Jun 17 2019
No story about the history of AEG would be complete without talking about my parents, family and friends who not only supported us, but also helped when we needed it most.
My dad, John (Big Z to most everyone who was his friend), did not understand my decision to stop doing golf marketing and start a game company, but my parents supported it. We had some rough times in the early years and my parents invested in AEG and in my dream. They believed that I could make this work.
When we ran into major trouble for the first time it was my father who came down to our offices and started asking questions and outlining the problem on a whiteboard. He helped me see that things were not as bad as they seemed and that we would work our way out of the problem.
We opened a warehouse in Apple Valley and my parents ran it for AEG for multiple years. I don’t think anyone would argue that while my dad was in charge it was the best run part of our company.
My dad was a simple hard-working guy who loved his wife, golf, and was proud of his kids. The second best day of my life (best was my wedding day) was right after we sold L5R for the first time and I was able to hand my parents the check which covered all of their investment and more. And I remember my dad’s reaction. He tried to hand it back to me. “This can’t be right, it’s too much. I am sure the company needs this.” I smiled and pushed it back. “It’s your money. Your investment paid off.” He was a proud dad and got more mileage out of that story than he did the money.
He has been gone for a long time, 18 years. He was taken from us way too early at 62 years old. We all miss him.
I have so many great stories about my dad, but the one that has been my guiding light since he’s been gone is the story about loads.
My dad loved doing things around the house. We always had a project going on. One month my dad decided that he wanted to get rid of our gravel driveway. His plan was to move all the rocks from the front driveway to a pile in the backyard. He told my brother and I that we could get it done quickly if we worked together. If we each did two loads a day, the project would be done in no time.
About a week into the project I had some extra time and decided to do all my loads for the week in one day, 14 wheelbarrow loads from the front to the back of the house.
The next day I was laying on the couch and my dad was on his way outside. I remember it like it was yesterday.
“Did you do your loads today, son?”
“I did my loads for the week yesterday.” I responded. “Fourteen.”
He smiled. “That’s not how loads work, son. You had an excellent day yesterday, but just because you were able to do extra yesterday does not mean that you don’t need to do your loads today. Come on, get up and let’s go do our loads.”
I remember thinking, that is a load of something and it’s not rocks.
That is how my dad lived his life, doing his two loads every day and having excellent days in between. Working two jobs or waking up at 4am to drive four hours from Apple Valley to LA for work. Everything he tried he found a way to be good at.
This memory motivates me when I am feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or just feel like procrastinating.
Happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers out there. Don’t forget to do your loads today, whatever it is you are trying to accomplish.
Jun 7 2019
There is this great little card game out there called Plague and Pestilence. I am not sure how big it was in the rest of the world, but in So Cal it was all the rage during the beginning of the CCG era. I have been trying to track down the designers to see if we might be able to do a new version of this game with absolutely no luck finding them.
Turns out that this is not a problem, because I have recently been informed that I can just change the art and the name and publish it, and it’s completely legal to do so. The AEG version of this game is simply titled, THE PLAGUE, and will probably be coming out next year.
Well, there is one problem. I have to figure out how to get over the feeling that I am stealing that game—which is a bridge too far—so we are back to where we started and we are still trying to track down the designers. (Tray Green and Dawn Payn, if you see this, contact us!)
The sad news is that this is happening and it is just bad for gaming. Not illegal, but wrong.
There are people out there who have convinced themselves that because it’s not illegal they are not doing anything wrong. Companies and people doing this have different ways of convincing themselves that they are in the right.
There are the super fans … “I love this game so much, and the publisher is screwing us by not keeping it in print, so I am duty-bound to just publish it under a new name and with new art.”
Or worse, unscrupulous publishers “I found the designer/publisher in another country but we couldn’t make a deal – maybe it was just a language / cultural issue” or “I reached out to a designer and offered to make their game in the US, but they didn’t respond. So screw them, I’ll just publish it myself. I tried to do the right thing.” Did you?
“It’s not the same. Our cards are black and white, not red and white.” “it’s not a copy, we added one rule.” “It’s totally different – you get random elements from an app not a deck of cards”, etc.
How much difference is enough difference? Everyone’s games use some elements of other games; there’s no new game that comes wrapped in an entirely new package of components, rules, play patterns, etc. One of the questions we ask designers when reviewing their games is “what game is your game most like” – and that’s not a trick question, we honestly want to hear how the pitch fits into the ecosystem of existing game options that players have to consider
DID YOU KNOW? Maybe the biggest game of all time that was published without the original designer’s permission is a game called Legends of the Three Kingdoms published in China. That game was a simple reskin of the game BANG!. I am sure some people are saying, “If they did it, it certainly must be okay?”
This industry is built on trust. Heck, designers go to protospiel events and share their ideas with other game designers and people they have never met—and may never see again—to make their games better. They show off games years before they ever get published.
This is a small industry, but there are lots of people making games. We will occasionally go to a show and get pitched 4 different versions of the same idea or theme in a single day of meeting designers. Games inspired by other designs, games that put a new spin on a mechanic, and games that mix mechanics in new ways. Designers work hard to find that perfect mix of inspired game design that makes for the bones of a great game.
The result is that a number of games may get published with no unethical intent but which nonetheless share substantial similarities. That doesn’t feel like “stealing”.
Some designers may develop a game that is very similar to another game and never know until someone else tells them. There are tens of thousands of games. The design space can seem very limited especially to new designers. Sometimes similarity is just a coincidence.
