Militant Optimism Award: Matt Wilson, Privateer Press
(Note: First-time visitors click here for more game culture, startup stories, development tales, movie and book reviews, and more …)
Several weeks ago, the Ulm blithered on about “militant optimism,” the indispensable mindset required of anyone starting a new business in these difficult times. Following-on from that post, the Ulm and I thought it would be nice to concoct an award that recognizes militant optimism in our industry peers. We composed a short list of companies that exemplified the spirit of militant optimism, and Privateer Press was right at the top of the list.
And so, for our first Militant Optimism Award, we recognize Matt Wilson of Privateer Press!
Founded in December 2000, Privateer Press’ goal was simple — to produce the best fantasy gaming material available. Starting with the Witchfire Trilogy and the Monsternomicon, Privateer introduced the Iron Kingdoms, a fan-favorite fantasy world of elves and dwarves but also of steam power, firearms and other elements of technology rarely seen in fantasy gaming. Things really took off for Privateer in 2003 with the debut of Warmachine, a tabletop miniatures game set in the Iron Kingdoms where players could enact battles between men and Privateer’s signature creation, the fearsome Steamjacks. The Warmachine line was expanded by Hordes in 2006, again to great acclaim. Late in 2008, Privateer entered the pre-painted collectable miniatures market with Monsterpocalypse, a giant-monster tabletop miniatures game where waring factions of fantastic creatures reduce cities and each other to ruin.
(a game of Monsterpocalypse, in progress …)
We spoke with Privateer Press Creative Director Matt Wilson just before the holiday to discuss his company’s success, particularly as regards Monsterpocalypse …
APPY: Privateer Press was already enjoying success with Warmachine, Hordes, and your publishing lines … why choose this particular time to introduce a whole new product category in Monsterpocalypse?
Matt: By “time,” I presume you mean, “economic crisis,” and not “ten weeks before Christmas,” which in any other year would have been considered excellent timing. And so to that, I can only reply, ‘fate’ chose this time for us. If I’d had a crystal ball, we might have chickened out of going forward with Monsterpocalypse. But, eighteen months ago when the product was conceived and green-lit, things were looking as rosy as ever.
APPY: I should have remembered that long lead times would factor into this. Back in our console software days we dealt with multi-year timelines all the time, but I’ve already gotten spoiled by the quicker turnaround time of iPhone Apps.
Matt: By the time the real economic indicators were going off, we were well into the production of the product, with a great deal of money tied up, and it was never a question of whether or not we should go forward. And I’m glad we did, as the gamble has paid off and Monsterpocalypse is already a qualified success.
APPY: We’d call this the “power of no choice.”
Matt: But isn’t having the chips stacked against you the crucible of Militant Optimism? A sure-thing doesn’t usually require a gut-check.
“I don’t think the (collectable miniatures game category) is shrinking, rather, its stewardship is just changing hands.”
– Matt Wilson
APPY: Still, the collectable miniatures category, as a whole, seems to be contracting right now –
Matt: I am entrepreneurially obligated to dispute that statement; I think collectible miniatures games (CMGs) are expanding right now. The success of Monsterpocalypse over the past two months has shown that there is a thriving market for CMGs, as we have launched one that has created an instant community and promises to be active in game stores for the foreseeable future. As well, another major publisher (whom I am entrepreneurially prohibited from mentioning) has also launched a new CMG product, and by all accounts, is sharing a similar success.
Overall, I don’t think the category is shrinking, rather, its stewardship is just changing hands.
APPY: Hasn’t Wizards of the Coast all but bailed on D&D miniatures as a collectable game?
Matt: WotC’s recent change in format was less of a contraction as it was a more accurate re-focusing of the product. They realized who was buying the product, finally, and have tailored it to that audience, rather than trying to shove a square peg through a round hole.
APPY: If anything, though, looking at the market eighteen months ago would have shown a more crowded field than ever before. What made you think Privateer could move into this category and be successful?
