Paizo Publishing's 10th Anniversary Retrospective—Year 3 (2005)
Laying the Foundation
Thursday, May 31, 2012
This blog entry is the fourth in a series of blogs commemorating Paizo's 10th anniversary.
Click here to read the first installment.
At the start of 2005, the loss of our friends and co-workers who had worked on Undefeated and Amazing Stories still lay heavily on our hearts, but the feeling in the company that we had already hit bottom and there was nowhere left to go but upward was oddly hopeful. Nevertheless, there was a lot of revenue that still needed to be made up for from the loss of Star Wars Insider a year and a half earlier. If we were going to be just the Dragon and Dungeon magazine company, we would still need to get much leaner, which would mean more layoffs—something none of us wanted to go through again. Instead of retreating, we needed to secure new territory.
In January, the top managers in the company met at my house. The goal was to find new uses for Paizo's existing people and skills, with an eye toward quickly increasing revenue. Instead of focusing on actual product ideas at this meeting, we were looking for broad categories of things we were already good at. Here are the strategies we devised that afternoon:
- Use our strong position in the distribution chain to help other publishers get their products into game stores, taking a bit off the top for our efforts.
- Increase paizo.com sales by expanding the scope of products available on the website through partnerships with other publishers, who would in turn bring in new customers for us.
- Expand our license for Dragon and Dungeon to create official non-magazine Dungeons & Dragons products—especially those we could base on in-demand but out-of-print material from the magazines.
- Create generic gaming accessories that would appeal to our RPG customers.
- Expand Paizo into areas of gaming outside of RPGs that would spread our risk around.
The tower of Shackled City hardcovers at Gen Con was as tall as some of our customers!
- Expand our subscriber base for Dragon and Dungeon while continuing to make those businesses more efficient.
With those in place, we next had a brainstorm session with the entire Paizo staff to come up with some product ideas that might fit those strategies. A key rule of brainstorming is that you don't critique any ideas at first; you just write them down and discuss them later... so everything got recorded for posterity: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (See below for the results of our brainstorm.) Some of these ideas came to fruition, including the compilation of comic strips, the DM Workbook (which turned into our Campaign Workbook), preprinted plastic/vinyl maps (which evolved into the Flip-Mat line), and a few others. Some were just plain silly, like LARPing with paintball rules, the swimsuit edition, minted Greyhawk coins (though the GameMastery Campaign Coins line comes close), cereal bowls, and replica D&D artifacts. (That last one, and some of the others, also involved a lot of wishful thinking about things that our license with Wizards of the Coast didn't even begin to cover.)
Now that we had a plan, we spent the rest of 2005 executing it. The most visible result was probably our first two hardcover books. The Shackled City hardcover compiled the first-ever Adventure Path into a huge 416-page book. Magazines have a short shelf-life by design, and The Shackled City was originally spread across 11 non-consecutive issues of a magazine that was still bimonthly at the start, so the first chapters of the AP had already been out of print for over 2 years. Because D&D 3.5 had been released during this time, we also needed to update the first few chapters from 3.0. We generally fine-tuned things throughout based on customer feedback, and we even had Chris Perkins write a whole new adventure to fill an XP gap. James Jacobs slaved away many an evening—on top of his normal Dungeon duties—getting this book ready to go. We released it just before Gen Con, and had a huge stack of them for sale at our booth.
At the end of the year, The Shackled City's sister book was released. The Dragon Compendium Volume 1 (yep—we had hoped to release additional volumes in subsequent years) compiled some of the top articles from the long history of Dragon magazine, updated to 3.5 where necessary. Erik Mona spent many an evening going through the entire Dragon archive and tagging pages for future reference. To this day, our archive copies have those little tags sticking out of the top of every issue, a testament to how thorough Erik was in his task!
We brought Dungeon one of the most highly anticipated events of its history at the beginning of 2005. Back in the days of Team Greyhawk at Wizards of the Coast, we had begun making the Greyhawk map to end all Greyhawk maps. We pored through every Greyhawk source we could find and made sure every single location ever mentioned was on the map. Sadly, the project was shelved at the time. However, when Paizo was looking for something to help raise awareness of the new and improved Dungeon, we hit upon the idea of breaking that enormous map into four parts, which we released in consecutive issues. Dungeon #118–121 ended up being some of the most popular and best-selling issues in the magazine's history.
