Thursday, November 7, 2013

Magic the Gathering, D&D, and a Host of Eye Witnesses

On Saturday former brand manager for Wizards of the Coast Ryan S. Dancey answered an open question on Reddit about a cross-company source book for Magic the Gathering by the user UnremarkablePassword. Mr. Dancey wrote: 
Hi! I was the brand manager for Dungeons & Dragons and the VP of Tabletop RPGs at Wizards of the Coast from 1998 to 2000. I can answer this question.

There were plans to do a Magic RPG and several iterations of such a game were developed at various times. After Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, there were discussions about making a Magic campaign setting for D&D.

After the release of 3rd edition, we had planned to do a Monstrous Compendium for Magic monsters which would have been a tentative cross-over product to see what the interest level was for such a book.
In the end, the company made the decision to keep the brands totally separate. Here's the logic.
D&D and Magic have fundamentally incompatible brand strategies. This is was once expressed as "asses, monsters & friends".

D&D is the game where you and your friends kick the asses of monsters.

Magic is the game where you kick your friends' asses with monsters.

(Pokemon, btw, was the game where the monsters, who were your friends, kicked each-other's asses.)

There was no good reason to believe that a D&D/Magic crossover book would sell demonstrably more than a comparable non crossover book. And such a book should be priced higher than a generic D&D book - in the way that Forgotten Realms books cost more than generic D&D books (that's the price premium for the brand). There's a fear in sales that the higher the price, the less volume you sell.

The brand team for Magic didn't want to dilute the very honed brand positioning for Magic as a competitive brand, and the brand team for D&D didn't want to try and make some kind of competitive game extension for D&D.

In the end, I think the company was well served by this decision. It eliminated a lot of distraction and inter-team squabbling at a time when neither team had the resources to fight those battles.

Today you might argue there's a different reason. The #1 hobby CCG doesn't want to be entangled with the problems within the D&D brand. (source page)
I like the recognition that the higher price point associated with the Magic the Gathering supplement would have reduced the overall sales for the product. That's the sort of clear recognition of market conditions that helped Wizards of the Coast reinvigorate the industry after the purchase of TSR, inc. back in the late 90s. Unfortunately it appears that this recognition has been abandoned by the majority of publishers in the industry resulting in one of the biggest problems to plague the market today: that publishers have gotten away from the idea of a low price point with a high volume of sales in order to produce a profit; and instead are going for a higher price point with a lower volume of sales to produce a profit. With core game books regularly being priced at $50.00 per book (I'm looking at you Dark Heresy and Pathfinder) the industry has priced out the new player and has begun to feed on the limited supply of preexisting consumers further fragmenting the a small marketplace.

The other, brilliant, bit of analysis in this response was the simplified descriptions of Dungeons and Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and Pokemon:
D&D is the game where you and your friends kick the asses of monsters.

Magic is the game where you kick your friends' asses with monsters.

(Pokemon, btw, was the game where the monsters, who were your friends, kicked each-other's asses.) (source page)

I'll be honest, if the story had ended here I would never have followed up with it; fortunately that was not the case. On Tuesday Mr. Dancey posted on Facebook a message about his Reddit post reaching the front page on Reddit. In a quick exchange with a former creative director for Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Mike Selinker, he commented, "does your memory match mine? if not you should post a reply!" (source page) This off hand comment quickly got a variety of responses from former Wizards of the Coast employees involved in the discussions at the time (to make it easier to keep up with their comments I'm going to adjust their formatting over so each comment stands out).  
John Wick wrote, "You forgot to mention the part that the M:tG team and the D&D team couldn't agree who should get what percent of the profits." (source page)

An interesting point of contention within a major company such as Wizards of the Coast. At the time each brand was leading their respective industries in a very big way; but within the company each brand would be contending for their future budgets by, among other things, posting their revenue streams. This internal competition would certainly make the question of how the pie was split an important point of contention. 

Bigger profits equal bigger budgets. 

Bigger budgets equal job security.
Former Wizards of the Coast Sr. Marketing Manager, Kyle Murray followed John Wick with, "I argued strongly against for brand confusion and positioning conflict reasons that Ryan outlined well. There were some heated debates!" (source page)
I'm not sure that brand confusion was a legitimate issue considering that there is a significant cross-over within the hobby between Dungeons and Dragons players and Magic the Gathering players but I can see how there might be the perception that one cannot be played without the other - a perception that has a negative connotation with many hobbyists. 

