Thursday, April 30, 2009

Debit Cards

The credit matters blog goes over a WSJ article about how Debit Cards are the preferred card of choice now (at least according to Visa), used more often than credit cards. They also tend to be cheaper for stores, so that's good for us too.

Visa Inc. reported that the total dollar volume of purchases made using its branded debit cards surpassed credit-card purchases for the first time...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

40K Starmap

Michael made this for our in-store campaign. It starts next Wednesday.

On the First Day of Retail

On the First Day of Retail,
My game store gave to me
Market Saturation

One of the few games in the office/storeroom

When this game went out of print, I scrambled to get as many as I could. After all, it had an annual turn rate approaching 40! While a strong game will sell 4 copies a year, this one went stratospheric. To lose it would make me sad. The replacement version is a $45 jobber with resin pieces, a clear over-complication of a great little game.

Alas, everyone who wanted one pretty much got one at that point, including customers at the last two game conventions. It has a solid turn rate of around 10 now, but I have 40 in stock, or a four year supply (what was once a one year supply). It didn't help that my turn rate of 40 was based on its first year of release, when a hot game sells the most. Overstock, meet market saturation. The silver lining is this is an "evergreen" title, so it will always be a good seller.

P.S. If any retailers want some at cost, let me know.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Magic Release Date is Thursday

Twelve Reasons Why Things Don't Sell

I was brainstorming on why things don't sell. I'm not stressing about it, it's just one of those undefined, nebulous areas in retail.
  1. They don't want it. An obvious answer. It might not interest them, but it might also lack quality. Many good RPG books have poor artwork that turns off a lot of people.
  2. They already have it. It might be a great product, but they might have bought it online. They might have forsworn print products for PDF. They may have bought it at a convention or received it as a gift.
  3. It's damaged. It might be shelfworn. Parts might look damaged. Some miniatures have flash that the uninitiated consider to be damage. Bent weapons are treated the same way.
  4. It's too expensive. Many games can't be sold at any price, but many games start to zip off the discount shelves when the price is reduced. Good games, priced wrong, eventually move.
  5. They can't afford it. Oh, the many things I wanted for D&D when I was 12.
  6. It's sequentially undesirable. It might be book two, while book one is out of print. Many RPG systems will grind to a halt when the core book is missing.
  7. It's an old version. Old RPG books might still have value, while old codices for miniature games tend to have little to offer.
  8. Market saturation. You've simply sold the item to everyone who could possibly want one in your area. This is why conventions are such great venues for remainder product.
  9. Undesirable color. Yellow and brown dice, orange card sleeves, and certain shades of paint sell poorly. We have some shades of paint that are very close to another shade that have sold maybe one a year, compared to 3-4 of the popular shade.
  10. They can't find it! A great way to boost sales without buying inventory is to re-arrange the shelves. Games that are faced, sell better than games that are spine out. Rotate the faced games and sales might increase. Also, there's always a couple of areas of the store that are ghettoized, sub-optimal places for shopping.
  11. Staff issues. The game is great, the price is right, the staff treated the customer poorly.
  12. Environment. The store is dark, smelly, crowded with people or product. The music is too loud or just the wrong music. The other customers are intimidating or obnoxious.
Can you think of any more?

Breath Holding

New Releases. This is one of those crazy weeks where I'm buying thousands of dollars of new games, but the sales are slow. It's a retail act of faith: If you buy it, they will come. Still, every time I do this my faith is tried. Magic: Alara Reborn releases this week, maybe Thursday, perhaps Friday. Apparently there's a memo I didn't get. Somehow there's debate on which day and I'm awaiting confirmation. The "launch party" is Saturday, for those who missed the pre-release, or just can't get enough tournament play. We've also extended free pizza another night for this weeks Friday Night Magic.

This is also the release week for new Imperial Guard stuff for Warhammer 40K. We'll be seeing the new IG codex, the new valkyrie, the re-done sentinel kit, catachan and cadian command squads, cadian shock troops, ratlings and snipers. In an ideal world, I would have budgeted for all this stuff, but it's been one of those pregnant, pre-Summer months where there are more releases than sales. I'm just holding my breath.

More Stuff/Less Stuff. I've finally given up entirely on comics. It's a long story that's more about the time involved and the difficulties with our comic distributor than things like demand or sales. I think the area could use a dedicated comic book store, but it won't be from me. Trade paperbacks and comic books are now 35% off and on our discount shelves for the duration. Taking their shelf space is D&D 3.5! It's not exactly the ghetto shelf (okay, maybe it is), but since we have dedicated shelves for used AD&D and AD&D 2nd Ed, it only makes sense to have Wizards of the Coast 3.5. What it really comes down to is we have more shelf space and budget for RPGs than there are viable games. The area can support only so many games, and we carry all of those.

