Ahead of My Time

As many of you know, I was involved in Wizards of the Coast’s first forays into miniatures (i.e. toy soldiers). I spent two years working on a game called Chainmail, only to see it cancelled nine months after its debut and one week before it received at Origins Award. One of the struggles we faced trying to launch a game that used traditional, pewter miniatures was that Mage Knight launched about a year before Chainmail. Mage Knight was a game that used pre-painted plastic miniatures that were sold randomly in sealed boxes (so you never knew what you were going to get). To be honest, I thought Mage Knight was a stupid idea when I heard it. Who in their right mind would pay for box of minis when you didn’t even know what figure you would get?

Of course, I was dead wrong and the game was a big hit. So big that the WotC brass were just dying to get a piece of that action. They wanted to know if we’d be making 10 million dollars the first year. We were honest and they didn’t like that answer. They kept asking if we could do a game like Mage Knight. Some wanted to change Chainmail into a Mage Knight clone. I thought that would be a bad idea. Eventually, a big meeting was called in the executive boardroom to discuss the future of minis. We had more VPs than you could shake a stick at, sales people, marketing people, brand people, and even a game designer or two. My opposition to the changing Chainmail was well known, so when the CEO wanted to hear an opposing point of view, everyone in the room looked at me. I argued that changing Chainmail would piss off a lot of fans that were already dubious about WotC doing minis at all. I told them I understood why they wanted to try a pre-painted plastic game, but that Chainmail was not the game to do it with. However, there was a property, to which WotC already owned the minis rights, that would be ideal for this venture.

Star Wars. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Despite the fact that huge advances had already been paid to Lucasfilm and that the RPG was not exactly burning up the charts, reception to my idea was lukewarm at best. The consensus was that doing that game would be no good because then WotC would have to give Lucas a cut of the money. I wondered, at that moment, if anyone had considered this while negotiating the license to begin with. Surely it occurred to someone that licenses involve paying royalties.

Anyhow, my idea was trounced on and never discussed again. The meeting wasn’t a disaster though. Since they didn’t want to pay fees and WotC was part of Hasbro, it was decided to look at some Hasbro brands for a possible game. It didn’t take long to settle on G.I. Joe. Certainly an IP with strong recognition and popular for a long time. While the “Joe vs. Cobra” iteration was frankly lame in my opinion, I could see how it’d make a good intro product that would hopefully create new gamers. As fate would have it, I was assigned as lead designer for this project.

No more than two weeks later, the brand people wanted to do market research on the game. WotC has a testing facility with two-way mirrors onsite, so they were going to bring in several groups of 10-12 year olds over two days to try the game. I would hand teach them the game and run them through it once, then I’d leave the room and we’d see if they could play it again by themselves. The problem: there was no game yet. I spent the next week whipping together enough rules and material to run the tests. While I was dubious about a test of this sort when design had barely begun, it turned out to be quite instructive. We got some good feedback from the kids, and they really seemed to take to the core ideas of the game.

About a month after I was given the task of designing this game, there was another meeting in the executive conference room. This time the minis brand manager was presenting his business plan for the G.I. Joe minis game. I was away (at a con, I think) so I missed the meeting. Honestly, I thought it would be a slam dunk, even considering the ineptitude of the brand manager. We were all surprised to hear that the WotC brass didn’t want to go forward with the game because there was going to be no new G.I. Joe cartoon. If it wasn’t on TV, they argued, it wasn’t worth doing. This is what happens to a company that achieves a success like the Pokemon TCG, I guess. Turning up their noses at one of the strongest toy brands in the world because it doesn’t have a current TV show? Astounding.

Oh, and here’s the best part. We had pitched a launch date of August, 2001. Gee, do you think a game where “a real American hero” fights Cobra terrorists would have struck any kind of chord after the 9/11 attacks? Think maybe it would have sold pretty well that Christmas Season? Yeah, me too.

So it is with some amusement that I reflect on two recent announcements. First, WotC is going to do a G.I. Joe trading card game. Guess they changed their mind about that TV show requirement. I also heard today that the just-released WotC 2004 catalog includes a new pre-painted collectible miniatures game. That’s right, it’s Star Wars.

How times have changed.

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