Saturday, November 28, 2009

RPG Market Share

Dungeons & Dragons still dominates role-playing sales in our store, but there has been a mini revival over the last year, with renewed interest in older games and some great new games, such as Rogue Trader, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Hero 6. Pathfinder has found its legs too. This has dropped D&D from its startling 75% market share in our store to its less alarming 3.5 levels of around 55%. You lose Mayan calendar!

If this chart looks familiar, it's probably because it's similar to many business charts for mature marketplaces. Mature markets eventually have a leader that takes the kind of unassailable position we see with Dungeons & Dragons. You'll find products like the iPhone, Hewlett Packard printers, Internet Explorer, and Coca Cola with similar positions. They're household names like Dungeons & Dragons. It's a kind of economic natural selection. Celebrate diversity, but accept reality.

Friday, November 27, 2009

What Publishers Should Know

Since someone asked me this and I spent too much time responding in an email, I'll share my thoughts here:

What publishers should know about retailing:

The product. They should know how their product is likely to be displayed. This includes things like artwork and facing. How will it look on a magazine rack? Can you see the title or is it too low on the cover? How about on a bookshelf with the spine out? Does it have a spine or does it disappear? They should know how their product holds up on the shelf. How long before the cover begins to warp and bend? If it's less than 6 months, you're sunk. Is there room for a price tag? Did you print your MSRP on the book? Did you reduce the retailer margin AND print the MSRP on the book? Prices are set by retailers; that's our job.

  • Very bad example: Traveler books
  • Very good examples: The new Hero system books. 

Direct vs. In Store. Do you see the retailer as an impediment or a partner?  Selling direct to the consumer is fine, but do you play favorites? Do you sell your product early online? Do you sell it early at conventions? Do you discount online or hold sales leaving out the retailer? Is Amazon deep discounting your product? Do you openly encourage customers to buy directly from you instead of the retailer? Do you have a subscription service that does not include the retailer? Is the retailer given a margin that's less than the full 50%?

  • Very bad examples: Paizo, Hero, White Wolf.  
  • Very good example: Goodman Games, WOTC.

Marketing. What have you done to let the retailer know about your product? Do you encourage the end customer to interact with the retailer? Do you pay for any marketing to the retail tier? Do you show up at trade shows (not just conventions)? What do you do to encourage the retailer to stock all of your products and avoid the dreaded "periodical model?" What sort of organized play or volunteer program do you use? Consider quickstart rules. The goal is to get the retailer to buy the product, and more importantly, consider that product "evergreen" to keep it in stock.

  • Very bad example: Mongoose (churn, churn churn)
  • Very good example: Wizards of the Coast, Paizo. 

Some basic concepts:

Inventory is a zero-sum game. In order for me to stock your product, I must drop another product. When a new product is released, you will have to have a compelling argument for me to re-order your product. How will you compete against the new and shiny?

Retailers don't market games. We can briefly explain your product. We can make a general suggestion to a customer. You should not expect that we've played your game or will ever have time to do more than browse the back cover. That was never our jobs. Product knowledge is about 20% of what we do. Caveat: if you DO get retailers to play your game, you've got a powerful evangelist. Consider how you can make that happen. Consider demo copies for staff or potential evangelist customers.

Customers only buy what they'll play. It used to be customers would buy interesting books from systems they don't plan to play, just  to read for fun or to find new ideas. Recession purchasing found customers abandoning this practice. Books are bought for direct play. Books that will not be used in this manner, will not be bought. This was a big eye opener. If you've found your sales have dried up, consider whether you were in this category.

Know your pipeline. You tell customers your book "is out." What does that mean? Does it mean you shipped it to distributors? Does it mean you have a street date and that date is today? Know where your product is in the pipeline. Know when it will hit the street. Communicate information about the street. Nobody cares that you put it in a brown box and shipped it to a warehouse. Strongly consider street dates for your products to level the playing field. Nobody likes to hear the store across town or across the country already has their copy.

