Monday, May 26, 2014

The Black Knight and His Quest

I have owned a game store for ten years, but I've been writing D&D adventures for over thirty. I write them for fun, of course, as I'm hardly a game designer. I'm not exceptionally good at it, I just write them because I want a sense of complete ownership of my game. That sense of ownership should be familiar to many of you. It's the reason why my customers tell me they don't buy adventures, regardless of their quality.

Could my gaming material be published? Maybe. I've been published before in other genres, and believe me, it holds little allure for me. It's damn hard work and it's not enjoyable. I'm the last person to publish a vanity product. Yes, I write an endless number of blog posts, but I enjoy that and it's on my terms. That said, it would be pretty amazing to have my own amateur D&D adventure published, just for fun. It combines my trade with my love of creating such things.

Even better, because I don't need my ego in this process (despite this post), and I want it to be amazing, I've handed my adventure over to Amber Scott. Amber is my favorite Pathfinder designer, known for deep insights in her RPG writing, something I attempt to include in my home game. It keeps me engaged. After decades, orcs and goblins hold little interest unless they're part of some intricate conspiracy.

The adventure is featured in our Kickstarter campaign. You can get it when it's published starting at the $25 "My Store" pledge level.

The Black Pit (Pathfinder compatible adventure, 32 pages, title is a placeholder)
Designed for four to six PCs of level 6. By the end of the module, the PCs should be midway between levels 7 and 8.
By Amber Scott

When I wrote The Pit adventure, I wrote it for my own group, in the context of my campaign. I spent many hours cleaning it up before I submitted it to Kobold Quarterly the month before they stopped publishing. I sent it over with the full knowledge that it needed work. Stripping out my context left it flat, sanitized. Someone would need to fix that. Someone not me. It was worth fixing though. It had some good ideas gleaned from lots of research on salt mines.

So Amber will make the adventure good, meaning useful, well rounded, insightful and more compliant with the rules of the game. I've already received an outline from her and man, it's like seeing your kid do something great. It's not you, but you had something to do with raising them.

Coming up with an idea and giving it to someone like Amber is all I need from the RPG publishing world. It feels like a capstone to my ten years selling such things.  It will be awesome, which is both a conceit that I know I've got a good concept, and knowledge of Amber's expertise. Giving it away as an exclusive Kickstarter reward makes it all the more special to me. I'm tempted to have it printed, but nope! Kickstarter reward exclusive.

What's it About?

(Highly subject to change -- Amber insists I stress this)

It starts in a small town, ravaged by an ancient enemy. A salt dragon from the local mine has awakened and has begun raiding cattle, abducting townsfolk, and worse, salting the fields with its briny breath. That's just mean. The mine is a potentially valuable location for the town, with salt worth nearly as much as gold, if it could be mined once again. It has been a long time since anyone has mined the "black diamonds" within, a rare, blackish purple, crystalline salt worth a fortune to the local trade consortium.

Also, a wealthy noble in town reports that his ancestors haunt him in his sleep. They were patients at the old sanitarium at the mine. If the spirits of his ancestors could be put to rest, there is a big reward in it for the adventurers. I'm sure the rumors of strange goings on and dabbling with alien magic are all hogwash. It's said they tried some pretty freaky things to save the lives of those poor souls, sick from a malady that no divine magic could cure.

King Maedoch, The Black Knight, is sending the adventurers on their mission. This dour leader barely keeps the failing town together, forgoing his shining armor and wearing black, he says, until the enemies of the town are completely vanquished. He speaks in barely a whisper and has no patience for adventurer shenanigans (think Edward James Olmos as Lieutenant Castillo from Miami Vice).

There are many challenges to overcome on this quest. Travel will take the party over The Wall, the farthest vestiges of civilization. It was once a punishment to man The Wall, one step away from a short life in the salt mine. The men of The Wall wore shackles around their ankles, not because they were prisoners. No, they wore shackles because the songs of the harpies would make them step off The Wall to their deaths, or worse, they would be plucked from the walls and taken away by the foul beasts.

The party will travel beyond The Wall, past the ancient lighthouse and deep into The Forest of Pillars, where they'll have to avoid The Silent Stalkers, a village, supposedly of primitive canibals, along with the previously mentioned harpies that infest the tall monolith cliffs. If they're lucky, they'll make it to The Pit without the salt dragon noticing as well.

