Chapter 2-Great Minds


Great Minds  


Two simple syllables.  

Once, they represented a glittering new way of communicating. But as the digital age’s advances have clocked up (and in some cases, cocked up) at an astonishing rate, they have long since receded into the past. Usenet was the text-based precursor to the World Wide Web and in many ways, cyberspace’s Old West. It was a wild frontier. Sparsely populated. A far-off and unfamiliar idea to all but the most pioneering of souls. In 1991, it boasted around 12 million users worldwide. They were almost exclusively techies, academics and pornographers. It handled two, sometimes three gigabytes of traffic per day. By contrast, today, over two billion of the world’s population are online and gigabytes have long given way to petabytes. Still, there are Usenet archives out there, where former devotees can pour over the traces of their rambling, un-moderated discussions like historians poring over sepia-tinted photographs.  

Archaeologists mining the Usenet archives might have more interesting posts to uncover, but for Magic players, discussions on the forum are of particular importance. It was here that in June 1991 an ambitious role-playing fan named. Peter Adkison began posting about breaking into the gaming industry. Adkison was an employee at aerospace giant Boeing by day and the boss of a fledgling games company called Wizards of the Coast by night. At the time, Wizards operated out of Adkison’s basement at 23815, 43rd Avenue South in Kent, Washington. Or, more usually, from Adkison’s desk at Boeing, long after the lights had gone out and the cleaners were making their rounds.  

Despite the late nights required to get his new venture off the ground, Adkison was undeterred. The enthusiastic entrepreneur was driven by a passion for gaming he had acquired as a child growing up in Idaho (a state counting only 20 inhabitants per square mile) where he cut his teeth on family Monopoly sessions. Later, he took up Risk and war games by the American manufacturer Avalon Hill with his father. Then, in 1978, he discovered the love of his life: Dungeons & Dragons. Adkison stumbled on it in a local games store where he was drawn to the unfamiliar product by a nascent fascination with J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works. Despite not knowing what a role-playing game was, Adkison snapped up a copy. He was, and remains, a firm believer in embracing new ideas.  

Adkison’s Usenet posts caught the attention of a maths student in Philadelphia named Mike Davis. Davis was keen to plug a game he had co-designed with a fellow mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a frantic board game called RoboRally, in which players guided out-of-control factory robots through a gauntlet of obstacles. Davis hoped Adkison’s new company might be interested in publishing it, underestimating how expensive and tricky board games can be to produce. Today, Germany is their spiritual home – a land renowned for its manufacturing prowess. A start-up in the Pacific Northwest, with little capital, could not realistically take a punt on such a complex product. Nonetheless, Adkison enjoyed a sample of the game and agreed to meet its creators in Portland, Oregon a few weeks later.  

What followed was a seminal moment in geek history: something akin, at least in gaming terms, to John Lennon and Paul McCartney meeting at St Peter’s Church fete in Woolton, Liverpool in 1957. It was serendipity. It was alchemy. It was rock and roll. On 17 August 1991, Adkison met RoboRally’s co-creator for the first time, an unassuming and taciturn maths expert by the name of Richard Garfield. It was an encounter that would transform both of their lives.  

Writing later in The Duelist, Wizards of the Coast’s in-house magazine that existed between 1993 and 1999, Adkison described the meeting as an epiphany. Garfield was an almost monastic observer for much of that first encounter, clearly disinterested in talking business. But, what got to Adkison, was his love of not only role-playing games but of all games. His vision was clear and went to the heart of gaming, wrote Adkison. He was looking for entertainment, social interaction, mental exercise, creativity and challenge. I suddenly felt stupid, remembering the time I had refused to play Pictionary, even though I knew I would probably enjoy it.  

Like Gary Gygax (co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons), Klaus Teuber (inventor of Settlers of Catan) or Will Wright (designer of SimCity), Richard Garfield is now a name that inspires awe among gaming cognoscenti. Just over 20 years ago though, he was a disorganised post-grad student scrabbling around for a suitable pair of shoes. His important visitor waited patiently, whilst his friend steered the conversation towards RoboRally. Garfield had not had a single game published and was as much concerned with “The distribution of the binomial coefficients modulo p” (his thesis) as he was with fantasy worlds and gaming mechanics. He was, remembered Adkison, a scruffy sod to boot: “Then, as now, he wore mismatched socks, had strange bits of thread and fabric hanging from parts of his clothing and generally looked like someone who had just walked into the Salvation Army and grabbed. whatever seemed colourful.” Then, as now, it would have been foolishness of the highest order to judge him on appearances.  

Garfield was in no way disheartened when Adkison explained to the RoboRally creators that he was unable to publish their board game. Instead, at once pragmatic and keen to demonstrate his game-designing chops, Garfield piped up, “If you don’t want RoboRally,” he asked, “what do you want? Describe a game concept – any concept – and I’ll design a game around it for you,” he told Adkison.  

What Adkison was looking for was a game for the convention circuit: something portable, something quick, something that jaded role-players could distract themselves with during their down-time or while waiting for a tardy dungeon master. As a fan of the fantasy art he also saw at the numerous conventions he visited, Adkison wanted a vehicle for great illustration, too. The solution, he felt, was some kind of card game. Garfield nodded, took in Adkison’s off-the-cuff brief and the conversation moved on.  

Garfield stayed on at his nearby parents’ house for a week and met up with Adkison the following weekend for a Seattle gaming convention called Dragonflight. There, at Adkison’s behest, he demonstrated RoboRally to convention-goers and got to know Adkison’s few associates at Wizards of the Coast. After the show, he hitched a ride with Adkison and Wizards co-founder Ken McGlothlen. The trio stopped off at the Seattle Center, near the city’s iconic Space Needle, and as McGlothlen popped out to collect something, Garfield and Adkison stretched their legs. Garfield turned to his new mentor: “Remember that game concept you described?” he said. “Well, I have an idea that might work.”  

By the time Garfield had finished describing his idea, Adkison was bowled over in a way he had not been since first discovering Dungeons & Dragons. In some grungy corner of a Seattle car park, he started, he says, “dancing around, whooping and hollering”. When McGlothlen returned to the scene and heard the idea, he was blown away, too. It was good. It was really good.  

Having dropped Garfield off at his parents’ house, McGlothlen did his best to rein in his excitement. But it was too much for him. Turning to Adkison, he let it all out: “You know,” he said. “This game could make a million dollars. Maybe even two.”