Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Our Little RPG Experiment

We tried an experiment recently where we made this offer: Trade in the D&D core book that you don't want and get half off the book you do want. In other words, if you're belly aching about 4th Edition, feel stuck with abandoned 3.5, or feel betrayed by Pathfinder, stop complaining and come get the book you want. We'll help you into your next game system.

The thinking was that we would break even on the deal. The goal was to re-align RPG customers towards playing again, giving them a shot at a new game. What happened was a bit surprising. First, it re-affirmed that we do, as advertised, buy used role-playing games. We took in some huge collections in addition to our trade in offer. One angel customer knew his collection was worth a mint, but wanted it in good hands, so he gave it to us for a song.

Second, and this was surprising, almost ever customer who took advantage of the trade in bought the Pathfinder core rulebook as a replacement. It brought in enough 3.5 and 4th Edition D&D used books that we're scrambling to get rid of them. Nobody traded in a Pathfinder core rulebook. Nobody picked up a D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook.

We're now so overstocked on 3.5 that we've stopped paying a premium for them. In fact, we're having a buy one, get one free sale this week to try to cut down on the overstock. 4E books (as you can see below) surprisingly had the same problem and are being bundled in core rulebook sets of three and sold for $35.  We probably lost money on the straight trade of 4E, but the goal of transitioning players, and the unintended result of obtaining some amazing collections, made up for it.

To give you a demand example: We can still sell a 3.5 PHB for full cover price (but have trouble with supplements), stock the new 4E PHB at two deep, and stock the Pathfinder core rulebook at five deep. As for the demand for 3.5, customers still want books, but they expect them to be cheap.  Over the last year, I've noticed the prices of these books has dumped hard online and local used book stores are dropping them fast.

The easy fan analysis is that 4E is the suck and Pathfinder is full of win. It's more complicated than that. What we're seeing are a few things. First, a huge number of past and current D&D geeks bought the 4E core rulebooks just to buy it and look it over. My guess is half the local sales of the initial gift set went through Amazon at close to cost and that getting another book for a sweetheart deal drove them to pick up a Pathfinder book, just to see what all the fuss was about. Second, the secondary group of 3.5 players are coming off the sidelines. They're choosing something familiar. After all, if they were resistant to change at first, which system offers something safe and familiar?  Finally, the suck and win argument has some validity as disgruntled 4E players are hoping to stay in gaming by finding some hope in Pathfinder.

From a store perspective, I have to wonder if Pathfinder has staying power. This goes back to the question of whether an adventure writing company can support a role-playing line. Although I think a key selling point of Pathfinder is the excellent adventures, they're not what drives the line for us, partially because of their subscription model that bypasses us (why a lot of retailers think I'm nuts for even giving them the time of day). However, what I see now and expect to see in the future are rules supplement driving sales (5% of the product line driving 64% of the sales). Below is our break down of sales that shows rules are the ticket. The Advanced Player's Guide shot Pathfinder up to our number one game and I expect upcoming supplements to do the same.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Navigating Pathfinder

Pathfinder is now our best selling role-playing game. If you don't know about it, it's a spin off from Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 using the OGL license. Many call it Dungeons & Dragons 3.75.  It's characterized by the same level of complexity as 3.5, but with a lot of rules tweaked and updated. It's improved. It's still slower than 4th Edition, but it has that dense, flavorful feel of 3.5. What it means to most people is a familiar game system with some excellent new ideas. GMing a Pathfinder game is nearly identical to a 3.5 game, with most of the burden on the players with their new character abilities.

Where Pathfinder truly excels, I think, is in the writing, especially the adventure paths. The ideas are fresh, experimental, and mostly work. The source books are uncensored, and paragons of role-playing writing. If you haven't delved beyond Dungeons & Dragons before, prepare to be blown away. I think it's like White Wolf meets Dungeons & Dragons.

Navigating Pathfinder can be daunting. We carry every in-print product from Paizo, including GameMastery accessories. I'm not even sure how many that is. They are not as cleanly organized as Dungeons & Dragons, and don't carry consistent "trade dress," so it's not surprising that customers get that blank look on their faces when they try to figure out what to buy. I'm going to try to break that down.

