Showing posts with label Lorraine Williams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lorraine Williams. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Gaming History: The Space Gamer and Black Gate Magazine, TSR Buys SPI

On February 28th, the publisher of Black Gate Magazine, wrote a blog post celebrating an old SPI game called Swords and Sorcery.  He praised the game in his semi-regular "new treasures" column.  The game itself was published in 1978, but O'Neill had just acquired an edition from eBay.  If the edition he purchased is the edition photographed in the blog post, he and I own the same edition of the game.  The game may have been old, but it was new to him. 

The post is quite positive, and I largely agree with O'Neill's review.  As is common in discussion of old SPI games, a discussion of TSR's acquisition of SPI -- and their subsequent "killing" of SPI game lines -- was brought up in the comments section.  Among the grognards of the gaming hobby, of which I am certainly one, there is often a good deal of ire aimed at TSR for their behavior.  This ire is often directed at Lorraine Williams, but not always.  One of those cases where it isn't directed at Lorraine Williams is in the TSR purchase of SPI in 1982.  At that time, the company was very much in the control of Gygax and the Blumes -- though they were having plenty of internal strife at the time.

In this particular post, Black Gate's managing editor (and talented author Howard Andrew Jones) was the individual who brought up TSR's "killing" of SPI product lines.  In my typical "provocateur" fashion, I mentioned that I thought that the TSR acquisition and killing of SPI was more complicated than most grognards think and even included some slight praise for Lorraine Williams -- as a fan I am actually amazed at the products that came out during her tenure, even if she hated gamers.  Here is what I wrote:

While it is easy to blame TSR for what they did to SPI — and they deserve a lot of blame — one should keep two things in mind
First, when they purchased SPI it was in dire financial straights and would likely not have survived.
Second, they had hoped to keep SPI’s staff, but those staff members refused to work for TSR — for varied reasons — and left to form the Victory Games studio over at Avalon Hill.

Third, and this is where I get near heretical, it was the Blumes who devalued SPI’s contributions. A massive resurgence of publishing of SPI games happened under Lorraine Williams. We would never have seen the SPI monster TSR World War II game, or Wellington’s Victory, SNIPER (including BugHunters), let alone the 3rd edition of DragonQuest.

I believe she did the publishing of SPI stuff out of desperation, not any love for the product or the fans, as TSR was starting to have financial troubles which could only be met by an ever expanding publication schedule and continual revenue flow.

It was the Blumes who refused to acknowledge lifetime subscriptions to SPI magazines.
There is an excellent issue of Fire and Movement, printed by Steve Jackson Games, that goes over the purchase of SPI.

I have since hunted down the issue of Fire & Movement I mentioned, and it is issue 27 (May/June 1982).  In that issue Nick Schuessler writes a remarkably detailed article about TSR's acquisition of SPI and provides some context for the purchase.  Some highlights of the article are:

  • On March 31, 1981 TSR announced they were initiating a chain of events to purchase SPI.
  • On April 7th, eight key SPI staffers tendered their resignations and announced they were forming a new company called Victory Games that would work under the auspices of Avalon Hill.
  • TSR acquirexd the trademarks and copyrights of the entire SPI inventory.
  • Mark Herman, the leader of the eight defectors, had been negotiating with Avalon Hill to purchase SPI.
  • The TSR conglomerate owned a science fiction magazine (Amazing), and a needlepoint company, in addition to D&D and in 1981 they had $17 million in sales revenue.
  • SPI was a $2 million a year company.
Schuessler's article is heavy on facts, and only has one bit of speculation.  That bit of speculation is whether the brain drain, the loss of Mark Herman and crew, will have a long term negative effect on the acquisition.  I would argue, from a historical perspective, that this was the single most devastating part of the acquisition.  SPI's strength was in its designers.  Mark Herman, Jerry Klug, John and Trish Butterfield, and Greg Gorden were some of the most talented designers of their era.

