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TSR's Amazing Accounting Department

The time is 1987 and I was the Vice President of the design and editors. It was a great job because TSR had amazing people doing the design and editing of product. I wasn't liked much by upper management at TSR after Gary left the company. I don't do well with authority figures that I do not believe know what they are doing. So I was fairly sure I didn't have long to work at TSR. However, I didn't count on the product schedule keeping me there for as long as it did.


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Note from Morrus -- this is the fifth of Jim Ward's series of articles here on EN World! Upcoming articles include SSI and AD&D Computer Games, and The Origin of Monty Haul! Please let us know in the comments about topics you'd like to hear, and don't forget to check out Jonathan Tweet's new column!


We, and I mean the company, got further and further behind in our release schedule because a great many of the managers and all of the upper management didn't know anything about roleplaying product and could care less. I was in the middle of things as Director of Product. The head of the company actually wanted TSR to do other things besides role-playing games that didn't include gaming at all. She had us doing things like Hollywood comic books and audio CDs instead of role-playing products.

Jack Morrisey was the head of sales and he was sharp. There wasn't anything about sales he didn't know. He always maintained that we needed to have covers and back cover text six months before the product released. This concept was because we needed retail stores and distributors to schedule our products in their monthly sales budget. At the time that type of TSR schedule wasn't coming even close to happening.

Against their better judgment, they made me a vice president of creative services and the schedule was my primary concern. I'm a goal-centered type of dude. Give me a goal and I'm on it like white on rice.

On this topic, I would like to give the product managers and Bruce Heard credit for doing the hardest part of the work. In those days we had product managers and a group of designers and editors for every one of the campaign worlds TSR produced. This means there was a Ravenloft product manager, an Al Qadim Product Manager, a Dragonlance Product Manager and so on. Most of my people were in at least two groups. They learned to love the products in their group and have a genuine desire to make an excellent product. I watched them like hawks, and they did the lion's share of the work. I did think of a great trick. I had all of the game designers from all the product groups, and we had a lot of them, give me their entire weeks worth of design work every Friday in a printout. I didn't have the time to read all of the material, but I could spend the weekend and read one of the efforts of a designer. However, none of them wanted to be judged as coming up short on their work. I would always hand back a review of that designer's material and tried hard to always be positive. You would be amazed at the volume of work that trick produced from the designers.

Eventually, thanks to everyone's efforts in about six months we had gotten ahead in the schedule and were six months early on the products and our department was very happy with the effort. Sales was ecstatic and orders went way up.

Then, horror of horrors, a new head accountant was hired.

At the time I was really happy with all the editors, designers, and artists at TSR. They are doing a great job in a timely manner. Bruce Heard was working great with the freelance people and doing a tremendous job of keeping them on schedule. When nasty events like a freelance designer falling off the grid; which happened all the time; Bruce was there with a good replacement. He and I argued a time or two, but I always respected his talents.

So, it was a happy and very satisfied “experienced and jaded James M. Ward” that walked into an officer's meeting. Unfortunately for me, Jack Morrissy wasn't working at TSR any more. We had a new sales guy that was an expert in mass market sales. Upper management really wanted TSR to crack the mass market sales area. It was a good idea, but TSR, in my mind, wasn't positioned with a product that would do that.

The new crazed head of accounting told me that TSR couldn't afford to be so far ahead in our production schedule. He tried to tell me it was costing TSR money to have products waiting to be sold for months at a time. He wanted to have the products finished exactly one month before the product was released.

People, I really couldn't believe what I was hearing. I appealed to the sales vice president about the timing of releases. He didn't back me up at all. I went through the design process and told them how truly difficult it was to create products with the typesetting, design, and art necessary in each one. The company was working on large boxed sets at the time and they took even more time. I talked about bumps in the schedule from designers and editors getting sick, to wrong estimates on how long some of the large projects would take.

