Death to the Minotaur

After a disastrous corporate drinking game, Wizards of the Coast grows up -- and loses its soul. Second of two parts.


John Tynes
March 27, 2001 1:30AM (UTC)

The morning after the Truth or Swill game, I rose groggily and wandered around. As I walked through the lodge I interrupted Peter, Carrie's sister, Lisa (a vice president at Wizards of the Coast), and Lisa's boyfriend, Vic (also an employee, of course). Lisa and Vic were dressing down Peter over his involvement in the game, an occurrence that I naively thought had been a fine thing. The room was full of tension and Peter was both angry and defensive. I beat a hasty retreat.

As we packed up to leave a little later I found Peter sitting, morose, on the front steps of the lodge. I sat down next to him in silence for a while. Finally, he spoke:

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"This is becoming a company I don't want to be a part of anymore."

I didn't know what to say. I closed my eyes and thought about that wonderful world we had dreamed of in the depths of night, even as I felt it slipping away.

On Monday morning, I was summoned to a private meeting. Peter was there, as were Lisa and Vic, an abashed Linda, Brian the barefoot company attorney and Corey. They'd invited Corey since he was one of the organizers of the game, but I was present as some sort of vox populi, a representative of the rank and file. I wondered if Peter had asked for me.

The upshot was simple. Peter believed he'd done no real wrong, since his participation was emblematic of the kind of geektopia he was trying to build. The other stone-faced managers thought he was a fool. Corey angrily promised to shun any future company social events, as he felt he no longer had permission to communicate with his co-workers on anything other than a purely professional level. I mostly kept quiet -- the whole ugly scene was just depressing.

After the meeting, the board of directors reprimanded Peter and docked him a month's salary.

We had failed to achieve consensus. Management believed Peter had jeopardized the entire company with his behavior, the very behavior that the rest of us at the party thought was helping to strengthen it. We had little conception of sexual harassment laws, hostile work environments and all the other issues of the modern workplace.

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We thought we were building a postmodern workplace, a cheerful throwback to an imagined past where an intimate guild of valiant heroes and heroines worked hard, played hard and made history, to borrow a slogan from Jeff Bezos. But in short order, we were just another corporation.

That fall, as if impelled by some kind of counterreactive force emanating from the wreckage of the Truth or Swill game, Wizards moved swiftly into the mainstream of corporate thought. Peter hooked up with the Beanstalk Group, a brand-exploitation agency that handled the licensing of intellectual properties, a business-speak way of saying it was responsible for taking brands like "Star Wars" and slapping them on T-shirts, birthday-party favors, video games and children's underwear. The people at Beanstalk believed Magic: The Gathering was a hot intellectual property, and soon Peter was talking brand this and brand that. Magic got a brand manager and a brand team, responsible for guiding the property in abstract, reputation-building ways and building licensing alliances with other companies.

Consultants and reorganization plans came and went. It felt like Peter was herding us through a new business philosophy every month or so. At one training session, the latest consultant asked for a show of hands: "Who here works in R&D or production?" Some hands went up. "You guys have job security. The rest of you are expendable." He wasn't invited back.

Later on, another consulting team did get a call back. Peter got a new philosophy, a consultancy pork barrel of a concept known as PDCA: Plan, do, check and act. PDCA's focus was on process, that mystical endeavor so beloved by managers and the consultants they hire. These particular consultants gave three-day seminars to small groups within the company, and Peter liked the project so much that this went on for the better part of a year as the consultants worked their way through the employee roster.

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At each PDCA training session, one of the consultants put a graph on the overhead projector and made an amazing statement. She said that in any data set, if you have three consecutive points that are "trending" -- moving in a consistent direction -- then there's a 68 percent chance the fourth data point will be contrary to the trend.

When it was time for the math geeks in R&D to go through the session, they really loved this howler. The PDCA training team was suggesting that, for example, three days of growth on Wall Street had a 68 percent chance of being followed by a downturn. If your child grew for three years, it was 68 percent likely he'd shrink in the fourth year. It was complete nonsense. When the R&D guys pressed for an explanation, the team assured them it was true. Their script said so.

Perhaps this principle originally had a context where it was meaningful. But now it was just so much pablum. Was it any more crazy than our original sex-for-all pro-goblin agenda? Maybe not. But it was boring as hell.

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Once the whole company had gone through the PDCA wringer, the program was forgotten. New employees didn't hear about it. Like an unmoored ship, the concept of PDCA simply drifted off into oblivion. It was memorialized by R&D in the cyberpunk game Netrunner, where it appeared as a card called "Please Don't Choke Anyone."

