Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ebay Deals

I've got some items on clearance selling through eBay. If you're interested, you can bid on them and pick them up in the store.

AT-43 Initiation Set Operation Damocles
Confrontation - The Age of the Rag'narok: Starter Set
Dungeons & Dragons Limited Edition Chess Set
The Great Cthulhu Horrorclix Figure (LE)

More games and lots of toys

Are Role-Playing Games in Trouble?

This is modified from a post I made yesterday on

First, RPG sales are fine. For us they were down around 10% last year, but that can be attributed almost entirely to the twilight days of D&D 3.5. Many, many people (millions) play role-playing games and although they tend to be older, younger people are getting involved too.

Second, the market is very mature. In mature markets, the winner tends to take all or at least around half. Look at something like soft drinks. Coke has around 50% market share and the second 50% is spread around among everyone else. That second tier struggles to survive. Wizards of the Coast is the Coke of RPGs. In my store, no other game has more than 10% of sales.

Third, the pie is cut into too many pieces. Wizards of the Coast maintains their 50%, but the other 50% is spread out very, very, thinly among mid-tier publishers, small press publishers, and everything available via PDFs.

With PDF's there is this concept of the "long tail" in which RPG games will never die, they just get distributed electronically. On RPOL people favor old editions of games, like Shadowrun 3E. Now imagine a market in which a relatively small group of people can choose among 30 years of published products. It's great for them, but it spreads the money so thin that only the biggest companies can survive.

Why would Games Workshop close down a division and drop a relatively solid RPG product? Because it's spare change to them. They come from the miniatures hobby, which is much healthier and less fragmented than RPGs.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Dark Heresy

Let me just echo what we've all been saying today about the decision to close down Black Industries.


On Friday they announced the new Dark Heresy book, the Warhammer 40K Role-Playing Game, was sold out. They announce on Monday, the next business day, that they're done with RPG's. They actually told distributors on Friday, so they had their outrage stewing for the full weekend before store owners got to express their disgust. Literally as soon as their product is out the door and in the hands of retailers and distributors, they sabotage everyone by making this announcement.

The inside scoop is that Games Workshop is dissolving Black Industries, despite it being profitable. The staff found out about it with the press release, so there's some animosity out there. They've let us know the list of books that will still be released:
  • Inquisitors Handbook (Dark Heresy players guide)
  • Purge the Unclean (Dark Heresy adventure anthology)
  • Disciples of the Dark Gods (Dark Heresy source book)
  • The Thousand Thrones (Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play campaign)
Before everyone has a nervous breakdown and decides that Dark Heresy is a dead product, what if they had announced that it would only have six products in the line? White Wolf has been doing that for their product lines, self-limiting their games to keep product quality and focus in line. I just want to throw that out there because this really is a good game, and I would hate to have people consider it DOA, when it's alive with three more products in the pipeline, not to mention that I've got a dozen $50 rulebooks sitting on my shelves. ;)

Review: Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters

This book is harder to review than Races and Classes, mostly because it discusses world design, planar makeup and where monsters fit into the mix. Instead of a full review, I want to touch on some of the themes that run through it, and how it should affect play.

D&D 4 is designed as a toolkit. DM’s are given the choice of how to use an element and its accessibility in the game. For example, The Underdark is a fantastic location, but it has always been difficult to get to and only survivable by high level adventurers (like the planes). If something is useful or cool in D&D4, the philosophy is that it should be easy to use. Interesting places are not necessarily hard to get to or deadly, they’re available as a resource to the DM to use as they see fit.

Asymmetry and organic design. The Great Wheel is dead. The planar makeup of past editions, based on alignment, the elements, types of energy, transitive planes, the colors of the rainbow and the like are gone. Many of these locations still exist, but their strict regimentation has been dropped for a more organic feel. Dropping the alignment system has unraveled a lot of regimentation in this edition, with the planes being the best example. Many monsters were created solely to populate these places. Some of them were cool, others like the Ooze Mephit, were pretty useless. Many existed only to fight each other, and had little to do with how we played the game. For example, the idea of evil fighting evil has been dropped as much as possible. The devils are fighting the demons? Who cares? How does that make my game more fun? The avatars that fought evil on behalf of the gods have been dropped. Isn’t that the job of adventurers? The new D&D4 design is meant to maximize the value of the information presented, and if you can’t use it in your game, it doesn’t have value.

Part of the asymmetry is a host of new planar locations. We have new places, like the Feywild, a parallel faerie plane straight out of mythology. The complexities of the Great Wheel have been dropped for ideas that are fun, make sense, are useful and don’t have to fit into a strict paradigm. Giant planes of fire are gone, as are transitive planes that existed only to get from one plane to another. The astral plane (now the astral sea) has been re-worked to be the prime location for previous denizens and locations of the outer planes. Strange planar mechanics for movement and the like are no longer necessary.

Letting Icons Shine. Strong iconic elements of past editions, such as monsters and locations, have been retained but tweaked. Dragons, for example, have been reworked to make them more visually and tactically distinct and more fun to fight. I can count on one hand the number of dragons I’ve used in 3rd Edition, due to their complexity. D&D4 has learned how to make them more interesting and more unique to their type, rather than simply defining them by color and breath weapon. The art will be distinct, but so will their tactics. The designers drew heavily from the miniatures game, which showed how an individual monster could be interesting by giving it multiple actions per round. For example, dragons have multiple immediate actions that take effect under certain circumstances. They have tactics on how they fight, minions they tend to use and places where they hide. Giants also have been declared iconic, and they’ve been re-worked to be more elemental instead of just large humanoids. There will also be huge variants. They wanted to make them all huge, but hey, we’ve got all these plastic D&D miniatures, right? There’s an Against the Giants type adventure in the near future where we’ll see giants showcased.

A Thousand Points of Light. Locations and iconic magic items from old editions have been retained. The Temple of Elemental Evil and The Hand of Vecna still exist, with flexibility where they can be found. In fact, there is no default map for the 4E world. The concept is that we have a handful of fallen civilizations out there, a bunch of iconic places, and a bunch of points of light, safe harbors from the sea of danger. Adventurers start in a point of light and explore their world from there, but we don’t know what’s over the horizon and we may not get there safely. Humanity no longer dominates and their fallen civilization is no more important than the other fallen empires. Of course the designers will still have Forgotten Realms and other settings later on, but the default setting is more a toolkit than a well defined world with maps, trade routes and drawings of people and their fashions. This keeps the mystery intact and allows DMs to use material as they see fit.

A Fantastic World. D&D4 is meant to be a departure from the constraints of an alternate medieval Europe. The idea here, similar to what we saw in Monte Cook’s Ptolus, is to accept the fantasy elements when considering world design. It’s not a medieval world with a fantasy overlay, but an organic world where magic and monsters are accepted as part of everyday life. Magic is real and available to some extent. Wizards exist, and although powerful ones are rare, nobody is getting burned at the stake (unless that’s what you want). The designers ask the question why something as useful and inexpensive as a Potion of Healing is not available in the Player’s Handbook? If you can choose a Griffon mount in the game, why isn’t there a price for one? At the same time, the designers attempt to preserve the D&D feel. They don’t want magic as technology, the kind of stuff that rubbed people the wrong way with the Eberron setting.

An Ancient World. Besides being a fantastic world, they took a layered approach to civilizations. The various civilizations are in ruin, for the most part. These civilizations were built on top of older civilizations, without relying on the pasts developments, preserving a sense of mystery without a feeling of societal or technical progression. Of course, you can learn more about these older civilizations by exploring ruins or old libraries. This is also part of that toolkit feel to the world. Really, what does a DM need from the core materials? For the most part, they need flexibility, resources like magic items and locations that aren’t tied to a particular setting, planes and monsters that are useful and not designed as filler, and most importantly a world that doesn’t inherently constrain their creativity. Don’t see something you want? Maybe it’s buried in a past civilization, right under the adventurer’s feet.

How Will I Use It? Some of these ideas were already going to be part of my new campaign. The sense of wonder, of what’s over the next hill, is a big part of this edition and it should play well for older, jaded players who have survived the first three editions of this game (or more if you can count back that far). The faerie plane (Feywild) will see me dropping in Desden Files like faerie interaction from the beginning, with plenty of Shakespearean faeries. Since I am developing my own campaign world, the toolkit elements should work great for me. They’ve acknowledged that DMs already use the game materials as a toolkit by not tying down their materials to various locations and situations.

