The Alphastream Game Design Blog
On Monday April 3rd, 2023, about 30 community members visited the Wizards offices for a Creator Summit. Another 100 joined virtually. In many ways, it exceeded my expectations. In others, it fell short… while offering great promise. This is part one of a series, with an eye towards actionable goals for the future!
I attended in-person, so I surely won’t properly capture the experience and problems faced by virtual attendees. Most in-person attendees flew in on Sunday and flew out Tuesday or Wednesday. The event took place on Monday. The day was split roughly into the following:
We were asked not to share any photos prior to noon Pacific on Thursday the 6th, and to get consent from anyone in photos. We could make recordings but not share video during or after the event.
CEO Cynthia Williams made it clear that they wanted to share information with us, but equally importantly to hear from us. This was echoed by other executives and really by all staff. They clearly meant it, though there were issues with how they prepared (more on this below).
Wizards made a significant financial investment by covering flights, hotel costs, rideshare/meal credits, and providing a meaningful per diem. In addition, Wizards rented a large room at the hotel, provided a buffet lunch, and rented a large section of Mox (Seattle gaming store) for a buffet dinner with drinks. WotC provided swag for in-person attendees and will be shipping swag to all the virtual attendees. I have no idea what that cost, but it is beyond what most companies would consider covering in any industry, and beyond what most companies in the RPG industry could afford.
Wizards also made a significant investment in time and resources. Many executives, community reps, designers, tech teams, and other staff devoted all or most of this day to being present with us. They clearly also spent significant time on the logistics and worked with a PR firm for coordination. Staff will have to hold post-event meetings to review and collate all the information they gathered. For our industry, it represents an unprecedented effort. I attend many such corporate events and have organized/led a few, so I know how much work this represents.
Improvement Area – Agenda: Perhaps the biggest mistake WotC made was in not providing an agenda prior to or even during the event! All we knew ahead of time was “Morning Sessions” and “Afternoon Sessions” and then logistics. This led attendees to assume that their issue(s) would be discussed. We were asked a few days prior about our expectations, but I would guess this was not done early enough to collect information properly and act upon it. As we will see, the lack of an agenda really impacted everyone.
Shout-Out: Kudos to WotC for even contemplating an event of this magnitude, let alone actually executing on it. It is unprecedented and, despite the problems, most in-person attendees hope this type of event will be a recurring investment by Wizards.
Wizards of the Coast invited creators from a wide variety of backgrounds and creative endeavors. This included YouTube show creators, actual play streamers, podcasters, creators focused on Twitter, and RPG designers. Many were advocates for important causes, including folks who have spoken up over diversity and equity, accessibility, international issues, the recent OGL fiasco, and other issues.
I met folks here primarily interested in networking, some in news, some in providing feedback to help improve WotC or the game, and others looking to advocate important issues. The in-person attendees included critics, but (as Kyle Brink mentioned on one post-OGL interview) critics with whom Wizards feel they can have a productive conversation. And this was seen on-site, with in-person attendees being largely respectful and willing to talk through problems.
Speaking for myself, I was interested primarily in providing feedback and advocating for issues. I came with many notes and many questions, including from my Patreon and designer friends. I knew most of the attendees by name, a few from past events and conventions, and a few were previously unknown to me. Many people did not know me, because I am not in their sphere of attention the way they might be in mine (I cover news for a podcast, for example, and thus often hear about many types of creators).
Attendee diversity was a strength. It provided WotC with varied ideas and questions. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It also enabled WotC to reach and hopefully improve relationships with many different areas of the hobby.
Shout-Out: I want to thank Wizards and encourage them to keep working with such a wide variety of creators, and for other companies to take note.
Improvement Area – Know Your Audience: BUT… it is worth noting that this many people, with such wide divergence in agendas, is hard. Super hard. WotC invited some wide-ranging and challenging voices, which is brave. But it also requires planning. WotC did not properly prepare for what the attendees would want to discuss, and this was a huge negative for attendees.
Improvement Area – Prepare for Actionable Feedback: Truth to Power is superb. But, also, ensuring that the truth can be acted upon. WotC seemed surprised when two virtual attendees asked questions that likely came across as rude unprofessional attacks. Those two questions provided no real actionable feedback. WotC could have set better ground rules and set up sessions that guided the tougher conversations that folks wanted to have, so that actions can come from them. Or, to ask for most questions up front and choose from them. This is hard work, and worth doing well.
