Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Thoughts on the D&D

Role-playing game continue to be in the doldrums for us, with sales down 22% over the last twelve months. RPG sales, if you didn't know, are really about Dungeons & Dragons, along with a large number of very creative games that from a sales perspective, are clever art projects. So is nobody playing the venerable Dungeons & Dragons? Is D&D 4 suffering, like so many hope it is? It's complicated but we may have had a glimpse of what's going on with the release of Player's Handbook 3.

PHB 3 was the first book to receive the early release treatment from Wizards of the Coast. No, it's not related to over-crowded prisons, the new program rewards core WOTC stores by providing books about a week and a half earlier than everyone else. All you have to do is have a very basic level of organized play to participate. In exchange, we beat out the Internet, the big book stores, and those who dabble with RPGs like comic book stores without organized play. So how many people came from these other venues to buy up PHB 3? Not many that I could tell, but a different group of players arrived and reluctantly picked up a copy, DDI subscribers.

DDI, or Dungeons & Dragons Insider is Wizards of the Coast's excellent online service. For as little as $6/month, when you pay a year up front, you get access to a host of useful tools which includes all the published materials. Unfortunately for us, many players have found the dead tree editions of rules to be rather obsolete compared to the electronic format. Unfortunately for WOTC, entire gaming groups often share one account, but that's a problem of their own making. Anyway, DDI subscribers came in, looked at the book, and hemmed and hawed about whether to get it, since it wasn't going to be available to them through DDI for a little while. And that's when a chemical reaction in my brain altered ever so slightly and I decided that I would no longer be the D&D 4 cheerleader. I stopped caring. Or more accurately, I've stopped carrying their water.

D&D is the undisputed leader of role-playing, no matter your opinion of its lack of creativity, the merits of THAC0 or what have you. It's the Microsoft of the RPG world (I refer to it as Office, since Magic would be WOTC's Windows, on the short list of profitable products). That said, I don't care what version anyone plays and I plan to support as many as possible. I honestly sell more discontinued 3.5 than most non D&D RPGs and I've decided to embrace Pathfinder. I've got 1E and 2E core books in stock, finding them more profitable than a lot of in-print options.

Paizo promises to be more retailer friendly this year. At the moment, they compete directly with us, both with their subscription model AND their online store which attempts to be the one stop shop for online gamers. Because of this, I've grudgingly carried Pathfinder since its release, but it has been rather half-hearted, mostly because I'm told by my customers how they already have that new Pathfinder book that just arrived in their mail. I sell a lot of dice to Pathfinder players. It makes me a little crazy. So I hope Paizo changes, as promised. I just ordered the entire Pathfinder line for the store, so I'm going to give them a second chance.

These two companies represent a stupid amount of the role-playing world. Both appear committed to retailer success while undermining retailers with a direct sales product that out competes us. Both have organized play programs (come play with us on Thursday nights). It bodes ill for the role-playing industry, but does that really surprise you?  Look at the shelves. How many of these publishers have day jobs? How many are owned by a bigger entity and essentially dabble with pen and paper gaming? How many have a much more profitable other business that propels them? It doesn't means we don't love them or their games (Pathfinder is brilliantly written, dammit). It's just a business fueled by passion and a lack of common sense. I'm intimately familiar with this model.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The New, New, New, New, New, Stuff

According to purchase order 5,887, arriving today:

Board Games

Merchants Board Game (Catalyst): Merchants focused on a theme of Old World trading in the 16th century. While the over-all theme of tall-ship trading remains unchanged, all new art has been generated, focusing the items traded towards an American market. A classic German-style resource management style of play, with rules that are read and understood in minutes, but a depth of play that allows for a lot of fun repeat play.

Warhammer Invasion LCG: Assault on Ulthuan
This deluxe expansion brings two new factions to the forefront of the war for the Old World. Assault on Ulthuan contains two core starter decks of forty cards, as well as two capital boards for the Dark Elves and High Elves. Players of the existing factions will find plenty to aid them as well; new cards for the other four factions, plus a handful of neutrals, bring a host of new strategies, tactics, and deck-building options for each of the six races in the game.

New from Last Week: Dixit 2, Dixit (restock), Cyclades, Mow, Canal Mania, Brief History of the World, Frontline D-Day, Tower of Mystery.

Classic Games: Restock of chess sets and cribbage. Large Kem card order arriving next week.

Jigsaw Puzzle: Ravensburger restock last week, including new Puzzle Stow & Go.

