Most Dangerous Column in Gaming
to Grave: The life of a
tabletop RPG product Part II
By Ryan S. Dancey
The previous installment
of this column Cradle to Grave: The life of a table top RPG product
discussed the process that an idea goes through to become a finished project
waiting to be printed. Going forward, some of the most amazing technology
in the world comes into the picture, as does the challenge of talking
to a couple of hundred thousand gamers who have seen and heard it all
When last we met our
example project (a 96-page tabletop RPG product), it had just finished
being typeset and graphically designed. The manuscript had been written
and edited, and the product was ready to go into production.
Years ago (as early
as 1998), a laborious process would now begin where the materials provided
by the art and R&D departments would be output onto film negatives.
That film was then shipped to a printing facility where it was used to
create metal plates that were in turn bolted to a press and then used
to print the product.
Since the beginning
of 1999, weve been using the latest advance in printing technology;
a process known as "direct-to-plate". Under the old system,
there were numerous chances for errors or problems to occur. The film
might be output using the wrong settings. It might be damaged or lost
in transit. It might be assembled in the wrong order, or damaged when
being prepared at the printing facility. In order to prepare for and deal
with these issues, the time it took to reliably follow the "film"
process was quite long, several weeks in fact.
The new direct-to-plate
process is a marvel of modern digital technology. Now, we deliver the
completed files for our products via a high-speed network link directly
to the printer. The printer then transmits the data directly to the press
itself, where a technique similar to a sophisticated laser printer creates
the metallic printing surface that will be used to print the product in
question. Needless to say, this has drastically reduced errors and damage,
has shortened the time it takes to prepare to print, and because we can
maintain quality throughout the entire process, means that the finished
product is closer to the vision the artists and designers had for the
way they want the product to appear.
During this process,
some early production samples are pulled off the press and express shipped
back to HQ here in Renton. Thats nice it gives our production
management group the ability to inspect the products for mechanical defects
and order corrections before you see the product at retail. In just the
past year for example, we fixed a problem with maps in the Klick Klack
adventure for Alternity, we found a mangled paragraph in Skullport
for Forgotten Realms, and we noticed an incorrect image placement that
resulted in an entire press run of Vortex of Madness being reprinted.
All those errors were fixed before customers saw them. From time to time,
products sneak through that have errors that dont get caught. The
new direct-to-plate system has reduced the number of such mix-ups considerably!
The other effect is
that people here at Wizards have copies of game product that you wont
see for another few months yet. In addition to being a nice perk of being
a Wizards employee, this gives us time to prepare any final errata, and
to start answering questions people may have about text and format; with
the product in hand, it is much easier to do so than when the product
is just an outline or a data file!
There is another process
that runs in parallel to the whole product design and production process:
the sales and marketing effort. It starts at about the same time the decision
is made to greenlight the products for development; about 18 months before
the first of those products is released.
The plan to market
and sell the stuff we make is almost as detailed as the plan to design
it. A whole team of people who are experts at selling products to hobby
gamers works for months creating a plan that should result in marketing
that is unique, interesting, eye catching, and creates enough interest
that you decide to buy the product when it reaches store shelves. Thats
hard to do: Gamers are more sophisticated than ever, theyve seen
a lot of flashy graphics and clever ad copy, and youre surrounded
by other marketing forces competing for your disposable income; from movies
to fast food to music to computer games.
Due to our business
in the book trade, we look at product releases in three trimesters of
four months each. We produce a trimester-based catalog for the book trade
that runs just under a year in advance. For that catalog, we try to display
accurate cover artwork and information about the various products. Needless
to say, since the actual art doesnt get created until near the end
of the design process, sometimes it is hard to create a "rough"
or "mock up" cover that will match the resulting finished product.
Usually, the product spec document or the outline is detailed enough to
give the artists a head start, but sometimes a product changes pretty
dramatically during design and the original temporary cover bears no resembelence
to the finished product. If you have a copy of the Spring 2000 catalog
to look at (or you sneak a peak at the on-line catalog at www.wizards.com/catalog)
you can see the original concept art for Vortex of Madness. If
youve got the finished version, you know that the two dont
look anything alike!
Internally, we create
a very detailed form that contains all the information the R&D group
is going to use to develop the product, plus a signficant amount of detail
on the target customer, the strategic plan, and what is "cool"
or "exciting" about the product in question. This document (called
a PRIZM) is used by the marketing and sales teams to solicit orders and
create advertising, promotions, and PR campaigns to support the release
of the product.