What I Don’t Like. I’m concerned that the toolkit approach won’t be cohesive. Yes, giving me a bunch of places, gods and items with lots of flexibility is good, but the new edition will rely more on supplemental material to make it useful for less experienced gamers. I really don’t like dragonborn. There, I’ve said it. Maybe it’s because I’m not twelve, but I’ve never wanted to play a reptile. I’ll still use them, and I think they’re a much better concept than a half orc, but they have no appeal for me. Using tiefling was a good idea, but I don’t care for their “cursed” origin. I’m concerned that by preserving so much iconic D&D culture that we’ll have a lot of re-hashed products. Do we really need a third version of Temple of Elemental Evil? Did past designers really plumb the depths of fantasy creativity to where we can’t come up with better magic items than a shriveled lich’s hand with magic powers? It’s part cultural preservation, part design crutch with obvious remakes planned in advance. There will also be the kind of legacy eye rolling when it comes to things like the new stories of old gods. Lolth is a lunar goddess split from her light side of the moon sister. I don’t care, but you know it will drive some players’ nuts.

Bottom Line. I like what I see. For veteran gamers we’ve got a logical re-working of the rules and game world that drops a lot of baggage. The new design allows for the most important thing we need from a new edition: The sense of wonder that comes from the unknown, the adventure just over the hill, the fear that all could be lost if our heroes don’t succeed. For younger gamers, possibly those who have only experienced third edition, I think there is some resistance to change. What I consider trash or unnecessary baggage, they may consider treasure. They’re still in love with their new game and they still have a sense of wonder for what was only recently presented to them.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Dresden: I just finished book eight of the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. The next book comes out 2/5 in paperback. This has been a fantastic series, with ongoing character development, constant cliff hangers and a believable supernatural world. It has been a lot of fun and I'll miss it by mid-February when I've caught up with the series after reading book nine. I'll be starting on his fantasy series in the next couple of days. The Dresden Files RPG is due out Gencon-ish, according to my sources. It's by Evil Hat Productions, creator of Spirit of the Century. It will use a Fate based system, similar to SotC, including a much better developed magic system.

Press: The Economist is still my main source for news, but I've been reading web based news to keep up with primary election results. A couple things struck me this week: Bill Clinton tried to define the South Carolina primary debate as a race thing, and after the Obama win, the news articles have ran with the spin. I'm starting to recall that slimy feeling I used to get when it came to the Clintons. I've also noticed on my Google home page that of the 5,000+ article choices, the RussiaToday news keeps popping to the top. Lately they've been harping on election problems, such as questionable voting machines. I like independent news, but these seem to be stories that don't exist elsewhere, and with the Russian media tightly controlled by the Russian government, this seems to be an attempt to show that American democracy is messy too, just like the messy (rigged) Russian democracy. The old tricks are the new tricks. I have more confidence in objectivity from Al Jazeera than an outfit like RussiaToday.

Flix: I've seen a few really good foreign films lately. Kung Fu Hustle was a very funny Kung Fu parody with some crazy special effects scenes. I don't buy a lot of DVD's but this one I'll be getting. Curse of the Golden Flower was a Shakespearean like Kung Fu drama with epic battle scenes that rivaled Return of the King. It didn't evoke a lot of strong emotion for me, but the film was an amazing spectacle. I just wish it was more engaging. The same director did House of Flying Daggers, which found me surfing the web half way through after some ridiculous plot twists. Yawn. Black Book is a Dutch movie about a Jewish woman during the Nazi occupation. It's full of unexpected twists and turns that make you swear it must be based on real events. It was an intense, often violent film that took a couple sittings to finish. Coming up in my queue of foreign films: Layer Cake, 2046 and Shaolin Soccer.

Painting: Back to gnoblar trappers for my Ogre Kingdoms army. I've got three of eight painted and really dislike the models, almost enough to remove them from my list. I needed them for my first D&D adventure in June, otherwise I would probably ditch them.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

February 9th Auction

Here's the story on our Saturday, February 9th auction that starts at noon (to around 4ish):

How to Sell Stuff: It's best to bring items a day or two before the auction, but we'll take them up to a WEEK beforehand. We can process them and store them securely in the office. Bringing items the day of the auction works too, but is less convenient for us.

Buyers: Please show up at 11:30 so you can sign in and get your number. Most auctions are silent, meaning you can put your name and bid on a piece of paper. So don't worry if you're a little shy. The "live" auction is for larger items or more expensive items. It's very exciting and somewhat informal, so it's not intimidating in the least. The concept of a live auction intimidates me, but we tend to make it fun. You're welcome to tout your own items when they come up for bid. It's the most amusing part of the process.

What to Expect: We acquire a lot of damaged items from various manufacturers and distributors. The quantity of items each quarter is usually reflected in the previous quarters industry sales. What does that mean? It means the first quarter auction will be the BIGGEST of the year because we're getting all the holiday damages from the fourth quarter.

Sales: If we're planning on having a sale for the quarter, this day will get priority. I know for certain we'll be having a big terrain sale, for example. This is to help you maximize your store credit and move out some of our slower moving inventory.

Store Credit: All auction proceeds are paid in store credit. So if you win something at the auction, you pay the store normally and the buyer gets a gift certificate. Most people selling end up using their credit to buy other things at the auction, but you're more than welcome to take home a gift certificate or use it to buy new things in the store.

Buyers Market: Not to discourage you from selling, but because we combine our "Ding N Dent" with the auction, there is FAR more stuff to buy than customers to buy it. We make less money selling it this way, but it's quick and clears out our space faster. You get best results when you use your credit from selling to buy other stuff at the auction.

Gaming That Day: We take over the entire game center until around 4pm. So all games should expect to shift to later in the day or Sunday.

Role-Playing Buying: Somewhat unrelated to the auction, we're taking in RPG books for store credit once again. Convention season fast approaches and if you've got books gathering dust, consider dropping them off at the store for credit. You can try selling them at the auction first, if you like.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Defining the Debate

The local public radio station had an interesting program this morning about the newspaper business. Newspapers have been on the ropes, due to declining ad revenue. About half their ads come from classifieds, which now go on places like Craigslist and Monster. What I found interesting was that one of the guests talked about defining the debate.

Rather than constantly being defeatist about the industry, which is the attitude of most in the newspaper business, the guest argued that the industry needs to ask a fundamental question: Is the industry in transition or is it in decline? If it's in decline, there's no need for capital investment and there's not a lot you can do to make it better. If it's in transition, then you've got more options, you can attempt to define what you need to become and adapt. That's what I gathered from his comments and it obviously resonates with me in regards to the game trade, especially the constant Chicken Little routine from many store owners.

Is the game trade in transition or is it in decline? Many would say it's in decline. Customers who only buy online argue that they get little value from their LGS (local game store, which used to be referred to as the FLGS, friendly local game store). They feel that the LGS sells games at a "premium" defined as not the "true" MSRP of what you can buy it for online. Sell something for 30% off long enough, and that's the perceived price. Without added value, they have no use for a game store.

Game store owners, especially older ones, lament as well. If you've been running your store like a supermarket, expecting people to come in, pick up their product and get the hell out, you've likely seen a decline in sales, as you add no value. In fact, the experience of shopping in such stores is often negative. Everyone has stories about the grumpy old veteran store owner in their area or the jaded, over-pierced clerk with Technicolor hair who laughs at your game while the owner works a real job elsewhere.

These retailers were once able to buy cars and houses with cash on profits from games like Pokemon and Magic. They could sell pallets of product, rather than just a few boxes on release. This was before the Internet started filling that need at a steep discount. Others argue that the game store is dead, and we should start selling used movies and video games to survive, or transition into comics or toys for diversification. Most long timers, including many industry leaders, have a secret or not-so-secret online presence as well, making up for their sagging retail sales by joining the Internet discounter crowd. They pontificate about how to run a store while flipping cases of product on their websites. They run their stores mostly the same, but make up for it with online revenue. They consider the need for game space a debate, rather than a necessity.

I think, not surprisingly, that the industry is in transition and not in decline. There are many ways to make a store work, but the key in our urban area with expensive real estate and lots of retail choices is not diversification as much as it is the concept of a "third space."The combination game store-pet store might be a clever idea in some small, podunk town without a good game store or a good pet store, but it won't fly in an urban area with many retail choices.

As for the third space, it works like this: There's your home, there's work, and then there's the concept that your store should be that third place where people spend time. Starbucks and Barnes & Noble do this with their lounges, Internet access and snacks. The key for us in this transition is to become the third place where gamers spend time. It supports the hobby for one, and shows that you're a game community member, rather than an evil retailer, getting rich on their game purchases (as if).

Being the third place also works well with an important principle of retail: The more time people spend in a retail store, the more they spend. You can play videos, provide them food and comfy chairs, create intriguing displays, and in the case of a game store, offer a place to play for a few hours. The old timers will attempt to perform a cost-benefit analysis on that game space, but that's missing the point. The entire justification for a stores existence, with this model, is it's identity as a third place.