The idea that each brand's marketing positioning could be affected is a very real concern. Competitive play within the Magic the Gathering community has been a major source of  strength for the game and to dilute that with the sort of cooperative play that a game of Dungeons and Dragons is perceived to demand would be a problem. However, there is a strong tradition within the role-playing game hobby of competitive tournaments so it would have been possible to create a similar atmosphere within the Dungeons and Dragons community. A lot of effort, which means a lot of money spent on the project, would have been required for the transition from cooperative play to competitive play to be accomplished.

I very much doubt that it would have been worth the efforts of those involved. 
We next hear from a former Senior Software Engineer on Magic the Gathering Online, Michael Feuell who wrote that, "There was a similar question about Magic Minis. D&D Miniatures were a big hit, Magic was a big hit, what about Magic Minis? So the story I heard at the time went like this; we gathered all the distributors together for a big product announcement, and there was this buzz, this feeling permeating the room, a wall of excitement if you will, because they just *knew* that we were announcing magic minis. Instead we announced Dreamblade, and the collective sigh was a fair prediction of how the product eventually did." (source page)

Dreamblade had a bigger problem than simply not being Magic Minis: there was no compelling reason to buy it. The story was forgettable; the miniatures were a bit odd and couldn't easily be ported over to other games; and the marketing push was very small compared to what it needed to succeed. 
Author of the Tomb of Horrors novelization Keith Strohm followed up with, "I remember those times, and while I think it would have made for some short-term gain on the RPG side, it would (at best) have been neutral and at worst brand dilutive (hey..I just made up a word)." (source page)
Without the sort of full scale push towards an active tournament play and a real investment in a competitive Dungeons and Dragons sub-brand there is little doubt that Mr. Strohm is correct.

It's at this point that the subject shifted further away from the initial question and more onto the idea of the Magic Minis:

Mike Selinker, "Y'all could have told me all this before y'all made me work on these doomed products. Yup, still bitter."

Keith Strohm "Mike, only a particular kind of genius should ever work on doomed products--apparently you are one of them."

Mike Selinker, "I have only three words for that: Fuck that noise."

Keith Strohm, "To be fair, I think I was probably more positive about doing the products at the time. Looking back through more experience though I see the logic clearly now."

Kyle Murray, "The magic minis story goes much further back than Dreamblade . . ."

Ryan Scott Dancey, "Mike Selinker for my part, and I think I can safely speak for Keith too, we never wanted anyone to work on a product that didn't get produced. The small number of times something got greenlit that I thought would not ship, I tried to kill it fast. Obviously not everything got killed fast. I certainly don't want you to feel that we intentionally let you spend time on a known doomed product; if anyone had proposed doing work like that I would have stopped it. I still feel guilty about how much work Paul Randles put into the Marvel games and those at least got printed.

"If you felt otherwise, I am truly, truly, very sorry."


Mike Selinker "I felt, and still feel, otherwise. As a general rule, the time of R&D members was treated extremely cavalierly by Brand team members.

"Now, as for "the small number of times," let's actually get into that. My team had 23 products implode in an 8 month span. In that span, we had 20% of our licensed and cross-brand products come out. Inside R&D alone, that accounted for 6 years of man-hours inside that 8 months wasted on products that never came out.

"On the D&D/Magic crossover front, I calculated once that I had spent a year of design from myself, plus several more years from other team members, on a fruitless quest. Each time we restarted it, I knew it was fruitless, and tried to get people to be aware that they were wasting our time. This never happened until we were done or close to done.

"Multiple failures from multiple brand teams, over and over.

"So yeah, still bitter."
Ryan Scott Dancey, "I'm very sorry you feel that way. Beyond stuff we lost the right to produce like Harry Potter, or lost the corporate mandate to produce like Pokemon RPGs, or lines we closed down because sales were too poor to justify being off a core strategy like Alternity, were there other things being cancelled that you can talk about? "   
Mike Selinker, "And also to be clearer, I was and remain friends with people who made these decisions, including people who have commented in this thread. But it is one of the strong reasons I got out of WotC R&D." (source page)
My heart breaks a little bit for Mike Selinker because I can so clearly identify with his frustration. It's a common enough problem within a corporate structure to have projects fail, but it's even worse when all your efforts and hard work are being wasted in fruitless labors. No wonder he founded Lone Shark Games. I hope he's finding greater fulfillment there.