The Age of Worms Adventure Path kicked off in 2005.
Another big change for Dungeon was making the Adventure Path a monthly feature. Beginning with Erik Mona's now infamous adventure "The Whispering Cairn" in Dungeon 124, the new Age of Worms AP brought new stories every single month, climaxing in the demigod Kyuss's attempt to enter the world of Oerth. From that point in July 2005 onward, we've scheduled a new Adventure Path installment every single month!
Dragon didn't have any earth-shattering events in 2005, just a refinement of the changes we'd debuted at the previous Gen Con. A couple of regular articles in particular had become reader favorites: One was James Jacobs's "Demonomicon of Iggwilv" articles, delving into the details of D&D's biggest bads. Fraz-Urb'luu and Zuggtmoy had their fiendish plans unveiled in issues #333 and #337 respectively. We started Sean K Reynolds's "Core Beliefs" series, which covered Greyhawk deities in the same depth that Faiths and Pantheons had brought to the Realms gods. We also started the "Worm Food" series, providing information especially useful to folks playing though the Age of Worms Adventure Path running over in Dungeon.
While our first two hardcovers were certainly the stars of the 2005 lineup, we also launched another line of products which has been much more prolific over the intervening years. GameMastery was envisioned as a line that would provide GMs with a wealth of tools that they could use to augment their ongoing campaigns. Our first product was the Compleat Encounter line, which brought to reality an idea I'd had for years. In my own campaigns, I struggle when my players have random encounters that turn out to be more substantial than an orc or two. I'd always wanted a line of products that would give you a map, a couple of miniatures, and a mini-adventure that you could just plop into your campaign. I really wanted the miniatures to be prepainted plastic, but that was beyond our capabilities. My good friend Bob Watts (formerly at Grenadier, Heartbreaker, Ral Partha, and Games Workshop) helped Paizo create our first unpainted metal miniatures by getting us in touch with the best sculptors, painters, mold makers, and miniatures spinners. All we needed was somebody to draw the maps and write the adventures.
For the first two releases, we turned to longtime Dungeon cartographer Chris West for the maps. Wayne Reynolds provided us with design sketches for minis that we turned over to sculptors Neil McKenzie and Dennis Mize. And Mike Mearls wrote the adventures, using one of our spare desks as his part-time office. Dark Elf Sanctum and Death Shrine of the Ninja Cult released in September and October, and saw pretty good sales for a miniatures product. In the subsequent months, further Compleat Encounters were written by James Jacobs, Keith Strohm, Jason Bulmahn, and Sean K Reynolds, with Corey Macourek contributing maps and Andrew Hou designing minis. Some of the villains that would become iconic in the not-yet-even-dreamed-of Pathfinder campaign setting saw their births in this line, including the Whispering Tyrant and the Gorilla King. Ultimately, though, the line was more effort than it was really worth, and because the cost of metal for making the miniatures skyrocketed that winter, we decided to end the line in April 2006. (For trivia buffs, this line provided three of the very few Paizo products that were cancelled after being officially announced: Fane of the Black Adept, which would have been written by Wes Schneider; and Stand & Deliver and War Golem Factory, which hadn't been assigned to writers.)
The other GameMastery line that debuted that year, Map Packs, have done quite a bit better for us. We kicked off the line in November 2005 with the now sold-out Map Pack: Village. Using the same 5" x 7" map tile configuration that we created for the Compleat Encounter line, Map Packs were envisioned as a tool that GMs could use on the fly, giving them high-quality graphics to replace the marker scribblings most of us manage on our own. The fact that we've just released our 37th Map Pack shows you just how successful this product line has been!
