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How Card Games Came to Dominate 1990s

Well, I had just such a chance when it came to my attention (somebody poked me and pointed it out) that there was a seminar offered at LA's Gamex from Peter Adkison. He was offering to share secrets about the rise of Wizards of the Coast. Now, this may be old news to some. As this didn't occur that many years ago, I was interested, so I went in to listen.

I was the only person in the room who didn't arrive with Mr. Adkison. He graciously offered to give the seminar to an audience of one (two if you count his buddy). So here's the belated exclusive. First, I'm not a great fan of the Wizards products, but I know a lot of you who are. I'm a fan, just not a great, wait-in-line-for-hours-for-a-few-cards fan. Oh, I have them and play them, but I could speak more highly of Talislanta (which WOTC made products for) than Magic: The Gathering. While you were in line to get those magic cards that are now worth a fortune, I was waiting for Walter Koenig to sign my Trek book. (Hey, he was Chekov for gosh sakes.) So, those of you that want to know details of what card is what, next time, you should attend because he would probably answer whatever question that you might offer. I got my licks in, so read along.

The only negative thing he said is that he didn't like the politics at Hasbro, so he ended his employment with them. Big whup. I don't like the politics at Hasbro either, and I have no clue what those politics might be.

First Impressions - Lemonade
My first impression was when he walked into the room. He was talking with his companion that he had been kicked out of a game the night before. His picture in the brochure did not do him justice. He looked old in the picture, but he was young and seemed happy. Not happy like I got a billion dollars in my mutual funds (which he probably does). But happy like, I'm drinking lemonade from the lemons that someone just gave me. This was the kind of happy that people who smile seem to attract to them. (Wait a minute, there's an idea for a great book. Think Happy, be happy ---- nahh, that will never work.) When he was expelled from the game, he went to his room and slept. Lemonade.

So, the story starts in the early 90's when a few gamers who made their own game materials got together and decided they should start a game company and make their products reflecting their taste in gaming. They made a few products including Talislanta material and a little game supplement called The Primal Order. None of these games shook the gaming world as games go, but they were well made small press. They had an audience. I mention Primal Order because it created a bit of controversy with Palladium. In the back of the game, it included rules for converting their supplement into other game systems. Palladium sued them to remove the material.

This did shake the small but proud gaming community at the time. The hobby was a gentleman's distraction, and we didn't prefer that sort of hardball tactic. But, Palladium's rights had been breached, and they had to defend their copyrights. Gamers were forming up sides way back when and most were on the side of Wizards, if I recall correctly.

Can I get a little dirt here?
I tried to get Mr. Adkison to dog out the publisher of Palladium and express a bit of exasperation that I could interpret as some sort of great feud, but there was nothing there. Lemonade. As you can guess, a lawsuit against a small publisher would involve lawyers and more money than they could afford to spend to defend their few assets. Better to fold and be done with it. But, WOTC stood the cause and defended their position. I remember reading about this fight as it was going on and I remember thinking that it was silly. A few phone calls and you could put this thing to bed, but for whatever reason, game designers defend their systems and don't always answer the phone. It is not clear to me how this ended but I bet that WOTC paid a small fee to Palladium and agreed to not do it again.

To demonstrate that I'm not so nice a person as Mr. Adkison, if a hot designer had jerked me around like that, I would take my billion dollars, every freakin' penny, and build a freakin' time machine and travel backward in time and write his game before him. Then, when he sued me, I'd humiliate him by showing him my copy of his game on clay tablets that I wrote word for word in 300 BC. I guess that would have caused quite a stir in the gaming community. All right, I would've paid Palladium too and apologized, but I wouldn't have been real sincere. So there.

Follow the Money to the first Lighting Bolt
From Peter's pitch (Mr. Adkison), the money for the business was being supplemented from his salary at Boeing at the time. Five people in the basement were trying to write material for their games. Now, even if you could afford to spend money on a lawyer and settlements, you couldn't afford the time. But, they were gaming, chasing their dream and surviving. What more could you want? (Oh, yea, medical insurance would be nice.)

Well, the great grandson of a US President walks into their studio to show them his simple card game. (I threw that extra fact in about Richard Arthur, descendent of President Chester Arthur because that little known fact keeps coming up whenever the game is discussed.) I also chose the word studio but I'm sure it was someone's living room. It just sounds cooler as a studio. Peter described the first sight of the game like a lightning bolt striking. They had to make this game. It was seriously cool and would be fun to do. Note, no one said "...and we'll make a billion dollars."

So, they begged, borrowed and cajoled all their relatives and friends to pony up some money and make this thing happen. Imagine asking your Mom for money after the mess that you just extracted yourself. Peter's recollection was $80K to get the first games made. I think I saw some of the cards from that first run in the local comic shop for like twice that amount on sale last weekend, and they were worn.

