Poof! Wizards' flagship Game Center gone

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When Wizards of the Coast opened its Game Center on "The Ave" near the University of Washington in May 1997, toy-industry experts called it "a thing of the future."

For Wizards the future lasted all of three years and nine months. The 3,800-square-foot entertainment center at 4518 University Way N.E. closed Saturday after Wizards' management concluded it was too expensive a way to test new games.

"It definitely attracted a loyal following," said Jack Sabin, director of corporate communications for Wizards, the Renton-based card-and-board-game developer.

"It was our flagship store and a good place to play games. It was something the fans came to know and love, but we didn't get enough traffic to justify the cost of running it," Sabin said.

"Basically, the Game Center was a test facility that cost a lot to operate. We felt it was time to make a good business decision and close the center."

The closure didn't go over well with customers who yesterday were turned away as movers hauled out video games.

"This place was a lot of fun," said Steve Wax of Bellevue, who had brought his son Seth to play games. "They had good tournaments. Good games. It was a place you could go and be safe. In shooting it down for what it wasn't, they didn't understand what it was. I know one very disappointed little boy."

Seth had one very loud and clear message:

"I think they ought to open it back up - now!" Sabin said Wizards' parent company, Hasbro, had little involvement in the decision to close the center.

The company currently has no plan to close any of Wizards' 100 other retail stores, including those at Bellevue Square, Northgate and other Puget Sound-area shopping centers.

The stores had a strong holiday season, Sabin said.

The Game Center's 47 employees were told of the closing Saturday morning and given two weeks' severance.

"There had been rumors all week," said Peter Wick, a cook in the Game Center's restaurant, Dalmuti's.

"I can't image it was losing money, but the profit margin maybe didn't meet expectations. Hasbro came and visited for a day. In general business-speak, they said we weren't competitive," he said.

Wizards was founded in 1990 by Peter Adkison, then a Boeing systems analyst, and several of his game-enthusiast friends. Their first game was Primal Order, produced in April 1992.

A year later they produced Magic: The Gathering. The first year, The Gathering had sales of $2 million. In 1994 sales rocketed to $57 million and the following year rose to $120 million. In 1998, the year before Wizards was purchased by Hasbro, the company had about $400 million in sales, 1,200 workers, and was the market leader in trading-card games such as Pokémon and Dungeons and Dragons.

Hasbro, famous for Mr. Potato Head and Monopoly, purchased Wizards for $325 million in September 1999, signing Adkison to a five-year contract that kept him on as chief executive officer and director of Hasbro's hobby-games division.

For Wizards and Hasbro, things took a turn for the worse last year. With the toy industry in a slump and game sales down, Hasbro's stock fell by nearly half its value.

In December, Wizards laid off 100 people in its corporate office and Adkison decided he had accomplished everything he set out to do and that it was time to leave the company.

He was replaced by his former boss at Boeing, Vince Caluori, Wizards' chief operating officer.

Hasbro's stock closed yesterday at $12.25, up 25 cents.

Just what will happen to Wizards' space on The Ave isn't clear. The owner, Limantzakis Properties, said it has not lined up a new tenant.

Robert T. Nelson's telephone message number is 206-464-2996. His e-mail address is rnelson@seattletimes.com.