Chapter 9-Sermon on the Mount


Sermon on the Mount  

By LATE 1993 when Magic came out, the international business landscape was undergoing convulsions that would shape the millennial age. The foundations of the much-trailed knowledge economy were being laid at an ever-more rapid pace. The inkling was stirring, that unorthodox business practices and innovative products placing a premium on intellectual technologies would rule the information age. Not far from Wizards, in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft had recently launched Windows 3.1, which helped steer PC-users away from MS-DOS to a world of dragging-and-dropping, copying-and-pasting and writing with real fonts. The first ever web-browser, Mosaic, developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign followed shortly after. And online service providers like The World and Compuserve had begun taking the internet out of academia and the military, into homes and businesses, heralding the advent of the dot-com era.  

In amongst this foment, a bunch of very smart guys and gals sequestered in a suburban basement had cooked up the ultimate intellectual product. Wizards had successfully monetised the ideas pouring out of Richard Garfield’s over-clocked gaming mind with a genre-busting card game. By tearing up the rulebook and subverting conventional business wisdom, they had created a truly revolutionary product and a phenomenon very much in tune with brainier times. Quite incredibly, considering their complete lack of experience, they had also managed not to screw it up. “It was our ignorance that made the game good,” says Jesper Myrfors. “We were too stupid to know what we ‘couldn’t’ do.” Like cartoon characters running off the edge of the cliff, legs spinning in mid-air, Wizards knew they could not look down. And, says Myrfors, by getting the game to market in the face of considerable adversity, they somehow made it to the other side of the gorge.  

As the money started rolling in and the market for Magic exploded, life for Wizards’ handful of employees was challenging, but also an unmitigated blast. Suddenly, they had the means to do what they had always dreamed of doing – to make fantastic games – and had proved what could be achieved by following their creative instincts. Everyone had pitched in ideas, energy and time and, lo and behold, a hit had been born. Why change a winning recipe? Peter Adkison was happy to ditch all notions of traditional hierarchy and figured that great ideas could come from any part of the company. Indeed, he wanted to create a new kind of company where the geeks — once banished to the backrooms by shoulder-barging alpha males in shimmering pinstripe – were running the show. Having grown up in a low-income family (his father was an army chaplain), Adkison admits he had an innate distrust for accountants, lawyers and strident capitalists. He was determined to do things his own way.  

By the time Wizards moved out of his basement into offices in Seattle suburb Renton, a month or two on from Magic’s release, the company had grown from 5 employees to 22. By May 1994, that number had swelled to over 50. With a recruitment policy Lisa Stevens dubs the “nearest warm body” hiring approach, the company ranks were filling with anyone Wizards could get their hands on. It was a heady time, and like a benevolent over-geek Adkison ushered new members of his flock through the door to a promised land of beanbags, table football, and other assorted high-jinks far removed from the traditional work world that Adkison hoped to turn on its head.  

For many at the office – essentially a rag-tag collection of previously maligned 20-somethings, suddenly banking large pay- cheques for working on their hobby – that meant as much sex as their newfound status would procure. Rules were for squares anyway. And sleeping with your co-workers seemed as good a way as any to spread consensus, the value at the heart of Wizards’ ad hoc company culture. As John Tynes, who joined the company in spring 1994, would later write, Wizards was a big horny summer camp and we were starring in the teen sex comedy of our fevered dreams. The fleshy frivolities would last until Magic’s first birthday.  

THE ENTIRE WIZARDS staff made the trip to Milwaukee for Gencon ’94, a team-building exercise combined with a sort of glorious homecoming. Where a year before they had been peddling cards to a sometimes sceptical crowd out of a ramshackle booth, this year they were the convention’s star attraction. The game had infiltrated every corner of the show and after four days of gruelling competition, even produced its first world champion in Zak Dolan. Magic was being feted by the gaming industry and punters alike and the mood in the Wizards camp was buoyant. Gencon capped a mind-blowing year and Adkison wanted to reward his staff with a show of generosity. Not one to do things by halves, when the show wrapped up, he chartered a bus and packed 30 or so willing employees off to the mountains for a weekend of unbridled hedonism in a rented ski lodge.  

