This article is part of a semi-monthly column on the history of roleplaying, one game company at a time. The intent is to step back and forth between larger roleplaying companies and smaller, related ones. Earlier this month I covered Wizards of the Coast. This related article discusses the publisher of the D&D magazines, Paizo Publishing. Besides being a history of Paizo, it’s also a discussion of the magazine business, and its place in the RPG industry.
This article was originally published as A Brief History of Game #2 on RPGnet. Its publication preceded the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 00s.
Any professional business is ultimately about comparatives. Wizards of the Coast ran into this with their roleplaying lines around 1995. Based on the infrastructural costs of their CCG lines, they couldn’t afford to publish third-tier RPGs, and even if they could have, why bother when CCGs were much more profitable? Unless a company is very small, and unless it has someone to argue for a less-profitable line, ultimately those less-profitable lines are let go.
And that’s ultimately the story of magazines in gaming. White Wolf and Alderac are just two companies that got their start in generalist RPG magazines. Other like Steve Jackson and Chaosium ran generalist magazines for many years. But today you can no longer find White Wolf, Shadis, Pyramid, or Different Worlds on gaming store shelves, even though each company survives.
As soon as a generalist magazine publisher starts to expand beyond that magazine, one of two things tends to happen. One, the magazine is ultimately let go. Or, two, it’s turned into a house organ so that accountants can at least write it off as marketing expense for their more profitable lines. (Other things happen less frequently, such as White Wolf’s attempt to turn their magazine into a mass-market vehicle for pop coolness and Steve Jackson’s decision to turn his mag into an online-only ‘zine.)
Even after a magazine has become a house organ, that’s sometimes not enough for a company looking at their comparative economics. By this point the magazine is filling a similar niche to adventures, and as Wizards proclaimed when they created the d20 license, even if adventures are necessary for the success of a RPG line, they’re not very profitable on their own. Indeed, one can likewise count the Adventurer’s Club, Wyrm’s Footnotes, and Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society magazines that have fallen to the wayside (ironically sometimes to create a generalist magazine like Different Worlds or Challenge, highlighting the cycle of futility in RPG magazine publication).
And that finally brings us to Paizo Publishing.
The Creation of Paizo: 2000-2003
In 2000 Lisa Stevens, former employee #1 at Wizards of the Coast, was one of many employees who left that company in the wake of the Hasbro buyout. When she left she let it be known that she’d be interested in the D&D magazines if Hasbro ever decided to let them go. A year later Hasbro was cutting costs at Wizards by getting rid of less successful businesses. GenCon, for example, went to former President Peter Adkison. Licenses to publish the various Wizards magazines were offered to Lisa Stevens.
By July, 2002 Stevens had formed Paizo Publishing to take advantage of these licenses. The old Wizards magazine staff were all brought over (and indeed continued to work out of the Wizards space for a while). Thus Paizo became a magazine-only publisher of Dragon Magazine, Dungeon Adventures, and Star Wars Insider. Unlike Wizards, magazines would be Paizo’s sole business, and so they didn’t have to worry about the comparatives.
Dragon Magazine #299 in September, 2002 would be the first issue of the world’s premiere RPG magazine published under the new brand. That same month Dungeon Adventures #94/Polyhedron #153 was published.
Dungeon was a somewhat odd magazine at the time it was taken over by Paizo. As of Dungeon #90, published that January, Dungeon have been combined with the former RPGA mag, Polyhedron (numbered #149 in its first outing in its split incarnation). Dungeon continued to publish D&D adventures while Polyhedron was an outlet for the d20 system, often featuring a totally new d20 game. Although this might have been a useful bit of branding for Wizards, the split magazine would eventually prove a bit too schizophrenic for Paizo.
After it got its magazines running, Paizo was able to quickly expand upon this core business. In 2003 they licensed translations of the Dungeon & Dragon magazines to Italian game company Nexus Editrice who publishes a bimonthly combined magazine, Dragon & Dungeon. Since they have also licensed Devir in Spain and Amigo in Germany to produce foreign-language editions of their magazines.
The Paizo Adventure Paths: 2003-2007
One of the interesting experiments that Paizo began shortly after taking over the D&D magazines was the publication of “adventure paths”, the first of which was “The Shackled City Adventure Path” set in the World of Greyhawk. It ran (irregularly at first) from Dungeon #97 (in 2003) to Dungeon #116 (in 2004) and provided a 12-part adventure intended to take characters from 1st to 20th level. It would later be reprinted as a 410-page book and has since been followed by the 12-part Age of Worms (#124-135) and the currently running Savage Tide (#139-150).
The adventure paths have been very well-received, and many people already mention the first one in the same breath as classics like the T1-4/A1-4/GDQ1-7 series of first edition AD&D modules. They really highlight the strengths of what you can do with a magazine. Dedicated magazine publication allows for the creation of huge, epic adventures far beyond what RPG publishers are willing to publish nowadays, and also for the support of gameworlds (like Greyhawk) that other publishers don’t see the economics of supporting any more.
With publications like the adventure paths, and other notables like the Greyhawk map also published in Dungeon, Paizo really makes a strong argument for what a magazine-only publisher can do.
