Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Need vs. Want

An anonymous commenter made a very good observation about the game trade and its customers. Feel free to comment. There's not much I can add to this succinct analysis:
I suspect this taboo topic of money is related to the guilt attached to a lot of games purchases. Another miniature or pack of magic cards is a self indulgence in a lot of cases, making the issue of spending a lot a reflection on the character of the customer. Additionally, the mental category of "optional purchase" brings out the cheapskate in most people, because although we can emotionally write off fuel and food and shelter, and perhaps even a night out as a social cost, there is little to no emotional leverage to justify buying what is essentially another toy.

In some ways this guilt is unfounded, because there is often a large amount of social, entertainment and self actualization value in these products that far outstrips other spending you might do - e.g. hours spent painting and playing with friends and family a board game with miniatures in it.
This emotional backdrop sees us regularly hand over massive amounts of money to parasitic supermarket cartels without any thought, yet mentally challenge the price of every game purchase made. Thus the taboo.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Holidays and Game Stores

Curious customers ask if the holidays are a big deal for game stores. Well, it depends on what kind of game store you have. If your store is in a college town, you might see a reverse pattern, where your customers go "home" during the holiday period and Summer. This, I imagine, would be a nice change from regular retail, in which you wouldn't dream of taking a vacation during these times. Consider this if you want to run a retirement game store. Stores in malls tend to be intensely focused on the holiday months, as sales are concentrated in November and December, as are their general public customers. Their stores are more "muggle" friendly throughout the year, so they're set up well for the holiday period. It's more of the same for them, I'm told.

Our store, the game "destination" store that's also family friendly, sees a big uptick in December, but only because we sell board games year round. Our board game sales skyrocket in December, while the rest of sales are up a smaller amount. In the end, our December months are usually 40-50% higher than a normal month and those sales continue into the first week of January.

It's not a make or break month for us, but it is where most of the money comes from for bigger projects, like expansions and inventory increases. Summer months, July-September, are 20% jumps. This is when many of the new hobby games get released. I think they're too bunched up actually, but supposedly this is when young people have time to play them. In the past, when we were new, Summer was about catching up with our finances, rather than now, where they add more opportunity for projects.

December is also the end of our fiscal year, so there are strange issues related to that as well. For example, if our inventory has expanded, it's considered taxable income, so while we're trying to ramp up inventory at the beginning of the month (I'm $15,000 over budget right now), the goal is to have that budget balanced by the 31st. So there's this enormous bubble that must be gradually and gracefully deflated in a matter of a few weeks. This is stuff that's invisible to the staff, but it's a big part of my job. We want full shelves on December 1st, empty shelves Decemeber 31st and moderately well stocked shelves for our returning customers on January 1st. We also gave a bunch of items to charity this year to not only be good guys, but to reduce our taxable inventory burden. If you've ever seen the birth skit from Monty Python, in December I'm like the hospital administrator with the machine that goes "Bing!"

We stock differently for December. Some "core" board games get a deeper inventory, while we also struggle to bring in games from the SF Chronicle list. The list games are tough to manage, due to their mass market obscurity and "family" focus. In other words, we tend not to like them, so the list games need to be brought into the store in quantity and sold out completely in a three week period. Anything left over after that simply won't sell for us, perhaps ever.

Sometimes we find games we like on the list, but it's often one or two that we'll reprise, mostly for the next list period. Flip Out and Finca come to mind and I know Snake Oil from this year will be a regularly stocked game for us now. It's an Apples to Apples variant where you sell things to a particular customer using a combination of cards in your hand. Sounds like work to me, but it's actually pretty fun. Many of these games, once they run out, will be abandoned forever by both us and our suppliers.

With the holidays, we generally sell 30-50 board games a day. Again, we sell and stock most of these games, nearly 1,000, year round, so it's not something we just bring in for the holidays. That said, we stock up on puzzles and more mass market alternative games like items from Gamewright, Pressman and Winning Moves. Sales ramp up slowly. The first two weeks of December look like a strong sales period in any month. The period before Christmas doubles and then triples in sales. Again, this varies between stores, but in our case, it's incredibly consistent. In fact, the holiday period is the most consistent part of our year, with sales hard to nudge up, since the game trade trends tend not to filter out to our "muggle" holiday customers.

The holidays are where we test our policies and procedures. It's when I spend the most time with staff as we have multiple people on shift all the time. In fact, I just gave a raise yesterday after realizing we had a star player in our midst. The holidays are when we can refine our sales technique, which is about maximizing sales of the right thing to the right person. Gross selling is easy, but finding the right fit and avoiding returns is key. Holiday sales are the only time we see returns of games; gamers don't return things unless they're broken. Despite all the work, the holidays are also when we can relax and show a little more thanks to our colleagues and customers. Thanksgiving should really be in January for us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Balance

During one of my holiday rants, discussing why game publishers can't seem to get it together, the question was asked why the game trade was so muddled. Simply put, there is no money in it. The wise do something else or wise up and move on. For example, most of my mentors from 8 years ago are no longer running game stores. They'll sometimes gently inquire whether I've had enough yet, pointing out that you can leave before your soul or your bank account is entirely worn down to nothing. I'm actually still enjoying it, so I'll stick around.

Because there is no money in it, those who are in the game trade are running on passion. Passion is a great ingredient, like sugar in a cake, but it's not enough. It also requires business competence, the kind of competence that likely precludes you from entering the game trade, so it's usually home grown and discovered in the thick of things. It's also why those who do succeed still make strange decisions. They're mostly self taught.

The history of the game trade is littered with the business corpses of those who couldn't get the balance right. Great ideas along with a sense for business is a rare combination. There are those who have succeeded, and you can walk down the aisles of your friendly local game store to learn who they are. Steve Jackson is a prime example. Or go find yourself a copy of Designers & Dragons, which should be back in print in early 2013. Most of these companies are gone, despite creating amazing product. Because they lacked business sense, it turns out most were never viable at any time in their life cycles. As a business owner, I know that feeling, that you're doing great now, but something is just flawed in your model. Or worse, you live in a purgatory of "getting by."

So you have passion running the show with no economic motivation and questionable business sense. The good news is that if you do have strong business sense and (not or) a sense of creativity or at least your finger on the pulse of your customers, you can do well. In fact, people who were good elsewhere are great in the game trade. Big fish. Small pond. Getting them to stay in the pond is next to impossible, once they start looking at their personal needs: mortgage, college, retirement.

The other really obvious thing about the game trade is because there's no money in it, most people  have a day job or other means of support. Now imagine you're going about your life, paying your mortgage, going to work every day (not at your game company) and you're making your game company decisions in your spare time. Are these the best decisions? Are they consistent with your long term success and based on norms in your industry? Are you spending your best hours of the day contemplating them? In other words, will your family suffer if you make the wrong decision?

Most people in the trade are not really in the trade. They're creative and all, and perhaps would like this to be their full time gig, but it's not and it shows and because of that, the trade remains a backwater. Looking at my own sales chart, I would say the part-timers and bathrobe businessmen account for about half of our sales, and probably about 75-80% of individuals. We need them and respect their work, but don't ask me for a street date on their products.