Infinity. We'll be bringing in a respectable assortment of boxes and blisters now that we've hit critical mass (despite my budget). Expect them in by Friday. We've had starter boxes for months and we've been doing (and still do) special orders. Now that the game "has legs," I can take a bigger chance.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Guys and Old Guys

Friday Night Magic. Our New Guy Night doubled our turnout. After the group fractured with the new store, we were down to 10 people from 20 each week. This was discussed and expected about a month before it happened. The new guy night brought us to 19 people on Friday, with many saying how fun it was and how they'd be back. We lost the most serious Magic players, so those on the sidelines, intimidated with their intense style are coming back, or playing for the first time. I'm told one guy was once disqualified for shuffling his cards for too long! Hooray for fun!

Magic Pre-Release Yesterday. We had our (now) average sized crowd for this, about 40 people. There were people there I know are going to the other store. That's fine with me, obviously. I've put the new store dispute behind me at this point, but I'm afraid there's still a lot of talk and some icy stares. The talk is mostly true, by the way, to everyones credit. It's just from different perspectives. The thing for me is it's a business. I take that business very personally. It's how I feed my family. I'm forced to make decisions, defend my business, but at the end of the day, I go home, relax, play with my four year old, and sleep pretty soundly with my decisions (It's the Confucian model: deliberate-decide-relax). I avoid ruminating whenever possible, chewing the cud, replaying past events. However, there's still a lot of rumination on this issue from Magic players, which I was surprised about, but I guess it's normal.

State of the Store April is a funny month. We may once again break the patterns of the past and "technically" make money for the first time in this difficult month. I say technically because our borderline crooked landlord put a whammy on us and the state government sucked us dry as usual in taxes and fees. Ignore those (big) things and April is looking pretty good.

We're doing better than last year, which is a start. The unemployment in the area is palpable. I've got relationships with many of my customers, and they flat out can't continue in their hobby until their lives change and they get jobs. Several are planning to leave the area or move in with their parents. Regretfully, there are games that we'll no longer be carrying because of this, especially certain role-playing games that were down to just a few players/collectors. Pathfinder, Rifts, GURPS, and Serenity come to mind. Let me know if you think we're cutting something you want; we can always special order.

Big Trends. Collectible miniatures are dead for us. Put a fork in 'em. Our sales of these games are down 90% from last year. Retailers are quietly ditching these things in droves. The WoW starters are the biggest product dump I've seen in a long time. A HeroClix deal seems to be elusive. The D&D pre-paints arrived this week with a thud. Apparently getting what you paid for is not as cool as hitting the lottery. Maybe what people really need for their D&D games is monsters. It's too hard to say yet, plus it's technically not a CMG any more. Reaper pre-paints have been a disappointment, so I'm not really sure what people are looking for. Monsterpocalypse is on life support for us, although I hear it lives elsewhere. Star Wars is the shining light, but it's down from 60 cases in sales during its heyday to around 60 boosters on release day. I think the whole CMG model is preposterous in a new economy where value for money is of key importance. Then again, without that model a pre-painted mini is $3-4, and not many people are willing to pony up for those, we've found. I think the last of our AT-43 was chucked from a speeding car on the way back from Conquest Sac.

What's trending up? It's paintable miniature games, which I personally think is the best bang for your buck, and the most honest gaming experience. It's fairly immune to version changes. It requires only two players, meaning we don't see ten groups of four guys canceling their games because they can't find a fifth player (I'm in this camp now). In miniature games, you buy the box. You get the stuff shown on the box. You spend hours painting the stuff from the box. Oh yeah, and then you can use it in a game! Bonus! Afterwards, you've got cool stuff, even if the rules change. Even if you stop playing the game. You've got a record of your craft skills and if you did I decent job, you've even got resale value years afterwards. Small children think you're a god. As a store owner, I get tired of making excuses for games sometimes. I very rarely have to make an excuse for a miniature game, other than price. That usually means you recognize how cool it is, but you can't afford it.

And then there's D&D 4. This was the week I stopped having that debate. D&D 4 is alive and well. 3.5 should have done so well for us. This week marked the end of me having that discussion with the guy at the counter. I'm just not doing it anymore; I'm exhausted with this discussion. Usually that guy is buying a 4e book when he wants to make that comparison or tell me the problem with 4. It's not that I don't want to discuss 4, because I really do, but the endless comparisons to 3.x give me a headache.

We sold something like 50 copies of Arcane Power and I had that discussion half a dozen times with people buying the book. The game is out. It's doing remarkably well for us. Wizards of the Coast concurs. Organized play for 4e is tremendous. Sales of our remaining 3.5 inventory have come to a screeching halt (it's all on sale now). We no longer sell any 3.5 supplements, except on our discount shelf. 4th Edition is a good game. It's up to you to decide if it's your D&D. However, as is happening now, if you want to play D&D, increasingly those players will be playing 4th edition. After about a year of a new D&D release (coming up on us now), momentum and entropy become the sales drivers. This has happened at least three times in the last thirty years, but if it's new for you, I understand that it's still painful and confusing. I'm sorry, but the rest of us need to move on.

