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"Wizards" conjuring up old magic: making games
Seattle Times business reporter
From their home offices throughout the Puget Sound area, the 10 employees of Hidden City Games debate via e-mail the difficult issues. How would a centaur defeat Spider-Man? Could Wolverine fight off the undead?
Once a week, they gather in an office in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood to report on their product: Clout Fantasy, a collectible throwing game — think pitching pennies — that uses pokerlike chips with characters such as goblins, elves and merfolk.
In March, Hidden City signed a three-year licensing agreement with Marvel Entertainment to use Marvel superheroes as characters in a new Clout game due to be released this fall. Since the two Clout games can be played interchangeably, players will be able to find out for themselves who wins if elves battle the Fantastic Four.
Though the first game met with only moderate success when it was launched last fall, Hidden City's staffers hope the high-profile Marvel characters will help Clout get into big-box stores and become the next big thing in games.
The group is no stranger to big things.
Most are former leaders of Wizards of the Coast, the Renton-based maker of the runaway-hit card game Magic: The Gathering.
Hidden City Games
Headquarters: Seattle's Leschi neighborhood.
Product: Maker of the game Clout Fantasy and a soon-to-be-announced trading-card game.
Adkison's favorite game ever: Dungeons and Dragons.
Adkison's favorite game-character name: Mavra — She was the only human to survive the end of the world and rebuilt the universe with a computer.
Type of game that Adkison can't play well: Trivia. He's horrible at it.
Hidden City Games Chief Executive Peter Adkison founded Wizards of the Coast in his Kent basement in 1990 and saw it through to nearly $500 million in annual sales by 1999, along the way adding products such as the Dungeons and Dragons card game.
He and his investors sold his company to Hasbro that year for $325 million, and pocketed another $175 million over the next five years as an agreed-on percentage of product sales, Adkison said. He left the company a year later.
"I'm an entrepreneur, I like to run my own business. They basically wanted to take the company in different directions that I didn't find too interesting," he said.
So Adkison, now 44, took his earnings from the two percentage points he had in the company's half-billion-dollar sale, and spent two years going rock climbing and snowboarding around the world.
But he always intended to get back to his calling of making games.
"Too many companies publish games that aren't new or interesting. I'm really only interested in innovative, different games the market has not seen before," Adkison said. "I was just waiting for the right idea."
That came to him in the form of Jesper Myrfors' Clout. The former art director for Magic, Myrfors approached Adkison with his idea for a character-driven, artistic game that uses chips instead of cards, requiring both manual dexterity for throwing and strategy for proper use of each chip's specified powers.
Myrfors, of Snohomish, said he was looking for advice, but Adkison liked the idea so much he wanted to be a part of it.
Like Adkison, Myrfors did well financially in the Hasbro sale and initially stayed with the company, but discovered he didn't fit into the corporate environment.
"When things start to be run by committee and they don't know what they're doing, and you've been there since the beginning, it's awkward," he said.
When Adkison and Myrfors, now the chief creative officer of the company, reunited to create Hidden City Games in fall 2004, they brought in members of the old band, including Tina Trenkler, former vice president of Wizards and now the executive vice president for Hidden City Games.
The team's goal is to increase the reach of Clout. Although it is distributed in 50 countries (it's huge in Scandinavia) and sold in about 700 hobby stores in the United States, its release last fall fell below expectations.
Now they have preliminary agreements from buyers for Wal-Mart and Target for the Marvel launch in October. They are also looking at new licenses in the science-fiction and dinosaur genres, Trenkler said. They plan to launch a new product every year.
The company is in its second round of financing and hopes to raise $2.5 million by next month. The first round of financing in early 2005 netted $1.8 million from about 40 investors, mostly friends and family, Trenkler said.
The sluggish initial sales of Clout could be due to the product's uniqueness, said John Kaufeld, communications manager at the Game Manufacturers Association, a trade group based in Columbus, Ohio.
"Anytime you come up with something really different, there is always a sense of 'Huh, wonder what that is?' " Kaufeld said. "It's got potential to do really well."
The fact that the U.S. gaming culture isn't very physical also could have been a factor, said James Mishler, managing editor of Comics & Games Retailer Magazine in Iola, Wis.
"In the United States, high school and middle-schoolers fall into two groups: nerd or jock. When you're a nerd you don't do jock things, and when you're a jock, you don't play nerd things like Dungeons and Dragons or Magic," Mishler said.
"They're separate cultures, and Clout bridges those cultures."
Retail sales of trading cards at hobby stores were at least $67 million last year, and possibly twice that, said Mishler. Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh!, a popular card game based on Japanese anime, are the top sellers.
At Gary's Games & Hobbies in Seattle, starter packs of hobby-cards range from $8.99 to $14.95 and booster packs are about $4.
To keep startup costs down, Hidden City staffers telecommute, and the design, public relations and Web-site development are done by part-time contract workers.
The company's Web site boasts: "None of them is a brand manager." The goal, Adkison said, is to keep Hidden City small, focused and successful — lessons he learned from heading Wizards of the Coast.
"Wizards was my first company, and I was caught up in the idea of building a game empire," Adkison said. "I thought, we'll do everything, e-commerce, retail ... and most of it was a waste of time. The only thing that really made money were the card games."
Lisa Chiu: 206-464-3347 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company