Thursday, March 29, 2012

West Coast Style

Yo dog, here on the West Coast, over in the 925, we've got like four distros with warehouses with next day ship. I order it and it shows up tomorrow. Snap! You got your upstart ACD, your evil empire Alliance, the kings of cards over at GTS (now the biggest), and my man the miniatures god over at Warpath.

What, you want more? I've got two day ship from a couple others, plus my classic game guys are next day over at John Hansen. Classic. Heck don't forget my man Banducci down the street at R&M. He'll let me walk the aisles with a little red wagon, if I want. Not that I would want that... yo.

So we've got an arms race up in here. What, you want some sweet Clix from your man at ACD? Bam! Denied. Alliance has that exclusive. You want some of them Queens Games like Alhambra on that Alliance order with those clickeys? Suck it! That's ACD only now. Daaaaamn! They're tying me down. It's all gonna cost me money, cuz I can't possibly have the best discount with all of them. That Alhambra will cost a couple extra bucks if I haven't been paying my dues with ACD. It's the system man; it's how it works. Pay your dues or pay the man. You can't win.

Someones gonna die of course. They can't all make it. They can't all be king of the hill. There ain't enough hills. There used to be more to go around, but not any more. So they cut deals, and give me terms, and cost me cash as I run around, trying to figure out who has what and how I can get some. I keep my mind on my money and my money divided among all these dudes. Damn!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Gaming II: Building the Sandbox

I was intimidated enough with the concept of "world building" that I left it for last in my Pathfinder sandbox campaign design. I could tell you about every square mile of the island the PCs were on, since I spent two months writing about it, but I didn't know the name of the nearest trade partner. I was alright with that, since I didn't plan on them going off the island. In fact, it was one of the two "rules" from the beginning: you can't stay in town (I was tired of urban campaigning) and you can't leave the island. So of course, in the first session, they acquired a boat. My players are very clever sometimes (in fact, if you're one of my clever players, please don't read any further).

I could have just said no, but my curiosity got the best of me, so I started looking into what was out there, and most importantly, how I was going to represent that in my gaming materials. It turned out not to be as daunting as I had thought, and mostly because of one piece of software, Fractal Terrain 3 from Pro Fantasy. I shied away from it at first because I know the reputation of Campaign Cartographer, a program compared to AutoCAD that supposedly has quite the learning curve. Fractal Terrain 3 is nothing like that and best of all, there is a free demo that's almost entirely full function (I ended up getting a license after I finished this project).

The program allows you to create a world much like computer games like SimEarth. You give it some parameters, usually deviations from how Earth behaves, and it creates a beautiful world map for you. If it doesn't make something appealing, you randomize another world or tweak parameters. I did this a couple dozen times, but mostly because it was so fascinating. You can tweak the numerical settings until you get one that works for you, with the right amount of ocean, altitude, and land mass size and type. It's really pretty easy. I went with a bunch of narrow (but quite large) islands with no large continents, as I had always intended to run a nautical campaign.

The next step was figuring out how to lightly shoehorn my vision into this terraformed world, which involved some terraforming by hand and various tweaks that took the bulk of my time with the program. Really this was something I had in mind from the beginning. Does this look like what I want to do? No? Randomize! When I was close to being finished, I even gave it an orbital bombardment to fit my post apocalyptic world (quite a few bombardments, actually).

As mentioned, Fractal Terrain 3 has the option to dump this file directly into Campaign Cartographer, but I wasn't interested in that. What I did next was pretty simple, I dumped it into Microsoft Paint so I could label it.  No Photoshop or GIMP, just plain old Windows 7 Paint.

This got my world map pretty well established after maybe 6 hours of goofing around (nothing resembling work), and as you can see it looks pretty darn good.

Following this, I zeroed in on the region we were planning to play in and created the various countries and city-states I needed, even consulting a couple friends from the California Maritime Academy on ocean trade routes. Bottom line: in ancient times, trade routes were primitive, followed the prevailing currents, and generally involved individual traders going to maybe one or two ports repeatedly. Ships had oars, they stayed close to shore and generally you don't need to worry too much about this in your design. Keep it simple. In other words, there are no massive routes of goods flowing like a highway, at least not until around the 1400's.

The key for me is that trade felt organic and there weren't any obvious unrealistic problems. The guys critiqued my map, mentioning how hard it would be to even find some of my smaller island nations with the scale of the map. Or how difficult it might be to get to certain areas at certain times of the year. They made enough suggestions that I tweaked the geography a bit to create way points to where I wanted trade to go, and goods that were so important that traders would make the effort. Places that were backwaters actually had reasons to be backwaters now.

