In the month following the trip to Philadelphia, Wizards of the Coast continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Several new employees had joined the company, which was still based out of Peter Adkison’s basement. We were gearing up for the next printing of Magic: the Gathering, with what was being called the unlimited edition. Sales were still high and meeting demand was still a major concern.
On a personal level by this time my work with WotC had become enough of a draw on my time that I stepped down from my position on the board of directors of the Camarilla. Not that I was totally separated from them, after all two other board members were now working at WotC as well.
I also had to, for the first time in my life, get a passport.
WotC was attending European Gen Con in England. So I needed to get ready to go overseas for the first time.
But before we left an event happened that was unprecedented and would form an undercurrent for the trip.
As I have said previously, I spent a lot of my time in the old office acting as receptionist and answering the phone. A call came in one day that really did change everything. It was from Diamond distributing. Diamond is the major distributer to the comic and game store specialty market. Basically all comic and game products that go to the direct market stores go through Diamond.
The Diamond rep asked to talk to Pete. Now this may not seem weird, but at this time the person they would normally wanted to talk to was Vic Wertz. But they were still our major distributor and their wanting to talk to Peter was not necessarily a big deal.
The way the office was set up my desk was less than 10 feet from Pete’s. So checking if he was available was a matter of putting them on hold, turning around and asking Pete if he was free. For Diamond he was.
After the transfer I can honestly say I was not eavesdropping, but there was no way to miss what happened next.
Pete said “No Shit?” with great emphasis. “Are you serious?”
This was followed by. “Thanks for calling, this is incredible.”
I was looking straight at him when he hung up the phone. He looked at me and said “Jeff, go round everyone up. I need to make an announcement.” He was grinning from ear to ear, so I was sure this was good news.
I did as asked, and once everyone was gathered Pete shared his news.
“I just got off the phone with Diamond. The next catalog is coming out and they wanted to give me a heads up. Magic is the currently number one product in the game market.”
There was a pause as he let that sink in.
“We out sold TSR.”
And that was the big news. It was big because it had never happened before. The Diamond ranking was what the entire industry used as the official ranking. We were now officially seated at the big kids table.
Pete then handed me a wad of money and told me to head to the store and buy Champaign and other items for an impromptu celebration. He set the others to the task of calling in some key stakeholders in the company and any of the artists who lived in the area.
So that night we celebrated having unseated the 800lb gorilla of the gaming industry. At this party during a toast Pete made the following statement. And I swear that my memory of this is very clear and these were his exact words.
“And I vow to everyone here that within five years we will own TSR.”
I would remember those words three and a half years later when WotC announced a deal to purchase TSR. I’m sure Pete did too.
So we were in an interesting position when it came time for us to fly across the Ocean to attend Euro Gen Con.
My thought was that this was the going to be a convention just like Gen Con back in August, just the European edition. Yeah, we’ll get back to that.
The convention crew this time was led by Pete’s wife, the company VP Cathleen Adkison. The rest of the team was Lisa Stevens, Vic Wertz, Steve Bishop, Jay Hayes another VP of the company, and me. We were being met in England by a friend of some folks at the company whose name I cannot quite remember, so for our purposes let’s call her Lori.
I’m a big guy and I really can’t get comfortable enough on an airplane to sleep well, so at best I had napped a little on the 16 hour flight.
I should have known we were in for an adventure going through customs. On the plane we had to fill out a card that included where we were staying. I hadn’t planned the trip so I checked in with Cathleen.
She filled it out for me. Not a problem.
No the first sign that I was too tired from the flight to really register at first was from the customs agent.
“You’re staying at Pontin’s?” He said with a smirk
“That’s what my boss is telling me.”
If I had been more aware I would have asked what I should be worried about.
But first we had to get there.
We had rented two vehicles, a car and a minivan. Almost everyone went in the car, the expectations being Jay and myself. Jay opted to drive; in fact I never once drove while we were in England. Unlike me, Jay had been able to sleep on the plane so he was simply the safer choice. As we drove Jay assured me that it was ok if I took a nap, which tired as I was I readily did.
I think I slept about 2 hours. When I woke up my natural question was where we were? Jay told me to check the map in the glove compartment. I will say this for the Motorway system; they make it very easy to find where you are. The roads have plenty of makers and they are color coded. I was easily able to find where we were on the map.
