Tuesday, July 26, 2016

WEG Memoirs: The Schedule Boards

Back when I first started working at West End Games the company maintained a schedule board listing all the products set for publication in the coming months. The board displayed an impressive array of products, often two or three each month. The board was sacrosanct. Moving or, gasp, dropping a product plunged everything into chaos. Yet it enabled the company to efficiently produce and publish product to a distribution system and retailer network – and ultimately to customers – whose revenues enabled the company to persist. The schedule board demonstrates to me one of the differences between today’s throng of small-press, independent, and often single-creator publishers and the few remaining, well-established, corporate game publishers; one creates for love, the other for money.

West End’s offices occupied the second floor of an unobtrusive warehouse on Route 191 north of Honesdale, PA; the infamous Bucci Imports shoe business used the downstairs offices. Owner Scott Palter maintained his office on the first floor, but it is here where the schedule board first resided when I started working there as an editor in the summer of 1993. The oversized bulletin board contained an index card for every project in production, arranged beneath the upcoming 18 months. After a while – I don’t recall how long – something happened that necessitated the board migrating upstairs into the West End conference room, where everyone could check it when needed and passionately debate what titles needed to move for various reasons that seemed important at the time. No doubt it made more sense to put it in the meeting room to accommodate the growing ranks of West End’s editors instead of constantly cramming into the owner’s office. Staffers hastily covered it up with a sheet when visitors came to the offices, an extremely rare occurrence.

Another schedule board actually existed in the West End offices...the one that helped transform ideas for product into actual publications. For each product this board displayed when various stages had to reach completion on the road to timely publication. This large, magnetic white board occupied an entire wall in production manager Rich Hawran’s office in the far corner of the art department. Rich somehow managed to hold the whole volatile team of editors and layout artists together, coordinated with the sales team, and mitigated the occasional unreasonable demands from management. His schedule board included all the products from the regular board, but with a space for each week leading up to the intended publication date. Color-coded magnetic bars indicated the weeks during which he expected numerous tasks would take place: final draft due date and editorial work; beginning and end dates for art department layout; final review; printing; and finally shipping to distributors and official publication date.

The schedule assumed some activities took place during other phases. For instance, contracting artwork began when a final draft entered the editorial process, based on illustration suggestions authors provided and editorial additions. The sometimes-temperamental approvals process for Star Wars Roleplaying Game and other licensed products also factored into other production designations: Lucasfilm and other licensors often saw proposals, final drafts, pencil sketches, final art, and final layout before granting an ultimate approval (all depending on individual licensing agreements). Activities like playtesting, proposal reviews, or other development occurred before a product even made it to the general schedule board.

Rich worked very hard to accommodate the inevitable scheduling snafus that reared their ugly heads. When I first started working he said the most important thing was to let him know when I suspected a project might “blow up.” Although this sometime led to a good deal of drama while scrambling to find some solution, it more often than not helped avoid severe problems down the line on the production schedule. The closer a product came to publication, the more difficult it became to handle problems that might delay the release date.

Beware editors bearing contracts.
Unfortunately the introduction of a regularly published periodical to the schedule – the Star Wars Adventure Journal, for which I was hired – introduced a new element of inflexibility. This became painfully obvious when the Journal’s first issue was due to enter the art department for layout. I’d edited the final drafts, received final artwork, and gotten Lucasfilm approval for all the elements. Unfortunately the art department was swamped and the art director at the time had dragged his feet designing the Journal’s trade dress; it didn’t help that several personality conflicts fueled the territorial dispute in who had authority and influence over various aspects of the Journal’s production. The calendar marched forward. We were rapidly approaching the time for final review and sending the Journal to the printer. As he often did when necessary, Rich stepped in and did what was needed to stick to the schedule; he and I sat down for an entire Saturday to establish the Journal’s graphic look and lay out the entire first issue. We spent the following week adjusting and correcting some elements, but it reached the printer and ultimately consumers right on time.