From there, you can see I've got a couple dozen cities and four or five dominant cultures based in history. The next step for me was a quick run down of each town, a gazetteer. I've become increasingly reliant on the GameMastery Guide settlement system, including the online creation tool here. I also found an excellent electronic book called Cityscapes, by Skortched Urf Studios, that includes additional settlement attributes and more examples. It was the best $4 I've spend in a long time and I wish they would do another one.

Occasionally I would go back into Fractal Mapper 3 and add some details of an island or region, usually because I had made an effort to describe it and a map would be handy. Again, very simple stuff that I marked up in Paint.

My Gazetteer is nothing like a professional publication, such as the Golarion Gazetteer by Paizo. It's the notes I have for each city-state and the settlement stats. Most of my cities are based on ancient cities that no longer exist from Greece, Phoenicia, ancient England and the like, usually places so old that there's very little known about them except some interesting mythology. The advantage here is I can change the name (usually just using the native name that nobody has heard of) and basically summarize the city from its Wikipedia entry. Usually something sticks out about a town or city that ties into a settlement attribute and then you've got some intrigue. Each city also had to address how they handle the main "curse" on humanity in my campaign, which usually created the more fantastic elements of the town. It's easy to forget to "add fantasy" as you're world building.

I should also mention that geography and culture are obviously linked. If you put your Vikings in the tropics, there are going to be some verisimilitude issues. Likewise, wine culture and trade is so important to my Greeks, that they had an obvious geographical area for placement. I often worried about whether my "Africa" was hot enough and if my temperate zone islands were too far north. It's something you just need to eyeball and if it's close, do some hand waving (or use Fractal Mapper to tweak the climate in the case of my North Africa).

Anyway, super easy software that shouldn't be daunting for anyone. The frustration is likely to come with Paint, if you don't use it often.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Elitism vs. Professionalism

Working in the game trade can be intensely frustrating. Most, not some, but most people you work with on a professional level don't have their act together. Part of this is the barrier to entry in the game trade, which doesn't exist. If you want to start a restaurant, the city will put hurdles in your way: sewage hookups, health inspectors, extra fees and certifications. Distributors in other trades might have minimum initial orders of thousands of dollars. Want to start a game store? Great, sign a lease and put in your first $100 order.

I'm not going to argue that there should be a higher barrier to entry, although I have in the past. It's incredibly easy to start a game store, publish a game product, or even start a distributorship, if you know where to start. That's the trade. The guy with the home office is on the same playing field with the staff in the multi-story office building. The 10,000 square foot game store is in the same town with the guy with 40K racks in his T-shirt shop. Unfortunately, this leads to ... inconsistencies. It leads to a level of confusion, lack of communication, and jackassery that you might not be familiar with if you came from, say Earth.

In the face of such jackassery, asshattery, or my favorite from the late Amy Winehouse who asks "What kind of fuckery is this?" the tendency is elitism. Elitism is the turning away. It's turning your back on all the nonsense and cloaking yourself in your consistent, happy reality. The game trade is plagued with elitism. The publishers hate the retailers and the distributors, seeing them as an unnecessary evil and turn instead to the fans as their salvation. The distributors turn their back on the publishers, paying them slowly and communicating with them (and about them) poorly. Retailers become haughty and cagey, with inscrutable business decisions and a tendency to look down on customers who don't see things their way, publishers that don't tow their line, or distributors that don't understand them.

What we end up with is a silo effect. Very good people with very good businesses stay in their silo and decide not to deal with the outside world. They skip trade shows, they shun customers, they create processes that are all about them, and not about their clients or customers. They despise other retailers who don't do it like them. The silo is a symptom of elitism. The silo takes the people who could make a difference and locks them up in self-imposed exile.

What we need is more professionalism. Where elitism is turning your back on what plagues you, professionalism is facing it head on, every day. It's taking on the stupid, on a daily basis, and maybe, over time, finding a way to fix the stupid. This openness is where we find growth, both as individual businesses and as an industry. In fact, the beacons of professionalism in this industry tend to be the ones that are wildly successful right now, be they publishers, distributors or retailers. I know, because I seek them out. I want to stand next to them. I want to give them my money or my respect. Their open attitude keeps me from hiding in my silo. And when I start acting more professional with my peers, it turns out it doesn't look so bad out there after all.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kickstarter and Retailers

Simply put, as a retailer, I want in. Kickstarter is a way to fund gaming projects by taking pledges at various levels and when the goal is met, the product is produced and those who pledged get their goods. This allows authors to gauge interest on marginal projects and allows for risk free publishing. It also allows vanity projects to get done without the risk of spending thousands of dollars not knowing if anyone is interested.