The online attendees were more numerous and represented an even wider diversity. 100 people is a lot of people to have online. Being in-person, I could only see a few screen names but not the whole list of virtual attendees.
Virtual attendees were often frustrated. WotC used Microsoft Teams to share the in-person events with virtual attendees. There were connection issues, sound issues, chat question issues, you name it. While the virtual folks were far more impacted, the in-person attendees were also impacted, because the delays and problems took away from the time we expected to have. We sat around as online issues were resolved, and encouraged speakers to call on the virtual folks even though it meant not being able to ask the questions we wanted to ask.
Improvement Area – Separate Virtual from In-Person: The in-person and virtual events should have taken place separately (either on different days or on the same day but handled by separate WotC groups). It almost never works to have people in a room with questions and answers, and to expect that sound to all be heard online. It almost never works to have hundreds in a Teams room unless you very carefully manage that experience with trained folks handling it.
Improvement Area – Fewer Attendees: I understand the desire to not leave folks out. But I can argue that both the in-person and virtual attendees were too numerous. Smaller groups would have been easier to handle and allow for more nuanced conversations, particularly online.
This is one of two Wizards offices. I have been to the other one in 2011, and this one has been in use since about 2019. Both offices will be moving to the new larger office (as we reported on Mastering Dungeons a while back).
It’s an awesome building, with amazing art in hallways and meeting rooms, cool statues, games everywhere, and employees decorating cubes with all types of geekery. The showcase meeting rooms are gorgeously decorated so they can be used to record interviews, and the VTT demo room was outfitted with Alienware laptops and lots of snazzy equipment.
Each session had a reasonable allocation of time. I expected to be rushed during the VTT demo, but it was actually plenty of time to test it thoroughly. The sessions had a good amount of Q&A, and even when the presentation portion was essentially PR, the staff had many good questions prepared that reflected how they wanted our feedback. I’ll discuss the VTT in detail in this blog series.
Improvement Area – Agenda and Audience Factor: WotC not sharing the agenda beforehand led to very heated (and necessary) discussion and a pivot by WotC (kudos to them for doing that) to then have difficult (and needed) conversations. I’ll discuss this all in a future post. WotC should have thought through the audience and actually asked them for desired topics earlier.
Improvement Area – Executive Knowledge Gap: During the sessions, and particularly the heated ones, there was often a gap between what executives understood and what other staff understood. That’s not unusual for corporations, and since there was no agenda communication, these executives were not prepared for hard discussions. But, also, it shows that the executives don’t grasp the root of many of the community issues, including longstanding historic ones. They really should grasp the fundamentals of these issues. I will discuss this further in another article.
Shout-Out: Fortunately, other WotC staff could often speak to the questions and issues. Community/Influence managers and the Director of Diversity did an amazing job of stepping in and handling questions. They did so both very capably and with passion for the issues.
These were in-person only, but very valuable for those present. Even breakfast was an opportunity for attendees to make introductions, shake off nerves, and bond. Lunch and dinner were both fun and afforded a great opportunity to ask staff questions in a more casual environment.
I should note that for in-person attendees there were other opportunities during the day, in between and around sessions, to have side conversations with staff. This was invaluable time for me to get questions answered and try to provide feedback or follow-up on previous discussions. I really appreciated this.
There was a strong commitment by WotC to continue conversations. This includes Gen Con and other conventions having some kind of opportunity for community feedback/discussion, and other future opportunities. Attendees can also reach out to WotC. Staff have been seen online post-summit saying they look forward to future meetings.
This is great, because the meetings could have been seen by WotC as unsuccessful, expensive, or difficult. WotC seems to believe in improving relationships with the varied creator community.
Improvement Area – Dedicated Email Line: WotC should have a dedicated email address for attendees to provide continued feedback.
Action – Provide Summary and Update: WotC has said they will update the public on what took place. I hope this communicates their specific areas of action resulting from the summit.
Improvement Area – Reach Out to Us: WotC has some blind spots on issues. WotC should reach out to community members who are experts when they find these. For example, when it comes to localization and products, there is a wealth of information in the community. That should not replace WotC gathering internal expertise, but it can help guide the company’s efforts and identifying where internal knowledge gaps exist. Many of us are glad to help, if only Wizards will reach out to us.
We will look at specific sessions and the information Wizards presented, the feedback we provided, and actionable items Wizards could take. If you have (constructive, respectful) questions, post them below!