In an effort to expand Paizo's business into other types of games, we announced the formation of Titanic Games at Gen Con. Titanic Games found its genesis at the same con the previous year when Bob Watts and I were talking with Cheapass Games proprietor James Ernest. James had built an entire business around the premise that folks tend to have all the bits and pieces they need for most games—dice, pawns, and such—so he could provide high-value games at low cost by supplying only the unique parts—usually, rules, game boards, and cards, printed in black-and-white on thick paper, with clip-art illustrations, often packaged in an unassuming envelope. Titanic Games started with the idea of flipping that premise back around—bringing high production values to some of the most popular Cheapass Games. Of course, we announced that we'd be starting with the number one game in the Cheapass portfolio, Kill Doctor Lucky. James, along with fellow designer Mike Selinker, had a few non-Cheapass ideas kicking around too, including one that we thought could be a real game changer... but that story will have to wait until 2006.
We also took our first shot at using our existing distribution chain to help out other companies in 2005. Order of the Stick creative guru Rich Burlew had already produced two printed compilations of his webcomic early in 2005, and they'd quickly sold out and already needed to be reprinted. Rich had found that sending out all of those books was taking time and effort that he really wanted to direct back to drawing his strips, so he was open to working with us to handle those things for him. We announced our partnership in September, along with the news that Order of the Stick would now appear monthly in Dragon. We had similar deals in the works with other companies; we'll talk about those in the 2006 blog.
The paizo.com online store really started to take off in 2005. We created several strategic relationships with manufacturers and publishers that wanted to get their products into the hands of the growing Dragon and Dungeon customer base. In 2005, among the most successful were a variety of T-shirt manufacturers who began to offer their funny and geeky designs through paizo.com. We also began selling PDFs of Paizo issues of Dragon and Dungeon in March, and added our first third-party PDF publisher, Ronin Arts, in May. And we alerted gamers to the trove of products available at paizo.com by adding a few catalog pages to the back of Dragon. By the end of the year, paizo.com online sales had beaten 2004 by more than 500%.
At Gen Con, Paizo made our return to the ENnie Awards, raking in 4 gold awards and a silver. The awards received were:
Best Cartography—Gold ENnie: World of Greyhawk 4-part map from Dungeon #118–121
Best Adventure—Gold ENnie: "Maure Castle" from Dungeon #112
Best Aid or Accessory—Gold ENnie: Dungeon
Best Free Product or Web Enhancement—Gold ENnie: Dungeon Maps & Handouts (Issues #114–122)
Best Publisher—Silver ENnie: Paizo Publishing
|Erik Mona, Jeremy Walker, and James Jacobs accept an ENnie award for Paizo.
||Five minutes later, Paizo wins another ENnie. Note the ribbon from the previous award hanging out of Erik's pocket!
||Keith Strohm, Vic Wertz and Lisa Stevens accept the silver ENnie for Best Publisher!
||The Paizo table at the 2005 ENnies. (Clockwise from the front of the table: Erik Mona, Jason Bulmahn, Jeremy Walker, Wes Schneider, James Jacobs, Keith Strohm, Vic Wertz, Lisa Stevens, and our 2005 Dream Dates)
Winning the silver ENnie for best publisher—an award voted on directly by gamers—was a real validation that Paizo was finally on the right track. We still had a way to go to fill the gap left by the loss of Star Wars Insider, but 2005 showed lots of progress, with our losses being just one-third of what they were in 2004. 2005 would be the last year that Paizo lost money.
Our hard work in 2005 set the stage for Paizo's growth into an RPG powerhouse. Little did we know that more rocky weather would be coming in 2006...
Employees who started in 2005 (in order of hiring date):
Joshua Frost, Sales Manager
James Sutter, Customer Service Representative
Jeff Strand, Warehouse Manager
Drew Pocza, Graphic Designer
Cosmo Eisele, Customer Service Representative
Employees who left in 2004 (in order of their end date):
James Sutter: The Little Intern That Could
First off, let's set something straight: I started working for Paizo in 2004, not 2005. Sure, I may not have had a desk, or technically been inside the office more than a handful of times. And maybe only Lisa knew my name. But I was there, dang it!
In fall 2004, I was 20 years old. I had graduated from the University of Washington the previous spring, and was scraping by via a combination of freelance journalism for local papers, teaching SAT prep courses to high school kids, and a chunk of change gained by getting my butt kicked on Wheel of Fortune (a story in itself). Having already realized that I didn't want to spend my life covering obituaries and little league games, I was searching the classified ads for some sort of magazine job when I ran across a listing for the Editor-in-Chief of Amazing Stories. The realization that such an important SF magazine—not to mention Dragon and Dungeon—was located just a few miles from where I was living clinched it: I needed to work at Paizo Publishing.
