My former boss, Peter Adkison, founded Wizards of the Coast in 1990 with the hope that it would be “the next Judges Guild.” If you even know what that means, you’re a geek after my own heart.
When game designer Richard Garfield came to him with the board game RoboRally, Wizards was still too small a company to produce an expensive board game. But Peter invited Richard to come back with something that could be played “casually at conventions while waiting around for your next event.” What he came back with was Magic: The Gathering and the trading card game was born. Not long after, Wizards of the Coast was not only big enough to produce RoboRally but big enough to buy TSR, Inc. and move Dungeons & Dragons and close to a hundred employees, including me, from Wisconsin to Washington.
After riding the highs of the Pokémon trading card craze, he eventually sold Wizards of the Coast to toy giant Hasbro for nearly half a billion dollars. Let’s just say, that was a bit more than Judges Guild has ever sold for, and somewhere around ten times what he paid for TSR.
Peter stayed on to run Wizards until 2001 then decided to take a year-long “sabbatical,” before he bought one piece of the company back from Hasbro: the Gen Con game fair, still the granddaddy of hobby game conventions. Then he got back into the trading card business in 2004, founding Hidden City Entertainment, makers of the Bella Sara game—the first TCG designed to appeal to girls.
Philip Athans: Define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Peter Adkison: I look to science fiction for entertaining stories that raise thought-provoking questions about the types of challenges humans may encounter in the future.
Athans: Define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Adkison: I look to fantasy for entertaining stories about heroes, their beliefs, how those beliefs are challenged and dealt with, and how that changes the hero.
Athans: When, but more importantly why did you first decide to make a small business of your role-playing game hobby and start Wizards of the Coast?
Adkison: I started Wizards of the Coast in 1990 with several friends from college. Before that I was working at Boeing as a systems analyst. It was a great job but I was a small cog in a huge machine. What I wanted to do was go into business for myself doing something I’d really enjoy. Publishing role-playing games was my first choice. My other idea was to start a software company, but I didn’t think that would be as much fun. Fortunately I didn’t realize how poor and unstable role-playing companies were or I probably would have made the wrong choice!
Athans: I find the story behind Magic: The Gathering to be particularly fascinating. What were your initial expectations of the game that made Wizards of the Coast what it is today?
Adkison: I immediately loved Magic and realized that it had a great chance of completely changing and redefining the company from a role-playing company to a trading card game company (though that term didn’t exist yet). I was fine with that. I love role-playing, obviously, but I also love other types of games and the opportunity to be innovative was way more important to me than some notion about staying true to one category. But we also knew that Magic could be a complete flop. Seems crazy now, but when you do something completely new, risk and opportunity are two sides to the same coin. So at first, we kept our RPG publishing schedule (which was a year ahead) and started working on Magic.
By the time Magic actually got to market we were pretty sure it would be a success. But our idea of a success was that it might do a couple million dollars in a year. In fact, in 1993, the first year it was launched it sold $27 million. In 1994, $57 million. In 1995, $127 million. Orders of magnitude more than our forecast!
Athans: Could someone do now what you did then, or has the business of games changed too much in that time?
Adkison: Sure they could. Absolutely.
Athans: You are the man who single-handedly saved Dungeons & Dragons from bankruptcy in 1997—how much of your decision to bring TSR into the WotC family came from just being a fan of the game, and what did you see in the brand from a purely financial standpoint?
Adkison: There’s no denying that buying D&D was a personal highlight for my career. But I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it was a bad business deal. Did the company make money on acquiring D&D? I’m not sure. I never did that math, but I think it would be close. But my job as CEO of Wizards wasn’t to make money for the company it was to make money for its shareholders. I believed that owning two of the top three games of the hobby game industry (the other at the time being Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000) would make the company a more attractive acquisition target for a strategic buyer of the business.
And, indeed, two years later Alan Hassenfeld, the CEO of Hasbro, confirmed my strategy by telling me that Wizards was very interesting to them because it had multiple proven brands.
Athans: When I first came to Wizards of the Coast from TSR, the company’s mission statement was to make games as big as the movies. In that time period, video games have actually managed to do just that. How does that make you feel? Vindicated?
Adkison: It’s great that life has worked out this way! But vindicated? Nah, not really. I can’t claim any success for video games. But I’m very proud to have played my part in helping role-playing get a fresh jolt of electricity coming into the new millennium, and in helping trading card games become a long term staple.
Athans: If you had it to do all over again, and your pen is hovering over the Pokemon card game licensing deal, do you sign?
Adkison: Heck yeah! I love Pikachu. I’m really honored to have played the role of CEO of the company that brought Pokémon out of Japan to the rest of the world. I don’t feel as personally connected to it, of course, because I’m not the target demographic and we weren’t involved in the original creation, which was a collection of brilliant creatives and business people from Japan. But Pokémon was inspired by Magic, which was created by Richard Garfield and developed by Skaff Elias. One of the key business brains behind Pokémon starting in 1999, and still is today, was Rick Arons, who is now CEO of Pokémon USA. My only contribution was hiring these three geniuses—but I’m really proud of hiring three geniuses! So, yeah, absolutely I would do Pokémon all over again—it’s a wonderful property and our involvement led to some wonderful economic outcomes for my business and a lot of joy to a new, younger demographic of gamers—many of whom eventually found their way to Magic!
