The 2012 GAMA Trade Show: What Went On and Who Did It

Sparse "crowd" at the 2012 GAMA Trade Show Exhibitor's Hall with maybe 12 people milling around

The 2012 GTS Exhibitors’ Hall Was Easy to Navigate

Two months after the 2012 GAMA Trade Show, I am just now posting my final article about it. There was a lot of information, both formal and informal, to take in at the trade show. Ultimately it was an incredibly positive experience for Craven Games, generating 24 direct articles and interviews, including this one, and helping to spark some future interviews and product reviews. I think that 95% of the attendees also shared my enthusiasm for the GTS and got as much out of it as I did.

Part of understanding the GAMA Trade Show is recognizing the last two words in its name: it’s a trade show. The public is not admitted. Instead the atmosphere is professional without being corporate, for the most part. Most members of the game industry – whether retailers or manufacturers – seem to be gamers themselves and just as liable as the next fan to be excited about Fantasy Flight Games’ new Tie Fighter space combat game, for example. With one or two exceptions, everyone was friendly and welcoming. The other half of the GAMA Trade Show is recognizing that GAMA is the Game Manufacturers Association, a non-profit trade organization for manufacturers. GAMA exists to “advance the hobby games industry” and while it has a retail division, it is not an association of game stores. From attending the GTS, I can say that the members of GAMA want to see the gaming industry succeed and will help each other and newcomers to do so.

Sparse crowd is typical at the GAMA Trade Show

Easygoing Relaxed Atmosphere at the GTS

In preparation for attending, I carefully read over Living Dice’s coverage of the 2010 GAMA Trade Show. In general, I found my experience to be very similar. As seen in these two pictures of the Exhibitor’s Hall, there aren’t throngs of people to push through. Add a couple of people into each shot and you would have the GAMA Trade Show Exhibitor’s Hall at its busiest. The hall was only open on Wednesday and Thursday. I spent the rest of the time at the show at seminars, meals, or Wednesday’s Game Night.

GTS Seminars

Almost all of the seminars were quite helpful. From the manufacturing seminars, to Dave Wallace on competitive edges for retailers, to the intellectual property seminar, there was a lot of advice and other information to digest. Some of the seminars got quite crowded and some ran over time. For attendees who miss a seminar or two, there was a table with hand-outs on it, including many in-depth ones from seminars that David Wallace ran. I attended a few seminars without writing separate articles about them. Jim Crocker chaired one such seminar called “You Get What You Pay For”. Essentially it was about accounting and tax implications for retailers who use barter transactions as well as the legal implications. There were enough questions raised that I have considered the viability of a tax guide for gaming stores PDF as a possible Craven Games download. There was actually a separate seminar on taxes, “Death and Taxes” provided by Chip Bowles of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP, which I did not attend.

One thing that I noted about the seminars that I haven’t brought up elsewhere is that unfortunately it is hard to know just who is giving the advice. Many of the seminars are presented as speaker-audience, but just as many have members of the crowd making their own contributions. I think it is vitally important to know whether a retailing tip is coming from someone who has only had a store for a year or two or whether it is coming from a 15 year veteran. This is still the case across the aisle in manufacturing seminars, where it is important to differentiate between someone who has Kickstarted a PDF of a $5 RPG supplement to someone who has sold 20,000 units of a game. Unfortunately if you do not know the faces of the attendees or don’t check their badges after a seminar, you may try to follow some bad advice.

GAMA Trade Show Meals

While I enjoyed almost all the other parts of the GAMA Trade Show, I do have to say that the meals were remarkably lackluster. The meal ticket cost $65 for 3 lunches and 2 dinners. The meals seriously consisted of hamburgers and hot dogs for at least one meal. All I can remember about the food is how disappointed I was. Fortunately I am not a vegetarian nor a vegan. They had the meal “choice” of salad and by salad, I mean lettuce, if I recall correctly. I stopped going to the lunches after the first one and went to one of my favorite places to eat on the Strip, a short walk away at the Paris, to its expensive creperie. As a Las Vegas resident, I am also embarrassed by the ridiculous prices being charged to the trade show, such as $72 for a gallon of coffee. Yikes. That definitely explains how back in 2002, banquet waiters were making six figure salaries here. I still am incredulous that over $50,000 of the GTS meals were subsidized by GAMA. However, if coffee is $72 a gallon, how much are hot dogs? Maybe each hot dog cost $5. Even then, that wouldn’t begin to explain the $50,000 figure brought up in Friday’s analysis of the GTS.