Friday, April 24, 2009


If you like the business side of my blog, you'll probably enjoy this fascinating story from the president of Avalanche Press.

Battlefoam Coming Soon

I just placed a fairly big order for the Battlefoam system for miniature storage. We're getting all their cases and basic foam trays. Custom army foam trays will be along shortly thereafter. This stuff should arrive in June and I think they're far superior to what's out there now. They get my vote for best new gaming company, if there was such an award. If you're a minis fan, check out their website and let me know what you think. The stuff is fairly expensive, about 50% more than Sabol, but it's far more efficient, since trays are pre-cut. Supply will be limited, so getting a gauge on the initial order is important. Of course, by pre-ordering at the store, you can guarantee what you want.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Arcane Power (D&D)

The surprise this week was the strength of the Arcane Power book for Dungeons & Dragons. Martial Power was an essential book, but it was a kind of dull, power oriented book that didn't add much flavor. Arcane Power has the crunch, but it also has new concepts for 4E, such as familiars, summoning, tomes and a slew of feats, including some that resolved arcane multi-classing issues.

Another thing I've noticed, now that we've got a bunch of new classes under our belt, is that every class, including expansion classes, are getting full coverage in subsequent books. If you played an expansion class in previous editions, you would have to wait a long time, or maybe forever, to see new material expanding your options. Arcane Power gives just as much coverage to the Swordmage and Sorcerer as the original PHB classes. In fact, I think the coolest thing in the book is the Storm Sorcerer build, where you regularly knock people on their butts with your stormy powers. Someone else told me their favorite build was the Cosmic Sorcerer, a kind of angry druid class of sorts, so there's a lot of appeal for different things in this book.

Our initial sales have been twice that of Martial Power, on par with the recent Player's Handbook 2. Distributors ran out quickly, as I think they planned for Martial Power level sales as well. I grabbed the last stack out of two West Coast warehouses yesterday, and was told warehouses across the country would be dry by the end of the day. If you want one of these, get it soon from wherever you get your books.

Side Note: The D&D dungeon tiles are also disappearing fast. Many are out of print from Wizards of the Coast, and distributors are quickly running out of their back stock. This is because of the excellent Dungeon Delve book that uses these. I learned yesterday that the higher level delves need two of each tile set, rather than the one I bought. Stock up accordingly (I just did).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


You know those credit card checks you get in the mail? The banks don't want to take them. My bank informed me that they, and many other banks, are getting so many bounced credit card checks due to decreased credit card limits, that they treat them differently now. They send them directly to their collections department, who then processes and sits on them for 4-6 weeks. Oh yeah, and they charge $15 for this process. Forget for a moment that the rates on these are not very good; sometimes you just need a bit more cash. I was looking for a short "bridge loan" but ended up canceling the check and using my own money. Short term loans and financing continue to be a problem for small businesses, and mine is no exception.

Magic New Guy Night (Friday)

Friday is our first Magic: The Gathering New Guy Night. We're re-focusing our Magic group to be more fun and less stressful and competitive. So far we've brought in several new casual gamers who show up and play on Fridays without drafting. Perhaps they felt intimidated by the overly competitive crowd. I know I would! This is an excellent time to bring in younger Magic players who have been considering organized play at the store.

The cost for New Guy Night is $7.50 (half price) for all new guys (and gals) who haven't drafted with us before. It's also $7.50 for existing players who bring someone new. Also, this Friday is our last "free pizza" customer appreciation night.

Just a reminder that Saturday at noon is the pre-release for Alara Reborn; another event not to miss, especially the Dragon Broodmother card that's featured as the pre-release promo.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

George Orwell

Eva of the I Work in a Shop blog posted this 1936 George Orwell article about his experiences working in a bookstore. There are certainly similarities to my own experience, especially the smelly customers, long hours, and those who place special orders and never pick them up. The warning about an unhealthy lifestyle hit home recently. Thankfully, I still love games, and more of them than when I started. The key is truth. It's alright to have sacrificial lambs, bad games you sacrifice on the alter of sales while talking up truly great games. No need to lie or obfuscate.

Sunday Meta (and D&D)

I haven't been interested in blogging much this week. Mostly it's the realization that some people are actually reading this. My newest competitor comes to mind, and that has a rather chilling effect on reporting anything substantive for fear of gross misunderstandings. There was also the game industry PDF thread. You know, the one where I feel like a tool for hosting a battleground on digital content. So yeah, maybe some contemplation is in order.

