This article originally appeared in Comics Retailer #83
[Editor's Note: This column originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of Comics Retailer magazine, Issue #83.]
By Mike Stackpole
It's January, and I try to do columns that are predictive in nature. I'm going out on a limb this time, making a big prediction and one that won't come true until the middle of the year 2000 or so. That prediction is that I'll buy TSR in the year 2000, paying for it what it's worth (a million and change -- what Wizards of the Coast should have paid for it) and turn the company around to rebuild it into what it should be. The first thing I'll do is stop the stupid mistakes TSR keeps making. By way of example:
TSR actually tightened the discount on its backlist. Let's follow this logic: Backlist items sell more slowly than frontlist, so let's give distributors smaller discounts on the slow-moving stuff. Is that what the business schools are teaching these days? Let's realize something, kids: If a product isn't on the shelf, it ain't going to sell. By giving the same or a bigger discount on backlist stuff than you provide on frontlist stuff, you encourage having more product in the stores, thereby making liquid the capital you have tied up in inventory. Since frontlist sales drive backlist sales, tightening the backlist supply makes no sense whatsoever, since it won't be in the stores to satisfy demand. Rule #1: Let's not let the short-term bottom line blind us to making sensible decisions about how to move product.
TSR has intimated that it may be moving toward a flat-fee payment for novels by first-time authors. That pretty much guarantees it'll only get first-timers working in its line, eroding quality and sales. I can remember a time when every TSR novel hit the New York Times bestseller list. TSR's book sales have collapsed to the point at which in any given month a BattleTech or Shadowrun novel can eclipse them on chain bestseller lists. I know first-hand the numbers that BattleTech novels sell, indicating a 600% reduction in TSR novel sales over the last decade. Rule #2: If you want quality, you pay for quality. Book lines don't succeed by beggaring authors and working with first novelists. Cherry-pick the best novelists out there, get some seriously kick-butt books going, and return to the glory days.
How did I pick the year 2000 as when I'd snag TSR? Well, that's when I figure it'll be at its lowest point, approximately three months after the release of the Third Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I predict that product will tank big-time and I'm willing to point out my reasons for that scenario now, a good 18 months out, so TSR can correct the problems and prevent the disaster. And I'm willing to do this even if it will cost me the chance to buy TSR.
The biggest problem I see with the coming product is the direction from which TSR is coming at it. I think the folks working on the project may not be designing a game suited to today's market. I think they may be using this opportunity to turn AD&D3 into what they think AD&D should have been. Game designers (and gamers) are all notorious for this: thinking we know better than the original designer of the game. Working from a basis of nostalgia that contains not a little contempt for the changes made when the second edition came out, I think TSR may be working on a game that would have been state of the art in 1982. I worry it will be rules-heavy, written in an impenetrable style, unintelligible to a beginning player and idiosyncratic enough to annoy players outside the design team. I fear it will come out in a series of five books, each of which will run $35. Sales will spike with the first one, then spiral down in flames. (And, in an attempt to recover from this disaster, TSR could offer a Classic Coke-New Coke dichotomy in subsequent products, but those things couldn't roll out until 2001, which will be far too late.)
The second problem is that TSR's missed what has been successful in the past. Since 1985, with Dragonlance, and certainly 1989 with Vampire and Shadowrun, the lesson in the industry is that worlds sell, not game systems. Deadlands is the latest example of this: The game system is inelegant, but the world is so exciting and vital that folks buy the products. To be able to move AD&D3 and make it a big hit, TSR needs to design a new game world that will be fresh and exciting and pull a lot of readers in. The difficulty there is, as I have pointed out endlessly, TSR/Wizards of the Coast's track record leads one to worry that it couldn't develop an intellectual property if a gun were held to designers' heads. TSR staffers look at things like BattleTech and Shadowrun -- which they contemptuously consider dead lines -- and wonder why they continue to sell. Here's the secret, boys: They continue to sell because the lines reinvent themselves over and over again. Take BattleTech, for example. Since 1987 I've been working to shape the history of that universe. We had the Fourth Succession War (two years), the Clan Invasion (three years), The Chaos March War (two years). and the Twilight of the Clans (two years) -- and that's leading into the new era. FASA has been doing event-based releases for more than a decade that keeps BattleTech fresh and trucking right along. Things are shaped to appeal to the market, to our changing audience.
Of course, TSR has the resources to go out and hire folks to create a kick-butt fantasy world in which to set AD&D3. They've got the lead time for great novels set there. They can make it exciting and launch the game as a line that invites new players into roleplaying games, allowing them to graduate to AD&D2, which eventually will be supplanted, as reprints of older products carry stats for both games. AD&D2 is gradually retired, and the transition will be a seamless one that won't spawn a backlash.
The third problem I see with AD&D3 is that it's really too little, too late. TSR has good reasons for delaying the release, but these are problems that could be taken care of by other means. The second Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, the Magic roleplaying game should have been on the drawing boards and should have been out by January 1998, if not sooner. (They could even have been working on it during the acquisition phase. The staff working on AD&D3 was already at Wizards of the Coast, anyway.) There really was a need for a product that would have proved that TSR under new ownership wasn't just going to be the same-old same-old, but that time has passed. A Magic roleplaying game would have also broadened the Magic property, but my remarks about handling an intellectual property still apply here.