The problem was that we weren’t where we were supposed to be.
“Where is Pontin’s again?” I asked.
“It’s in Rye.”
I checked the map again. We were definitely not where we were supposed to be.
Rye is just south of Hastings. We were heading towards Blackpool.
Keep in mind that England is much smaller than the U.S., but to give those of you not familiar with the UK an idea of the degree we were off, it would be like wanting to go to Florida from Seattle and ending up in California. Basically we were on the wrong side of the country.
Consulting the map we determined that the best course of action was just to head to Blackpool and head to Rye from there. All together it added about 3 and a half hours to our journey.
As you can imagine there was plenty of razzing about it when we finally arrived at Pontin’s.
And now we’ve come to the point where I am going to have to explain Pontin’s and why the customs agent was smirking.
Pontin’s is actually the name of a company that runs what are known as Holiday camps. This particular one was actually in Camber Sands. We were told to go to Rye as it was right next to Camber Sands and was bigger on the map.
A Holiday camp is basically a vacation resort that is designed so that you do not have to leave the site once you get there and entertainment is usually provided between meals.
We had a different opinion.
It started at check in. Jay and I got there late of course but there was still someone at the gate so we were able to get in. At the check in desk they gave us our keys and then provided directions to our chalets’.
Now when I hear someone say chalets being American it conjures up images of rustic but comfortable cabins. Here is where we remember that I was now in England, where terms can be different. So like torch is what we call flashlight, and lift is what we call elevator, chalets is what we call motel room.
But I was lucky; I had one of the high end chalets that I was sharing with Cathleen and Lori. Steve and Jay were stuck in one where the heater was coin operated.
As for the rest of the camp, well I later learned that the site use to be a military base and this was not hard to believe. Besides being gated the main building consisted of a ballroom on the second floor that acted as the dealers’ floor, a connected mess hall where we had our meals. Then first floor had the rooms that acted as the gaming rooms and a pub. At the end of the first day we were invited to the pub by Mike Stackpole who referred to it as a meeting of the escape committee. Some of the locals said the joke was that Pontin’s was founded by WWII POWs who missed the camaraderie of the camps.
As for the food, well it was filling. Every meal included baked beans, which led to me not wanting to look at another baked bean for two months following the con. The quality was high school cafeteria. But it was there and it was paid for. Our only other choice was to go into Rye after the floor closed, and at that time of night the only place opened was an Indian restaurant. We ate a lot of Indian food that trip.
But back to check in. Once I got to the room and got settled I leaned two things that did not make me happy. One was that our chalets did not have a shower. For me this was bad as I basically have to wash my hair every day. And the tub was small enough that dunking my head for rinse was not an option. Fortunately our chalets had a kitchenette so I was able to use a pan to make sure my hair did not drive me nuts.
The other problem was my fault. I had forgotten to pack pajamas and since I was sharing the chalets with two ladies sleeping in the buff was not an option. So I basically had to sleep in my clothes the entire trip.
The Convention itself was actually a smaller event than I had grown used to working for WotC. There weren’t any official numbers, but I doubt it was over 4000 people. But it was still a game convention being put on by TSR. I remember we were not making a big deal out of having topped Diamond’s sales that month, I think in part to avoid being asses to our hosts, and because those were U.S. sales numbers and we were not in the U.S. at the time.
There were no big booths at the convention, so we were just situated on two long tables that were located near the main entrance to the ballroom. There was no back drop and behind us was a half wall separating us from a dining area where game play was taking place.
Most of the booths on the floor were run by owners’ of game shops, but there were a few game companies as well. The booth right next to us was one such company. They were Nightfall games out of Glasgow, Scotland. They were the publishers of new role-playing game call SLA industries. The main folks running the booth were Dave Allsop, Anne Boylan, Red Crowley, and Jared Earle. I think Chas Elliot was there too. As we were right there by each other and the convention was actually a slower paced as far as booth activity went we ended up talking quite a bit. This was significant because with the rapid growth of Magic: the Gathering, it was clear that WotC was going to need a partner in Europe. Nightfall games became that partner and several months after the convention WotC purchased Nightfall and renamed it Wizards of the Coast UK. This purchase also meant that WotC took over publishing SLA industries. Eventually WotC shut down all their RPG production to focus on Magic and SLA was let go. Since then the original crew have formed a new version of Nightfall Games and are publishing SLA again.