The other, more interesting reason is that I've been busy writing a D&D adventure. I finished this afternoon. The page count is approaching 65 pages, mostly of 12-point font stat blocks and pretty maps. For you D&D players, 4E is interesting in its flexibility. I took a 20th level adventure from Dungeon Magazine and made it suitable for 7th level. The maps in the adventure were perfect for my needs, even though the structure is fairly haphazard and modular.

For the most part, you can use the Difficulty Class and Damage Per Level chart in the DMG (after you fix it with the errata) to scale one level to another, even vastly different levels. A DC 30 check is considered hard for a 20th level character. Hard for 7th level is DC 23, so you just adjust it. Monsters are only slightly more difficult. You take the role of the higher level monsters and replace them with lower level monsters with the same role. If the adventure was well written, there are often synergies. For example, the monster might slide you 3 squares into a trap or hazard. It takes a little more work, but you can usually find a similar low level monster that does the trick. The D&D Insider Compendium tool is invaluable for this kind of work. The biggest caveat for scaling is mobility. Higher level characters have no problem moving over or through just about anything, while low level characters are often stuck with a coil of rope and ingenuity. There are a few other gotchas, but by following examples in the DMG, they're easily surmountable.

My big question is whether this modular build style has any soul. Is it just a big mechanical jigsaw puzzle, or is it a compelling game? I feel more like a computer programmer about to foist my code on the world, than a creative DM. Still, I think 4e has as much soul as 3e. If you thought it was a miniature combat system grafted onto a role-playing game in 3e, you probably won't find it much changed. However, if you were into deep storytelling and role-playing in 3e, I don't see why you can't do it in 4e, provided you don't rely too much on those "gamist" traps of quests and skill challenges. Playing with some very experienced RPGA guys last month taught me that with enough experience, the rules become second nature and stop feeling center stage.

About those skill challenges: I'll be trying my first real skill challenge in this adventure, but I had a lot of help that moved it well beyond the stated rules. I'm running one of the examples in the DMG, but it's heavily modified. There's a reason why skill challenges have three articles and an errata about them. They're complicated and not fully baked as written, if you ask me. I think with tweaks they just might work.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

40K Campaign

This is the really cool campaign map for Michael's Warhammer 40K campaign. He runs this on Wednesday nights using a modified Mighty Empires rule set. The actual play is your usual Warhammer 40K. The campaign is almost over so stop by and talk to us about the next campaign.

Mini Sales Update

It's a slow day, so why not pretty charts? The real story here is a big resurgence of Flames of War, due, I think to some good play in the game center. The other story is the inclusion of Lord of the Rings, which has done solidly since the release of the new War of the Rings rulebook. The game has been praised almost universally, and many new and old players are jumping on board, again thanks to some solid organized play on our side. Finally, our pick up games are doing well too: Uncharted Seas is a great fantasy naval game with some pretty models while Infinity has become the pick-up game of choice for our Warmachine players.

More Questions Than Answers

I had one of those excellent days where I got to introduce a couple kids to hobby gaming. It got me thinking about why this direct introduction doesn't happen more often. Sure, we'll sell starters sets and explain the game, but this usually happens with people whose friends play the game. It's more rare nowadays to actually get a kid interested in a hobby game without that connection. It got me wondering to what extent hobby gaming is an insulated sub-culture, if that's changed over time and if it's an American thing. Most importantly for the store, what role do we play and is it increasing or diminishing?

There's nothing wrong with sub-cultures, but they tend to be fairly well insulated, trade information via word of mouth, and are generally considered weird by the mainstream. Buy a Grateful Dead album from a music store and you're considered normal, but follow the group around the country for six months and you've delved into the realm of sub-culture, with its own language, style and methods of cultural transmission. Hobby gaming feels like this right now, more so than any time in my life. I often feel like a line sergeant in the gaming sub-culture. Then again, I think you could argue that the concept of "mainstream" American culture is so marginalized as to be a sub-culture itself. It's just as odd and bewildering. News, entertainment and hobbies are all so balkanized that it's hard to point to any baseline.

I also wonder if gaming has taken the opposite route, gaining a certain ubiquity. The availability of gaming books in major book stores and online, the "coming out" of major celebrities as gamers, the popularity of the fantasy and vampire movies, has actually made gaming and the idea of gaming so mainstream that it has lost its edge of danger, or at least become a kind of dorkiness that "straights" simply find dull. Fringe religious groups used to do a good job of keeping the edge on, but they've moved on to video games. Or maybe gaming is just an accepted sub-culture, like the many others. In this scenario, game stores are just another place to find and learn about games, as opposed to the place. Yes, I know, there's this thing called the Internet and game stores have lost some of their relevancy over time, but it's not like we're buggy whip salesmen yet. But can the Internet inspire you to play Dungeons & Dragons? Can it show you what it's like to build, paint and play with Warhammer models in a way that's tactile and approachable?

