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