Following Up on Our Success
Thursday, November 1, 2012
This blog entry is the ninth in a series of blogs commemorating Paizo's 10th anniversary.
Click here to read the first installment.
Before it was even released in August 2009, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook was already the single best selling product Paizo had ever produced, and October's Bestiary immediately captured the number two slot. The stunning sales numbers made it very easy to see why many companies fall into the trap of producing too many rulebooks for their games—it's very tempting to go back to that well for another drink.
But Ryan Dancey and I had spotted that trap in 1999 when we were at Wizards of the Coast, analyzing the recently acquired TSR business. Putting out rulebooks every month or two quickly overwhelms your audience. And once customers decide that they can't keep up with new releases, they begin making choices about which books they need and which ones they can do without, which means you sell fewer copies of even your most popular books. And fewer copies means lower print runs, which means higher unit costs, which means lower margins. And even worse: when customers start skipping releases, it becomes easier and easier for them to stop buying your products altogether.
On the other hand, if you publish new books too slowly, players who exhaust content quickly will begin to feel that their needs aren't supported, and they'll start looking for other game systems. And players left waiting too long for their favorite rules subsets will also get discouraged. You have to strike a balance.
Ryan and I decided that the magic number for major hardcover rulebooks per year—the number that would keep the most customers satiated but not overwhelmed—was probably three. That was part of the plan we were going to implement for D&D Third Edition at Wizards, but the two of us didn't last long there after the launch, and the management team that replaced us had different ideas.
So when it came time for us to formulate a strategy for the Pathfinder RPG line, I went back to our plan from ten years earlier. I pitched my team here at Paizo on it and was surprised how quickly everyone came on board. Then came the hard part—if you only have three products a year, what should those products be?
First, we came up with a timetable—there would be one release in the spring, another at Gen Con in August, and a third at the end of the year, close to the holidays.
The iconic summoner's eidolon looks a bit different in this early sketch by Wayne Reynolds!
Advanced Player's Guide approvals!
Pathfinder Society was growing by leaps and bounds, and the experience that Erik, Jason, and I had with the RPGA suggested that we might want to release our most rules-heavy books at Gen Con. We also knew we wanted to do one monster/adversary book each year for the foreseeable future, and because the Bestiary came out at the end of the year, we decided to schedule future ones in the winter slot.
That left the spring release, which we would keep flexible. We had a lot of ideas for books that didn't fall into the other two categories, and this spot would be the perfect place to put those. Our first spring release was a pretty easy choice. Because we had published all of our core rules in a single book, there wasn't a direct equivalent to D&D's DM's Guide, but we still felt a need to do a book aimed at Game Masters, giving them advice and tools for becoming an expert GM and elevating the experience for their players. To create this book, we tapped into the expertise of some of the best designers in the history of gaming, and they shared their tips and secrets. The GameMastery Guide came out in May 2010, and has been doing very well for us ever since.
For the first Gen Con after the release of the Core Rulebook, we needed to have something sexy that would allow us to show some design chops... something that would give Pathfinder RPG players new toys to play with. We sat in a conference room for about three hours and talked about character types we'd seen in fantasy books and movies, or played in other fantasy games. Then we talked about how we could build those characters using the Pathfinder rules. We could build many of those roles by tweaking existing classes in the Core Rulebook; this was the genesis of our archetype system, my favorite thing to come out of the book we ended up calling the Advanced Player's Guide. Archtypes allowed a myriad of character ideas to blossom forth, many of them very niche, without having to flood the landscape with a bunch of new classes.
But there were some roles that we felt we couldn't do justice without creating whole new classes. In the end, six new base classes rose to the top for the APG—the Alchemist, the Cavalier, the Inquisitor, the Oracle, the Summoner, and the Witch. Not only would these new base classes allow us to show off what the Paizo design staff could do, but they also gave players something new to dig into. We filled out the APG with a ton of new content, expanding nearly every part of the existing game.
Our third hardcover rulebook of the year was the Bestiary 2. In this installment, we wanted to provide Pathfinder RPG versions of many of the popular 3.5-era monsters that hadn't made it into either the first Bestiary or the Bonus Bestiary that we did for Free RPG Day 2009. We also wanted to flesh out outsiders, and provide an array of creatures of every alignment. So you saw a number of Aeons, Agathions, Angels, Archons, Azatas, Daemons, Demons, Devils, Elementals, Inevitables, Proteans, and Qlippoths in the book.