But we worry about the fact that games (like a few other kinds of creative work including fashion and cuisine) don’t have strong legal protections and that lets people who can swallow their pride and ignore their ethical obligations publish work that they KNOW was really created by someone else. In the app gaming space on smartphones copying of games is immediate, rampant, and lucrative. We don’t want to see tabletop gaming acquire those attributes because we think it hurts the creativity and risk-taking that we need to see tabletop gaming pursue greatness.
Just because it is technically not illegal, copying is the thing that threatens the core of game design creativity, I personally think it breaks the glass on the creative trust we have built in this industry, shows a lack of character, and can only hope it is not rewarded in the future.
Jun 2 2019
As previously mentioned in the beginning, 1996 was the first great CCG market crash. The market had been flooded and was reacting.
But let’s step back.
Let’s start with how expensive it is to launch a CCG. There is, of course, the time necessary to build the game, but our team was working for almost nothing and Shadis and Ryan’s company were covering those expenses. Then there is the art. We picked an extremely art-heavy game. Over 300 pieces of art for the base game; not a small task or a small bill. And then finally, there was the printing. L5R had a lot of press sheets and the printing bill for Imperial was going to be huge. But we had orders (or so we thought) for the entire print run, so we headed to Dallas to meet with Yaquinto Printing.
Ryan and I will never forget that day. We met Mr. Robert Yaquinto and his daughter, Katie. We got a full tour of the facility and ended up in a big conference room. Just the four of us. Ryan and I pitched our vision for L5R and our future games to the patient Yaquinto, Sr., who I am guessing could have cared less about the big dreams we were pitching but was polite and smiled as we pitched. We did get the idea that he was measuring us up, and after one pause in our pitch he looked at his daughter and said, “I think we will print these boys’ game.” And that was it. He gave us more credit than either of us had ever thought about, and a great partnership was formed. Like so many others people I speak about in this blog, without the amazing partnership of the Yaquinto family and the quiet approval from Mr. Yaquinto, Sr., none of this would be possible. Katie Yaquinto-Karl remained our printing partner and friend for years. I occasionally still drink a shot of Liquor 43, introduced to me at one of our meals in Dallas, and thank the gaming gods for great partners like the Yaquinto family.
It’s a fair estimate to say that as the product was delayed and printing costs mounted up, we were a good $500,000 in debt before L5R shipped. It is a lot, but the expected income from the first print run was about one million dollars. High risk, but high reward. No wonder everyone was printing a CCG. We sold 40% of that print run. $400,000 paid for the art and the main print bill, but it did not get back loans to parents and partners and we had no more cash to operate.
We were sitting on $600K in L5R stock. We thought this is okay. We have sold enough to keep going, we can continue selling it, and once the Shadowlands expansion hits we will be fine. That was before Ryan’s partners tapped out and said no more cash. We needed to find investment to continue, and at the same time the stress of that debt was cracking the AEG partnership like a walnut.
Even with all of that going on, we still felt like we had something. We got a small reorder in the weeks after the release and I was all over the distributors about not buying more, and I remember one of them saying. “Z, L5R is the only new game that has gotten a reorder this quarter. At least it is selling.”
Something about L5R had clicked with players that had adopted it, and the storyline hook had connected on a deep level. We had players wanting to play, wanting to teach new players, so we decided to go big. We had no other choice.
We offered retailers “The Guaranteed Demo Program”. Buy a box of Imperial starters and boosters and we will do a demo in your store, no matter where your store is, or we will refund your purchase price.
This is as crazy as it sounds. And our smarter older selves would not make this promise again, but we were young and true believers.
We set up Mindy “Mouse” Sherwood-Lewis in a cube in Seattle. (We called her Mouse, but she was a Lion.) She attacked the plan to get a demo into every store that carried L5R. She connected with players all over the world. And when she could not get a player to do a promised demo, someone from AEG or Ryan’s company would make the trip. Many times Ryan would load up his trunk with product and drive for 4 – 5 days visiting stores in the Northwest. I would fly into Iowa City and drive from city to city doing demos. Our team at AEG did the same, when necessary.
This created a strange sales pattern for L5R. Stores in the middle of nowhere would buy the deal and then we would get someone to that store. No one else was doing this, so we connected on a human level and communities of L5R players would blossom in the most remote places.
We were selling just enough L5R every month to keep the doors open.
It took us seven months to find investment and get Shadowlands to press. I often think that if we had shipped Shadowlands on schedule we would not have had as much ground swell as we did. That delay meant many more demos happened and more customers were created. The legend of L5R had grown, and it was obvious that our grassroots effort was starting to pay-off.
Next week, Five Rings Publishing Group is formed, Wizards offers magazines an exclusive Magic card insert, and the team heads to Reno armed with a stapler and some flyers.
May 31 2019
It has been a very unproductive week for me. I find that I fall back into bad habits at the first sign of adversity inside the company. I want to jump up and plug the hole in the dam. I find that the hardest part of moving to a new position in your own company is delegation, trust, and breaking personal bad habits.
I will often let the business run me instead of me running the business. I used to let my screaming in-box give my day some structure. Answering emails for 4 hours makes you feel like you are being productive. Now, in this new role, I let play test days and visitors to Larkstone push me forward. The business is still driving me.
