Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Game Wizards: TSR Staffing

 

The above model, drawn from the narrative of Game Wizards, shows roughly how many people TSR had on staff between 1976 and 1985. Obviously, staffing fluctuated over a given year, and these plotted points are not anchored to any particular date on the calendar, but they impart a general sense of TSR headcount across its peaks, midpoints, and valleys. At the macro level, staffing ramped up steadily after the Egbert incident, accelerated recklessly in 1982, and then plummeted sharply thereafter. But this isn't the way that Gary Gygax remembered it... and that warrants a bit of explanation.

Building models like this is always tricky, and TSR's external reporting about its staffing, as with its finances, was kind of all over the place. I found that the monthly-updated employee telephone directories circulated at the company headquarters do an especially good job of showing when particular clusters of people exited. But of course, TSR had remote offices, including its entire TSR UK subsidiary, that are not always reflected on these lists, and I've adjusted the numbers just a bit for that. So I give my familiar caveat: this is a model, one grounded in the best data I could find.

The model's estimate of peak TSR staffing at nearly 400 can be reconstructed from the last "official" communication about staff size, in the March 1983 issue of the TSR internal newsletter Random Events (and this apparently reflects a February 14 tally of staffing):

That figure does not however include the TSR UK subsidiary, which had around 25 employees at the time. And staffing would not peak until June: as the Wall Street Journal helpfully reported later in the year, "10 new people were hired in April, 18 more in May, and 25 in June." Add these all up, and you get a number nearing 400 for the midpoint of 1983.

To track the precipitous decline in TSR staff after Kevin Blume took over as president at the end of June 1983, you need to take into account both large-scale layoffs and more staggered firings, as well as attrition -- no small number of employees who sensed TSR was circling the drain left of their own accord. The big layoffs weren't swept under the rug: TSR actually issued press releases announcing them. Those external communications were summarized in gaming zines like Space Gamer and The Insider, and even picked up by the local weekly Lake Geneva Regional News. Basically, the Game Wizards model relates the headcount drop as follows:

  • First Big Cut (June 24, 1983): "TSR Reorganizes", LGRN June 30, 1983 notes "termination of about 40 jobs." Space Gamer #65 relates that TSR "released in excess of 40 employees -- including vice president Duke Seifried." The Insider #7 hints that this is just an initial installment, that "the final tally will be more than 70 individuals. Prior to this the total TSR employee count was rapidly approaching 400." 
  • First Big Cut (Part II): Throughout July, deeper cuts happened that were quieter on the press release front, but news of them still leaked. The Wall Street Journal reported "in July, [TSR] laid off 100 people." The Insider #8 said: "More firings continue at TSR... this brings the employee count to nearly 260 people, a reduction of almost one third of their staff." Basically, TSR's bank required them to shed 30% of their staff before advancing any more money, which took a month's worth of layoffs to achieve.
  • (Attrition and gradually squeezing brings headcount down to around 225 by March 1984 - mostly cuts included severing the "white metal" miniatures team and slashing the assembly staff).
  • Second Big Cut (April 4, 1984, "A Day that Will Live in Infamy"): "TSR Reduces Work Force", LGRN April 12, 1984 (56 cut). The Insider #11 reports "Jim Ward, Ed Sollers, Mike Roller, and some 50 others have been given their walking papers. This cuts staff by 25%." Space Gamer #69 reports "TSR Lays off 56." I count around 170 afterwards (some news reports give 220, which seems to be the number before the cut).
  • (Squeezing and attrition continues, and by January 1985, we see around 120 - miscellaneous cuts included the last vestiges of the miniatures business, and a tranche of finance people.)
  • Third Big Cut (March 8, 1985): "TSR Lays off 36 Employees", LGRN March 14, 1985. Space Gamer #74 also reports "TSR has laid off 36 employees from all areas of the company except the design department." The LGRN tells us that "TSR still has about 95 employees on its payroll." My count in the months after the layoff bounces around 85.

But that's not exactly how Gygax recalled it. In the 2000s, he gave a long interview to Ciro Alessandro Sacco that discussed Gygax's final years at TSR, one that is widely known on the Internet. Famously, Gygax painted a broad picture where Brian and Kevin Blume were responsible for radically overextending the company while Gygax unknowingly pursued his Hollywood ambitions. 

As Gygax enumerated the causes of "the debt position that the corporation found itself in in 1984," he mentioned "TSR was over-staffed, 300 plus employees." But Sacco had done his homework, and seen some of the press coverage above, so he asked Gygax about the Space Gamer #65 piece detailing 1983 layoffs at TSR. Gygax basically denied it: “Discharged employees were rehired or replaced all too soon.” 

Now, it is true that a select few were rehired - Ed Sollers (an editor), who is above mentioned exiting in April 1984, would be back on payroll by the beginning of 1985. And of course, tactical new hires were made to keep TSR functional over this period -- just ten or twenty times fewer hires than there were staff reductions. At the macro level, Kevin Blume presided over TSR at a time of near-constant terminations, and employment would not reach the heights of June 1983 again. It wasn't a pleasant time to be running the company, which was constantly menaced by banks, creditors, lawyers, and outside directors. The hiring that fatally overextended TSR had happened during the turbulent "Year of the Three Presidents" in 1982, while Gygax was at least nominally in charge -- though effectively, the company was out of control then, and there is no shortage of people to blame for that. But by mid-1984, the total headcount was less than half its 1983 high. And by the time Gygax resumed the presidency of TSR in March 1985, staffing had already returned to circa-1980 levels, so (once some nasty accounting charges were dealt with) TSR's lower overhead had positioned the company for its return to profitability in 1986.

There are similar difficulties with other proposed causes for TSR's financial troubles that Gygax lists in the Sacco interview, which I won't get into here. All of this is just to explain that Game Wizards will differ from the narrative that Gygax related to Sacco -- but not for want of familiarity with it and similar statements Gygax made elsewhere. I am not asking readers to take my word over Gygax's: I don't have a "word," I just have models like the staffing one sourced as shown above, and readers can judge for themselves whether that sourcing is more reliable than Gygax's recollection on these points.

Let me finally add that I don't mean to pick on Gygax here: lots of people remembered their traumatic TSR experience their own way, decades after the fact. As Gygax held the Blumes responsible for his ouster in 1985, it's no shock that he doesn't remember them fondly.

5 comments:

  1. We won't really be able to properly and critically examine the history of gaming from the 1970s through the 1990s until we have demolished the hagiography surrounding Gary Gygax.

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  2. 312 people in TSR US! That sounds like a lot for an rpg publisher. What did all these people do? And how would this compare to other companies in the field, both back then & now?

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  3. Another case of Gygax's Distorting Lens (Illusion/Phantasm).

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  4. Memories are tricky at the best. It's great to have models and data to compare and understand better that years.

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  5. Interesting peek behind the rise and fall. Seems like a fairly typical mistake of small niche companies that grow rapidly. So fascinating to wonder: What if TSR had simply stuck to its core AD&D business, and then hired appropriately to handle a steady output of new content to support it?

    Great work...I'm glad someone like you is willing and capable to do this level of research.

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