It seems nearly impossible, but the rewards are tremendous. Liberating the salt mine will not only enrich the adventurers and help put the dead to rest, it will revive the failing town with revenue for years to come. There is also talk of the treasures once collected by the commandant of the mine, that are likely still there. You are the towns last hope. The Black Knight is counting on you.

Again, highly subject to change. Also, if you like the topic, check out:

Salt: A World History
The Wieliczka Salt Mine

And of course, you can help us publish The Pit by backing the Kickstarter.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Retailer Opportunities (Kickstarter)

Our Kickstarter has several backer tiers available to retailers:

  • Game Store Rescue ($100), where I'll write a blog post on a game trade topic of your choice, along with receiving all our digital rewards. 
  • Game Store Rescue: Remote Consultant ($500): where I'll work with you remotely for a day, along with recognition on the Wall of Knighthood and the digital rewards.
  • Game Store Rescue: On Site Consultant ($1000): where you bring me out to your store and I'll work on a problem.

In the real world, this would be no big deal. Have an expert come out for the day at $125 an hour to work on your problem. No brainer. I've done it in IT many times, for many days, sometimes months on end.  That's the going rate to get my car fixed at the Volkswagen dealership and nobody raises an eyebrow.

I'm an expert. I said it. I've got my 10,000 hours and success behind it. I'm not the only expert. I'm not the most experienced expert. As I've mentioned before, there are probably a few hundred people in the game trade with my experience, although most don't share. There are a handful I know that would be far better consultants, if they were available, or had the desire. Really though, if you read my blog, you know right now if it's worth it to you. It's just a question of logistics and money.

This is truly not my ploy to leverage my store experience to become a consultant, just as the presentation I gave this week at ACD Games Day is not an indication I want to do public speaking engagements for a living. I have a business partner who thinks I should do both. I shudder at the thought. This is my way of saying it wasn't my idea, but I'll certainly make the best of it.

One thing I can tell you about all these tiers. You will get great value from them. Why? Because you should never, ever, pay a consultant to learn on the job. As I haven't done formal retail consulting before, I would be learning while helping. As someone hyper sensitive to consulting value, I can promise this: I am under-promising. I will over deliver. It's the very least I can do.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Company Sponsorship (Kickstarter)

Our Kickstarter went live over the weekend!

I'm regularly disappointed not to find retailer support levels on game Kickstarter projects. Yes, I know I talk about how it makes no sense for retailers to support Kickstarter projects, but it's no secret that hasn't stopped me. In fact, I just did a podcast on this recently that you can listen to.

That disappointment has translated into more inclusiveness in our own project. Besides having tiers for customers, we have tiers for other retailers, as well as publishers and distributors. If you wanted to sponsor us as a local business not game related, who am I to argue? We live in a world of pet store stadiums, so why would I turn down the auto body shop down the street? This post is about why it makes sense for your business to support us. Not just because you like us, but because it's a good value.

Is it a good deal? I don't expect companies to take my word for it. That's not how you justify your advertising budget. You want numbers. I can do that. Granted, numbers in this case will be a case of bistro math, but having published a magazine in the past, believe me, they're not any worse than what they're telling you.

Here's how it works. My annual sales, divided by average transaction, gives me my "circulation" of 44,500. Originally we were going to put our Wall of Knighthood in the game center, but only 20% of our customers use that service. That would reduce our circulation number to 8,900, which is not a good deal for you. So instead, our Wall of Knighthood will be in our retail space for everyone to see.

What about repeat customers you say? That's alright. Magazine circulation numbers are monthly, which means there's a big overlap in eyeballs. The issue of whether people actually look at such things, again, some do and some don't, is also level. Considering we'll likely have fewer advertisers, I could make the claim a business name or poster on our wall gets more attention.

