Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Getting in And Staying (RPGs)

Someone was asking me about how we choose RPGs and how they would get into our store. How we learn about them is pretty easy, we're on the look out for new ideas in role-playing games. We means myself and our staff. The staff, especially, are very much into cutting edge role-playing games. Because we try to foster that kind of creative atmosphere, customers will also ask for games along with keeping us up to date on various projects in the pipeline. Distributors are still the industry gatekeepers, and the majority of RPG product will come through them. It's just easier. Indie Press Revolution provides us with quite a bit of "fringe" product, that generally represents the cutting edge. None of this is particular extraordinary or new.

The real question of getting into our store is not so much about the initial entrance, but more about how to get your product to stay. RPG publishers generally think of game stores in the context of the games they personally create. However, unlike say, a comic book store, only about 15-20% of our customers care at all about role-playing games. There will be no lines out the door on Free RPG Day. There is no day of the week when RPGs arrive, requiring us to hire additional staff. It's a niche of a niche.

Of our RPG customers, over half only play D&D. It's not all doom and gloom though, because we'll carry a game with as little as two gaming groups supporting it. For example, we've got two guys who buy RIFTS products (one guy buys two of everything). That's enough to carry RIFTS. If one of those guys, gods forbid, was hit by a bus, we would re-evaluate. Part of my job is to talk to these two guys and regularly gauge their interests. Still playing? Any interest in the next supplement? That's the level of detail that goes into specialty retail. That's the level of decline RPGs have seen over the years. Still, it's the garden we grow and we're happy with it.

So the market is very small to begin with, but it doesn't take much to turn the mental switch from pass to buy. The key is how to keep us stocking that product. The term thrown around in the game trade is the periodical model, in which I treat your book, which I have already sold once, which you have toiled over for months, as a mere magazine. I bring it in, I expose it to my crowd for one to six weeks, and then I get cold feet and drop it once it has sold. I never order it again. This is a subjective, voodoo retail decision that's based a lot on perceptions of customer interest, rather than data. If I only brought in one copy, it was probably already too risky. Not re-ordering it seems like a clear win. In game retailing, the difference between success and failure is often 1 and 0. It's great that I bought that book, but my confidence wasn't high enough to consider it a viable, long term product. How do you fix that?

Assuming you want to fix this, that I'm worthy of your product, that I'm not lazy for turning your cool book into a disposable magazine, the first step is to show some confidence. This means you'll spend some time and/or money marketing the product (Facebook is insanely efficient). You'll need clear indication that there will be follow-up products, preferably with rough release dates and names. It assumes it didn't just show up one day at the distributor, with no previous solicitation, no street date, no consumer awareness. I'll also assume it's of standard quality, isn't of an odd form factor, bound at Kinko's or warps on the shelf.

You'll convince me and your player base that there is more to come and this is just the beginning, not the end. If it's a core book, talk about future accessories. Support it with a preview PDF or a quickstart. Get it featured in an industry trade magazine. Bang the drum. Do something to ensure future life. Players erroneously believe that a game with no future supplements is dead, as if it can't stand on its own without a promise of more to come. If it is the only product, you've got an uphill battle. Create the illusion of life, even if you're uncertain. Customers regularly ask me if I know the future of a product line. Avoid letting this happen.

Make it easy for me to buy it. Evil Hat is taking a calculated risk by sending Dresden Files RPG through the distribution system. Most retailers will not order direct due to the costs involved. To make it worthwhile usually requires a level of risk, in the form of a large amount of product that would be unacceptable for all but top tier RPGs. What's a successful, top tier RPG? One that "turns" or sells, three to four times a year (D&D is at an overall turn rate of 8 for us). Tell me I have to buy more than four copies of your game to make it cost effective and you're assuming de facto top tier status, probably without even realizing it. Mainstream board game companies do it all the time with their minimum case quantities. There's a reason game distribution works, and it's because of the very low turn rates of the trade. IPR is included in this system, in my book, so at least work with them. If I have to buy direct from you, it likely won't work unless you have multiple titles I need.

Margin shouldn't be an issue, but it often is. Game stores have seen shrinking margins over the years without the ability to raise prices. Their costs continue to rise, so they get the squeeze. Some dry up and blow away, not knowing what happened. I know what's happening. I'll carry a book with a 45% margin, but I'll be cautious. At 40%, it better be pretty special and likely limited. When Diaspora was offered to us at 25%, we had to politely decline, despite intense customer interest. The quantities required and the difficult margin made the risk too great. At a full 50% margin, this issue goes away. You are now economically above average.

Finally, there are factors that will make a product shiny, relative to margin or performance issues. There's a "halo effect" for indie press titles, for example. Right now, anything involving a PDF program, in which a publisher is working with retailers as partners, has a halo. I may order more of those products than I currently carry. I think everything good in role-playing for the last decade has come from the indie community, whether they published it or the ideas were borrowed. These modern design paradigms have shown up in D&D, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and lately in Pathfinder. As a retailer, I want to be part of this. I want to show my support. I also want to pay my mortgage, as I don't have a WWGJ (wife with a good job) so charity and public service has its limits. Products with halo effects get special treatment and exemptions from the strict inventory control that inevitably sends almost every book to the clearance rack.

I will also tell you that I have more RPG budget than there are viable products. I actually believe I have everything worth carrying based on my criteria. I strive to find more good product, rather than looking for excuses not to buy it. It's the local market that is shrunken, unemployed and disinterested, not me. Nearly half of our RPG section is now devoted to used books. That's a dangerous trend that says we're looking backwards instead of forwards.

You may be telling yourself that the economics of all this just won't work. You're probably right! I don't want or expect access to every RPG product on the market. The low barrier to entry means everyone and their brother still wants to be an RPG publisher. Having done publishing, I don't see the appeal, but here we are. There is the long tail and the PDF market and the direct to consumer market. People will tell me it's not about the money, it's about art and expression.  I'm not going to yell at you to get off my lawn, but I will insist that your product hold to some basic principles to make it into my store.