Say I love you. Call an old friend. See your doctor. Go explore. Become an organ donor.
by Lisa Bradshaw
Rocky and Rocky Balboa are two of my favorite movies. As much
as I loved the first movie as a kid and remember getting a satin
sweat suit for Christmas to wear when jogging around our
neighborhood, imagining other kids and their dogs following me,
it wasn’t until I became an adult that I fully appreciated all that
Rocky and the movie represented beyond the beautifully written
script and superbly directed film. Rocky as a character, we all
know, is a formidable opponent and nearly always the underdog.
I marvel at what he accomplished in that first movie—refusing to
sell the script and insisting that he act in the film. Can you
imagine what would have become of his story if he had not fought
to be a part of that first Rocky film? It’s true, we could have done
without Rocky V (and maybe Rocky IV ) but we almost needed to
experience both to fully appreciate the very last film in the series
The beauty of the Rocky story is how relatable it is. Whether you are an athlete in training or a video game guy with a dream, it’s about the fight and one’s willingness to get back up when being knocked down. It’s about taking punches in life and becoming stronger because of it.
We’ve all taken our punches and Todd Coleman, Vice President and Creative Director of KingsIsle Entertainment, is no different. He may not have been in a boxing ring for one of the most defining fights of his life, but he went a few rounds in the trenches to get where he is today.
LB: In May 2010 you were named the 15th most influential person in online gaming by Beckett Massive Gamer Magazine, a Beckett Media publication and in March 2011 you were named the #1 Most Influential person In the Massively Multiplayer Online game industry by the same publication. Many people will be surprised to know how you got here.
TC: It has been a tangled path… I guess it started back in college when my college roommate, Josef Hall, and I used to get in trouble with our professors at TCU (Texas Christian University) for constantly playing games and running games on the computer science lab computers. They wanted us to stop with the games and concentrate on stuff that could actually get us employed one day.
LB: Starting from the beginning, you were programming games and creating a place for yourself in the gaming business, and that was self taught, wasn’t it?
TC: Absolutely. We put in thousands of hours working on writing games in college when we probably should have been concentrating on our school work, but we did it because we loved it. There was no money to be made. This was back when the Internet was still primarily text based. There was an emerging gaming community around something called MUD (Multi User Dimensions)—basically multiplayer Internet games that ran off educational servers at colleges. There were no graphics at all—just text descriptions. It would say: You’re standing in a room, and there is a dragon near you. You would have to key in your actions, typing things like Attack dragon or Run away!
LB: As you and Josef dabbled in gaming, did you always imagine you would do this or did you think you would do what your professors told you to do and get a good paying job?
TC: We never seriously thought it could turn into a career. In fact, Josef and I went in different directions after college and got “real jobs,” but we always had it in the back of our minds, so when the opportunity presented itself—after I sold a technology company and made some money out of it—we decided to take the gamble and start a game company.
LB: How far off was your first gaming company, Wolfpack Studios, from what you envisioned it to be to what it ended up becoming—from a creative perspective not a financial one?
TC: It was a different world then. It was in 1999, and we took the name Wolfpack from this idea that we were going to be a smaller, leaner group of creative an engineers. We were going to be a pack of wolves that could self manage each other----as flat an organization as we could imagine. We wanted to turn the gaming world on it’s head, do something really unique and crazy, and we were full of the energy and passion that we needed to make that kind of leap. That was the positive side. The negative was that we has no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
LB: You were full speed ahead.
TC: Yes, and, remember, we jumped into it with only the experience of text games—where it would take us 20 minutes to create the scene with the words: You are in an enormous dark cave, and there is a dragon next to you. Making the transition into 3D was challenging because the same scene would require months and months of effort, requiring a team of concept artists, 3D modelers and animators, sound engineers, special effects artists, and level designers. Just to get the dragon in the room, it became this massive production, and we were totally unprepared for it. We didn’t have nearly enough experience or money.
LB: When you make the transition from the text line on the screen to the actual scene coming to fruition, I’m sure there is celebration, but then it’s time to produce the next line.