GTS Meal Talks

The other reason I decided to skip out on further lunches at the GAMA Trade Show was the talks. Each of the meals is sponsored by a number of manufacturers. On Tuesday of the show, several sponsors came up and made presentations. Andre from Games Workshop came up to address concerns about Citadel Finecast melting in cars. A Warhammer Fantasy Battles Empire Captain was passed out to those with BUYER ribbons. Loren from Catalyst Games got up to promote Leviathans, their steampunk 1:1200 scale combat game and Aldo Ghiozzi promoted this year’s Free RPG Day.

The GAMA Trade Show Dinner on Tuesday night was more of a non-event than a highlight of the show. This could be because I arrived right before it began, found a seat in the back of the room, and along with my tablemates had trouble hearing the speakers. Instead we started talking business which spawned my interview with David Stennett. The keynote speaker was Scott Knoblich, Vice President of Sales for Wizards of the Coast. The blurb about him in the GTS guide was almost longer than his “speech”. Several other manufacturers came up to talk about their products, but I missed most of it. I also missed out on further “freebies”, like Wizkids’ Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Heroclix, again due to lack of a BUYER ribbon. From all that I attended and many conversations with other attendees, Thursday’s Online Retail Event was the actual climactic can’t-miss event of the 2012 GAMA Trade Show.

The GAMA Trade Show Game Night

While the Online Retail Debate was pretty poignant, inspiring stuff, the Game Night was a lot of fun. Manufacturers sign up for tables (and pay for them too, I believe) to run their games. It can be slightly daunting and I strolled around to take in what the offerings were; someone at the wrap-up on Friday suggested having a map of manufacturers and tables, which would be wonderful.

P.O.W.E.R. Attack

While playing and getting the hang of P.O.W.E.R. the Game, a Canadian distributor came up and asked about the game. Its creator PK Torretto gave a little spiel as I waited for him to take his turn. “It looks boring,” she told him. Now admittedly the game’s box and the card’s backing give no hint of anything about the game, much less its modern military nature. Then the distributor surprised me, putting me on the spot and asking what I thought of the game and whether it was boring or not. I told her I thought that she was very blunt. She was as taken aback as I was seconds before. Having long since finished the game those two months ago, I would now tell her that I found the game to be very entertaining and that I have thought about P.O.W.E.R.’s mechanics and playing it again quite a bit, much like my recent experience with Munchkin.

Sirius Games: Monkeyland and
Jabba-Dabba-Dû!

Brown monkey playing pieces and fruit cards for Monkeyland board game by Reiner KniziaFrom there, I moved on to trying out several of Sirius Games’ offerings. Sirius Games is a subdivision of Zvezda. First I tried Monkeyland which is basically a fruit-based Memory game with shifting playing cards. Every time a piece is flipped over, it moves across the circle of fruits. I had a hard time with it, but would play it again against a child with a short attention span. It was soon abandoned in favor of
Jabba-Dabba-Dû!
.

Jabba Dabba Du. There is just something special about this weird caveman hunting board game which, like Monkeyland, is also designed by Reiner Knizia. The caveman playing pieces are nothing special and the artwork should possibly appeal to a 4 year old, but I love its secret bidding mechanic. With two players the game is not exciting, but with three or more it starts to take off. I ended up playing two different games of it with Arel and Roel Cordero, the inventors of Yards the Game of Inches, as well as Tommy Raedin who had come out from Russia with Konstantin Krivenko.

Line art cavemen cavort around a fresh kill in Reiner Knizia's bidding mechanic board gameBasically the game has 5 or so hunting locations. Each turn, you select two cards, playing them face down until they are revealed to the group. The cards are the 5 hunting locations with the 6th card being another caveman hunter, allowing you to double up at that location. The cards are revealed and you transfer your cavemen figures to the marker. Each turn there is a winner at the hunting ground based on the highest number of cavemen there. The winner gets the highest number of victory points, which varies from hunting location to hunting location. Think Baltic Avenue and Mediterranean from Monopoly versus Park Place and Boardwalk. I had a hard time grasping the odd squirrel mechanic that pops up in the game, but essentially you can be rewarded for past victories at the hunting grounds.