Manage your information. This is hard, but make sure it's clear to everyone that your product is a) available, b) temporarily out of stock, or c) discontinued. Use your website, the game industry network, and your social networking tools to keep everyone up to date. Relying on distributors will cause you sorrow. Consider planned obsolescence, limited editions, or a pre-determined number of source books.

Please add your own thoughts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole

I got the news on Friday that I had a week before the San Francisco Chronicle's annual board game article would hit the web (this upcoming Sunday for the print edition). The news resulted in a flurry of activity, ranging from the creation of pretty pink flyers to a massive ordering binge. We've got a metric butt load of games arriving this week from five warehouses in four states, along with a car load of games from my Hasbro supplier (a sale at Wal-Mart). I also have some cramming to do, since I've spent the year playing 40K in lieu of board game night.

This is one of those love-hate moments in the life of Bay Area game store owners. The article brings in a huge number of new customers, ranging from potential new hobbyists (my favorite) to those who will buy whatever the Chronicle recommends (most trying). We all see this as an opportunity to develop a potential interest into a fulfilling social hobby, provided the customer shows a spark of interest.

If the spark is present, we always provide our own opinion on what they should start with, and it's usually off list. Games like Carcassonne, Wasabi, Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and the occasional Arkham Horror trump the List Du Jour. If they're buying multiple games, I'll often throw in one of my favorites, like Power Grid or (the dreaded) Tikal.

This year we'll also be recommending some new games, like Tobago and Endeavor. I just don't like Settlers of Catan personally, but mention it's the best selling game year round, and many will snap it up. What I like shouldn't matter, it should be about what the customer needs, but many can spot that spark in my eye, and appreciate the honesty and enthusiasm.

About half the customers last year were receptive to my suggestions (pleas?). The other half wanted the opinionated clerk to ring up their Chronicle games. I'm not going to "dis" the list, it's too easy and it's the proverbial hand that feeds. Honestly, there are some overlooked gems on this list each year, but the stellar performers are often missing or mis-classified (I would never sell Dominion as a gateway game). Still, it's a fantastic starting point for potential new board gamers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Female Horse Stuffed With Wax (蝌蝌啃蜡)*

If there's one thing our customers can agree on, it's their love for Coke, especially Mexican Coke. With over 4,000 cans and bottles sold in the last year, Coke is always in our top ten list. Coca Cola products outsell major game manufacturers, like Days of Wonder and Z-Man Games. It does better than Munchkin. I can't imagine running a game store without Munchkin or Coke. 

Costco is our supplier for the snacks and drinks, so it was with sadness and a bit of panic that I learned they're no longer carrying Coca Cola products while they attempt to negotiate pricing. Costco will lose, they're just not big enough to take on Coca Cola, but hopefully along the way they'll bargain for something that will make them happy. Until then, I stock piled as much Mexican Coke (other Coke was already gone) as I could get my hands. 22 cases was all they had left in their distribution center and they'll be arriving tomorrow, along with a bunch of Dr. Pepper, another popular Coca Cola product.

I'm trying to avoid the old days of shopping for drinks myself, which is what I'll be doing for regular Coke, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero this week. The alternative for Mexican Coke in the Bay Area, is Smart & Final, although it's a bit more expensive and with no delivery service. I would consider going to Coca Cola directly, but they don't approve of the importing of Mexican Coke and won't offer it (plus they have horrible service).

Here's our Top 10 List by Volume (over the last year):

  1. Magic Singles
  2. Mexican Coca Cola
  3. Individual Dice
  4. 9 Pocket Pages 
  5. Water, Bottle
  6. Yu-Gi-Oh Singles
  7. MTG Shards of Alara Booster Pack
  8. MTG 2010 Booster Pack
  9. Coca Cola (can)
  10. MTG Conflux Booster Pack

* Things Go Better with Coke was initially translated as , to  "Bite the wax tadpole" or "Female horse stuffed with wax" See Yellow Bridge.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pimping Role Playing Games

When a customer comes into the store looking for a new role-playing game, a rare occurrence, I see it a bit like shopping for a new computer. The RPG is the operating system. Dungeons & Dragons is your classic Windows (WOTC really does resemble a mini-Microsoft). White Wolf most resembles Apple. The Indy Press world is certainly the various flavors of Linux. I've always considered Spirit of the Century your Red Hat Linux, a comfortable gateway to open source. Of course, there are many more operating systems in this example than in the computer world, which is a gigantic part of the problem with the industry; more options than consumers. It's spread far too thin. So the most obvious question if you were to buy a computer is what do you want to do with it? What applications do you want to run?