So how does Kickstarter fit in? Well, it breaks the tension, the tension between art and business. It says, screw business. Business has been getting in your way! The self appointed gate keepers at the game distributorships will hold you back no longer. The card shops who claim to represent you to the public will by bypassed (follow that card money and you'll see the modern game trade was built on CCG money). Middle men will go down in flames. A revolution is upon us.

Of course, there's a reason why there are gate keepers, to keep out products that aren't financially viable, to provide a service that prevents junk from gumming up the system. Occasionally, the gatekeepers stop watching or perhaps the money is too good, like with the D20 glut, and we see a ridiculous amount of product of questionable value in ever increasingly shorter periods. At one point there were well over a hundred D20 products released each week. I got into the D20 glut late and was buying up D20 product by the pound.

A small number of those D20 companies struck a balance between business and art, while most got the creative bug out of their systems and are gone. Some leveraged their efforts to springboard into a "real" company, as we say with a handful of D20 publishers that still exist in different forms. Unlike Kickstarter, they had to at least create a formal business and establish funding and methods that could work for them later. However, most of those D20 companies are road kill, ridiculed, their product now shunned by fans. We take no D20 at our store. If you bring me some to buy, I'll kindly offer to recycle it for you, with a few exceptions.

My talk of gumming things up and "real" and not real is likely offensive to you if you are on the Kickstarter bandwagon, but there is no free lunch. There is no secret pill that will allow for thousands of years of commerce to come to a halt because of a website. The game trade exists because of that balance of passion and business. Kickstarter allows those with passion and a sense for business to get a leg up, to get a shot at the show. Kickstarter is not the show. Those who can strike the balance can succeed, but there is no substitute for balance.

The question is really what will be left when the dust settles. Will some of these companies make it into the trade? Will there be collateral damage, a besmirching of an industry that is already black with smirch? Will an army of bathrobe businessmen turn people off to small press much like the "flight to quality" that occurred with D20 and roleplaying games. The D20 logo is the kiss of death for most D&D players. Recognizing that started with retailers. Will the Kickstarter logo on a product work the same way?

I don't want to end down on this. There should be a sense of celebration in crowd sourcing and the wonder of new developments. There is wonder in art and creativity. I just want to stress that the business side of things will have to come. Even if it's in your bathrobe. There is no substitute. Strike a balance.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Top Game Companies 2012

You should read the title as"our" top game companies of 2012, since we're one store and not the entire game industry. We do strong sales and we don't have much local competition, so I still feel we represent the local community fairly well, at least with what is sold in local brick and mortar stores. This does not tell you a good number of things, like sales by department or sales by individual item. We compare a lot of data when making our decision and this is just one small data set.

The point of this exercise is two fold: First, we want to see who we should be paying more attention to. Wizards of the Coast dominates at a nearly frightening level now that Magic is so popular again. It's such a big percentage of sales that I sometimes wonder if we need a WOTC employee, someone whose sole job it is to manage that brand in-house. That sounds crazy, but I've seen it done elsewhere when Games Workshop dominated. So reason one is to see who needs more attention.

Reason two is to put that growing pain in my posterior into perspective. Who is being a pain in my ass and should I continue to tolerate it? What company is requiring a disproportionate effort? Battlefront with Flames of War was in that category before we dropped it. Konami with YGO still seems to justify the occasional chcken on the carpet event, at least until employees start quitting or the police get called one too many times. Yes, they're that bad. Note that the nationwide game store backlash against this horde of monsters will be immense if it begins to falter. Konami should address this.

The chart also says the consolidation of board game companies with one distributor is really a buzzing fly of a nuisance when put in context. I sell more Coke products than Days of Wonder or Z-Man and I kind of think I sell a lot of both of those.In fact, I'm going to call it the Coca Cola Line. If a company falls below Coke, a necessary but nearly invisible commodity product category, I'm not going to worry about it.It doesn't mean I don't like, respect, appreciate or try to sell the heck out of those products, it just means it shouldn't keep me up at night. 10pm worried phone call from an employee: Well, is that game above or below the Coca Cola Line?

Finally, as I've discussed many times, Other is huge. Yes, Other, as individual companies, falls below the Coca Cola Line, but other is the reason for our existence, our expertise, our killer app against big box stores. Other is that one item for that one customer. It's paying attention to the game trade and getting excited and inexplicably talking about things that from the charts, really don't matter. It's how we carry more individual items than Costco with a smaller percentage of floor space. Other is really why we continue to do this. Other is energy and excitement and the hope that one of these others will make it past the Coca Cola Line.

  1. Wizards of the Coast
  2. Games Workshop
  3. Fantasy Flight Games
  4. Paizo Publishing
  5. Konami
  6. Privateer Press
  7. Pokemon USA
  8. Ultra Pro
  9. Cardfight Vanguard
  10. Rio Grande Games
  11. Steve Jackson Games
  12. Mayfair Games
  13. Chessex
  14. Reaper Miniatures
  15. Wiz Kids
  16. Asmodee
  17. Coca Cola
  18. Battlefoam
  19. Days of Wonder
  20. Z-Man Games

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.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Good Kickstarter

If you want a good example of the"plateau of productivity," what works in Kickstarter and retailer partnerships, you should check out Evil Hat's new Fate Core project. It's a perfect example of how publishers can cooperate with retailers. It has a generous margin, low count buy-in, and most importantly, promises store owners their customers who pre-order through the store will get the same digital content as Kickstarter supporters. That level playing field is of paramount importance. It took about three minutes of thought before I knew this would work for us.

It's not perfect, and I know many of my customers will support Evil Hat directly, because they want the publisher to get the maximum benefit, which I can understand. They may also want  to participate at a higher level by shaping the product through forums, which we can't provide through this type of partnership (at least not yet).

What about the money? As I've mentioned, Kickstarter projects are death for game store cash flow, as it ties up working capital. However, with the playing field leveled, I'm confident we can take in pre-orders during the design period, which counters this huge issue. I'm no longer spending six times the Kickstarter project amount to support it. It's the same as any other product, since I'm selling it without the wait.

This scenario won't work for every publisher, as Evil Hat is the Cadillac of small press (not really small press at all, if you ask Fred). Good Pajamas Publishing will not get the same attention as Evil Hat Publishing with an identical offer, because I don't know them and they don't have a track record of steady sales in my store. We've sold over 250 Evil Hat products over the years, which means this is a fairly low risk endeavor (although the dozen Kickstarter copies of Dinocalypse Now was not a good fit for us, but we're learning, right?).

Speaking of low risk, the debate we have in store is what exactly is the purpose of Kickstarter? I'm a capitalist at heart, so I'm pretty laissez faire, fine with whatever works if it's ethical. However, others have expressed strong opinions that Kickstarter is a key to, you know, kick starting your company. Should Evil Hat and others with established success records continue using Kickstarter once they've kick started? I can't see why they wouldn't want to, but I could see why others, stores and customers, may draw a line in the sand in continuing to support established publishers through this process. It does tend to undermine the current system.

Most small publishers that continue beyond their kick starting period are generally non-starters for me now because of this. Some, like Greater Than Games (Sentinels of the Multiverse), have announced they will stop using the Kickstarter process now that they are established. I think riding off into the sunset after getting a solid kick start may be an expected element of the future of crowd sourcing. There should be a question of how successful could a company possibly be if they're still using the medium.