Getting started requires the Core Rulebook for everyone, which is a combined Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. GM's will want the Bestiary and probably the very good screen, and perhaps the GameMastery Guide, which provides great advice and some useful resources. The new Advanced Player's Guide is now a must have for players, but still optional, along with the Armory. That's all. There are several race books, but those are optional and more GM focused. There are no class books or other splat books, although rules, mostly traits and feats, are scattered throughout the Pathfinder collection. Some find this maddening. I use Hero Lab, a third party product, to consolidate all this stuff for character management.

If you run your own adventures, you're done, but if you want to delve into the world of Golarion, the Pathfinder setting, you're just getting started. See the chart (I love charts):

The best way to get started is to jump in with the first book of an adventure path. This is the bottom up approach. Adventure paths are complete campaigns from 1st-15th level (or so) spanning six books. They also include free PDF player guides (sometimes in print) and a map pack towards the end of the run. This is all you'll need to play. Want an open-ended sandbox style adventure with the PCs creating their own kingdom, try Kingmaker. Want a gritty urban adventure, try Council of Thieves. There are now seven adventure paths and a bunch of modules, if you're not ready to commit. You can also use these for 3.5 D&D, assuming they're one level higher in power level.

But what if you want more? Paizo puts out a bewildering assortment of extra books in a few different categories. The Companion books are regional sourcebooks often keyed to the adventure paths. If you want more background, there are books on the planes, religion and races. Beyond that, there are some very clever, but not necessary books on re-imagining classic D&D concepts, like magic items, vampires, dragons, you name it.

Tieing everything together, at the top of the chain would be the Campaign Setting books. The main campaign setting book is out of print right now, but a new one, The Inner Sea, is due in February. Until then, I can highly recommend the Gazetteer. If you're not happy with the bottom up approach of branching out from the adenture paths, the Gazetteer will help you work your way down. It includes a map, descriptions of the regions and races, a setting timeline and an overview of religion. If you find everything mentioned in the Gazetteer on the included map, you'll be Golarian fluent in no time.

What you won't find in Pathfinder are endless splat books and rules updates. This is learning from experience. DMs want to tell stories, not fight against the book of the month power curve. If you're about stories and great writing, the Paizo approach is fantastic. If you're a power gamer, you will be constantly Jonesing for new candy.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Success Cycle

I'm going to throw a formula for success out here, as if I'm some expert or that what I say applies to everyone. Let's give it a shot. Let's play pretend. Feel free to rip it apart. Ready?

I think the secret to a successful game store is in two parts. The first part is operations. It's paying rent, utilities, and ensuring that sales are high enough to cover expenses. It means managing events, appropriate marketing, and understanding the business cycle. It's probably what most game store owners consider 75% of their job. Easy enough, right?

The second part, which I believe should be as divorced as possible from the first part, is ordering and inventory management. Most stores integrate operations with inventory management to an unhealthy degree. When do you order product? When there is money left over. When does it come in? Whenever that time comes. When do you satisfy customers? Whenever they happen to roam in and find the shiny. I think this is failure incarnate.

So here are the four steps to how I think it works:
  1. Knowing what they want
  2. Having the budget
  3. Receiving on time
  4. Satisfying demand

Sounds easy, right? Let's look at it more closely.
  1. Knowing what they want. This means understanding what your customers want. It means hitting the street date so that they're trained to come in at the right time and buy the stuff. It means buying the appropriate quantity so that it is all sold and your money is back in your bank account before the bill is due.
  2. Having the budget. This goes back to Open to Buy, a separate budget that is independent of operations. The store has low sales? It's a slow time of year? The rent is due? It doesn't matter. It means you have enough capital to have this separate budget always. Sometimes the budget is stretched. Sometimes you are over budget. However, by having this budget, you are free to order what you need, when you need it. 
  3. Receiving on time. This means hitting the street date as close as possible. I try to hit every street date, always. Sometimes I miss it, but it's usually a logistical problem not a budgetary problem. This means my customers know exactly what to expect from me, which means they can rely on me to get what they want. So they tell me what they want. Then I get it. Then they buy it. Sounds pretty simple, eh? It's only possible by knowing what they want, having the budget to get it, and getting it when it's expected. I also make sure to handle special orders promptly, which means I can get anything you want in a timely manner.
  4. Satisfying demand. Getting the first three parts down means you have knowledge of not only what they want, but how many, and for how long. You don't get this information without consistently performing steps one through three. Your data is useless if you don't hit the dates, as your understanding of demand is flawed. Stores wonder why their customers aren't buying the new stuff, but many miss street date or have a high level of out-of-stock items. Open to Buy also means you always have high performing items in stock. This goes back to Turn Rate Analysis or whatever metric you use to determine sales performance. It's all integrated. Satisfy demand consistently and customers will go out of their way to tell you what they want, completing the circle.

