Friday, October 21, 2011

Adventure is Key

I'll be selling someone on Pathfinder, something I love to do because it's fun and easy, and I'll begin talking about adventure paths and the customer will cut me short. "Yeah, yeah, I write my own adventures." And that right there describes the problem with Dungeons & Dragons over the past decade and truly why Pathfinder excels.

Wizards of the Coast has never really put a lot of effort into adventures. They've been outsourced, written by the rookie, and generally delegated to low priority. With D20, it was far easier to let other companies write adventures, which are clearly the worst selling category of RPG product. You've got one guy in five who might buy it, and quite a few like the guy in my example, who never intend to. Partly this comes from the creative desire to make your own world, to get some skin in the game, but mostly it's because adventures suck.

So they suck, they sell poorly, and they're a necessary evil. However, what I've learned from Pathfinder is they're critical. Well written adventures, especially adventure paths are the glue that holds the hobby together. They keep me running or playing in games for years, long after we would have grown tired of that crummy  throw away adventure dumped on the wife of the core designer. They let me power through scheduling conflicts. They make people learn how to use Skype to get that one more player so they don't flame out during book four of their adventure path. They are a strong motivator to game on.

While I'm playing in these adventure paths, I'm buying accessories, additional rule books as they come out (there aren't that many, why not?), and generally telling everyone I know what a blast I'm having playing this game. It's better marketing than any poster or thing I hang from my game store ceiling that sets the burglar alarm off. They still don't sell that great from a store perspective, probably in the lowly 2 turns a year category for APs, versus a 1 for stand alone adventures, but they sell the hell out of everything else.

I'll also argue that that original guy who writes his own adventures is often writing them because of the suck involved, and not because of his desire to let his freak flag fly. There were once great adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, but you have to be a grognard to remember them. I'm reminded of this regularly when Wizards of the Coast sends out the coolest promotional adventures to reward their D&D Encounters DMs, like the one that arrived yesterday.

What ... the ... hell. My favorite adventure of all time is relegated to a secret handout to two guys. It's an adventure in which people will pay a small fortune for convention variant copies on Ebay. At the same time, I'm being given a steady stream of throw away adventures that nobody will buy. Should this not be reversed?  Is there some deep, dark, clever corporate plan that I'm missing? Kind of like the new Games Workshop marketing strategy of not telling anyone what they're doing? Please, explain.

Better yet, if you're going to have a D&D 4.5, or 5, or retro revival, please consider the lowly adventure. Please put someone brilliant to head that team and don't let the marketplace sort it out. Otherwise you'll be relying on these weekly "encounter" sessions to keep the game alive rather than, you know, actually selling stuff.

Phew, nerd rage in the off mode now.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


It's that time of year again when I order jigsaw puzzles for the store. Puzzles represent a category that I have yet to master, the seasonal item. Seasonal items are strange to me. I'm a gamer at heart and there's nothing that interests me in December that doesn't interest me January through November. Really, nothing at all, except maybe Italian candy. People that buy seasonal things tend to be the other, the muggle. We love muggles, the uninitiated, but their likes are not our likes.

There's also a danger to seasonal things. The big danger is you don't sell them during the specified season. Then what? Most stores sell their plastic Santas and Halloween candy the following month at a deep discount to eager customers. We lack that follow-up muggle traffic, so there will be nobody looking for our seasonal items for another eleven months. We've got Christmas jigsaw puzzles from last year that we're hoping to sell this year. What a waste of capital. We blew out our Christmas wrapping paper from last year sometime around March.

When it comes to jigsaw puzzles, I ran some numbers to see exactly how seasonal they were and found that I was ordering too late in the season.