 Now taking pre-orders

Friday, November 30, 2012

Cost Cutting (Tradecraft)

One of the projects I, and many, store owners perform annually is examining costs. Just because I have Internet and electricity doesn't mean I can't have Internet and electricity cheaper. Shopping around, including re-jiggering existing accounts is an important way we maintain very thin margins. With inflation at around 3% a year, and our profit margins in the 5-8% range, we need to get very creative. We can't just raise prices, like other businesses.

Games have very little "elasticity" in their pricing, meaning we rarely pass on higher costs to customers through price increases. For the most part, MSRPs are firmly established by publishers, tying our hands. Many publishers, fearing retailers will besmirch their value proposition, make a point of printing that price right on the product. They have no idea what the retailer pays for that product from distributors, as it's a sliding scale with a bewildering chart of publisher specific discounts. Our own system uses cost averaging since no product costs the same from different sources. I can buy six boxes of Magic in a week from six suppliers at six prices. But the MSRP on all those packs is $3.99.

As I've mentioned before, one of the nice things about toy stores, is toys don't have MSRP's, they just have costs, which allow for a variety of business models based on pricing structures. There's the low end toy store and the high end toy store on main street. They offer different experiences, different products and serve different demographics (remember it's parents with money, not children).  Games? Game stores generally look the same because they generally sell their goods at the same price, to the same demographic, because that's all they can do. Game prices are well known and game customers know them. So we all look the same, generally, unless we diversify away from games into more elastic areas. In the scheme of retailing, hobby games suck. Why do game stores have such a difficult time?  Why are they run by hobbyists and not professional retailers? Right here.

My cost cutting at the moment are the troublesome, potentially expensive cut overs. For example, I'm changing my AT&T service, dropping a line, and moving to their lower cost U-verse from DSL. This saves me about $50/month but it's opening a can of worms. They keep you from switching by making it difficult. They bundle services, and in the case of AT&T, simply lie about what they're offering and what they're planning to do. They charge for equipment but offer rebates for nearly the full amount if you stay. I've kept my fax line installed for two years now, despite no longer having a fax machine. Kicking that hornets nest was a headache I avoided.

Before you tell me how much better cable is, or whatever service you use, know that businesses often have little choice in the matter. I don't have a cable option as there is no cable run to my building. If I want Internet, it's through AT&T or with someone else over AT&T copper. I also generally pay higher rates for everything, some more than other, with telecom being one of the worst offenders. AT&T knows this and they treat us poorly, combined with fewer consumer protections, as businesses aren't people. If you're planning a business, don't assume costs based on personal experience, research what businesses pay for that same expense, it's almost always higher due to the rate or usage.

Next will be tackling our overpriced alarm system, which will mean canceling a contract and having expensive equipment installed, similar to what I needed to do with AT&T. This is how these companies get you to stay, by getting their tendrils into your operation and making it painful to leave. Switching credit card servicers involved five pin pads before they got it right. Five. Still, saving $25-40 a month on something as turnkey as alarm monitoring ads up.

One of the more interesting projects I'll be tackling soon is installing a pair of Nest thermostats. We already have "smarter" thermostats from PG&E, which cut costs very slightly (they were free). However, the Nest is a truly smart thermostat that learns behavior, can be managed with incredible granularity, communicates with its counterpart, and can be managed over the Internet. Most importantly, the Nest learns from behavior, meaning it works how we need it to work, not how we think we want it to work. With our electricity bills averaging around $600 a month, even a modest savings of 10% would cover the $500 cost of the two nests in less than a year. At my house, the Nest would be a neat, but pricey toy. At my business it's a potential powerhouse of savings.

This is retail. This is what we do when we're dong the thing. This is a big part of what we talk about when we talk to each other, rather than what's the hottest Planeswalker or best barbarian build for Pathfinder. Some of these projects will explode in my face, sometimes by design. Most will have an up front cost that most people, who don't run a business, would be afraid to tackle. All of these projects are simple survival for retailers. This is not extraordinary, this is mundane, day to day stuff. Tradecraft.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kickstarter Hype Cycle

I was being interviewed recently regarding my Kickstarter experience as a retailer. One thing I brought up was the Gartner Group hype cycle model. This is often used to peg the trajectory and maturity of technological trends.

I think most publishers who use Kickstarter are camping out on the Peak of Inflated Expectations. They've got tents, a hot fire going, and they don't plan on coming down. Things are just way too good for them up there with Kickstarter, so they're not leaving the peak.

Myself? I'm in the Trough of Disillusionment, in the realm of disappointment, swearing off this technology as generally not good for anyone. My camp is as soggy and depressing as the melted candy dice I received as my first Kickstarter supported project. The question is whether I'm early or on time venturing into the trough. I'm certainly not alone down here.

The truth will eventually pan out to be somewhere in the middle, past the depressing trough and upward onto the Slope of Enlightenment. At this point, the charlatans, fraudsters, one time publishers who had to get that project out of their system, and dabbling corporations are gone. It's where the professionals and the truly in need of kick starting dial in what it means to properly crowd source a project. The free money period will be at an end.

That leads to the Plateau of Productivity, where we know what does and doesn't work for Kickstarter, where it can and can't sell, and in what mediums it's most appropriate. It will not live up to the Peak of Inflated Expectations and those folks will need to come off the mountain. Some will refuse and they'll stay up there like mad hermits, decrying the death of brick and mortar stores and eating their virtual trail mix and jerky.

Nobody knows what the plateau will look like. In fact, all we know is that it will be somewhat different. Supporter (customer) expectations will change and the customer base itself will likely drop off a bunch of people and add others. Project support (pre-orders) will have clearer expectations. Retailers may or may not be involved. Quality will need to be better established ahead of time. Taxes may be collected as states lose patience with this retail model. Winners and losers will be more apparent. Pies will be made larger. Some people will no longer be getting pie. They will survive. The one sure thing is we won't be talking about it anymore as it settles in for the long haul or the dustbin of technological obscurity or cautionary tales.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Top 10 Games of 2012 (The CCG Boom)

Here are our top selling games of 2012, year to date, with our top 2011 games next to it:

2012 2011
1 Magic Magic
2 Yu-Gi-Oh Yu-Gi-Oh
3 Warhammer 40K Warhammer 40K
4 Pathfinder Pathfinder
5 Warmachine Fantasy Flight Games
6 Fantasy Flight Games Warhammer Fantasy
7 Cardfight Vanguard Dungeons & Dragons
8 Pokemon Rio Grande
9 Rio Grande Mayfair Games
10 Munchkin  Munchkin 