Role-Playing Games

Rogue Trader: Lure of the Expanse:  
You are a Rogue Trader, an explorer with a sacred mandate to venture beyond the limits of the Imperium in the name of the Emperor. Whether you live the life of an outlaw privateer, or as a scion of an ancient noble line, as a Rogue Trader you have the power and the tools to challenge all rivals for supreme control of the riches lurking in the uncharted reaches of space.

Now, you can bring the light of the Emperor to the darkest corners of the Koronus Expanse. Lure of the Expanse features three adventures set amongst the unexplored stars beyond the Imperium. Wealth and glory await those with the courage to venture into the farthest reaches of space.

Battletech: Technical Readout 3060,  Record Sheets 3075, Record Sheets 3060.

Pathfinder Restock. Because we just can't keep them on the shelves lately. Kingmaker: Stolen Land adventure path part 1 is still in stock along with Flip Mat: Swamp.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Game Master's Toolkit  (restock)

Miniature Games

Sale: We've got a clearance sale with buckets full of miniatures at 40-90% off.  This includes Reaper, a lot of "indie" minis, and even some 40K, Lord of the Rings and Warhammer Fantasy. Painting supplies have also been thrown into the mix, including Vallejo Model Color overstock.


  • Peacekeeper
  • Canine Remains - Pack 1 (2 pack)
  • Canine Remains - Pack 2 (2 pack)
  • Base Inserts - Bayou - 30mm
  • Base Inserts - Bayou - 40mm
  • Base Inserts - Bayou - 50mm
  • Rulebook and card pack restock

Warhammer 40K: Blood Angels (Friday): Codex: Blood Angels, Blood Angels Death Company, Blood Angels Sanguinary Guard, Blood Angel Baal Predator, Lemartes, Guardian of the Lost, The Sanguinor.

One of the key things about the Blood Angels is the duality of their nature - their noble intentions and desire to defend Mankind, pitted against their fight to control the Red Thirst (a genetic curse that drives them into an insane fury) that boils within them. The sculptors have done a great job of showing this on the models themselves: the Death Company appear sombre with skulls and symbols of death adorning their armour, while the Sanguinary Guard's armour is covered in angelic wings and wreaths.

Magazines: Miniature Wargames #323

Collectible Card Games

Yu-Gi-Oh: Absolute Powerforce SE: 3 booster packs and 1 of 2 super rare cards.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Religion and Role-Playing

I've spent some time studying religion academically and wanted to pose some scenarios for religious characters in role-playing games, especially Dungeons & Dragons. More often than not, a religion is tacked onto a character or it's chosen based on the game mechanic benefit. Cleric used to be the most necessary and least desirable class to play, so it's not surprising that so many clerics are boring, as many were played under duress. Reading Gods and Magic for Pathfinder brought up a variety of non-standard scenarios for why someone would worship a god. Here are some ideas to make a religious character (or denier) more interesting:

City God. In ancient times, it wasn't unusual for a city to have a patron god. The god may be of something the city is known for, like commerce or agriculture, or there may be one "big" god in the pantheon with a different name in each city. As the fortunes of the city rose, the worship of the god spread. You might decide that your character strongly associates with his town and its deity. Perhaps he's not particularly religious but sees the faith as a means to power. This is a setting issue, so talk it over with the game master.

Local Temple. The idea that someone would chose their religion is a mostly modern invention (except for Dilettante below). In places like medieval Tibet, the local temple was essentially the feudal lord of the region. Those who were destined for a religious life practiced the local religion. Rivalry was not uncommon. Likewise, most people nowadays practice the religion of their family. This could be a wonderful background tie in for the cleric whose a seventh generation priest of the sun god. Likewise, a doubting Thomas can be fun; someone who isn't sure the religious life is right for them. Give them a secret vice. Perhaps plan a crisis of faith and work towards it, ending with a character class change or a re-invigoration of their faith.

Fallen Religion. Sometimes religions are expelled or discredited, often because their priests get too involved in politics. A disgraced cleric is an excellent role-playing opportunity. Perhaps his god died in a cosmic war, but he refuses to give up, choosing to worship general aspects of the god as his domains to gain power, but still venerating his god in name. Perhaps he worships a religion of a deposed empire, tolerated by the new rulers only because the populace would revolt otherwise. It's important to be somewhat obstinate about maintaining faith to provide the most role-playing opportunities.