One of the kids that came into the store took time learn about the games we carried, but even better, wandered into the game center to see what struck them as interesting. Billy, our excellent Magic organizer was playing in the back and he introduced him to Magic, handing out some free cards. Another group was playing Dungeons & Dragons, which worried me for a moment because I know it's the kind of game that's amazing to play, but looks like grown men playing tea party with Barbie dolls to the uninitiated. The kid was still interested - phew! Warhammer 40K was our next stop and we were lucky enough to see one person cutting models off sprues, another painting and a third with completed models set up on the table. This was by far the game that held the most interest for him, but it was also somewhat inacessible to ten year old just starting out. He settled on the D&D, and with any luck, a hobbyist was born.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Distribution of RPGs

There is a lot of anger directed at the game distributors. Here's how RPGs generally get to the game stores:

Wizards of the Coast. The only "major" direct to retailer company will ship books directly to the store with a 50% margin for the retailer. Wizards makes 50%, and the retailer makes 50%. 50% is generally what retailers need to survive in a brick and mortar location. The actual "profit" on game sales is about 5-8% (most stores do about $250,000/year in sales, so do the math). On the topic of margin, it's been discussed that overall retailer margins have been shrinking over the years, causing a lot of stores to re-assess their business practices (or close).

Game Distributors. Distributors have traditionally been the "gatekeeper" of the game industry. They decide what game will get "picked up" and sold to retailers. Retailers are pretty much out of the loop here, although we regularly request distributors to carry an item. If a distributor wants to carry a role-playing game, they'll take 10% for their efforts. 40% will go to the publisher and the other 50% (or so) goes to the retailer. This isn't a bad deal for the publisher, provided they get paid on time (they don't), everything arrives in one piece and they don't have damages (they do), and the distributor re-stocks regularly (they apparently don't). The publisher also pays for the shipping, which is probably another 10% of the value of their goods. But what if the gatekeeper says they don't want your product? You've got a couple options.

Consolidator. There are several companies in the game industry that will collect all the publishers that the distributors denied and bundle them up in a more managable package for the distributors. For example, a distributor might not want a lot of a product, perhaps only a dozen copies of an RPG book for the many hundreds of stores they service. This is not worth the time for them. However, if a consolidator can bundle those twelve books with ten other companies with a dozen product, we're talking something more cost effective. The consolidator, however, is not a charity, and it demands about a 33% or so cut of the profits. So we have 50% for the retailer, 10% fo the distributor, 33% for the consolidator, and a measly 7% or so for the publisher. That's pretty crummy for the publisher, but it's that, or sell direct. In other words, the gatekeeper says the product isn't worth their time, but the publisher wants to get it through the tiers to the game stores and into the hands of happy customers. Some of the known entities that use a consolidator include Goodman Games and Pinnacle.

So why not go direct to the retailer? It's clear you can make a 100% margin by going direct to the consumer, but that's difficult, and many publishers already do that online and at conventions and need additional revenue streams. It's difficult to go direct to the retailer because of the difficulties in bookkeeping and shipping. For example, my store carries books from 30 different RPG publishers. If I had to manage invoices and receiving directly, it would be overwhelming and I would cut it down to about 10 companies. The smallest guys, likely the ones using the consolidators, would be the ones cut. Likewise, small publishers, many of whom have day jobs, don't want to manage invoices and individual shipping for 1000 game stores. There must be a better solution, right?

Perhaps a better solution will present itself in the future, but for now we have massive annoyance from the small publishers towards the distributors. The distributors are just doing what they need to do to stay in business. The publishers have a market and profitable sales, but have a hard time making any money through retailers because of this system. The small sliver of customers who buy more innovative RPG products are forced online to find them. It's a system that stifles innovation, but it's fairly straightforward capitalism.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Buggy Whip Cat Piss Ghetto

Game stores are like buggy whip salesmen at the dawn of the automobile. There are good game stores and there are the cat piss stores that are beyond redemption. Or maybe you like that game stores are the ghettos of the industry. All of these have been used to describe game stores recently, mostly by publishers. I sense ... frustration.

First, let me say that if a game store has been around for a few years, they generally know what they're doing. Nobody intentionally leaves money on the table. Only a game store owner with a serious grudge is going to boycott a game or type of game when there's clearly money to be made. They complain, they threaten, they make grand pronouncements, and then they re-stock. It's how we do it. It's capitalism. It's awesome! Trust it a bit more.