Magazine Expansion & Change: 2003-2004
With a few years of magazine publishing under their belt, Paizo began to revise and expand its magazine publishing in 2003.
First they launched a totally new magazine called Undefeated, meant to cover any game that you could win at. Magic, HeroClix and Settlers of the Stone Age were some of the games covered in the first issue.
Then they rolled out their own incarnation of the short fiction magazine Amazing Stories, based on another license from Hasbro. Where Wizards had tried to build a successful Amazing Stories through stories about licensed properties like Babylon 5 and Star Trek, Paizo instead took a mass-media approach, where they pushed Amazing Stories as not just a fiction vehicle, but also an overview of all genre media, including comics, movies, and TV.
At the same time Paizo revamped their core magazine, Dungeon and Dragon. With #323 Dragon seemed to have only superficially changed, however with #114 Dungeon Adventures underwent much more notable revisions.
First, Polyhedron was dropped from the equation. The bipartite magazine had always been somewhat awkward, and by mid-2004 the d20 crash was in full swing making a d20 magazine even less appealing.
Second, Dungeon changed its focus to try and bring in more gamemasters. It promised a low, mid, and high-level adventure in each issue, and also started printing other gamemaster columns–not just adventures–for the first time in its life. Third, Dungeon changed from their old bimonthly publication schedule to monthly, also converting from a 160-page count to 100.
Meanwhile one other magazine change occurred at about the same time: Star Wars Insider was transferred to IDG Entertainment as part of LucasFilm taking over the Star Wars fan club.
Magazine Contraction & Loss: 2005-2006
The Dungeon and Dragon revisions originally received some derision on the Internet–but what change doesn’t? However the venerable magazines easily weathered that storm. On the other hand Paizo’s new magazines, Undefeated and Amazing Stories, proved to have a very short shelf life. They were both put on hiatus in January, 2005 and ultimately cancelled in March, 2006. Lisa Stevens was quoted in Paizo’s press release on the cancellation:
“We worked hard to find alternative means to keep these titles viable, including moving them to other companies,” says Lisa Stevens, co-owner and CEO of Paizo Publishing.
“However, our efforts ultimately met with no success. We felt that it was time to fold our hand and let our customers know the final outcome.”
One of the reasons that Paizo presents an interesting brief history is that they’ve been quite upfront about how the magazine business works, and so offer a clear window into the industry. Vic Wertz of Paizo recently wrote an article about why the magazines died.
He outlined the three revenue streams that the most magazines have:
- Newstand sales, which are usually a break-even because newsstands are allowed returnability, and so constantly overorder.
- Subscription sales, which lose money for most magazines, but which Paizo manages to make a little money on thanks to the special interest level of their magazines.
- Advertising, which is what actually pays the bills for most magazines.
For the vast majority of magazines, newsstand sales and subscriptions are just ways to get print numbers up high enough to justify higher ad prices and thus more revenue.
However, Paizo also has two additional streams of revenue, which help them earn money on these smaller niche magazines:
- Game store sales, which aren’t returnable, and thus do make money for Paizo.
- Back issue sales, which don’t happen for most magazines, but again do for Paizo thanks to the special interest of our industry.
Undefeated and Amazing Stories ultimately failed because they didn’t use Paizo’s special advantages. In particular, neither did well in game stores. This was pretty much the death knell for Undefeated. For Amazing Stories the staff thought they could eventually increase its circulation enough to make good revenues off of ad sales, but Paizo didn’t have the money to support that ramp up.
More Businesses: 2004-2006
In recent years, Paizo also seems determined to push the envelope of their company.
In 2004 they launched a web store and have since expanded it to include all sorts of game aids, apparel, fiction, and D&D downloads. They’ve since signed exclusives with a few companies as well.
In 2005 Paizo launched their GameMastery line, a set of various tools for gamemasters including workbooks, and various maps and miniatures intended to easily set up encounters.
Slightly further afield, Paizo founded Titanic Games in 2005, along with James Ernest and Cerberus Games (a UK company owned by Stevens and Bob Watts). It’s actually a separate company from Paizo, but Paizo owns a portion of it. Titanic is publishing high-end Cheapass Games and is also moving into some games of their own, guided by brand manager Mike Selinker. Their next release will be an innovative multi-game release, wherein multiple authors each have created a game using the same components.
Today Paizo seems quite well positioned to continue making the D&D magazines a success, and beyond that to continue servicing the gamemaster community. Because they’re dealing with the most successful RPG magazines ever, Paizo probably doesn’t have to worry too much about being seduced away by comparatives, because the D&D magazines are likely to do better than any second-tier or worse RPG line.
There is ultimately a question of how Paizo can turn that into even more success. The store and GameMastery lines are clearly attempts to leverage their core business, but then so were Undefeated and Amazing Stories which didn’t work out. However, unlike the new mags, the store and GameMastery lines provide a second benefit to the company: diversification, so that the company isn’t entirely dependent upon Wizards of the Coast and the D&D magazine business.
Paizo continues to live in a difficult niche, but that presumably is exactly what the founders wanted.
Thanks to Lisa Stevens for some comments on this piece. This article is partially based upon Paizo press releases, articles found on the Paizo website, and USENET discussions.