Applications, in my example, are not supplements. That would be the obvious answer, but supplements don't allow you to use this kind of operating system. The applications are players. Your requirements for a role-playing game are entirely dependent on who you'll be playing it with. If you have a group of die-hard D&D players, your choice of something other than D&D is likely to be incompatible. Sure, there are some likely choices based on similarities to D&D or a desire to take a break from it, but your core application of this game system are your existing players. This is also why D&D has an enormous market share in our store, at 75%.

If you walk into the store and desire to play a role-playing game, there is one game with a guaranteed spot, one company that offers a good organized play system for their role-playing game. That's Wizards of the Coast with D&D 4. If you have no applications for your new operating system, there are some "built in" apps that are bundled and available for your use, every Thursday night at our store. We have other games on the calendar, but access is a little harder to obtain, as they're semi-private games. So when a customer walks in looking for a role-playing game, question one is who are you going to play with?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay Follow-up

Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play Pre-Release Event

We held the pre-release event for Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, the new version by Fantasy Flight. I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. I blogged about how unnecessary I thought it was with such an award winning version from Green Ronin only a few years old. I was pleasantly surprised to find the game not only good, but innovative.

Thoughts on the Game:

JoeOnce you get used to the way the dice work, and remember to use the card info at the right times, it is a pretty standard RPG experience. Some good things that we noticed were the ways that our abilities and even die rolls (initiative for example) could be used for the party, or for other party members. We all seemed to be involved in each encounter - while each character was able to take the lead in different types of encounters, nobody felt like they were just sitting on the sidelines until their "encounter type" occurred.

Me:  Did character creation and an encounter with a "social" character. The social guys are relevant in combat, as they distract and feint opponents. The game seems true to the WFRP world, with some really unique mechanics. The dice pools are innovative and the cards (powers) encourage role-play. 

From Dan Foster on rpg.geekdo.comThe mechanisms of the game (i.e. the Dice Pool) lend themselves to great bits of narrative story telling. This is the first time in a long time where I was getting excited to run a full out RPG campaign (I am normally a boardgamer)! 

From NezziR on the Fantasy Flight forum: This game is fun, playable, and has a strength of design capable of long term play value. Moving forward, I will be using this system for WFRP campaigns at my table. If this system enjoys the support of the fans, and in particular, the publisher, it could develop into something very special. 

Of course, it wasn't perfect, and occasionally the rules were buried in hard to find places or a power is mentioned in the rulebook that has a different name on the card. Making characters (not part of the demo) was really confusing. It doesn't have the concise level of rules as, say D&D 4 (D&D guys are really spoiled compared to other games), but it does have a richness in the role-playing side that will allow most people to overlook its technical flaws. If you want statistical number crunching and power builds, look elsewhere. If you want a rich role-playing experience with a system that works to serve that purpose, I think the new WFRP might be the right fit. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay (Sat 12pm)

If you fancy yourself a well rounded role-player, you owe it to yourself to check out the pre-release event for Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay at the store on Saturday. The game tries to keep true to its roots, but it also deviates wildly from anything I've seen before in role-playing with a clever and creative dice pool system. Modifiers and bonuses add dice to the pool, rather than static numbers, which can lead to a huge number of outcomes, many of which are role-playing opportunities.

I tried it out this evening by creating an Agent character. In a test encounter, this smooth talker had his nefarious plans interrupted by a town guard.  He used a social based power called "I Thought We Were Friends?" and succeeded. I decided he was being more aggressive today, so although I was successful, it added a bit of stress. The guard was sweet talked, but he really needed to be eliminated, so using the distraction, he attacked the guard. It ended badly, but we did get to see the combat rules in action. In a regular game, I would have been backed up by more combat oriented characters. Still, it was fun, once we figured out how everything worked.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tilting at Windmills

A customer came in today who had bought his D&D 4 gift set online. He needed some dice. I thought, great, another Amazon customer throwing me some crumbs. I should be grateful, right? I can't get too mad, it's not like the Internet is some newfangled invention that came out after I started my business. I knew the waters were dangerous before I jumped in.

