The Most Dangerous Column in Gaming
Questions You May Have Asked
Open Gaming Interview With Ryan Dancey
Cradle to Grave: The life of a tabletop RPG product Part II
Cradle to Grave: The life of a tabletop RPG product Part I
What the heck is a Business (Category) Manager?
What the Heck is a Brand Manager?


The Most Dangerous Column in Gaming
Cradle to Grave: The life of a
tabletop RPG product Part I

By Ryan S. Dancey

In the previous column What the Heck is a Business (Category) Manager, I alluded to a group called a "cross-functional team" that does the work of creating tabletop RPG products and getting them on sale. This column is going to explore that process in more depth. Hopefully, it will answer some questions you may have had about how and why certain products get made when certain other products do not.

Let’s start with the most basic beginning step, the "A HA!" idea that gets the ball rolling. To be honest, some of these moments are less dramatic than others. Sometimes, a product is the result of an unfolding strategy--it doesn’t take much inspiration to decide that there needs to be a Part II in a three-volume series. Some of the most interesting products we make started in just this fashion, however. That’s where the spark of creativity makes the difference between just filling in the blanks and making something really special.

Other times, the original product idea is spurred by a designer or editor, or someone else in the organization with an interest. The idea may be something as simple as a one or two sentence ‘pitch’, or as complex as a multi-page document that involves products from many categories of business and many years of development. In the early ‘80s at TSR, that process is how the Dragonlance brand was created. Some game designers, some artists, and some managers all got together after hours and brainstormed ways to get more "Dragons" in Dungeons & Dragons. The final report that they created was so persuasive that TSR invested millions of dollars in the idea, created a fiction-publishing group to produce the novels and started talking seriously to computer game licensors.

This is one reason why we’re always talking to fans at conventions and on line about what they’d like to see. Perhaps someone’s suggestion clicks with a designer or a manager, and a product proposal gets drafted. If you’d really like to see a particular item produced, the best way to help make that happen is to make sure we’ve heard the idea. We’re not looking for completely finished products or even detailed proposals (those go through an R&D process or into submissions for DRAGON and DUNGEON magazines); what we like to hear are wants and/or needs. Like "I really want a product that explains how the Kua-Toa who are fish people came to live in underground caverns," or "I need a product to help me quickly determine how big a town is, how many NPCs of note live there, and what classes and levels they have."

In any event, product suggestions come from many sources and at any time of the year. The decision to go ahead and make a product, however, is made at very specific times of the year. For most of the Dungeons & Dragons game product, the decision to "greenlight", or fund, the development of a product comes in the fall. After everyone gets back from Gen Con and the other summer conventions, we sit down as a group and talk about what kinds of products from all the suggestions that have been made should move forward into more formal design. The discussion usually involves people in R&D and from the brand teams; but the final decision to go ahead is made by the business managers.

At that point, a document called a "Spec" is created. The spec document contains everything that R&D needs to know about the product to begin design. Hopefully, a product doesn’t get "Spec’d" until R&D agrees that the product can be produced, but from time to time exceptions happen. Once the product has been greenlighted, various designers in R&D start thinking about working on the project. They make their interest known to the R&D administrative staff, which create a master schedule of design and edit times. Where possible, the R&D team tries to assign designers to products that they have specifically requested to work on. It is very rare for a designer to be tasked with a project they have little or no interest in. In previous years, when TSR’s output was much higher, that situation might have happened more often. However, our new focus on making fewer, more interesting products has cut these incidences to essentially nothing.

Once a designer is assigned, the first task to be completed is an outline, basically a rough overview of what the designer plans to write to meet the objectives set forth in the spec document. Designers often talk to fans, playtesters, and other employees at the company to figure out what people want to see in a finished product. Sometimes, they go off by themselves for quiet reflection and return with a really stupendous new idea. The outline is presented to the Creative Director in R&D, who is going to oversee the product, and to the business manager to make sure that the outline conforms to the spec. If the product was requested as a part of a brand initiative, a brand manager may also be called in to review the outline.

Assuming everyone is happy (and we usually go through one or two revisions to make sure that everyone is on the same page), the designer starts work on the product. In general, each designer at Wizards is expected to produce about 32 pages of completed, researched and playtested work every month. If we publish a 96-page book, you can usually assume that the product took three months to write. During this time, the designer keeps the Creative Director updated with partial turnovers (parts of the potential future manuscript) and a dialog about how the work is going. The playtesting feedback loop going on during this time is always helpful, and some of the most interesting things that have appeared in our game products come from things playtesters do…

Once the manuscript is written, it is handed over to a team of editors. At Wizards of the Coast, editors do more than just check spelling and grammar; they are also responsible for polishing the manuscript, making sure that it adheres to certain internal standards (like stat block presentation) and making sure that it is a very high-quality product. The editors work closely with the designer to make needed changes, with the result that the editors often spend as much time working on a manuscript as the designer did writing it. Assuming an average turnaround, our example 96-page product probably has two to two and a half months of editing time involved in it.

While the product is in editing, an Art Director gets involved in the design. During this time, artists are contracted to create the interior illustrations and the cover artwork. Graphic design resources inside Wizards of the Coast are used to typeset the product, design borders, logos, and cover treatments. Once the art is assembled, the text is typeset and the cover art is ready, the whole package is moved into the production department where the product is prepared for printing.

That about wraps up the first part of this process. Thanks for listening! Next week, we’ll talk about exciting new technologies like direct-to-plate printing, and how we decide to market a particular product; plus we’ll look at how we get stuff from our warehouse to your bookshelf!

Ryan Dancey, formerly Dungeons & Dragons brand manager,
is the founder of the Open Gaming Foundation.

 





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