It was all for nothing. I was sternly ordered to change the schedule so that releases were closer exactly one month before the due date. I walked out of the meeting shaking my head at the stupidity of upper management who knew nothing about the role-playing business and could care less.

I actually enjoy following orders if they make sense to me. This direction was totally against everything I had been doing for the last year and a half. The end result was that I never changed what we were doing. When asked about it at Vice President meetings I lied like a rug. The last two years of my stay at TSR the company made the most money they ever made on product schedules. The other vice presidents and the president of the company never noticed I didn't do what was ordered of me.

Although I didn't tell my people of that meeting, word must have leaked out somehow. I seemed to have earned a reputation as a Ranger protecting the Hobbits (designers and editors) from the Nazgul (upper management).

I don't feel bad about ignoring that order to this day.
 
Jim Ward

Comments

Parmandur

Adventurer
At first, TSR was run by gamers who knew very little about business. Later, TSR was run by business people who knew very little about gaming. Neither worked well.
Worse, the business people didn't seem to know about business, either.
 
Speaking as a businessman (an MBA, no less!) living in 2019, looking back at business practices just a few decades ago... the idea that a company like TSR would be run by people who weren't enthusiastic about the product seems absurd. Today, upper managers are expected to be obsessive about everything their company does - it's product, it's history, the contours of the industry... the management-is-management model is dead. Even in the massive, dull megabank that I work for, we're expected to be "passionate team players", and while I'm a pretty deep cynic about my firm, I'm pretty obsessive about my industry - delving into history, the dynamics of the industry, new product, etc. The idea that the heads of a game company wouldn't be even more focused just seems nuts, especially given that's not exactly an industry known for generating great fortunes (Peter Adkison's Poke-Millions aside)...
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
At first, TSR was run by gamers who knew very little about business. Later, TSR was run by business people who knew very little about gaming. Neither worked well.
It seems like a few of them were business people who knew very little about business.

Double posts aren't unusual. But 12 minutes apart? LOL.

Also, I hate Agile. I can see the benefit of Agile, but in my experience using it (I am a project manager for a large company), the actual amount of work you get done compared to waterfall is much less. Spending so much time talking about backlogs and burn down charts and stand up meetings, that you have less time to actually work on your project. Sprint planning never goes as planned or is finished on time, which causes delayed sign off, and people keep trying to change the acceptance criteria after user stories have been signed off. People seem to think that because there is no formalized and approved FSD or BRD, that means requirements are fluid and can change at any time, even after the QA process has begun. It's frustrating. But it's the big thing right now. Like Six Sigma (also garbage for any non-production line environments) was 15 years ago.
It hurts me to see Agile automatically associated with Scrum.

This remains the Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

A lot of very smart people came up with it or at least put their names on it.

Strict adherence to Scrum process flies in the face of all that. And I say that as someone who actually likes a lot of the scrum ceremonies as they seem to take a lot of the the random willy-nilly conversations I every 15 minutes often the same conversations multiple times a day just with different people, which really kills productivity, and regiment them. But it's certainly not the only way to curb the communication problems common to development. And should never be held with religious like reverence.
 

JLowder

Villager
I suspect Jim means the 1980s for getting the catalog material done further in advance. In 1988, when I started with TSR, the company was already working with advance catalog copy and cover art. Editors and line heads had to provide summaries of content for each product, along with cover art orders, months ahead of time, frequently well before the books were written. (That's how you end up with the occasional cover–product mismatches, like Tantras, both novel and module. The Avatar covers were painted long before the novels and the modules.)

RPG Geek has entries for many of the TSR company catalogs from the late 80s and 90s here: https://rpggeek.com/rpgseries/19204/tsr-product-catalogues

Between 1988 and early 1994, when I stopped working with TSR, the overall movement had been to complete products earlier, for a variety of reasons (to provide near-finished books to fiction reviewers who wanted galleys six months before publication, to have more time to schedule for the best print costs, to increase overall schedule flexibility, and so on). By the mid-1990s, the company was completing RPG and fiction material further ahead of ship date than they had in the late 1980s. And that meant an increase in the time gap between when the freelancers were being paid for a product and when the company brought in any money from that same product. (Random House typically paid TSR on ship.)

