Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Topics: Entertainment News
They cut off the Minotaur’s head in February. On the scruffy stretch of street known as “the Ave” in Seattle’s University District, Wizards of the Coast shut down its flagship gaming center. For years the center had been a Mecca to players of fantasy card games like Magic: The Gathering and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, both of which Wizards published. A trippy monument to all things gooberish, the Wizards gaming hall had been planned by frothing geek executives, financed with an exorbitant bankroll and decked out in a style somewhere between Chuck E. Cheese and the Rainforest Cafe.
It included a gaming store, complete with life-size statues of characters from “Star Wars” and Magic; a video arcade populated by panhandling street kids who looked like extras from “Blade Runner”; a virtual reality gaming area with climb-in cockpit pods for networked giant robot battles; a Planet Hollywood-style restaurant, Dalmuti’s, decorated in a gaming theme; and in the massive basement, a sort of community center for gamers stocked with tables, chairs and the kind of plush curtains and heraldic banners suited to an Errol Flynn movie — or dinner with the kids at Medieval Times. In this subterranean paradise Wizards hosted a steady stream of card game tournaments and other events, including Microsoft’s 1998 Age of Empires computer game championships.
Over the stairway that led down to Ye Olde Gaming Hall loomed a massive sculpture of a Minotaur head. When the store closed, unable to generate sufficient profits for Wizards’ new corporate owner, Hasbro, impatient workmen pried the head off the wall in chunks, escorting them to the curb, where they awaited an uncertain fate.
The store had been the Xanadu of geekdom, erected by gaming’s own Kublai Khan: Peter Adkison, founder of Wizards and a cherubic visionary who imagined a better, more goblin-infested world where gamers played games and no one gave them wedgies.
I worked at Wizards back in its halcyon days, when we all bought into Peter’s vision. Today, as I watch the carnage wrought upon another crop of idealistic and iconoclastic start-ups — the new-economy dot-coms — it is hard to escape the feeling that the story of Peter and his company, Wizards of the Coast, stands as an eerie prototype for the entire dot-com experience. Wizards blazed a trail through corporate culture that turned old notions of professionalism and workplace community on their head in the pursuit of a Utopian ideal where geeks would be rich, be cool and get laid. Unlike the dot-coms, however, Wizards survived and even thrived because Peter learned an important lesson early on: Kill your illusions before they kill you.
Once a humble Boeing aerospace drone, Peter founded Wizards in 1990 to publish “The Primal Order,” a role-playing game book intended as a generic add-on to whatever game you were already playing. “Primal Order” was all about deities and pantheons, the power-heavy end of the fantasy role-playing spectrum. Among other things, it provided formulas for esoterica such as how many trolls were praying to their god in a given month — chicken soup for the soul of many gamers. Peter wrote much of the book himself and assembled a coterie of enthusiastic, aspiring young professionals to bring it to market in their spare time.
An appendix inadvertently packed with copyright violations landed the fledgling basement operation in hot legal water with Palladium, a competing publisher whose game was referenced without permission in “The Primal Order.” Palladium sued.
While the court process dragged on, Peter and his friends turned to a greener pasture. Mathematician Richard Garfield had conceived a revolutionary product: a collectible card game, with customizable decks and a distribution system of common and rare cards sold in slim packs like baseball cards. To build a better deck, you had to buy or trade more cards. And although Garfield intended the scheme to be an interesting exercise in metagame design, its potential as a financial gravy train was also an intriguing factor.
As a legal shelter from the copyright-infringement case, Peter set up a new corporation, Garfield Games, which developed what came to be Magic: The Gathering. Garfield Games then licensed the production and sale rights to Wizards until the court case was settled, at which point the shell company was shut down. It was a sterling piece of gamesmanship that kept the valuable new property shielded from the courts, the corporate equivalent of three-card monte.
Wizards first showed off Magic in the summer of 1993 at the Origins game convention in Dallas. I had my own small gaming company, Pagan Publishing, at the show and spent some time hanging out with the Wizards folks. They had just received the first small shipment of actual printed cards from Belgium, and seduced my business partner Jeff and me into giving it a whirl. Intoxicated from heavy drinking and coached by Peter and the other staffers, Jeff and I played the first game of Magic using actual cards.
It was a disaster. The game creaked past an hour and was an interminable bore. Peter assured us that this first batch mostly consisted of specialized rare cards, which in practice should only be used sparingly. Whatever. We left the convention thinking that Wizards had an expensive failure on its hands.