The hobby gaming industry
is built primarily on three "tiers." The publishers are the
first tier. Companies like Wizards of the Coast sell to customers directly
through our web site and in our Wizards of the Coast retail stores. We
also sell to individual retail stores who have a business relationship
with us. Most of the material we sell is to a distributor. In the book
trade, we have one distributor, St. Martins Press. In the hobby
trade, we have several dozen distributors, both in the US and Canada and
overseas. Those distributors in turn sell to retail stores. This complex
arrangement allows stores to buy products from various sources, at various
discounts, with various terms, and with various services added to create
more value. In the past, most publishers sold only to distributors. Todays
more complex economy means that publishers are using more systems to deliver
products to customers. Keeping this process working smoothly is primarily
the job of the Wizards sales team.
As a product is working
its way through the editing process and getting ready to move into production,
the sales team sends out a "solicitation" to our distributors.
Those distributors in turn solicit the product to retailers. This process
can take several months from start to finish. In order to give those retailers
some idea of what theyre ordering, our marketing team is working
to produce sell sheets that describe the product, catalog copy (for the
book trade), and information that we provide in the form of flyers, posters,
and web-based content. If all goes well, the channel knows about the product,
knows enough about the product to accurately gauge demand, and we receive
enough orders to justify producing the item. Very rarely, we solicit and
item and then have to cancel it; when that happens, it causes quite a
bit of confusion in the channel. Thus, well do almost anything to
avoid canceling a product once it has been solicited.
Near the end of this
"solicitation cycle", the marketing aimed at consumers start
to appear. In an ideal world, you would be asking your retailer if they
are going to carry a product at about the same time that retailer has
to tell their distributor how many copies of that product the retailer
wants to order. When all goes well, the marketing is in synch with the
sales process, and everyone gets the information they need to make informed
choices. However, reality is considerably messier than the theory; due
to a variety of factors, the two parts of the process are rarely in perfect
The various people
here at Wizards and at our distributors then have to close the gap. Sometimes
that means they have to make sure that sample product gets sent to key
retailers and distributor buyers. Other times, they have to remind everyone
about something they saw earlier and get them to look up projections and
orders. In any case, this "friction" in the system is one reason
that products may not arrive at every retailer on exactly the same day.
Lets go back
to our example product. Its been printed and packed into cases.
Those cases are shipped to our Dallas fulfillment center, a place where
nearly a quarter of a million packages will be packed, unpacked, shipped
and stored every month. The logistics team is responsible for knowing
where every item in that warehouse is, and what the status of inbound
and outbound shipments are. As our example product arrives, it is checked
in to ensure that the printer sent as many copies as were ordered. It
is then assigned a unique location, and stored on tall metal shelves.
Orders for the product in the computer system are then released, and pick
tickets start to appear on the printers in the warehouse. As this paperwork
is processed, the item is pulled down from the shelf, and packed into
larger boxes for shipment to the distributors, or direct to retailers,
or maybe even direct to you!
At the distributors,
the same process repeats. They take the inventory in, make sure we sent
them what they ordered and what theyre being invoiced for, they
shelve the product, then they start processing orders. In the space of
about a week, the product is sent to retailers all over the world. Some
distribution systems are faster than others; the guys who run the e-game
mall stores like Babbages and Software Etc. are incredibly fast. They
can get a product on store shelves the day after they receive it from
us. Other parts of the channel, like overseas distributors who have to
wait for product to reach them on large barges, are much slower. The speed
that your retailer receives the product is related to how they ordered
(direct from Wizards or through a distributor) and how fast the shipments
they ordered can be delivered. In a perfect world, every retailer would
get our product on exactly the same day; the same day that customers who
order direct from Wizards receive the item. In the real world, products
show up at retail stores and on doorsteps through about a 10-day period.
This makes it very difficult for us (or your local retailer) to predict
exactly when youll see any given item; if you ask and the store
doesnt have it yet, check back the next day, and the next. Once
an item ships, we virtually always have enough available to fill every
This whole process,
from idea, to product spec, to outline, to marketing, to development,
to soliciting, to editing, to art, to printing, to ordering, to shipping
all the way to delivery has been slowly developed over many years. It
is the process that keeps the complex machinery of the tabletop RPG business
at Wizards of the Coast running efficiently. Were always looking
for ways to improve the process.
That about wraps up
the story of how we make game product. Thanks for listening! Next column,
Ill be talking about the concept of "brand positioning."
Why is it that Greyhawk adventures dont have the Knights of Takhisis
fighting the Knights of Solamnia in the streets of Waterdeep?
Dancey, formerly Dungeons & Dragons brand manager,
is the founder of the Open