I have allowed a number of important things to slip, one being a completed blog entry for today, so armed with a fresh cup of joe and a clean whiteboard I figure we can get back on track together.
In my role as 20% CEO, I need to identify the most important items that might need my attention each week. In a perfect world, these are not emergencies but proactive connections to keep things moving.
- Is fulfillment on schedule? (yes)
- Is expansion design on track? (yes)
- Big announcement ready? (yes)
- Is it on schedule to get on ships before tariffs happen? (yes)
- New print runs on schedule? (yes)
- Distributor allocations confirmed? (yes)
- New booth graphics and show planning on schedule? (yes)
- Products confirmed for early arrival? (yes)
- BGN plan moving forward? (yes)
- Product on schedule? (yes)
- Marketing campaign on track? (No)
My one NO is the Atelier marketing campaign. I knew that Tiny Towns was going to be a tough act to follow, but we thought Atelier would be up to the task. We have just started the marketing campaign and I don’t love it. I have scheduled a meeting for Monday to see if we can spice it up.
There is a lot more going on outside of development at AEG, but these are the items I identified as must follow-up and so that is now done.
Now I also have to address my screaming email. Not in the same way I used to where I would spend all day hunting and pecking email chains that turn into more email, I need to solve and/or delegate.
Let’s look at the count.
I do a quick review of my in-box and break emails up into three boxes. I also try to follow the 2-minute principle. Do not file it if you can solve it in under 2 minutes.
@today – Must address today items
@action – Normal day to day emails. (old job)
@devaction – Development related emails (new job)
It’s worse than I expected. 23 @today, 139 @action, and 148 @dev-action. Attacking the @today emails first. They were pretty easy, few appointments to make and a series of wire transfers I needed to cue up for payment before the end of the month.
STOP THE PRESSES- 9:53am The instant gratification monkey just arrived!! I think it’s my advance copy of Edge of Darkness!!
Get back on track, Z. You can have it all. You can get your work done AND play with your new toys and sort and organize your copy of Edge.
Come on … who am I kidding? The instant gratification monkey wins this round!
At least I got this blog mostly done and even started another one about just how darn hard and expensive it was to get Edge of Darkness made.
Enjoy these pictures of me enjoying my copy of Edge of Darkness with no guilt. Have a great weekend. Hope you have games and fun planned for International Tabletop Day.
Want to learn more about the instant gratification monkey? Watch this Ted Talk by Tim Urban.
May 27 2019
In 1994 the SoCal gaming community connected every holiday weekend at one of three Strategicon shows in LA. Shadis and AEG became regulars at these events, and when not at the show someone was always hanging out at our FLGS All-Star Games.
(RIP Dave and Carol Turrietta)
Like a tavern before a D&D adventure, this is where we slowly formed the party that would go on this first adventure with us. I have worked with a lot of talented people over the last 27 years, but I have never lucked into the kind of talent we had during those first few years. There was a lot of, a random gamer showing up at the house or offices to visit and then weeks later we realized they were just coming back every day, and then we would discover they were Beatles’ level rock stars.
When we decided to make a CCG, we started whiteboarding ideas. We ended up with three core ideas on the board. Cowboys (would become Doomtown) Pirates (would become 7th Sea) and Samurai. David and I had played a little RPG game called Bushido growing up and we loved the Samurai genre. We broke the tie and said, “Let’s make a game about Samurai.”
I don’t remember when Matt Wilson joined us, but I do remember that he did not talk about his art. He was just a guy wanting to help us make games. As we got closer to a publication date for L5R, one day he disappeared for long enough that we were asking where he was. He then showed up with his first L5R piece, Togashi Yokuni. Imagine our surprise when he came back with this piece of art. I was stunned. How does the perfect guy walk in from a local store to be your art director and he is also one of the best artists in the history of gaming? (Maybe my superpower is luck.) Matt’s story is a great one. After he left AEG he worked with Wizards and then started his own company. A small venture you may have seen around, Privateer Press.
Matt Staroscik was a friend of Matt Wilson’s. He was quiet and would show up every day and just grind on anything we needed to make things work. He helped with editing, game design, graphics. He is super talented and was willing to do just about anything for the team. He was a huge part of helping us get L5R out and keeping other projects flowing through AEG. I do not think the quiet Matt gets enough kudos during the telling of the tales from those days, but he and DJ were the glue that helped hold the place together.
Our vision for CCGs was to come at them from our RPG background. AEG was continuing to publish Shadis, a mostly RPG focused magazine, and so when we landed on the idea of L5R we immediately knew were going to be making an RPG as well. John Wick wrote an article for Shadis and was quickly recruited, and joined our team as continuity editor, storyteller, and writer. I think the most important thing he brought to L5R was his ability to tell stories. Not write them. John would not only write stories he would travel to shows and create them on the fly like a GM. As events at a tournament unfolded, he would weave them into a tale for the players and then come home and make them cannon.
The L5R CCG, RPG, and the storyline idea that would continue in our future games was a true team effort. We moved out of the apartment and into an office in Ontario, California, our home for the next 20 years. 1995 was a crazy blur. We were working on the CCG, the RPG, published the first CCG storage boxes, and we were publishing an issue of Shadis every month, We were doing everything we could to keep the business going until we got the CCG to market.
With deadlines looming, the team pulled through. Just days before Gencon 2015, Matt and Matt jumped into a car and drove to Dallas, Texas, to pick up the demo cards we were using at Gencon.