But mostly, life at Wizards was now all about the brand. The influence of the Beanstalk Group and the whole philosophy of branding was insidious. The more Peter explained branding to us, the more it seemed like some kind of Zen koan, an enigma wrapped in a riddle. We identified the core values of our brand using words like "smart" and "fun" and "social" that told us nothing we didn't already know, yet somehow they made us feel good. We lived in dread of "juvenilizing" the brand, though a card game full of knights and dragons already seemed pretty juvenile to me. We selected "iconic characters" for different products, which didn't actually have to be important to the story or the game but just had to look good. I felt like we were all foreign travelers, conversing with one another with the help of bad phrase books.

When the manager of a Wizards demonstration tour commissioned a painting of a Magic character to use on a poster, the brand team flipped -- it hadn't picked an iconic character for that card set and the brand was in danger of spiraling out of control. Alert! Alert! After all, the manager hadn't used proper brand-development processes. He just picked a character he thought was cool and hired a good artist to paint it. Once, this would have made him an effective employee. But in Wizards' brave new world of branding, it was a mortal sin.

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Peter held up Disney as an exemplar, the master of brand management. The Mouse was riding high in those days, resurgent since "The Little Mermaid." It built winning properties and exploited them brilliantly. At brand meetings, people would invoke the name of Disney and we'd all nod sagely. Disney was it.

Then Disney knocked on our door. It wanted to do an afternoon children's cartoon based on Magic, and I was invited to the pitch meeting.

I expected to have my socks knocked off and, indeed, Disney's preparation was impressive. It had a whole show concept ready, with character art and sketches to show off. I was amazed the company had invested this much work in a cold pitch -- but this was Disney, after all, and it must have known what it was doing. I sat back and listened as the Disney folks made their presentation.

The show was about a hip teenage boy transported to a fantasy world. He was the son of some good wizards who, in his infancy, hid him in our world to save him from the bad wizards. Now he was back in his home world, a fledgling wizard wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers as he cracked wise, ate pizza and cast spells while going on adventures with a dimwitted barbarian sidekick who -- and this was the big twist -- hated wizards.

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In short, it was absolute crap.

Even worse, perhaps, it had nothing to do with Magic: The Gathering. The truth emerged soon enough. Disney's television animation department had already pitched its managers on this nonsense and was rightly shot down -- hence all the existing art and designs. They hoped that by simply slapping a Magic logo on the whole thing they could get their show approved and on the air.

It was a complete contradiction of the vaunted brand philosophy, and it was Disney itself that was doing the contradicting. We sent the company packing.

My encounter with the alleged masters of brand management made Peter's fervor for this strange religion seem faintly ridiculous. The entire concept reeked of the emperor's new clothes, since "branding" could easily be distilled down to "make good products you believe in," which was how we used to talk about our work when I first joined the company all of 12 months earlier. Finally, I agreed with what Peter had said: This was becoming a company I no longer wanted to be a part of.

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I resigned in June 1995, sick and tired of what the company was becoming and always conscious of what it could have been.

Corey lasted longer. He exacted his bitter revenge against management, though. At a Magic tournament in New York he set up a dress code for staff that consisted of black pants and brown shirts. This, combined with the black and red event banners he commissioned, made the whole thing look like a Nazi rally. Last I heard Corey was somewhere in Florida. I can only hope he is running guns.

Jonathan Tweet, my former boss, stayed on. Peter had charged him with expanding the audience for role-playing games, and he was under pressure to deliver a substantial hit. To accomplish this, Jonathan conceived a marvelous new game called Everway, a genuinely radical, experimental work of group storytelling. The game would include a set of fantasy art trading cards the players used as inspiration -- sort of like Rorschach blots with better illustrations -- and instead of rolling dice, the game master would draw a card from a Tarot-like deck and adjudicate the action symbolically. It was such a departure from the mainstream, in fact, that it generated no small amount of controversy among employees. Some believed the project was doomed to find only a niche audience; as graphic designer Daniel Gelon said at the time, "It'd be a great game if we could pack Jonathan Tweet or John Tynes into every box to actually run it for people." But Peter supported the project 100 percent.

Everway debuted in August 1995 with a resounding thud. Most gamers found it too strange and New Age-y. And Wizards' ill-conceived policy of requiring distributors and retailers to order and stock the game if they wanted better allocations of Magic cards soured the entire channel on the product. To the gaming industry, Everway might as well have been Ebola.