Jabba-Dabba-Dû!has a few basic strategies and recognizing them was part of the fun for me that Game Night. Outside the game mechanics, there is the social aspect of predicting your opponents’ likely course of action. In learning your opponent(s) and also bluffing, the game is slightly reminiscent of poker. I doubt I would ever buy the game myself, but I would gladly play it again and again if someone else had a copy. Of course, if I were to have children, that might be a good cover-up for having the childish game.

The Lords of Waterdeep or Lack Thereof and Other Games

Not everyone had as good a time at Game Night as I did. Wizards of the Coast left Modern Myths owner Jim Crocker and others hanging. WotC had advertised that they would be bringing copies of Lords of Waterdeep to Game Night, but in Crocker’s words they “not only didn’t have the game, but their tables in the hall were completely empty. They didn’t even have the foresight to ask a few interested WPN stores to run demos on their behalf. When they tell us at their presentation how interested they are in our feedback and how important organized play is, but then blow it off themselves when it really matters, that’s a very mixed message.”

Glowing blue crystals illuminate a mining cave complex for Dark Age Games

The Dark Age Games Demo Board

I myself didn’t notice Wizards’ absence, probably because I was so busy enjoying other games. I also managed to get a game of Dark Age in and experienced something that was lacking at the other tables. The Game Night had two bars set up inside the room. You could pay for your drinks, but manufacturers also had tickets to give out to get free drinks. Maybe the other vendors were being selfish, but B.J. Kourik shared a couple of tickets with me for playing what is already my favorite miniatures game. He has since left Dark Age, but I had fun that night playing Forsaken against one of the Cordero brothers on the scenic demo table that Cool Mini or Not had brought for Dark Age. My newbie opponent was playing with the Outcasts. Of course, I brutally smashed the poor Cordero. When it comes to demos, I don’t believe in holding back, but as in all things Dark Age, he also took out a few of my models. It is not uncommon in Dark Age for the victor to have only a few models remaining. I finished the night off by watching PK Torretto play a game of Yards: The Game of Inches on one of the four empty tables, possibly empty because of Wizards not showing up.

Kicking gress donkey on the social game cover for Donkey It's a KickAnother highlight of Game Night that most attendees will probably recollect and smile about is when a player stood up and shouted “I AM A PRETTY PONY!” He was playing the game Donkey: It’s a Kick from the Cleveland Kids. The Cleveland Kids is a family business headed by Cleve Cleveland who has been playing Donkey for 50 years now. His mother came up with the game which involves cards and pucks. It’s designed for ages 8 and up for 3-8 players, though they’ve had 14 players. Basically there is a “puck ruckus”, a mad scramble for the puck. The “loser” each round of the game is the Donkey, but as Cleve explained “even though you’re out, you’re still in.” The Donkey can try to tempt other players into talking to him or her and otherwise interfere with the game. If another player talks to the Donkey, he or she becomes the Donkey. The reason that the attendee yelled “I AM A PRETTY PONY” was because of one of the Kicker cards. The Cleveland Kids will be releasing a second set of kicker cards, but for now the game has 54 different kickers and will have a suggested retail price of $24.99 with a wholesale cost of $14.95.

Paizo’s Black Eye

Jim Crocker’s disappointment in Wizards of the Coast’s no-show for The Lords of Waterdeep was also expressed towards Paizo. “Paizo’s message was essentially the same [as WotC]: demos and teaching people our games is incredibly important, except when those people are retailers who could benefit from being taught how to run a demo.” Crocker went on to say:

If anyone at the show was unsure of why RPGs are being increasingly marginalized in hobby retail, they needed look no further than that demo room, where not a SINGLE RPG company was represented with even a quick-play demo of any of their games, despite the presence of numerous dedicated RPG vendors in attendance or being repped in the hall.

While there are many other RPG companies that could also have remedied the lack of demos of their upcoming games, I was struck by Paizo’s name coming up again in another negative context. In the Online Retail Debate, David Wallace pointed out that he doesn’t “like it when a manufacturer starts trying to cut into my customers and cut me out of the loop,” citing Paizo as a company that does so.