This takes capital to make sure your Open to Buy budget is available. It takes discipline to maintain the budget and buy even when you're unsure or when your operations expenses are coming due. It takes patience and social skills to listen carefully to what your customers want. It takes time and effort to communicate what you will be getting and when it will arrive. If you find yourself at the end of the year with a little extra money, consider implementing this.

You too can work long hours with a medium income if you just follow these four steps.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Game, New Tools

I've been running a Pathfinder Council of Thieves campaign since April, but lately I've been excited about playing in a game. My Pathfinder player experience has been limited to Free RPG Day, when I played a half-orc cavalier from the Advanced Player's Guide beta. I'll continue to DM, but playing is just what I need about now. Some will point out that I've been playing for nearly ten years, but I do think there's a big difference in play in Pathfinder compared to 3.x.

I'm kind of traditional with my DMing. I'm not a big fan of electronic tools. Everyone in our group has an iPhone and/or an iPad and most keep their characters on it. Some use it for dice rolling. I don't object, but I'm a fan of rolling the bones and looking things up in books. It's a conceit that probably comes from having the home field advantage. I've got Dwarven Forge, a ton of books and a lifetime of miniatures spread across my house. I'm the king of my analog castle. We communicate and keep track of the campaign using a private Facebook group and initially I used a blog for campaign updates, but I'm still kind of a gamer Luddite.

As a player, I've been observing what tools other people use to run their games. Most are not terribly polished, but I can see the value in more collaborative models, such as Obsidian Portal and the cool things you can do with Google Sites. Clunky sites are alright if the players will use them. I had a big "ah-ha" moment when I found myself eagerly adding new content to the site of the campaign I'll be playing in. I've also become a big fan of PFR, a Pathfinder SRD tool by Ufisk that works on the iPhone and other "i" devices. It's especially useful if you've got a small child on your lap and you want to zone out without being anti-social. The program is polished enough so it's faster than book searches. Not bad for $5. D&D 4 spoiled me when it comes to looking up content. Pathfinder needs to be faster and hopefully this will speed it up.

As for character management, I'm using Hero Lab by Lone Wolf. It contains Pathfinder core rules as well as many updates. It's easily as useful as a DDI subscription for players. The Serpent's Skull Player's Guide was added over the weekend, making character creation that much easier for me.  It was a no brainer to choose a variant class, variant racial abilities, and traits and feats from across the Pathfinder line, along with a ridiculous amount of equipment. I ended up with a Halfling Lion Shaman (druid) with a ton of tweaking. In typical 3.5/Pathfinder fashion, I spent many hours getting it perfect, but it feels unique.

When it comes to technology, I'm all for anything that improves the game, makes preparation faster, characters easier to generate, and that improves communication. I don't want a replacement for the game, so dice rollers and networked devices to handle combat make me shudder.

Recycling: From years of playing, we've got my friend Chris' halfling mini, Dave's lion (re-based over the weekend for 2x2 action) and new Chessex dice. One of my rituals is new dice for each campaign character.  I considered finding/building a halfling mounted model, but figured there's enough room on the 2x2 base to just place the little guy there.


Couldn't keep well enough alone. My weekend project:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

City of Strangers (Pathfinder)

I really love city books. I've been running an urban campaign for ten years now and have drawn heavily on the best of what D20 has to offer: Ptolus, Hollowfaust, Freeport, Sharn and a bunch of others, including Karak Azgal from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2E. I've written my own city guidebook for my home brew campaign, so I know city books are hard to write. There's a fine line between bland and believable and a freakin' three ring circus with sentient gorillas working at the corner store.  City of Strangers drew me in with its introductory narrative and cool interior artwork of a rampaging alien creature.