This team set the bar extremely high for future teams. It was they who opened my eyes to exactly what happens when passion, talent, and hard work converge.
Next week I will talk about how we launched L5R into the teeth of the first CCG crash and the things we did to survive that crazy year.
May 24 2019
AEG tries to have a submission process as open as possible. We believe you never know where you are going to find the next great game or game designer, and we want to meet as many designers as possible and see as many games as we can.
We try to set aside time for new designers at every convention we attend. We have development staff there to take meetings with any designer who signs up. We try to be very reasonable about looking at submission sheets for games from any designer, but we have to weigh our opportunity against hard limits to our ability to review, develop, and publish new games.
There are just realities of time and size, that limit how much time we can put into finding new games. This is both an outline of our process and also a road map for designers who might want to submit to AEG in the future.
GATE 1. Sell Sheet: This is a quick glance for us. We are looking for something that makes this idea stand out or a quality of work in the sheet itself that makes us want to take a second look at this game. Let’s say it takes about five minutes to review a sell sheet when it is sent in to AEG.
- We do not let about 50% of the games we are pitched at sell sheet level through this gate.
GATE 2. Rules Play Video: This is a new gate for us.. We are asking them to do a 2-to-4 minute play explanation video. We understand that these can be tough to make and we are not looking for slick production quality, but we are looking to confirm that there is something interesting in the pitch to open the next gate. Most designers are now sending these little videos with their sell sheets which expedites the process.
- We do not let an additional 40% of games past this level. So at least 90% of the games we are pitched do not make it past the first two gates.
In a normal month we get about 50 -100 new submissions. Someone spends about one full day to review submissions and follow-up with designers on these submissions.
GATE 3. Rules and Skype Session: The next step is a review of the rules and/or a Skype play session where we watch the designer actually play the game with his group. We commit about an hour for these sessions and do about 8 a month so about one day per month is set aside for this gate.
- Assuming 100 new pitches a month, about 10 games make it to the Skype sessions. We eliminate another 7% of the games after this pitch.
GATE 4. Full Play: The next step is a full play session of the game. This is anywhere from 1 hour to 2.5 hours. We now require that designers provide us with a prototype. We are unfortunately past the point where it makes sense for AEG to be building prototypes (even simple ones). We figure about two hours average per game for the first playthrough. And this is not just one person; it is 2 – 4 people. We play about 5 – 8 new games per month, so that is about 4 days of just game play on games we have not signed yet.
On a good month we will end up playing 1 – 3 games that were sent into us via the Blind Submission process. We play another 2 – 5 games from designers who are already past the first 3 gates.
- On average, I would say 1 in 150 games we see make it to the next gate.
GATE 5. Stress Test: The few games that make this final stage now go through a stress-testing phase. This is where we play as much as we can to see if the game holds up after 5 to 10, or maybe more, play sessions. If we like a game we keep playing, and this is also when we talk about what it might become and how we might develop it into an AEG product. We dedicate 1 to 2 days per week to this part of the process.
- Of the games that we stress test, 2 to 4 of these make it into contract and into our development wheel.
GATE 6. The Development Wheel: This is where work begins on contracted games. I would love to say that every game that makes the wheel gets to press. And there was a day when that was true, but now I think that only about 50% of these games go to press. And we have also reached a point where a game might not go to press even after significant investment in art, graphics, and all of the other preparation
- There are currently 20 games in our development wheel. I color code and prioritize those games on a whiteboard. Currently . . .
- We have 8 games that are currently coded GREEN, meaning they are likely candidates for release in 2020.
- We have 6 games that are currently coded BLUE, meaning that they have significant development left but are progressing in a positive way towards publication.
- We have 4 games that are currently coded ORANGE. These have been in the wheel for some time and we have not sorted out issues with these games. If we do not get them back to GREEN by end of 2020, they will go to RED.
- We have 2 games that are currently coded RED, and these will likely be handed back to designers with our apologies.
This year I started tracking my monthly game plays, and I am averaging about 70 games per month. This includes: games I play for fun; games that we are working on; games that we are testing to see if we should try to publish them; and games that we are testing for the first time. Average play time including conversations with designer or developers is about two hours per game.
That is a grand total of about 12 to 15 full days of gaming every month for me. Our developers average about 7 to 10 days, depending on where their games are at in the process and what their personal skills are. And finally our Larkstone playtesters get in about 10 days per month each.
AEG is a mid-sized game company. We have about a dozen people on staff, but only five of these people are solely focused on game development and design. We round out our creative team with freelancers and contracted developers and designers. Believe me, these folks are plenty busy with the projects they are working on now. New games, expansions, and a whole host of things people are not aware of that developers do after a product goes to press.
Needless to say, we have a limited amount of time to decide on what projects we will be doing. We have a small team of “pickers” who sort through all of the games and then get to decide on what games will make it to the final stage where the whole company gets to vote on what we do.
SCHEDULE & HIERARCHY
As noted in an earlier blog, AEG is trying to do fewer and fewer new games. For the sake of having a number to work with, let’s say that AEG does eight brand new games in a big year. One game per quarter plus a few games for Big Game Night releases plus 1 to 2 Kickstarter projects. This means that of the thousand pitches we see each year, only eight will become fully realized games.
The hierarchy of how we review games works like this:
Family: If you are a current or past AEG designer, your game submissions get looked at first. We believe that at some point you took a chance on AEG and we took a chance on you, so we are now family and family gets first seat at the table.