For the Adventure Path line in 2010, we went a little bit outside of the box. The previous year saw the urban campaign Council of Thieves kick off the Pathfinder RPG era, and we wanted its successor to steer clear of that territory. So with Kingmaker, we tried something we'd never done before: a true sandbox AP. Our APs usually have a very solid and somewhat direct storyline, but in Kingmaker, the plot became more of a framing device for the true story: that of the characters forming and building their own kingdom. Each adventure had a number of mini-adventures that could be played in any order or skipped entirely. Players could create kingdoms large or small, passive or aggressive, dictatorial or democratic, or anything else they envisioned. We were a little apprehensive about the response to this type of AP, but Kingmaker has become one of the most successful APs of all time, rivaling even Rise of the Runelords in popularity.
We also added a whole new Pathfinder line in 2010: Pathfinder Tales. We had previously made a valiant attempt to get into the fiction business with our Planet Stories line of pulp fiction, but the book market never quite seemed to embrace the line, and sales were never strong. Erik Mona was the passion and vision behind Planet Stories, and it was a line he personally loved very much, but I felt that if we were going to put time, money and effort into a line, we should do it with books that helped support our other products.
TSR had built quite a nice business with their Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms fiction lines, and Games Workshop had more recently built a successful line of novels around their Warhammer line; it seemed that the book trade was more receptive to new gaming fiction than it was to bringing back long-lost classics. Thus was Pathfinder Tales born. For our first couple of novels, we wanted authors who would be familiar names to fans of gaming fiction, and to bookstore buyers as well. We chose two Forgotten Realms authors, Dave Gross and Elaine Cunningham, to launch the line. Dave's book Prince of Wolves arrived at Gen Con, while Elaine's Winter Witch was a holiday release. They didn't quite blast to the top of the bestseller lists, but sales were much stronger than Planet Stories had been, so we felt cautiously optimistic going forward.
2010 also gave me a chance to bring back a variation of the very first product I was ever involved with in the game industry! In 1987, my first company, Lion Rampant, came out with Whimsey Cards—a product that allowed players to insert their ideas into roleplaying games in a structured way. The rights to Whimsey Cards themselves are owned by other folks, so I modified the basic idea a bit, adding an optional Pathfinder RPG-based mechanic, creating Plot Twist Cards. The response has been great; we're currently in our second print run. Sometimes oldies are indeed goodies.
We also revisited another oldie but goodie in our boardgame line. Kill Doctor Lucky was—and still is—our best selling boardgame, so we extended that line with a deluxe edition of Cheapass Games' Save Doctor Lucky prequel. Where KDL is all about trying to get Doctor Lucky alone in a room so nobody can see you bump him off, the goal of SDL is to make sure that everyone sees you perform the heroic deed of saving an old man from a sinking ship. It features a game board that gets smaller as the ship slips under.
At the 2010 ENnie Awards, Paizo won 11 golds and 1 silver. The awards received were:
- Best Adventure: Gold Medal to Pathfinder 31: Stolen Land.
- Best Aid or Accessory: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: GM Screen
- Best Art, Cover: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary
- Best Art, Interior: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Core Rulebook
- Best Cartography: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Chronicles: City Map Folio
- Best Electronic Book: Silver Medal to Pathfinder Society Scenario 29: The Devil We Know Part 1: Shipyard Rats
- Best Free Product: Gold Medal to Advanced Player's Guide Playtest
- Best Game: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
- Best Monster/Adversary: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary
- Best Production Values: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Core Rulebook
- Product of the Year: Gold Medal to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
- Best Publisher: Gold Medal
With all of the success Paizo was having in 2010, it felt like we were living charmed lives. That all came crashing down in October when we lost Dave Erickson. At 63, Dave was our oldest employee. He joined the Paizo team in 2002, not even a year after we started, and took over the finance department, freeing me to focus my efforts on making the company more profitable and keeping it alive. Dave and I worked side by side on Paizo's finances. Dave designed reports that allowed Erik, Vic, Jeff and myself to analyze what was working well and what wasn't—insights that were invaluable to a small, struggling company like Paizo. Dave also wasn't afraid to sit down face to face with government auditors, each time sending them away with money due in Paizo's favor. He was a loyal and honest man, and someone I trusted implicitly.