Matt: Privateer has never launched a product to an open-armed industry. When we released Warmachine nearly six years ago, our distributors told us, “The world doesn’t need another miniatures game.” And maybe they didn’t, but they wanted ours. And within days of Warmachine hitting the shelves, demand for the product was many times beyond our capacity to even fill.
Monsterpocalypse was met with a similar skepticism as a product, though I’ll say that by now, our distributors had come to expect the unexpected from Privateer and were confident that we would deliver a great product, even if the chosen category was in doubt. Still, they underestimated the demand we had created for Monsterpocalypse, and since its launch, we have had to resume production three more times and are looking at a fourth shipment on the horizon just to keep up with sell-through.
“We’ve got a great track record for bucking the odds.”
– Matt Wilson
APPY: You make it sound pretty easy.
Matt: We’ve got a great track record for bucking the odds. However, I’m scared shitless every time we launch a product. I never presume to know how the market is going to react, and though it may disqualify me from this coveted award, my glass is always half-empty.
APPY: Militant Optimism doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna. You were right earlier in saying none of this is about pursuing “sure things.”
Matt: Fear of failure is my greatest motivational force and I can’t stand the thought of shipping a product that is going to let people down. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by like-minded, talented people who aren’t willing to compromise on our products, and I think it’s from there that we manage to deliver the unexpected. Great products can persevere even in the worst of times, and though I may not always be confident that the product will be a success, I am always sure that we’re going to ship a great product, so at least we’ve got a fighting chance.
(Zor Magna vs. Ulgoth)
APPY: Something else that’s been new for Privateer with Monsterpocalypse has been the move into plastic models, and the outsourcing of production to China. So, let’s see, in the “risk” category we can add new materials and new production methodology to new IP, new game design, and new product category. What were your expectations with outsourcing, and how has reality matched up with what you imagined?
Matt: The choice to do Monsterpocalypse in plastic and to outsource its production was actually grounded in the fact that we’ve done so well with the metal miniatures for the past six years. The obvious (and erroneous) choice for us would have been to do another hobby miniature game (eg. a game that requires assembly and painting, most often associated with metal miniatures). However, doing so would have meant that we’d most likely be going back to the same well, potentially cannibalizing our very strong and committed audience for Warmachine and Hordes (two great tastes that taste great together).
As well, the metal we use, which comprises the largest portion of our cost of goods, has been steadily increasing in cost for the past several years. So, the decision to work with plastic was based on, a) wanting to expand our product offerings while preserving our hobby miniature audience and b) looking for an alternate material to work with in the event that metal became too expensive to work with (which it almost did), thus keeping all of our eggs out of the same basket, so to speak.
APPY: You made virtue of necessity.
“We always just kept saying, ‘We’ve conquered harder in the past.’”
– Matt Wilson
Matt: As for how it has turned out, I would say that it is about what we signed up for. There are challenges in working overseas and in outsourcing that we never have had to address with our own production in our own facility. At the same time, we’ve been able to add a product line to our catalog that will greatly increase the reach of Privateer while requiring minimum additions to overhead. We chose great manufacturing partners and we spent a great deal of time getting educated on the process, and for that I have to thank many people that were willing to share the wisdom of their experience. I won’t say that it has been without speed bumps, but we managed to go from concept to shipping our first release for Monsterpocalypse in about 12 months, which is much faster than other reports I’ve heard from companies that are getting into this category for the first time, and I think the key to that has been a great deal of preparation and an even greater amount of dedication on the part of all of crew working to get the product done. We always just kept saying, “We’ve conquered harder in the past.”
APPY: Which is one way of rationalizing those near-death experiences, I know. There must have been times when you thought Monsterpocalpyse just wasn’t going to work. What kept you going?
Matt: I have this sort of bipolar methodology to the way I work. One moment, I’m patting myself on the back for coming up with something so brilliant, the next moment I’m chastising myself for being such a complete idiot.