Lets compare our number to modern advertising costs. This site shows "cost per impression" of various media sources, including my favorite because of it's cost effectiveness, Facebook. I've made a table so you can compare:

Medium Cost per Thousand
Broadcast TV  $456.13
Magazines  $310.61
Newspaper  $244.75
Radio  $202.03
Billboard  $100.13
Google Adwords  $64.08
King  $22.47
Facebook  $8.46
Lord  $6.74
Knight  $3.37
Squire  $1.12

So there you have it, three of our four Order of Knighthood tiers are more cost effective than Facebook. The King level, I would argue, is worth more because of the giant poster. Again, bistro math. If you like us, show 44,500 gamers your company cares. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Kickstarter Press Release

An interesting writing exercise, which, of course, anyone is welcome to take and use in the local rag:


It's Your Store! Says Game Store Owner Looking for Crowd Funding 

Concord, California - May 18, 2014 - While small businesses struggle to obtain bank loans for much needed expansion, one local business owner is tapping an unusual source to build his community center - his customers.

Gary Ray has been running Black Diamond Games for nearly ten years, starting with little knowledge and a tiny retail store in Walnut Creek, and later doing well enough to move to a much larger store in Concord.

"We hold game events until 10pm every night," says Ray, "and we've been at capacity for years. We need more space."

Hobby games are a little known niche, but lately they've grown in popularity with the mainstreaming of geek culture. The top hobby game, Magic: The Gathering, a 20 year old collectible card game, packs most game stores with eager customers wanting to test their decks. Board games have also exploded onto the scene, with the hit TV series Big Bang Theory featuring once obscure hobby game Settlers of Catan, and regular episodes featuring the fantasy game legend, Dungeons & Dragons.

"With so many gamers wanting to play in our game center, we needed to expand. We managed to obtain a bank loan, but it just wasn't enough." Ray explained. "We needed more funds, and we believe our community will step up to chip in through our Kickstarter campaign."

Kickstarter allows project creators, like Ray, to create projects and obtain funding through backers, who sometimes contribute as little as $20. Ray's Kickstarter went live recently, and has already gained traction with his customers by offering a combination of store swag and a gym membership model.

Other options include a "Wall of Knighthood," recognizing supporters with their name and heraldic symbol, ways for game publishers to get recognition with movie style posters, and even consulting offered to other game stores. "I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to support us, at every tier of my industry," Ray explained.

Gary Ray owns Black Diamond Games at 1950 Market Street, in Concord, California. They're open every day until 10pm, and by all accounts, are packed to the gills with excited customers.


Gary Ray
1950 Market Street, Suite E
Concord, CA 94520

Kickstarter Link:


(365 words)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Expansion Kickstarter is Live!

It has been a long road to this point. Years in the planning. Months of work with architects and other professionals. Weeks of determining the best way to leverage Kickstarter to help with the funding. The Kickstarter is here. Please take a moment to check out our hard work. And when I say our hard work, I really mean my excellent staff, volunteers, and videographer.

Hopefully this is just the beginning. With a successful Kickstarter, we have four months of work to do with the architects, our property managers, and finally, the contractors. Formal, permitted plans are being developed. New tables and chairs selected. Flooring painstakingly evaluated. We're also still investigating our stretch goals, although I don't want to get too cocky.

With a successful Kickstarter we're also managing a handful of projects, including the one I'm in charge of, a custom Pathfinder adventure themed to the store, written by well known designer, Amber Scott. That's if the Kickstarter is successful. So please, take a look, consider supporting us, and do us the enormous favor of sharing this with your friends.

Construction is scheduled for August and my guess is it will take a matter of weeks, rather than months. The store will remain open for the entirety of the project, at least until they need to spend some time relocating our electrical box. Even then, I've seen staff keep at it before with flashlights and notepads. Have I mentioned how great our staff is?

You'll hear more from me as the Kickstarter moves forward, including a Frequently Asked Questions post here, along with backer posts, if you backed the project.  I was supposed to make that FAQ post today, but realized I was missing the questions. Derp.

Thank you again! Every day I see customers, amazed they've found me, and hope I've found something that interests them. Today is no exception.

Watch the video!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Just a Few Days (Kickstarter)

Our game center expansion Kickstarter is just a few days away. A week ago we felt done with it and opened up the preview to friends and family to comment. That lead to quite a few changes, including adding more promotional items to the offerings, especially at lower tiers. The main courses are still there, we just added some appetizers to the menu.