I guess my point is that by defining the debate, we can cut put our emotional energy into figuring out what needs to be done to transition, rather than how to plug holes in the crumbling wall. You can explore solutions rather than re-hashing the same problems.

Exceptional Values (Part I)

It's January and you're bored and the weather sucks. Say you want to get into a game but you don't want to spend a lot of money, especially up front while you're evaluating your interest. Assuming you have others willing to play with you, there are games out there that are exceptional values, maybe even loss leaders. These games are designed to get you into a hobby and just happen to be inexpensive and a great value. Here are my picks in each game category:

Role Playing Games

Savage World Explorer's Edition
It's a full color 6"x9" rulebook that contains the full rules for the Savage World RPG and only costs $9.99. That's right, a complete RPG for $10 and a good one too. Savage Worlds has a lot of gas in the tank, as they say, there are still lots of people playing this game and it's an easy one to pick up. There are no "core rulebooks" beyond this little guy, but there are setting books for Savage Worlds if you want more information. Some people complain when there's not enough material (they're not being supported), while others complain that they have too much to buy (they're ripping us off, man). With Savage Worlds you can run an adventure with this $9.99 book or you could branch into Deadlands, Solomon Kane, or about 25 other settings, available as books or PDF's.

Price History: There used to be a full size, hardcover rulebook for around $30. The little Explorer's Guide replaces it.

Tactical Miniature Games

Warhammer 40K: Battle for Macragge
You get a playable force of Space Marines, Tyranids, terrain, a complete digest sized rulebook, a getting started guide that walks you through scenarios, dice and a template for $50. Warhammer 40,000 is still the most popular miniatures game and this starter set is a bargain. A hardcover rulebook alone is $50, for example. Say what you will about the company and their prices, but this box set is as close to a loss leader as I've seen in the game industry. You'll still want to buy some accessories, of course, and that can add up: primer, paint, glue, cutters; you could easily spend another $50 on that. However, if you already paint, that's an investment you've made in the past already. Battle for Skull Pass is the $50 Warhammer Fantasy Battles starter set. It's a good value, but has two less popular armies (dwarves and goblins) and lacks a guide for learning the game.

Price History: Battle for Macragge jumped from $45 to 50 last Summer.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Big Squeeze

Several game manufacturers lowered their discount this month, to cover their additional shipping costs. Paizo (including Slugfest) and Kenzer & Company both reduced their discount by 2%. That means retailers will make 4% less on their products, unless they mark them up over the retail price. I consider the manufacturers solution akin to burying their head in the sand. They increase their price to cover their additional costs without any consideration for what it will mean for the rest of the trade. As I see it, raising the prices of their product by 2% to cover my new costs will be the solution, which will likely reduce the demand somewhat for their stuff. It also means I'm less likely to carry their backlist stock in the store.

Put a Fork In It

The Warlord CCG got canned today. I just shipped out the last of it to an eBay customer this week, so I feel like I dodged a small bullet. I still lost money on the final sale, of course. Selling cards on eBay is a last resort. We had a group that used to play in our store after their store closed. I paid an employee to stay late for them so they could play once a week. Then when their original store re-opened, they abruptly left without giving any notice. Let me just be the first to say, "Ha Ha!"

I got hit with my second recall notice ever this week. The first one was a Thomas recall in October. This time it's Cranium Cadoo with lead painted dice. Lead painted dice; talk about cheaping out. Exposure should be limited as nobody ever plays this game. Boardgamegeek has a discussion thread for really bad games called "If You Can't Say Something Nice...." For Cadoo we've got:

The playdough is almost entirely non-toxic.

The 'spell backwards' task makes everyone realize that they should've studied more in school to be able to spell words frontways.

I get a little bitter over this one because I had to buy a case to try it out.... and I still have a case. Cranium used to be a huge seller in game stores until they started dumping their product in the mass market, including selling them at near cost at Starbucks (the CEO's of both companies are climbing buddies). Hasbro is attempting to buy them for $77 million which will mostly go to paying off their enormous debts and acquiring their only good game, the base Cranium. This will likely mean I will be able to buy Cranium through distributors in less than case quantities but twice the price. That's how it works with Hasborg, I mean Hasbro.

Oh, did anyone read the Jammin Jenna story? Ty Inc., the maker of Beanie Babies, decided to fight the recall of their lead laced Jammin Jenna doll (I still think Jenna Jameson). They think their lead levels are just fine, since they're less than federal standards but exceed Illinois lead standards. Man, talk about putting a gun to your own head. Lets have a states rights discussion while the kids poison themselves. I'll be watching to see the backlash build for this one.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Value Proposition

With the economy in question, people are asking how they expect a faltering economy to affect the store. When my primary investor, a money guy, begins to ask, I know there is real concern out there. He's my macro lense into the money world and he only gets concerned if there's a preponderance of problems, like now. Having not owned a store through a recession, I can only go by what others have told me and what I've learned over the last few years.

First, my core customer base are hobbyists. These are maybe 400-500 regular customers, defined as someone who comes in more than once a year to buy stuff. There are "angel" customers out there who buy lots of stuff, but even they can't rise above around 1% of my sales. That's a good thing. The common wisdom on core customers is that they'll continue to purchase game products until the bottom literally falls out of their lives. They have to be homeless or unemployed before they stop. Why? This is their main form of entertainment. What I sell makes slogging away at work worthwhile. I used to be that guy, I know. What is likely to happen in uncertain times is that customers spend a little less here or there, but they continue to buy, and they continue to buy where they've been buying. That's supposedly another comfort.

Second, table-top, traditional, specialty, whatever you want to call them, these games are comfort games, like comfort food. You eat comfort food because it makes you feel good and reminds you of better days, possibly at home with momma in the kitchen with avocado colored appliances. Ok, maybe that's just my childhood. Table top games represent better times, stronger values, something more family oriented than playing video games where you kill hookers with baseball bats. Nowadays I try to turn people to the Euro games. If they've spent their youth in epic games of Risk or Monopoly, it's an easy transition to Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. They have a very high entertainment value for what you get. Which brings up the big point....

Third, table top games are a fantastic value. Take a game like Carcassonne, which I personally think is the best "gateway" game to playing the Euro board games. The game is now $30. It works for 2-5 players. Say you play it with another couple, or a family of four. That's $30 divided by 4, or $7.50 per person. You can't go to the movies for that! Lets assume you play two enjoyable 45-minute games and suddenly the cat jumps up on the table and pees on your Carcassonne, ruining your copy forever. That was still an evening of good value for your $30 (and a great story to tell your friends). More than likely, without feline intervention, you'll play that game a dozen times for a dozen hours of entertainment for your $30.

The usual comparison is video games. How much entertainment value can you squeeze out of a $50 video game? The argument is that if you can match that value, and keep the price in this acceptable entertainment mediums price range, you've got something special. I've also never looked back on a video game experience and said, "Wow, that was sure a great use of my time!" I usually wish I had those hours back.

The video game argument also pops up whenever someone puts out an $80 board game that most non-Hobbyists are unlikely to purchase. I'm a big fan of price points all along the spectrum, from $10 card games to $100 monster board games, but that $50 price point seems to be special. The key for non hobbyists is trying to explain why a $50 board game we sell is better than the $9 board game they can find at Toys R Us and Wal-Mart. It's about properly expressing the value proposition of the specialty game: better quality, better game play, intelligent design, and many more hours of fun than a dreary game of Monopoly.

The key for getting the general public into the hobby is making sure they actually enjoy the first couple hours of their $30 game. We do that by learning their needs and helping them select the right game. No amount of help will allow them to select a board game that little Johnny with his ADD can enjoy (that was my brother in our house), but for most people, unplugging for a while is not only a lot of fun, but a good value. The other way we allow them to participate is our game nights. We let everyone interested in these games know they can come play, for free. Some will buy games afterwards and a small number will become hobbyists (see point #1).

The Ark

Today I continue to put together an order that actually gets returned to the manufacturer, rather than purchased. My major toy company will exchange product that doesn't work for other product. My plan is to pack my car primarily with giant stuffed animals and drive it to their warehouse in Stockton, about 70 miles away. There I'll exchange it for the stuff I want, mostly jigsaw puzzles and craft items. I would ship them back, but in the case of the giant stuffed animals, their size makes it too costly.

Michael spent last night helping with the order and sorting Magic cards. That should tell you how slow it was. Sorting Magic cards is the task you do when the store is spotless, the invoices are filed, and you need something to do to stay awake.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Debt Ridden Salute You

Ben Bernanke cuts interest rates by .75%. Not a salute, probably a migraine.