But the May/June issue of Fire and Movement only gives us a part of the story.  It doesn't truly show how desperate TSR was to diversify their brand, and how much internal strife existed at the company.  Those elements can be seen in old issues of The Space Gamer.   In issue 60 of TSG, John Rankin writes an article about a visit by TSR employees to Dallas where TSR Vice-President Duke Seifried were to meet with Heritage-USA and where there were possibly discussions for TSR to purchase Heritage or to enter into a joint venture with them.  John Rankin's article states:

  • Heritage USA still owed Duke Seifried money from his time with the company, and that Duke was a stockholder in the company.
  • TSR was very much in need of a miniatures company if they wanted to diversify. 
  •  No meeting between TSR and Heritage actually occurred, though Duke did likely get information from them as a stockholder.
  • TSR "left no broken hearts in Dallas.  But they didn't make any new friends either."
  • There is a sense of some instability at TSR, and they are seen as not wanting to lead the industry rather just to "control it."  

This all seems like a relatively mundane deal gone bad...until one looks at other issues discussing TSR.  By issue 65 of The Space Gamer, the internal strife at TSR comes to the fore.  In that issue, the following facts are reported.

  • TSR released 40 of its employees in June of 1983.  Among these employees was Duke Seifried.
  • TSR was reorganized into 4 companies.
  • TSR Public Relations director Dietur Sturm described TSR finances as, "More or less, what you're looking at is money coming into the company from sales and not focused properly...Sales are there as far as the distributors and retailers and stores (are concerned); they have nothing to worry about."
This news demonstrates a number of problems within TSR.  There is obviously internal strife.  The firing of Seifried and the "banishing" of Gygax to Los Angeles hint at that.  The company also clearly had no idea how to maintain and expand their product lines.  They purchased a needlepoint company for goodness' sake!  Why?  What synergy could that provide?

They purchased SPI, a company that had a rich catalog of war games but that also had a Fantasy Roleplaying Game called Dragon Quest.  Supporting the SPI rpg would have possibly meant cannibalizing their own product lines.  They had no plans to retain the talents acquired in the SPI purchase, and in fact eventually fired everyone they hired from SPI and refused to support life time subscriptions to SPI's magazine Strategy & Tactics.  TSR did everything they could to alienate the customer base of the company they had just acquired, and they were "reorganizing" to end an outpouring of money.  They were in constant need of revenue to stay afloat. They were selling a ton of product, but they also weren't developing products with any logical consistency.  These are trends that wouldn't end any time soon.  You can read Ryan Dancey's financial audit of TSR when Wizards of the Coast purchased them to see just how much this remained a problem in 1997.

I think that Rankin's comment regarding not wanting to lead, rather to control is a perfect description of the company.  They boycotted GAMA and demanded D&D not be played at Origins.  They had no plans for talent retention.  They didn't publish the products they acquired.  They don't seem to have been logical in the determination of the size of print runs.  They cannibalized product lines -- even in the Blume/Gygax era though this became disastrous in the Williams era.  As much as I love TSR's many settings having the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Mystara, Hollow World, Birthright, and Dark Sun all as simultaneous fantasy setting product lines is a case study definition of cannibalizing product lines.  Having "Basic," "Expert," "Companion," and "Master" D&D as well as Advanced D&D -- let alone a 2nd edition -- is also a case study definition.

The company produced great games, but they were not managed well at all.  Bad management is endemic throughout the rpg industry.  It is an industry primarily run by hobbyists and not business people.  This is a creative boon, but a business curse.

On an interesting note, as I was looking through old The Space Gamer issues I found a letter by a John O'Neill of Ottawa, Canada in issue 66.  I'm going to take a huge leap here and say that the John O'Neill in that 1983 letter is the publisher of Black Gate Magazine.  Why would I make such an assumption?  Just look at the first two paragraphs of that letter:

In an age of man now only distantly remembered, there existed a magazine which the good people in the land of Fandom did enjoy.  But lo, there came a day unlike any other day, when the Powers That Be sent a lightning bolt to rend asunder that magazine.

From the fragments of the one there emerged two magazines, and the Powers That Be told the people of Fandom to partake of them.
Who, but the future editor of a Sword and Sorcery magazine, could write such a letter? 