Moving on, it's interesting to note the number of projects that were up in the air with his team in an eight month span. Either the brand management teams were unrealistic  in their project expectations or there was some institutional irrationality at work. Again, sadly, a common side effect of working for a major corporation. 
Ron Richardson, a former Magic the Gathering Project Coordinator, wrote, "What's that? Inner department friction, yanked products, and plans shifting underfoot constantly? At Wizards of the Coast? Really? I'm shocked, shocked, I say.

"All brand considerations aside we created a culture at Wizards where decisions were
made more difficult than they had to be and folk weren't as respected as they should have been. The battles between brand teams and non-brand teams started before I was there and continued for long after it seems. We were good at lots of things at Wizards, treating each other well wasn't one of them . . ."
(source page)

To have an office in-fighting like Wizards of the Coast was at that time is an indication of poor upper management and even worse middle management. But these two comments bring us the single most articulate and straight forward response to the original question and to Mike's subsequent complaints as Joseph Hauck, former Vice President of Owned TCG for Wizards of the Coast, enters the fray.

Joseph Hauck, Ron Richardson, what you say is true. I believe that corporate culture, clear roles and responsibilities (including decision making) and accountability are the responsibility of the CEO and/or COO pending the size of the organization. If there is dysfunction within an organization in any of those areas, they are the ones with the authority and responsibility to clarify the expectations and rules of engagement in those areas. If dysfunction in any of those areas persists, then the leadership of the company hasn't done their job.

“Mike Selinker, I love you like a brother and you know how to get a hold of me. I would be more than happy to have lunch or coffee with you and have a deeper discussion on this or any other topic in a more productive environment than Facebook.”

Mike Selinker “I think this was exactly the productive environment needed, Joe. Ryan's post reminded me of the low value placed on designers when their creativity is commoditized. My comments are meant to remind folks that failures in leadership come with costs, and at least one of those costs is: people like me leave. That might matter, and it might not. My friends at Wizards seem to have done just fine without me, and I've done okay too.

“Anyway, ancient history. I haven't thought about things like this for a half a decade at least, and am likely to go back to not thinking about it. Or maybe I'll go post on Reddit.”

Joseph Hauck “Failures in leadership do come with costs; financial, opportunity, human (i.e. "brain drain") and a negative impact on corporate morale. No debate there.

“I can't speak to all of the projects that you worked on, but I can on this one. Neither the head of the D&D brand nor the head of the Magic brand (an SVP and former head of Magic R&D) thought that the project should move forward. The SVP of Magic developed an articulate and rational presentation as to why this was not good for the Magic brand and why it would be a wasted opportunity cost for D&D with the recommendation to not move forward with the project; pretty much as Ryan outlined in his response on Reddit. The D&D brand team supported the decision. This presentation was made BEFORE any work was done on the project. The result? Both brand leads were told their opinions didn't matter, it's going on the schedule and R&D was instructed to start work on the project.

“As you point out, this was a failure in leadership and goes directly to the sidebar discussion that I had with Ron. While the eventual cancellation of the project caused the departure of you and other valued employees due to frustration and not feeling valued, the original decision to force the project onto the schedule also caused at least one (that I can think of right now) valued employee to depart for the same exact reasons that you've mentioned in this thread. Your departure from the company was a huge loss in my opinion as was the employee loss due to the launch of the project.

“The whole situation was ugly and it was created by a persistent lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities and accountability within the organization.”

Mike Selinker “Interesting. You have facts I don't have. I should be clear that I'm not speaking about individuals here. There are people who were at WotC that I have *not* remained friends with (or was never friends with) because of things like this, and that should tell you something about the people whom I have remained friends with.

“And I agree that the whole situation was ugly. It was one of the few times I argued against a project I eventually ended up writing for.”