D&D 4 Polls

If you figure that most of the serious D&D players are the DM's, since they tend to have the product investment and time commitment, it's probably fair to assume that they're the ones most likely to participate in online debates. It's also pretty fair to say that where they go, the players will follow. Traditionally, most D&D players are freeloaders for the most part (no product investment, no time commitment), and if they'll tend to follow the leader (DM), especially if their investment is small, like a new Player's Handbook. What I'm building up to is that the online polls seem to be pretty favorable, with the caveat that those who post online tend to be more committed than your average gamer, and the polls have a pretty small sample., with a slightly more nuanced poll, has 4E approval at 61%. Another 9% are on the fence with 16% not caring or undecided. Enworld has a much larger sample, but only a simple up or down poll on whether you like it. 75% have voted positively. There are older polls out there with more negative results, from rpgworld and Paizo, but it seems that the newer polls are more positive, and I think the Wizard's Presents books have had a strong impact on this. That alone should tell you that these are not your average player; these folks tend to be more plugged in. It sounds to me that if you can get 70%+ of the alpha players excited about your product, you probably have a success on your hands.

One of the detractors commented that he was shocked that the two polls were tracking so positively when so much energy was directed at criticizing the 4E changes. The response:

people who like what they're seeing are less likely to spend five hundred posts convincing everyone else of the same thing...

Those who don't like it tend to focus on practical consideration versus quality of the content. They don't want to make the investment, they feel it's too soon, they don't want to commit to the reading, or they're perfectly happy with that they have now. Add into the mix the knowledge that within a couple years they'll be forced to buy it, and you can see where the detractors get a lot of their animosity. In the past, versions of the game have acquired a strong early foothold and dominate game groups and convention games in a very short time.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ban This

I was looking at past reports of role-playing game hysteria from the 90's and comparing it to attempts to ban violent video games in this decade. Mostly I was hoping to map it out and find a correlation in various states, such as a predilection to ban threatening sub-culture media in the Mid-West. It was clear pretty quickly that there are some big differences.

First, RPG's never became mainstream, only a misunderstood sub-culture that caused a stir of concern, but never percolated to the top of the agenda. The video game market, sales wise is about 100 times larger, and about half the population have consoles.

Second, because the video game market is so large, and violence in them is so pronounced and viewable, it's very easy to understand and document the images. They're the same in each individual console game and not in some kids imagination. Because of this and the prevalence of video games, it has become an easy attack of opportunity, an method for politicians, both experienced (like Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and ironically, Arnold Schwarzenegger) and newcomers, to make names for themselves.

This has spread legislation far beyond the Mid-West, which does have a good share of it, to New York and California. Luckily the video game community, with it's sales 100 times larger than the RPG community, can mount vigorous defenses with the first amendment on their side. They always win, at least so far. To use a computer industry term, the RPG industry has security through obscurity. Nobody cares anymore because they're culturally insignificant.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Emerging Themes

Trade Show Hiatus. I'm thinking I'll take the year off from the trade show circuit. My reason for wanting to go were the usual ones of finding what's hot this year. Instead, the new store finds me with more things I want to buy that currently exist than I have money to spend in my budget. This includes Games Workshop product and lots of new game/toy crossover items. The sales level is actually high enough in the new store to try just about everything that comes out, a big luxury and a potential danger.

Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I figured out today that the new Wizards of the Coast 4E adventures are exactly what I'm looking for. The first one is a Village of Hommlet type open-ended adventure for 1st level characters. I'm hoping to re-capture some of that 1st Edition wonder, the sense of place, the desire to explore over the next horizon. What I don't want are dungeon crawls, exotic urban adventures or travel. I want a group of players to feel invested in their local environment. My main concern: That a group of experienced, possibly jaded adults, can't recapture that. Can you really find wonder over the next hill, exploring a ruin, after you've spent years playing characters who explore different planes of existence? I sure hope so.

The Power to Say No (Gatekeeper Model). I'm starting to look around and notice that our local competition is gone for the most part. This is a double-edged sword, as there is synergy between local stores, as opposed to winner-takes-all competition. If it was winner take all, retail stores would mysteriously burn to the ground on a regular basis. We're in the unique position of being the only game in town for most games. We always have the option of saying no to a product or product line. I'm wondering out loud how much control we really have. If I deny a new CCG, for example, a serious customer may buy it online, but their interest will wane when they find they have nobody to play it with locally. That happens with games we actually sell too, so it's not unrealistic. As that only game in town, people expect us to carry everything. However, we have to walk a fine line as product gatekeeper. We have to decide what we'll let in the door and what we'll deny because of lack of interest, margin, ethics of a company, lack of money you name it. This is new for us and we're already feeling pressure from our expanded customer base. For the most part, we give people what they want, but sometimes it takes time.

Toy Transition. A lot of effort in the first half of 2008 will be transitioning our toy inventory. This includes accentuating what works: craft items, Schleich animals and fantasy items, toy vehicles, science kits, puzzles. It includes reducing what doesn't work: Thomas, stuffed animals, doll stuff, etc. There's a theme of fun creativity that will run through the toy section. There's also a gender trend, with girls gravitating towards crafts and boys gravitating towards science and vehicles. I don't assign gender roles, I just cater to them.

Inverted Sales Hours. This is kind of unusual, but in the old store, most of the sales happened mid-afternoon, probably between 3-5pm. In the new store, they happen later, between around 6-8pm. Part of this is our extended hours, 10am-10pm instead of 10am-7pm. I work the mornings and early afternoon, because that's when business is done: ordering, receiving, paying bills, you name it. My concern used to be that my evening employees would be out-of-touch with the realities of the business, as they mostly managed the store during the slow evening hours, making sure the game center ran smoothly. Now I'm learning that with inverted sales hours, I'm the one in danger of becoming out of touch, as I miss most events and the sales driven by them. It means asking more questions and maybe having employees document some of their interactions in a store log.

Record Inflation. With inflation numbers skyrocketing, we're already hearing about price increases and potential fuel surcharges. UPS is predicting $4/gallon fuel by this Summer and we can expect distributors to pass that cost on to retailers.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Zombie Movies

I just watched Undead or Alive, a really funny zombie western. It's a "Watch it Now" video on Netflix, if you want to check it out. My favorite lines are given by Geronimo's niece (played by Navi Rawat) as she talks to Luke (Chris Kattan) one of the dimwit cowboy heroes:

My name is Sue.

You mean like Sioux Indians?

No, like Susan.

You mean like Susan Indians?

Glasgow Phillips, a South Park writer, is the director of this one, so you should have an idea of what to expect. If you like your zombies with humor, like with Army of Darkness, give Undead or Alive a shot.

About Dice

Dice are supposed to be one of those "evergreen" no-brainer products that every game store not only sells, but can't get enough of. It is true that everybody needs dice, and it it is true that some people have something close to an addiction to dice, but it does take some effort to have the right dice.

There are three dice companies worth noting. Chessex is the dice champion, the one to beat, the gold standard in dice. They sell those "bricks" of dice you've probably purchased, along with loose dice that I've recently started buying. They come out with new lines of dice twice a year, like a fashion show. There are actually customers who come in looking for these, so it's a big deal.

Koplow is a big company too, but you may have not heard of them. They tend to sell a lot of bulk dice products, specialty or educational products and the dice game that sells metric buttloads during the holidays, Left-Center-Right (LCR). I started an argument at my first game convention by getting the head of Koplow and the head of my main distributor to talk to each other about why I could never get any Koplow stock. They each blamed each other. I was learning.

Finally, at the boutique end of the spectrum we have Crystal Caste. Crystal Caste makes the dice you would buy if you hit the lottery. They've got sets of bone dice (real animal bone), iron, semi-precious stones, and various other high-end materials. They used to sell beautiful plastic dice called "dragon bones", but as far as I can tell, there is a limit to how much a gamer will pay for a dice set. Q-Workshop, which makes $20 sets of runic dice, is a good example of this. They make beautiful dice that no gamer will pay for.

We sell dice in the store in two ways, in "bricks" of dice, plastic cases of polyhedral dice or D6's of 12mm and 16mm, or loose in acrylic displays. For bricks of dice, Chessex is the brand of choice. Bricks of dice are easy to sell. They're tracked, they're pretty in sets, and they're as easy to sell as any other product. It's the loose dice that make me a little insane sometimes. When customers come up with handfuls of various dice, it's up to use to manually enter the price, remembering what ever style costs and identifying the little buggers. Identifying a "pearl" from a "marble" isn't always easy. Sometimes they actually ask questions about the loose dice (groan). "Do you have this style in a light green?" Loose dice are just there. We buy them in bulk. We get what we get. Just buy a brick for the love of god. That's what I want to say, but don't. When I tell you about the role-player dice customers, you'll begin to understand.