Then I started thinking about whether Amazon actually made any money on their deep discount. Perhaps I was making more money on this dice purchase than Amazon was making on that much bigger gift set purchase.

I looked at the math:

Amazon: $104.95 retail. $66.12 their retail price. Cost of 52.48. Gross Profit: 13.64. (Estimated) Shipping: $7. 
Total profit;  $6.64

Game Store: $12.95 retail (D&D Premium Dice), $6.48 cost. 
Total Profit: $6.47.

Assuming Amazon isn't getting better terms than me and my shipping estimates are right on, they're making seventeen cents more than me on their much larger purchase. It's just astounding.

But they have a brilliant business model, right? Over the last 15 years, Amazon managed to lose over a billion dollars.  They may see return on investment in another seven years (22 years in). With business logic like that, I'm surprised they don't run a chain of game stores! 

Meanwhile, they've managed to gut the book trade. Sure, they're cheap. Sure, consumers love them for their impossibly low prices. But at what cost? Amazon could learn a lot from Google's "Do No Evil" philosophy.  Then again, maybe Amazon is doing good. An organization that spends a billion dollars to send books to people has got to be the biggest literacy project in the history of the world! 

Seventeen cents. Morons.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Christmas Stocking

I did my Christmas stocking early this year. Part of this was fear that my suppliers would keep inventories low, which is turning out to be unfounded. I was also concerned customers would start shopping earlier, which seems to be happening this season. There is a fear that stores will run out of stock, which is likely in many places, but the game trade seems mostly healthy. I have faith that we'll do well this season and I wanted the shopping out of the way.  So now I have that feeling of indigestion as my inventory budget is completely blown and holiday sales are still about a month away.

I mostly stocked up on board games. Other departments see sales increases of around 50% during the holidays, while we'll often sell three times as many board games as a normal month. Those departments are already stocked well and can take advantage of our just-in-time ordering. We're not one of those stores that does half their business during the holiday season, it's more like a nice jump of around 50%. Still, it's where most of the profit for the year is derived, and sins forgiven.

Next year I'll likely have a more hard nosed approach to purchasing. I listened to a great GAMA trade show podcast on purchasing the other night and realized I should hold myself to my own purchasing standards. I often ignore my budget in favor of making customers happy. This is a common owner pitfall, where the owner bypasses all those great policies and procedures he makes the employees follow. Just ask my guys. However, in the case of purchasing, I'm realizing this desire to please is at the expense of the
bottom line, and I've identified it as the main enemy of profitability. I would probably fire myself if I were me. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cracking the Silo

At the beginning of the year, I decided I wasn't going to budget a trip to a trade show. Most store owners don't go to shows every year, but I felt it was a great way to stay informed about the game industry. I can usually point to something I learned at a show that justified the expense in the long run, but this year I decided to focus on the bottom line, short term survival. The problem with the hobby game industry is that everyone is in their tiered silos.

Good information is hard to acquire, despite the emails, blogs, and forums. What you end up getting are press releases or the same people talking, many of whom you've heard quite enough of. The publishers have a relationship with the distributors, but not the stores. The stores relate to the distributors, but not the publishers. The distributors closely guard their own information against their crafty competitors. The same people say the same things, year after year, without much diversity or new ideas. You often end up with harsh words between the producers and sellers, with both thinking the other isn't properly doing their job, both thinking the other doesn't understand the complexities of their position. Getting insight into each others world is not only good for business, it might be necessary for industry survival.