Those are two well-respected retailers. I am neither a retailer nor well-respected. Perhaps someday I might be both, but I have my own Paizo GTS story to share. I crammed into one of the meeting rooms to attend Paizo’s Premier Seminar. I listened. I took notes. I hefted the very hefty Bestiary Box. Paizo announced that players would soon be able to play Rise of the Runelords as Pathfinder and not Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. They talked up Liane Merciel’s new Pathfinder novel. They promoted the Pathfinder Comics from Dynamite. The Pathfinder MMO should have a “very quick” turnaround of 12-15 months before launch. Find out more at goblinworks.com. There will be a Goblin Plush from Diamond Select Plus in either 8″ or 2-3″ size for keychains. It might be a special Gen Con edition. Pathfinder Society is being played in 13 different countries. Attending this Paizo seminar, in fact, contributed directly to me trying Pathfinder at a Vegas Game Day. The owner or manager of Galactic Quest, a 24,000 square foot gaming store in Lawrenceville, Georgia saw his Pathfinder Society grow from 4 players to 32 players in 14-15 months. “Without stores, you don’t have Pathfinder Society” either Mike Brock or Pierce Watters said. I don’t know who to attribute that comment to though, because despite giving out their email addresses at the seminar, and my emailing them, I have never heard back from either person. A picture of the Bestiary Box would look good right here, but not even Paizo’s Customer Service got back to me about arranging for some Paizo images. So I must agree with Jim Crocker that Paizo talks the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

The 2012 GAMA Trade Show Theme: Staying the Course

One of the oddest things about the GTS was its theme or motto of “Staying the Course”. GAMA’s Executive Director John Ward wrote in the GTS booklet “This year’s theme is “Staying the Course,” reflecting the bold determination of the talented people in our industry regardless of business and economic challenges.” Now to me, “staying the course” is missing something, and while it doesn’t reflect any failure or negativity, it could almost be “We’ve Hit a Plateau” or “Plodding Along”. I can understand that if the gaming industry isn’t thriving or going gang busters, GAMA might want to avoid an extremely positive message and the backlash that would cause from its frustrated members. However the irony is that with one exception, every single indication at the GAMA Trade Show pointed to a thriving gaming industry. Wizards of the Coast were trumpeting the Dark Ascension set for Magic: TG. In Helene Bergiot’s words, “Magic has never been a stronger brand.” Wizkids was pumped up about Heroclix, the Hunger Games, and Pathfinder Battles (and so were retailers)! At the Online Retail Debate, Dave Wallace said “My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it.” Speaking about the entire gaming industry, he also said, “Our industry is not hurting. We’re not in trouble.” I only spoke to one retailer that felt that he was in hard times. In fact, everything at the GAMA Trade Show was up; 100 percent of exhibit hall space was purchased and the seminar meeting rooms were separate from the Exhibitor’s Hall because of the success of the GTS, it having outgrown a smaller, more compact location. One manufacturer said he had “four times more orders this show than last year.” There were 52 people in the 3-hour New Retailer Orientation and 50 in the New Manufacturers’ Orientation which also was 3 hours long. Six of the seminars also ran over the capacity with attendees standing in the back to hear the information presented. The number of attendees was also up, according to GAMA Executive Director John Ward. He cited a figure of 883 attendees at the 2011 show and said that 2012 show had grown by 10 percent.

The Dirty Word of the GAMA Trade Show

On the other hand, despite the success currently being enjoyed in the gaming industry and despite the overall welcoming nature of most members, there were odd moments of invective and scorn at the GTS. The object of GTS retailers’ derision are hobbyists. No, not hobby gamers or hobby modelers, but hobbyist retailers, shop owners who don’t run their stores as professional businesses. When Paul Burdick popped up in my interview with Luke Warren from Northstar Games and said “Some retailers hate me ’cause I’m only open for Christmas.”, I thought he was exaggerating or joking. By the end of the GTS, I knew he was being dead serious. Serious retailers can’t stand other retailers who run their stores as a hobby. Part of the resentment can be understood by reading the Online Retail Debate. Store owners who take pride in their professionalism and who who pay electricity, plumbing, wages, shipping, and other overhead costs can’t stand a 12 year old running a business from a home. While I can appreciate the sentiment, when retailers complained of “hobby” retailers or “hobbyists” they really sounded as though they were describing Al-Qaeda or Nazis.