Our top four games remain steady, but we found a few interesting trends.
  • Dungeons & Dragons is not on the chart this year (it's #15), as it goes through its play test period for the next couple years. Summer of 2014 is supposedly when D&D Next releases. There are some very good system neutral releases for D&D this year, especially the Elminster's Forgotten Realms book by Ed Greenwood (just finished reading that) and the new Menzoborenzen drow book. System neutral books are a lot like independent films, critically acclaimed but rarely profitable. Players want their crunch. Still, these two are worth picking up, even if you no longer play D&D.
  • Warmachine makes the chart for the first time without being lumped in with slower selling Hordes (Hordes is #11 this year while it was #25 in 2011). Lumped with Hordes, Warmahordes, as the kids call it, would be slightly below Warhammer 40K. That's more about how 40K is sucking, rather than vindication for Privateer Press. You may have noticed that Warhammer Fantasy has dropped off the chart. You will find some of those WFB players on our Warmahordes nights. Our Warmachine crowd is rabid excited about their game. 
  • Cardfight Vanguard and Pokemon have seen the same energy we've seen from Magic and Yugioh. I was skeptical of Vanguard, after being burned repeatedly by the CCG alternative crowd, but not only is it on our top ten list, it's beating Pokemon, a game we've slowly been building up over years. Pokemon suffers from a poor margin and ridiculously poor tournament support from Pokemon USA. It would be doing much better otherwise. Vanguard was only able to become successful for us when our mainstream distributors picked it up. As an expensive import, it started as more of a place holder than a profitable game, with a very low margin, a poor supply chain and no support. Yugioh acts as a kind of "feeder" game for Vanguard players, who tend to be older and looking for a new challenge. That successor game is not Magic.
  • Board games may look like they're being pushed down the list, but board game sales this year are up 16% for us. They're just spread out and slightly off camera. Days of Wonder is doing well for us, Bandai has entered the scene strongly, and Asmodee and Whiz Kids are putting out strong games this year.
 As usual, the disclaimer holds that this is one store. We're the only store in a large area with eclectic interests, so we tend to be a good sample of what's being played in our region. There are no stores locally playing games we don't have, for example. I would love to hear comments from other store owners about whether this jives with their sales and what's working for them.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Kickstarter Follow-Up

I want to clarify an important thing about yesterdays post that has everyone's panties in a bunch. My decision to avoid Kickstarter products, does not come from emotion. It does not come from a philosophical difference. It does not come from a dislike, fear, or any sort of annoyance with publishers of any size. I like you guys and have supported a bunch of projects for my store and have attempted to be helpful in promoting the medium. I still have nine projects I supported for the store in the pipeline. There is only one reason I'm avoiding Kickstarter derived products: It doesn't make me money.

When I say Kickstarter projects don't make me money, I'm saying nobody will buy them in my store, mostly at all, sometimes ever. I'm willing to accept slow turns for the sake of fringe, but no turns?  Products and lines that weren't Kickstarter that now are Kickstarter have stopped dead in their tracks for me. These are not only the products that I've brought in for my store through Kickstarter, it's any product that got its funding through the Kickstarter process and then made its way through distribution. You're doing a good job of hitting the mark. The alpha gamers are paying attention. There just isn't anything left over, apparently.

Kickstarter projects of the small to medium tier variety, have successfully saturated their market. They simply don't need me. If you're planning a new game project today, you should decide if you want it to go Kickstarter or go retail. You are going to need to choose. This is true because I'm not the only one. I'm just the only one willing to talk about it. Why? Because retailers don't communicate and distributors can still milk this cow for a few drops, but it won't benefit the publisher long term. This is likely to change soon, much like the D20 glut slammed the breaks on all things not "core." My guess is the door will close. So I'm mostly just the self appointed messenger.

Is Kickstarter the disruptive technology that will destroy my buggy whip operation? Nobody knows, honestly, but it is far more disruptive than other newer mediums. It's still very new and evolving, and there may be a place for the game trade at the table. As a percentage of the game trade and a percentage of my sales, Kickstarter projects are negligible right now. It is irritating that I have shelves of these games that nobody wants, but it's an irritation as opposed to a serious problem of existential magnitude.

Kickstarter tends to suck the energy out of the experimental fringe, outlier games that we like to carry where we could usually sell a couple now and then, but it has little effect on the mainstream, where the money is at, what most game stores actually sell. But I do see that pie expanding and the problems growing. We all want to get along and have a prosperous, symbiotic relationship, but I don't see how that's going to happen, at least not now.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Mark of Kickstarter

As a retailer, I'm inundated with new product announcements. The one I now avoid, the kiss of death, the mark of trouble, is the Kickstarter product. It's not all Kickstarter products, it's the small to medium sized publishers. Now that Kickstarter isn't this emerging technology, but a very well established medium for gamers to acquire games, it has managed to successfully capture the majority of local sales. This is a big change from the beginning of the year, when I was supporting Kickstarter projects as a retailer.

Bigger projects can break out of this market saturation, but for the most part, most Kickstarter products we've brought into the store lately, including games that are highly ranked and reviewed, have failed for us. This includes companies that used to sell direct to us that now use Kickstarter. They've captured all our previous customers. Good for them, but obviously I shouldn't continue participating in that.

Kickstarter on a product now says to me, "Hey, we've done our best to sell this exact product, along with bonuses you can't offer, direct to customers before you. But perhaps you know somebody we missed?" Unlike the PDF market, which sells a different product, or the direct sales competitor, who sells things at the same time as us, the Kickstarter product is sold to customers not only before we can get it, but with added benefits. As I've mentioned, the Kickstarter market is a tiny part of the game trade, but these small companies used to have a place on our shelf. Now I'm pushed to focus on the mainstream, which is unfortunate.

So my answer is always going to be "no" now, I do not want that product, and thank you for sharing your efforts to bypass traditional mediums that I happen to use to feed my family. You may keep that product, and if you're my distributor, note my opinion on this. In the end, publishers will wish to hide this mark of divergence, the Kickstarter origin of their product. Then my job, like I often have to do with re-prints of old games, is to research and ferret out the less than new, less than clean, somewhat rancid odor of the not right. Kickstarter, I've decided, is not compatible with retail in most cases.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Cirrrrrcle of Life

Selling a game line in my store works like this: A customer comes in looking for a hobby game, and I attempt to sell them on this game, not as a one time purchase, but as an ongoing hobby. It assumes I have a method and product line both to initially engage them and subsequently keep them engaged over time.

The old Games Workshop model had a new customer spending $600 their first year and $300 in subsequent years. I've heard those numbers have nearly doubled from a decade ago. Their old strategy was to capture that first year customer, the cream, and shove off the grumpy veterans, the difficult crowd to support, on to independent game stores. Their approach was the hard sell for the easy money and then we would get the complex, expensive, logistic nightmare of support. It's far easier to sell you a thing than making you happy after the fact, especially when "making you happy" is expected to be supplied nearly free of charge. 

The sales process begins with a key question: Who will you play this game with? Game stores like mine need to answer that with an internal solution, as opposed to every other country on the planet, who seem to have a population who own kitchen tables, have friends and don't fear their neighbors. So my internal answer is "Why, you'll play that game right here, of course." We've got 14 events each week for this purpose (why the system does not actually support doing this properly is another post).

As I'm selling a game system, that initial sale is not nearly as important as hooking the customer into an enjoyable pastime, so "getting it right" initially is critical, while that initial sale actually takes a back seat to this. If I sense a customer is not going to enjoy the game or is not ready, I would rather not make the sale that day.

