A year after the release of Magic: The Gathering, the biggest game convention in the year — GenCon, in Milwaukee — had become a very different place. The hallways were crammed with people trying to play quick pick-up games of Magic, the dealer room was well stocked with people buying and selling the rare first print run of the game, and word was in the air that Wizards of the Coast were able to demand that distributors order some of their non-Magic games in order to receive a decent volume of new expansion sets. Small hobby stores were opening up with the sole purpose of selling Magic cards. It was the beginning of a new speculator’s market.
The big company that dominated the industry was TSR, which owned Dungeons & Dragons. With decades of beautiful fantasy art to draw upon, around seven months of Magic they had released their copycat, Spellfire. The graphic design was decent for its day, and the imagery, of course, was fantastic, but the game itself was not great. I found it dull. Initial sales were fairly high, but even though it was still being promoted heavily six months later, by the time the summer conventions had rolled around the game was clearly dead. Many smaller publishers were now getting in the action, though – a wave of small print-run collectible card games was on its way to retail stores, but nothing like Magic.
In a few years, Wizards of the Coast would buy Dungeons & Dragons. That’s how much change was coming. The big summer conventions were great core samples to take of the state of the industry. For me, though, the biggest impact of the cons wasn’t being exposed to a broader view of the industry, but in the friends I made.
Dustin, for example, I’d met already because he’d been a playtester for Steve Jackson Games. A young archeologist by training — looking a lot like a taller, more boyishly faced Eddie Vedder with an extra 25 pounds on him — Dustin also had a broad range of experience across a range of the many game systems on the market. And he was a reflective guy, not inclined to talk about things he didn’t know about, even if he was happy to ask questions when something caught his interest.
As a low-key but not-shy guy, his personality stood out from the crowd of interested if less interesting fans and playtesters. It was always a fun time hanging out with Dustin, which I’d been doing more and more often. Some of his archeologist friends were pretty cool, as well. Some of them were planning to move in together, and asked if I wanted the last unclaimed bedroom. I took it, and a month later we were housemates.
Charlie was someone else who stood out. I met him through Dustin, though he wasn’t another fan — quite the opposite. He ran one of the most popular of the smaller publishers, Chaosium, famous not for their Dungeons & Dragons fantasy-style games but for their Twentieth Century horror games. Chaosium was one of the few publishers I’d known and cared about as a kid, so I loved getting to know Charlie. Dustin was a playtester for Chaosium as well, and like Dustin I found Charlie to be one of the most affable and unpretentious people around in an industry of pretense.
It is true: one of the most disappointing things I saw in my early game industry years was the behavior of some game company employees, who would charmingly engage their fans in playtest sessions then run them down behind their backs when there were only “insiders” around. It wasn’t super common, thankfully, but it did happen. Sadly, game industry behavior at its most false and pretentious was still a slight improvement over the behavior of some fans.
Different people had different opinions about what made for the worst fans. There were the people who thought they deserved a discount or even some free stuff because of some slight, often an imaginary one, or due to some hiccup in the ordering process. There were the really sad guys who literally hadn’t changed their clothes in weeks, maybe longer. These guys often had a hard time understanding when the people around them needed more personal space, a terrible combination.
But for me, the people who triggered my impatience more quickly than anyone else were the ones for whom I’d always thought I’d have the most compassion, the people who’d gone so deep into their beloved game that it was basically all that they could talk about. It’s not like I could find a way to respect these people because of their superior intellects — strangely, it’s not like they had some crazy memory or deeply ingrained sense of the game system or its background. And it’s not like they had uncovered something interesting at the heart of a complex game that could be made accessible to other people. Instead, they’d developed a deep emotional attachment to a character that they’d created in the game, and it was often a character that in many ways served as a reflection of themselves.
At the Origins convention that year, a guy approached me at our booth. “Hey,” he said. “I’m a level 63 Paladin.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. That was Dungeons & Dragons talk, and we had nothing to do with that game, so I was wondering where he was going. I wasn’t curious, I just wondered.