Dilettante. The exception to local worship are those with power or money to travel and sample other faiths. Many modern religious sects borrowed extensively from other religions. A character might be a devout follower of a foreign religion or if motivated, may wish to include foreign ideas into an existing faith. Imagine a rich noble cleric who visits a far off country to study the ways of their sun god with hopes of returning to include those practices (possibly more powerful) in his home pantheons sun god worship. He may be looked on as a savior who can re-invigorate the faith, a heretic with incorrect views, or a pure opportunist, intent on raw power. Plan on how the character can plot their ascendancy across the levels. Attempt to rise in church power, create an inclusive new sect, or split the faith. The alignment of the religion will likely determine the outcome.

Pantheistic. One decision to make is how dedicated a character is to one god versus the entire pantheon. The Eberron setting, for example, frowns on a monotheistic dedication to a single god, unusual for Dungeons & Dragons (monolatrism is the correct term, since it's acknowledged that the other gods still exist). You can make an interesting character by mixing this up. Try a devout character who deviantly worships the entire pantheon or a "heretic" who chooses one god over all others. A character might choose to focus on a domain or two, like good and justice, taking inspiration from gods that exemplify these characteristics. Perhaps there's a practical reason why worshiping a single god or the pantheon is forbidden. I once played an Eberron character who worshiped a sun god of a slightly different alignment. He experienced such painful burning from the gods light during prayer that it led him to some extreme behavior.

Monotheism. Not venerating one god over others (monolatrism), but believing that there is one true god, whoever that is, would be an extremely controversial position. When faith is manifest in observable power, it takes quite a piece of work to deny the obvious. Go for it.

Philosophical Positions. Planescape provided a variety of philosophical positions about religion, readily integrated into a character background. Athar believe that gods are just really powerful beings and not worthy of worship. Godsmen took a normally heretical view that your goal should be to attain godhood rather than worship a god. Bleakers denied the existence or relevance of any religion, an astonishingly controversial position in a medieval world. These are excellent philosophies for non-religious characters, but imagine including one with a religious character!

Urban Choices. I like to give my cities tons of gods, Lankhmar style, with more gods than can be counted. At such a cultural cross roads, there will be some gods or even pantheons that rise to prominence, usually for political reasons, but veneration of other gods may be opportunities for someone without strong political connections or money. Perhaps the destitute character of the discriminated race finds a means to power and purpose through an obscure foreign religion.

Good vs. Evil. As much as possible try to stretch the reasoning for why a character would worship a non-normative god. What in his background drove him to worship the god of the dead? Was he so appalled by undead that he wished his ancestors to rest peacefully? Does he worship the god of pestilence and disease because he lost his family to illness when he was young? Don't just envision a well intentioned good cleric worshiping a "bad" god, what kind of deep character flaws can you give your cleric who worships a good god? Like anything in the game, it's often fun to come up with extreme examples. Heroes are already extreme, try to stretch it a little further.

 Baal, or whatever they call him in your town

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pathfinder Chronicles: Gods and Magic (review)

In preparation for a Pathfinder campaign, I've been reading Sean K. Reynold's Gods and Magic. This book is designed to be the pantheon for the Pathfinder world. Normally I find RPG religion books to be somewhat disappointing. The key with religion in fantasy games is they need to walk a fine line.

Religion needs to capture the essence of a faiths beliefs. It has to be realistic, yet coherent and accessible. Real world ancient religions encompass hundreds or thousands of years of adaptation and synthesis of clashing cultural ideas. They often don't correlate with our modern sensibilities. Anyone who has tried to create a pantheon for an RPG by reading real books knows that it's difficult to come up with a system that's both believable and that works in-game.

The standard D&D approach is a rather sterile affair, with simplistic gods with a portfolio, a preferred weapon, and some domains. There's little flavor or sense of realism as to why anyone would want to worship such a being other than the reward of raw power. It's an almost cynical approach to religion. Adding the necessary flavor isn't easy though without losing function. One of my favorite D20 books of all time is Book of the Righteous, by Aaron Loeb, a book on religion that attempts to balance usability with realism.

Book of the Righteous is a tome with very detailed information on every god in its pantheon, schisms in the faith, sample prayers, and even specialized holy orders. It's a fantastic book and I use it as my default pantheon for all my D&D campaigns. However, it's rather dense, and like a lot of books with too much information, the GM ends up reading it while the players just take your word for it. I love Book of the Righteous, but it's somewhat old school in its design philosophy, providing far too much information than necessary, as interesting and clever as it might be.