The only problem was that there was no way I was qualified for the Editor-in-Chief position. So instead, I emailed folks at the company trying to find out if perhaps there were any other positions that needed filling—things they hadn't got around to posting yet. Eventually I ended up talking to Lisa, and she brought me into the old office (now the old-old office) for an interview.
Before this blog results in a flood of people asking Lisa for a job, I should emphasize that I already had a pretty solid portfolio at this point—I'd sold more than a hundred articles to various papers, and had a few short stories published in fiction 'zines. In any case, Lisa looked at my credentials, and told me that while there were no editorial positions open, she thought she could find something for me.
Which is how I ended up collecting images for products on the newborn paizo.com web store at a nickel a jpg. Hardly the most glamorous position, but every time I walked into the office to pick up a check, I would look over at the side of the office with the big Amazing Stories banner and think, "Someday, I'm going to have a desk there."
It turned out I was right. After several months of contract work, Lisa brought me in as Paizo's very first Editorial Intern. The position even came with a desk in the Amazing Stories side of the building!
Except that, unknown to me, the entire staff of Amazing Stories and Undefeated had been laid off a few weeks prior. The banner was still there, right above my desk—but now all the other desks were empty. I was alone in a cubicle wasteland.
Still, it didn't matter—I was officially on the inside now. Wes Schneider, himself the youngest person at Paizo until I came along, was the first of the editorial team to make the long walk across the building and introduce himself, exposing me to a wide array of internet humor in an effort to determine my taste. Slowly the other editors—a generally shy and skittish lot—began to get to know me as well, and I ceased to be just "that kid," instead becoming "Sutter."
There were still tests, though. On one of my first days as an intern, Erik Mona walked over and threw a manuscript down on my desk.
"I hear you want to edit," he said. "Let's see what you've got."
I agreed happily, and asked who wrote the document.
"I did," he said.
The mystery manuscript? Erik's first draft of "The Whispering Cairn," the leadoff adventure in the Age of Worms Adventure Path. Sweating bullets, I put my head down and began to edit.
Fortunately for me, Erik found my comments worthwhile, or at least respected a newbie bold enough to question his comma usage. I was judged competent, and turned loose on the Shackled City hardcover, my first real project. Though still working my newspaper and teaching jobs in the evenings, I was elated.
Nothing lasts forever, though. Six months into my internship, management informed me that they were going to bring me on full-time—as the new customer service person! (Back in the day, this was considered a one-person job.)
I thanked them, but pointed out that I was perfectly happy as the editorial intern. They pointed out that they needed customer service, not interns.
So began a six-month stint as Paizo's only customer service specialist. I learned a lot about psychology and human nature in those months, talking people down from canceling their subscriptions, sending out replacement copies, and helping Jeff Alvarez set up our very first warehouse in the building's basement. But my dream of being an editor hadn't died—and in fact came to a head late that year when a local paper began feeling me out for a position as the features editor. Not wanting to leave Paizo, but fearing a missed opportunity, I told Lisa and Erik—and as of the dawn of 2006, I was Dungeon's new Assistant Editor.
(As it turns out, my replacement as the customer service department was this weird guy from Idaho named—I kid you not—"Cosmo." If you've had to deal with him in the years since, I apologize. I trained him as best I could, but some creatures just refuse to be housebroken.)
Not even old enough to drink when I started here—Wes was actually present at my 21st birthday—I've spent more than a quarter of my life working for Paizo. I spent years learning what was cool at the feet of Wes, Jacobs, and Erik, while simultaneously fascinating them with my post-collegiate bohemian lifestyle. (I swear, you eat out of a few dumpsters, and you never hear the end of it.) I published my first adventure—"Shut-In" from Dungeon #128, co-written with Wes Schneider—and used the money to buy my very own copies of the 3.5 rulebooks. I earned the nickname "The Render" from freelancers for my uncompromising evaluation of the slush pile. And I was at ground zero for several of the pivotal points yet to come in Paizo's history, in which we were forced to adapt radically or die.