Again, five of them were working in someone's living room to assemble the art, test the rules, tweak it all and find a card manufacturer who could do the crazy things they wanted to do. Peter threw out praise for Mark Rein-Hagen from White Wolf for directing them to Cardamundi in Belgium for the card manufacturing. Our hobby is after all a gentleman's distraction.

I talked to their marketing person by chance during work on the original game, and she described it as a big thing. I was eager to see it, but had my own troubles. I was cold-calling game manufacturers at the time, trying to find out tidbits of the hobby, and sell a few ads. I think I gave them a free ad and they bought the back cover of the magazine (when it was printed) for the next six issues. I remember thinking that they were very generous for a small press.

So, they make the game, print it and the boxes come. They go to the conventions and show the game. Players play it, and they seem to enjoy it. The game is a great game, and the players love it. But what happened next was not the consumer clamoring for a better brand of toothpaste. There was a hysteria, as found only in cosmic events, like Pet Rocks or Farrah Fawcett Hair. What creates the hysteria is anyone's guess, but something happened -- Magic, the game, would define a decade.

The Game worked because I invented the Blinko rule
Now, I don't know for sure, but I get the impression that Peter was the business side of the operation; less involved in the process of game design and more involved in getting the pencils in the right people's hands. Now, I can imagine others who would say that the success of the enterprise was the introduction of this card or rule. But he described it in terms of cash flow and controlling costs. Of course, he's right. But someone's ego demands that it be said the game was great because of the introduction of one special rule. (Let's just say the Blinko rule.)

They made about two million the first year, fifty four million the next, one hundred million the next and one hundred and sixty million the next. Magic is one hundred million dollars a year in sales! Yet, from the telling of the tales, the first bit was still rough going.

WOTC was flying boxes of the product from Belgium, rather than shipping them by sea. The demand was too high to wait the extra six weeks. When they were trying to get their product for a later shipment of the first sets, they did not have the money to pay the printer. They were short a mere forty thousand dollars with all the credit sources tapped out. The printer would not release the order until he was paid in full. Mr. Adkison said something that shocked me more than anything else I heard that day, the game distributors offered to pay in ADVANCE for the product. Now, most of you won't appreciate the impossibility of that event. But I describe it like this -- if I built a billion dollar time machine, I wouldn't bother with Palladium, I would go back and listen to that conversation, just to see if I could believe it, if I heard it with my own ears. All fine people, game distributors, but to pay in advance, inconceivable.

The Day that Magic Died (or we thought it did)
So, the game is a great success, and the players can't get enough of the product. Yet the company is still one mistake from collapse, I shit you not. Someone at Wizards gets the great idea to print the next run of decks, Fallen Empires, at the exact amount that the players, shops, and distributors were requesting. This time WOTC orders the product and has it shipped prior to sending it to distributors. But, part of the appeal of the game was that you couldn't get it right away. When Magic became easy to acquire, many of the players thought something was wrong. How can a collector's card game be easy to collect? So the hype ended and gamers canceled their orders; shops canceled their orders. WOTC was in the soup.

Peter described it as phantom orders. During the panic of the first release. WOTC couldn't fill every order. They totaled the number of cases that each store wanted and delivered a percentage. The next time they asked for pre-orders, the game stores got wise. They lied and doubled or tripled what they said they could sell. The stores were just banking that the cards would again be rationed. Everyone inflated their order, expecting that after they received a portion they would have enough. Sneaky, game stores were getting greedy (as always). Likewise many gamers would ask for cards, far more than they expected to purchase. If one ice cream tasted nice, how about twelve? Part of the fun was the hunt for the cards.

I remember those days as a publisher. Now the generous aliens who at one time pre-paid in ADVANCE, left the bodies of the ruthless distributors; the penny-pinching, money grubbing scoundrels who control the hobby were transported back to where they were in the eighties, canceling orders. When you sell your product at a 55% discount, and you have to pay your printer up front, that doesn't leave much to buy a "Get-Even Time Machine."

The situation was resolved by equal sharing of the pain. Peter argued that they were in fact cards, and they would wear out. So the product would eventually all sell. But if the company collapsed, the golden goose would be gone. Okay, I put that metaphor in, as goose stories always sound friendlier. WOTC took some of the product; the distributors took some, and the game stores took some. Eventually, the product all sold, so the hobby middlemen still made out like bandits. (Bandit geese?)

A bullet was dodged, but the players thought that this must be the signal that the end was near. We finally killed the goose. The good old days are over and now we are living in the bad new days. But, the sales of Magic didn't show that death knell. If you print too many card games, you get to hold them for a while, but they eventually sell. (True for pet rocks and Farrah Fawcett Hair as well - or something like that.) So, the next products came out, and the players bought them, already nostalgic, remembering when the game was really big. When in fact it still is really big, a hundred million dollars yearly sustaining people.