Given the sweaty-palmed state of semi-arousal some of the company had been in all year, it is perhaps no surprise that one late-night drinking session at the lodge turned into a titillating candle-lit game of ‘Truth or Swill’. A number of the well-lubricated. Wizards crew dropped their inhibitions and egged each other on to reveal ever-more risqué details of their sexual proclivities. Mischief-maker-in-chief Adkison was happy to join in and with the night well advanced and all present somewhat sozzled, the munificent leader spilled the beans about his sex life to his assembled employees. Where once that would have meant a handful of lifelong friends, this was a different congregation. Despite Adkison’s honest and big-hearted belief that he could share anything with his fellow journeymen as equals, things had been changing at the company without him realising. The hangover would prove areal stinker.  

During the game, one recently recruited female employee called Carrie slipped out, shocked and uncomfortable at hearing her boss reveal his most intimate secrets. She took her concerns to the other managers and, rather than awaken to the kind of back- slapping he might have hoped for, a bleary eyed Adkison found himself on the end of a painful dressing down, led by Wizards vice president Lisa Stevens. For all Adkison’s brilliance in corralling a group of friends together to make Magic, he had misjudged just what a different beast a fully-fledged company was. Trying to push at every boundary possible, he had over-stepped a very serious one and would have to face the consequences. The ski lodge game of Truth or Swill was the high watermark of Adkison’s attempts to revolutionise corporate culture. His real strength would prove to be fixing what he broke, to ensure Wizards could live on long enough to shake their heads knowingly as a wave of similar start-ups repeated their mistakes, kicking off their shoes, burning brightly, then imploding in their hubris. But in the short-term, it was a rude awakening: “That night was the loss of innocence,” says a rueful Adkison today.  

WHEN WIZARDS TRAIPSED dejectedly down the mountain, they left the wildest heights of their rebellion against professional norms behind them. The journey downhill was bumpy. Stevens, to whom the complaints from the drunken game had been addressed, felt keenly her responsibility as an officer of the company on the board of directors to protect the shareholders’ investment. For as much as she had loved the company’s rollercoaster journey, she knew that the ground was shifting beneath Wizards’ feet. What had been acceptable when they were just a group of friends making hardly any money was very different to the situation they were currently in. Now, they were raking in seven-figure sums thanks to the faith investors had put in Magic when it seemed like a crazy pipe dream. Stevens could not help remembering that a janitor from Boeing, for example, had her life savings riding on Magic’s success — and felt that the company now stood at a major crossroads.  

Despite her personal friendship with Adkison and overall indifference to whatever fun anyone wanted to get up to on their own time, she called the company lawyer for advice. He was unequivocal: “You need to bring this to the board and you need to make a big deal out of it. Because, if you don’t follow certain rules and regulations, you could face lawsuits that could cripple the company and destroy the investment of your shareholders.” Stevens had little alternative but to convene a chastening meeting with Adkison and all the major shareholders, where a choice was laid down: to continue as a group of friends who were just having a good time, or to transform Wizards into the most successful company it could be. To a man, the shareholders voted for the latter option, which meant Wizards had to be run more professionally. But it changed things irreversibly for the band of gamer-friends who been there at the start: “It was now a job,” says Stevens. “From that point on, we worked for a company and not for ourselves.”  

For some – like John Tynes – it was the end of a perfectly valid dream, a betrayal of ideals, a selling out to corporate America. But it was not something Adkison did with any relish. The expectations on him from all quarters were huge and he was buckling under a complete lack of business experience: “For me personally, it should have been the best days of my life after Magic came out, but they became the worst days of my life,” he says. “1994 and 1995 were hell. Everybody was mad at me, it felt like, all the time. I was continuously in a situation where retailers were pissed about allocations, distributors were pissed about slow shipments, employees were pissed about who they had to work for and so on.” The company’s growing pains mirrored Adkison’s own. Without the example set later by the quirky companies which emerged from the dot-com boom, it was almost impossible for the Wizards boss to know how to combine his iconoclastic instincts with successful business practices. He was in many ways the older brother to the internet start-ups who would follow in Wizards’ wake. He railed against the rules and got into trouble. But by doing so, he also altered the expectations for his younger siblings and smoothed their paths considerably.  

