A Chat With John Nephew of Atlas Games


Atlas Games is probably best known to gamers as the first to have a non-WOTC d20 product available for sale (John Tynes' Three Days To Kill). But there's much more to their story, from their humble beginnings in 1990 to their recent success with Ars Magica. We talked with John Nephew, the man behind the myth, about the past, the present, the future and a little bit more.

Gamegrene: For those who aren't in the know, introduce yourself and your company, and tell us a little about your history and background. How might our readers know you?

John Nephew: I started Atlas Games in 1990, the summer before my senior year of college. I had already been freelancing in the games industry since 1986, working with TSR (writing and editing D&D and AD&D books, mainly) and with Lion Rampant (wearing many hats over the course of a couple of years, including President). Since starting Atlas I've done a lot less writing of my own, but I've been lucky enough to find folks who are much better writers and designers than I am, and to make a living bringing their work to gamers.

GG: The d20 movement and the OGL have come a long way in five years. Tell us about where you fit into the movement in its earlier days, and where you think it's gone now. Do you think the market has reached a saturation point?

JN: We did very well in the early days, as we were the first company outside of Wizards of the Coast to have a d20 product available for sale -- Three Days to Kill by John Tynes. (Green Ronin would have tied us for release if their hotel hadn't misplaced their boxes and delivered them later to the floor of Gen Con!) D20 was good to us, and for a little while there it was like printing money.

We've long been a pretty well diversified company. While we were able to benefit a lot from d20, we never shifted all our resources to exploiting it -- we continued to publish and support proprietary games like Ars Magica, Feng Shui and Unknown Armies, and non-RPG games like Lunch Money and Once Upon A Time. For a while it seemed silly to devote resources to anything except d20, and I'm sure some folks thought we were missing out by not churning out multiple d20 books every month.

These days I wonder if a d20 logo is a bigger hindrance than help...

But like other booms in the game industry, it was followed by a bust. I think the market is still trying to work its way out of a serious glut of d20 overproduction. These days I wonder if a d20 logo is a bigger hindrance than help, just in terms of retailer perceptions and the bad experiences they've had in buying too much stock.

We saw the downtrend early on, and when we could see that the supply of new d20 titles in the industry wasn't going to slow, and profitability was going to vanish, we decided to wind down our lines. This was in the summer of 2003. At the time we were still publishing d20 profitably, but we saw no reason to see a change in the underlying trend of too many new books each month competing for a finite pool of gamer dollars. At this point our diversification was starting to look pretty good again, since our proprietary RPGs didn't get hit as bad as d20 in the downturn, and our card games continued to go strong.

Ultimately, 2004 was our best year in recent memory -- better even than 2000 and 2001, the peak of d20 sales. But along the way we saw roleplaying shrink as a percentage of our sales, and non-collectible card games swell.

We do still have one d20 project still in the works. It's called Northern Crown. It's going to be a two-volume campaign setting; both books should be released at Gen Con this summer. The setting is a fantasy colonial North America. While I'm not very positive on d20 in general in this market, Northern Crown is just so fresh and exciting that we really want to publish it -- profitability is a secondary concern. Fortunately, we have the financial strength to indulge ourselves!

GG: A number of game engines have recently been revamped or re-released. Steve Jackson's GURPS, White Wolf's World of Darkness, even the old d6 engine. Do you think this'll have any significant impact on d20 gamers now that there are fresh alternatives, or will d20 continue to be the big dog on the block?

JN: Honestly, I don't know. I don't think "d20" is the big dog on the block -- D&D is, as it always has been. From what I hear from game stores, as Wizards' catalog has grown, more D&D players have decided to stick to official D&D material, after being burned too often by 3rd party materials. In the early days you had to go to the independent publishers in order to get very much material -- now, there's more material available than anyone is likely to use in a lifetime of gaming.

For a publisher, though, it's not so clear that d20 is a solid investment.

If you're a d20 player, this is a pretty good situation. You can get more material than you can use for incredibly low prices, especially if you shop for used items and closeouts. So from the gamer's standpoint, d20 may still be the most attractive thing.

For a publisher, though, it's not so clear that d20 is a solid investment. You can see that even the companies who defined themselves as d20 publishers have diversified into non-d20 RPGs and non-RPGs altogether. Publishers have also been moving away from the d20 logo to OGL games (which don't require any WotC books to use, but may have a lot of compatibility with D&D), and a lot of the major new games have been licensed properties. These are all ways to try and stake out and defend parts of the market.

GG: What's the status of some of your non d20 properties (Ars Magica, Feng Shui, Unknown Armies)? Any thoughts on converting them to d20? Why would that work/not work?