What's needed are candid discussions. I don't need the official line, I need to know what someone would tell me if we went out for a beer. The hobby game industry is very small. You would think you could predict how it would act, but it's remarkably difficult. While publicly traded companies are legally obligated to maximize their shareholder value, usually with predictable outcomes, the hobby game industry is by nature irrational. Sure, everyone wants to make money, but they could all do it easier elsewhere. A divorce, money problems, animosity towards a competitor or the belief that "it's how it's done" can make rational people make seemingly irrational decisions. Understanding what is happening so we can make good decisions in our silos can be next to impossible unless you've got a few beer buddies in the industry. The more socially adept spend hours on the phone each week just getting an industry pulse. It's exhausting.

The good news then, is that it's becoming easier to share information, and without the expense of a trade show or hours on the phone. Social networking has been the key for me, both Twitter and Facebook. It's admittedly a lot of work, but after you decide who you want to grok information from, you can let the bits wash over you until you've got a pattern of information that answers your questions and informs your view. The technology is obviously in its infancy, and I'm guessing will be different shortly, but the benefits are undeniable for me. There's a level of information sharing, and value gleaned from those who don't even know their projecting it, that would have required many six packs to acquire. Grok is the perfect term for this too:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

The key, of course, is knowing who you want to follow, friend, or otherwise grok. Hopefully they project more than the usual press releases. Most of us have personal accounts and business accounts, meaning we can market to others with one account while "being ourselves" with the other. Both are tremendously useful, I find. All of this probably sounds terribly obvious right now, but it's amazing how it has developed in such a short time. With Google Wave in development (I just set up my account!), I'm sure we'll be seeing more of this, and in increasingly usable formats.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

4 Months with the Wii Fit

The Wii Fit is as close as I get to video games. I don't want them in my life and want to avoid "plugging in" my son. I see too many video game zombies in my store every day to wish that fate on my family. I don't dislike video games. My problem with video games is like how a friend describes his fear of heights. It's not that he's afraid he'll fall, he's afraid he'll jump. I spent a good part of my adult life slogging through electronic dungeons and creating virtual cities. I just want more from my time. So when my wife brought home the Wii with the Fit balance board, I was excited to try, but hoped I could keep focused enough to use it without jumping off a building.

I knew from a lifetime of working out that the secret was consistency. I've joined a gym perhaps five times in my life, inevitably quitting after realizing I wasn't going to keep it up. I hated that walk of shame, going to the gym in your street clothes to cancel your membership, to tell the pretty girl at the front desk or the buff trainer that you're a quitter. The Fit would work if I could avoid this cycle, and it's low impact, low intensity workouts seemed promising. I started with the yoga for about a month and then began alternating with cardio. My stated goal was to lose weight, but I was mostly just doing what I thought was most fun, to build that consistency. I was about 30 pounds overweight.

The first month I didn't lose any weight. I accepted that as the usual build-up of muscle from all that yoga. I felt great, better than I had in decades, and that was what mattered, but still, where was all that shedding of pounds I read about on the Internet? My more active friends were encouraging, but noticeably skeptical. 

Three months into the Wii Fit, I was still working out every day (taking Mondays off for 40K night), but began doing what a lot of people seemed to do, alternating with walking on a treadmill. The cardio portion of the Fit is it's weakness, with the workouts repetitive and dull. Running in place is depressing, although the rhythm boxing kept me entertained for a few weeks. At the three month mark, I was feeling great and had lost a modest five pounds. Nothing to write home about, I thought, but not too bad a start, especially combined with vastly more energy. Suddenly the evenings felt like activity time, rather than time to crash and relax. I was getting a part of my life back.

Then I got sick with a cold. I was dreading this. That is usually where my resolve breaks as the habitual pattern of working out is broken while I'm resting. I figured I was going to gain all that weight back, but when I went back to the Wii, I was an additional five pounds lighter. Why? My problem wasn't just lack of exercise, it was eating way too much. Being sick was an appetite suppressant. While sick, my metabolism was in a higher gear and was able to continue burning calories through my normal work day. Afterwards, I  reset my eating habits and now I'm much more aware of the intake of calories, rather than focusing on output. 

Soon after, the Wii Fit Plus came out, which solved my problem of boring cardio exercises. I've been using it for a month now, and especially enjoy the bicycle workouts. Thirty minutes or an hour can fly by quickly. There's also an ingenious bird game, where you flap your wings, lean back and forth and fly to various platforms. It's a superb game. The Fit Plus will tell you how many calories you're burning, which is a big help. Do you really want to use up that twenty minute bicycle ride drinking a Coke when you can have a glass of water? 