Second, we don't order product willy nilly, shooting at the hip. That's a recipe for disaster. Those stores fail quickly. Ordering product is the single most important activity game stores engage in, and it's not done without metrics and some research, especially talking with customers. Just in time ordering makes it easy to order one copy of a game to see if there's traction. It was mentioned that I ordered only one copy of the new Pathfinder book. As it took 30 days to sell that one copy, think of it as a 30-day supply, rather than a lonely book on the shelf. A book that takes 30 days to sell is not deemed a successful release by me, gatekeeper of RPG products in the store. If it had sold on day one, I likely would have ordered one or two more, which would have been delivered the next day. It has been a long time since I've missed a new release opportunity. I will lose money and overnight books on a Saturday not to be caught flat footed. I kick myself really hard when I mis-order, so I've learned.

Third, the wise man rarely speaks. The so-called spokespeople of the industry speak for themselves and have little in common with most successful store owners. You probably don't know most successful store owners; I only know most of them by name. They don't follow the GIN, write blogs, or engage in industry dialogue. They plug away at their profitable businesses, supporting the community in their own way. I don't need to denigrate those who do speak, but let me say that they tend to drive away voices of reason and definitely discourage new thought in the industry.

Fourth, the death of the game store is highly exaggerated. I think you may be confusing the death of role-playing games in game stores with the death of the entire store. RPG sales seem to be transitioning dramatically to online and direct, with many publishers reporting 50% plus sales through these channels. As I've said before, I think this is the catalyst for a lot of bitching at game stores. Our store has seen growth in RPGs every year we've been in business, but it's the slowest growing department we have, despite strong support and organized play. We carry games from 30 different companies for an annual sales total of around $75,000. We have RPG brains on staff. We do RPGs, meaning we carry every RPG that the local community will support and we do a lot of experimentation. However, market share has tipped heavily to Wizards of the Coast, from about 50% to 75%. To be clear, this consolidation is not my problem. It actually makes my life easier. You don't need to hold my hand or give me marketing materials, just do your own marketing job and entice customers to buy your products, preferably from a variety of channels. They'll find us; that's my job.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Gaming Distractions

I've been distracted from my Lord of the Rings miniatures by Dungeons & Dragons. This is probably good, because the LOTR stuff was starting to feel like an obligation, like work. Adventure writing for 4E has been a slow and clumsy process. It started with rubbing the serial numbers off a dungeon delve and after a month my head is full of campaign ideas. As soon as I could introduce NPC's, my imagination came alive. We now have story continuity and background. I've got enough content for a full level of adventuring, but I don't want to stop. I know where this train is going.

Lately I've been reading about skill challenges, after discovering that I've been doing them completely wrong. They seem devilishly complex to create and very challenging to administer, a sort of skill combat with just as many options for every player as a normal encounter. These should be very appealing to story gamers, as they're highly collaborative. I'm in the process of reading the many articles and errata about them. Perhaps it's their complexity that caught my attention.

I Was Against It Before I Was For It

I feel like I couched my last post with enough questions to accept that the premise was wrong when the correct answers presented themselves. In other words, I'm suddenly quite supportive of electronic content when it turns out to be a different product, and not a bastardized version of something I'm expected to hawk in my store. You can see my thought processes evolve in the comments section of that post.

Unfortunately, many retailers still believe PDF documents are an alternative to print, and for many in low income areas, this may be true. The question for us, in a large metropolitan area, is whether there is a silent undercurrent of PDF only customers who are turning to electronic only versions. However, all the anecdotal evidence and comments and my own personal preferences say that books will be here to stay for quite a long time. That said, the next logical retailer question is how can I get in on this?

I'm pricing out the printing and binding equipment needed to do in-store PDF's. I'm not likely to do it, but I want to know why I'm not likely to do it before I discard the idea. For example, I think it's safe to say that a solid setup would cost about $8,000; half that if I don't mind extra staff to do the ass pain work. I'm not sure what the profit margin is on printing a PDF product for customers, but it sounds like more books than I want to print and a hell of a distraction. It's a little like Magic singles for role playing customers. More likely, we'll partner with the likes of Catalyst Games and other forward thinking publishers to sell PDF's directly off their website and burn them for customers as they're requested.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dave Arneson

Dave Arneson, the co-creator of D&D with Gary Gygax, died yesterday. I got to hang out with him a bit at Conquest San Francisco a couple years back (we sponsored him). He was in poor health then, but made a great effort to sign autographs and be friendly with his many fans. It took me a full day before I could confess to him the profound effect he had on my life. I feel like we're in a "post" period now, when it comes to D&D.

Digital Devaluation

Some retailers were privately praising Wizards of the Coast for pulling their PDF's from the Internet, while I'm still on the fence. I really don't know how these electronic products effect our brick and mortar sales. Are they supplemental sales? Are they replacement sales? Who knows? Besides the obvious concern that these are replacement sales, and some certainly are, the second biggest fear, one that I subscribe to, is that these electronic versions devalue the marketplace.