What I discovered on this virtual back of a napkin was we actually sold double our normal puzzle numbers in November. With this data, numbers I'll often crunch when the mood hits me, I decided to order my puzzles in October instead of November. Our order this year will increase our selection by 125%. We basically ordered every new 2011 puzzle from Ravensburger and every top seller from Springbok. More from Pomegranate will come a little later. We've given up on Educa, by the way. They're far less popular and very expensive. People ask why. I don't know. It's a Spanish thing (they're from Spain, like our expensive Vallejo paints).

Building puzzle clientele is a kind of trial and error experience, mostly because we have a trial and error selection of puzzles. There are casual puzzle collectors, who come in mostly during the holidays and buy whatever looks nice, but the hard core puzzle collectors are a hard nut to crack. They have needs. They call with a bit of artwork in mind looking for a puzzle that may or may not have been created in this millennium. They're really no different than the rest of our gamers. Imagine if we sold Space Marines, but only the best selling SKU's and only the ones in plastic boxes, and only in December, and had no way to special order one we don't stock. That's basically how we do puzzles, which is weak sauce from a retail perspective.

Really what it takes to sell puzzles, I've discovered, is lots of money and lots of space to display what you've bought. It probably requires regularly ordering them, as opposed to what we do, which is order them two or maybe three times a year, only with some sort of promotion to defer costs. For example, by including a couple holiday puzzles from Ravensburger, payment for our large order isn't due until January. Dating (paying the bill farther into the future) is important for something that probably is going to be primarily a seasonal thing.

Of course, the biggest problem with puzzles is it's kind of an aging market. Yes, that sounds harsh, but very few young people come in asking for puzzles for themselves. If you put games on a bell curve by age of customer, you would get something like this:

In fact, you could write an entire doctoral thesis on hobby games and age with the problems in this chart. Not only are classic games becoming a bit obsolete with the aging population, but so are the hobby games. I would put Magic at an average customer age of about 21, 40K a bit older than that, but RPGs and board games tend to skew older. 

This is also why you see us trying so hard to accommodate Yu-Gi-Oh, which represents a swath of the hobby game market that almost entirely owns the under 18 demographic. Compare that to the actual population break down and you can see it's a market under-served by the game trade:

One positive out of all these fancy charts is the coming geritocracy. If gamers can accept their hobby as a "life game," a term my father once described for such activities as bowling and golf, then they could potentially change what retirement looks like in the future. Shuffleboard and putting greens in retirement communities may one day be terrain tables and card tournaments.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Warhammer Fantasy Army Popularity

Here's the chart for Warhammer Fantasy Battles. It lacks the driving force of an iconic army that attracts new players to the game. Yeah, some armies are better than others, but when you think of this game, what army comes to mind?

Warhammer Fantasy Battles is our number seven most popular game. It outsells Dungeons & Dragons. It outsells Warmachine two to one. Yet, ask a regular in the store who exactly plays this game and they'll likely shrug their shoulders. It's a struggle to get organized play around this game, but it does happen. It's primarily for more "mature" gamers. They buy their stuff. They go home. They play. Old school. Amen. Anyway, that's how it works at our store.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

40K Army Popularity

I haven't done one of these in years, but you might find the army breakdown of interest, especially if you want to gauge the likelihood of coming up against an opponent locally. These are based on sales numbers, so there are clearly issues of both popularity and cost of army to take into account. If it makes a difference, I've been told our numbers tend to be reflective of overall GW numbers.

 This time I've broken down "space marines" into various chapters. Space Marine (general) are all space marine things that are not chapter specific, so it includes generic space marines and all the supporting sales for the various chapters. If you bought a Rhino for your Space Wolves, it's covered under general.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Shifting the Risk

The trend lately has been to shift the risk of carrying inventory to the retailer. The manufacturer makes a set quantity, the distributor offers a short window to retailers for ordering this product, and once the product arrives, it's all there will ever be. Sometimes it's just one product, like with Games Workshop's Dreadfleet, which is fine, but other companies have changed their entire business model towards forcing the retailer to shoulder the risk.