TSR's cash flow problems made themselves known outside the company by 1995 or early 1996, when the company started to pay bills late. By 1996, they had stopped paying me and many of the fiction authors the royalties that were due quarterly. They owed a long list of individual writers tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that's just the debt for late/unpaid fiction royalties. Freelancer payments of other sorts had become routinely late, too. As we know now, TSR was in a financial tailspin.

If a dictate on the production schedule--shortening up the time between project completion and ship--came down from upper management, that would have been why. The completion–ship gap was one of the few areas where TSR could control the pace of the cash outlay for products. Shortening the gap to one month is ludicrous, of course, but it would not have been unusual for management to go completely overboard on such a dictate. That's just speculation, though. I was outside the company at that point and did not see that dictate play out firsthand.

--James Lowder
 
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Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
I roll to disbelieve.
I'm sure part of it has to do with what type of environment you're in (I imagine a smaller shop would be much better suited for Agile), but I've done waterfall for 16 years, and Agile for the past 4. I'm telling you, in my experience, Agile slows down how much work actually gets done because you're spending more time bouncing around ideas no one ever comes to consensus on on rather than have a stricter timeline of checkpoints and documentation to follow. Not once did I have requirements change in the FSD after it had been approved with waterfall. Happens all the time in Agile, which drives the testers mad because the stuff they just spent their time testing now and suddenly becomes irrelevant. LOTS of wasted effort in Agile, especially around that area of QA testing with stories constantly overwriting previous ones that haven't even had that sprint finish yet.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
I suspect Jim means the 1980s for getting the catalog material done farther in advance. In 1988, when I started with TSR, the company was already working with advance catalog copy and cover art. Editors and line heads had to provide summaries of content for each product, along with cover art orders, months ahead of time, frequently well before the books were written. (That's how you end up with the occasional cover-product mismatches, like Tantras, both novel and module. The Avatar covers were finished long before the novels and the modules.)

RPG Geek has entries for many of the TSR company catalogs from the late 80s and 90s here: https://rpggeek.com/rpgseries/19204/tsr-product-catalogues

Between 1988 and early 1994, when I stopped working with TSR, the overall movement had been to complete products earlier, for a variety of reasons (to provide near-finished books to fiction reviewers who wanted galleys six months before publication, to have more time to schedule for the best print costs, to increase overall schedule flexibility, and so on). By the mid-1990s, the company was completing RPG and fiction material farther ahead of ship date than they had in the late 1980s. And that meant an increase in the time gap between when the freelancers were being paid for a product and when the company brought in any money from that same product. (Random House typically paid TSR on ship.)

TSR's cash flow problems made themselves known outside the company by 1995 or early 1996, when the company started to pay bills late. By 1996, they had stopped paying me and many of the fiction authors the royalties that were due several times a year. They owed a long list of individual writers tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that's just the debt for late/unpaid fiction royalties. Freelancer payments of other sorts had become routinely late, too. As we know now, TSR was in a financial tailspin.

If a dictate on the production schedule--shortening up the time between project completion and ship--came down from upper management, that would have been why. The completion–ship gap would have been one of the few areas where TSR could control the pace of the cash outlay for products. Shortening the gap to one month is ludicrous, of course, but it would not have been unusual for management to go completely overboard on such a dictate. That's just speculation, though. I was outside the company at that point and did not see that dictate play out firsthand.