Image Copyright 2012 Jody Lindke


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Roleplaying Evangelism -- Hasbro Targets Young Audiences

Last, I commented about my belief that if the roleplaying hobby wants to remain vibrant and "alive," it will need to recruit younger gamers. The alternative is for our hobby to age with us and fade into the mists of antiquity. When I was growing up, TSR specifically targeted younger gamers with the Moldvay/Cook "Basic" line of D&D products, the Fantasy Forest and Dungeon! boardgames, action figures, and a Saturday morning cartoon.

During the 90s, TSR largely abandoned products designed to appeal to young audiences and shifted to a tone somewhere in the PG-13 range. While their misguided attempt to disassociate themselves from Culture Wars criticisms regarding the games occult content through the removal of the words "Devil" and "Demon" from their early AD&D 2nd edition products might lead one to believe that the company had become "kid centric" as a whole, this belief would be in error. The 90s saw TSR produce the Ravenloft line of horror fantasy products (PG-13 horror to be sure), the Birthright fantasy setting (a slightly darker and more political setting), and the Dark Sun apocalyptic planetary romance setting (Dark Sun as planetary romance deserves a whole post of its own). The only real effort to attract young gamers was Troy Denning's "Black Box" D&D Basic set, a set that happens to be my favorite introduction to the hobby ever written. Denning, who left TSR during the Gygax era to be one of the founders of Pacesetter, is an old hand at writing "new gamer" friendly products and his "Black Box" was a doozy (it too deserves its own post). Aside from this product though TSRs products were aimed squarely at mid-teens and higher. Mystara, Spelljammer, and Dragonlance were for the mid-teens, while Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Planescape, and Dark Sun were for older audiences. Heck...Planescape has wonderful content that is borderline R rated fantasy. This list doesn't include their X-Files inspired Dark*Matter setting for the Alternity game, that was R for sure.

To some gamers, the fact that TSR wrote so much PG-13 material might make the company seem too "kid oriented." I'm not one of them. When I say that gaming companies need to recruit younger players for the health of the hobby, I mean 8-10 year-olds. This audience was abandoned by TSR in the 90s, to the detriment of the hobby. Pre-90s TSR, for all that grognards think of it as a more "hard core" era of the company had corporate policies directed specifically at attracting younger audiences. To quote a Kevin Blume interview in THE SPACE GAMER #63, "The demographics are moving younger...Our major grouping seems to be from eight to 22...We, ourselves, have adopted a code of ethics and conduct similar to what is used in the comic book industry...People can holler censorship if they want, but that type of material will not be allowed at Gen Con, and the yptes of products that promote sex, nudity, and violence and so forth [sic] are simply not appropriate for this audience...our marketplace is composed of an awful lot of younger people."

Compare Blume's description of the hobby in 1983 with today's gaming audience. It matches the Games Workshop audience, who due to specific outreach (without overt censorship BTW) have managed to increase the number of young players, but it doesn't match other aspects of the roleplaying game hobby.

This is why I was so happy last week when I saw that Wizards of the Coast, in coordination with Moonstone Publishing, had released a free introductory adventure specifically targeted at younger players. This adventure, The Heroes of Hesiod, is based on the Young Reader novel Monster Slayers by Lucas Ritter -- the novel itself is an extension of Mirrorstone's excellent and successful "Practical Guide to" series of books which includes the best selling A Practical Guide to Monsters.

Wizards aggressive recruitment of younger gamers has also prompted them to publish a D&D version of arguably the best "mass market" miniatures game ever published -- Heroscape.Heroscape Master Set 3 Game

If our hobby is to continue to grow, or sustain itself as a mature marketplace, products like these and Faery's Tale Deluxe by Patrick Sweeney, Sandy Antunes, Christina Stiles, and Robin D. Laws need to be produced. As gamers, we need to encourage and support these efforts as much as we fight against them censoring down the product lines for adults. There is nothing wrong with hobby gaming becoming such a mature market that there are separate product lines for kids, teens, and adults. All that matters is that all of the product lines are of good quality and that companies and fans support them when they are. It was tragic that Wizards didn't support the Knights of the Silver Dragon series in the same way that they are supporting the "Practical Guides" line -- an article in Dragon Magazine is not as aggressive a marketing effort as coordination with libraries and well produced online content.

