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 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 before.

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, we’ve 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. That’s 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 don’t 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 won’t 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. That’s hard to do: Gamers are more sophisticated than ever, they’ve seen a lot of flashy graphics and clever ad copy, and you’re 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 doesn’t 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 you can see the original concept art for Vortex of Madness. If you’ve got the finished version, you know that the two don’t 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. Martin’s 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. Today’s 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 they’re 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, we’ll 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 synch.

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.

Let’s go back to our example product. It’s 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 they’re 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 you’ll see any given item; if you ask and the store doesn’t have it yet, check back the next day, and the next. Once an item ships, we virtually always have enough available to fill every order.

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. We’re 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, I’ll be talking about the concept of "brand positioning." Why is it that Greyhawk adventures don’t have the Knights of Takhisis fighting the Knights of Solamnia in the streets of Waterdeep?

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


© 1995-2004 Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Wizards is headquartered in Renton, Washington, PO Box 707, Renton, WA 98057.

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