Because they're not part of the inventory, loose dice never appear on sales reports, other than a generic dice department. Therefore, they're off the radar, out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Anything off the radar that takes effort is something I generally have disdain for. Then I'll look at that other department report and realize I need to re-fill the displays. It actually is worth the effort.

The bricks of dice don't automatically sell. I used to believe this and I carried every style of Chessex dice. That's right, all of them. When I finally did the math, I realized that my dice sales were pretty slow compared to the rest of my inventory. I slashed and burned, putting on sale about a third of my dice stock, blowing out the ugly multi-colored speckled varieties and colors that generally don't sell. Some unsellable sets were opened to make displays of dice. Yellow, for example, is known as a color with limited appeal, as well as various shades of brown. Pinks sell well to certain people (not always women), but are worth keeping around. I manage dice pretty ruthlessly, dropping those that don't sell within about 6 months. After a year of this, I came up with steady sellers, and combined with new releases twice a year, the amount of dice is probably back to where it was when I had everything.

There are three groups of people who buy dice. The role-players buy sets of polyhedral dice and occasionally matching D6 sets. These are sets of 7 dice: D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, percentile, and D20. The "D" refers to die. They inevitably ask for sets of D8's or D12's or something similarly not available. They key there is to hunt down Chessex at the local conventions. It's the only place to find quantities of a particular die types. RPG gamers tend to be the serial dice buyers, collectors, or addicts. They tend to have dice "collections" and will buy a new set of dice for each new character, or just because they happen to be visiting a game store (god bless them).

The wargamers are far more utilitarian. Dice are something they would be happy to borrow or use a community set. A role-playing would shriek in horror if you asked to borrow their dice. "What! You'll roll all the luck out of them!" It's not uncommon for a role-player to replace dice because they stopped rolling well, or a particular key die failed them in a time of need. Or someone touched them. Meanwhile, the miniature gamer is looking at the bottom of the dice cube at the price, attempting to find the cheapest set with the highest appeal.

The third set of dice buyer are the bar crowd. These people aren't gamers, at least from the perspective of the gamer sub-culture. A better description would be bar fly, or maybe dice skank. I know that sounds harsh, but these are not standard general public folks. They're mostly women, but occasionally a man will come in and buy for the others, kind of a dice pimp. The women are notable because of the tattoos, tight clothes, lots of cleavage and mangling of the English language. I kid you not! These ladies are all about the bars, and their one and only game is liar's dice. They tend not to like our style of dice, preferring square cornered dice rather than the rounded corners of most gaming dice. What they do enjoy are the colors, and it's not unusual for them to spend an hour or more sorting various D6's on the counter, looking for just the right color combinations. They'll empty the bins completely before choosing the ten dice they like. They never spend more than ten bucks or so, and never buy bricks (but always ask if they can break brick sets).

Before you laugh at all these various gamer geeks, let me tell you, it's contagious. I spent years with a small collection of dice, just enough to play a role-playing game. It wasn't a collection as much as a sack on a shelf somewhere. I thought little of it. After owning the store, things changed. I had to have a different set of dice for each character, including a matching bag. At one point, my giant in-store collection wasn't enough. I trolled conventions looking for pre-release dice that weren't available elsewhere. I even paid full retail for these beautiful random number generators, when I could have bought a set in the store for half that. It rubs off on you.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Weekends Off

This weekend will be my first "official" weekend off since starting the store over three years ago. The first year I worked every day, about 361 days that year. I took off Christmas, Thanksgiving New Years and July 4th. Other than that, I had nobody else to help with the store. I'm not one of those control freaks, there just wasn't any money. The second year I made the difficult decision to hire someone for Sundays and to stay late Friday nights. That was really hard. The gulf between doing everything yourself and hiring someone to do even a little bit of your job is vast. Many store owners can't do it. They just stay closed a day a week, rather than risk hiring someone.

Now, once you've hired someone for even a day, it's easy to keep going. You start thinking you're some kind of management genius, at least until you have management problems, usually the same ones that repeat themselves over and over again. Management is just another kind of work, as opposed to the holy grail of work efficiency. The ideal would be to hire someone for my own job and go work on some other majestic business development plan, such as a second store, or my own line of gaming accessories. That's many years off.

Now that I have weekends off, I start looking at my schedule and realize that although I "officially" have Saturday off now, there are at least three Saturdays over the next two month that I might need to be at work anyway. We've got a big Magic tournament that requires two people for the afternoons. I also have a trade show in late January over one weekend. Dundracon and a game auction are scheduled for February, and both take Michael working off the sales floor. To paraphrase Hillary, it's not just about hope, it's about working to make the change. I may need to hire another employee to truly have weekends off, someone who can work Saturdays when it's busy.


On the way into work today on interstate 4, I swerved over a lane to avoid the CHP chasing a cow. It was a little baby cow (I'm sure they have their own term), but I could still imagine it embedded in my crumple zones if things went south. That got me thinking about my theory on major screw ups. It's a simple theory: it takes three things to seriously screw up. It's usually a condition, an event and something else. For example, bald tires, rain and not paying attention. You can have rain and bald tires if you watch the road like a hawk. You can get away with two out of three things, but that third thing can kill you.

Whenever I hear about something like a plane crash or bizarre accident, I try to figure out those three things. Maybe it's just a superstition, but it seems to work for me. In my own life, I try to watch for those two our of three so I can visualize the potential threat. The theory works in business too. Customers are automatically that third factor. If it's possible to hurt yourself on something, a customer will find a way. If you have a wet floor and no sign, they will fall automatically. It's a given. If there's an opportunity to steal something, eventually that person will come in and use that vulnerability. It's not a question of what are the chances, it's a question of when.

Things like finance are important to watch too. The economy is that third factor. For example, if you don't have a reserve fund or ready capital, and the economy goes south, you're at risk for all kinds of bad events if just one thing goes wrong, like when customers suddenly stop playing your top game.

Calm After the Storm

This is that post-holiday week where everything just kind of stops. Hours go by without customers and you try to do those tasks that have been piling up since the holidays, or in the case of something like paperwork, since around May. When you've finished with all these less important projects, you start going over what's left. At a certain point you decide if those tasks will ever get done. Will I ever sort those boxes of dropped off Magic cards? If not now, when? Do I really want to pay an employee to file invoices from six months ago? What are the chances we'll ever need to find one at this point? How about a big box simply marked "2007"?

The tendency is also to attempt to spend your way out of the low period. Perhaps if you had just a few more hot games, something new at the very least, customers will come back. That's a bad bet. They'll come back when they're good and ready, and probably not for a few more weeks. If you own a game store, cleaning, filing, working on your marketing budget are all good tasks for right now. Better yet, last year this week I was on vacation in Paris. It's not that this period is just slow, it's demoralizingly slow after a peak season. It is emotionally draining to have the car screech to a halt after setting top speed records. Thumb your nose at the whole thing and take a trip.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Review: Wizard's Presents Races and Classes

Few books have been criticized more soundly before arriving in the store than Races and Classes. It's a book timed to arrive in December, in the deep winter of D&D malaise, when many players have stopped buying books altogether in anticipation or dread of 4th Edition, due out in June. Rather than a teaser, with some crunch to tide gamers over the long winter, Races and Classes is a book of essays and artwork. In gamer terms, this is known as "fluff," and fluff tends to be superfluous in the world of D&D, a game that attracts power gamers and "min maxers" like no other.

I scoffed at Races and Classes too, even after glancing through it. Then one day I realized that my long awaited D&D 4th Edition campaign was about to hit the planning stages and all I knew about it was the rumors and random quotes I was reading on Enworld. I was happily surprised to find that Races and Classes is a more concise, nuanced version of what I had come across online, often with better explanations of why something was, not just that it existed in the new edition.

The look of the logo and artwork are discussed in the first chapter. We learn the artists are trying to walk the line of appealing to the average 12-year old without alienating the veteran players. I personally find it a little too juvenile for my tastes, but I can live with that. My preference would be darker, Planescape style artwork of someone like Tony DiTerlizzi or Brom, but I'm generally in the minority on these things. The new artwork and logo remind me of second edition D&D, a simpler, hand-illustrated look.

The section on races describes how the designers chose the core races, keeping iconic races while dropping those that were more fuzzy or somewhat controversial. Gnomes got dumped; they never really had a solid place in the game. Half-orcs also got dropped, with their heritage of rape and misery. New races came out of a pool of nearly 200 races played in D&D games around the world.