JN: The new edition of Ars Magica (released in November) is selling faster than we expected. It has already outsold any D20 book we've published since the end of 2001 -- and we have every expectation that it will continue to sell at a steady rate every month, unlike most d20 books.

Feng Shui and Unknown Armies continue to sell well. We have an upcoming supplement for Feng Shui, called Glimpse of the Abyss, but that will be it for a while; and we don't have any more supplements in the works for Unknown Armies. However, we did reprint both main rulebooks last fall.

We don't see any benefit to converting any of these games to d20. We don't want to split our fan base between two systems, and frankly I think one of the reasons you play these games is because they do things differently than D&D does. If people want to use one of our settings with d20 rules, they should be able to do so easily enough; we've even published a dual-stat adventure for each of these RPGs (with our game system's stats and d20 stats), to point the way.

GG: You've been around for a long time; how has the industry changed in the past fifteen years? What's remained the same? What's surprised you the most?

JN: Production quality has changed the most, I believe. Back when I started, small publishers sent laser printed camera-ready copy to printers. Heck, at Lion Rampant and in the earliest Atlas books, we used photocopiers to resize artwork and then pasted it manually into the layout for press. Now it's all digital, and usually computer-to-plate. Technology has meant better looking books at more affordable prices -- honestly, adjusted for inflation, gamers get a lot more for their money today than they did ten or twenty years ago.

As for what has stayed the same... I don't think there's that huge a difference in the content of the books now and then. And while there have been some technological improvements, we still have the same basic distribution system for games as we did in 1990 -- there have been closures, consolidations, and new players, but fundamentally the same basic business model exists for game distribution. I don't think that's bad, mind you...on the whole, it works pretty well for us. I guess that's a bit surprising, given how so many industries have been "rolled up," "disintermediated," etc. in the past decade or two.

GG: You recently (and may still be) offered/ing Ars Magica for free on RPGNow, while selling a newer edition. How has this marketing "experiment" worked out? Does freeware truly entice people to buy the newer version or is this just a way to share something with the world that would otherwise gather dust?

JN: We're still doing it! I would have to call it a mixed bag, but a success in the end.

The bad news was that we saw sales of the 4th Edition rulebook plummet after the game was available for free. One could argue that this was because we had announced a 5th edition was in the works, but we never saw such a drop when we were selling 3rd edition and everyone knew 4th edition was in the works.

On the other hand, I believe that the 20,000+ downloads of 4th Edition helped contribute to the successful launch of 5th edition. Even if I have to write off the value of the leftover copies of the last printing of 4th edition, it was pretty cheap advertising. Obviously we were doing other things to promote the game as well -- but like I said, 5th edition is doing better than expected, and I'm sure the free download is part of that.

GG: What's on the horizon for Atlas Games? Say over the next year or so. Any big announcements or releases planned for the Convention Season?

JN: I mentioned Northern Crown earlier -- that will be our big Gen Con release. We also have four supplements planned for Ars Magica, one for Feng Shui, and two new Dungeoneer games. Around Christmastime we have something really neat planned...but I can't even hint any more than that right now!

GG: What's your personal favorite role-playing game of all time?

JN: Hmm. I'd have to say it's a toss-up between Ars Magica and D&D (the various sets ultimately put into the Rules Cyclopedia). D&D was my first love, and I honestly prefer the simplicity of the "basic set" iterations to the complexity of AD&D or the miniatures/tactical-combat emphasis (and other complexities) of 3rd edition/3.5. Ars Magica still enchants me for a whole bunch of reasons, including the fact that I've been enthralled by the Middle Ages since the age of 10.

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"We don't see any benefit to converting any of these games to d20. We don't want to split our fan base between two systems, and frankly I think one of the reasons you play these games is because they do things differently than D&D does."

Strange. I thought one of the bigger reasons for D&D-3.5e was to get more in-line with D20? This statement comes at a little bit of a surprise.

"These games" referred to the non-d20 systems (Ars Magica, etc.). d20 and D&D are being used pretty much interchangeably. So, to paraphrase "[O]ne of the reasons you play [Ars Magica, for example] is because [it does] things differently than [D&D and other d20 system games do]."

Aiii! I'm terrified that Feng Shui is going to dry up and blow away now that Will Hindmarch has jumped ship. It's such a good game -- but only one more supplement is planned. Meep!

Wasn't that "Wizard's Amulet" adventure the first D20 product ever published? Or was that just the first adventure? Or perhaps it wasn't either of those?

Wizard's Amulet was a free PDF download, not a printed book for sale.