Four months into the Wii Fit and I've lost 10 pounds. I've learned to adjust my eating habits and watch my calories. My goal is to lose an additional 20 pounds with the Wii Fit combined with diet, and then possibly explore a more robust workout program. I have friends doing the P90X program, which sounds intriguing. Lets work on those 20 pounds first. Also, four months is a good start, but I think I'll need a full year to really develop the habit. 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The New and Exciting!

The auction is Sunday, with a ton of stuff and (my guess) sparse attendance. Many of the games have no damage, usually case quantities in which the top few games were dented and the whole thing was written off. We also still have a bunch of Agricola copies with box creases for $39.99. This is a $70 game that's currently #1 on boardgamegeek.

Here's what's new this week:

Board Games

  • Ticket to Ride Europe, 1912 Expansion. New warehouses, depots and 55 destinations.
  • Dungeon Twister: Prison: This Dungeon Twister variant has lots of cool miniatures and includes a solo version.
  • Mr. Jack in New York. Stand alone variant. one player takes the role of Mr. Jack, the other takes a role of a Detective. But there are new possibilities - gaslights and manholes are represented by pawns which can be moved.
  • Chromino. A fun dominoes variant. If you like Blokus, give this one a try.
  • Wings of War: Dawn of War - Legends/Air Squad Pack  (Friday)

Miniature Games
  • Magazines: White Dwarf 358 (Skaven), No Quarter #27 (featuring a MKII look), Minature Wargames (Air War Over Africa), Wargames Soldiers & Strategy (Spanish Civil War), and Wargames Illustrated 265 (Friday).
  • Warmachine: Scryah: Ravyn, Eternal Light, Adeptus Rahn, Dawnguard Scyir, House Shyeel Battle Mages, Mage Hunter Strike Force.
  • Hordes: Trollblood Trollkin Runeshapers
  • Warhammer Fantasy (Friday): Skaven Army Book, Skaven Clanrat Regiment, Skaven Stormvermin (20), Skaven Doomwheel, Warlord Queek Headtaker, Deathmaster Snikch, Packmaster Skweel.
  • Flames of War (includes last weeks releases): Fallshirmjägerkompanie, Fallshirmjägerkompanie MG's, Fallshirmjägerkompanie Gaming Set, Airborne Anti-Tank Platoon, Airborne Bazooka Teams. 
  • Malifaux. We're hoping to get a few starter sets in Friday after our Monday order disappeared.
  • Heroscape Wave 10 Booster (Friday)

Collectible Card Games

  • Yu-Gi-Oh 2009 Collectible Tin #2. 2 Stardust Overdrive packs, 1 Ancient Prophecy pack, 1 Raging Battle pack, 1 Crimson Crisis pack, a secret rare, deck partitions and sleeves. 
  • Pokemon Platinum Arceus: Boosters, Theme Decks and Poster Boxes.
  • Magic: As usual, we have plenty of Zendikar and M10 in stock.

Role-Playing Games
  • Shard RPG: Basic Compendium: A unique game world unlike any you've seen before. Players play various animal races, rather than your standard fantasy humanoids. 
  • Outdoor Mapping Sheets: 8.5x11" hex sheets from Troll Lord Games
  • Castles & Crusades: Of Gods & Monsters. 15 different pantheons fully explored.
  • Starsiege: Another Fine Mess. A lucrative courier job may finally get the crew out of trouble.
  • Reaper Miniatures (Friday): Halmar, Young Wizard, Norgol, Irongrave Knight, Culk, Young Rake, Native American Chieftain, Chupacabra, Moxy, Space Adventuress, Zombie German Officer, Zitler, Zombie Leader 
  • Hero 6 (Friday): Hero System: 6th Edition Combat and Adventuring, Hero System: 6th Edition Basic Rules Set, Hero System: 6th Edition Advanced Rules Set. Limited quantities due to distributor shipping damages.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Games and Spirituality