In the introduction, we learn that Kaer Maga is an ancient city founded by alien beings who feed on thought. The deal is that if they are fed live specimens, the rulers will gain access to their vast stores of knowledge. It was a perfect arrangement. The rulers had plenty of undesirables that were taking up space in prisons or dulling the blades of the executioners, and the caulborn, extraplanar thought eating freaks, needed food. All the troublesome folks were thrown into this large cauldron of a city to fend for themselves. They would thrive or they would be livestock. Those who lived would color the city with their heretical beliefs, indecent ways and abhorrent practices. The rest could enrich the aliens with their knowledge. It was a literal melting pot of ideas. So does the book live up to this awesome back story?

No. Well kinda.The history of Kaer Maga is very cool, but that's not what the book is about. Awww. Time has passed. The thought eaters are no longer around (the stats are available thankfully!), the cruel rulers have fled, and the people are fending for themselves quite well, thank you very much. Kaer Maga is about the misfits who have survived through the ages, and describing them is where the book excels.

The factions in the city are truly inspired, with some unusual elements we've seen before, like the role of mindless undead (Hollowfaust), the guardians of the undercity (Karak Azgal), but also some strangeness from real life. Some of the descriptions, like the Palace of the Child Goddess, sound like they're straight out of the back alleys of Kathmandu. The unusual cults and practices seem realistic. The place feels sordid and sketchy in a spooky kind of way, probably because it feels so real. Kaer Maga is messy, believable, and utterly cool! There just aren't aliens running around trying to suck your brain.

The coolness comes partially because it's a small city. That was a bold decision. I have to admit, it seems a lot bigger, but in the D&D world, a city size has game mechanic importance. A small city has advantages, as most NPCs are around 5th-7th level and there are more opportunities for low level characters. The effect magic has on the place is limited because of this. I think the 8,000 population should be more like 50,000, but then people would moan about the level spread and  the magic power level (call it 50,000 and use the 8,000 population stats). One up side to this low level approach is the city is more subtle and less fantastical than it could have been. If Ptolus is D&D with the volume turned up to 11, Kaer Maga has it turned up to a comfortable 5. There is cool stuff. It is accessible. You can usually be part of it.

Because it's such a low level, low population, anomaly, the author found an interesting model for everyone to get along. It's an "anarcho capitalist" society. Everyone has their agenda, but they all agree to get along, more or less, for the sake of commerce and mutual survival. Nobody is in charge, really, there's just a loose agreement on common goals. The freemen are welcome to buy up and free the slaves, but not interrupt commerce with their sketchy beliefs in freedom. The burbclaves of Widdershins are welcome to maintain order through oppression, if that's what they want in their tidy bit of the city. The district of Ankar Te may embrace necromancy in any way they see fit, including combining it with their brothels.

There are monsters living in the city, but they lead subtle lives behind the scenes, rather than wandering the streets and integrating with society, like sentient gorilla clerks. The only thing truly frowned upon is being judgemental and disruptive. It's actually very cool and that small city, low level issue, which I initially hated, is why I think it works.

A couple complaints: The most obvious flaw in this book is the lack of a good map. This city is vertical, not horizontal. The various factions live in the thick outer walls, building them upwards, while the common areas are in the open center of the city. This is very Sharn like, with a lot of city business happening indoors and the geography getting rather confused as you move from one interior place to another. Unfortunately, the map does not reflect this and there's no good artwork to give you a visualization of this very unique setup. It's a major failing that bugged me as I worked my way through the book. I really wanted a better representation.

Also, it's the Paizo way to give few concrete details in their Chronicles books. While a book like Ptolus might tell you something secret that could be a quick adventure hook at each location, City of Strangers just provides some basic overview. This is fine. I understand the approach. It just leaves me wanting more. As one customer put it, these could be player's guides for an adventure path. The books are almost safe enough to loan out this way.

So would I use it? The city is perfect for dumping at some crossroads of civilizations. You could start your campaign there, especially if your group can't agree on a culture or theme for the party. The city is eclectic, and your party can be too. It would also make a great side adventure location. There are some crazy things hidden under the city that I'm sure someone wants to retrieve. Overall, the book has grown on me and has me thinking about its subtleties. It's a fine addition to the Chronicles line and it has a place on my shelf with some urban giants.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What I Do

I did a guest post for Louis Porter Jr's excellent blog "In the Mind of a Mad Man!" I began drilling down into how little time I had to research product. It got me thinking about how much time I spend on the business and what I actually do. My physical time at the store is fairly limited, mostly because I've learned to delegate and work from home whenever possible. I spend about 38 hours a week at the store on average, an insanely low number for a business owner. It's about 1,000 hours a year less than my first year in business, when I worked seven days a week and took two days off total for the year. However, doing the math and counting up the other tasks I perform at home shows that this is only a bit more than half the hours I spend on the business. My count is roughly 60 hours a week, meaning there's probably 3 hours a day outside of work where I'm doing my thing.