In addition to that, the staff that isn't working on AD&D3 is left to work on products they know won't be getting a big push and likely will be superseded when AD&D3 comes out. The designers at TSR in that position could well be better people than I am, but I know I'd lose a bit of my competitive fire and drive to crank out my best work when my projects were destined to be forgotten or given short shrift as far as promotion was concerned.
The fourth big problem I see is related to the first, but I'll reiterate it so it can't be missed: Designers at TSR (and Wizards of the Coast, for that matter) have transcended their audience. It doesn't matter if they still game -- in fact, that exacerbates the problem. What they are is old gamers who are getting older. They know what they like and they tweak things to mesh with what they like. There doesn't seem to be any inducement in the corporate culture to get folks to think outside the box or, at least, to look at what today's audiences want and then provide it. (Flat or failing sales in Magic releases point out how the market is shrinking; flat and shrinking Wizards of the Coast income numbers, despite pulling in Five Rings and TSR, show a failure to expand its lines with products that appeal to customers walking away from Magic.)
When I buy TSR, I'll make a number of changes. The first thing is to make the book, magazine, and game divisions all start pulling in the same direction. Stories about game-product managers having to beg novel slots from the book folks are just plain stupid. Books began as promotional tools for games and, though their sales might exceed those of game products, if things are not coordinated, then the added benefit for game sales evaporates. And Dragon needs to maintain its support role, publishing previews, short stories by novel authors, and keeping folks informed about all the exciting stuff coming up. Coordination of these efforts is vital and I'd see to it that it would be done. I would go back to cherry-picking the material that gets shipped to the book trade. Bookstores only ever used to be feeders to the game trade: Introductory items, as well as novels, would go into the stores. Things that players would graduate to would be found in speciality stores, and I'd return to that program. What went into the book trade would only be items that would be winners for the stores, and that would feed new folks into gaming. Anyone already in the subculture would have to be serviced in game stores, where the staff is knowledgeable about games and can provide gaming experiences that bookstores never will.
I would establish rapid-response design teams and give them the goal of putting together sharp, event-based release projects. These projects would be stand-alone items using an existing game system, streamlined to let anyone pick up the material and start playing immediately. The venues for these events might be existing worlds or new worlds, giving us a chance to introduce new folks to existing worlds -- or trying out a concept to see if we want to expand it later. While most of the design staff would continue to service strong lines, we'd have some hot, kicky new projects to sate the tastes of jaded players and designers alike.
I'd adjust the balance between marketing and creativity, because, whenever one predominates, the lines suffer. Marketing can't tell creators what they should produce, because marketing bases future projections on past performance. As far as marketers are concerned, more of the same is the way to go. Innovation runs the risk of alienating the audience, but it never does it as well as boredom, in my opinion. Marketers should concentrate on identifying our audience and seeking means to acquaint that audience with our games. Creators need to be reminded who their audience is. They need to be reminded that every product is going to be someone's first product, and, if we lose that person then, we've lost him forever. While some products will be so idiosyncratic no beginner could understand them without other reference, gateway products can't be that way. Once the creators understood there were parameters within which their work had to function, they'd be let alone to go wild, with praise and bonuses to follow performance.
What do I think my chances of success would be, were I at TSR's helm? I think they'd be stunning. A little direction, a big dose of reality, some streamlining and coordination, and I think TSR could scream. The excuses of "That's the way we've always done it," or "Gamers will like it because I'm a gamer and I like it," just won't fly any more. We'd be doing projects that will lead the industry in innovation, cost, and fun -- putting all the weight of TSR's reputation and history behind them.
What do I think are the chances that I'll be able to snap TSR up for a song 18 months from now? Frighteningly closer than even I'd care to imagine. After only 16 months, TSR's first director under Wizards of the Coast has been moved aside, despite having designed and brought into being the heavily touted Alternity. Any changes made by the new director will be hard-pressed to bear fruit by the time AD&D3 is due out, so I see another shift then, which destroys any continuity of leadership in time for the new rollout. Whoever is dropped into the driver's seat at that point will be put in charge of a vehicle careening out of control, and surviving the coming crash is not guaranteed.
Wizards of the Coast bought TSR for a staggering sum of money -- one which TSR never really has a chance of earning back except in the extreme long term. (OK, some serious licensing deals could earn it back, but we're 18 months out from purchase, and the only licensing deals I've seen out of Wizards of the Coast/TSR have involved their becoming licensees, not licensors.) At some point Wizards of the Coast is going to look to rid itself of a division that isn't profitable, and that's when some sharp cookie will snap it up.
Does this mean I think TSR is going to collapse and bring down the market? On our level, within our end of the hobby, that's not really a concern. What I do think is that TSR isn't going to be in a position to expand the market the way it could, which hurts us all. With the right strategies in place, with a cold dose of reality and an internal restructuring that provides direction and motivation, TSR could be in a growth spiral. I just hope someone steps up and does the job before circumstances makes more dire predictions come true.
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Article publication date: February 5, 1999
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