One of the first ads we sold in Shadis Magazine was for a small mail-order company called RPG International. They sold D&D products and bundles via mail order before the internet. This company was run by my soon-to-be good friend, Ryan Dancey. (Funny note: RPG International was originally set up so that he and his gaming buddy Steve could get their D&D products at a discount.)
I met Ryan in person at Gen Con in 1994. We had been talking over the phone about ads in Shadis for some time, and also talking about the crazy things happening in the CCG and RPG business. As Ryan tells the tale: “I made my way to the Shadis booth which was surrounded by people getting a free copy of the magazine. John recognized me—I was the only 6-foot 6-inch guy wearing a suit in that hall—stuck out his hand, and pulled me into the gaming industry.”
By 1994 it was obvious that Magic was not just a fad. The convention was buzzing about Jyhad (later renamed Vampire: The Eternal Struggle) and announcements about new CCGs or conversations about these new games were everywhere. Most of that show was a blur for me, but I do remember walking the hall over and over with Ryan as he and I brainstormed a bunch of potential ideas for getting into the CCG market ourselves. Ryan was going to head back to Seattle and pitch his business partners on the idea of doing a game with AEG. I was convinced that we could build a CCG of our own with the AEG team, Ryan, and outside funding from Ryan’s partners. So I pushed for it inside of AEG.
Ryan and I are very different people. Ryan needs data to function and I am someone who likes data, but makes my decisions based on relationships, and my gut feeling for a situation. We both believe that working with the right people, customer service, and high quality products are the cornerstones of a great business. We also believe in setting big, audacious goals. The path we think we should take to accomplish those goals is very different. I am better when I have someone who will argue me off of a cliff and push me when I get too cautious. Ryan is that person.
It is also important to note that Ryan, for the most part, has a very high tolerance for risk. Once he sets a path and believes in the data, he has no problem with high-risk decisions. I, on the other hand, often get afraid to make decisions, especially when things are going well, unless they are thrust upon me. He is a great front runner, and I have always been much better at success when my back is against the wall.
Our First Audacious Goal: L5R
At some point after we met in 1994, we decided to set up a partnership between AEG and Ryan’s company to publish CCGs. That entity was eventually spun out into its own company named Five Rings Publishing Group. (FRPG) AEG would continue to function as the publisher of Shadis Magazine and a number of other projects, and FRPG would focus on CCGs starting with Legend of the Five Rings.
Hand-cut L5R prototype cards
In 1994/1995 it was pretty obvious that putting out a CCG was almost like printing money. During those two years, over 50 new CCGs were thrown at the market and stores were buying at least a little bit of all of these games. ( List of CCGs ) Needless to say, many of these games were not very good. The market was quickly flooded with games and more were coming. Our initial plan was to release L5R at Gencon in 1995. We missed that deadline.
WAIT . . . didn’t I just do a long blog about the cost of missing deadlines? Missing this one was bad. It was very bad!!!
We were able to get a single sheet of demo cards printed for the 1995 Gen Con. We had asked Peter Adkinson (founder and CEO of Wizards of the Coast) for his advice about doing a CCG, and he told us to print a practice sheet. Simple, but infinitely helpful. From that press sheet we learned a lot about how to print our game, and that sheet was how we introduced L5R to the world.
The story of that production run is epic. We had to learn a whole new language about printing with our partners at Yaquinto in Texas holding our hands. Everything took longer than we estimated. We had to keep reversing course to fix mistakes that we didn’t even know we’d made. Eventually, with people pulling multiple all-nighters, we got the right files to Yaquinto and the presses started running.
But we were so late that in order to get the cards to Gen Con, a couple of guys had to drive a truck from LA to Texas, load up the cards, and then on to Milwaukee. We literally got the cut cards for the show the day before it opened.
Using the cards on that sheet, we were able to construct several playable decks which we hand-collated in a marathon all-night session the day before Gen Con opened in 1995. With those decks we were prepared to execute our crazy plan for the show: Instead of using our exhibit hall booth exclusively to sell product, we dedicated a substantial portion to just demoing the game.
At this time the industry didn’t do a lot of in-booth demos. In the RPG era, a demo usually required a lot of instruction and tabletop space and companies scheduled events via the convention and ran demo games elsewhere in the convention center. In 1994, all the new CCG companies were trying to repeat the model that Wizards of the Coast had used the previous year when Magic was introduced, which was to sell product at their booth and then hope that people would fan out into the convention center and find places to play on the floor or empty tables.
In 1995, we’d already had success doing demos with hand-cut playtest cards made at Kinkos at smaller conventions. We knew that we could teach the game in a reasonable time frame, and often we could teach two or three people at the same time. So our goal was to run a promotion where if you sat through the demo we’d give you the deck of preview cards; essentially seeding the world with people who knew how to play and had enough cards to play a 2-player game.
Leaving Gen Con, life looked pretty good. L5R was getting great reviews from people who played it and we had pre-orders for 2,000 cases of product. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon: the first great CCG crash.
Near the end of 1995 in the face of stores having shelves full of CCGs that were no longer selling, the CCG market started to crash. This was 2 to 3 months before we were actually able to ship L5R to distributors. We watched as the orders for L5R started to tumble from 2,000 cases to 1,800 to 1,400 to 1,000 to 800 . . .
I did not mention that we were ALL IN on the L5R deal. Ryan’s business partners had put in a ton of money, Ryan and I had borrowed money from our parents, AEG had a whole bunch of debt. Ryan, the least risk-averse person I know, threw up in the trash can under his desk when given the final order numbers for the first print run. He felt he had lost his parents’ money. A bridge too far, even for him. I thought that as well.
Our decision to do CCGs and create the L5R production company was not popular with my original AEG partner, Jolly. He voted against it, but Dave Seay and I were set on that course. The process of building that new company, the huge debt we incurred, and the stress cracked us all, and my partnership with Jolly ended there.
Ryan, John & Dave in 1996
After the initial shock wore off, Ryan, Dave and I now had a tough situation. We had sold just enough L5R to barely cover the bills we needed to pay. Ryan’s partners decided that continuing to bankroll L5R expansions would be a bad idea and that we needed to find money elsewhere. We had just enough money to keep operating on a shoestring budget, 1,200 or so cases of unsold product and an extremely small but passionate group of players cheering us on and helping spread the word about the game.
Ryan and I have had a bunch of adventures in the 27 years since we met, but our greatest achievement to date was saving L5R in the face of odds that even C3P0 could not calculate.
To tell that story I need to fill in the blanks and introduce the team that helped make it happen.