The project was submitted to Kickstarter for approval on Wednesday morning and was approved by Thursday afternoon. We plan to launch on Sunday, because, I'm told, the math works out best for Sunday launched projects (Ask Parker). We were pretty sure we would be approved, but sometimes the rules are a bit, um, arbitrary. It's hard to tell because one of the hobbies of Kickstarter followers is to point out inconsistencies, most of which, as far as I can tell, are perfectly reasonable.

Robert Pace has done a good job of analyzing various game store related crowd funding projects in the Game Store Retailer Facebook group. There have been twelve in total, seven on Kickstarter and five on Indiegogo. We will be Lucky 13. Although they don't follow much of a pattern in their success in funding, it is clear that if you don't have a base to draw upon, your game store Kickstarter probably won't work. The best success examples in this area include The Raygun Lounge and the recent Endgame Cafe.  They were able to acquire 2-3 times their funding requests. Most others fail to break $10,000. One has opened and failed and three have taken the money and failed to open.

When it comes to our project, after all the math is done, the Kickstarter, if it only hits the minimum pledges to fund, will comprise 25% of our project budget. We're aiming for $25,000. 75% of the project costs will come from our construction loan. The Kickstarter itself has costs around $7,000, including producing electronic products, Amazon fees, and staff hours. I can also tell you we've already spend about $10,000 so far on the project, mostly with the architects. Does that mean it will happen regardless of the Kickstarter? Noooooo. It won't happen if the Kickstarter fails. It does mean there are some significant "sunk costs" associated with the project that will drag on the business if it doesn't work out.

That sounds kind of negative, but I know people like to read this blog to get the numbers, the behind the scenes scoop on what's really going on. We're expecting it to succeed. Some of my current projects include budgeting for the stretch goals, considering the various project updates, FAQ's for the inevitable confusion, and meetings that we need to schedule in advance of any problems. Plus I'm also working on my ACD Games Day presentation: Inventory Management for Maximum Profit. The Kickstarter launches Sunday and I'm off to Wisconsin on Wednesday.

Along with a successful Kickstarter and the following construction project will be a re-negotiation of our lease. It's not only a construction project, it's a commitment from me. It's an agreement that Black Diamond Games will be part of my life for another ten years at least. That puts the store longevity at the 20 year mark and me well into my 50's. Think about that for a minute.

Setting up for our Kickstarter video 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Kickstarter Cometh

We're planning to launch the expansion Kickstarter on May 18th. Right now we're performing an exhaustive review of what we've got planned. The video is finished and it's pretty amazing, far exceeding my expectations thanks to out director Thomas Perry and our volunteers and staff. This post is more about how we came to the decision to do the project.

Early last year I lamented that I wanted to do the expansion, but there were so many other projects that needed doing. A business like ours suffers from severe entropy. Everything breaks and eventually needs replacing and if you're around long enough, you'll have to fix it, including doors, toilets, computers, air conditioning systems; everything. Our 2013 project was to fix all those things, including various process problems that seemed to avoid fixes.

We had started having regular management meetings and were already knocking off the small items from our list of things to fix, things overlooked when a staff, mostly part time, only sees each other in passing and doesn't actually work together. The big project was replacing the point of sale system and the fixtures around it. We began that project in the Spring and it took months of pain before I felt comfortable with the new system, something I wrote about extensively. So with the big projects and even all the small projects complete, and the store at peak efficiency and profits, there were no more excuses not to proceed with the game center expansion.

I already knew who would build it, since my brother is a contractor. He told me to find an architect first, you know, as a formality. So in the Fall I found architects willing to work with us, a feat in itself, and began that dialogue. That involved a thorough investigation of the space by the architects and a mechanical engineer before we could come up with concept drawings, which you've probably seen many times at this point. We've since added an electrical engineer and a lighting consultant to the team.

With drawings in hand, the architects worked with the city to make sure we could classify the space according to the various commercial space types and building codes, which then informed a bunch of design decisions, like bathroom capacity, room capacity, air conditioning load, stair ways, ADA considerations, and a host of other issues. It was a complex process that had a lot of potential pitfalls, but eventually we threaded that needle. At one point, we considered a plan that would require the store to be closed while the game center was being used. Thankfully, we found an alternative.