Gods and Magic strikes a balance. First, it's a small softcover book of 62 pages, compared to the 320 page tome that's Book of the Righteous. You honestly shouldn't expect much from this small book (also with a small $17.99 price tag), which is one reason why it's so surprisingly good. It's concise. Each god gets two pages, including artwork of their aspect and holy symbol. You get the usual game mechanics like spheres, alignment, favored weapons and how it fits in the Pathfinder world. An introduction explains the gods role in the pantheon and how they interact with their worshipers. Where we get a lot of creativity is in the church structure of each deity.

We're given information on how non-cleric worshipers participate, including druids, rangers, monks and paladins. Restrictions or allowances are thrown in. For example, certain armor may be worn by a class that might not normally be allowed and certain spells associated with the deity are available at a level lower. Each deity also has a low level signature spell to allow its clerics to add additional flavor to the game. Between the fluff and the mechanics, anyone playing a religious character is set to showcase their characters faith. There's more though.

The magic item section is full of interesting signature items that also match a gods portfolio. Thankfully, the magic items section takes the new spell philosophy and provides inexpensive magic items that are likely to see play at low levels. Most items are in the 3,000-5,000gp range. There's nothing worse than flavorful magic items that are simply too powerful to ever see use in a campaign. If I were playing a cleric, I would expect to eventually have one of these signature items, even if I had to make it myself.

Where this book really shines is tone. It walks the line of providing a clear pantheon, accessible to the game, without relying on clear cut answers that lose that sense of realism. Religion is vague by nature and one of the worst things a game book on religion can do is codify it to death so it feels like science. The gods are inscrutable for the most part, yet the writing gives us a feel for their place in the multiverse. There's a satisfactory calculated vagueness. The "Other Gods" chapter deals with a lot of realistic gods you might read in mythology, but wouldn't normally want to include in game. 

For example, Alseta, the goddess of doorways is very much like the Roman Janus. Does your cleric really want to worship the god of doorways? Of new beginnings and endings? Not really, but adding this god provides flavor to the setting without attempting to shoehorn the real world into game mechanics.  This section also provides various evil gods that are really just adventure seeds for the DM and racial gods that add flavor but aren't intended for general worship (at least not in this book). I was also happy to see a "Cthulhu-esque" section on alien gods, important for sorcerers and always good for some reality twisting adventuring.

Gods and Magic is a fantastic edition to your 3.5 or Pathfinder shelf. I'm sticking with my Book of the Righteous pantheon, but man am I stealing the great ideas in this little book. It's a well designed, modern approach to religion in role-playing games, providing flavor in a useful and creative format and readily accessible game mechanics. That it's a great read with typical high quality Paizo artwork isn't a bad thing either.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More on Turn Rates (Tradecraft)

Obtaining four turns of inventory was important to me, but in my head, I really didn't know what that looked like. I know a lot of stuff sells at one turn, and then there's a bunch of stuff over four turns to even that out, but how much of each? I spent a couple hours this morning crunching numbers and here's what I came up with:

Items Sold: Single turn items comprised nearly half of all items sold last year. Items selling 2-4 times were another 25% and the final 25% were items selling over four times. That wasn't too surprising until I looked at sales dollars.

Revenue by Turns: Looking at revenue by turn rate was where I got a surprise. Turns of 1-4 were 75% of items sold, but only 25% of my revenue. Sales over 4 turns accounted for 75% of sales, while only 25% of what we carried. This turned my understanding of turns on its head. Yes, an average of 4 is a worthy goal, and most of what I sell will fall far under that turn rate, but the revenue comes from much higher turning items well above that threshold. In fact, about half of sales are from items with over 20 turns and a quarter of sales are from items over 100 turns. And don't forget the handful of items that sell well over 2,000 times each year, such as Mexican Coke, bottled water and Magic 2010 booster packs.

This is an industry that prides itself on product knowledge and carrying the exotic and hard to find. We carry more individual items than a Costco. However, half of what I sell is essentially window dressing, a "merchandising" expense to drive the high volume sales. Yet, what would happen if a specialty store dropped that 75% of below average merchandise? Is it desirable to cut back on those items? Surely you don't want single turn items cluttering up your store. How much do these 75% single turn items contribute to higher turn sales?  Why can't a big box store sweep down and absorb the 60% or so of sales that meet their turn threshold?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Calendar and Forum Change

We've integrated our store calendar into our website using Google Calender. Please check it out. It's more useful than our old calendar, hosted on our web forum. If you use Google Calendar, you can copy Black Diamond Games events to your own calendar, add reminders, sync it to your phone or whatever clever Googly things you can come up with. I may also include Google Calendar links on the monthly event email. I haven't used a calendar for years, so if you have suggestions on how we can leverage Google Calendar, please let me know. Also let me know how you use BDG events with your calendar so we can better assist you. Michael did all the work, by the way. I just added the finished calendar to the website.