Here's how it breaks down:

This is not to say that everyone has this time allocation. In fact, I can guarantee they don't. The best part of being a business owner is controlling a lot of your activity. For example, many store owners refuse to hire employees, so management is not even a category for them. Also, traditionally I would spend about 1-2 hours a week on marketing, but with social networking it's about 12 hours each week (and probably another 7 in goof off mode on Facebook). The size of my store is also a big determiner in what I do, so ten hours a week purchasing and receiving might seem excessive to one store owner, while a very large store owner might have a dedicated person for this. Also, I could have easily decided to have two stores, in which case my time break down would be much different, with most of my day spent managing people and processes. I could delegate stuff I really don't want to do. In fact, I delegate much of my management tasks. I hate management and I have a manager who knows what I want. However, I would never delegate bookkeeping (some people do).

There are a lot of tasks that get done monthly, quarterly or annually that are lumped into these categories. That's what makes this job interesting; there is a certain amount of repetition, but there's also a lot of creativity and one off tasks to perform. At any time an idea might hit you and you're off onto your next project. Later this week I'll be building a new server, a project that half evolved and half thrust itself upon me when the old server stopped working. With good planning, you can avoid surprises. For example, this server will be built at my leisure because we have a backup solution, while its predecessor was repaired in desperation, late at night. A lot of tasks are damage control, like dealing with banks, landlords, and insane utility companies that seem to think their ineptitude should be paid for by you.

You don't see any "play games" in this list. I don't consider playing games part of my job, although I play in my off hours. Those who think I have a wonderful job because I play games all day and get games at cost are unclear on the concept. I have less time to play games with my schedule and my income reduction in store ownership isn't made up by having cheap games. In fact, I end up buying more games than ever before and have less time to play them. Sound familiar?

I think playing games and trying new things is absolutely fundamentally integral to what I do, and I feel guilty if I go a while without that interaction, but there are plenty of good store owners who haven't played a game in years. That would kill store ownership for me, but they don't see it that way. The board gamers think I should play more board games (they're right). The 40K players think I should play more 40K (they're right) and the RPG crowd thinks I should branch out into other systems (they're also right). However, there's a fine line between playing games for sales purposes and enjoying them as a leisure activity. When games become work, I get very grumpy. Losing that spark of passion for games is a big fear. However, I can say with certainty that working at a game store does nothing to lessen my passion for them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Expense Comparison (Tradecraft)

I'm always looking for tools to help me understand my business better. The one I recently came upon was comparing expenses as a percentage of sales on a year to year basis. I'm no expert on this stuff, just an enthusiastic dabbler, but this seems like solid gold. I like this because it skips over what should be and goes right into what is. Industry folks will throw out numbers, such as rent being a certain percentage of sales, but that's highly variable. Every store is different and once you're on the ground making money, there's not much you can do about it.

Using this year to year comparison assumes your business is relatively on track. You already spend a lot of time beating expenses into submission, comparison shopping regularly and finding new ways to cut costs. That's great, but this report shows the fruits of your labor. The goal then is to see what expenses have gone up this year from last year that may be out of proportion. This tool helped confirm what I already felt in my gut. Once you have the numbers you can then try to put a lid on expenses. You can still beat them into submission, but now you know your problem areas. You now have goals instead of vague notions of cost cutting. That combined with rising profits is how you make money.

To get these numbers, get a Profit & Loss statement from Quickbooks from each period and dump it into Excel. You can easily create a column for percentage of sales for each expense and then a column comparing them. Finally, this assumes you've got good data. I mostly do. At the very least, I'm consistent.

The percentages are my percentages more or less, but I've jiggered the numbers to avoid revealing too much information. You'll notice a few things. First, expenses that have stayed relatively the same recede into the background. As a percentage of income, they become less onerous. Was 17% too much to pay for rent? Well, now I pay 16%, even though the actual cost of rent rose 7.6% (a point of concern in itself). My outside services fee remained identical, but as a percentage of income it dropped 12% year to year when balanced against my income. We still want to beat down these expenses, but our income is out pacing them.