The designers found that the tiefling had amazingly high appeal, so they became a core race. Tieflings now have a shared heritage of diabolical origin and a shared physical appearance. Previous tiefling versions had a menu of freakish physical traits you could chose from and a variety of extra-planar origins. The tiefling is much simpler now.

Dragonborn is a new reptilian headed humanoid race they developed based on all the dragon-like races in play; half-dragons, dragon-blooded, you name it. People seem to want to play dragons. They sound like they take the high strength position from the now defunct half-orc. I don't care for how the Dragonborn look, but I'm guessing they'll be popular with all those people who played half-dragons.

Eladrin is a curious addition, as they're not the planar eladrin of the past. They're meant to be a kind of high elf from the faerie realm known as the feywild. With dozens of races of elves in past editions, the designers decided to draw a line and make all elves wood elves, or simply elves. Drow would come later, but if you want to play an elf in core 4E, he's a woodsman like wanderer originating in the forests. If you're looking for an alien, ivory tower, magic dabbling elf, the eladrin is for you.

Other races got slight tweaks. Humans, always known for their adaptability now have a negative trait: corruptibility! Yeah! Halflings were wandering gypsy types in previous editions, and now they're river dwellers, plying the swamps and river trade routes with their boats. Dwarves are intended to be surface dwellers, their mountain homes near the surface of the earth with natural light and better relations with their neighbors. They lose their darkvision in this edition, one of those subsystems in the game that was always a pain in the butt. Darvision? Low-Light? Torch? Lantern? Who really cares.

The most important aspect of race in 4E is that it matters more later on. In previous editions, as the designers point out, your race gave you some random junk on your character sheet and maybe a boost in an ability here or there. That information became increasingly irrelevant as your character progressed. In 4E, you can chose racial feats throughout the characters career, adding additional flavor and abilities that tie in perfectly with the characters class.

The section on classes is all about defining the role of the class and making sure they have an array of powers they can use: a) all the time, b) once per encounter and c) once per day. Every character class gets these, and every character can do a little "shrugging off" of damage, allowing the cleric to spend less time healing them. Speaking of the cleric, those who avoided the cleric role in the past because he was a walking medic will be happy. Healing is no longer in the realm of spells, but instead in rituals. This means clerics don't waste their resources on healing, they can instead focus on their Flame Strikes and related combat goodness.

The Book of Nine Swords and the Warlock class are pretty good 3E guides to what these classes will look like. The goal is to remove the mathematical resource model from previous games and instead create a system where the game can move forward even after the major party resources are depleted. The Warlock, like in 3E, can always do that annoying eldritch blast thing, for example. Characters are also balanced out based on their roles in combat, not their overall role. Just because you get a ton of skills (rogue), doesn't mean your character should get short-changed on the battlefield. Speaking of skills, there are far fewer of them, many of them rolled into others, keeping the bookkeeping to a minimum and avoiding a lot of skill problems like the fiddly synergy point rules.

The magic systems have been designed to avoid overlap and allow each class to have its place in the sun. Mind control magic is minimized in hopes of a future psion class. Blasting large numbers of people (called controlling) is the realm of the wizard. Blasting single opponents with wicked effect is the realm of the Warlock. Clerics have the usual holy flame spells, spectral weapons and ward type protections. There is little overlap here. There is no class that uses someone else's spell list. Each spell casting class sounds unique and fun with their role clearly defined and their power source unique.

Wizard spell schools are dropped and instead they've got implements that focus their power: orb, staff, and wand. If you're doing long distance evocations, you're probably a wand wizard, for example. The Magic system is probably the most problematic"legacy" system of the current edition, and although they don't gut it, they've tried to focus on what works and what doesn't. Save or die spells are gone, for example.

Alignment is optional in 4E. Most people are simple not aligned and spells that depend on alignment are mostly gone. Want to detect evil? That's going to be your personal value judgment, not a game breaking ability used by the paladin.

So for $20 you can have a glimpse into the next version of the player's handbook. The book is a 96-page soft cover, with color illustrations throughout. If you're planning to implement 4E upon it's release, this book should prove a useful guide. I've already tweaked my new home brew world to work better with the back stories of the various races.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sick (like canine)

If there's a lesson for me this week, it's how being self-employed sucks when you're sick. I caught a bad cold/flu thing from the family. I woke up at 3am with a stomach ache and a story to tell about the tieflings in my new campaign world. I'll blog about that over there.

Let's see... Interesting thing yesterday - placed an order with my book distributor for the three core 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books due out in June. The margin is much worse than from Wizards of the Coast or even game distributors, but historically the book trade has totally screwed over the hobby trade on D&D version releases, and lately, just popular book releases. It's Wizards fault for not making the problem clearer to the book trade, just like their lack of caring about online card sales.

There have been at least two book trade glitches in the past year, and the D&D 3.0 release was sold early in the book trade, back in 2000, from what I've been told. Ordering a "bridge" quantity of books from the book trade guarantees I'll have the books at the same time as the big book stores. If they're selling early, I'll sell early. I'll order the bulk of my books from Wizards of the Coast, but I'll have enough to tide me over until the "official" order arrives.

Friday, January 11, 2008

OGL Early Adopters

It's interesting reading various blogs from game company people discussing the $5,000 OGL early adopter fee. Some companies are in whole hog. Most notably Necromancer Games and Goodman Games have 4E products announced, mostly adventures and re-hashed supplement books. Blah.

Green Ronin and Mongoose are more on the fence, but both of those companies have viable non-D&D products that they've been relying on of late. They can afford to sit back and analyze a bit. Mongoose made some interesting economic observations about the license fee:

Under a 'typical' licence agreement, with royalties (which this deal is not), that $5,000 might be matched against 10% wholesale royalties, which is effectively claimed off each book sold. If you assume a $24.95 book has a 60% discount in the trade, you get $9.98 for each book sold - thus you need to sell $50,000 worth of books, or 5,000 $24.95 books if this deal is to match a 10% licensed arrangement with, say, Warner Brothers or Sony. Sell 10,000 such books, and the equivalent royalty rate is 5%, which is by no means a bad deal. Sell 20,000 and it becomes 2.5%, and so on.... So, the question becomes, can we sell the minimum 5,000-odd books to make this worthwhile?

Mongoose was established as a D20 company and they've done very well with D&D in the past, so no doubt they should be able to do well with 4E, provided customers don't balk at their shoddy publishing quality. We'll skip all of their 4E product unless they get their quality under control. Publishing books in house might save them money, but it won't do them any good if nobody will buy the product.

It sounds like with only 10 companies invited to throw their hat in the ring, we'll see few OGL products initially. That was likely the intent of the 6-month head start with the early adopter program. Wizards is trying to prevent a D20-like glut of product. I didn't have a store back then, but one of my distributors told me that at the height of D20, there were literally hundreds of new D20 products released every day. My guess is that in 2007 there was maybe one a week. I think a 4.0 glut was unlikely to happen however, as publishers and retailers weren't going to repeat that mistake.

The store has made a lot of money on the D20 glut of the past, buying up "dead" product for very little and selling it at a good margin at conventions and at the store. We started the store in late 2004, so we missed both the 3.0 glut and the 3.5 outrage and dumping of outdated product. It was the D20 glut that truly changed me from a gamer to a business man. I would buy what I thought were fantastic books, by the dozen, at pennies on the dollar, and sell them for less than half the cover price. It smashed any romantic illusions I had about role-playing games. Often I would buy RPG books blindly, by the pallet, by the pound, or in case quantities. I didn't care what it was, I only cared about the price, the quantities of each item and the shipping rate.

The stuff became widgets, rather than games that I loved. It was also a window into past mistakes and insight into future sales. When The Complete Book of Left Handed Gully Dwarves won't sell for a dollar, you learn not to invest too heavily in future books of that sort. You learn which companies have bad reputations, since you now stock large quantities of their remainders. Most of them are gone now. Some customers would apologize when they bought a $40 book from me for $12. What they didn't know is that I only paid $4 for it. That's a much better margin than if they bought something new from me.

Unfortunately, this year we will be blowing out solid D&D 3.5 product and related RPG road-kill that customers shied away from in 2007. These won't be cases of remainders, everyone is steering clear of that stuff, it will be straight off the shelf. Talking to various industry people, many books are getting dumped directly into the recycle bin, as they have little chance of ever being purchased at any price. I'm trying to come up with ideas to fill my empty RPG shelves. If this all sounds pessimistic, know that there's a lot of enthusiasm and predictions of strong sales for 4.0. Those awaiting the new game will hopefully find it satisfying, while those who refuse to move to the new system will find some great 3.5 bargains.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Soft Post Holiday

The consensus from the industry people I've spoken to is that the post holiday season was strong, but shorter. The two weeks after Christmas is usually a great sales period, but this year it has been reduced to one week. The feeling on this is that it's related to concerns over the economy, with customers spending less until things settle down.