As a retailer, Kickstarter projects generate a lot of buzz and allow for something different in the store. The same product sold through one of our distributors might not get a second glance, or if it did, I might order one copy. However, the sexiness and exclusivity of a Kickstarter program makes it not only likely I'll sign up for an interesting project, but likely I'll pledge to buy multiple copies. I think this halo around Kickstarter is temporary, especially as mainstream publishers begin to use it, but that halo exists for now.

So what do I need as a retailer? I need margin. In other words, your $20 print on demand vanity project that you sell for $22, is not likely to be something that will work for either of us. However, your $20 project you plan to print 5,000 copies of and sell through the hobby store channels at the usual margins, is a likely candidate. A minimum retailer margin is 40-50% plus free shipping. So that $20 book should cost me no more than $12 and you pay the shipping. In exchange, I'll likely order 4-6 copies, WAY more than I would from distribution and way more than the average Kickstarter backer.

How many retailers are likely to do this? Probably not many. There are roughly 3,000 game stores and the "alphas," the top 10%, look outside the box. That's a potential 300 stores. In the case of most projects, it's the top 1%, making it just a handful, but that's for now. I think your market is those 300 stores. I don't ask that every publisher create a retailer tier, but I do request that every publisher consider how a retailer tier could work for them.

This assumes you want to work with retailers, that you want your game in front of people, that you have a business model that doesn't involve Kinko's or Lulu. Heck, it assumes a business model exists. In any case, consider a retailer tier. Make it at a level your comfortable with when it comes to margin, shipping and quantities ordered. What I don't need are free PDFs (unless you want to offer them to my customers), input in your project, or constant updates. I'm low maintenance. Like most stores, I've got a game purchasing budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Please take my money, maker of games.

Projects with retailer support Black Diamond Games has already pledged to support:
If you've got a retailer supportable Kickstarter project, please email me and I'll consider supporting it.

Examples of what this looks like: 

Friday, March 9, 2012

My Gaming

Before this blog was exclusively about spouting off about a tiny sliver of the game trade, I included what I was doing in my hobby gaming. It's a bully pulpit of sorts that elicited  excellent advice. In the context of the store, I've been waiting since Christmas for our expansion plans to firm up. I've been in a monetary holding pattern, making sure we had  enough money for the project. That wasn't confirmed until after we had our taxes done (which almost sunk it). This assumes we stay on budget and everything else falls in place, of course. Meanwhile, I distracted myself by writing a Pathfinder sandbox campaign and that's what this blog post is about. You might want to move on if that's not your thing.

The first rule of writing a sandbox campaign, I am told, is not to write anything you can't immediately use. This was the rule I threw out entirely. You know those awesome game masters who can make stuff up on the fly as if it had always been there? Yeah, I'm not that guy. I'm the guy who organizes his gaming books by usage before a session to optimize book pulls. I'm the accountant of game creativity. I'm the guy you want running the game store, not writing the games. So I may have, you know, over prepared. I do find my players appreciate this though.

The desire to write a sandbox game came from a few insights. First, I was utterly tired of running other peoples adventures, even the exceptionally good adventure paths from Paizo. It stopped feeling like my game, despite there being a fascinating level of creativity in those products. The best game I've ever played in is the Serpent's Skull game I'm in right now. Absolutely amazing, but not as satisfying as making up my own stuff.

Second, I have been running my home brew urban campaign for a decade and I needed wilderness. I needed trees, and animals, and overland travel. Rule number one for my players: You can't stay in town.

Third, adventures felt too formulaic. They all had the same variables, the same nods to various character classes, and the same conceits, notably power levels and wealth inputs and outputs. You could tweak the curve, something D20 had down to a (dismal) science, but there wasn't much left that hadn't been done. The sandbox promised an organic experience with "safe mode" clearly in the off position. It was dangerous, and that's what I needed. Screw Encounter Levels.

The inspiration for the "campaign" style came from Celtic mythology. The Irish town of Tara, the historical record showed, was ritually humiliated every year by a monster that would march in every holiday, put the defenders to sleep and burn their town down. What a great story! How could you not inflict that on a group of players? On such and such a day, we're coming over and shoving your face in the dirt. Whatdya gonna do about it? This happened every year for as long as anyone could remember, but not this year. Now go.

The detailed sandbox format was inspired by Robert Conley and his blog Bat in the Attic, a guide to sandbox games. Where I went a bit off the rails was in detailing every hex and town as if I were planning to use it tomorrow. I couldn't deal with the minimalist style descriptions you find in books like Points of Light.

I wasn't happy knowing the name of the town and its leader, I wanted to know what kind of problems they needed solving, the shops in town and where the stone from their walls was quarried. Where is that quarry and what's happening with it now?  I wanted maps and stat blocks and it's not like there aren't a ton of resources out there for that. There's no need to ever create a dungeon map again, really. The fun thing was you could just keep asking questions and that led to more content, which hopefully held everything in context and was (and this is the hard part) fun. The end result was over 400 pages.