And now a guest question from Scott Rouse, via Twitter (@TheRouse): If you had not sold Wizards of the Coast to Hasbro, what might the company look like today?
Adkison: Great question!
Hopefully Wizards would have kept the Pokémon partnership instead of losing it.
We would have invested heavily in online gaming. When I left Hasbro it was because they pulled the plug on our Austin studio where we were developing our own D&D MMO. That was the direction I wanted to go. But instead, Hasbro sold the rights to Atari. So I quit. I didn’t get mad. I just realized it wasn’t “my” company at that point and that Hasbro wasn’t backing my vision. Time to move on. I think we had a really good chance of beating Blizzard to the next thing in MMOs based on a design Richard and Skaff came up with. To be fair, odds are just as good we would have totally screwed it up.
Beyond that, I have no idea. I don’t know that Hasbro has helped Wizards in any way you can point a finger at. Except by having the insight of sending in Greg Leeds to run it. I think he’s done a better job at managing the Magic business than I could have. I also don’t think Hasbro has hurt Wizards in any meaningful way. Sabotaging the online business opportunity? Well, you can argue whether that was good or bad. But the core business of Magic and D&D, Hasbro has pretty much left alone from what I can tell, at least in the USA. Europe and Asia are another matter.
The best thing Hasbro has done in the last ten years (big IMO caveat here!) is the joint venture with Discovery Kids to create its own HUB children’s TV channel. If Hasbro and Wizards can figure out how to leverage the HUB together, that would be awesome.
Athans: D&D has been struggling in the wake of World of Warcraft and other MMOs and console RPGs. Why and how did Blizzard beat WotC at its own game—or has it?
Adkison: I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. It’s a different category of games. Should WotC have adapted? Well, yeah, that would have been nice (and what I was trying to do when I left). But there’s a really good chance it could have almost killed itself trying. You could argue that there were other opportunities squandered much earlier on, like in the 80s or 90s. Who knows?
Athans: D&D changed hobby games forever, eclipsing complex board games, which had earlier eclipsed miniatures war games, then Magic and the ensuing hoard of TCGs eclipsed RPGs, now video games, social network/casual online games . . . what’s next? Is “analog” gaming (either RPGs or TCGs) a hobby that you think will ever go away entirely?
Adkison: The only thing we know for sure is that humans love to play games. There will always be new games and new trends in games. But I do think that one of the future big trends in gaming will be the clever integration of electronics into the tabletop experience. The challenge in doing this is that it has to be elegant and it has to create new game play patterns that aren’t possible without the electronics. So far there’s been a steady stream of these sorts of games but no one has found the “killer ap.” Is that “next?” Not sure. But I believe it’s somewhere in our future.
Athans: Do you still play either D&D or Magic on a regular basis?
Adkison: Magic, at least a few times a year. Usually when I’m hanging out with my father. He loves it still and I enjoy it. But my real love is role-playing.
No, I haven’t played D&D for quite awhile. I’ve become quite attached to role-playing games that are more narrative in focus. D&D has always been focused primarily on combat (that’s what you get rewarded for—you get experience points and treasure for killing monsters) and 4th Edition doesn’t even pretend that there’s anything else to D&D. I prefer storytelling and a rewards system based on role-playing.
Athans: Conventions in general seem to be going strong, with shows like San Diego Comic-con and PAX drawing record crowds. How’s Gen Con doing, and in what ways is it changing with trends in gaming?
Adkison: Gen Con has had several record years since I acquired it in 1992. It’s doing great! We had a difficult financial period as a company awhile back when we over-expanded into other shows, like Gen Con So Cal and Star Wars Celebration. Now that we’ve focused our attention exclusively on Gen Con Indy we’re doing great.
I’ve seen two big trends with Gen Con. The first is a broadening demographics with more families. And this isn’t because the show has shifted away from its roots; in fact, role-playing games are still the largest game category at the show. The other trend is more live action events like LARPS, costuming, and True Dungeon.
Every year we get a few electronic game companies that come in if they are launching a new game that is targeted at traditional gamers, but the show is still firmly rooted in tabletop games and is doing better than ever.
Athans: What’s next for Peter Adkison?
Adkison: I’m deeply immersed in Hidden City Entertainment and building the Bella Sara brand. Hopefully, soon, we’ll branch out and do more lines. My first passion is role-playing, but I just don’t have the secret plan on how to make it commercially interesting. So for now, role-playing is my hobby. I turn fifty this year so it’s definitely too early to be thinking about retirement. But, someday, that’ll happen and I’ll probably end up publishing role-playing stuff as a one-person shop “just for fun.” Until then, I’m an entrepreneur with the same attitude as when I left Boeing, stay in business for myself doing something I’d really enjoy.
We’ll be watching for that new RPG, dice at the ready. Thanks, Peter!