Where you learn things is where expenses went up. For example, my utilities went up 23% (proportionally). This is because I just got off a PG&E balanced payment plan in which their screwed up system left me owing thousands of dollars from three years of their bogus accounting. That's reflected in that number. Insurance went up a hefty amount; something I kind of new, but now have confirmed. I'm told this is an industry trend but that mine will go down once a claim rolls off next year. Finally, I saw a 9% increase in payroll, reflected by our additional staffing. If I hadn't planned this (I did), this would set off alarm bells. I've known we were understaffed and this is the year we could finally afford to staff better. It's our biggest area of store improvement.

This might seem like the kind of work you do when you're having problems, but it's in a growing business where expenses can get out of control. Our sales are up about 12% this year, but it seems like we're holding on to the tail of a charging rhinoceros. This is a dangerous time because you can justify a lot of expenses when you're raking in cash, but then end up with nothing, or worse. As you can see in the example, my total expenses year to year is only half a percent lower. There are extenuating circumstances, but there are always extenuating circumstances.

Finally, one thing I didn't include here is cost of goods sold, which is the biggest expense and easiest way to save money. If my COGS was 57% and my expenses 38%, my profit is 5%. Working with distributors to knock a point or two, or even three off this number is an enormous savings. It's like free utilities. But that's another article.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Today is the Day

"Today is the day." I told my sales rep.

"What are you talking about now?" he replies, probably leaning back in his chair, popping open a diet Coke, and preparing for one of my crazy stories. I have to admit I abuse my sales reps just a little bit. Running a store can be lonely, and they are some of the few people who understand what we're saying, and most importantly, they kind of have to listen. He regularly "talks me off the edge," a phrase which we've replaced with a West Coast equivalent, "driving into the desert." I can bounce business ideas off him and he understands my position and my opportunities. Anyway, I continued on with my crazy story.

"Each year my purchasing budget gets out of control and I don't recover until Christmas Day. It wreaks havoc on the finances for months. Today is the day I can stop it. Looking back, it's always this day. It's like the Terminator series."  Alright, I didn't mention Terminator, mostly because my sales rep is not a geek and he'll just make fun of me after he asks me what the hell I'm talking about. The same is true when I gush about games.  "Ohh, cool," I'll say, "Check out the new Reaper mini, Peaches the biker chick!" I'll hear a sigh on the other end and then, "It's just a piece of frikkin' metal!" I'm vaguely more respectful yet perplexed by this lack of geekiness. Oh yeah, and we've been doing this for six years.

"So whaddya gonna do about it?" he plays along. You see, he knows that I carefully track all my purchases in an Open to Buy spreadsheet, and that I kind of evangelize that process. He also knows that I'm more focused on pleasing my customers than some stupid spreadsheet and that I'm always complaining about being over budget. It's very hard to actually "budget" purchases. It's more a process of stopping the bleeding after it happens. My spreadsheet is a kind of screw-o-meter. How screwed am I right now?

"This time I'm not going to let that happen." I inform him. Here's where I have choices to make. Inventory is a zero sum game and the game trade has just dropped about $4,000 of new stuff on me. So do I stop ordering $4,000 of old stuff? Do I go leaner on the depth of stock? Do I let product go out of stock for a while as we transition to a significant change in our inventory balance? Do I have a sale to dump dead product before the bills hit for this new stuff?  The answer: Yes.

"Good luck." He says, with a small chuckle at the end. We then get down to business, the ordering of thousands of dollars of restock from the busy holiday weekend. My budget says I have $168.24 to spend today.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Club Program Changes

I try to regularly look at my business with a literal fresh perspective. I was taught I should step outside onto the sidewalk and attempt to view my store like I have never seen it before. Sometimes you get insights after a long weekend or a vacation. Look how dirty the glass is! Why are the war games shelved with the children's games? What's with the Mary Poppins music? It's easy to get into a rut and continue doing things because that's how you always did them, often with some vague reasoning or perhaps very good reasoning that you forgot years ago. Change can be good but it can also be perilous. One item that isn't visible but  always turns up when I look at the store this way is our club program.

