Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cautious 2009

We were walking around the store last week, trying to figure out what would be the hot board games for the holidays. We were mostly at a loss. There were one or two obvious hits, but not a whole lot. It's not all doom and gloom, our overall sales are way up; more than we should have expected from this year. But from what? It turns out to be from expansions of existing games. The same is true for our miniature games, with very strong sales for no reason other than ... strong sales. We saw no new concepts or games for the year (Arcane Legions still being an unknown), but instead, a bunch of expansions of existing games. Hot new miniature games have been notable, but only sales foot notes, as good as they are. Role-playing boasts the same problem, a new D&D edition last year, but the hot RPG book of 2009 has been the D&D Player's Handbook II. Yep, another expansion of yet another edition.

Does it really matter? A few years ago, you could sense the lust for the new, the desire to throw something against the wall to see if it would stick. The now defunct WizKids seemed to have a lock on this model after getting a few solid hits early on. Wizards of the Coast reminded me of Microsoft, with two core, profitable products that supported wild speculation into many other areas. Most of those product lines have been abandoned at this point. I recall groaning at trade shows during product launch meals for such notable games as Dreamblade, Hecatomb and Sportsclix. Nowadays, a solid expansion is more welcome than a new game. Don't swing for the fence, go for a double.

Customers haven't seemed very interested in branching out of their comfort zone either. They want a distraction, preferably a familiar one. As the recession began, innovative new products were coming out of the pipeline and they died horribly on release. That "flight to quality" meant customers wanted their games improved, not changed too dramatically. They did not want their cheese moved.

While 2008 was a year of safe retreads, 2009 has been an even safer year of solid expansions. The danger in this lack of grand innovation is the same danger I face daily in my business. You don't want to become too complacent or too risk averse. You want to keep your edge and try new things, with all the risk that entails. You don't want your customers to lust after the new while you're still complacent with the familiar, or they'll cease being your customers. Perhaps we'll see more risk taking in 2010. You go first.