This system breaks down when the sale of the product and the events we provide to support that game don't align.This has been especially apparent with our miniature games, in which a larger than usual, or at least a more perceptible percentage of customers, use our facilities but don't buy product from us. This happens because our community is simply the best. It's big, vibrant, with diversity of play styles, and all our local competitors have failed at it, so we're the last man standing.

These folks (they're not customers) buy a small gift certificate to play, but that's a token sale that doesn't make up for a failing product line. The key to game space is it greatly increases sales, so any token purchase is really an illusion that doesn't support the model. We can't continue to sell an expensive miniature line on Mountain Dew and Pringles alone.

Getting back to the problem, there are several reasons they don't buy: some are price, some convenience, some out of protest, of all things for not properly supporting their game, a counter intuitive argument for sure as they're standing in my store playing with customers. Some, as we work hard to educate during the holidays, don't understand the difference between buying from us and buying from another store. They are brand aware but not store aware. This is especially true with Games Workshop customers, who have been trained to only by GW, and where is not important.

The bottom line, in our problem scenario, is they don't buy from us and the lost sales send signals. It's not that we actively perceive their actions, it's that the sale of certain products in the line begin to lag. The previously vibrant game is now a loser in the metrics, even if it's being played excessively in the store. The herd has some sickness. What do you do with sickness in the herd? Cull it. Take those dying products and turn the inventory dollars into something else, in our case, things like board games and the ever hungry appetite of our collectible card game community. It's an ongoing process. It becomes difficult to promote that ongoing experience when we begin losing cohesion in the herd. Miniature games are especially susceptible as there should be certain patterns that don't exist in other games, such as core and ancillary products that need to be carried at certain depths and breadths.

The inventory tweaking results in immediate repercussions to how we operate. When the herd is sick, we tend not to talk about it. In other words, if a game is not growing, if there are holes in the inventory, or we only carry "core" product, it's far more beneficial to us to promote another game that is growing instead. Why promote a lethargic game like Warhammer Fantasy (Only 21% of GW's sales we now learn) when a game like Warmachine is not only growing, but has excited champions for it?

You can certainly spend time shoring up weakness, but it's far, far easier to promote what's working and worry about weakness later, or you know what? Not worry about it ever again and turn the entire herd into proverbial glue. That's what being diversified allows you to do. Not working? Next! You don't want to do this, as you've promised that customer in step one a long term experience, but you often have no choice.

Eventually there is nobody to play this game with because there are no new customers playing it, because we're actively discouraging them from doing so. Events fall off the calendar. We're not telling them not to buy it, but we're not not telling them that. As game stores, we do have a role in what people play in the community, we are relevant, and we do decide which game gets the energy and promotion (if not, why the protest?). Product champions emerge from this community, but we're mostly responsible for that communities existence. Support your local store or don't support it. It's not about what we deserve or what we're owed, it's about this circle of life for a game. Don't expect to play where you don't buy and if you're a store owner, certainly don't provide game space for another store's product line.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Game Store Delegation (Tradecraft)

No, not like that
Everyone knows of that immigrant couple that works seven days a week, 365 days a year in their restaurant, gas station or liquor store. But how often does their menu change? How many times each week does a customer come in and ask what's new in Chinese cuisine? Or request that new 93 octane fuel formulation? Or want to learn the new paradigm in alcoholic beverages  I applaud hard work, but the game store owner job is amazingly more dynamic than most small businesses. You need to get away to recharge. To get away, you need to delegate.

Delegation is where you learn if you've been working in your business or on your business. If you can't delegate because everything goes to hell in a handbasket when you're gone, you've been working in your business, doing the tasks that less qualified staff could be handling. Your process sucks. If nothing else, you should take time off just to test your processes. What areas need work? Where were communication breakdowns? I still have issues getting invoices to appear in my inbox on orders that arrive while I'm out of the store. That's process in need of improvement, my primary job, working on my business.

But I can't afford to delegate you say. I'm barely getting by as it is. I would argue it's probably because of burnout and lack of new ideas. Getting away, not just playing games in the back, or going to trade shows or conventions, allows you to recharge. You're not serving your customers off a Chinese menu, you're in a dynamic field that's constantly changing, meaning you've got constant opportunities and ever changing problems in need of creative solutions. If you're permanently stuck in Moo Shu Pork mode, how will you gather the energy necessary to keep up on what's happening? How will you know if your processes work if your employees are just warming your seat? To use another small business cliche, do you own your business, or does your business own you?

Now is the time to do it, to get away, to find some quiet time before the holidays hit. Afterwards is fine too, but coming into the holidays fresh is a big advantage. Most stores have had great Summers, and if you're like me, you came out of it a little shell shocked. Our September-October sales pattern resembled a December-January, extremely high, followed by a modest return to normal. These cycles are stressful, so break your Moo-Shu pattern and get away. It's not an indulgence, it's your job.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Story of the Van

We have poor signage and poor visibility. Worse, we've been turned down for adding additional signs on the street, even when we offered to pay for them. So the thinking went that we needed some sort of scheme for better visibility, one that would be entirely legal, as sign laws are strict with stiff penalties. The budget was roughly that for a new sign, or $7,000. Enter the adventure vehicle.

Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40 with some miles on it. I dig the shovel
I went on Ebay and bought a Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40. The idea here was to pick up an "adventure" vehicle, add a bunch of rugged looking off road accessories, like snorkels and winches and wrap it with our logo and store information. It seemed like a solid idea.

The vehicle was in West Los Angeles, and Michael and I went on a road trip over the Summer to pick it up. When we got there, the vehicle was quite the basket case, with open holes everywhere from removed rust, a rope holding the back door closed, and a ride that is best described as agricultural. The owner threw all the spare bits in the back, an area I'll add, in which you could see the ground underneath, and we took a test drive.

The vehicle's claim to fame was that it was once driven by Christian Kane of Leverage to an audition. He ran it out of gas. Because the gas gauge is also broken. Sensing a pattern? I'm a Christian Kane fan, so that went a little ways towards making me feel better about this ancient, tractor of a truck. I had ass to ass seat contact where Christian Kane once sat. It made the holes in the floor a little more tolerable.

Effed Again!
Then on the test drive it broke down and wouldn't start again. It happened in the middle of an intersection while I was driving. Maybe it was the battery, since it wasn't actually tied down to the car in any way. Who knows. The important thing was that it was a slap in the face, a pause, that made me realize this was probably a big mistake. So I shook the owners hand, thanked him for his time, and was on my way. Promised pictures of Christian for the store staff would be mailed soon. Yep, any day now.

It turned out that the FJ40 was a rather hot classic vehicle and to get one that worked, even remotely, was well out of my budget. If it were my car, perhaps I would make the investment, but as a mobile sign it just wasn't worth it. Michael and I drove back empty handed, one of the harder, but better decisions I've made related to cars. We  brainstormed what to do next.

From the very beginning, I had been told to just get a van. The surface area was undeniably huge, the cost of such a vehicle probably low, and the search fairly easy. I had several more bids on Ebay for FJ40's around the country, but eventually they faded when I realized I couldn't get what I wanted. It was time to consider the van. Adventure vehicle it was not, but the idea eventually grew on me.