Designers we admire: Yes, we have a dream board and it is filled with the names of designers whose work we love and admire. We are fan boys and girls first, so when one of our idols comes knocking or answers our call, we often jump them to the front for review. Success breeds success, and some designers just know how to make great games.
Staff: AEG is very focused on development, but occasionally an idea springs up internally and we do a deep dive on making a game from the ground up.
Designers that we have already vetted but not yet published a game with: I would say we have a list of about 30 designers who have gone through the process of getting a game close to being published with AEG and it just did not happen for one reason or another. We like the way their minds work, and if they have games to pitch we want to give them a chance to join the family.
Designers who we met with in person at a show: Meeting face to face means something. Even in a 15 – 30 minute pitch, we can quickly determine if someone might have that something that we are looking for.
Designs we received in our inbox and have passed the first few rounds of testing: Last but not least, the games we get pitch sheets for and decide that there is something about them that makes us to look at that game.
AEG prioritizes some of its time for new designers. We think that is an important part of growing our industry and ensuring that AEG refreshes our talent tree. Here is our advice on how to move up the hierarchy at AEG or any other game company looking at games:
SELL SHEET: Sell your game and yourself.
- Unless otherwise directed by the company, do not send in unsolicited submissions. Send a polite letter asking for the best way to submit a possible game. (If you do not get an answer follow up, post online that you are looking for contacts at X company. Always be polite, never complain, especially online.)
- Your sell sheet should be well designed, edited, and informative. (If you cannot make a good one-page sell sheet, why would we think you can make a good game?)
- Why is your game DIFFERENT and SPECIAL?
VIDEO: Make a 2 – 3 minute video tutorial of the basics of your game. You don’t have to be on camera or even the person speaking about your game. Know your elevator pitch and repeat it in this video.
NOTE: If you are a designer wanting to pitch AEG and have read this Blog, you are welcome to send us a SELL SHEET and VIDEO to firstname.lastname@example.org. No need to send the letter in first.
Don’t present a game that is not finished or that has not been tested.
Do not pitch us ideas.
MAKE OUR LIFE AS EASY AS POSSIBLE
Send a link to the 2 – 4 minute LTP overview video with the sell sheet.
Build multiple prototypes, offer to send them to us if needed. (You should have this anyway if you are correctly playtesting your idea.)
RULES – YOU DO NOT HAVE A GAME IF YOU DON’T HAVE RULES. Rules and game-play explanation needs to be easy to follow but does not have to be complete.
YOU AND YOUR INTERNET PERSONA
Here is my last piece of advice that I give to all designers and folks who want to work with AEG. I am not sure about other companies, but we want to work with people who like to play games, have fun, and treat others with respect.
We check you out on the internet and we conduct a little research before starting business with new people. We like smart people with opinions, but we do not work with trolls. If you are in the business of making games, we like to work with people who understand that making games is hard and that getting a game published is harder. Opinions about games, people, and things happening in our industry is good. Being mean, piling on, treating other industry creatives like their work is “less than” is just not something we want to be around and we look to avoid.
This week Asger Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pederson were guests at the Larkstone house. We played and worked all week on a special project that looks to be coming into its own for 2020. We got to see the Flamme Rouge expansion and a number of other projects they are working on for other companies. (Boo!) The boys from Copenhagen enjoyed some sun, In-and-Out Burgers and a BBQ today to send them off with some of our local designers and playtesters. New father John Clair came for playtesting and crashed here last night. We decided to let him sleep in.
May 19 2019
One of the first ads we sold in Shadis Magazine was for a small mail-order company called RPG International. They sold D&D products and bundles via mail order before the internet. This company was run by my soon-to-be good friend, Ryan Dancey. (Funny note: RPG International was originally set up so that he and his gaming buddy Steve could get their D&D products at a discount.)
I met Ryan in person at Gen Con in 1994. We had been talking over the phone about ads in Shadis for some time, and also talking about the crazy things happening in the CCG and RPG business. As Ryan tells the tale: “I made my way to the Shadis booth which was surrounded by people getting a free copy of the magazine. John recognized me—I was the only 6-foot 6-inch guy wearing a suit in that hall—stuck out his hand, and pulled me into the gaming industry.”
By 1994 it was obvious that Magic was not just a fad. The convention was buzzing about Jyhad (later renamed Vampire: The Eternal Struggle) and announcements about new CCGs or conversations about these new games were everywhere. Most of that show was a blur for me, but I do remember walking the hall over and over with Ryan as he and I brainstormed a bunch of potential ideas for getting into the CCG market ourselves. Ryan was going to head back to Seattle and pitch his business partners on the idea of doing a game with AEG. I was convinced that we could build a CCG of our own with the AEG team, Ryan, and outside funding from Ryan’s partners. So I pushed for it inside of AEG.
Ryan and I are very different people. Ryan needs data to function and I am someone who likes data, but makes my decisions based on relationships, and my gut feeling for a situation. We both believe that working with the right people, customer service, and high quality products are the cornerstones of a great business. We also believe in setting big, audacious goals. The path we think we should take to accomplish those goals is very different. I am better when I have someone who will argue me off of a cliff and push me when I get too cautious. Ryan is that person.
It is also important to note that Ryan, for the most part, has a very high tolerance for risk. Once he sets a path and believes in the data, he has no problem with high-risk decisions. I, on the other hand, often get afraid to make decisions, especially when things are going well, unless they are thrust upon me. He is a great front runner, and I have always been much better at success when my back is against the wall.