TC: Well, yes, then there’s that! (Laughs) These games require thousands of caves and castles, and cities, and swamps, and forests. It goes on and on.
LB: How did you get from one point to the next, and how much personal and professional loss and suffering was there along the way?
TC: It took about four years from having the idea to launching the game, following the traditional startup model of young, inexperienced entrepreneurs: time, talent, hopes, dreams and every penny we had. We borrowed from friends and family. We raised money where ever we could. We went without paychecks for months at a time. We slept under our desks when on deadlines. It was rough.
LB: What was most unique about your idea at the time?
TC: Creating a virtual world—the concept was fairly untapped, and we wanted to take it to a whole new level. Instead of a static world—like an amusement park—we want to make it a dynamic political simulator. In the game, players could build castles and raise armies and declare themselves a king. They could amass armies made up of other players, then march on the neighboring player kingdom, tearing down the castle walls in real time, so not only would the physical landscape change, but the political landscape—the player defined kingdoms and the rules that govern them—would be constantly changing as a result of player decisions with hundreds of thousands of players competing and cooperating with each other, in real time, to control this virtual environment. It was a very big concept, and it was a really cool idea, but unfortunately it always seemed to be one or two steps ahead of what we were able to execute.
LB: But you created the game. You found a way. Did it guarantee success at that point?
TC: Guarantee? Not at all. Quite the opposite. Our first publisher was a small outfit and couldn’t really afford to be in the space and had invested into too many projects, so they went under.
LB: How do you recover from losing your publisher?
TC: We had to find a new publisher, then another, and another.
LB: If finding a new publisher in the gaming business is anything like finding a new publisher in the book business, you had your work cut out for you before you even got to market.
TC: We scrambled. We sold the rights to North America, France, Germany, the UK, China, Japan, and Singapore. At one point I counted, and we had seven or eight different studios involved at once. It was a nightmare.
LB: Let’s talk about the tone of your first game, Shadowbane. I’ve known you for almost two decades now, so I remember being an outsider to the production of this game and what I remember most was my son being a young toddler at the time and you being very clear that this game was not family friendly.
TC: It was not family friendly at all. It was a hardcore game for hardcore gamers.
LB: Was that part of the problem with the game?
TC: It was a strength and a weakness. We took a very hard line attitude about it. We would say, “You know what? If you think this game not for you, then it’s probably not, so don’t play it. We don’t want your business.” We got some flak for
that----telling people we didn’t want them as customers—but it was the right answer. And it had a surprisingly odd reverse-marketing effect. By telling people this wasn’t the game for them, a lot of people decided they absolutely had to play it.
LB: Did that cause additional pressure?
TC: Of course it did. It was exhausting. Not just the pressure from the external community but also from our publishing partners and from ourselves. We fell in love with this enormous, complicated, bigger-than-life vision of what the game could be—much larger than what we had the resources or the experience to create.
LB: In business terms, was it a failure?
TC: Well, we shipped the product, and it was a mixed bag. The coolest part of the vision work----the dynamic, political
system----and it was extremely cool, but it was also as brutal as you can imagine. New players that came into the game were basically thrown to the wolves, if you’ll pardon the cliché, and that presented a real problem because online communities need a constant flow of new members to grow and thrive. Technically, we tried to do too much with too small a team, and the result was a buggy game, so while it sold well, the revenue stream wasn’t enough to sustain the ongoing development. Eventually, we were left with a choice that no entrepreneur wants to face: either liquidate and take whatever we could get for the technology and the assets, or try to get acquired to maintain as many jobs as possible for our team. We chose the latter because our team had pushed and pushed for us by giving up time with their families, gone without paychecks, doing everything we asked of them. They’d given all they could to help get this game out, so when push came to shove, our biggest priority was to find them a soft place to land.
LB: And what about the two of you? What about the dreams you and Josef had to let go when transitioning from your dream business to just trying to make sure people had jobs when the doors closed?
TC: It was crushing—all that work and all that energy—but it just didn’t work. It went to market and sold very well for, like, the first month! (Laughs)
LB: You can laugh about it now. (Laugh)
TC: Yeah, because, remember, the idea was really great, and we saw it through, so that is something I will always be proud of.