The funny thing is that the "Practical Guide to Monsters" that was successful enough to prompt this expansion, was itself an extension of the Knights of the Silver Dragon series of books.

Show your support and download The Heroes of Hesiod and play it with your kids/younger friends.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bitterness in the Gaming Hobby

In certain gaming circles, the name Lorraine Williams is synonymous with "Evil" -- others reserve such ire for Gnomes. While I have read many blog/bulletin board posts excoriating Williams, I have never been of the opinion that she was bad for TSR or even bad for the roleplaying game hobby.

Largely, this stems from the fact that Williams' tenure at TSR is one that I consider a Golden Age of rpg gaming goodness. Under Williams' management TSR published the Forgotten Realms setting, and excellent Buck Rogers roleplaying game by Mike Pondsmith of Cyberpunk fame, Al-Qadim, the D&D Gazetteer series, the Advanced Marvel Superheroes rpg, and the highly under-rated Rocky and Bullwinkle rpg -- something that was aimed at bringing new people into the hobby. Meanwhile, Gary Gygax was making the unplayable Cyborg Commando at New Infinities Productions. There are those who blame Williams for Gygax's being forced out of the company, but I believe that had more to do with the Blumes than with Williams herself. I also think that Williams hard fought battles to preserve the D&D brand, and all other TSR brands, were just good management -- not good PR, but good for the company.

I also believe that Williams only had a limited understanding of the gaming marketplace. She understood where gaming was in the late 80s and early 90s, but (not being a gamer herself) she had no clear vision for how to respond to the emergence of Magic: the Gathering. Her response was an explosion of rpg product and a rushed collectible card game response. The explosion of rpg product was high quality -- Birthright and Planescape were remarkable settings -- but the prolific pace of publication, combined with a brand diluting low quality card game, put more product on the market than the market could bear. In that way, she is also responsible for the implosion of TSR as a company a decade after she took charge. It would have been nice to see someone else take over the company after 5 - 6 years of Williams running the company.

The bitterness between the Gygax camp and Williams isn't the only case of deep bitterness and ire in the gaming community. I was recently reading some back issues of Interplay magazine, Metagaming's house organ after Steve Jackson left the company. I was amazed at the venom they were directing at Steve Jackson. Not because the split was a genial split, but by the obsessive nature of it. Metagaming seemed obsessed with mocking Steve Jackson every chance they had. Ironically, fans of GURPS -- and most modern gamers for that matter -- are likely oblivious to this deeply felt hatred. The Williams is "Evil" meme has lasted decades, but the Steve Jackson is a "Turkey" meme died long ago. Unlike the Gygax/Williams affair, Jackson leaving Metagaming lead to that company's rather quick demise. Steve Jackson was a font of ideas, while Metagaming was wallowing in bitterness. GURPS may be, and I certainly think it is, a direct descendant of "The Fantasy Trip" and Steve Jackson's early board games might have been indistinguishable in appearance from Metagaming's microgames, but the fact is that Steve Jackson and his company were coming out with quality new products while Metagaming was living in the past.

Metagaming has two famous spoofs of Steve Jackson Games material one is their Fist Full of Turkeys game and the other is a spoof of Steve Jacksons excellent One Page Bulge called One Page Bilge.

It should be noted that one of the things that makes Metagaming's protests against Jackson so purile is that Jackson was one of the leading voices advocating for designer rights in the gaming industry. Eventually his desire to see designers properly compensated led to him forming his own company, but the fact is that gaming is one of the last venues where the creators see almost no benefit for their creations due to the "work for hire" environment in gaming. People like Wolfgang Baur deserve credit, and ownership, in products like Dark*Matter, it's the only way to guarantee high quality and it is the right thing to do from a PR perspective. Imagine if designers had options on the systems they created. The Pinnacle Entertainment Group edition of Torg would be more than a pipe dream, and GURPS might be called The Fantasy Trip.