“There is no virtue in isolating ourselves from the world. This will not safeguard our spirituality. But it will certainly condemn us to irrelevance. There is also no virtue in being culturally ‘trendy’ and accepting blindly the latest offering in the round of personal and social ‘cures.’ At the same time, there is not merit in being out of touch with the critical issues of our time...." Charles Ringma

Over the last five years, I've thought a lot about games and spirituality and I've encountered different ways spiritual people engage their pastime, dealing with or side stepping problematic issues while respecting their own boundaries. As for myself, I'm a practicing Buddhist with a master's degree in Buddhist studies. Or if you ask my mother, a Catholic who will soon come back to the church. Most people have no spiritual issues with games, while others are troubled by various elements within games.The three areas I want to discuss are evil, conflict and collectibles.

Let me first say I dislike the word spiritual. Like the term "energy," it generally has no meaning when discussing religion. Someone who considers themselves spiritual and engages with our hobby (or hobbies) generally has a set of religious or ethical beliefs that act as mental armor in the world, allowing them to go forth and do good while protecting them from more sinister elements. Where they draw the line is their personal business, and where this gets interesting. As my quote above states, lay practitioners of most traditions wish to be in the world, but not of the world. They draw boundaries to set themselves apart for their own protection. They wish to engage the world, but not allow themselves to be consumed by both the good and the bad that they encounter. But what is bad?

Evil is the usual suspect. Back in the '80's, our now venerable favorite, Dungeons & Dragons was vilified as being a gateway to Hell. There were some misunderstandings, some of which were clearly intentional to vilify the game. Players don't cavort with dark powers. The magic is make believe. Suicide of players is not statistically higher than others in their age group. In other words, by itself there is nothing wrong with the game. After describing the Player's Handbook to one woman, she asked me, "They cast real spells?" I told her, "If people could cast real spells from this book, I would be making a lot more money at this." There's spirituality and commerce in a nutshell.

As a spiritual practitioner, however, there are some real life issues within the game dealing with evil. There are indeed, devils and demons that can be dealt with in your imagination, and spells your make believe character can cast, which for many Christians is problematic. You can also explore the nature of evil quite thoroughly in the game, which can bother some. I ran an "evil" campaign a few years ago where it was interesting to see what players considered "true" evil. How far did they want their evil game to go in this exploration? For some, children and torture where out of bounds. For others, the sky was the limit. Did they want to be sinister evil, or misunderstood master planners who viewed themselves as good? Everyone knows good when they see it, but evil? Evil is nebulous. Perhaps that's why some people have such a problem with the game.

For many spiritual people, delving into this topic is not a wholesome pastime and one they're encouraged to avoid. I drew the line at the evil campaign and I simply found it exhausting and demoralizing to run it. It was like a weekly dose of pollution injected into my brain. It ran at the same time and in the same world as my "good" campaign. The "good" characters in another gaming group ran around and cleaned up the messes of the evil folks. It turns out that it's vastly easier to do evil than undo it. Sometimes you forget that conflict in role-playing game is meant to be resolved. So for me, I think exploring the nature of evil is important and relevant, but it's probably better left at a brief exploration.

Other customers have lines they avoid crossing. One plays Warhammer 40K, but avoids chaos, associating it with the Christian underworld. Another is a serial role-player, playing every role-playing game we sell, but carefully tip toeing around Dungeons & Dragons. He's heard too much about it and wants to avoid the entire controversy. Everyone has their own boundaries and engages at the level in which they're comfortable. Games open up your imagination to the entire realm of possibilities. Some possibilities we would rather limit.

Conflict is a necessary element of games, I believe. There are really only a couple types of games, when you distill them down: the race and the battle. Without conflict, games are boring and tedious, often downright educational! Again, conflict is fine for most, the best example of lightweight conflict being Euro board games. These games are almost always non-violent, with themes of exploration or racing to complete a task. I know several ministers who whole heartedly engage in Euro gaming as a wholesome, relatively conflict-free pastime. One of the photos in the store (until recently) was of a couple of nuns enjoying a good game of Ticket to Ride.