LB: At the end of Wolfpack, you and Josef did what? Did you decide to take a break from gaming or did you say never again?
TC: Somewhere between the two. Josef went to work with a software development firm here in Austin, doing intrusion detection systems. I didn’t do much, honestly. I read some books, watched some movies. (Laughter) I started writing again.
LB: You thought hard work and determination should have been enough to keep the dream alive.
TC: Of course I did! It’s part of our culture. We are all filled with this belief from a very young age that if you want something bad enough and you try hard enough, you will absolutely get it, right?
LB: Right. Did you feel like you were done trying?
TC: At the time, I didn’t know. I felt like I was in a Rocky movie and had been knocked down but hadn’t yet learned the lesson that I could get back up again.
LB: What was it that got you back up again?
TC: Time went by, and eventually Josef and I were talking again, and it started the same way as Wolfpack. We were joking and laughing, and then one of us had a thought, and asked a question that started with, “You know what would be cool?” That seems to be our pattern.
LB: So you still interacted that way after the close of Wolfpack?
TC: Yeah. When you are in the trenches with someone—when you go through a gut wrenching, painful experience like that—you learn who they really are. And Josef and I had learned that we could rely on each other. Eventually, though, we had to end up back where we started, with enough time and distance to remember what we both love about making games—that initial idea and having a vision that makes you just want to build it, so you can play it. One day, it happened again. We were talking on the phone and said, “Hey, how come no one is doing games for families?” It was one of those moments, where a single idea can shoot you off into a new direction that shapes the next decade of your life. We turned completely away from hardcore gaming and found a new idea—a concept that wasn’t being done—and once the idea hit us, we couldn’t shake it loose.
LB: You still wanted to be in gaming on the Internet just in a new genre?
TC: Yeah, but it wasn’t even really a genre yet. The concept was really cool—the idea of these massive worlds where you have 20 to 40,000 people in the same game session. We thought families might be into this.
LB: Where did the inspiration come from?
TC: Everywhere. Books. Movies. Television. We’d seen companies like Pixar do something amazing: they figured out
how to make a kids film that was just as entertaining for parents. They created great stories with deep characters and
wrapped it in a way that would appeal to everyone.
LB: And your thought was that you could do it in the gaming world, too?
TC: That was sort of the genesis. Could we do that with an online game? The more we talked about it, the more we needed to answer the question. That’s where it started. The idea took root and got us back in the game.
LB: But at that point, you had probably used up all of your family and friends’ money.
TC: Yes, we had. (Laughs)
LB: And people probably were not too excited about giving you more money, I’m guessing.
TC: (More laughs) No. No. They absolutely were not.
LB: So how do you go from an idea over a telephone conversation to going back into business?
TC: Josef and I started telling everybody about our idea. When I get excited about something, I almost can’t stop talking about it. I’m sure you have realized that by now. (Laughs)
TC: Mostly, people thought we were crazy. Especially since we were known for two things: aspiring to create the ultimate hardcore game and the inability to really achieve that vision. Then, one day, I was leaving Dallas after a meeting and got a call from a venture capitalist friend who said, “Hey, are you going to be in Dallas any time soon? Because I know of an entrepreneur who just sold his company and wants to get into gaming. I told him about you, and he wants to meet.”
LB: A game changing meeting.
TC: Yeah, it was. I turned the car around and met the guy for lunch. His name was Elie Akilian, and he had sold his company for $325 million, and he wanted to get into gaming. We hit it off immediately—probably because Josef and I were
pitching something that everyone else thought was crazy. That first meeting was in November of 2004. By January of 2005 we had incorporated the company, KingsIsle Entertainment, and by February both Josef and I were working full time.
LB: So now you have new ideas, experience, and financial backing—a fresh start.
TC: Yes, but that’s not all we had. We also had Elie, and he wasn’t just putting up the money. He was also working with us, on a daily basis, to build a great company. He was teaching us how to avoid some of the mistakes that we had made at Wolfpack, so just calling it a fresh start doesn’t do it justice. It was a do over.
LB: Fast forward and give us a peek. How many active users do you have to date?
