I once spent nine days as a guest at a Taiwanese Buddhist nunnery. Their hospitality was incredible and what stuck in my mind was the most amazing food I've ever eaten. They made Chinese meat dishes out of plant protein, most likely because the nuns were brought up on a traditional, Chinese omnivorous diet, and this food met their vegetarian religious restrictions without compromise. It was so good, I questioned it's meatlessness, being a vegetarian at the time.
After a week of this amazing food, I mentioned on the way back from our conference, that I could really go for a pizza, especially because there was a Pizza Hut next to the nunnery in busy downtown Taipei. No matter how good something is, you often long for the tastes of home. You know you'll get that consistent experience, even if it's not great. Consistent beats great sometimes. An older scholar overheard me and slammed me for being so disrespectful as to want pizza when our hosts had been so gracious with their amazing food. When we returned to the nunnery for dinner, awaiting us was glorious Pizza Hut pizza. The heart wants what it wants.
When it comes to hobby game stores, consistency of experience is wickedly hard. You can train your staff to greet customers, provide stellar customer service, create intricate systems to maintain product and service, but in the back room it's another story. In our Game Center, your consistency of experience is kind of in your own hands.
I could pay employees to run games of a particular style and quality, but the games they run would be limited to the customer desire to pay for that experience. Other than convention fees, which they seem to have no problem with, nobody wants to pay $10 cash money for me to run Dungeons & Dragons. $10, times six players, is $60 for a 4-hour session paying someone $15/hour. That's just their labor, not profit or materials, or prep time. This is a traditionally free experience that can cross over into "nominal" fee territory, but a real fee will never really capture the value being provided. That may change with the mainstreamization of gaming, and someone will certainly point out the "professional" dungeon masters, but it's rare.
So we run the Event Center a bit like a concert hall in which we attempt to host high quality concerts, but with no guarantee the experience will be great. We are concert hall people, not the performers. I've been to great concerts and I've been to concerts where the performers were drunk off their asses, but in neither case did I credit or blame the venue. But in the game trade that's exactly what happens. Sexist comment? Bad DM? Poor hygiene? It will all be a black mark against the store, even though there's not a whole lot we can do about it, other than craft policies, brief organizers, and strictly enforce rules. We are facilitators. We use volunteers. The only other option is the thing doesn't happen.
This chaos is also our strength, our protective armor. The inability to provide a consistent experience, but to only provide a neutral venue is unacceptable to anyone with deep pockets who wants in on this. What happens if something really terrible (actionable by law) occurs? How do we make sure the D&D session doesn't have something inappropriate? How do we actually monetize this space that costs us $6,000 a month? Really, that's what we pay. About $50 a seat per month.
The reality of most D&D sessions is there are a lot of slightly boring ones and then one amazing one, which you tend to remember without remembering the boring ones. D&D especially is a constant playtest, as most people don't run the same adventure twice. Imagine sitting through a bunch of boring movies to get to the great one. That's how it tended to be before the Internet, but people want blockbusters every time nowadays, and they can get them by picking and choosing. All of this inconsistency is why there are no national chains of game stores. Managing the managers and the organizers would be like herding cats. You would have to have a whole department called Program Development to plan and test event structures. Publishers can't even pull this off well with their one game. Plus, as mentioned, the customers would never pay, at least not so far.
Anyway, this is something that keeps me up at night. Labor, as minimum wage here approaches $15 an hour, can no longer be the solution to bespoke experiences. We are fast approaching hard limits that are testing the demands of customers with the reality of what is possible in small business. It may just be the little store, with the passionate owner working for close to zero dollars, will be the one providing the consistently amazing experiences that big stores could only dream of. The rest of us are wondering if we should get a liquor license or hire some circus performers.
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