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Horatio Hornblower's RPG Company

by
 

In a perfect world, the industry would have Horatio Hornblower's RPG Company. A young gamer, bright but unseasoned, gets a start in the industry for some small company. Working his way up through the chain of command, he learns a variety of roles-- writing, design, marketing, sales, managing. There's the frequent crisis or occasional catastrophic downsizing, but Horatio always helps pull the company through. And his talents are recognized by the higher-ups.

Rather than taking the fast track, though, Horatio continues to take the more adventurous projects, the more risky proposals, and from this build great new works of achievement. Finally, in his later years, Horatio is at the helm of a tight, well-run company, one admired for its potency and brilliance. He still gets his hands dirty with the difficult work, of course. But under his inspirational leadership, the well-trained staff rarely find a problem they can't instantly solve with a few well-applied principals of sound game industry thinking.

An immediate possibility for Horatio-hood would be Peter Adkison, of Wizards of the Coast. Peter slogged through the small press world with the rest of us, enduring lawsuits and learning from his errors. Then his discovery of Richard Garfield led to "Magic: The Gathering", giving him and WotC a leap into the big leagues. He'd payed his dues, and in true adventurous fashion took that leap.

Now, he gets little respect, and much contempt. Any bad WotC decision is laid at his feet, any flawed judgement is blamed as his. His every post is scrutinized, and his business methods are reviled. His company is feared. And worse, people talk of the dread day when his mollifying influence leaves WotC, and the dreaded fascist "suits" take over (and, presumably, launch a blitzkrieg of litigation that decimates the industry). No, poor Peter gets none of the respect and affection of a senior Horatio.

Now even his/WotC's most recent act-- publishing "Amazing Stories", the famed science fiction magazine of yesteryear-- will be judged in the harsh cloud of cynicism and fear that WotC has engendered. "Sure", we think, "we'll buy it, but we won't respect them for printing it."

There are some companies with integrity, who publish good works (Atlas Games comes to mind). But they don't have the big-league success that WotC did. Instead, they have to keep working hard to stay alive in the burbling sea of the RPG industry. Some highly successful companies, like Palladium, are respected for their product penetration, but aren't admired as individuals.

A Horatio RPG company requires three pillars. They must be successful-- we worship success. They must show integrity, a true loving support of the industry and its attendant fan base. (How they managed to achieve success with integrity is left to the imagination). And from this, they gain respect from the populace as a whole.

But far too many business people subscribe to the Gore Vidal school of business: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." Deals must have winners and losers-- if the other person feels they came off well, you must be the one that got screwed. "Win-win" is just talk to sucker people into signing the contract. There's only a finite number of gamers, so steer them away from competitors. "Teamwork" means "how can you help me?"

Which, of course, tends to build respect in the same way that black-cloaked villains in steam ships smuggling munitions builds warm fuzzy feelings. Yes, you might warm up, but it's not a good heat. In fact, it's rather embarrassing, really, that people who are so good at games and tactics and non-linear thinking still get trapped in old-style capitalistic robber baron techniques.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. On the company side, some are trying to act with integrity, not just dollar sense. As of this column, Palladium, Steve Jackson Games, and R. Talsorian have all declined to attend this year's GenCon, in part due to the cost increases that Andon (via WotC) has enforced. As sole owners of GenCon (and con-runners of GTS and Origins), it is WotC's legal right to set any rate, control the show, set any terms, corner the market, etc. etc.. Free market junkies would argue that WotC should raise the rates as high as they can get away with. In turn, companies like the above reply with their own market force-- non-attendance. Non-violent protest at its best.

Gamers too can vote with our money-- in a small industry, even a small gaming group of 5 people can usually send a message through 1 shop, which gets back to the distributors. And there are enough companies such that there are many good companies. Despite the industry shake-up, I think the mid-range publishers are the ones to keep an eye out for (by middle-sized, I mean most publishers that carry at least two lines). Smaller companies often have a hard time affording good production value or enough staff to do editing, layout, and similar. The large companies, especially the ones that have stock traded on the market, have a lot of heat on them to perform. But the middle tier have carved out focused niches, done with a decent amount of staff and a significant number of years of experience.

But you didn't come here to read about the future, no, you wanted images of sailing ships and Horatios leading us into a bold, bright future. We're still squabbling in the ranks, though, and are mired in controversy. But someday, I hope it happens.

Cheers, Sandy

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