The Other Hidden Side of the GTS

You have to use a bit of inference and deduction to recognize the hidden aspects of the GAMA Trade Show. There were something like 900+ registered attendees, but each seminar room only holds 60 or so people and there were maybe six of those rooms. A lot of the “action” at the GTS is happening outside the seminars. It could be a manufacturer and a retailer discussing business over coffee downstairs at the Bally’s deli, Nosh. This could be happening up in a hotel suite, or it could be happening at the craps table or over at a strip club. Unfortunately, I don’t have a secret insider whispering in my ear on this. I know from speaking to an employee at one prominent game company that his boss was present in Las Vegas the night of the mixer and the next day, but I only ever saw him at the Exhibitor’s Hall. This must be quite typical at the show.

As someone from GAMA pointed out at the wrap-up session on Friday morning, manufacturers don’t want to have multiple Game Nights, because they want to use that time for networking. There must be a ton of networking going on outside the established convention spaces. Of course, seminars aren’t great avenues to meet and get to know one’s peers; many of my interviews or articles happened because of the communication out in the hallways right after a seminar.

Who Comes to the GAMA Trade Show?

For the most part the GAMA Trade Show is actually attended by its intended audience: professionals in the game industry. There were several “buddies” of store owners I ran into, not that they advertised themselves as such. They had been pressed into service to help their friend out at the show or came along possibly to enjoy Las Vegas. Attendees came from across the country with a strong contingent of Canadian store owners present. Europeans like Konstantin Krivenko with Zvezda or Dave Stennet from Playford Games made the journey. Retailers and manufacturers were mostly male, but there were a number of women involved in various aspects of the trade show from Wizards of the Coast’s Helene Bergiot, to the GTS PR Director Erica Gifford, to the co-owners of the Comic Shop in San Leandro, California. I was struck more by the gray hair at the GTS; many of these attendees have been at this for over two decades since RPGs were in their infancy. There are some younger faces, but I would estimate that the mean age was 40 if not older. GAMA seems to be split between retailers and manufacturers with seminars devoted to each side of the industry, but then there is a third group comprising the distributors and other assorted individuals and companies that service the gaming industry. Fellow gaming websites and services like GameHead and Pulp Gamer were present. Mike Webb from North America’s biggest game distributor Alliance attended as did the owner of America’s largest gaming fulfillment house, Aldo Ghiozzi from Impressions. Anthony from Crystal Commerce contributed many suggestions or facts during seminars. Greater Games Industry Magazine exhibited and ran a seminar or two. However, the largest constituents of the GTS definitely are manufacturers and retailers.

New Manufacturers and Retailers

Logo for Disaster Looms a new space exploration game on Kickstarter and GTS attendeeEric Salyers came to the GTS for the first time as a new manufacturer “hoping to learn more about domestic manufacturing, and to have the chance to network with store owners and distributors.  I was also hoping to get to meet others that were Kickstarting their game, as well as successfully Kickstarted.”   Did Salyers feel that the trade show was worth it? “Definitely!  This was the first time our game had been put in front of the industry… We learned that we are on the right path, we also learned a lot of things we can improve! We would not be nearly as prepared as we are now if we had not been at this show.” Arel Cordero, another game designer attending for the first time, also found the GTS to be of great value, “Attending GAMA significantly moved us closer to producing Yards by helping demystify the process of becoming a new game manufacturer. I found several of the seminars especially valuable, but being in the company of others doing the same thing was the greatest value.” He also learned that sports and board games are a hard sell to the hobby game industry as the brothers discovered at the trade show.

PK Toretto also made a number of discoveries himself. He had P.O.W.E.R. the Military Tactical Card Game manufactured before coming to the GTS and arrived expecting to sell to members of the public, not recognizing that the GAMA Trade Show is purely business to business. All of his card packs and merchandise were unnecessary for selling to brick and mortar retailers. His game did get picked up by Alliance though and for Toretto, distribution is “worth every penny” of his expenses in attending the GTS. In retrospect, he would have liked to have had more printing options before producing P.O.W.E.R., as the GTS exposed him to more manufacturing options in that area, with printers giving samples of their work at the GTS. This has provided Toretto with more leverage. Many of the seminars at the GTS addressed areas which Torretto had studied and researched himself. He “still went to every seminar” that he could though, to ensure that he was on the right track and to check his work. He had “no clue” about just how informative the seminars would be. Torretto pointed out a problem with the GTS seminars though: exhibitors cannot attend the seminars scheduled during Exhibitor Hall hours. He would like to see repeats of seminars to enable attendees who missed one because of exhibiting or attending another seminar to have the chance to hear the material. One other benefit that Toretto found at the GTS was meeting the top distributors in the industry and learning about them and seeing how they pitch gaming products.