Where America buys their vans
It took almost no time as I found a used car lot in Fremont with a small retired fleet of Sears delivery vans. The one I wanted was unique and called out to me. It had a sliding door without a side window, perfect as a billboard and peculiar hazardous materials signs all around it. I liked the signs, and throughout the process of getting the van up to speed, everyone who worked on it offered to remove them, free of charge. Nope, leave my placards. With the van bought, we then proceeded to the next stage, getting it painted.

Freshly painted at Earl Sheib. The wrap guy: You don't plan on taking this off ever do you? Because that cheap paint job is coming with it.
Don't believe the Earl Sheib special prices, at least when it comes to vans. That $399 special comes out to $1000 when you apply it to a giant Ford E350 van. Car washes are also twice as expensive. Once the van was painted, we had to wait a month for the paint to cure. During that time, we went through countless designs with our graphic designer. We were able to get permission to use some amazing Paizo artwork for the van during this period. Then we scheduled to get it wrapped with a company in Sacramento. About half way through this process, we started over again. We realized we had under-estimated what was possible with a full wrap.

So seven more revisions later and we finally had something, although it took another couple more weeks to finish the project. Four months into this and it was feeling like a boondoggle. We were paying for insurance, gas (it's a big pig) and other expenses while we were doing all the work, so it was seeming like a not so great idea. It was better than the Christian Kane option, but man, it was beginning to feel foolish.

The design. Note the hood with the backwards writing.

Today it was finally worth it when I got to pick up the finished van. It's more than I had hoped for, thanks to quite a few people. Pro Wraps in Rancho Cordova did the wrap job for us. Jess Gardner was our graphic designer through most of this and she put in countless hours of volunteer time. Special thanks goes to Paizo Publishing for letting us use their award winning artwork, the black dragon from the Pathfinder Beginner Box. They allowed us to use it sight unseen, without design approval, which was a massive act of faith on their part.

My wife drove me back and forth to drop off and pick up the van, about six hours of driving this week, so she deserves a lot of credit. Michael Parker was a great sounding board through the beginning of this process, gently guiding me to the inevitable correct conclusion and carefully navigating the dismantling of my adventure vehicle dream. Failed dreams can be treacherous. The idea for the placards was crowd sourced and can be attributed to Michael Webb's suggestion. And finally, I should thank Christian Kane for running out of gas in the FJ40. It turned a boondoggle of a road trip into a decent anecdote.

Entropy and the Commercial Lease (Tradecraft)

When you rent a house or apartment, you pay a monthly fee and if something goes wrong, a grumpy guy comes over and fixes it. This is nice, because this way you are not the grumpy guy, as you would be if you owned a house or condo. Also, if that grumpy guy decides to raise your rent, you can simply leave at the end of your relatively short lease.

A commercial lease is a combination of the bad parts from home ownership with the bad parts from renting. You still pay a monthly fee, but it include an additional fee for what they call common area maintenance. Our CAM is roughly an additional 20% beyond the rent. So besides rent, you also pay a fee to fix the roof, pave the parking lot and keep it lighted at night, taxes, insurance and all the other things that would normally be included in residential renting, or would normally be a part of home ownership. You also pay additional fees to manage this. Sometimes your CAM charges cover all those things, and sometimes you get a bill once a year, possibly for thousands of dollars, because the roof or parking lot, or dry rot remediation or some crazy new ADA requirement went over budget.

In addition to that common area maintenance, you are also responsible for the interior of your space. For example, yesterday, I replaced the water heater in one of the bathrooms. Eventually, if you stay long enough, you'll replace everything as it breaks down, which is another drag on the business that most small business owners forget to calculate. In addition to that water heater, we've replaced toilets, most of the bathroom fixtures, repaired doors and windows, fixed electrical problems, and replaced every light fixture. The worst case scenario is always an air conditioning unit (we have two), which can cost around $10,000.  If it's inside or in some way connected to my space, it's my responsibility to maintain and repair.

So the obvious answer to such a racket is why not buy a building? Many small business owners will consider this, if they're in an area of the country with a lower cost of living. I've heard it referred to as the retail store retirement plan. You're paying rent anyway, why not make it a mortgage? There are a couple problems with this.

Commercial mortgages never went nuts with crazy NINJA loans (No income, No Job, No Assets). When you buy a commercial building, you put 20% down, cash money. There are some current government programs right now at 10%, but lets work with that 20% number. How much cash is that? Well, our space, if if were free standing, would cost about a million dollars to own. So that means we would need $200,000 cash money, smacked down on the barrel-head.

Most game stores start on far less than that, usually in the $50,000-$100,000 range. Having $200,000 cash to buy your building is not really feasible. That's two more stores or a maybe the lower range of a profitable franchise (the yogurt business I recently looked at required $400,000). That $200k is a tale wagging the dog kind of thing. I recall at one point realizing I could make almost as much money managing my own property as running my business. Still, with 10% down, I could imagine doing it.

However, now you've got two businesses. You're now a commercial real-estate mogul as well as a store owner. It's true that you're probably well suited to the task, considering you've been doing most of the work already, but there are potential problems. Your real-estate venture may last longer than your business and you may get stuck with an empty property.

You may notice that commercial real-estate companies seem to have enough cushion with their properties to sit on empty ones for years. I know I couldn't personally pay a single month of my commercial rent, even at the height of my IT career. That was my biggest fear in my current location. In the old, smaller location, I could keep my day job and support it remotely with my personal income, if necessary. That doesn't work in the big leagues.

What happens if the neighborhood goes bad? I'm told Concord used to be a much nicer place than it is now. Imagine that change happening for the worse again over the next few decades. So now you've got a place that's not so hot with two businesses located in it.

The area could get better, and you may even be pressured to kick yourself out! A company like Starbucks can move in next door and suddenly you can charge twice the rent. That's what happened behind us in the Park N Shop shopping center. Suddenly it had delusions of gentrification and rents in the dirt mall skyrocketed.

Then there are eminent domain issues, problems with drive-by lawyers (one has sued my property management company 17 times), and difficult and indifferent local governments. Still, I can't help noticing the cars in my property management's parking lot are much nicer than mine.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Pinball Riff

Pinball machines are cool in a kind of steampunky way. In a world of computers, video games, and endless binary processes, pinball machines, the later models, are digital-analog hybrids. Even when full of a cabinet of circuit boards, pinball machines come down to some electro-mechanical gizmos, springs, coils, plungers, magnets and various subjective analog bits that makes every pinball machine a little different, and every machine different over time. They're more art than science, as our repair guy explained.

I was reminded of this when we replaced some parts this week. Most of the replaced parts weren't new, they were just better. Imagine replacing an identical part on a computer with an identical better part. Completely unheard of. The company that makes our pinball machine, Williams, closed their pinball division in 1999, so my parts options on a 23 year old pinball machine are generally: used, re-manufactured, or home-made. So we replaced a bunch of parts, and like an auto mechanic, scheduled others on the "next time" sheet.

Despite the parts issue, I'm told there are more parts now than ever before. This is true even though our machine, my favorite from when I was young, was one of only five thousand or so made (pinball geeks keep track of, and argue constantly about, all this stuff). During our service, our pinball repair guy was quietly swearing up a storm about a substandard home-made piece he found in our machine but then went out to his truck to get some sheet metal to create his own part. There's home-made and then there's home-made.