Yells and Tears (politics)

I've noticed that nobody has made the comparison of Hillary's tear with Howard's yell. Howard's yell seemed to be this disconcerting show of emotion that caused suspicion and potentially sunk his campaign. Hillary's tear has created a cultural divide, with conservatives ranting in disgust and most women of all political persuasions coming to her defense, increasing their support for her campaign. Two unusual emotional responses with very different outcomes.

Taxing the Air

I'm lucky that one of my customers is a sale tax auditor for the state. I can ask him all the complex questions about taxes without the hassle of actually contacting the board of equalization. My latest questions were about sales tax on snacks. In the last store, everything came out of a vending machine, and all vending sales are taxed. Not only were all the state and local governments getting a cut of all those snack purchases, but the city had a special tax as well.Walnut Creek taxes vending machines as employees when you pay for your business license. The new store has everything on display or in a cooler, so it's much more complicated.

When it comes to drinks, the state makes a differentiation between food and well, non-food products. The main way to tell the difference between whether you're drinking food or something else is the bubbles. Anything with carbonation is not food. Water is food, but add CO2 to make sparkling water and you've got an exotic, taxable product. The exception is sparkling juices that are pure juice; they're still food. Too many additives and you've ventured away from the food realm. So teas, coffees, water, un-carbonated or pure juice, and chocolate milk are all food and aren't taxable.

Edible food (not to be confused with drinkable food) of any sort is not taxable, regardless of sugar content. The state used to tax sugary foods, but there was an uproar and the law was changed. You would think with the problems with our budget and obesity, taxing junk food would be back on the table. The exception to no taxes on food is hot food. Hot food is taxable. How hot though? If I sell you a cold Pop Tart, it's not taxable. If I sell you a Pop Tart and my store microwave is accessible to you, it's considered potentially hot food and is taxable. Therefore, my microwave is safely kept in the tax free environment right inside my office, two steps away from taxation.

Oh yeah, and on the plus side, I learned that all the sales tax I've paid at stores that don't accept my re-sellers permit can be deducted from the sales taxes I've collected. I dug up all my receipts and it looks like I'm saving about $150. That should pay for another car load of Mexican Coke, my task for this afternoon.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

OGL D&D Specific

There was a conference call about the new OGL, with a summary posted on Enworld. What struck me as different and interesting is that the new OGL is D&D specific, limiting use by requiring that a game utilize the Player's Handbook. Games like Conan and definitely non-fantasy D20 products wouldn't work under the 4.0 OGL. Non fantasy products worked pretty poorly anyway, if you ask me.

With the OGL tied more closely to D&D, how would that impact the future impact of games like Spycraft or Mutants and Masterminds – games that in 3e used the core d20 concept but diverged radically from D&D?

The new version of the OGL isn’t as open-ended as the current version. Any 4e OGL product must use the 4e PHB as the basis of their game. If they can’t use the core rule books, it won’t be possible to create the game under this particular version of the OGL.

Future versions of the OGL, including a 4e d20 Modern version, may make certain games possible where they weren’t before.

Now that the OGL details have been announced, past d20 publishers are announcing their products for fourth edition. They mostly sound like update products rather than anything ground breaking. More of the same. Yawn. As a store owner, I won't be falling into the trap of buying past D20 products updated to 4E. In fact, unless I see some huge appetite for all things 4E, I'll likely choose to pass on third party D&D products, much like we do now with D20 being dead.

D&D and Everyone Else

Here's a chart showing RPG sales for last year. We've got D&D at 43%, White Wolf in all its variations at 10%, Paizo at 10% (D20 support for D&D) and everyone else. All those other games comprise no more than 4% of the total. This includes a "misc" category that includes one-shot books and stuff that doesn't fit elsewhere (6% of the total). As I've said before, it's hard to get motivated about RPGs beyond D&D. Nothing else individually holds a significant share of the market, yet collectively other games comprise half of the total sales and can't be ignored.

D&D is the easy sell, and many stores would like to drop everything except D&D. That's pretty much all the big box stores sell, with an occasional surprise. You have to be a certain type of masochist or fan to carefully manage the 50% of RPGs that aren't D&D. I'm half fan, half masochist, so I endure. I'm the kind of store owner that wishes it was 1985, when you could run a "fantasy" game store on the sales of role-playing games alone, with no Internet to interfere. The difficulty in the care and feeding of role playing games is what keeps the big chains from elbowing in on that second 50% of sales, and why it's now so difficult to run multiple stores.

The game industry has been discussing the problem with "front list" versus "back list" when it comes to game products. It used to be that RPGs and other games could rely on the concept of the long tail. The sheer quantity of product means we sell less of more items for a shorter period of time. Stores can no longer carry the quantity of product they did in the past. A while ago there was the concept of a "full line" game store, a store that carried everything in a product line. The quantity available now means most stores can't come close to carrying the full line, and worse, many products are cycled through, not to return.

This cycling is sometimes called the "periodical model," in which products are brought in like magazines, kept until demand starts to wane, and then dropped, never to return again. For regular sellers like board games, we often do a rotation, not giving up on a game, but not stocking it all the time. The problem with the game industry is that the manufacturers are small and can't afford to design games using traditional methods only to have them chewed up and spit out under this model. Nobody knows what to do right now, other than to reduce the cost of production and possibly raise prices so they can sell profitably under the model. Those same strategies are why so many small companies are able to raise the quantity of games available, with techniques like printing on demand (POD).

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of incentive to create something special when it has a limited shelf life. As for the long tail, that portion of our sales has been taken over by the Internet, especially PDF publishers and the "secondary market." such as eBay and Amazon's used book program. The best we can do is offer to special order products, but even then, that long tail will include products long out of print, available only electronically or used.


The 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License is available, kinda. It will officially be available in June, but serious publishers can spend $5,000 to get a copy now. I so want one. There's been some criticism that it has taken so long, but I honestly don't see the problem.

Wizards of the Coast is acting like a business, a regular publisher, instead of the head of an industry. Many small publishers rely on them for their livelihoods and need access to the OGL to create product timed for the June release and almighty Gencon. I'm not really sure what WOTC can do other than to make an announcement of the upcoming version with the product already in hand. They were still working on the rules for the core books in October.

In other news, we're having a big role-playing sale at the store, lots of Wizards of the Coast D&D books that were previously excluded from consideration. Looking at our sales records of non D&D books, many of the on-sale books sold well in 2006 and just stopped selling in 2007, even before the 4th Edition announcement. Games that took a dive in 2007 include Mutants & Masterminds, Shadowrun, Runequest and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. Those games aren't dead, it was just clear by sales patterns that new games weren't getting started, with much of the back list gathering dust. The decline in RPGs seems to extend beyond the 4E announcement.

On the positive side, small press role-playing has taken off, and many one-shot titles have done well. Cthulhutech sold out and I'm waiting for more copies. Battlestar Gallactica was a hit for fans, but that demand was satisfied pretty quickly and it's probably not being used for a game. Customers eagerly await the new Traveler by Mongoose and The Dresden Files by Evil Hat. This is small potatoes, with sales of all of those hot books mentioned paling in comparison to a good month of D&D releases, something I haven't seen in a year.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Scrutiny (politics)

Scrutiny is the buzzword today, used by John Edwards and urged by Bill Clinton. They want the press to start scrutinizing Obama more, as he seems to be getting a free ride according to the trailing campaigns. There seems to be some desperation. And if I have to hear Ken Starr's name mentioned once more in my lifetime, I'm going to go insane. Let it go Bill.

Violence in Games

Everyone with a child wants to protect them from the evils of the world, to protect their innocence for as long as possible. Sex, violence, drugs, national politics, carbonated corn based beverages, it's all something kids can do without for as long as possible. Running a game store is participating in a sub-culture, which is by definition not mainstream and not accepted by the majority. Otherwise you could buy our games in Wal-Mart, and increasingly you can, a sign that the culture is changing somewhat. So is this a violent sub-culture?

Sex and drugs are generally not found in games, and in fact, most gamers who have no problem envisioning game violence, don't want sexuality of any sort in their game. The cathartic experience they're looking for has to do with power and conquest, slaying the dragon, winning the war, settling the Catan. If you want sex in your sub-culture, let me recommend a good comic book store. Games are about conflict resolution; the bigger the conflict, the larger the cathartic resolution. That you can do this while consuming carbonated corn based beverages and talking national politics is all the better.