Joseph Hauck “And I'm sure, vice versa as well. (about the facts, not the rest)” (source page)

It's clear from this exchange that without Mike Selinker's voiced pain that none of us would have been privy to the real reasoning behind the failure to produce the product and for the volume of failed projects that hampered Wizards of the Coast. It's also clear that Peter Adkison, who was the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Wizards of the Coast at that time, was unable to listen to his employees in a meaningful manner. If he had listened to his brand managers he would have been able to have his teams focused on projects that might have succeeded and it's possible that he would have been able to retain some of his better employees who fled the company due to it hostile environment - that environment is clearly something that Peter Adkison enjoyed as his new company is actually called Hostile Work Environment (check his copyright notice at the bottom). 

Some people manage their employees through cooperation and cohesion building a better company along the way. Then you have those people who succeed in spite of their own best efforts by managing through strife and competition.

Two more comments before I shut this down for the night.
Lisa Stevens, who had more titles at Wizards of the Coast then I have time to list and is the founder and current C.E.O. of  Paizo Publishing, wrote, "As the person in Brand who was tasked with starting up a Magic RPG product at least twice, maybe even three times, in my career with WotC, I feel your pain Mike. I always got my directive from Peter to put a team together and figure out how we could make a Magic RPG. Each time, I thought we did some brilliant work, only to have it yanked away at the last minute. The first time, it was the layoffs that doomed any team that wasn't a TCG one. I am pretty sure you were on that team, Mike. The second time, I remember Jonathan Tweet having a very cool game designed that I was personally very excited about. I think that is the one that Magic Brand squashed. And then there was the D&D/Magic mash-up, which I personally wasn't very thrilled with, but thought we could make a few bucks on and perhaps get some Magic players interested in RPGs. That also got squashed by Magic Brand. After the third time, you would have had to pay me a LOT of money to work on a Magic RPG at WotC!" (source page)
So many obstacles to the proposed project. Too many really. 

And finally we come to a good closing comment from Anthony Valterra:
Anthony Valterra, former Wizards of the Coast brand manager, wrote, "Ryan Scott Dancey I hope to see your cup-a-noodles metaphor next. Mike Selinker I'm sorry that so much of your time was wasted. It was not as bad at the brand level but I remember my frustration when we could not put out the Dune product or do a Star Trek product or do a Harry Potter product all because of licensing issues beyond our control. And I remember one failing project that was handed to me after I vociferously recommended that it be killed. I kept hearing the phrase "sunk cost" and we moved forward anyway - and it was indeed a disaster. On the other hand I remember Monte Cook coming to me with a project he said I would "never do". I loved it, sold management on it and it became the best selling "Book of Vile Darkness". 
"I think ultimately, we were all doing the best we could with some, at times, very odd circumstances." (source page)


If you’ve enjoyed this article you can find similar ones on the Gaming News Page and can catch up with all my past ruminations on the latest news coming from the hobby. As always, thank you for reading, commenting, sharing and linking to my articles. Hope to see you again when the next one comes out!


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Edited on 11/11/2013 at the request of one of the individuals involved to change "the former creative director" to "a former creative director" with regard to Mr. Selinker's title within Wizards of the Coast to better reflect his role in the company. I adjusted other individuals titles where appropriate as well. My apologies for any confusion caused. 

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for pulling all this together

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    1. My pleasure!

      I was annoyed with the way that the thing had been reported out on EN World and other places wanted to get a real grasp on the story.

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  2. Part of the reason there was such a push is most likely the comments from people like me, who were fans of both games and couldn't see why there wasn't a crossover already. When the first Great Designer Search for Magic began, one of the questions was "What is Magic design currently doing wrong? How would you do it right?" My response was that they had a wealth of material available from D&D that wasn't being used. I wasn't suggesting a Magic RPG game, although that becomes a bit more viable in my mind because of the "demotion" of planeswalkers to entities that can fit on cards. Rather, I was perplexed that they went out of their way to make cards like Cone of Flame while avoiding the obvious Cone of Cold, even though they had the rights to it.

    But rather than be up front with the reasoning above, we the people were kept in the dark and wondering what was up. That's what annoys me the most. Thanks for bringing this out; it gives me the information I need.

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad that you liked it, Dominick. Hope to see you around here again some time.

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  3. Amazing collection of memories you have here, Charles. Thanks for wrangling it all together.

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad that you liked it Rodger, but I should note that I just had to make an edit to the post to make a few corrections to people's titles. The comments are still true to their source and my ruminations still stand.

      Delete

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