Our First Audacious Goal: L5R
At some point after we met in 1994, we decided to set up a partnership between AEG and Ryan’s company to publish CCGs. That entity was eventually spun out into its own company named Five Rings Publishing Group. (FRPG) AEG would continue to function as the publisher of Shadis Magazine and a number of other projects, and FRPG would focus on CCGs starting with Legend of the Five Rings.
Hand-cut L5R prototype cards
In 1994/1995 it was pretty obvious that putting out a CCG was almost like printing money. During those two years, over 50 new CCGs were thrown at the market and stores were buying at least a little bit of all of these games. ( List of CCGs ) Needless to say, many of these games were not very good. The market was quickly flooded with games and more were coming. Our initial plan was to release L5R at Gencon in 1995. We missed that deadline.
WAIT . . . didn’t I just do a long blog about the cost of missing deadlines? Missing this one was bad. It was very bad!!!
We were able to get a single sheet of demo cards printed for the 1995 Gen Con. We had asked Peter Adkinson (founder and CEO of Wizards of the Coast) for his advice about doing a CCG, and he told us to print a practice sheet. Simple, but infinitely helpful. From that press sheet we learned a lot about how to print our game, and that sheet was how we introduced L5R to the world.
The story of that production run is epic. We had to learn a whole new language about printing with our partners at Yaquinto in Texas holding our hands. Everything took longer than we estimated. We had to keep reversing course to fix mistakes that we didn’t even know we’d made. Eventually, with people pulling multiple all-nighters, we got the right files to Yaquinto and the presses started running.
But we were so late that in order to get the cards to Gen Con, a couple of guys had to drive a truck from LA to Texas, load up the cards, and then on to Milwaukee. We literally got the cut cards for the show the day before it opened.
Using the cards on that sheet, we were able to construct several playable decks which we hand-collated in a marathon all-night session the day before Gen Con opened in 1995. With those decks we were prepared to execute our crazy plan for the show: Instead of using our exhibit hall booth exclusively to sell product, we dedicated a substantial portion to just demoing the game.
At this time the industry didn’t do a lot of in-booth demos. In the RPG era, a demo usually required a lot of instruction and tabletop space and companies scheduled events via the convention and ran demo games elsewhere in the convention center. In 1994, all the new CCG companies were trying to repeat the model that Wizards of the Coast had used the previous year when Magic was introduced, which was to sell product at their booth and then hope that people would fan out into the convention center and find places to play on the floor or empty tables.
In 1995, we’d already had success doing demos with hand-cut playtest cards made at Kinkos at smaller conventions. We knew that we could teach the game in a reasonable time frame, and often we could teach two or three people at the same time. So our goal was to run a promotion where if you sat through the demo we’d give you the deck of preview cards; essentially seeding the world with people who knew how to play and had enough cards to play a 2-player game.
Leaving Gen Con, life looked pretty good. L5R was getting great reviews from people who played it and we had pre-orders for 2,000 cases of product. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon: the first great CCG crash.
Near the end of 1995 in the face of stores having shelves full of CCGs that were no longer selling, the CCG market started to crash. This was 2 to 3 months before we were actually able to ship L5R to distributors. We watched as the orders for L5R started to tumble from 2,000 cases to 1,800 to 1,400 to 1,000 to 800 . . .
I did not mention that we were ALL IN on the L5R deal. Ryan’s business partners had put in a ton of money, Ryan and I had borrowed money from our parents, AEG had a whole bunch of debt. Ryan, the least risk-averse person I know, threw up in the trash can under his desk when given the final order numbers for the first print run. He felt he had lost his parents’ money. A bridge too far, even for him. I thought that as well.
Our decision to do CCGs and create the L5R production company was not popular with my original AEG partner, Jolly. He voted against it, but Dave Seay and I were set on that course. The process of building that new company, the huge debt we incurred, and the stress cracked us all, and my partnership with Jolly ended there.
Ryan, John & Dave in 1996
After the initial shock wore off, Ryan, Dave and I now had a tough situation. We had sold just enough L5R to barely cover the bills we needed to pay. Ryan’s partners decided that continuing to bankroll L5R expansions would be a bad idea and that we needed to find money elsewhere. We had just enough money to keep operating on a shoestring budget, 1,200 or so cases of unsold product and an extremely small but passionate group of players cheering us on and helping spread the word about the game.
Ryan and I have had a bunch of adventures in the 27 years since we met, but our greatest achievement to date was saving L5R in the face of odds that even C3P0 could not calculate.
To tell that story I need to fill in the blanks and introduce the team that helped make it happen.
May 15 2019
We have been talking quite a bit about our products on press right now and how we make sure the right ones get on a boat before the potential new policies on tariffs take effect. It would be one thing to be worrying about our normal product schedule—and we are—but we also have a few products that have experienced delays. Those projects are in danger of being tariffed, creating extra costs that are out of our control purely due to the fact that they are running a few weeks late. It is potentially a real bummer.
These important conversations got me thinking about delays in general, how they happen, and ultimately the cost they incur to a game company and everyone connected to that product. For the record, when I say delayed I am talking about the delivery date according to the internal schedule or the promise made to customers about a delivery date. A lot of delays are unseen by anyone but the staff and freelancers working on a project, but they are happening. I realize that this blog post is sort of a PSA for company owners and managers to our teams, freelancers, and partners, but it might also put things into perspective for folks considering game publication now or in the future.