While trying to wrap my head around why the machine fits so well in the store, it occurred to me that the role-playing games I enjoy have a lot in common with these pinball machines. They've got a solid system behind them (the upper cabinet), a kind of science of the imagination, but the implementation is analog and pure art (the lower cabinet). There may be a cabinet of printed circuit boards up top, but every tap of the flippers makes visible sparks in the lower cabinet. It's a fine balance that can collapse if either element is out of whack.

I see the argument about various editions of Dungeons & Dragons to be mostly about this. I'm referring to when an edition appears to have too much science and not enough art (newer editions), or horrors, too much art and not enough science (older editions). Why does the druid, and the druid alone, have to fight his superiors in hand to hand combat? Because Gary Gygax said so (art over science). When does a 4th Edition spell do more than the spells description? Only when the GM rules as such (science over art).

This is something you don't see much of in more objective games. Board gamers, my wife included, find RPGs ridiculous because of the interpretive dance of the game. CCGs tend to attract those who enjoy the complex cascade of rules and procedures. Miniature games have tended to walk a fine line, with many so maddeningly complex that even their designers can't agree on the rules. Complexity is their nod to art. Others work for intense clarity, only to wonder why they've failed to capture the imagination. But the game is better, they cry, as if better was objective criteria. There just weren't enough springs and coils firing off in the brain.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Do the Job, Get Paid

I once worked for a consulting division of ADP. It was one of those soul sucking jobs with mysterious politics, rampant cronyism and team building exercises. My boss was a Volvo fanatic. Not just a driver, a true fanatic. I'll just let sink in for a minute for you car guys out there. That's like being an enormous fan of the color beige.

The company emphasized their cult-like corporate culture to distract from some abysmal management decisions. I recall a team building exercise with my department. We went horseback riding and I was scolded for not staying with the group, as if I knew how to handle a horse. That was clearly not in the job description. The ancient animal took off with me barely hanging on and then attempted to knock me off its back at great speed by running under low tree branches. What a perfect metaphor for my experience at that company.

One day they rolled out an anonymous survey where we were encouraged to rank our job satisfaction, including how we felt about management. When the results were back, there was a meeting. Apparently there were some miscreants in the ranks who thought management was doing a lousy job. Since management had no intention of leaving, it was they, the complainers, who would be tracked down and rooted out. The funny thing was, at this point I was too jaded by their antics to care. I spent my time studying for certification exams for my next job or carefully recording the failure of the project I highly suggested they forgo, you know, because of the failing. It was those who were devoted to the company, who wanted positive change that were punished. Eventually I was laid off because my project hadn't worked out (duh), and my first response? "What took you so long!?"

I mention all this because of what I'm reading in the news. I'm deeply offended and troubled by any employer who attempts to tell their employees how to run their personal lives, including voting. In any direction. It seems like such a great way to drive out those with vision, who have the creativity to positively change their business. It's just so soul crushing and antithetical to the American spirit. If you ordered me to do exactly what I wanted to do, I would investigate the opposite out of principle. It's really simple folks: You do the job; you get paid. I'm hoping as the economy improves, and it is improving, that those working for such companies seek freedom, asylum from their jack ass employers. Until then, watch those low hanging branches and avoid surveys.

"I do the job, I get paid. Now go run your little world."

Monday, October 8, 2012

Artifacts & Legends (Pathfinder)

Artifacts & Legends comes on the heels of Ultimate Equipment, an enormous catalog of items, magical and mundane, a treasure trove for both player's and game masters. I mention this because the in-store discussion I have of Artifacts & Legends is that it must be a book of high level magic items, and that the customer neither uses nor needs such a power gaming nightmare. However, Artifacts & Legends is much more than that, it's a valuable campaign source book, ideal for brain storming.

Sure, there are indeed artifacts, with statistics that could be handed out like candy to high level adventurers, but the book spends some time dissuading you from such an error, as well as the mistake of using them as simple McGuffins for adventures. What sets Artifacts & Legends aside from every other treatment of artifacts, pretty much ever, is that it offers guidance on how such an incredibly powerful magic item could be used within a campaign, or better yet, how a campaign could be build around one.

Each artifact contains a section on history and ramifications. History provides the context of how the artifact was used (and often abused). Ramification provides your kernel of an idea (or ideas) on how to leverage that history in your campaign to build around it. These items are so big, with such a historic footprint, my own advice would be to start a campaign from scratch surrounding an artifact.

As artifacts, these items are often beyond the magic system, with enormous powers, often unexplained. An entire city in a five mile radius may simply vanish. Imagine coming across it on the road. Imagine it's your town as your adventuring party is on its way back from the dungeon. Or, imagine as the party approaches their home village, they discover everyone missing, except the village drunk in the town square stockade who jabbers on about screaming people floating up into the sky ... except for one peculiar man in black... with a strange book. Sneaking into the arcane library in the big city, the party realizes they're mixed up in machinations surrounding The Codex of the Infinite Planes.

There are no game rules provided for many of the artifacts powers, and this stuff just happens as a side effect of messing with an artifact. The results are wide ranging. Organizations are set in motion to steal or recover the artifact. Bad guys, good guys and the party are in pursuit. Powers across the planes sit up and take notice, sending their avatars and agents to investigate. More than likely, a series of adventures is set in motion to research, discover, counter, recover and perhaps even destroy the dangerous artifact. Destruction of an artifact can be a campaign in itself as we know from a troublesome ring discovered by a halfling.

Because these artifacts are relatively system neutral, as their power level is beyond the rule system, Artifacts & Legends is a useful book for any fantasy role-playing game. There's no reason it couldn't be used for any version of D&D, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG or your favorite high fantasy system.The scaffolding is all there.

The book essentially has two types of items mixed within the categories of legendary and lesser artifact. Adventure path artifacts cover about a quarter of the items, and non-AP items comprise the rest. The adventure path artifacts are big on exposition and short on utility. It's fascinating to read about the Runelords and their Seven-like indulgences imbued into their corrupting artifacts, but that stuff isn't going to make it into my campaign. The AP items aren't separated, so often I'll be reading and realize the level of detail is far greater than the previous artifact, look at the index, realize it's an AP item, and just sit back for a good story. Since quite a few Pathfinder GMs I knew will only ever run an adventure path, this is going to be useful for them. For the rest of us, use them as an example of how a more generic implementation might eventually unfold in your campaign.

My only minor criticism of the book is internal inconsistency. Artifacts are all one-off items, so descriptions can range from as little as a page to up to four for the Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga. Sometimes I was left wanting more with the shorter entries, especially more of the ramifications section, as I still wasn't quite sure what to do with the thing. Other times I was left with the impression that I really need to go hunt down the original source material, such as any time I hear about the cool stuff going on in Rise of the Runelords. Overall though, I was mostly just glad my own campaign was already in motion, or Artifacts & Legends would have thrown me into idea overflow.

Artifacts & Legends, by F. Wesley Schneider, is $19.99 and in stock at Black Diamond Games, of course.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Thank You

Our Summer has been nothing short of astounding, finishing off with a Magic pre-release that saw over 200 people get a chance to play Return to Ravnica. Three out of four of our events were at maximum capacity.