On the other hand, war games make no bones about their goals. Crush your opponent, engaging in clever strategy and tactics. You can argue that playing war games is an important lesson in conflict resolution and learning the limitations of war. It teaches critical thinking, often involves craft work, occasionally delves into history, and provides a social atmosphere for playing. It certainly has more positive elements to it than your average first person shooter video game. Yet, if you're a spiritual person, war gaming can be problematic as you regularly fill your head with violence and carnage.

I suppose it's about moderation and context, but it can be difficult to justify sometimes. Do you become desensitized or are you better able to grasp the horrors of war? I've had few conversation about Dungeons & Dragons and evil over the past five years, but I regularly have to explain my position on war games to anxious mothers. How many times is the word "war" shown on the walls of the store? Flames of War, Warhammer, Warmachine.... I fully accept the grayness of this area.

Collectible games bother me as a business model. This is where you buy blind packs of products in hopes of getting a random item of goodness. Someone will have to explain to me how this is not gambling and why most of these games are marketed to children. My problem with collectible games are not the games themselves, which are often fantastic, it's how they're sold. The result, I've found, is a lot of bad behavior surrounding these games. Theft is rampant and arguments and fighting a constant as card players, much like drug addicts, trade and negotiate to get the item they need so desperately. You might argue that it's the age of the players, but not the game. However, I think it's the acquisition model that's to blame. You don't see this with other games kids play.

I find the model dishonest and regularly think of ways to disengage. What if I were to only sell singles of all product and not sell packs? Would they buy the packs somewhere else or buy just what they wanted from the singles? What would my business model look like if I turned my back on all collectibles and focused on miniatures and role playing games? At this point, my business is too enmeshed with the collectible model to give it up cold turkey, but my disdain for collectibles is strong. This is the issue I feel most strongly about, but I generally don't see it discussed.

So there you have it, my three big issues superficially discussed in a blog post. Fee free to engage and expand.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Credit Crunch Update (Tradecraft)

A couple years ago, I expanded my business using my home equity line of credit along with a long term, low interest credit card offer. I'm one of the lucky ones, as that's still my method of finance, although I can no longer tap either one of those sources. Credit card interest rates have tripled from that promotional offer and my HELOC is a distant memory, a mere debt to be paid off with nothing to tap. This CNN Money article explains the scenario for small businesses nowadays. Companies that have needed expansion capital in the last couple years are likely in a holding pattern at best.

There have been attempts to thaw the credit market for small businesses. The SBA ARC loan program, part of the recovery plan, was a dismal failure. I've followed this one closely, pursuing banks and finally getting an application from one. The problem was that most banks couldn't be bothered with the complex application process and the questionable government guarantees for a mere $30,000 loan. 

Like a hostile health insurance company, the government had a tendency of denying loan default claims by combing through applications for any potential discrepancy. The banks were responsible for my "pre-existing" financial conditions. The bottom line was that it wasn't worth their time. Worse, the requirements for such a loan were so stringent, that to qualify, you probably didn't need it! My interpretation of the application was that we were simultaneously doing both too well and too poorly to qualify, if that makes any sense.

Last week the government rolled out the Small Business Financing and Investment Act, version 2.0 of the Obama administrations attempt at providing loans to small businesses. It has the provision for allowing the SBA to loan directly to businesses if the banks won't cooperate. This might sound like a great idea, but having followed the SBA for the last six months, I can't say I have any confidence in their abilities to make their own loans (or tie their own shoes). At the macro level, I have no problem sending a check each month to the Department of Education for my student loans, but those loans were vetted and administered by banks for years before the government had them (although it was Citibank, which is practically the same thing).  

In their defense, the new program is supposed to be streamlined to make it easier for the banks to provide these loans. That was the major complaint, after all, so it looks to me like the government is taking advice and attacking the problem on multiple fronts. Here, we've made it easier, and if you don't give them out, we'll bypass you and do it ourselves.  The pre-existing condition problem is eliminated by providing a 100% loan guarantee, up from 90%. It doesn't absolve the banks from their due diligence. However, it might be a bigger  incentive. Like every government program, we'll have to see how this is executed.