From concept drawings, we gave the go ahead to move forward with the permitted plans for the design, a very expensive process involving even more consultants and weeks of architect time. In fact, my initial estimate of what the entire thing would cost is pretty much just what we're paying architects. It's wildly expensive, but entirely above board, to code, with no corners cut, which should make construction run much smoother than other projects I've witnessed.

Some of the customer concerns with the actual build out have concerned ceiling heights (we have 21 feet of overall space), air conditioning load, lighting, and restrooms. Although the final plans are in development, there are surprisingly few choices for us to make in these regards. The codes pretty much define all of these issues. You don't get to have low ceilings, under performing air conditioning, poor lighting and inadequate restrooms, even as an oversight.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Wonders Beyond Reason (Expansion Project)

I wrote in a previous post about how moving to a bigger location usually means a worse location. Yet, building up, what we plan to do, is not really a valid option either. That's because of the high costs of construction compared to the shoestring nature of a hobby game store.

Hobby game stores tend to be low barrier to entry affairs, with many stores starting with thousands or even hundreds of dollars, often with owners going unpaid for years to launch it (a bad idea). One local store I heard about recently started with just $500. That's an extreme case, but it's not the first time I've heard that. Starting with $50,000 is fairly common, $100,000 at most, which is around where we began.

Why so little? There's no money there in most cases. A reasonable amount to invest should, I say should, correspond with a reasonable return on investment (ROI), of say, five years. When I started I had no idea what an ROI was. I wanted a "buy a job," essentially a lifestyle choice. Now I won't buy a candy bar without an ROI. Most store owners, like me, started with no concept of ROI.

What does an ROI look like? On a $100,000 business investment with a 5% net profit margin (on the low end), including $60,000 of inventory at cost, it would look something like this:

Year Net Profit Annual Sales Turns
Year 1 0 not enough2-3
Year 2 $16,250.00 $325,000 3
Year 3 $21,250.00 $425,000 4
Year 4 $27,500.00 $550,000 5
Year 5 $35,000.00 $700,000 6
Total $100,000.00

These numbers are expert store numbers. A theoretical example of how a veteran store owner could hit the ground running, quickly dial in a store's sales, and come out with their projected ROI after five years with a turn rate that is painfully high, twice as high as recommended. It almost never happens. It requires an urban market to get gross sales this high, probably three times the game store average. It's as rare as the guy who succeeds with $500. I know two people who represent both extremes, BTW, and they're both notable outliers.  It's why you don't see entrepreneurs starting game stores. They're labors of love.

When we contemplate construction for expansion, we see numbers that don't correspond with a labor of love. We see real numbers, the numbers paid by everyone else. For example, architectural services for our project is in the tens of thousands of dollars. That's only perhaps a third of the cost, before you begin construction. Add in thousands of dollars for permit fees and tables and chairs, and your expansion project costs as much as starting another store. And we have an ROI understanding of that, no? So why are we building a second floor and not starting a new store?

This is my store, our store. I learned when we moved to a bigger location rather than a second store that I really don't want to manage multiple stores. I have nightmares about this, a sudden realization that I have this second or third store that I've neglected. Or perhaps one that's failing and another that's being dragged down by the failing one. Multiple stores takes everything fun about running a game store and makes it about managing managers who do the fun stuff. 

When I calculated the ROI for the expansion, it didn't work. The return to make it worthwhile was not going to cover the investment, not all the way at least. This is a moving target, by the way, as we had to spend a bunch of money to even know what that construction cost would be, and we still aren't exactly sure, just somewhat sure. I spent $10,000 to understand whether we should even consider it. We got a loan for the mythical ROI number, the amount we would be willing to reasonably spend as an investment, if we could build it as such. But we can't. That's where the Kickstarter kicks in.

The Kickstarter builds from our ROI number by providing funding beyond our level of reason. The Kickstarter says we've gone as far as a business should reasonably go with this project and we need you, the community to push us the rest of the way. We need you to push us beyond the realm of business sanity and into the realm of amazing game center.  It should be quite the wonder, because no business would ever do this. It's not a hand out and there are services and products that go with most of our tiers. In fact, there are some pretty big expenses related to the Kickstarter, mostly in development work for unique game products. But wait a bit longer before we go into that.

The beauty of the Kickstarter is it kicks the ROI in the face. It does the impossible of allowing wonders beyond reason.