and Lorraine Williams would enter the annals of Dungeons & Dragons history as one of the most reviled people ever associated with the hobby.

    Gygax is considerably less kind, in his own words:

    The capacity of Lorraine Williams to manage a game company is no longer in question. With a debt load of perhaps $30 million dollars or more, and facing bankruptcy soon, she sold out to Wizards of the Coast in 1997. That is surely a step in the right direction for TSR. Gary believes. Williams despised gamers, and she stated in his presence that they were not her "social equals". She also claimed she was going to show the game industry how business should be conducted. Some lesson.

    Williams, who had more business experience, oversaw TSR's downfall. What went wrong?

    Should the D&D CEO Be a Gamer?

    This question looms large in the history of TSR. Gygax's opinion is clear: Williams' disdain for gamers was responsible for TSR's demise. Ryan Dancey, then Brand Manager at WOTC, sorted through the aftermath and came to a simple conclusion:

    In all my research into TSR's business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found - one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available. No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No "voice of the customer". TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data. They didn't know how to listen - as an institution, listening to customers was considered something that other companies had to do - TSR lead, everyone else followed.

    Was this Williams' fault alone? Certainly, the financial difficulties TSR experienced existed before she arrived -- that was at least partially why she was hired -- but the later management of the company has been judged harshly by history: lawsuits against Gygax, threats of lawsuits against fans, and ultimately the company's near bankruptcy. TSR figured a lot out as it went along. It seems the company's biggest flaw was that it never figured out how to adapt to an evolving game market it helped create.

    Contrasting Gygax and Williams' management of the company is much easier to do with the benefit of hindsight. The leadership of Dungeons & Dragons picks up at Wizards of the Coast, and following that thread is an illuminating comparison into another company's management of the D&D brand.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
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