TC: Over 35 million registered players for our first game Wizard101.
LB: That’s a mighty big dream.
TC: It’s big. Very big. Wizard101 is the seventieth (70) largest website in the U.S., in terms of raw internet traffic. That’s ranked higher than NBC, Nickelodeon, Instagram, or Forbes.
LB: It took me a while to understand where the money is in a game played on the Internet. As a consumer, I am used to walking into a store and buying a game. The idea that Wizard 101 is a roaring success without a single game on a store shelf—how does that work? Where is the revenue?
TC: It’s a new business model, but the concept is familiar: invite people in, let them try it for free, and if they like it, they’ll pay for it. There is no time limit, but the content is limited. Wizard101 is broken up into chapters, just like a book. The first chapter is free, but, if you want to keep playing, you have to buy additional chapters, which cost anywhere from a $1.50 to $3.00 each.
LB: How is this revenue concept unique to Wizard101?
TC: It’s not unique any more, although we were one of the first companies to embrace it. Our game is certainly unique. It’s a wizard school game, as the name implies, but with talking animals like Narnia or Shrek. The basic mechanics are simple—it’s a card game. Think of it as a cross between Harry Potter and Pokémon, remembering that it’s not just a game that you play online but is a fully immersive 3D world, and you are playing in the same game, at the same time, as thousands and thousands of other players. You can talk to them, adventure with them, fight them, invite them to your house for a party. It’s a thriving Internet environment, and the players are a large part of the draw—like Facebook or Pinterest.
LB: Is it advertising based?
TC: Nope, no ads. We just charge for content. As you are playing the game and meeting all these other players and going on adventures, you might say, “I would really like to have a wizard tower where I could go and hang my trophies.” That’s where we make our money. We sell wizard towers and magic wands, and hats, and pet dragons. We build the game to draw people into the universe, in the hopes that they will want to come back, and maybe buy some stuff while they are there. And many of them do.
LB: It seems like the family approach would lead to longevity and duplication.
TC: We certainly hope so, and it seems to be true! We have helped create the sort of digital-age version of family game night. The example I give of Pixar isn’t just an example, it’s a vision of what we endeavor to be. We want to create an online
experience for the whole family, something that parents can enjoy while connecting with their children. Movies are fun, but they are passive. This is something parents can do with their child and enjoy together.
LB: And it’s cheaper than going to the movies.
TC: Definitely. And it bridges families that are disconnected geographically. Grandparents in another city can play online with their grandchildren. Divorced parents can connect with their kids, even if they aren’t sleeping in the same household. It’s a very satisfying part of what we do, knowing that we help bring families closer together.
LB: So many times we strive to achieve something in our lives, whether it’s personally or professionally, but then we get there and don’t really recognize that we are there. Or we don’t enjoy the destination or even acknowledge the accomplishment. At what point did you discover that this is what you had dreamed for yourselves and for your business? Did you reach that point of discovery?
TC: It is so much bigger than what we ever expected it would become. Josef and I used to talk about our measure for success, and I think our best prediction was that we would reach about 120,000 players. I don’t know… It’s a bit surreal. Sometimes it’s hard to process.
LB: Does all of this progress and success leads you to the next game?
TC: Yes, Pirate101, our follow-up to Wizard, which we just launched in October. We’d been kicking around the idea of a game that would be set in the same universe as Wizard, so it would be building off the same base but one that would be a totally different game. When I try to explain it to someone, I say if Wizard101 is a traditional hero’s journey—think of it as the Luke Skywalker story—then Pirate101 is the flip side of that. It’s the story of Han Solo. You’re in the same universe and dealing with some of the same characters, but it’s a totally different experience—different areas, different skills, different challenges. It’s a new game but one that is familiar enough that Wizard101 players will feel right at home.
LB: You already have the audience.
TC: Exactly. We have the benefit of the existing Wizard101 community. Our hope was to appeal to these players but to also grow a separate fan base for the new game.
LB: Let’s talk about the charitable aspect of what you do to give back and the idea you had to tie it into the revenue of Wizard.