The Paladin Club is our frequent buyer program that earns points for every dollar you spend, eventually redeemable for cash off purchases. Most major game stores in the Bay Area have a club program of some sort and I've promoted them myself at trade shows and on this blog. The thing is, they're just .. too ... expensive. Fixed costs continue to squeeze brick and mortar stores and this is an obvious culprit for reducing income.  If I were a new owner, having recently purchased Black Diamond Games for a million bucks and trade for my Maserati Quattroportte (that guy drives a hard bargain), the first thing I would do is cancel the program. I would rip that band aid off quickly and just dump the whole thing.

The club program was designed to do two things: lock in sales from competitors and provide a gateway for marketing to our customer base. The competitor point is still valid, although most of our true competitors are gone or farther away since our move. The marketing point is less valid. After six years, we have about 400 active email addresses from club members (another 400 that need revision), compared to over 1,000 from just a years or so with Facebook and Twitter. I don't want to make light of those 400 people and they do act on our emails, but it's a secondary way we provide information nowadays. Social networking dominates and there's a new desire to learn about businesses, to pull in new information, as opposed to the old intrusive push model, in which I provide you a service (informative email) while apologizing for the interruption. I no longer see the trade off as worth the very high expense.

But how to get rid of the club? We've had a lot of internal discussion about how to back out of the program without alienating our customers. It ain't gonna happen. So here's my plan: I plan to phase it out gradually through attrition. I just won't order new club cards when we run out. We've got about 50 cards left. The existing program will remain unchanged, but when the cards are gone, we won't enroll new people. This has the benefit of keeping everyone who has a benefit happy and even letting everyone know to join if they've been considering it. In the future, you can show off your battered card to your friends and grand children, like some of our customers do now with their first generation club cards.

I can't find a graphic of our club card so here's a Maserati Quattroporte.
Say it slowly, Quattro-port-tay, it's like an Italian vacation in your mouth.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Facebook Ads

My strategy for Facebook advertising is to get fans. It's that simple. I want my ads to interest people enough to want more information from me in the form of following my page. I'm willing to spend money to obtain this because I know people who are engaged with my store, by becoming fans, are vastly more likely to respond to a call to action than traditional advertising. We're fast approaching 1,000 fans, and much of that has to do with this marketing strategy.

Clicks per day, based on each ad campaign

The key to advertising on Facebook is lots of trial and error, done as frequently as possible. If you think posting information on a page twice daily is hard (the recommended amount), I've seen marketers recommend new ads once a week or more. I'm not that devoted to the process, but I do check my ad stats to see what's working and what's not. For example, looking at the above chart, our kids games ad that I recently created appears to be a dud. Likewise, a birthday special is just too hit or miss to snag an interested person at the exact moment. As ads begin to peter out and produce fewer results, I'll start a new ad campaign.

My most successful ads are simply those targeted at people in my area interested in the games we sell. These are awareness ads for the most part. Hey, there's a game store near you!  I'll also target friends of fans. This second tier ad draws as many people as the first one. These two categories fall under "My Ads" in the chart. After that, I create ads that highlight what I offer and differentiates my store from my competitors.

What do I have that they don't? There's an ad for the Dresden Files RPG, since our competitors are not into role-playing games. We advertise our two Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Terminals, since we're the only store in the Bay Area with two and the only store in Contra Costa County with any. Another ad touts that we carry every Pathfinder product. Finally, we have the occasional event ad, if it's likely to draw across all our departments, like our quarterly auctions.

I don't bother with ads for standard events that everyone has, like a Magic release. I also don't attempt to sell something direct to a customer or send them elsewhere, like my web page, or an online store (which we don't have). I also don't put any effort into targeting other stores or their customers. There's just no need and Facebook thankfully makes this difficult.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Game Companies and Facebook

Someone recently pointed out to me that when my website was linked on Facebook, the text mentioned we were still in Walnut Creek. The website page text said no such thing, but the meta tags I had written six years ago, when we opened the first store, were still embedded in the page. Meta tags were useful at one time for Google searches, but Google has advanced and most people have learned to skip tags, at least until recently. Facebook uses those meta tags when people link to your website. Check out this article on the details as well as this one for images. Game companies need to get with the times and provide this information.