We see this from WizKids with Heroclix, Konami with Yugioh, and increasingly from Wizards of the Coast with Magic: The Gathering. These companies also tend to limit supply, even with pre-orders, ensuring there is no product available for a second order if the retailer runs out, forcing them to buy everything up front, and often leaving them in the cold when they inevitably run out.

This means that stores like mine have to buy thousands of dollars of new, unknown product, blindly. We can do some research, but nobody knows what products will run hot or cold until they're actually released. We put all our money up front, removing the risk for both the distributor and the manufacturer, and bet the farm repeatedly that the latest release will be a hit. It's a rather cynical way to sell a product, actually. Games we love become mere widgets that need moving before the shine begins to fade. There's no need to learn about the product, especially when it's offered in limited quantities. Stores end up treating customers with less respect as well. Buy it now, at whatever price we deem it to be, or suck eggs.

Inevitably it is the larger stores that do well in this model, as smaller stores can't afford to stockpile the thousands of dollars of necessary product. Our purchasing budget is about $8,000 over budget this month as all these companies have hit a perfect release storm. This is an amount of money that most stores can't just absorb when the bill comes due. This means that small stores lose to the Internet or larger competitors, which is not good for the game trade. Small stores bring a lot of energy to the game trade that larger stores often can't.

There is also no incentive to provide any organized play or events for items that will wash over the store and sell out in a short time.Why should I even learn about the contents of a box when the manufacturer has already declared it a one-shot widget? Those games, which are really the top selling games in our trade, are debased with these policies, devalued by retailers who see it as a one-shot cash cow, and inevitably they suffer because of this. Sure, there's excitement generated by the fan base, but all the benefits of this are at the top. Retailers report customers in their game centers playing with product bought at Wal-Mart or Target because their store couldn't provide it to them.

These widget releases also make us take our eye off the ball. The true, regular, rent paying sellers in the game trade are the sedate and steady role-playing, miniature games, and board games that rarely get such attention. When my CCG sales are up 300%, or I'm $8,000 over budget, do you really think I'm working meticulously to plan the next 40K or RPG event? Hell no, I'm high as a kite. I've got to burn off some energy and it won't come from Space Marines Tactical Squads. And when those CCG sales plummet and are down 30% when the next set sucks, what skills and practices will I have in place to keep the store alive? How has the staff atrophied from spending their time selling widgets and pricing singles?

As a retailer, I find this shifting of the burden financially destabilizing, demoralizing for staff and myself, and organizationally destructive as our sales and event skills for our core games atrophy. There is a reason veteran gamers hate these games. They can see these games are generally destructive to the entire gaming ecosystem.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


 Mayor Bates: Daryl, he wouldn't hurt a fly. I know my son, Colonel. He's not the guerrilla type.
Colonel Ernesto Bella: According to records, Mayor... your son is a prominent student leader.
Mayor Bates: Yes, well... he's a leader, but not in a violent or physical way. You see, Daryl... he's more of a politician, like his father.
Colonel Ernesto Bella: A member of an elite paramilitary organization: "Eagle Scouts." 

--Red Dawn, 1984

Over the weekend two questions came together with the same answer. The first, what characteristics make a good employee? The second, what values do I want my six year old to develop? The core work value I want to see in my business, and the one I think is key to the insane "new" world we live in, is adaptability.

The nature of work has changed, and those who expect a comfortable, static, job are likely to be disappointed or at the very least, on a dreary track of boredom, slow advancement and perpetual unemployment.Work nowadays is often what you make it, sometimes multiple jobs, sometimes jobs that are "beneath" you, and increasingly self employment. Small business is half of all non-government jobs in this country and I think that trend will only increase, and with small businesses getting smaller. Those who can tap into that, either with their own business, or bringing a creative skill set to another small business, will do very well. What is that skill set? Who knows? Who cares, really. The key is that you'll need to define new skill sets continuously and show some adaptability in doing so. I want employees to have this and I really want my son to have this. But how do you get it?

