I woke up this morning to the tragic news that my friend and business partner James Mathe died in his sleep. I want to pay tribute to him here so that more people might get a glimpse of the man and know his many contributions to our tabletop gaming hobby.
Perhaps James' most far-reaching contribution to the hobby was his founding of RPGNow, the first webstore to focus on selling roleplaying games in PDF format. James launched RPGNow in 2001, the same year Apple launched iTunes. Well before the iPhone, iPad, or the Kindle, James recognized the opportunity for RPG publishers to reach more fans through digital versions of their titles.
By 2004, when I and a few others started DriveThruRPG, we were the Johnny-come-lately to the pioneering work James had already done with RPGNow. Nevertheless, it was through the resulting friendly business rivalry between DriveThruRPG and RPGNow that I got to know and soon came to respect James. Our professional acquaintance turned to camaraderie when we decided to merge RPGNow and DriveThruRPG in 2006 to form OneBookShelf. My esteem for him, both as a person and as a professional, only continued to grow during the 13 years we remained business partners.
What James started in 2001 has grown each year since, so that now roughly a million gamers visit OneBookShelf sites each month to discover games. Some of the webpages James coded in the early days still remain in use on the sites. He designed RPGNow to be open and transparent to game publishers and to entrust and empower those publishers with great freedom to manage and modify the marketplace directly as they saw fit. I think these design decisions were intuitive outgrowths of James' own nature.
The man's many contributions to gaming hardly stopped with the webstore, though. James never met a business opportunity he wouldn't entertain. He collected gaming-related web domain names like some gamers collect dice, and he would regularly spin up new websites overnight dedicated to some facet of gaming or another.
He also founded and operated the Game Universe retail stores in Wisconsin, expanding to three stores before later selling the stores so he could focus on his many other business pursuits.
And as if I haven't used the word "founded" enough yet, James also founded game publisher Minion Games, primarily as an outlet for his own abiding passion for board gaming. He produced hit games like Manhattan Project and, along the way, became one of the early experts on using crowdsourcing to fund game development.
He then generously turned that expertise into a website devoted to offering free advice to other board game designers and publishers, thus helping many other people who were seeking best practices for creating their own games and funding them via crowdsourcing. James also started several groups on Facebook that have since grown to be among the best places for new publishers and experts to swap game publishing advice.
To speak fairly and earnestly, James did not, in person, always convey the kindest first impression. There was a frankness to his manner that, upon first exposure, led some people to not seek out his company a second time. Those people missed out. James had a heart of gold. Whatever roughness might have shown on the surface was just an expression of James' drive to never be satisfied with the status quo and to improve things, not just for himself but for everyone.
James was a very smart entrepreneur in a hobby business full of smart people. He embodied the best of the US Midwestern virtues of work ethic, honesty, and fairness. He's gone too soon. I am saddened that we will never see what else he might have founded in the years to come.
Rest in peace, James.
Forever your friend,