A year later, Wizards hired me. In the months in between, Magic had hit the gaming hobby like an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, spreading virally from geek to geek with its combination of endless strategy and collectibility. It was propelled by the nascent popularity of the Internet, where the Magic Usenet discussion forum swiftly became one of the most popular in the world — occasionally usurping the place of even the pornographic-picture forums at the top of the virtual geek-culture heap.
Although Wizards didn’t even have a Web site back then, the parallels between the company and the dot-coms that followed were numerous — in some parallel universe, Peter Adkison and Jeff Bezos must be star-crossed lovers. Like the founder of Amazon.com, Peter was a geeky idealist who started a new company in his Seattle home and launched a product whose success was interwoven with that of the Internet itself, as early adopters of the game filled Usenet forums with discussions of strategy and recipes for specific deck constructions. Peter even pitched Wizards as a customer-centric company, hiring an ever-widening swath of young customer service reps who could interpret the arcana of Magic rules to gamers on demand via e-mail and telephone. This was an unheard-of innovation in the gaming industry, where rules questions were usually answered by whatever bearded company grognard opened the fan mail on a given day, and only then if you included a SASE and made an intelligent reference to Robert Heinlein.
Wizards also experienced explosive growth. I joined the company in May 1994, when there were about 50 employees — already up massively from a year earlier, when only a handful of people worked at the company. By the summer of 1995, the employee rolls stood at 250 and climbing.
In addition, Wizards used strategic alliances to co-opt competitors, much as Amazon.com did with companies like Drugstore.com and Pets.com. Peter quickly cut license deals with other game companies so that Wizards could produce new trading-card games based on its most successful properties. This delayed the entry of those companies into the market as direct competitors, especially when Wizards simply sat on many of the licenses indefinitely. Some of the best properties in gaming missed out on the early years of the trading-card gold rush, gathering dust in the licensing-agreement file cabinets of Wizards of the Coast.
But finally, the most important area where Wizards innovated and dot-coms unknowingly followed was in the workplace itself. Peter had a vision for a new kind of company, a company that could change the corporate world forever. We served as his lab rats — and soon we would be lost in the labyrinths of his heart.
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Amid the chaos of those early days, I arrived at Wizards a couple of weeks before my boss did. He was Jonathan Tweet, an innovative role-playing game designer responsible for Ars Magica and Over the Edge, and he hired me to serve as his lieutenant. Now that Wizards was consumed with card games, Peter faced a challenge: how to continue publishing the kinds of role-playing game material he dearly loved when trading-card games like Magic were vastly more successful. Our charter was to expand the audience with a breakthrough game, and Peter assured us we were not merely to be the caretakers of a Wizards role-playing museum. He still ran his own Dungeons & Dragons campaign, after all, and enthusiastically wanted his company to continue publishing role-playing books.
The first thing I noticed about my new employer was how the halls of the offices ran rampant with representatives of alt culture. Up to that point managers’ hiring practices seemingly consisted of recruiting anyone they gamed, partied or slept with, and preferably all three. If you were a Seattle gamer in 1994-95, you had to be willfully incompetent to not get a job at Wizards. (That happened, of course. One guy interviewing for a customer service position expressed enthusiasm at the anything-goes dress code, since it meant he could wear his “Star Trek” uniform to work every day. I myself interviewed Raven C.S. McCracken, who was already a legendary industry boob for his terrible self-published role-playing game, the World of Synnibarr. When Raven told me that if I didn’t hire him his next job interview would be at Burger King, I thanked him for his time and politely showed him the door. The aspiring Enterprise crewman suffered the same fate.)
In particular, the goth subculture of Seattle was strongly represented, with numerous employees dressed in black and various bits of metal glinting in their clothes or skin. The crossover between the goth scene and the role-playing geek community was strong thanks to Vampire: The Masquerade, a hugely successful game whose premise was ripped bleeding from the novels of Anne Rice. The goths of Wizards had the cheerful, morbid humor endemic to their society, along with a dramatically heightened sense of outrage to perceived slights or efforts to sell out. One employee, Rhias, wore an impressive variety of black corsets to work every day and kept a mummified dead cat nailed to the wall of her apartment. Her manager, Steve, had a wicker basket on his desk. When subordinates came to ask him something, he would act out lines from “The Silence of the Lambs”: “It puts the lotion in the basket! It does this whenever it is told!” Until you put a bottle of hand lotion in the basket, he would not answer your question.
We were young, overeducated and underemployed. Wizards was my first job in the real world — if you can call it that — and I was hardly alone.