In other words, if an electronic version of a $50 hardcover book is regularly discounted at 35% off (the current Paizo sale and regular Amazon print price), the customer perception is the book has a value of $33. Buying that book for anything over $33 is foolish, or so the Internet logic goes. It's the Amazon effect, but it's perpetuated with electronic products. So what was the response to the WOTC debacle from digital RPG providers? Lets have a sale! Paizo, Green Ronin and others went on the offensive with a sales drive. No offense to them, but as a retailer it makes me wonder if they understand how to actually sell things. Or perhaps my brick and mortar sensibilities are irrelevant in a digital world.

So what's so wrong with sales and product devaluation? First, from a retail perspective, customers are being trained for sales and will learn to only buy items when on sale. It's retail 101. It's Pavlovian; shopping dogs that we are. Second, whether or not digital products are supplemental or replacement products, the perception is that of a lower value, which eventually translates into lower sales for products at full price. As a customer, that sounds great, but the reality is that stores simply won't carry products at a reduced margin. They can't keep the lights on. They'll move on to selling other things.

The theory goes:
  1. Reduce the brand value of the product
  2. Force sales to Internet discounters (electronic or print)
  3. Which guts RPG sales for brick and mortar stores
  4. New player growth stops, as it's believed brick & mortar stores introduce players to these games
  5. Destruction of your segment is complete
This is a war games scenario, where the only people playing role playing games in the future will be white haired old men at game conventions (myself included). Game stores, many of whom have seen a decline in RPG sales over the last few years, will still be around, but they'll be selling other things, or get this, maybe only Dungeons & Dragons because Wizards of the Coast has preserved their brand value. It's the old Taco Bell effect from Demolition Man that I've mentioned before, where in the future all role-playing will be Dungeons & Dragons.

That's rather simplistic and it ignores the fact that free is the ultimate brand value eroder. Pulling out does nothing to stop piracy. Still, if your company is all about selling stuff, wouldn't you want to avoid this issue for as long as possible? Isn't there potential that an iStore or a DDI solution could come along in the future to preserve your brand value, make you money and ensure your survival?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Digital WOTC

The RPG world is in an uproar over Wizards of the Coast pulling their digital content. Some of this is laughably feigned, a dogpile on the 500 pound gorilla, but a lot of the antipathy is well placed. I personally own all the 4E books and have never bought a digital WOTC product (although lots of Malhavoc). However, I know those who do, and for them, their library is either entirely digital or it duplicates their print library. For them, they'll either abandon their game, or more likely, continue to obtain digital copies, only illegally. 4E has had high quality digital copies available from before the release date. That's unlikely to change. So everyone will still get what they want, but WOTC makes no money from it and law abiding customers are now the enemy. It seems rather shortsighted on the part of Wizards.

Although I own all the print books, I would greatly appreciate the inclusion of more book related digital content in some form, other than a duplicate purchase. Here, I think WOTC should leverage their Dungeons & Dragons Insider application to broaden available content. For example, last night I didn't need the full text of the Monster Manual, but I did need a long encounter block that was listed after a monsters stats. Include this stuff in database format that's not easy to copy wholesale, and you've solved a lot of the need for digital content. Instead, you've got me, the owner of every book, a DDI subscriber, debating whether to take the ten minutes to download the book illegally or spend 30 minutes typing.

Then again, the digital content seems to walk a razors edge, almost to where a DDI subscription obsoletes print materials. Perhaps they've decided their core competency lies in stuff, in printing books and related physical items. If they can hold off the digital tide a while longer, they can preserve their business model and ramp up their digital competency over time. Or maybe a Hasbro executive noticed his son downloading a Draconomicon torrent and called a meeting.

Open Easter Sunday

Sunday Hours. We'll be open this upcoming Sunday. It's usually one of the slowest days of the year, but our Privateer Press Sunday event could use a little continuity (the game is in a huge resurgence). We may close early in the afternoon if it's slow and the games are over, so get in early if you want to do a little shopping.

Imperial Guard. The new IG codex will be on display starting this weekend. We're also being sent a valkyrie model. I haven't decided yet whether I'll build it and paint it up over the weekend or leave it on display unsassembled.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

RPG Industry

Lately there's been this kind of odd animosity from game publishers towards brick and mortar stores. Meanwhile, brick and mortar stores are cutting back on edgier RPG content, mostly for economic reasons but also because they're unhappy with the sales channels that bypass them. I think there is a misunderstanding among game store owners about how the game industry works, which leads to some bad feelings. The big problem, I think, is that store owners get most of their information from distributors, and distributors are fairly tight lipped about the details of their business arrangements, especially when they're having a negative impact on the industry. They're not exactly great educators when it comes to the industry.