The web forum is gone. It has outlived its usefulness and it was a finicky, spam magnet piece of junk at best. The forum tab on our website now forwards directly to our Facebook page. Facebook might not be your thing, but with over 350 followers, it's where most BDG discussions happen. I'm pretty sure we have more followers than any other game store, and I've embraced Facebook as a major focus of our marketing. Several ads draw in new fans all the time, always local people with interests in the games we sell (or local friends of current fans).

There is probably more blog discussion on Facebook now than the blog itself (unfortunately divided between my personal and business blog import). That said, about two thirds of our old forum discussion was event related and unfortunately, Facebook probably isn't a great place for that conversation. There is no way to link Google discussions with calendars. We'll see how we can accomplish that going forward. Social media continues to morph and change and we're happy to experiment.

Thanks again for caring enough to keep up with store happenings!

Why Game Stores Suck, Part 2

The game store is not a flexible business model. It might sound like an esoteric argument, but I believe the reason for this is game products are priced using a manufacturers suggested retail price or MSRP. This is in contrast to "net" priced products, in which the manufacturer has a wholesale price and leaves it up to the retailer to come up with a retail price. Why is this important? MSRP is a retailer straight jacket. Even if you do everything right, become profitable, overcome the pressures from the Internet, and advance to a bigger store, MSRP is likely to stifle your business if you're in a higher cost environment.

There are many potential retail business models. If you look around at toy stores, for example, you can find high end toy stores in expensive areas, hole in the wall toy stores in junky malls, and everything in between. They can do this because they have control over their pricing. When confronted with high costs, they can envision a business model that adjusts with higher prices. The same toy will vary in price by five to fifteen percent or so, depending on where you buy. The retailer sets the price. The consumer decides if they're willing to engage. When you have a trade where the MSRP is enforced, like with books and games, you have a one size fits all business model with no flexibility.

Game store owners have a general idea of what their fixed costs must be to survive. These costs are based on a rather Midwestern series of assumptions about reasonable rent and wages. Game stores who want to be "pure" game stores, without diversifying, need to fit within these parameters of fixed cost assumptions or suffer the consequences (failure or diminished profits). MSRP defines where a store can be and who they can hire. There is no wiggle room without moving away from the game trade model in some way. Meanwhile, some costs rise disproportionately, such as credit card processing fees, electricity and health care (at least for the owners).

There is no ability for game store owners to increase their margins with pricing, as the MSRP dictates their pricing. They have no tool to adjust income, so they frantically bat at the flames of their ever increasing costs. When a product has an MSRP, customers become highly sensitive to this price. They'll certainly seek bargains, but most won't ever go above it. Only a rube buys over an obvious MSRP. Net pricing provides elasticity in pricing and allows stores to increase prices to match their business model. Prices float at a rough baseline instead of a hard number. This floating average can be the difference between failure and success.

So in urban areas, with higher costs, we generally have two types of game stores: The big, pretty good game store and the small, crappy game store. The big store is pretty good because they've managed to leverage their "economy of scale" to best deal with fixed costs and fixed pricing. Still, those big stores are not making as much money as you might think. All the ones I know make nothing like the profit percentages of Midwestern stores.

The small urban stores are often in bad areas (the Midwestern rent baseline) and suffer from being small. The distribution model for games also punishes them by providing an MSRP discount they can't fully leverage. Their cost of goods are likely higher than the the bigger store, especially during their formative years. Net pricing would fix that too. MSRP and the distribution model punishes new stores and reduces competition, another reason why you don't hear veteran retailers complain too loudly about it. So the crappy small game store is actually the Midwestern model gone urban. It plays by the rules, but the rules are against them. When I had a smaller store, it became clear to me that I had to move up or quit.

Regional income variances are not enough to overcome the fixed costs and fixed pricing associated with this model. MSRP is a one size fits all model that's more appropriate to the Midwest, with lower costs, especially rent and labor. The game industry suffers because of this. Larger retailers are poised to prosper, but not as much as they could with a net priced system. MSRP creates a kind of uniformity in what's possible in the retail game trade. It stifles retailer innovation and perpetuates game store stereotypes.