Fortunately for Adkison, however traumatic it might have been at the time, the Truth and Swill incident could have been far more damaging. Though Stevens says that Adkison felt at the time, “… that the company died for him that night,” it was in truth more of a rebirth for all concerned. Adkison, increasingly surrounded by qualified managers as the company exploded, realised he was going to drown if he could not decipher their jargon. And, he says, enrolling on an MBA course in 1995 had an almost instant effect on him, inspiring him, restoring some bruised self-esteem and eventually granting him the skills to lead Wizards forward as the successful company its shareholders believed it could be. The most radical of Adkison’s initial plans for the company – like the very flat hierarchy — soon fell by the wayside, ultimately to the relief of many.  

 “It worked when it was small,” says Myrfors. “It worked when everyone knew each other. But when you start to hire from the outside, you get personalities involved in the mix that you’re not prepared to deal with. And when there’s that amount of money at stake, you also get a lot of leeches and hangers-on.” There was, says Skaff Elias, “A lot of Animal Farm going on.” Even Richard Garfield says he cringes when he thinks back to those early days – because the implications for the quality of his game were very real. “The thing was, [a flat hierarchy] completely invalidated people who were experienced,” he says. “You had people who didn’t like or didn’t play Magic making design decisions with equal authority to people who loved it and had been there since the beginning and had played games all their lives — and that just doesn’t make any sense.”  

With that in mind, Garfield and Elias made it their business to create a functioning research and development department to ensure a steady flow of Magic cards, whatever madness seemed to be swirling around them. Others tried to set a good example, like Rick Arons, an early manager recruited by major Wizards’ shareholder John Jordan. Arons is today executive vice-president of Pokemon USA and modest about his role at Wizards. But Elias credits him as among the game’s most important figures for the part he played in transforming the company culture, tackling whatever briefs came his way with diligence and good grace; never criticising or correcting the work-shy or inexperienced, but setting up his teams to work efficiently and harmoniously. Magnanimous and shrewd, he would later prove vital in setting the game on a new course to ensure its survival, in the face of company-wide scepticism.  

What he, Garfield and Elias all acknowledge though is that, whatever his mistakes, Adkison was the man who got himself and Wizards back on track. Humility, perseverance and gut instincts honed on lengthy campaigns in the gaming catacombs, redeemed Adkison. His vision had slipped into excess at times, but not all of it was bad. Adkison was able – in a way that presaged. other knowledge-economy trailblazers like fellow Seattleites Amazon, for example – to hone in on what really mattered in a fast- evolving cultural and commercial landscape. He was smart enough to perceive how business would be shaped by the flow of knowledge within companies, between companies and back and forth to customers down the rapidly proliferating cables of the nascent internet. Firstly, he recognised the importance of the output of his genuinely creative staff and put R&D at the heart of the company. He trusted in Garfield, Elias and the other playtesters the company recruited to its staff to sustain a high-quality product. Secondly, he did everything possible to make Wizards a customer-facing company, attuned to the needs of gamers everywhere. Arons says Adkison did not even call them customers. To him, they were an extension of the gaming circles he had spent his life in; his ‘friends’. He wanted to make sure the company maintained a dialogue with them just as it had when it had listened to concerns about Arabian Nights’ pink card backs. Like it had when Chris Page and Dave Howell had gone online to answer rules questions in the days after Magic’s launch. Like Adkison had in fact done when reaching out to potential game designers on Usenet before Magic was even conceived.  

That meant hiring an army of what Wizards called ‘net reps’ to handle all manner of customer service queries online – from where to buy the game, to interactions between certain cards not covered in the game’s still sketchy rules. It was what the idealistic gamer in Adkison wanted – to create not just customers, but a community. And while Truth or Swill was camaraderie taken too far, the bonds Adkison helped establish between company and fans endure to this day. Designers are regularly recruited via an online talent search, endless tweets are fired back and forth between Wizards staff and players, and consultation on all manner of rules changes lights up message boards. It is the kind of personal relationship other companies have desperately tried to contrive with their customers over the past 20-odd years and testament to Adkison’s innate smarts. In many ways, Wizards was dot-com-era Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley and all the more significant for its success in outgrowing its early flirtation with unbridled geek- topia. Accordingly, world domination was just around the corner.