West End Games didn’t always hit the mark when releasing product according to the schedule, but considering the volume of publications and the number of people involved in each one, maintaining any reliable schedule was an amazing task. Most people who worked to transform a product proposal into a published game book knew what they had to do in the months leading up to the products listed. The pipeline included one or several authors, a stable of artists who could work to exacting specifications, the editor who oversaw the project from start to finish (including contracting, concept development, revisions, art approvals, final reviews), and the art staff for layout, with Rich keeping an eye on everything to make sure it moved as smoothly as possible along the production schedule. Staffers often stepped up as freelancers (both for writing and artwork) to take on regularly contracted product and to help when projects occasionally “blew up” and needed some additional material. Staffers even worked in the warehouse assembling the occasional boxed product.

During my five years at West End Games the company typically released between two and four products a month: at least one or two for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and one, rarely two for the company’s other game lines. The months before Christmas and GenCon typically saw the most activity. Setting aside all the other licensed and original lines, did gamers really need a new Star Wars game sourcebook, adventure, or journal every month? Could the market sustain that volume of product from one mid-tier company when the overall portion of potential revenue was divided by other companies after consumers spent money on TSR D&D releases and Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering card game? The answer, ultimately, was “no.” West End Games spiraled into bankruptcy in July 1998 due to a number of factors; some might say flooding the market with too many books played a role in the company’s demise.

Love or Money

I dislike the often-changing semantics behind various words used to describe different kind of game publishers; it’s a great way to start unending, uncivil arguments online. On one hand the hobby has the “corporate” publishers, those business entities with big budgets, facilities, staff, and a going business interest built on making a profit. On the other are far smaller “fan” publishers (call them “amateur” if you like, though some of their product quality rivals that of “corporate” publishers) who release game material, sometimes on blogs, other times in PDF, sometimes charging small amounts, sometimes asking nothing at all. A host of game publishers inhabit the landscape in between, from fans who’ve gained experience freelancing or in other publishing fields to professionals no longer in the corporate system trying to make it on their own. Certainly the internet and online e-storefronts like the One Bookshelf websites and the relatively new Tabletop Library have enabled those without a corporate infrastructure to bring their gaming ideas to publication.

The number of game publishers with full-time staff members, corporate offices, and the full infrastructure to produce and promote games has dwindled over the years. Many have transformed, transitioning into board game production, online publication, and other modes of commerce. They’ve become juggernauts of game publishing towering over a few respectable mid-tier publishers and a swelling host of small-press, independent, and often single-creator publishers. Corporate publishers have to churn out the product to make money to sustain their infrastructure; they can’t always afford to blow deadlines when writing, art, layout, and other production-value concerns require more time. Smaller publishers can afford to release their material when it’s ready, much like the old Paul Masson wine slogan, “We will sell no wine before its time.” Some try maintaining general schedules, though adhering to those remains difficult when such publishers are often one-person operations pursued after one’s day job and family time. Some engage in some online promotion before a product releases, but most buzz comes after a product’s release.

To me a key difference exists between professional publishing houses and individual small-press creators: one designs to make a production schedule and generate income to maintain an infrastructure (and profits), the other designs for love of the game and little or no profit. That isn’t to say big publishers can’t infuse a love for a game in their product; it just isn’t paramount when compared to making money to sustain the corporate structure. And it certainly doesn’t mean small publishers or even “amateur” fans can’t infuse their product with a level of innovation and professionalism to rival traditional publishers. Does it matter whether a publisher releases product for love or money? Do small publishers need a schedule to succeed? What amounts to “success” for today’s publishers across the spectrum? The creative energy centered on those West End schedule boards produced a host of amazing product for its time – some of which still stands out today – and perhaps limited the potential of a few less-than-stellar releases. That schedule enabled the company to capitalize on its Lucasfilm license, work within the confines of the distribution system of the time, and provide enough revenue to keep the company going for a few more years. It continued proving to me the value of professional discipline in both corporate and personal-level publishing endeavors.

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