What's the solution? Not everything can and will be net priced. Books, for example, are dependent on the MSRP of the book trade. See where that has gotten them? Also, not everything is currently at MSRP. For example, jigsaw puzzles, classic games and mass market games tend not to have a MSRP. The caveat is that if a company sells direct off their website, their price is the de-facto MSRP. The solution will come from manufacturers who decide to promote the game industry with net pricing. They will simply not have an MSRP for their product. A few do this now, but it could increase if enough find this issue important. I think a thriving and diverse retail game trade is important, do they?

Finally, many game stores have identified the MSRP problem and have found innovative solutions. For example, diversifying into a broader range of games outside the hobby game industry can be successful. Focusing on classic games and puzzles is very difficult, but to the extend you can do it, it's much more profitable. Hobby supplies can be lucrative as well as toys if you have the market. Used games and the "entertainment model" of buying and selling at flexible prices has apparently saved a handful of game stores in the Midwest. Card shop have identified Magic singles as the method for boosting their margins. In other words, they run from MSRP and embrace flexible pricing where they can find it. Game retailers have identified that shrinking margins are killing them. They just don't agree on how to fix the problem. Many adapt without knowing why.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shifting Mediums, Part 2

Did you know we have a web forum and calendar? It's one of those "legacy" applications that was supposed to provide social networking for our gaming community. The calendar is helpful, but the forums have suffered the fate of forums everywhere, they've lost readership. Those with critical mass still exist, but smaller ones are better off moving to other places, like Facebook. In fact, we're thoroughly discussing this issue there now.

On top of this, our forum is on a private server and is difficult to maintain. Widespread spamming has required an authentication method that doesn't work well. Technically, it's a butt pain. There are also costs associated with the software and maintaining the server. Our volunteer admin has spent much time keeping it going as well.

About three quarters of our forum posts are about events, so if we can move to a calendar system that includes some commenting, it should be a good fix. Google Calendar seems a winner. It does what our old calendar does and so much more, including filtering by your interests and lots of mobility options, such as phone versions. I'm also eying Google Groups as an add on to that. Facebook is still my chosen medium for most communications. We advertise there now, post sales and specials and generally find it an ideal medium for the store. As I've mentioned before, it's not what I'm recommending or saying everyone should move to, it's what works best for us.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Double Standards

We have double standards when it comes to our game center. I admit it. Some events are pay events while others are free. It may seem unfair, but it relates to how people spend money on their games and what resources are needed to run their games. Is it a self-sufficient group or an actual event in need of our support? There is no one size fits all.

Role-playing games generally are so self-sufficient, so below the radar, that they're invisible for the most part. Contrast this with a collectible card game or a miniature war game that requires a competent organizer to run herd on the group, a group that varies in consistency dramatically from week to week, that may or may not include your friends or people you want to play with and likely requires stupid levels of staff support to keep the "balls in the air." Unlike an RPG, running these events usually means the organizer doesn't get to play.

You also have the board gamer, a generally older, mature individual who buys board games from us on occasion. There is no $3.99 booster pack as an easy buy in and no great striving for a box of prize support. They aren't competitive. They don't annoy me. They're here to play. They support the store. They don't need to be enticed or gimicked into doing so. It should be so easy with other events.

A big part of inconsistency is we rely on volunteers to run most events (we pay staff to run our kids 40K group). We do what we can to entice volunteers, often with a discount. We also have the issue of maturity and buying patterns, that basically say, certain groups of gamers won't spend a dime with you, and in fact, will cause you to lose money in various ways, if you don't charge them a small fee to play. Charging for events will actually drive away a class of parasites we don't want around. So that's what we do. What's the alternative? What's the uniform answer or policy? You probably wouldn't like it.

Uniformity would result in closing all open gaming at all times. Events would be staff directed or trusted volunteer directed. We would drop events that did not directly support our objectives, AKA bottom line. Many role-playing games would be dropped; in fact everything except D&D 4 and Pathfinder; stuff in print with strong organized play support. Card games would be streamlined to our top sellers with strong support from publishers. Miniature gaming would see a similar paring down. There would be no "catch-all" events. We would likely focus the store on best sellers or staff interests, preferring quality events over quantity. We would close the store early most nights, rather than paying staff to run late. There would be less gaming, less community. This is actually how most stores operate. It's clean. It's efficient. It's uniform.  It's not what we want to do and I'm guessing it's not what you want to see.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Musical Machines

The Yu-Gi-Oh duel terminals are so far performing to my expectations. It does seem to be our usual Sunday crowd spending most of the money, and as with Yu-Gi-Oh, primarily on Sunday. It's a funny anomaly of that game that we only sell Yu-Gi-Oh cards on the event day, as opposed to other products that sell all week long. I haven't noticed throngs of kids caravaning to the store from the ends of the Earth.