But it wasn't all work. There was also the Independent Republic of Jamesonia, established when Jacobs and I placed masking tape across the entrance to our shared cube (the one whose window looked out on a primordial swamp). There were the impromptu puppet shows whenever Jacobs got distracted by his pile of stuffed Lovecraft monsters. There was Operation Banjo Thug, an impromptu musical performance from Jacobs and me that caused Wes—the only witness—to question his sanity. There was the time I turned orange for a few months, and the long drive to a cabin in the woods with Wes and Jacobs that resulted in Jacobs calling me "Caligula" for several years.
It's been a long time since those early days. I'm not even "Young Master Sutter" at Paizo anymore—in the editorial department, the new youngster is Patrick "P-Ren" Renie, who no doubt seems just as alien to us with his youthful ways and speech patterns as I did to the other staff once upon a time. From website image-monkey to Senior Editor, I've seen Paizo from just about every angle, and I'm proud to say that we really are a family. A weird one, to be sure, but aren't they all?
Senior Editor/Fiction Editor
Cosmo's Place in the Cosmos
"We have to get you out of Idaho," he said. It was late summer 2005 and my week's vacation in Seattle was coming to a close. Josh Frost, with whom I've been friends since grade school, was lamenting my impending return to our hometown where, we both agreed, I was stuck.
"Then find me a job." It was the same refrain I'd given to all of my Seattle friends that week when the question of my living situation came up.
2005 was not a very good year for me. I was living in small-town Idaho, working a job I hated with few prospects for the future. I made a decent enough paycheck to be comfortable, but I was desperate to get out and short on options.
Two months passed before I received word from Josh: "We have an opening at Paizo for a customer service position. Send me your resume. Now."
I knew that Josh worked for some company in the gaming industry, but I had never heard of Paizo. What I did know, though, was customer service, something I had been doing in one form or another for nearly 10 years. I sent my resume, and immediately went out and bought a copy of Dragon (issue #338, by the way) so I would not be completely clueless if they called me.
They called, and I had one of the strangest interviews I've ever had. Phone interviews are never easy, and I was shocked to discover that, in addition to being interviewed by my potential manager, Jeff Alvarez, I was also being interviewed by the CEO of the entire company. For a customer service position.
This was my first clue that the job would not be like any other.
That year, I had Christmas with my family in Idaho. The next day, I loaded as much as I could into the 1995 Geo Storm that I had bought for $100, and drove to my new life in Seattle. The day after that, I started my new job at Paizo.
Sometime in my first month, I was taking everyone's mail around to their desks. I still did not really know any of these delightful weirdos that I worked with, and I was always intimidated about going into "The Pit." As I quietly crept in, I saw that all the editors were huddled together discussing something very intently, and there was a definite air of "meeting" in the room. I tried not to make a sound, so as to not disturb them. Then I started overhearing what the meeting was about:
"No... if the barbarian goes unconscious, then the rage ends and the temporary hit points are lost!"
"...but that means that any time a barbarian goes into the negs, they just auto-die?!? That can't be right."
The discussion wound on, and I quietly finished distributing the mail and went back to my desk, silently giggling over the absurd luck that had brought me to this place. It was precisely at this point that I realized that I loved my new job.
The thing I was most unprepared for, I think, was the level of empowerment I had. My last job was as a bank teller, where my responsibility was to toe the company line and make the customer accept whatever rules and policies were dictated to me. Rules were handed down from on high, and I was to follow without question.
Not so at Paizo. From the get-go, I was being asked "What do you think?" And my ideas were considered, and implemented if they stood up to the consideration. I could, and would, cry foul if I saw something that I felt was confusing to customers, and I was listened to. At previous jobs, if I ever felt that one of our customers had gotten a raw deal, I would approach management to make it right and just get shot down. At Paizo, if I find something wrong, Jeff's answer is "Well... fix it! Make it right."
For my first year or so, I was the only customer service person at Paizo, but I've never been the only one at Paizo doing customer service. I was (and still am) always getting ninja'd on the messageboards by Lisa or Vic, or any number of other folks. I had thrown my lot in with this strange little company where an entire culture of customer service made me, the low-man on the totem pole, feel like I was a key member of a team.
It was awesome. It still is awesome.
Customer Service Manager