The call came on the Tuesday after the Columbus Day weekend. I was refreshed from the long weekend and ready to tackle whatever came. I wasn't prepared for that call, though. Through tears, Dave's wife, Olga, let me know that Dave had passed away in his sleep during the weekend. I was crushed. Devastated. Dave had just started to plan his retirement, intending to spend his golden years with his wife. Now he was gone, just like that. Dave's death showed us all how fragile life could actually be.
A company Paizo's size doesn't have a ton of redundancies, but thankfully, I had hired Chris Self in 2008 with the idea that he would take over Finance in a few years when Dave retired. I had sent Chris to start accounting school just months before Dave passed, and he'd worked with Dave enough to fairly seamlessly take over the department a couple years ahead of schedule.
Here's my favorite Dave Erickson story: During Dave's first few months at Paizo, I quickly learned that if there was a discrepancy between what I thought the numbers should be and what Dave thought they should be, Dave was almost always right. Well, on one occasion, I finally figured out that I was right for once, and I burst into Dave's office, brandishing a sheaf of paperwork with all my figures, shouting "In your face, Erickson!" To say that he was surprised is an understatement.
Another negative for 2010 was the ongoing "edition war." The online arguing between fans of D&D 4th Edition and the Pathfinder RPG goes all the way back to our announcement of the Pathfinder RPG, but it took on new fervor in 2010 as 4E floundered a bit and Pathfinder challenged it in the marketplace. I need to make one thing clear—Paizo never wanted anything to do with the edition war. We weren't trying to take down D&D ; we were just trying to make a game that we enjoyed and that allowed us to tell the stories that we wanted to tell. I would be lying if I said we didn't enjoy the passion and loyalty of our customers defending their game—it was very flattering... but we really hoped that the edition war would just go away so everyone could enjoy their favorite game without attacking the other.
This will be news to most readers: By the end of 2010, the Pathfinder RPG had already overtaken D&D as the bestselling RPG. It would take almost half a year before industry magazine ICv2 first reported it, and several quarters more before some people were willing to accept it as fact, but internally, we already knew it was true. We'd heard it from nearly all of our hobby trade distributors; we'd heard it from buyers at book chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders; we could see it using industry sales trackers such as BookScan; we were even regularly coming out on top on Amazon's bestseller charts. Each individual market we sold in had us either tied with or outselling D&D, and none of those sources counted our considerable direct sales on paizo.com. Put all of those things together, and it was clear: Pathfinder had become the first RPG ever to oust D&D from top spot. It wasn't our goal, but here we were. And as we started planning for 2011, we knew that if we were going to be the industry leader, we were going to have to step up our game and act like a leader. 2011 would be our first chance to show what we could do with that position....
Employees who started in 2010 (in order of hiring date):
Judy Bauer, Copy Editor
Matt Vancil, Warehouse Personnel
Mark Moreland, Developer
Andrew Vallas, Graphic Designer
Hyrum Savage, Marketing Manager
Liz Courts, Customer Service Representative
Kunji Sedo, Staff Accountant
Stephen Radney-McFarland, Designer
Employees who left in 2010 (in order of their end date):
How Paizo 8 My Head
My relationship with Paizo began in 2007, when I subscribed to Dungeon one issue before the announcement that the magazines were going away. I basically wrote the timing off as bad luck, and decided to try to make the most out of the few issues I'd get before the end. I opted for the Pathfinder subscription instead of credit, primarily because I'd planned on mining Dungeon for ideas for a homebrew campaign and figured I could mine this new Golarion world for ideas too. In August 2007, I got my first issue of Pathfinder, glanced through it, and filed it on the shelf because I didn't think any of it would be useful for the campaign I was running at the time. I did the same for the next few issues. In the fall, I joined a group playing the Savage Tide Adventure Path, and my mind was no longer in GM space. But my involvement in this Adventure Path made me much more aware of Paizo as a company, and of the quality of work the editors on Dungeon (and likely, I assumed, Pathfinder) put out. So I started lurking on the messageboards and reading the Pathfinder books I'd been getting, but I still wasn't sold. Fourth Edition had been announced, and I was playtesting that with some of my friends who'd freelanced for Wizards of the Coast in the past. I was hyped for the new edition, and because I was invested in my Savage Tide group, I was quickly learning as much about the campaign's Greyhawk setting as I could. I didn't have time for another campaign setting when I had 30+ years of canon to catch up on in the world in which I was already playing.