Placement of the machines has been the biggest issue. We have two and they need to be placed so each player can't see the screen of the other machine. Also, I can confirm that the machines are used primarily in pairs to "duel," against other players and not just to dispense cards. Adding to the placement difficulty is the touch screen and card scanners sensitivity to sunlight. Unlike a standard computer display, the touch screens cannot be exposed to direct sunlight or they go a bit bonkers, with flickering and the like.

Besides sunlight, one objective is to avoid creating unobserved spaces in the store to avoid any looting. Our Yu-Gi-Oh crowd is a fine group, but a general security rule is avoid providing temptations. Placing machines "back to back" just doesn't work with this in mind. We'll keep moving the machines around until we get it right.

According to the City of Concord:

It is unlawful for minors to play the games during the following hours:
1. Between 7:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on weekdays during the academic school year of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, unless the weekday is a school holiday for the district;
2. ...After 10:00 p.m., Sunday through Thursday nights throughout the year;
3. After midnight on any Friday or Saturday throughout the year.

Section 6-237(a), City of Concord Municipal Code

(Code 1965, § 6206; Ord. No. 83-8)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Delusions of Grandeur

I was watching an online discussion yesterday where a bunch of very bright game store owners were trying to help a prospective new owner forecast initial sales. They came up with interesting fomulas for sales projections, such as dollars per person within a particular radius. I would have chimed in with something about turn rates (my own comforting mantra), but the discussion was already far along. Everyone had a different method and the bottom line was none were necessarily right. We don't know how to predict sales. It's what keeps rational people away from small business and what almost sunk my original business plan. I also rooted around online looking for The Formula, confident such a sales projection estimator existed. It turns out this is the big leap of faith. You can calculate expenses fair enough, but sales are fuzzy (I'm actually pretty good at it, with my expense projections way off).

This reminded me I should discuss the uniqueness of small businesses. It may not be apparent as I pontificate or elaborate about what I do, but my business is a unique representation of my community and our efforts as a company. Perhaps that's really obvious, but sometimes this reality gets lost in the weeds. What keeps small specialty stores like mine in business is their incredibly idiosyncratic nature. Everything about it is a direct response to the feedback of my community, the abilities of me and my staff, and the current economic climate. So everything I say about it should be considered little more than a curiosity. It's the part of our programming that's entertainment and not news. Not only can you not replicate what I'm doing, but I can't replicate what I'm doing. I couldn't do it across town in exactly the same way and I couldn't do it like this five years ago when I started or five years into the future. Maybe I've watched too much Doctor Who lately, but I see it as an anomaly of time and space.

It's not uncommon for store owners to listen to another owner and think, "This guy has no idea what he's talking about." In fact, he does know what he's talking about, it's his unique representation of time and space known as his store. In all other contexts, we're essentially frauds. On top of this, most store owners have no formal business training, so to some extent we develop our own retail language for explaining exactly what we do, which obfuscates the situation further. Part of my self-education in business has been to learn mainstream retail terms so I can express myself clearly and consistently. I'm still working on that. I spend a lot of time grasping at straws when I'm sure what I'm experiencing is not particularly unique and probably has a known solution, a magic formula. If I would just use factoring, for example, my cash balance would be appropriate to my needs*:


This uniqueness fits the nature of entrepreneurs just fine.We're an unusual lot with a variety of skill sets with the commonality that we don't want to work for other people. Some of us are actually incapable of working for others. It requires the kind of ego that's willing to accept risk that others would find unacceptable for the sake of their vision. You don't get that without a bit of arrogance and a belief that your way is the right way. A successful entrepreneur is like the Douglas Adams definition of flying, you have to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Success often happens despite ones best efforts to screw it up. Just understand how unique that is.

"Black Diamond Games 2.0: Much Bigger on the Inside."

* The reality is far easier: Don't spend more than you have. Make more money than you spend. Keep it simple (stupid).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bell Curve of Quality

Generally, the most widely produced products are the most reliable. If you buy deep discount, you should expect poor quality. What most people don't understand is that at the high price point, quality once again suffers, as production methods are often one-offs or goods are produced by hand, without the high level of quality control of mass produced goods.