Game stores are mostly in the dark about things like profit margins among the tiers, the true availability of product in the distribution channel, and the steep slide towards direct and Internet sales. In fact, I think it's this increasing percentage of online sales that have the game store owners angry and the publishers questioning the value of brick and mortar. When 10% of a publishers books are sold on the Internet, they might quietly grumble about the distribution system and those lazy store owners. When their direct sales hit 50%, they can shout their complaints from the roof tops! Store owners are not exactly helpful, and many don't understand the role of the Internet as a support vehicle for print product, while small publishers are frustrated because only their highest margin products are viable through the industry tiers, due to the tiny margins. Everyone has a hand in their pocket, something store owners are intimately familiar with. Neither side fully understands the plight of the other and there are bad apples on both sides that tend to make matters worse.

The solution to a lot of this is education, but the medium is lacking. Our trade organization, the Game Manufacturers Association, is in transition after atrophying for many years; not that it was very useful before, from what I've been told. Their trade show has always provided helpful seminars, but they're aimed at new stores, while this issue is fairly sophisticated and not exactly what a new store should be focusing on. Distributor shows obviously have little incentive to air grievances or disclose internal workings, so they're not much help either.

Whatever the solution, I think it behooves the publishers to educate the retailers about their plight, their margin, their troubles with distribution that's hidden from the retailers. For example, every point of margin erosion is always the fault of the publisher. Who knows what's really going on? Only on rare occasions are we allowed behind the curtain. All this assumes publishers still believe brick and mortar stores are relevant. If sales is the primary driver, increasingly brick and mortar stores are far less relevant (store owners will likely tell you RPGs as segment are less relevant). Retailers need to show more curiosity about the inner workings of the industry, or else risk the middle tier inadvertently diverting an entire segment of the industry to direct sales to customers. Both groups need each other, but they haven't figured out how to talk. I'm hoping this happens before they go their separate ways.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Meta

Apparently the message of my business analysis blog posts has been lost on some. The reason why I feel comfortable posting business data is because it's simply impossible to step in and use that data. I know this through experience, having tried myself. Running a store is a knock down, drag out fight where every penny is hard earned. My blog is a chronicle of my singular experiences, not a road map.

Customers are created, not acquired. Sales of a game are only as good as its next event. Every customer is only as happy as their next experience. Every marketing dollar is an investment in the future, a tree of life that needs constant watering. It's high level strategy mixed with bathroom maintenance and voodoo accounting. It's earned daily, not acquired through research. It's often called a labor of love, because only love would keep you in such a shaky relationship.

You can't put it in a bottle, franchise it, dilute it, or steal it. There are no magic formulas. It's unique. It's yours. It's precisely what you make of it, effort and right thinking made physical. It's the personal satisfaction that makes it worthwhile, and when you feel satisfied, you realize there's always room for improvement.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Labash Post

I've got a DMing post on my campaign blog; the first in many months.

Calories Per Point

I've spent an awful lot of time building armies over the last two years: 1500 points of Warhammer Fantasy ogres, 3000 points of 40K Imperial Guard, and now I'm looking at starting Summer with a Lord of the Rings army on the schedule. I enjoy the painting, despite my lack of skill, but it has come at a cost. I've gained weight and gotten myself out of shape. Painting and modeling doesn't burn nearly as many calories as I had hoped. My guess is that for every 300 points I build and paint, I gain a pound -- assuming what I did before was more active, which it was.

I'm getting close to joining a gym. I've been in financial downsize mode for so many years that the idea of spending money to work out seemed ludicrous. However, I'm happy to report that my boss gave me a raise, a cost of living adjustment, albeit one that bumps me up to 2006. That bastard. Now it's about finding a good, local gym, or some other activity, like Kung Fu for fat middle-age guys who don't want to see your ego on display. Do they have that? Maybe yoga. Maybe tai-chi. Preferably something interesting and not too dreary. If I can really sink my teeth into something, I'll stay with it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

One Hand Giveth

Tax Reduction/Increase: Your next paycheck, if you're not one of the 10% of Californians that are unemployed, should see a slight decrease in payroll taxes, meaning you're taking home more money. It's an incredibly small amount that's more a nod to the working man, but it's somethin'. You can thank the federal government and your children for that little bonus. On the other hand, state sales tax goes up 1% today. For that you can thank the screwed up state government, which needs a good slash and burning. Thanks for pushing people closer to the Internet Sacramento. In any case, if you own anything other than a junker car, you're payroll tax decrease will be offset by the doubling of your vehicle license fee.

New Laptop. A little Friday Night Magic fallout had me buying a refurbished Dell laptop yesterday. If you're in the market for a netbook, something just good enough to surf the web, do some word processing and maybe watch the occasional movie, check out the Dell Inspiron Mini 10. They're about $325 refurbished. Ours will be emerald green and will serve the sole function of running the DCI software. I seriously considered "pink" to potentially avoid theft issues.