Interview – Micah Wedemeyer (Obsidian Portal)

Micah Wedemeyer is the successful founder and creator of Obsidian Portal, a “content management site for Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games.”

Starting off with a more personal question, Obsidian Portal is a highly respected online platform people use to keep track of their campaigns. What keeps you going? What keeps you enthusiastic about working in the RPG industry?

At this point, I don’t really have a choice anymore. There are thousands of people using Obsidian Portal, and I owe it to them to keep it running. Still, it’s invigorating every day to read the emails I get from people who are just discovering us. At least once a day, I hear from someone whose game has been revolutionized by Obsidian Portal. That alone keeps me energized.

What was the impetus for starting Obsidian Portal?

The main impetus for starting Obsidian Portal was to get rich! Most people like to tell a story of “Oh, I just stumbled into this and now it’s a big success!” but I think that’s often a fairy tale, or even just complete revisionist history. I try to be completely honest about my initial motivations, and also about how naive I was at the time.

In 2006, MySpace was still the hotness, and it occurred to me that I could make the MySpace of tabletop RPGs and get mega-rich. Dumber ideas have resulted in overnight millionaires, right? Lolcats, anyone?

So, under a veil of secrecy, lest someone steal my awesome idea, I began building Obsidian Portal. I recruited my friend Ryan, who still runs it with me, and we worked for a couple months to get it ready, building it pretty much from scratch. In February of 2007, we were ready to open the floodgates. I posted a message on the WotC forums announcing it, and…nobody came. If you build it, they will come, right? Absolutely not true. This was my first indicator that maybe I wasn’t going to buying a new Maserati in the next month or two.

The first six months were very hard, emotionally. I begged and begged on forums all over the place, trying to get people to sign up. Mostly, I was called a spammer and told to leave. It was a strange situation where I was trying to convince people to use a tool that they didn’t know they needed. I knew that if they just gave it a try, they would be hooked, but getting them to take that first step was incredibly tough. My lucky break came when I got some prominent bloggers to check it out and give a review. That started the ball rolling, and it’s been a steady march ever since then.

Here we are about 3.5 years later, and I’m still not rich, not by a long shot. However, somewhere along the line, I realized that my get-rich-quick scheme had become a hobby, and I found that I really enjoyed what I was doing. The old saying is “Do what you love, and money will follow.” Well, that’s garbage. Do what you love, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find that doing what you love is enough, and you don’t really need the money to love it. I say that as a web developer, but I’m guessing it will ring true with a lot of people working in the RPG industry.

In both 2009 and 2010, Obsidian Portal was nominated for Best Website, winning Gold both years. What did you think of the ENnies when you found out that you were nominated?

Of course, I had heard of the ENnies, and we were ecstatic. As soon as we found out, we set out to figure out a way to win. Thanks to our awesome users, we pulled it off!

Did your nominations and wins affect traffic to your site?

It didn’t make a huge difference, but we did get a bump both years. More importantly, the people coming to the site from the ENnies page signed up at a much higher rate than referrals from anywhere else. That’s been our biggest problem all along: We’re a tool that GM’s need, but don’t know they need. The ENnie nomination helped more GMs find us and kick their game up a notch.

Are there any new features of Obsidian Portal that are in the works you’d like to talk about?

You’ve caught us in recuperation mode right now. We’ve added a lot of really cool features in the past couple months, like dynamic character sheets, a better search interface, and some integration with Twitter and Facebook. However, we’ve been moving forward so fast that we’ve left a lot of loose ends in our wake. Most importantly, there are a lot of places on the site that are harder to use than they should be. So, our goal right now is to identify usability problems, or areas that lack polish, and try to improve the overall experience. It’s not the kind of thing that gets people excited, but the level of polish and professionalism is what sticks in people’s minds when they think of Obsidian Portal.

Do you GM yourself and, if you do, do you use Obsidian Portal for your own campaigns?

Yes, I’ve been GM’ing various systems for about 15 years. I am lucky enough to have a great steady group now, and I guard them jealously. When one of my players said that he was considering moving to another city to go to law school, I told him that he needed to get his priorities straight. After all, you can always go back to school, but when are you going to find the perfect gaming group?

I definitely use Obsidian Portal for my campaigns, and that’s why it is so great (and terrible) at what it does. Most of the ideas and features come directly from my own experiences as a GM. In other words, I’m building the tool that I need, and assuming that other GMs need the same things I do. So far, it’s been a safe bet.

On the flip side, there are some things that I’ve never done, like Play-By-Post, or game via Skype. People are sometimes disappointed that Obsidian Portal isn’t the best platform for these types of games. I’m unapologetic about it. If I tried to make Obsidian Portal all things to all people, it would end up being a big mess of mediocrity. I stick to the things that I understand, and take a hard stance of refusing features that don’t fit. That helps us maintain focus and quality.

Now that we’ve been around for almost a decade, what do the ENnies mean to you both personally and professionally?

There really is no separation between personal and professional to me. Obsidian Portal is a huge part of my life, and therefore an ENnie nomination is a huge deal for me. The ENnies are the pinnacle of RPG awards, and it was a huge accomplishment to win the Gold.

If someone who had never heard of the ENnie Awards walked up to you today and asked, “So what are these ‘ENnies’ you keep talking about,” how would you answer them?

Ha! Well, this happens a lot, as I’m constantly bragging to people about how we won an ENnie. I pretty much tell them that we won the premier award for RPGs, and we won it twice.

Thank you to Micah Wedemeyer for answering my questions. You can visit his site, Obsidian Portal, at http://www.obsidianportal.com.

3 Responses to “Interview – Micah Wedemeyer (Obsidian Portal)”

  1. Micah says:

    Thanks so much for the chance to tell my story! I really had a great time.

  2. Tony Law says:

    And thank you, Micah, for supporting the ENnies. :)

  3. David says:

    Good interview! I can definitely appreciate how hard it would have been to get Obsidian Portal up and running, and growing your fanbase.
    I’m glad that you decided to stick with it even though it was difficult!

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