Before I talk about the cost of bad delays, I know I should say that there are good and prudent delays that companies decide on. In a perfect world a delay is something the company decides on because it is best for the company or product, not because it has been thrust upon them and they have no other choice. I am in no way suggesting that a schedule should inform decisions about the quality of work or the quest to make a game better.
There are so many reasons a board game can go off schedule. Before press you could find holes in the design, art can be delayed, graphics, mistakes in back-ups, version control, I could go on forever. Then after it heads to the printer, a whole new realm of possible issues could pop-up. From supply of components, to quality control, to the amount of work that printer is being asked to produce under deadline. Then there are the logistics, shipping, or surprise customs checks where your product sits for weeks waiting to clear, or it just gets lost.
Needless to say, delays happen especially when working to a schedule.
In a bubble, a product that is delayed from, say, May to June (one month) might not have any effect on the company selling that game. But as part of a bigger schedule of releases, development and business management, the costs—not just in dollars—add up.
Let’s start with the obvious costs.
If a project takes an additional month to get to press, that is both extra costs associated with that game and lost opportunity cost of what is not being worked on. If you are the first person in the chain and you miss your deadline, this has detrimental issues down the line.
- Either the entire schedule moves (loss of income, extra costs)
- Someone down line must now do their job under duress (potential QC issues and stress)
Companies count on cash flow from budgets, and budgets are derived from schedules. You get the picture. That game that was supposed to release in May was supposed to bring cash into your company in June. No products = no cash, which puts stress on other products and the people responsible for sales and paying the bills.
Delays screw with the biorhythm of a company and its partners. If you have a window to release a game and it is moved and must share time and space with another project, the reality is that someone somewhere is going to pay less attention to one or both of those products, be it staff, distributors, retailers, or consumers.
There are real additional costs as well. As we all prepare for Gencon, I imagine that my near-peer companies are all having similar conversations about Gencon releases and restocks. Will product arrive in time? Will we have to air freight in inventory? I know we continue to be guilty of it every year. We discussed today which things are on the Gencon bubble and how much it would cost us extra if they miss the boat.
And then . . . the dreaded reset. After everyone has been fighting to make up for the lost time, inevitably a reset will happen. For us, it is usually on the yearly calendar. We put the mistakes of the past year behind us and try to make better plans for the new year. This is important and it relieves stress. I am a believer in fresh starts, but this is also where the opportunity cost and real cost collide, and you decide to eat it and move forward.
The biggest cost of delays, in my opinion, is stress. The last I checked, there were not a lot of enlightened buddhist monks making games, so the result of the delays, extra work, cash flow, emergency decisions is a stress ball that no one signed up for when they chose gaming as their profession.
How is AEG trying to combat this?
To start with, we are trying not to develop games to a specific schedule. Rather, we want to have them in what we call the development wheel, and when one is ready its spins off into the final development cycle. This is easier to do with fewer new games, but even as I write this I am stressed about an impending deadline for a big expansion to one of our games.
With printers and outside vendors we communicate as often as possible, we have learned to ask specific kinds of questions, and we try to foster a relationship where they can give us bad news as long as we get it early. We also try to build extra time into the schedule because we realize they are fighting this battle as well and problems will occur.
We try to listen. I SWEAR THAT I’M TRYING!! When we are building the schedule, we try so very hard to listen when someone says that something is going to be hard to do. I am so guilty of hoping that we hit a tight deadline date that I make the mistake of turning that hope into a hard deadline and bad things happen when the person approving the schedule does not listen.
This means that people who can do high quality work on a deadline are like gold. This is not a unique thing but it is often harder to find people who can consistently deliver quality to a deadline in a creative driven industry. We put a high premium on anyone who is able to bring this to our company.
In the coming weeks I am going to be talking about things that we must address in our industry for a company trying to do fewer new game releases to be successful. In this case, maybe we can work together to fix one of these problems. Fewer delays means less stress for all of us and more time to play games or at least enjoy making them. At the very least, as an industry we could have a Gencon where the biggest benefactor of our work is not FedEx.
May 12 2019
First I would like to say Happy Mothers day to the three great mothers in my life.
My Mom, Mary, without whom none of this craziness would be possible.
My Wife, Julie, without whom none of this would be worth while
My Mother in Law, Jeanne, who welcomed this crazy gamer into her family.
Dave Williams and DJ Trindle
After giving away 10,000 copies of Shadis #9 and then selling 10,000 copies of Shadis #10, we were off to the races. Jolly moved from South Carolina to California and we got a little two-bedroom apartment in Corona, California. Selling copies with hot Magic content was easiest, but Jolly was dead set against changing this content of the magazine. Shadis quickly became a known name as stores started to carry it and we continued to make sure that copies got distributed at conventions.
I cannot remember why we thought we needed an intern. We were literally publishing the magazine out of the apartment, but the page count was growing and the number of advertisers was increasing. We were a start-up and we were far from breaking even or making a living. We posted a few hand-typed signs at a local convention looking for interns, “Call Shadis magazine for an interview.”
We got 5 or 6 callbacks and set up interviews. We had some nice, smart people show up. We made notes on basic things, like if they showed up on time, their skills, and basic thoughts about each applicant and Shadis. There were a few guys we could have picked but one guy showed up dressed for the interview like he wanted the job. He wore a tie.