There were also a number of new retailers attending the GTS for the first time with some attending in anticipation of opening a store. I met Brian Wampler and Chris McCartney of B&C Games who will be opening their store in Indiana. Wampler feels better prepared and “more pumped now to open” B & C Games’ storefront. He explains that after “seeing so many people there that either were in our shoes or had been at one point and getting to talk to them, it made the decision pretty easy.” He found “anything with Dave Wallace” to be especially valuable at the GTS. As Wampler says, “The man is a legend in the industry, and I attended nearly every one of his speaking engagements. Pat from Gnome Games also had a lot of insight to share with us.”

Experienced Professionals

The husband and wife team of John and Lynn Dorney were new to the GAMA Trade Show, but not new to the gaming industry. Treefort Games in Fayetteville, Georgia has been in business for three and a half years. They came because, as Lynn puts it, “We had hit a bump. We seemed to be at a point where we needed to either close the store or do something to keep it going and growing.  We thought GAMA would be able to help us figure out which direction to go.” Treefort Games has decided on the going and growing with the pair returning home to Georgia with a renewed sense of purpose. Among the seminars they attended at the GTS were Getting the Most Out of Your Employees, Social Networking, and the GAMA Education Certification. The GTS had a number of seminars on Games in Education, which I did not have time to attend, but both of the Dorneys did, because as Lynn says “We view our store as much a community center as a place of business.  It seems only natural for us to reach out to our area schools.”

Shawn Rhoades of Game Haven in West Jordan, Utah has a bit more experience at the GAMA Trade Show, if not in retail. This is his second year in business and his second time at the GTS. He also cited David Wallace’s classes as among his favorites, saying that they were definitely “the most useful.” For Rhoades the box of demo products was also a draw. Instead of retailers going from booth to booth collecting free product at the GTS, they now receive a crate of games delivered to their stores. However the big box of games also requires retailers to collect stamps from attending various Premier Presentation seminars. After each Premier Presentation a line of retailers would form trying to get their special sheet stamped. In Rhoades’ view though, this was “a total waste of time” as the presenting companies “covered exactly the same things at the luncheons and dinners”. The exception for Rhoades was Mayfair Games. He pointed out that “their seminars are always fun.”

Trevor McGregor had been to the GAMA Trade Show 7 times as a manufacturer, but the 2012 show was his first as a retailer. McGregor now owns The Gaming Pit and is very realistic in his expectations within the game industry:

Running your own small business is a daunting task for anyone in any industry. GTS offers a place for retailers to pick brains of other retailers, including some very successful ones. Even if the other retailers aren’t out of the park successful there is quite a few things you can learn by just hearing what other retailers have done that worked or even hasn’t worked. I really wanted the experience of networking and finding out information I didn’t know. It was also nice to get face time with manufacturers and see their upcoming products but that was secondary.

McGregor found Michael Stackpole’s seminar on marketing with social media to have “quality information”, but also learned from every manufacturer’s seminar he attended. His favorite seminar he attended though was the Wizards of the Coast Organized Play seminar, citing WotC’s candor with their goals for events like Friday Night Magic, Magic pre-releases, and some of their own marketing data about player behavior as the reasons why.

Tom Anders from Impact Miniatures has been in business a number of years, but this was his first GAMA Trade Show. For him, the show was “very beneficial” allowing him to connect with several stores that weren’t aware of Impact Miniatures’ existence. Talking about his roller derby board game, Impact City Roller Derby, he said “We were leaning, based on quotes that we were getting, that we would charge $45 for the base game. I got really good feedback that said ‘You know what, this looks like a $40 game to us,’ from multiple stores.” Anders has taken the feedback to heart, trying to find a place to shave off $5 from his MSRP. Again, the identity of the persons providing that feedback probably made a huge difference as it was coming from multiple experienced retailers and not neccessarily fans of Impact Miniatures. “That’s valuable feedback because at the end of the day, you want game stores to buy it and you want game stores to tell you who’s going to buy it,” Anders confirmed.