Sales wise, it was our best quarter to date, and despite my recent post about what not to spend money on, as of today, the store is completely debt free, two years earlier than expected.* We had borrowed money to expand into our current location. This happened despite (and not instead of) various projects we've got going on, some obvious and some to be revealed later. You'll be able to see a couple of them if you come to our 8th anniversary party on November 4th.

It's a good time to have a game store. All around I see new stores popping up from new and existing game retailers, expansions of space, and projects in the works. There is rarely any money in the game trade, really almost never, so this is when you can see what these jack of all trade store owners could be doing if they were given the chance somewhere that actually had money. It's like the craziness you see with Kickstarter stretch goals. What, we had our best quarter ever? We'll throw in a pinball machine!

But I don't want to lose site of our customers and our excellent staff. When Sarah left last month I was reminded of the bond we all share, the friends we've made along the way. I'll even use the word community if you make me. I'm fairly resistant to that type of sentimentality, and I've got my game face on like a knights armor, impartial retailer with the heart of a Ferengi. But it's there, or I wouldn't do this. Anyway, if you can, please join us November 4th for some excellent tri tip,  gaming in the back and hanging out with friends.

* A result of Rule 5 of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Gaming: Sandbox Update

Warning: My players should skip this post.

I'm no game designer, but I've felt like one lately as I try to wrap my head around the dynamics of my sandbox Pathfinder game. I wrote about it in March and we've been playing over six months. Here's an update on how some of the sandbox game conceits have been working.

Preparation. I put in three months of design time into my world, including writing over 500 pages of setting material and mini adventures. So of course, I'm fully prepared and don't need to write anything else, correct? It's true I wouldn't have needed to do that, but I've found myself adding even more detail, more side quests, more adventures as the party progresses. Their wonder in exploring my world entices me to add more wonder.

The adding wonder as you move forward is how it's supposed to work; the heavy prep is what most sandbox designers discourage. This week I compiled my fourth book, mostly of adventures in a region the size of my palm on a map that takes up my dining room table. I did this mostly because I got tired of the various manila folders of material floating around the house. So my best answer is: If you're disciplined, don't over prepare. If you gain enjoyment from the process of creating new content, you are in for a treat.

Character Levels. I'm playing with an old school rule that nothing is free, especially levels and travel. When they travel, there are always the possibilities for random encounters unless they've thoroughly explored and cleared a region. As for levels, everyone starts at first. This worked well initially, until the spread got too large. In that case, I ran a couple side sessions to raise up the newbs. After that, it was possible to have game between a party of disparate levels.

That said, the play style is different, as in the low level guys occasionally hide behind the skirts of the more powerful characters as they progress (faster) to the higher levels. If as a player, you're not on board with this conceit, possibly being younger and having never played in that old-school style, or you're a power gamer, you might describe this as "not fun." I can report to you that it's possible, but the "not fun" element had me give in on this issue recently and accelerate the new player experience progression. "Not fun" is not an acceptable state for a game.

 Area explored after six months, 8 hours/month (not pretty, but effective)

No Encounter Levels. This has not proven to be a problem, as the group regularly discusses whether a threat is within their ability to defeat or not. There are several places they've avoided going because they don't feel capable yet, including the sea. They acquired a ship on their first day out, something I wasn't expecting, and quickly learned if they had a capable crew, that crew would be just as capable of taking the ship from them and tossing them over the side.

Also, random encounters and other encounters not of their choosing feel much deadlier. There are often cries of "we're not worthy" when they're getting pummeled by a powerful monster they've accidentally come across. So far, no casualties. Another conceit is I roll all dice in front of them, so give them the credit for that.

Finally, they've been able to over prepare for bigger threats. They acquired that previously mentioned ship by convincing the town guard that a few men would go a long way to taking out the smugglers plaguing the town. They took out a tribe of satyrs with the help of a squad of elven archers, acquired by convincing the elf king of their shared enemy. They also brought along a clockwork golem they liberated from a shipwreck. There are ways to bring it to the bad guys beyond the typical 4-5 character party of identical level. In some ways, if they know in advance, the party is determining the threat level (but this is rare).

Encounter Structure. Regardless of the power level, one thing I learned is encounters need to have a traditional structure. There needs to be leaders, spell casters, some mid-level mooks, and then the low level fodder. Otherwise, the encounter epically sucks. Every encounter should be broken out like this. We did a satyr encounter where their spellcaster leader was away on business with the big bad guy, a fine plot point, but a couple dozen mid-level mooks, that all do the same thing, didn't stand a chance once the encounter was dialed in by the party. Without support from a leader, they could run or die, but being Pathfinder, this happened in slow motion over a couple hours. This was a really boring encounter derived from weeks of build up. Don't do that.

Regional Power. One thing that has worked well, something I'm told that's used in video game design, is the conceit that the more powerful stuff is farther away. There's a rational reason for this. Civilization wouldn't have survived or tolerated nasty monsters close by. That said, as the party gains levels, there are other lower level regions they've skipped that will need to be buffed to make them interesting (breaking my design rules), left alone to make it a cake walk (boring), or saved for later with another party. In other words, because I over-prepared, I have too much content. There is plenty of higher powered stuff for them to do, but not being a campaign, there is far more low to mid level stuff waiting out there. There may be entire regions they just "acquire" without a fight, if they eventually take the place over. That's not a bad story element, but it sucks if you spent weeks designing that acquired space. As other sandbox GMs have suggested, feel free to recycle.

Overarching Story: Rather than a completely traditional sandbox, I have a slow moving plot and a narrative for the good guys that's happening in the background. There are half a dozen NPC groups in play, including the town the PCs live in, a kind of NPC patron they're trying to improve and develop. This tends to give them a larger motivation to uncover what's happening, but being a sandbox, the players have their own motivations.

One is trying to build an extra-dimensional, plane traveling pyramid while another has a griffon he wants to train. These various back stories never see the light of day in traditional campaigns, but being a sandbox, this is encouraged. The key for me is to work lightly with my overarching stories so they don't impede these character indulgences.  I've got a "consider yes" philosophy on  character story elements, provided they don't greatly effect in-play activity. Want to create a Tardis like time-travel machine? Why not, as long as the Tardis is an NPC that's taking you to new adventures and and not a weapon to fight monsters.

Gear and Wealth: With no encounter levels, I've been able to ignore a lot of the rules on wealth. After a quick character audit, I found some of the characters had as much as four times the wealth in magic items than what they should have had at their level. I've been able to introduce artifacts, albeit ones that don't help in combat, and I've been able to allow them to quest for powerful items that wouldn't normally be available to them. They've also taken on and beaten some very powerful NPCs, in near suicide fashion. That tends to bump their wealth as well. Again, because there is no power level, this should be fine.

Finally. We're having a great time. I'm especially enjoying myself as ideas flow readily in a world I created, with interconnections firmly established. I am writing traditional, quicky adventures for them, my goal being things they can accomplish in 1-2 sessions. In power, they seem to be a level or so higher than normal, although some players are a couple levels lower, which skews things a bit.

The giant satyr battle

Liberating and restoring light houses for a brighter tomorrow.