The original games of old were of two types, racing games and conquest games. You raced your stone around your wooden board or your stones moved around a board and cleverly took other stones. Basic, fun, conflict resolution. Those who played these early games had leisure, and historically leisure has been a top down phenomena (so says Karl Marx). Games were originally for kings and pharaohs, then later on the rich. Only recently in history, average adults played games. It has only been in the last hundred years or so that children have begun playing games. From what I can tell, in our modern culture, they play with toys only for as long as it takes them to transition into games (traditional adult activity). So it's not that violent games are being aimed at kids, it's that culturally, kids are engaged in what has historically been an adult activity. Not only that, but turning things around, there's suspicion and ridicule for adults who spent their leisure on the activities of ancient kings. Go figure.

We could argue that kids shouldn't play games, which is a major cultural shift. We could argue that games shouldn't be so violent, something that goes back to the beginning of cultural history. Instead, increasingly, violent media in culture is getting a second look. Violent games, according to some studies, prevent violence. It's make believe, a learning process about violence, or maybe, according to one study about violent movies, if you're in the demographic to commit crime, and you're instead doing something else, you're too busy to get drunk and mug that old lady or break into a car:
Whether the effect is the result of catharsis, being "scared straight" by Hannibal Lector, or merely the consequence of sequestering a large portion of the population most likely to commit crimes during hours when a high percentage of crimes are committed, the economics professors maintain "on days with a high audience for violent movies, violent crime is lower,"
Games have violence because good stories have conflict. Without conflict, you don't have that cathartic resolution. People obviously want that experience, otherwise I would by replacing my miniatures section with twenty seven versions of Sorry, a solid version of an ancient race game. Violence in games, some argue, helps people understand the consequences of violence, the repercussions of violence, and how to process violence in general. These are all mental health skills, if you think about it. It's the reason there's derision for chickenhawks, politicians who advocate war without having the military experience to put it into proper context.

I'm not going to say violent games are good for kids. It probably depends on the kid.
If we're going to encourage our children to pursue adult activities, we need to make sure they have the required maturity. From what I've seen, parents generally know if that's their kid. I would argue, however, that the games we play are constructive, tend to encourage intellectual activity and creativity, and are often performed by the smart kids. Knuckleheads have neither the patience to paint an army or the ability to comprehend the complexity of Dungeons & Dragons.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

New Blog

I've got a new design blog for my D&D 4.0 campaign. It's here. My own players are too busy to leave comments (otherwise we would be playing), so I figured I would open it up to comment. The Blogger software is also way superior to our own forum software for this kind of stuff.


Knocking Amtrak is a bit too easy, kind of like criticizing a game company for missing a street date. Today took the cake, however. Rocco and I took a quick train ride from Berkeley to Emeryville, and back again. It's five minutes each way, but for a two year old, the waiting for trains and the spectacle of the giant machine pulling up is really something. We've tried to do this trip several other times; twice we missed the train because we were getting lunch and twice the train was delayed hours due to mechanical problems.

Today the train pulled back into the Berkeley station and we went down the stairs ... to the dining car. There was no sign, you just have to know that you're going down there. Unfortunately, the doors don't open in the dining car, so if you've gone down the stairs in hopes of leaving, you've automatically missed your stop, since there's no time to fix your mistake.

The trains leave stations as fast as the BART trains - really fast. The conductor was apologetic when he came around to take our ticket, as if this kind of thing happens all the time. Nevertheless, we were essentially ejected at the Richmond station with no way back. It took half a dozen BART stops and a cab ride to get back to my car, as the Richmond station has no agent, no working ticket machines and no schedule as to when the next train would arrive. Rocco didn't seem to mind, so we made the best of it.

I'm not sure what to make of Amtrak. It seems to exist as a sort of transportation place-holder, just in case we need to actually get serious about rail travel one day. It certainly isn't a form of transportation people use by choice. It's slower than a plane or even a bus. It's not cheap. It's prone to delays and rail corridors are the most unattractive parts of our cities. Go figure.

I'm really impressed with an online service called Carbonite. It's an online backup system that does a background copy of changed files from your computer to their site online. It's $50/year per computer with no limit on capacity. I learned about it from Earl, our D&D guy whose also in IT. Earl also turned me on to the Fujitsu laptop I'm using, a really solid machine, akin to what a ThinkPad used to be when IBM still made them.

One of the most onerous computer tasks for the business is keeping things backed up. It requires a server, which is prone to failure. We're on our second server. Both are machines I built during my days in IT. The client computers need to be configured to sync to the server to backup data, another potential point of failure. I was lucky when my laptop was stolen because it had synced a few hours before. The POS machine is more problematic as it's essentially a database server that doesn't back up easily. There's also the chance that the server is stolen or destroyed before the data can be moved off site onto tape; tapes also fail. I've got a giant corporate level DLT drive that at one point would have cost $5,000, but sold on eBay for next to nothing.

I'm thinking I'll probably ditch my file server and put the computers in the store on Carbonite. For printing I can buy a couple of print servers. The savings in electricity for the server alone should cover the costs of the backup service. Before I totally change my file management life, I'll need to do some restoration tests to make sure the service is as good as it looks.

Calling All Dungeon Masters

I'm looking for volunteers to run a Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 campaign in the game center. The games need to be open to new players. We'll form groups of between four and six players (your choice). The game needs to be run at regular intervals, such as once a week or twice a month. The game should use rules and supplements from Wizards of the Coast, so that players get experience with "official" rules. Which rules and supplements are at the discretion of the game master, as is the level and character requirements for the game.

Since volunteers are extremely scarce, we're going to create an incentive and a structure. Each player donates $5/session to play. That money goes into a gift certificate for the game master to purchase new materials for the game (RPG materials, miniatures, and dice only). We can do this because there is way more demand by players than volunteers to run the game. You've gotta pay to play in such a case.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Final Holiday Top Sellers

Here's the "final" list of top holiday sellers starting from Black Friday to today.
  1. MTG - Lorwyn - booster pack
  2. Settlers of Catan Rev. (board game)
  3. MTG - Lorwyn - tournament deck
  4. 40K: Ork Spearhead Box & Book
  5. Mexican Coca Cola
  6. 40K: Space Marine Battleforce
  7. SWM - Force Unleashed Booster
  8. Star Wars RPG - Starships of the Galaxy
  9. Carcassonne (board game)
  10. SWM Starship Battles Huge Pack
  11. Ticket to Ride (board game)
  12. 40K: Chaos Space Marines
  13. Race for the Galaxy (board game)
  14. MTG Time Spiral Booster
  15. Blokus (board game)
A few things pop out. First, Magic has become our best supported event in the store and it's reflected in sales. Second, Warhammer 40K and board games are well represented here, where in years past, it was only board games. Finally, Star Wars miniatures made a surprise comeback. I think the in-store play died, but the minis made it on many Christmas lists. Overall, I like having the added diversity.

CCG's on Ebay

Some collectible card games that we're dropping can be found on eBay. If you're interested, you can get them for cheap and save on shipping:

The Spoils
Stargate SG-1
Transformers Battle Cards

While we're on the subject, the problem with the CCG model, besides the addictive, crack-smoking nature of collecting them, is the risk for a store in trying them out. With a role-playing game, for example, you have a core book that gives you an idea of the games appeal. You buy that $35 core book ($17 my cost) and see how well it sells. If nobody buys it, you discount it and sell it at a convention or something. That's a small risk.

The CCG model requires that you buy a box of cards, usually two boxes: a box of starters and a box of boosters. That's an investment of at least $100, usually more. If nobody is interested in your card game, or if the interest wanes, there is nothing on Earth you can do to get someone to buy those cards at any price. There's no convention outlet and the eBay value is probably ten cents on the dollar. Big risk, but if the crack is good, big reward.

As a player, a dead collectible card game leaves you with a box full of pretty pictures. At least with a miniature game you've got something to add to your geekosphere. That $30 Boba Fett miniature can sit on your computer monitor and declare your geek cred to your co-workers. You will find nostalgic D&D players, wistful Warhammer aficionados, but ex CCG players are bitter as hell. They feel taken and their collections are like ripped up dollar bills reminding them.

I literally get calls every day asking if I buy Magic cards. The conversation goes like this:

Caller: Do you buy Magic cards?
Me: (Hell) No.
Caller: Do you know anyone who does?
Me: No, there used to be several card shops in the area, but they closed.
Caller: Really, Why???
Me: Well, probably from buying too many Magic cards.

I've had parents drop off bundles of Magic cards, just to get rid of them. They're sitting in the office because it's honestly not worth an employees time to even sort them! Gleaning glass is more productive. Everybody wants to sell their Magic cards, nobody wants to buy them unless they're in a pretty foil pack. Remove them from the pack and the drop in value faster than driving a new Kia off the car lot.