Above all, we were equals. Peter Adkison told us so. He had left Boeing with a sacrament of buzzwords and platitudes that he transmuted into full-bore Utopian evangelicalism. We would work in organic cross-departmental teams, study the esoteric principles of “Continuous Quality Improvement,” and always strive toward the paramount goal of consensus, the magical process that somehow replaced old-school hierarchical decision making. We received exorbitant salaries, cradle-to-grave health and mental benefits and a magnanimous 401K plan, and there were whispers of stock options — not that we knew what they were in those innocent days, when we browsed the Web with Mosaic and hung out on AOL.
There was free soda, free parking and free T-shirts. We played computer games after hours, bought cars and houses, made therapy appointments with a zero deductible and pursued the same goal. It was the mission statement Peter had conceived during an endless team meeting: We would make games as big as the movies.
Of course, they already were. Computer games were beginning to best Hollywood in revenues. But we wanted to bring that success to analog games, to coin a phrase — card games, board games and role-playing games. We wanted families, hipsters, political prisoners, heads of state and space aliens to all play our games, as often as they could, and bring about a smarter world where people talked to each other more often. About goblins.
Grand as that goal was, I don’t believe it was the heart of Peter’s vision. That honor lay with his dream of revolutionizing corporate culture itself, of making Wizards a new kind of company. We would build an alt-culture workplace of smart young people. We would destroy hierarchies by a resolute program of egalitarian consensus. We would earn fabulous paychecks and free dental treatments. We would encourage diversity in every form.
Best of all, though, we would fuck like rabbits. On “Who Knew? Day” employees wore badges proclaiming their sexual orientation. Intimate relationships sprouted like mold on bread, cutting across departments and seniorities with the hierarchy-smashing fervor of our consensus-driven team meetings. Heedless of status, even peasants and princes coupled, and fell apart.
The example was set right at the top: Peter and his wife, also an employee, had an open marriage. Wizards was a big horny summer camp, and we were starring in the teen sex comedy of our fevered dreams.
That August brought GenCon, the largest game convention in the country, and 20,000 or so joyful, pimply gamers descended on mild-mannered Milwaukee. That year Wizards took the unusual step of sending the entire company to the convention as an extravagant team-building exercise. It was four days of metaphorical firewalking, and when we came back we were exhausted.
Not content to stop there, Peter had another plan. He would rent a sizable ski lodge and charter a bus, and we’d all spend a weekend frolicking in the woods. About 30 of us went. We played games, ate junk food and drank heavily. And then, late at night, a bunch of us piled into a dark room and played Truth or Swill.
The game was organized, more or less, by Kyle, the head of customer service, and Corey, a co-worker of Rhias and Steve who helped them run the Magic tournament league. Both were gleeful cynics, black-humored children of goth and all-around entertaining guys. Before the game started Kyle was busy shaving Corey’s head so he’d look more like Jean Reno in “The Professional.”
Truth or Swill is one of those elemental games people play to break down social barriers. Each player in turn asks another player a personal question, and the player either answers truthfully or has to drink a shot of some crazed liquor swill. The questions typically deal with sex, in an ever-descending spiral of lewdness and intimacy. Truth or Swill is an unusual game in that it relies completely on trust. Any player can lie with impunity. There’s no mechanism to challenge a statement, no formula to define interpersonal bonding.
The Wizards’ Truth or Swill session was no different. By candlelight we climbed onto bunk beds, drinking steadily, and dropped our boundaries. One of the most common questions, of course, was which Wizards employee you would like to have sex with — or had already had sex with.
Basking in shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity with his employees, Peter Adkison rattled off his workplace sexual encounters, both actual and desired. He wasn’t boasting, vain or predatory. He just loved all of us, from the depths of his innocent geek heart, and saw nothing wrong with talking about his corporate sex life. We were all in this together, pioneering settlers of a new and better world.
Among a group of friends or colleagues, a game like this can be an amusing if occasionally disastrous good time. But among co-workers, on an official company function, with the CEO of the company and Linda, the head of human resources, openly participating, well … it was a train wreck.
Not that we realized it that night. I didn’t pay any attention to Carrie, a newly hired employee and sister to one of the executives, who came in for a few minutes and then abruptly left. No, that night the Utopian egalitarianism of Peter Adkison’s geek vision revealed its most intimate summit: Wizards was indeed all about geeks getting rich, cool and laid, with nary a wedgie in sight. At long last, we had achieved consensus.
Like the dot-coms that followed, we were going to build a planet where geeks evolved from humans. But all we built was a madhouse, and then the bastards blew it up.
Part 2: How Wizards of the Coast wised up, and traded drinking games for the fun of brand management.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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