My experience over the last seven years with employees shows that those who have been Eagle Scouts tend to have the values I'm looking for. Not college degrees. Not a military background. If you're an Eagle Scout, that should always be on your resume, forever. It says something important about your character. The Eagle Scouts are the ones that have shown me the most adaptability, the skill in taking half a dozen disparate elements (my business, for example), and putting them together in some fashion that makes sense to them, on their own, without a lot of direction. They can clean bathrooms, design sales promotions, and come up with systems, all without complaining about the task or the nature of the work, and all while keeping their heads and adding value to the process. That is adaptability and it comes from years of similar scouting projects.

The down side for me is I really don't care for the Boy Scouts of America. It doesn't matter so much with employees, but with my son I don't care for the BSA's homophobia and I also don't care for their "people of the book" religious requirements. They expect every home to abide by a belief in God, which not only disqualifies atheists, but also Buddhists, Hindus and any number of religious groups. Sure, you can look the other way on these things, and the Bay Area groups tend to be almost completely free of these antiquated mindsets, but if you're someone of principle, who thinks they shouldn't have to hide their true nature or their true beliefs, it's hard to just ignore it. That's the dilemma that faces a non theist who wants their child to have the scouting experience. I think it's an amazing organization otherwise.

There's also no female equivalent of the scouts, at least one that's focused on the same values I'm looking for. Most fathers of girls I talk to agree with me on this. Yeah, Girl Scouts is good, but it's not the same. So I'll leave how to instill hard core adaptability in girls to someone else to ponder. Also, my female employees are no better or worse than most of the guys in their adaptability, so don't tell me it's a natural thing for them.

So adaptability and humility gained through hard work and a sense that there are just tasks to be done, not tasks that are above or beneath your abilities. If you've got a better way of getting that across, other than, you know, twenty years of excellent parenting, please let me know.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Other and the Illusion of Choice

Small publishers ask me how they factor into our sales numbers. The truth is no individual small publisher ranks when these pretty charts are put together. Another truth, which on the surface seems contrary to the first, is that as a whole, small publishers of all kinds of games are vitally important to us. The chart above lists our top 12 individual publishers with the highest gross profit. The Other category, for the remaining publishers, is still nearly a third of all our RPG sales. Other is worth quite a bit of money. Other is more than our Dungeons & Dragons sales and ranks number two overall. 

Other is a lot of work, and definitely falls into the category of "ass pain." However, as has been pointed out before, this is the kind of ass pain that we signed up for. It's the service we provide to a number of our customers who call weekly looking to hunt down something they found online. Usually we get it for them. Usually it's Other. Also, nobody can compete in the brick & mortar space with our Other. They would be foolish to try.

Most Other books sell slowly. Most are one-shots, special orders or are unobtainable after initial release. Quite a few honestly never quite sell at all, ending up on our clearance shelves for long stretches of time. Still, they're important to the RPG ecosystem.Our RPG turns overall are at five. This means, every single book in the RPG section sells an average of five times a year. That's extraordinarily good, as healthy is around three. Sure, books like the Pathfinder Core Rulebook sell 90 copies a year and skew the numbers, but by managing the ecosystem, a retail store can accept some one-turn items, and quite a few one-shot risks. A lot of times there's just the illusion of choice which drives sales. What, illusion of choice?

For example of the illusion of choice, I carefully tracked dice sales for a year, pruning the ones that sold poorly. This is good inventory management, right? You keep the wheat and ditch the chaff. So what happened? All dice sales slowed significantly. How can this be? The same good selling dice were still there. Why would sales go down? It's the illusion of choice. You think you're being original when you pick the one in one hundred dice set, even if the reality is that people really only ever choose twenty five of those sets. The same is true with other departments. The illusion of a thriving role-playing section establishes in a customers mind that you have a respectable selection. You are showing them respect by offering choice. Then they walk over and buy the Pathfinder Core Rulebook.