But, the question would have to be asked whether the game was a game or a collection. Now, many would argue that it is still a collector card product, but WOTC decided that it should be a game. Wizards wanted to make sure, that Magic was a good game. Oh, I would be the first in line to complain about card inflation and rules explosion, but it appears that they consciously made the decision to promote the game, not the collector card angle.

Lightning Bolt #2
Peter seemed to take a special pride in having created the player tournaments in the game shops; they are effective. And, there are world championships in the hobby. I remember reading about guys winning one hundred thousand dollar prizes for the being the champion. I must say that as a geek gamer, this angle didn't appeal to me. But clearly, competition was part of the success of the company. As I said, I get the idea that Mr. Adkison is focused on the infrastructure of the business. He noted this as one of the three big lightning bolt events of the rise of WOTC. (Me, personally, I think it was the Blinko rule.)

So what happens next?
TSR had been struggling during this period for a number of reasons. Peter, the gentleman businessman, would say it had over extended product lines and a failure to control costs. A gamer geek like me would just mention Dragon Dice, and who thought that was a good idea? Now, Dragon Dice is a neat LITTLE game, but you couldn't sustain a big business like TSR selling dice for gosh sakes. And, should I utter a word about the Spell Fire collector card game?

Many saw WOTC as the reason why TSR was failing. The flawed logic goes something like this: if the gamers weren't buying Magic Cards, which are fun to play and colorful and in high demand, they would be buying these crappy Dice with the bad art and high price tag. Now, if the distributors paid in ADVANCE for the Dragon Dice, I would eat my hat. But that wasn't happening, and TSR was in trouble. I have to repeat again that Mr. Adkison said NOTHING bad about Dragon Dice. I simply couldn't resist. I don't remember if I asked Mr. Adkison about Spell Fire? But if I did, and he praised it, I'd be leading the movement to canonize him.

So, through complicated business dealings (i.e. someone wrote a check), TSR changed hands and with it Dungeons and Dragons. Gamers would focus on the mess with the paper mache castle at Gen Con, but instead the consummate business man focused on cutting costs and getting product released on time to generate cash flow. And, it seemed like by merging TSR and WOTC staff, that considerable savings could be realized.

What followed was as Peter described, a healing time. A few checks were written and disputes settled as best they could. You might notice that Arneson's and Gygax's names return to the D&D products. Writers that obtained fame with TSR were no longer with that company, all because of personality clash. That horrid Buck Rogers game just had to go. And it did. Again, Mr. Adkison may enjoy terrible games about Buck Rogers, but I freakin' don't. Now, many of you are not old sentimental fools like me, but that the return of Gary and Dave was nice to see. I watched while they kicked dirt at Gygax and Arneson, and I bet they deserved some of it. But didn't these guys pretty much create it all? When you tumble those dice in your fingers, don't you every once in a while recall that some guy thought this up in his basement.

Dungeons and Dragons 3 was released, and as Peter described, it fixed a lot of the problems with that game. Again, I got a different opinion this week, but I'm bitter. (Oh yea, I'm bitter.) Of course, TSR sold a jillion copies of D&D3 and I'll blab more on that later. The company is solid, the product is in the glide path, and the world is nice and stable. Blinko.

The Third Bolt (and this one is Pink)
About that time, the third bolt arrived -- Pokemon. If all the tales of Magic were big, this game dwarfed Magic. Pokemon was colossal. Either the seminar was running out of steam, or no one needed to say much about Pokemon. Print as many cards as you could and sell them. The kids loved it and still do. No doubt, WOTC were prepared to make this product learning all on their experiences with Magic. The company knew what to do and executed.

Mr. Adkison threw out a number like $600 million in yearly sales for Pokemon, serious money.

The tale ends for now when Hasbro makes a ridiculous offer, and the company is gobbled up lock, stock and Pikachu. Is this good for the hobby? Who knows? Peter continued with Hasbro, but described it as too political. He indicated that it was impossible to make games, because you had to get everything approved by a dozen committees. Staffed by geese - okay I made that part up. I didn't ask, but I bet it was too close to working for Boeing.

So, Adkison is now managing conventions including Gen Con and the new Gen Con West. Will the steady hand of a good management team improve game conventions? Yes. I was going to say something pithy and biting or obliquely refer to the imaginary Blinko rule, but Yes is really the right answer.

I have no idea how long we talked. I was exhausted, but the information was exhilarating. Mr. Adkison was absolutely fabulous, even when I insulted his games. Okay I was gentle, this guy can build a time machine and come back and kick my ass. I'll bitch about new and improved D&D some other time, but I got to spend a moment with one of the humble giants of our hobby. Rather fine it was. So, have a drink of Lemonade, always remember the Blinko rule, and wait for the lighting. There's always lightning striking someplace, and a decade ahead for it to strike you.

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