Wednesday, December 5, 2012

NPC (Tradecraft)

The most surprising thing I realized when I opened a store was the feeling that I was a non player character, an NPC in role-play parlance. The NPC is the necessary enabler of the hero, the mundane who knows where the adventure is located or who has the information the hero needs to complete their quest. The NPC smooths out the experience for the PC, creating the illusion of continuity. In the real world, most people feel they're the PC, the player character, the person who does the thing.

When you own a store, you agree as part of the social contract, to take on the role of NPC, to fade into the background. At best you become the Expert, the NPC of most use to the PC. For the most part, customers will treat you like you're an NPC in their important heroic life, and it's your job to wipe the counter, wax eloquently about your subject matter, and play your role. They agree to be heroic and you agree to let them. Tell me one more time about your character.

This contract is very fragile as nobody needs the shop keeper, the middle man. Everything we have can be obtained elsewhere, often cheaper. So although we clearly provide a valuable service, proven by our continued existence, the dance is a delicate one. In fact, this social interaction is most of our added value. It's so important to the transactional nature of the business, that I've avoided even mentioning it.

Nobody wants to hear your chatter Artie

A lot of what we do as store owners is very much in the NPC vein. When it's done right, we create a kind of performance art, arranging the stage so that it appears we do nothing all day but play and talk about games. We're like the NPC store owner in fantasy video games whose always standing behind the counter in the exact same pose when the hero returns from the dungeon, ready to sell him that +3 longsword.

The shelves are neatly arranged with product that somehow shows up. The place is always in good shape, meaning the bills must get paid in some nebulous, magical fashion (trust fund? Dot com?). The bathrooms are clean, the carpets are swept, and the store is well lit, warm and inviting. This is what we do, and if anyone actually notices the details of how it gets done, or if we fail to maintain the act, then we're doing it wrong. It becomes about us and not about the experience. It should look effortless, even though it takes many hours a week to pull off. It's our NPC duty. No heroics here.

Our accomplishments as business owners aren't even in line with what our customer believe we should be doing. We should provide interesting, free events to entertain them. We should stock their game, knowing precisely their desires and having it available at all times. We should be fonts of knowledge on new, future and theoretical products. In reality, our primary job is to make money, something we're not supposed to talk about. You'll notice that I talk about a lot of things, but never about actual money, gross sales, etc. The game store community itself regularly gets nervous when we discuss nuts and bolts, in fear of a government bogeyman who will get us all on some nebulous charge of price fixing. Boo!

So sure, we can be of benefit to the community, contribute to charity, help the Boy Scouts, but making money comes first, so we can one day retire or buy a house or put a child through school. Things we need that we barely admit to ourselves. Every toy, gadget, or inventory dollar spent on the business to please the PCs is a buck not available to NPCs. It's a balancing act, a tight wire act, really. Bread and circuses.

Nobody talks about money, unless it's over a beer, in hushed tones, with others of our kind, with plausible deniability. Do you know which stores do average, above average or amazingly high sales in your area? It has nothing to do with their perception in the gaming community. The answers would shock you and you wouldn't believe me, provided we broke out and decided to act like PCs, and not the NPCs behind the curtain. The NPCs know the answers to these things amongst themselves, but we all agree to play our roles regardless. For the most part, the NPC experts all get along.

So as NPCs, we're somewhat conflicted in what we're expected to be, what we're supposed to be, and how we're perceived. Those who break their NPC mold and go PC are hounded by their peers, dismissed by their communities, and generally ridiculed. Also, when you talk money with customers, their immediate assumption is: a) they're giving you too much of it as they are your best or close to best customer, b) you're making more than you deserve, and c) you have somehow broken a social more in bringing up such matters. "C" is certainly true. So to decide to be the store owner is to accept a certain level of humility, that nobody really knows what you do, that what you do will never be heroic, and your success will (must) never be acknowledged. You tell customers you're always doing pretty good, not great (failure drives them away and success makes them feel taken). You agree to play the role. It's like playing spy, but without cool gadgets or a vital public service.

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