It was literally the tiebreaker. We selected Dave Williams because someone somewhere had told him when you interview you wear a tie.
Dave was a gamer and an early player of Magic. A very good player. He and I connected very quickly and he ended up helping a lot with things not specifically associated with creating the magazine. Mailing orders, subscriptions, following up with advertisers, hauling boxes to the street corner and waiting on the UPS guy to show up … yes, we were big time.
We helped Jolly where we could, but he needed more than we could give him. I just don’t remember how it happened. I don’t remember if Dave said, “Hey, my roommate is smart guy and he can help”, or if he just showed up one day with Dave and started doing things (which is how I sort of remember it), but one day DJ was not at the apartment and it seemed like the next day he was. Desks went up in the office and there were two of us living there and four of us working there every day.
DJ Trindle: DJ became the lead editor for Shadis, and after that the editor for all AEG products. He was also a great sounding board. He could spot quality work and help people create their best in game design and writing. He worked miracles as we grew, he was our memory, and I cannot imagine us ever being able to do more than one product without him at the office. (Turns out DJ had approved or suggested the tie on interview day so he gets an assist in that area as well.)
Dave Williams: It turns out David was not just a good Magic player. He did not know it yet, but he was one heck of a game designer. Dave was lead designer for many of our CCG’s including L5R, Doomtown, and many others. It is pretty safe to say that if he had not worn a tie to that interview, that we might have accidentally picked someone else and the trajectory of all of our lives would be vastly different than it is.
So, Dave, thank you for wearing that tie. And thanks also to his parents for teaching him how to dress to impress.
How the first AEG staff came together could be turned into a movie scene where a ragtag group of heroes karmically are pulled together. Next week I’ll talk about how I met the guy who is the Ying to my Yang and how we starting thinking about more than magazines.
PRO TIP: if you want to get your gamer tie on check out the Tactical Meeple Depot they just ran a great little Kick Starter and who knows that tie you wear today, may get you a job, and into a blog about how cool you are 25 years later.
May 9 2019
In a past life our main marketing effort was to give out free sample decks for our CCGs. In our years of publishing CCGs we gave away over one million decks.
The sampling model worked for CCGs because a CCG is a lot like the razor and razor blades business. Give someone the razor (The Deck) and they buy the razor blades (Boosters). This is not a sustainable marketing idea for board games but as someone who coined the phrase “sampling works if your product does not suck” I have been looking for ways to do this for board games.
Since we are not selling in the razors and razor blades model we have to think about how a wide sampling of a game might help the game sell better.
The smart folks at Wizards of the Coast once said: “The number 1 reason why someone quits or starts playing a game… is having someone to play with”. If you game does not have a reasonable level of sell-in then the things that must happen to allow it to reach a wider audience do not happen. Plainly put: If no one is playing your game then it gets forgotten and no one is buying your game.
We have, over the past few years, in as stealthy a way as possible pushed a few titles into the market at a discounted rate to try and perk up the market and number of people playing. Dice City is a recent example. It was very hot after release and we ran out of stock and while the next print run was on the water the game sort of died down. Uh OH. Every publisher’s worst fear. Demand dying on the water. What a nightmare.
When the restock arrived, we stealthily moved quite a few copies out at a deep discount. In multiple ways with the high hopes that it would re-stimulate sales. It worked. While Dice City did not become the most talked-about AEG release it has become a solid and steady seller for us and we were able to track the sales response well enough to be convinced that the recovery of the game was linked to the sales of the deeply discounted product..
Our plan was to do the same for Scorpius Freighter. We made some release mistakes with Scorpius. We released it deep in the Christmas Holiday (Like, late November deep when NO retailer is thinking about new releases).
I think we also underestimated our reach to customers who play games like Scorpius – players who like low-conflict euro-style games. Scorpius is extremely well reviewed, and has a solid BGG rating, but I am guessing that the players who are the target market for this game didn’t think about AEG as a solid euro game publisher. We did not communicate or find the customers who would most likely fall in love with this game.
Not surprisingly this blog has me thinking that secrets are less interesting and a stealthy push to sample out Scorpius might not be the right play. What if we just were up front and said: “Hey. We are going to offer a limited, but not insignificant, sampling of Scorpius to the market at what is essentially a break-even price. $25.00 to any US customer shipping included. Our goal: Find the customers we should have been talking to by offering them a deal they can’t refuse.
UPDATE: Day one went pretty great. We oversold the marketing allocation of product, crashed our e-mail system, and have decided on a second allocation but with a price bump to $30.00.
In a previous blog I talked about our desire to make fewer games and that means that we must also adapt and think differently about how we solve problems. The old AEG would have looked at this as one of the games that failed because the market was too crowded. But with fewer, better games we have to believe that if we’ve done our jobs right at making a great game then that game does have an audience; we just have to work harder to connect the game to that audience.
Our answer… Go back to what worked. Sampling works when your product does not suck.
Retailers who supported us and took a chance on Scorpius Freighter: Thank you. We are not doing this promotion to undercut sales in your store. We think this might shine a new light on Scorpius Freighter and help you sell the inventory you have on hand. Worried? We would suggest that you give one of your regular customers who like this style of game a good deal and if they like it ask them to spread the word. We all win if the market decides it missed out on a gem and Scorpius Freighter becomes an evergreen title. A little short-term discounting can become a long-term high value business for AEG and our retailer partners.