And the Industry Veterans

Rick Loomis is the head of Flying Buffalo, the publisher of Nuclear War and Play By Mail giant. He is also the President of GAMA. What does the President of GAMA do at the GAMA Trade Show? Loomis answers “As President of GAMA, I attended two Board of Directors meetings, two meetings regarding the Origins Awards, attended the “Intro to New Manufacturers” seminar and had several long conversations with our executive director and other officers. As owner of Flying Buffalo Inc, I set up my booth, and sat at the booth during exhibit hours, having conversations with retailers and distributors.” Another veteran of many GAMA Trade Shows, John Mansfield is a retailer and the owner and operator of Pendragon Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba for 38 years. He has been coming to the GTS since it was held in the Tropicana Casino and comes mostly to “look at new stuff” and “see the new ideas”. He also comes to “listen to all the ideas that never happen”.

Dave Wheeler, CEO of Dragon’s Lair Games, has also been coming to GAMA Trade Shows for many years, since the “fateful” Miami show when an extremely small number of retailers attended. In business since 1986, like many other attendees he cites the personal contact that comes from meeting face to face with other retailers and manufacturers at the GTS as a draw. He has increasingly found that “socialization is becoming more important to me”. Wheeler also benefits from attending manufacturer seminars because they provide a window into understanding the challenges that game publishers face. Like the Dorneys of Treefort Games, he finds the GTS reinvigorating: “Besides learning about new ways to do business and finding out about new products, GTS is very energizing for me! I go in, I am around people who share the same challenges that I experience. I find out how they overcome their challenges. I share how I overcome mine. I become enthused about going home and trying out new ideas and bringing in new products!” One other thing that Wheeler is still enthusiastic about is Michael Stackpole’s Social Networking seminar and the growth in crowdfunding he saw at the show, which inspired him to create the Crowd Funding Friendly Retailer Mailing List. Interested retailers can still join the list by emailing him at info at dlair.net.

While Rick Loomis is GAMA’s President, John Ward is its Executive Director. He also spent much of his time at the GTS in meetings; in fact, he spent most of his time at the GTS in meetings. He did circulate around the GTS and felt that “there was a lot of good energy at the show this year”. He was pleased with the strong attendance at the seminars offered on Monday and Friday. Those two days really are more of travel days, I think, for most attendees with Friday being a half-day and Monday really being registration and the mixer. Ward also points to the overseas traffic this year as a marker of the GTS’s success, citing a European manufacturer’s pleasure in being able to meet with all of his European distributors at the show. “That’s the kind of setting that we really want to help foster,” Ward enthused. While Ward did “quality control” by sticking his head in at a few seminars and walking the Exhibitors’ Hall, he was already busy planning for Origins later this month, and in fact, for the 2013 GAMA Trade Show and Origins 2013. Of course, the GTS and Origins are not the only things that GAMA does and the other activities in promoting game manufacturing were a big part of his meetings here in Las Vegas. I also know how pleased he was with the Online Retail Debate and the direction it took. He is also already looking forward to having a representative from Kickstarter at the 2013 GAMA Trade Show, as a response to requests from the membership.

GAMA Trade Show 2012 Final Thoughts

If you are a game designer with aspirations of manufacturing your own game, the GAMA Trade Show is the place to be. You will meet your distributors and a good number of your best retailers at the GTS. The members are friendly and welcoming. If your product is not good or ready for the market, someone will probably tell you and offer constructive criticism. Friendly people may take an interest in you and take you and your game idea under wing and help you in your efforts. If you can, bring a working prototype of your game with you. Eric Salyers was able to show Disaster Looms! to a number of distributors and already has four distributors lined up to distribute the game post-Kickstarter. He adds “This was a direct result of having the game in hand.  We also generated a lot of interest with store owners and store employees – again a benefit of having the game in hand and being able to demo the game all week.” The GTS is just as much a place to be for an aspiring game store owner offering quality information, strong contacts in the industry, and a chance to rub shoulders with like-minded helpful individuals.

The other thing to do if you are considering attending the GTS is to plan ahead and possibly bring your business partner, an employee, or a spouse. Separate to work the trade show and attend double the seminars or have one person in the Exhibitor’s Hall while the other is networking or attending a seminar. I found myself incredibly busy throughout the four days and can only imagine that a visitor to Las Vegas will feel pulled in many more directions with all the distractions that Vegas offers.

