Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Mirror

Businesses are a reflection of their communities. A game store is especially so, with many microcosms of the gaming hobby under one roof. There is occasional cross-over, say from role-playing to miniature gaming, but for the most part, hobbyists keep to themselves. We've gone from trying to figure out this "demographic" so it can best be served, to accepting it, something that's turning out harder than I expected. If you're running your game store properly, you're serving the community, selling and promoting what they want, not necessarily what you want. The disconnect can be a little frustrating.

All I have to do is look through the looking glass, which in my case is the right hand bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. Over in the urban part of the Inner East Bay there is richer variety. There is heightened competition between game stores in the inner regions, such as Oakland and Berkeley. It's a level of competition that has divided up stores into their specialties. They have price wars on commodity games like Magic. They each seek a unique identity to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Their large population bases support this. One's a card shop, another is known as a miniatures store, while most good ones have a growing community in multiple areas. You can specialize, but you can't ignore too many other areas of interest. Most interesting though, customers seem to have a much wider range of tastes in these urban centers than my suburban comrades.

Over the hills and farther away from the Bay Area cities, we have the suburban Outer East Bay, where our store resides. We've got about half the population density, if you compare the four major cities around our store to the the population of Berkeley and Oakland. However, that smaller population base has trouble supporting more than a store or two. My feeling is that the burb dwellers have gamer characteristics different from the urbanites. My guess is that:
  • There are far fewer of them to begin with. Urban areas promote cultural diversity while suburban areas are more up with trends. That diversity is why many of us live in urbanized areas. I grew up in the prototypical suburb, Irvine California, an early suburb that received an ideal planned community award from the then Soviet Union. I certainly felt the push towards conformity more there than I do in urban areas (although sometimes there's a tyranny of uniqueness in cities).
  • They don't value independent stores. I get the impression that suburbanites spend a lot of their money buying online, far more than urbanites. Urban dwellers value local stores. They add flavor and support diversity of interests. They keep money in the local community, a crunchy granola value that suburbanites don't respond well to. It's survival of the fittest chain store in the suburbs. Why buy the new D&D book from you and your strange shop with walls of lead and odd customers when I can get my book with a Latte at Barnes & Noble? The holy grail in the suburbs is a big house in the best school district. The urban holy grail is an awesome bakery within walking distance. Suburbanites prefer convenience and consistency of experience over quirky independent businesses.
  • Their tastes are more conventional. We sell a variety of games, but we have difficulty selling games out of the mainstream. There's less interest in the cutting edge, both in miniature gaming, board games, and role-playing. This isn't to say we don't have those customers, but we have a hard time selling things like war games and indie role-playing. On the other hand, we do really well with the Big Three: Magic, D&D and 40K. One of the interesting problems we've had is that many game designers live in urban areas, so it's natural for them to support urban stores with events and promotion. It's hard to get them to come to our special events.
These are broad generalization for sure, and I'm not complaining or criticizing. The last thing I want to do is bite the hand that literally feeds me. We do very well with what we do, hawking our big threes, and other conventional games, but what we do seems so limited sometimes. Anyway, if you're reading this and you're one of my customers, I would bet money that this doesn't describe you. Thoughts?


  1. I'd categorise myself, from your description, as an urban mind. I certainly felt plenty comfortable in LA. Probably helps explain why my homebrew setting isn't getting much interest, if most of the people round here are more burb-minded... from your description, the burbs are target market zero for setting books...

  2. What is your homebrew setting?

    I hate urban centers and I have to work in them all the time. Diversity is cool, but there are too many people.

    So, I am a suburbanite, but I really like setting books. But I am kinda out there as well, since I like rpgs and miniature games. I like too many games as a matter of fact, including mainstream and indie.

    If I get three uses out of a game I feel happy.

    Le sigh.

  3. One of the conceits that I didn't mention in my post is that I'm pretty deeply suburban, with only a later appreciation in life of an urban existence. This also means that I'm personally fairly limited in my gaming interests, despite owning the store.

    I've played about a hundred Euro board games since opening the store, but for the most part, my background is playing the Big Three: D&D, then Magic, and only recently, 40K.

  4. @bloodwolf: dark fantasy/steampunk, heavily influenced by the Black Company series and China Mieville, with some secret sauce I'm not going to disclose. Suffice to say it's Not A Nice Place, and I have hooks available ranging from gritty through nasty right up to high-octane unleaded nightmare fuel, when I can manage to get some players together.

    But there are some moments of levity. I can't wait to see the players' faces when they find out how the dragon problem is kept under control...

  5. @silas -

    I just finished the first Bas-Lag book, Perdido street Station. It started off slow, but by the end it was quite entertaining. And it just cries out for role-play. I guess Mieville was a rpg-er back in his teens.

    GURPS New Crobuzon sounds like it might be fun.

  6. @librarian: yes, I had much the same impression. I'm not so keen on Mieville's politics (he's extremely left-of-centre even for British politics, on which spectrum Barack Obama is terrifyingly right-wing) but I love his writing style and ability to convey feel of a world.

    I mostly took the "hopeless and creepy" feel from him...