Where this turned from a detailed island the size of Ireland (originally planned to be the Isle of Man) and into more familiar adventure territory was in the timeline of major NPCs. Eight different factions trudged along with their good and evil plans (mostly evil). The characters could help, interfere, or just go fight dragons, if that's what they're into.  That's not entirely sandboxy, but a more modern adaptation.

The party could abandon the hunted town of Tara or they could liberate it from its annual humiliation. Because it was a sandbox, anything was possible, so they could lead armies, acquire lost cyclops artifact to boost their power against the forces of evil, or ignore it all and get lost in the vastness of the ancient forests. With 400 pages, it's possible to come back to it a couple times or even have multiple groups playing at once and interacting.

My overland design strategy was to have broken up defined geographical region, like valleys and forests, with two or more factions of good and evil vying for control, and having a mini adventure that could tip the balance of power. I wanted to avoid mega dungeons and create adventures that could be accomplished in one to two sessions. The worst thing in the world is being excited about the sandbox and knowing you'll be spending the next two months in the Dread Necromancers Dungeon of Doom module. There were no off the shelf adventures dropped in. Mini adventures also allows for more casual play, with drop in players, something that has been explored a lot in the sandbox community.

As I began writing, a lot, familiar themes kept popping up. This is because there are only "x" number of wilderness monsters in the rulebooks of "x" power level, so everything possible has more or less already been done. That's where Tome of Horrors really helped out. ToH has a ridiculous amount of animals and plant encounters that helped bring the outdoors alive. A lot of source material arose when they were writing Wilderlands of High Fantasy, the ultimate D20 sandbox set.

Other books that were crucial to the design work included the Paizo Game Mastery Guide, which allows for "statting out" towns to bring them to life and establish their resources. Someone needs to create a book of settlements.  The Tome of Adventure Design was a handy brainstorming book for coming up with various plots and schemes. Inspiration came from Hex Crawl Classics from Frog God Games and the D20 version of Wilderlands of High Fantasy. The aforementioned Points of Light I and II were good for a few seeds (written by Conley and others). Every monster book was crucial, Bestiary 1-3, ToH and even the Monster Manual for 3.5 for those proprietary beasts.

As for electronic products, HeroLab allowed me to take Paizo NPCs and tweak them and add templates to existing monsters. The Pathfinder System Reference Document was a permanent tab on my browser.

This encounter calculator helped with random monster tables. It should be noted that "random monster" could be an event, or is otherwise a "monster" doing an activity in which only one may be getting ready to clean your clock. Every region had their own random encounter chart related to what was actually there.

Settlement Creator helped create villages and towns with GameMastery Guide stats. I did not use a mapping program for my maps and did them all by hand. It just worked better that way for me, although I played with HexMapper for a while.

Anyway, I could clearly go on and on about this, but I'm happy to answer questions or take your advice if you wish. There's also our campaign blog and a secret design blog that was more about coming up with the concept. Facebook is where we post information and other campaign documents, in our private group.

One premise of the game is there is no player map. The continent sized island is almost completely unknown and undiscovered. It's so important to the concept of the game that I'm reluctant to post it here. The photo above is how we started.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The COGS Coaster

In the category of charts only a retailer could love, I've been tracking my cost of goods since opening. The general cost of goods for the game trade, in a mature store, is around 55%. Our discount (AKA margin) is 50% for most things, 45% for Games Workshop, and sometimes as low as 40% for CCGs like Pokemon and Yugioh when we have to buy from distributors (it's higher direct). Magic is pretty close to 50% by the way, which surprises many people.

Despite this 55% baseline, what really effects your COGS is how you liquidate inventory and improve your numbers with low cost of goods items, like used merchandise and things like Magic singles. What this chart really shows is efficiency, or lack thereof. Our first year involved dialing in our product offerings, so there were occasional sales as we dumped product, selling at a discount, which raised our Cost of Goods Sold (COGS). Subsequent years saw more stable growth.

The new store likewise saw a purge that lasted for many months. Our plan to sell toys failed due to not fully understanding the market and the recession and we only survived because our game center drove sales tremendously. The transition out of that bad inventory took a while and only in year seven on the chart do you see stability. Every toy dollar had to be slowly converted to a game dollar. Making bad purchase decisions is costly, and often deadly for retailers. The corpses of dead stores are filled with these bad decisions and I often feel areas of my store are necrotic.

Not in the numbers are items with no calculated COGS, such as used items and Magic singles (ding & dent gets included). It's mostly a wash, although our Magic single sales in year seven really took off as we got serious, tripling in sales from 2010. It's still a tiny portion of overall sales, but it would account for at least 1% of COGS if it was included.