John Zinzer is the CEO of Alderac Entertainment Group. His game design career started over 30 years ago, with Shadis Magazine and the CCG Legend of the Five Rings. In this episode, he tells one of the most entertaining and educational origin stories on the podcast. He’s a great storyteller and an even better teacher. 

Check out this episode and the previous ones here:

“…he saw that a year later I was still beating the pavement, trying to get that pizza place open.” (2:00)

John Zinser’s career started with pizza. In this section, you’ll hear about the lessons he learned while trying to get his first business off the ground, lessons that he’s carried over into a long career in game design.

“I kept a bullet point list of the promises that he was making, and every four or five days we’d go down that list of promises, and his pitch got better every time we went into a new meeting.” (15:00)

As John continues with his origin story, we start to learn about his time as a traveling salesman, selling golf course guides with his mentor. He digs into how both his pitch and his product grew together—a skill every game designer with dreams of getting their product into a publisher’s hands will want to learn.

“We ran out of business cards, and we went into a small print shop […] and sitting on the counter was this teeny-tiny little copy of Shadis Magazine.” (18:00) 

It’s during this time that he meets Jolly Blackburn, creator of Knights of the Dinner Table, in a print shop while getting business cards made. He helps Jolly get the magazine off the ground by identifying and solving the magazine’s critical problems regarding publishing. Here we get to see how John breaks down these problems and solves them in a step-by-step manner.

“We ended up with make a cowboy game, make a pirate game, and make a samurai game.” (31:00)

John digs into how his team first developed the CCG Legend of the Five Rings and the challenges of making a CCG with very little money. What John and his friends were able to accomplish was incredible. The lessons about how fans of LOTFR clung to the story aspects of his games are something I continue to teach at my company Stone Blade. 

“The thing I had to do, to keep the dream alive, is go play games.” (46:00)

John talks about the grind associated with game design. John loves what he does, and so the grind, despite sometimes being tedious, is much more tolerable. While continuing to work on LOTFR, he travels from city to city, playing the game and getting in people’s hands.

“The work that we had to do to outside of creating the game, was much harder than the work that we had to do to develop the game itself.” (50:00)

When you have a game with a dedicated community, the community tends to take ownership of the property. Changes in the game (story, art, and rules) can cause waves of discontent or excitement to ripple through the community. Here John talks about how he worked to manage that while developing Legend of the Five Rings.

“I had a tumor, and I learned that what we had built was strong.” (1:10:00)

In 2020, John found out he had a brain tumor. He describes this experience as the moment he learned to let go and not micromanage his company. John describes the difference in his perspective on company decisions before and after his surgery. He discusses how the company makes decisions about the games they’re going to develop and what stands out on a sell-sheet and how you can tie these lessons together for a successful Kickstarter.