APPY: We’ve got the second part of that equation figured out pretty well, ourselves.
Matt: There’s a constant war going on inside my head, right up until we send our files to press. I never thought that Monsterpocalypse wouldn’t work, I just wasn’t sure what it would exactly look like in the end. It’s a constant battle in analyzing just what is working and what is not. The motivation is just a healthy mix of good old fashioned stubbornness and fear — too proud to quit, too scared to settle for anything less than our best.
APPY: How so?
Matt: At a certain point in the development of the game when we thought we were just a few days away from completion, I tore a good portion of the game mechanics right back down the ground. There was a clumsiness to the way things worked that just wasn’t sitting right, and I finally came to terms that we had all just gotten used to these deficiencies. When I scrapped this whole section of the game, I think everyone thought I had gone mad. It ended up adding about three more weeks to our development, and there were a lot of long hours in those weeks putting the final touches on the game, but in the end, it was the difference between night and day, and I don’t think anyone now believes that we made the wrong decision at the time.
APPY: A less militant optimist might have doubled-down on Warmachine and Hordes rather than investing in a product line rife with message-board hot buttons like “collectibility” and “pre-painted plastic.”
Matt: That was all in the decision to do a pre-painted, collectible miniatures game. It was a well calculated choice. We absolutely did not want to migrate our existing audience from one game to the other, and CMGs are practically an anathema to hobby miniaturists. We now have two very distinct games and properties, and of course they will share some audience, but the difference in format of being pre-painted and collectible has insured that the crossover has been minimized and we’re able to grow the audience of Privateer products with a whole different category of gamer.
APPY: How do you prevent Monsterpocalypse from posing danger to your core brands?
Matt: Basically, mom and dad were bringing home a new baby, but we wanted all of our existing family to know that we loved them, very, very much. We spent a lot of time communicating with our Warmachine and Hordes players so that they would be confident that everything they had come to know and love and had invested so heavily in would stay intact, even though we were going to be expanding our product lines into another category and IP.
(Pteradax vs. Tharsis – 5)
APPY: Any optimistic advice you can offer for other startups having second thoughts at the foot of a big, stormy mountain?
Matt: My advice is usually very cynical. As you know, it takes a certain amount of madness to want to put yourself through building a company and exposing yourself to the unforgiving masses of consumers, now armed with dreaded forums. In an effort to sound encouraging, though, I’d say that caution can be the better part of success. You hear a lot of stories about those guys with the big cajones who took bigger risks and achieved even bigger payoffs. And maybe that does actually happen. But in my experience, an ounce of prevention is worth a gallon of cure.
APPY: I don’t think I follow.
Matt: From the outside, it might look like Privateer has had rapid growth and thrown caution to the wind, but the reality is that we’ve never risked more than we could afford to lose. Every step has been calculated and assessed, we’ve done our best to be prepared for problems and even failures, and have never overextended ourselves in a way that would jeopardize the continuing existence of the company. And in these economic conditions (don’t you love how we can bring this full circle, it’s like we planned it!) when other companies inside and outside of our industry are experiencing massive layoffs and falling by the wayside, Privateer continues to move onward and upward, confident that we’ll be here in another year or another ten. So, plan well, exercise caution, always put your best foot forward and never settle for anything less when it comes to making a product, and I think that’s about the surest formula for a successful business that you can get.
APPY: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Matt, and in recognition of your accomplishments and those of the whole Privateer crew, we’re delighted to bestow upon you this inaugural Militant Optimist Award! A lifetime of hard work and sacrifice has paid off at last!!
Seriously, we’re big Privateer Press fans here at Appy Entertainment … we appreciate Matt’s participation in our blog, and we look forward to enjoying Privateer’s games for years to come.
Monsterpocalypse images and characters are © Privateer Press. Monsterpocalypse is ®, Privateer Press.