Why is this important? Companies like mine, the 3,000 or so US retailers that are delving into Facebook, are pimping your games. Some companies do a good job and have scrambled to get their sites Facebook ready, while others have clearly not woken up to the reality of where people are spending their online time. It takes some commitment of resources to get Facebook ready, but I think it's worth it.

Besides technical content, there is also context. If my only link to your product is your e-commerce page, well, I might decide to just skip your product all together, especially if you discount. Yesterday this happened with six companies in a row, all smaller, web saavy companies that should have know better. Nobody is denying you your direct sales channel, you just need to have some commerce neutral information about your product we can link to. The alternative, which happens more often than not, is we link to boardgamegeek or some bloggers review page.  Bloggers. Sheesh.  Do you really want other people controlling how your product is presented?

 Here's a survey of some of our top companies with a sample import:

Wizards of the Coast: Castle Ravenloft. The images import, the title is alright, but the text (tag) is generic.

Games Workshop: Island of Blood. Yeah, it's like that. GW is clearly the most web hostile game company I've encountered. Their website is a sophisticated travesty.

Fantasy Flight Games: Deathwatch.  Some FFG pages have links to share to Facebook, but many of their product pages are just not compatible for import. FFG gets high marks for their online forums though.

Paizo Publishing: Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide. Close, but wrong metatag. In fact, most product pages have that same bad Drunken Heroes metatag. Paizo is clearly the most advanced game company in using social media and creating their own online community. They're extremely active on Facebook, with a company page, a product page for Pathfinder and game designer pages the Paizo luminaries actually use creatively. Paizo gets it for the most part.

So who does a good job? Check out Purple Pawn.

Green Ronin Games does a pretty good job as well as a variety of smaller companies. If you've got one you want to share, post it here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Games and Spirituality II (Characters)

Last year I did a more serious Games and Spirituality post about how I really feel about the game trade. This post is about characters, both in our games and our media and how I envision them through my own spiritual prism. Stick with me and I promise it won't seem so deadly serious.

In some schools of Buddhism, there's this concept that a fully actualized person has high degrees of both wisdom and compassion, two sides of the same coin. This can apply to our characters too. In fact, you can tweak these two variables to get a variety of personalities. As a disclaimer, I'm using these terms in very generalized, dictionary definition ways.

Those lacking both wisdom and compassion are the mooks. They're the kobolds, flying monkey men, storm troopers or other minions that we don't think too much about. They're ignorant, amoral pins to be knocked down. We care little about them in our games. They're often the collateral damage or the stepping stones on the way to the real bad guys.

To have compassion and no wisdom is to be ineffective, to have good intentions but poor understanding of how to act in the world. In role-playing games, these are usually our employers. It's the out-of-touch king, the high priest of the local god, or maybe someone who's intentions are good, but they're mind is clouded with their personal feelings. They need real adventurers to do their dirty work. We have little respect for these folks in our games. We make fun of them even more than our enemies.Young Obi Wan Kenobi comes to mind, a clueless character responsible for the future Darth Vader.

Next in line are those with wisdom and no compassion. These are your classic villains. They know better, but they don't care. Knowing better is what makes them different from mooks. Villains with self awareness are fun and interesting. You can make believe that you too could be the bad guy by getting inside their heads. My favorite villain is Zorg from Fifth Element. "You're a monster Zorg." His response? "I know."  These are some pretty good villains, but the best villain is our final model.

We love the redeemed villain. They've shown their wisdom, they've embraced compassion, but only after their own trials. Being heroic is overcoming something, and the perfect beings we see in Yoda, Gandalf, or that annoying paladin don't have this. These are fully formed beings that are only marginally interesting. In Tibetan Buddhism, there's a famous teacher called Milarepa who was a black magician who was known for flying around and killing his enemies. He redeemed himself through Karate Kid like diligence. He became interesting.

Who else? Darth Vader, of course. Han Solo definitely, a pirate with a heart of gold. My current favorite is Solomon Kane. My most favorite RPG characters are those who can come full circle in this way. My drug addicted holier than thou cleric who had a redemption path planned from conception or my former axe murderer exalted rogue who was still sinister, yet fully redeemed. Or was he? This is what we want from our villains and our heroes, a full embrace of the way of the world yet the compassion to save it. They need to be edgy, preferably with a haunted past that may yet catch up with them.