Buy a Honda Accord and you can expect pretty good quality, while both a Kia and an Aston Martin are likely to disappoint you with quality. Likewise, a box of plastic 40K models are likely to be flawless, while your experience with Forge World or Battlefoam might require some compromises. This is not to excuse their quality problems, just to explain that the cutting edge is called that for a reason.

As our hobby matures, we hopefully can see the same type of improvements that the auto industry has seen, in which almost any car will provide you with reliable transportation. The goal is to steepen and narrow that bell curve of quality. I think we're already seeing this with mass produced plastic models.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Black Diamond Games, Ltd.

Go drink a big cup of coffee and when the buzz kicks in, meet me at the next paragraph.

Ready? Caffeinated? Good. So we converted our company, Black Diamond Games, LLC, to a corporation, named Black Diamond Games, Ltd. In California, limited (Ltd) is the same as corporation (corp),  and incorporated (inc) but just sounds cooler. Of course, it's less common and confuses people, especially if you do business internationally, since Ltd is an entirely different entity in Europe. So the obvious question, why the change? It comes down to taxes.

California taxes LLC's based on their gross sales, while taxing corporations based on their net sales. Most game stores fall under the base tax for their gross receipts for LLC's, so it's a valid structure, but once you gross over the minimum, which we now do, California smacks you with significantly higher taxes. As you may know, game stores make a lot of smoke (gross), but not much fire (net). What we needed was a corporation. So I bought a Nolo book and after reading it, simply filled out a one page form to convert the LLC to a corporation and I was set. How hard could it be?

Oh yeah, just so everyone's on the same page, you need to send your creditors a letter telling them of the conversion. No big deal, I thought, how many creditors do I have? In my mind I figured about six to ten. After consulting my sophisticated accounting system (Quickbooks), I came up with 60 creditors. Geez! So 60 letters went out to everyone involved, expecting this to be the last of it.

Things began happening.

Emails began popping into my in-box. Credit cards were being sent out and did I know of this? After talking with a credit card fraud department on the phone, it finally dawned on me. I'm new. I'm different. It turns out the banks were sending out new credit cards, some with the Ltd after our name, some just because they felt like it (the cards were identical). At least they still thought I was worthy.

Next, my payroll company called to tell me I needed a new employee identification number. Several hours later, after pouring over the legal requirements, in which I may or may not, perhaps on alternate Sundays, need a new EIN, it turns out I don't, but will. So there. Our C-Corp conversion doesn't require it, but our S-Corp conversion from the C-Corp may require it when I file next week. It's complicated. Aren't you glad you had that big cup of coffee?

Not entirely unexpectedly, my landlord decided to resume being a dick. My new Ltd designation shows that I have a new company, their letter said, and according to section 13 of my lease, I must provide them my financial records and a check for $500 to see if they would like to transition my lease to this new, unknown entity. Not. As a legally converted company, I am not new, so I dispute their assertion. I eventually decided to tell them to blow (really I'm ignoring them) after I read the consequences of being in default on the lease. They can either decide to let me stay (no change), or they can decide to kick me out (go for it). With landlords offering up to a year of free rent on their many empty spaces, I would be happy to move ... and buy that Porsche with the $90,000 in savings. With a lease intact, it's a lessors market. With a lease broken, it's a renters market.

But what about the government? The Board of Equalization called to ruin my day. I would, in fact, have to re-apply for a sellers permit. They granted it quick enough and then made it retroactive to January. I informed them I had already scheduled my January payment under the old permit, but that was no problem for them, they had already canceled the payment. Umm, what? Do it again, they said, using the new permit number. However, the new number wasn't in the database yet. No problem, they said, just give it a little time. The taxes were due in four days, I was going on vacation and the information needed to make the payment was being sent in the mail, likely showing up while I was gone. Did I mention the 10% late fee? Fortunately, the letter arrived 30 minutes before I left for vacation and all was right with the world as I frantically made my sales tax payment.

And finally, all of the douche bag companies that contact new businesses began contacting me, as if I had once again fallen off the turnip truck. "Hello, can I speak to the person in charge of...."   No, you may not. Credit card processors began calling incessantly. Credit card offers from my existing creditors flooded my in-box. My alarm system company called to offer me an alarm system while I was writing this paragraph! Scammers of all sort acted fast to take a swipe at my start up money before I spent it all. Would I like a gold plated corporate sign for my wall? Unfortunately, those days and that money are long gone.

So we are Black Diamond Games, Ltd., a California corporation that is in all ways identical to Black Diamond Games, LLC. Really, I swear.