--James Lowder
You wrote Ring of Winter? I really enjoyed that on my flight from Portland to Seoul for my first deployment as a young private in the army back in the day. Thanks for the good memory!
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
As an accountant, Just-In-Time (JIT) is popular and can result in reduced storage costs.
Having worked in companies that ran their key operations on JIT I twitch every time I see the phrase, because far too often in reality Just-In-Time ended up as Just-A-Bit-Late; which is a [female dog] when you're expected to make sales targets on product you don't have...
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
The insiders's history of these events are fascinating, looking forward to more. On the Monty Haul thing, we were using the term by 1979-80 as I recall for some DnD games. I also recall a comic strip with it at some point. Wikipedia "Let's Make A Deal" with Monty Haul for those of you who weren't alive back then. You'll quickly understand why it was a derogatory term for some DnD games/campaigns.
Monty Hall, "Haul" was a great parody!

At least in the USA, the show "Let's Make a Deal" was revived several years ago, though the host has, of course, changed. If you spend time in waiting rooms or PT offices like me, you develop a fine taste for Game Show Network shows.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
It seems like a few of them were business people who knew very little about business.
That seems to be all too common among the kinds of small to medium cap companies like TSR back in Ye Olden Tymes. My dad worked for several, eventually advancing to just below the Vice President level---he was too much of a straight shooter to survive that level---and some of the tales he had of the upper management would peel paint.

One company's ownership had made so many foolish decisions in the bedroom it had serious consequences for the boardroom due to all the owed alimony. The owner would travel around the world ostensibly visiting factories to "learn about best practices" but he'd conveniently always end up in places like Bangkok... Manila... Vegas... of course, wife back home would eventually find out and.... Of course, appearances were such that evidently he "needed" to get married again and the cycle would continue.

Another company wouldn't divest itself of unprofitable product lines because the owner "preferred to to hang out with the people in the fifty to hundred million cap group to the twenty to fifty." That's despite the fact that he'd have ended up taking home a lot more money.

This is so pervasive I know someone who is retired now but used to be in a business school who had a productive academic career writing and researching this kind of thing.

You can have a great product that really sets the market and coast for a long time on that but eventually things catch up. That seems, in no small part, to be what happened to TSR. The stuff that late TSR was turning out is great. Take a look at the modules they generated for lines like Dark Sun, Planescape, Greyhawk, and even non-world specific---they're amazing! WotC inherited a fantastic pipeline and some of their best work was started under TSR.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
The more I read about TSR's history the more I wonder just how it held together as long as it did.
A senior professor I knew in grad school had done a good bit of work on the topic of business failures. Especially a company that had a killer product generated by a founder can often last a long time on the momentum started that way, which can cover for a lot of business shenanigans. But yeah, TSR sure did seem to have some real problems along the way until they finally died.

It may be hard (and sobering for those of us of a certain age) to realize, but WotC has owned D&D for nearly as long as TSR. TSR went from 1974 to 1997, so 23 years, and WotC has owned it for 22....
 

Parmandur

Adventurer
A senior professor I knew in grad school had done a good bit of work on the topic of business failures. Especially a company that had a killer product generated by a founder can often last a long time on the momentum started that way, which can cover for a lot of business shenanigans. But yeah, TSR sure did seem to have some real problems along the way until they finally died.

It may be hard (and sobering for those of us of a certain age) to realize, but WotC has owned D&D for nearly as long as TSR. TSR went from 1974 to 1997, so 23 years, and WotC has owned it for 22....
Yeah, it's not like Scrooge McDuck levels, but D&D brought in a lot of money: in the end, it wasn't even lack of sales that seemed to do them in, but they overextended themselves in expenditure and loans...
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Yeah, it's not like Scrooge McDuck levels, but D&D brought in a lot of money: in the end, it wasn't even lack of sales that seemed to do them in, but they overextended themselves in expenditure and loans...
It sure did, and they had some failed Venger... er, ventures, such as when Gary Gygax went to Hollywood looking to break into the larger entertainment industry. But they survived that and even managed to do fairly well despite the loss of Gygax as the founder for nearly a dozen years.
 

Parmandur

Adventurer
Tried to work out when the got themselves in trouble. Best I can work out is 1993.
They were playing Russian Roulette with their whole business model, they got themselves in trouble way before 1993: they had a very strong run of luck.
 

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