He held up clenching hands. “I have diamond gloves with shields that protect me from any evil. I have a castle and followers and I protect the town.”
“Wow. Hey: do you play any of our games?”
The guy glanced around the booth. He was younger, maybe nineteen, wearing jeans that were too tight around the waist. He didn’t seem comfortable.
“No,” he said. “I only read the books — I don’t play the games.” He opened his mouth to continue — I thought he was going to say something like, “No one wants to play with me” — but he only glanced down, then back up, and said, “I’m a level 63 Paladin, but do you think there’s any way to get to level 100? Or level 1,000?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“You’re dumb. There isn’t even enough experience points in the world to get that far. You could kill all the monsters and you’d still never have enough experience points.” He chuckled. He was enjoying this. “Dummy,” he concluded.
“You got me,” I said, and turned on my heel, surprised by how much the guy had gotten under my skin. At another company’s booth, I shared my story with a woman who worked there.
“Oh, it’s bad,” she said. “That kind of stuff is the worst.” One of her company’s big properties was a game where pilots crawl inside of giant robots called mechs — basically they’re walking, sometimes flying, tanks — and duke it out on big battlefields. You can customize your mech, of course, and people did. She affected a slightly glazed look on her face and said, “‘Let me tell you about my character. I made a mech that no one has ever made before.’ I said, ‘Okay, tell me.’ ‘It’s a bicycle.’ ‘Um, a bicycle isn’t really a mech. I mean, what about armor?’ ‘I don’t need armor, because I’m super-fast! When I’m on my bike I’m, like going — and nothing can stop me.’ ‘Okay there, partner.'” She sighed. “And that guy was nearly okay.”
Another woman from another company — the vampire game company — had walked up behind me. She said, “‘My character is the most special. I’m a vampire-werewolf with daylight protection powers. And I can fly. It’s not part of the rules, but I can do it. Vampire-werewolves break rules.’ Then the guy made a funny symbol in the air and whispered, ‘Rule-breaker.’ Then he walked away.”
“Aw, really?” the first woman asked.
“Really,” she said. “There’s some sad people in the world.”
Even people in the office weren’t always immune to that. Coming back from a coffee break one time that summer, Jeff pulled me aside.
“Hey, I tried something cool last weekend, testing the system,” he said.
“Well, I made a really interesting character.”
“Oh, man — you are not going to tell me about your character, are you?”
We laughed. “Just listen,” he said. “So, I made a jack-of-all-trades character. He’s got a ton of natural intelligence and the like, and since so many skills are based off your intelligence, then he’s automatically got a really good chance to succeed at nearly everything.”
This summed up nearly everything that irritated me about Jeff. He knew a little bit about a lot of things, enough to get himself in trouble, but outside of writing he didn’t seem to have gone deep enough on any one thing to have truly mastered it.
I hope I suppressed a sigh. “How’d it go?” I asked. He broke down a couple of rounds of game play, and listened with what I hope was patience, though I did finally interrupt to ask him something.
“You know that saying about jack of all trades? You know it ends with, ‘master of none,’ right?”
He smiled, a little lopsided. “That’s the point,” he said. “When you’re good enough, you can just pick anything up and do it.”
I thought, “Are we really only talking about your character, now?” But I didn’t say it. I hope I didn’t. Because that would have been mean.
At the Origins convention, later on the day I’d met the 63rd-level Paladin, I’d walked the floor, hoping I might run into him. I wanted to tell him, “There are other ways to gain experience points besides slaying monsters. You can get experience simply by learning new things — or like how priests get experience by healing people, sometimes you can go up a level simply by meeting just the right new person. So you don’t have to think so much about the monsters. There’s enough experience points in the world to be anything you want to be.”
I never saw him again, as far as I know, which was too bad. I could have used some experience points myself around then.