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Four months later, Wizards laid off the role-playing department and Everway was scrapped.

Rhias wore white. Like the rest of the company, she was in mourning.

Outraged employees viewed those layoffs as evidence that Peter had sold out, but they were wrong -- he had simply bought in. Peter had changed. The magically innocent decadent of the Truth or Swill game was gone, replaced by a man who obsessed over old-school corporate buzzwords like brand management and category leadership. He even got an MBA.

The new Wizards stopped innovating and started cherry-picking, using its substantial resources to buy winners rather than build them. Once, Peter had said that Wizards' creation of original intellectual properties was critical to its success. But soon enough, Wizards was publishing lackluster card games based on "Dilbert" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."

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Another cherry-pick was TSR, the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. When the company hit the skids in 1997, Peter snapped it up and got Wizards back into role-playing. While D&D was a nostalgic favorite, it also qualified as a category leader and a global brand. For a moment, it was as if the old and new Peters were reconciled.

But then came Pokémon. Nintendo of Japan designed the Pokémon property from the ground up as a prefab fad whose innate collectibility could be exploited across multiple media. It posited a world where kids had little pet monsters who lived in their pockets and fought each other in action-packed but nonfatal battles. There were dozens of different monsters, with new ones for every product cycle. Kids were told directly to collect them all, and when the monsters mutated they should collect them again. Through video games, comics, television shows, movies, toys and trading-card games, Pokémon reigned supreme in its home country. When Nintendo brought the phenomenon to America, Wizards anted up to translate and publish the card game.

The rest is history, at least to 8-year-olds. The Pokémon card game was a bigger success than Magic, and Wizards rode the trend with the joyless dedication of a guy building the world's largest ball of string. There was nothing creative, charming, admirable or innovative in Pokémon except that it parted small children from their money with brutal efficiency. It inexplicably featured the dramatic story of cockfighting monsters who lived in your pants, and in Japan early episodes of the fast-paced cartoon series even caused seizures in epileptics. The entire thing was grotesque. Wizards' complicity was a sad affirmation of just how mainstream and uninspired the company had become.

As if to shovel the final scoop of dirt on the company's creative casket, Peter sold Wizards to lumbering toy conglomerate Hasbro at the height of the Pokémon craze. Several of the original shareholders became millionaires. In any reasonable world, this would be considered a triumph. But Peter founded Wizards to be an unreasonable world where out-of-the-box creativity would trump old-school corporate pragmatism -- and then he sent that world spinning off into the void like the hapless crew of "Space: 1999."

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Fittingly enough, that was the year Peter sold the company.

The Hasbro buyout completed the process that had begun that morning on the steps of the ski lodge, and by the end of 2000 not even Peter could still pretend that Wizards was a company he wanted to work at anymore. When Hasbro executives sold the computer-gaming rights to Wizards' products out from under the company, Peter resigned.

That doesn't make this a sob story, of course. Peter is now a wealthy man, and spends his ample free time rock climbing, snowboarding and going to dance clubs. He got a divorce and a terrific girlfriend. He built Wizards into a mainstream success story and retired to enjoy the fruits of his labors, and he gave a lot of geeks something fun to do besides complain about the physics of "Star Trek."

What he did not do is change the world, create a new kind of company or build the geektopia of his dreams: three things that a lot of us signed on for seven years ago. One crucial difference between Wizards and the dot-coms the company otherwise prefigured is that Peter had his illusions shattered in private, rather than exposed as nonsense on Wall Street. He picked up the pieces, joined the real world and moved on. Amazon's Bezos and Napster's Shawn Fanning are unlikely to enjoy that luxury.

Although Peter now acknowledges the strait-laced responsibility a CEO has to his or her shareholders, to some extent he mourns the "different sort of company" he says Wizards could have been. He looks back on the weekend of the Truth or Swill game wistfully. "I still don't think what we did was wrong. But society does, unfortunately."

In recent months, the self-devouring saga of the new economy has resonated strongly with me. Wizards of the Coast was a Seattle start-up founded by a geeky, visionary founder with egalitarian ideals, a staff of young fringe types, a hot product, fame and fortune and the inevitable bitterness of dreams denied.

We did it first. I only wish we'd done it best.


John Tynes

John Tynes is a writer, graphic designer, and film-maker in Seattle. Much of his work appears at johntynes.com.

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