Then the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game announcement came out, and my gaming group was all abuzz about the waves Paizo was making. I got the Alpha and started reading all those books I had on my shelf. I was thoroughly hooked. Here was a chance for me to be on the ground floor, not just of a new edition of the game that I was already familiar with, but also of a campaign setting that was only a few months old. I don't know what day it was, but I drank the Pathfinder Kool-Aid sometime shortly after the big announcement. I made my first paizo.com messageboard post on March 31, 2008, in which I said "I am getting ready to dive into Golarion myself." And did I ever follow through!
Around that time I joined a small group of folks working on the daunting task of cataloguing all the information about the Pathfinder Chronicles campaign setting (as it was called at the time). The PathfinderWiki was founded on March 8, 2008, and I quickly joined up, and am often miscredited as being the wiki's founder even today. My involvement in the project became something of a full-time hobby, and the countless hours I spent adding and editing content on there gave me a depth and breadth of knowledge about Golarion that rivaled even Paizo employees. I attended PaizoCon 2009 and helped my team, Razmiran Faith Barge Union #107, win the annual trivia contest, in no small part because of the work I'd done on the wiki.
At Gen Con a few months later, I approached Sean, Wes, and Josh independently and asked if I could write for Paizo, as I felt I'd displayed my knowledge of the setting and had a whole website of material I'd written about the world to show my writing talents. A few weeks later, I was working on a portion of Gnomes of Golarion, most of the Kingmaker Player's Guide, and a Pathfinder Society Scenario, all of which couldn't have come at a better time for a recently unemployed filmmaker. Once the freelancing started, it didn't seem to end as long as I met my deadlines, turned in my best work, and kept asking the folks at Paizo for more. A few weeks before PaizoCon 2010, I got an unexpected call from Erik (incidentally, while I was exploring Delvehaven as a player in a friend's Council of Thieves campaign). He asked if I was coming to PaizoCon (duh!) and if I had plans afterward (I didn't). I soon did, however, as he offered me a contract to work in the Paizo offices for a week following the con helping build the Inner Sea Poster Map Folio. I detailed my brief time as a Paizo employee in a guest blog at the time.
What that blog doesn't tell you, however, is that on the last day of the contract, Lisa, James, and Erik pulled me into Lisa's office to talk about how I felt the experience had been, how I liked working with the rest of the editorial team, and ultimately what I thought about working for Paizo full time. I thought hard about my response for about 3 seconds before accepting the offer. It took me another two months to get myself moved from New York City to Seattle, but once I started, it wasn't long before I was in charge of development of two product lines and making a sizable contribution to the very world continuity whose chronicling caught Paizo's eye in the first place. Now, two years later, I'm still amazed on a weekly basis that this is my real-life job, and that I get to work for such a great company and with such a fun and inspiring group of coworkers. It's a lot of work, for sure, but I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing instead.
"Who are these people, and what are they doing to my magazines?!"
Yeah, that was my first thought when I saw somebody else's logo plastered on the credits of my two favorite gaming magazines. I had just recently gotten back into gaming after a post–high school hiatus and life settled into a 9 to 5 routine. Lured in by the release of Third Edition and the Oriental Adventures supplement (and new dice, because new game = new dice), I immediately said to myself, "So what kind of adventures are out there for this system?"
High on the creative spark that often comes with a new game system, and yearning to see what other people had come up with, I picked up Dragon 288 and Dungeon 84 from Gambit Games in Bend, Oregon—I miss that place!—and was blown away by what was between its slick, glossy covers. Clearly, these were not the black-and-white productions of my youth, but for all of its sweet, candy-colored coating, did it satisfy?
I need not have worried. Month after month, I begged the store owner to stock these magazines to feed my habit—er, game mastering creativity. Somehow, the minds behind the magazine knew exactly what I was looking for in my game, knew that I needed it now (hungered for it, even), and I knew that I would gladly fork over the cash to keep quality game material coming. Yet I didn't venture on to the place that would become like a second home to me until almost four years later, during a period of idleness at work (you know you're doing that... right now). I found a messageboard community of like-minded gamers who had been playing long enough to know what chits were, who remembered when elves were a class, who knew the difference between githyanki and githzerai, and who were passionate about the game.
Did I mention that some of these were the writers, as well as the staff—the people who had made the magazine that helped lure me back into running a game three nights a week, arming me with a crowbar to pry open and shove in awesome gaming material like new alchemical items, chronomancy, and ghost elves into my campaign?
Through the Paizo messageboards, I met the staff, as well as a group of writers who gave me my first writing job (hello GM Gems), but there are a few things that could not have happened without talking and meeting people through the boards, and these are things that have not gone quietly into the night. They've managed to stick around for a bit, and I'm happy to say I've had my fingers in them, even if it was just the teeniest bit of my pinky finger.