At the biggest game convention of the year — GenCon, the month after Origins — I was talking with Charlie and Dustin when our sales manager pulled me aside to introduce me to a tall, buzz-cut and blond-goateed German man.
“This is Alex,” she said. He was smiling broadly.
Alex was good friends with one of our biggest foreign licensors, next to the Japanese, a French game company called Siroz — they’re the people from whom we’d licensed the game I’d been working on, the book that I hadn’t gotten off to the printer in time for the biggest convention of the year. I was seething from self-disappointment and wide-band frustration. Thankfully, warmly calm and smiling Alex was more focused on his excitement and anticipation around soon seeing the finished product.
“When would it be out, now?” he asked, after we’d talked for quite a long time.
I didn’t have a good answer, though luckily he didn’t mind much. “Have you been to France?” he also asked.
“No, never to Europe.” I’d hardly been out of Texas.
“You should come to France,” he said. “If you want to see Berlin, I have a flat also there. I let my friends stay there.”
“Sounds interesting.” I did wonder if the invitation would still be good after Steve fired me.
Speaking of, Steve caught me on the afternoon of the last day of the convention. He was walking slowly down an aisle, through the tired energy of the con’s final afternoon. Soon all the booths would be pulled apart, the dreams of modern adventure gaming packed up for another time.
He called me over to where he was handing off a bag of games he’d been given by various competitors to one of our con volunteers to tuck away for him. For me, it had been a long six weeks or so since the bad time had hit hard, and it’d be two more weeks before Cookie would call and ask for help moving. It’d been a tiring week as well, every step pushing the bones of my foot against a layer of skin that had already had all the blood pressed out of it. I felt weak, and I didn’t think I wanted to hear what he was going to say.
“When you get a moment,” he said, “I’d like to talk.”
“No time like the present.”
As we found a quiet place, I narrowed down possible conversations to a short list of different ways I could be fired, or otherwise have so much responsibility taken away from me that I’d be humiliated into leaving under a dark cloud. Someone else would finish my book, and it’d be the success I always knew it’d be, and I’d never get over it, and —
“I had an interesting conversation,” he said, “with Peter Adkison.”
“How’s he?” He was the CEO of Wizards of the Coast, and a really nice guy. We’d had a couple of good long talks on the phone, before their great success.
“He’s rich,” Steve said. “And he’s worried that Magic might be a fad that burns out soon. He wants it to be more than a fad. He wants it to be something that could last for a long time. To do that, he thinks there need to be more good collectible card games soon, to make the argument that there’s a collectible card game market, not just a Magic market.”
“Okay,” I said, no idea where this was going.
“Do you see one of our card games we could make into a collectible card game?”
I thought about it. “I’d do Illuminati,” I said, because it was, in my mind, Steve’s greatest game. It was also one of the only big games in his stable that we had not revisited since going digital.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Steve said, nodding. “Can you see how you would do it?”
“It’s expensive, right?” I didn’t know by how much, but given that my book had been a no-show that year, and we hadn’t had a decent hit for several years before except that vampire game license that Jeff authored, so money was only more and more tight. Since io.com had taken our recent windfall, and not exactly paid itself off yet, we weren’t in a good position. I didn’t know at the time how close we were to shutting a chunk of the business and reducing the staff to a skeleton crew.
Steve seemed thoughtful. “There is an opportunity,” he said. “Can you do it?”
“In how long?”
Steve bugged his eyes out, his personal expression which meant, “I don’t know.” Then he said, “How about right now?”
I thought about it. All the pieces swam around in my head. I knew what most of them would be, but —
“Think about it,” he said. “Let’s talk back in Austin.”
On the plane, halfway home, whatever background process I’d set to considering Steve’s question came back with something for me: all the pieces I had and everything else I’d need to know, how it would work — including ways to tweak the cold-war era game to play for more modern audiences — and what I’d personally have to do, for us to make our own Magic.