But at the time they were a bunch of people from Scotland that we were having fun hanging out with.
Another person that showed up to the convention was Pete Venters. As I wrote about in the last part Pete and I had met a month earlier at the comic convention in Philadelphia. That meeting is what we refer to when we talk about how long we have been friends. However really we were just acquaintances there, Euro Gen Con is when we became friends.
Pete was hanging out a lot at the booth as he had been commissioned to do art for Magic by this time. The memory I have of us bonding was when I finally had a chance to walk around the dealers’ floor and Pete went with me. We stopped at one booth and Pete introduced us, pointing out I worked for WotC. The woman working the booth started talking to me and I could not understand a word she was saying.
Pete leaned over and whispered “You didn’t understand a word of that did you?”
I shook my head. “What language is that?” I asked after Pete had managed to extract us from the situation
“Oh it was English, but she’s from Wales, and her accent is fairly thick.”
To this day Pete teases me about being my English to English translator.
So throughout the event it ended up that I spent my time with Pete, the Nightfall crowd, or Mike Stackpole. I mean the other WotC people were around, but these were the people I took time to get to know at the show.
And this leads us to one incident that I would be remiss if I did not share.
On Saturday night there was a charity auction I have no memory of what charity it was for. What is important to remember is that at the time Gen Con was put owned and operated by TSR and the MC for the auction was some TSR executive from the U.S. that had flown over for the event. I can’t remember who it was as he was not one of the people brought over when WotC bought TSR in 1997. I did mention what I am about to relate to you to the TSR transplants and one of them did remember him. And by remember him I mean they said “Oh yeah, that asshole.”
Remember that I said the dealers’ floor was normally a ballroom? Well it had a stage, and that was where the auction was held. The main reason anyone hung around for the auction was that we were at Pontin’s and so there wasn’t really anything else to do. Most people were seated in the dining area. Pete and I were there and we had dragged chairs from the WotC booth and were sitting with the Nightfall guys at their table.
The MC was not at all engaging as a speaker, much less an auctioneer. Also no one was all that into the crappy excess TSR product they were offering as items. So response was overall muted and you could tell the MC was getting frustrated and keep trying to get people engaged, or at least bidding. At one point he was trying to get people to bid on a particularly uninteresting D&D book when he said something that I’m sure he thought was clever.
“Come on guys, we helped you out of two world wars, the least you could do is bid.”
I’m not sure what the overall reaction around the room was to this statement, but that is because it was certainly drowned out by the reaction right where I was sitting.
My reaction was the calmest, I just face palmed. Pete’s was next what he said “What the hell did he just say?”
The Nightfall guys’ reaction was impressive, especially because they did it in unison. They all jumped out of their seats; gave the MC the UK two finger flip off and yelled “Agincourt!”
I don’t think he got the reference, but the reaction caused him to back a few steps. After that debacle he stopped trying to be clever. Also the auction shortly ended because no one else wanted to bid on anything.
For myself I just made sure to point out that he was the kind of American other American’s despise. My companions assured me that they would not judge me by his behavior and we all departed for the pub.
At the end of the convention after check out (or liberation as we were calling it) we said our goodbyes to our new friends. Then the WotC crew had a break of the fellowship. Some of the team was going to be staying an extra day in England and the rest were heading home. And heading home actually meant heading to a hotel outside of London for the night and catching a flight the next morning. I was in the group heading home along with Jay and Lisa.
On our drive we hit a point where we all wanted food. Our first stop was pretty much a cliché. We stopped at a small town pub. We walked in the door and all conversation stopped and everyone turned and stared at us. That was a little too American Werewolf in London for us and without say a word to each other we all turned around and left. Eventually in a larger town we found a place that looked to be a chain restaurant. I was just happy to have a meal that did not include baked beans.
After that it was a good night’s sleep and then off to Heathrow and home.
Next time we come full circle on this tale of five conventions with the one year anniversary of Magic: the Gathering and our return to Gen Con.