First up: PaizoCon. (You may have heard of it.) Tim Nightengale bore the brunt of organizing the first unofficial PaizoCon, but even then, we referred to each other as Fellow Dictators as we plotted and planned ways to give thanks to the hardworking Paizo staff. (The fan award that I whipped up still hangs in the office today.) Second: the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook! Wes Schneider contacted me and a few other folks (Tim Connors, Adam Daigle, and Greg Oppedisano) to do some quick formatting alterations for magic items and spells. (My first "real" Paizo writing credit came later in "Infestation," the side trek adventure in Pathfinder 18.) Finally, the one that I am the most proud of to this day: the creation of the fan-created and fan-run Wayfinder magazine. When Paizo announced their Community Use Policy, I knew that I had to do something with it. Wayfinder is that thing, and it remains such a great way to get your toes wet into the world of roleplaying game publishing—and you get to play in the Golarion sandbox!
Skeptic, fan, superfan (yup, charter superscriber and all), freelancer, friend, and finally, employee, my relationship with Paizo ended up being the culmination of a lot of hobbies and interests all rolled up into a golem-shaped package. That step between "friend" and "employee" had a moment of "Am I going to fit in here?" though, that same sort of nervousness that you got on the first day of a new school. They knew my name, they knew my penchant for offloading my home-baked cookies at their offices pre-PaizoCon, but... still.
I was a fool for even worrying about it. After quietly starting in Customer Service, I got Cosmo's "you are the meat shield" introduction and was able to skip over all of the tedious "learn about the company's products" portion of a customer service job. (I believe Cosmo said something to the effect of "Well, this makes it a lot easier.") The moment that made me ask myself why I didn't do this sooner is when I was delivering the mail downstairs and Jason Bulmahn asked "...Do you work here now?"
The best way that I can describe working at Paizo is this: imagine all of your high school friends in one place, with the same overlapping interests, whether it's early Minoan art, the latest Studio Ghibli movie, the pros and cons of the latest sci-fi movie, or tapping into the depths of cryptozoology among the editorial staff. Really, it's not so much of who's a geek or not—because we all are here—it's a matter of degree.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
I came to work at Paizo by chance. My previous editorial experience was mostly in textbook development, but when the economy—and textbook industry—crashed, I moved to Seattle and started retraining in technical editing while freelancing to pay the bills. In December 2009, I was visiting my family in Wisconsin, fending off unsubtle suggestions to consider engineering as a more stable career path, when I got word through the gchat grapevine that Paizo was looking for an editor who was familiar with RPGs. Hello, me! Suddenly all of those years spent gaming from junior high through college and into grad school were a job qualification; I quickly added the dozen or so games I'd played to my resume and sent it off.
A few days later I had a phone interview with Erik and Wes—as it turns out, there are wrong answers to the question "What was the last fantasy book you read?", but not being a Twilight fan, I cleared that hurdle, among others. Then on New Year's Eve, I submitted an editing test. Because Seattle is a very small world, I bumped into Sutter at a party later that night. He gave me reason for cautious optimism, giving my new year a promising start!
Ten days later I started at Paizo as a contract editor. Wes, Chris, and Sutter handed me the style guide (a mere 40 pages long at the time), then threw me into the deep end with a pass on the GameMastery Guide and the second half of the Season 1 Pathfinder Society Scenarios. It was already the Gen Con crunch, and the pace was hectic—and then after work I'd dash to my technical editing classes to dissect software tutorials, nuclear accident reports, and medical device instructions (I know WAY more than I want to about femur traction splints). Needless to say, I didn't have a lot of free time for reflection. But one day while chatting with my classmates about our respective jobs and internships, I mentioned that I'd fact-checked the weight of a dragon that day. Jaws dropped. Their reactions confirmed my suspicion that this was definitely the most fun editing around! I wanted so badly to stay on—I threw myself into my work, offered to take on more when I could, and even moderated my hard-line stance on commas to better match Paizo's style.
A couple months later when my contract ended, I was offered a full-time position, and was so elated! It's been over 2 years now, with some stressful times along the way, but despite the fact that my wonderful coworkers seem to think it's a personal challenge to slip details into adventures that make me go fetal with horror, I love my job more than ever.
And you know what? My dad, who'd subscribed to Dragon since I was a toddler, is finally off my back about engineering!