TC: Sure. This is something I’m very proud of because I think it is important to instill charitable work as part of your culture, no matter what size the company. I explained how we sell castles and wizard hats and anything else you can imagine in this game world. The prices for these items range from .50 cents to $20.00, so a few years ago, we thought, “What if we create one item and sell it for a local charity?” Out of the blue, we called Austin Children’s Shelter, a local organization that helps abused and neglected children, and we pitched them the idea. We wanted to sell a virtual item and send them the proceeds. They didn’t know about the game or what we were talking about but they are always open to donations, so they were amenable.
LB: What item did you create?
TC: It was a snow tiger—a creature called a “Meowmidon” that you could ride around on in the game. It ran through Christmas, and we hoped it would raise $15,000 to $20,000. We tallied it up at the end, and it raised just over $125,000!
LB: WOW! Really? WOW!
TC: (Laughs) I was floored by the generosity of our users and the impact it would have. We liked the idea of kids helping other kids and rewarding that generosity with something cool in the game.
LB: Have you kept it going?
TC: We have. We expanded it and now do it every year, splitting the funds between Austin’s Children’s Shelter and Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, where our corporate offices are located.
LB: Does the item change each year?
TC: Yes. It’s a limited run item that happens every year and the item is always different. Last year it was a Chrismoose—a moose with antlers that had lights on them and a Rudolph-inspired red nose.
LB: What about this year?
TC: This year is going to be a Fa-La-La-La Llama, basically a Llama with ice skates and a Santa hat. We are also doubling our donation this year since we can sell the item in both Wizard101 and Pirate101.
LB: Can you believe you get paid to think up things like Fa La La La Lamas?
TC: Crazy, I know.
LB: You know the purpose of this interview is to bring it to The DON’T WAIT Project® website, and the whole idea behind the Project is to get people to do the things they would otherwise put off. It can be the big things or the small things, light or heavy, serious or funny. Whatever it is, everyone has their own DON’T WAIT®. In your experience, how much of this speaks to that idea of getting knocked down and getting back up again?
TC: I think it is absolutely true in my life, and I suspect it’s true in everyone else’s, that persistence is the key—the single most important trait that makes the difference between success and failure.
LB: And when you were knocked down, what did you do?
TC: I gave up! (Laughs) But not for long! There was a time after Wolfpack when I felt like I had failed and it was all my fault. I wanted to crawl into a hole and just stay there, but, even then, there was a little voice that wasn’t willing to let that be the end of my story. I had a choice: stay in the hole or get back up on my feet and go prove to the world—and to myself—that I could learn from my mistakes and do better. Be better. So I stood back up, shook myself off, and tried again.
LB: I think some of the greatest success, personally or professionally, I have had in my own life or witnessed in the lives of others has come after a hiatus—after having that little bit of silence with myself to figure out the next step from a place of reflection and even gratitude. That’s when the lessons come.
TC: There was a long span of time when Josef and I would look back at what we did and talk about the mistakes we made, analyze every misstep, talk about what we could have done better. It’s a necessary part of the process because that is, after all, how we learn. We asked ourselves the hard questions and made a conscious choice not to make the same mistakes again. From the very, very beginning, we put ourselves on a better path—a path that allowed us to be successful.
LB: You can’t second guess it.
TC: It’s easy to look back and second guess those choices, but they also made me who I am. Yes, I made mistakes, but our mistakes don’t define us. It’s what we do next that makes us who we are.
LB: And this time you are living the dream?
TC: (Laughs) I don’t know about that, but I love what I do, and I know that I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been willing to try again.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Within weeks of this interview, Todd Coleman resigned from Kingsisle Entertainment. We worked on this interview together over several weeks time and never did he indicate to me his plans to leave the company he had helped create. This is the Todd Coleman I have known for nearly two decades. It wasn't about holding out on a journalist friend. It was about telling the story of a time that was coming to an end while continuing to support and hold in high regard the continued growth and ongoing story of Kingsisle, Wizard101 and Pirate101.
Whatever is next for Coleman, we commend him for turning an already incredible story into one of the most impressive DON'T WAIT® stories we've had the pleasure of sharing.