Jabba Dabba-Du and Monkeyland images copyright Sirius Games. Donkey: It’s a Kick copyright Cleveland Kids. Disaster Looms! graphic copyright Break From Reality. All images used with permission.

GAMA Trade Show Crowdfunding: Kickstarter and Indiegogo

If there was a buzz word at the 2012 Gama Trade Show it was Kickstarter. Kickstarter this, Kickstarter that. It came up at almost every seminar I attended. At the wrap-up round table discussion on Friday at the GTS when an attendee questioned what Kickstarter was the room almost exploded with nerd incredulity. Fortunately someone was very brief in describing it and rival Indiegogo: instead of the artist or designer paying for a project, the fans are able to make contributions as a crowd, hence the term crowdfunding. In fancier terms, it’s a pledge aggregation site. As Anthony from the G.U.B.A.R. podcast said in G.U.B.A.R.’s 9th episode, “If you’re in the gaming community and you haven’t noticed Kickstarter, then you’re not paying attention.”

Image of Paul Hughes map of a dungeon from overhead with random encounters.

Dungeon Generator image copyright Paul Hughes.

Before the GAMA Trade Show though, I do have to admit to only having heard the name before and never had actually visited the Kickstarter website. The poster child for Kickstarter at the GTS was the reprint drive for Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick which was brought up at least four times, as well as the fact that he raised $1.2 million with his campaign. In his Next Generation of RPGs, Jim Crocker introduced the idea of retailers using Kickstarter or Indiegogo to find new bleeding edge games for their customers, referencing the Kickstarter project for Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map, which raised $27,789, exceeding its $2,000 goal. Crowdfunding is a big deal. At Michael Stackpole’s Social Networking seminar, there was a rehash of what crowdfunding is and how it can benefit retailers. The idea of store owners talking to their players to find out their interests and ordering on their behalf was again brought up enthusiastically. Another possibility offered by crowdfunding is low-cost hardcopy advertisement in products, such as RPG rule books or expansions. Besides acknowledging individual contributors, a thanks or credits page could cite East Side Games for their assistance. Stackpole was also very modest in the brief crowdfunding discussion, not mentioning his own significant involvement in the launch of Wasteland 2 on Kickstarter ($2,933,252 raised with a goal of $900,000). Besides these various mentions of crowdfunding at the GAMA Trade Show, there was an entire unpublicized breakout session on the topic.

The Impromptu Crowdfunding Roundtable

One of the seminars I wandered into turned out to be quite different than what was posted on the sign; it was an impromptu Crowdfunding Roundtable with about two dozen GTS attendees. One of the factors in deciding between Kickstarter and Indiegogo that was being discussed was the need for a US bank for Kickstarter, whereas Indiegogo is more friendly for overseas crowdfunding. Another key difference is what happens with the funds if a project fails to fund. With Kickstarter, none of the contributors are charged, whereas the funds generated on Indiegogo are left to the developer’s discretion. Consequently an important part of developing on Indiegogo is deciding what you will do with the funds if you don’t meet your goal. They will also charge a higher percentage if your project doesn’t fund. Everyone who has conducted a Kickstarter campaign stressed that all of the prep work should be done first for the project and that developers should set realistic goals.

Retailer Scott Thorne shared his experience in using crowdfunding “years before Kickstarter or other forms of online crowdfunding became available.” The problem at his game store, Castle Perilous, was seating. Thorne solicited his customers for donations of $20 to help get new chairs for the store. He offered an inducement of putting each participant’s name on the back of an individual chair. The vanity reward paid off with 20 customers participating and securing the new seating for the store.

Others spoke on crowdsourcing. Vicky Beaver was asked to share her experience with Caladon Falls’s successful funding on Indiegogo and generally agreed with many of the other principles expressed about successful project management described here. Someone shared that less than 1% of project backers fail to make payment when it comes time to fund a successful Kickstarter project, which meshed with a project that was brought up which had secured $12,000 in funding, though one contribution of $5 didn’t come through.

Cover for Hellas the role playing game showing futuristic Greek spacefarer

The Hellas RPG Reprint has had 16 Updates

Jon Huston from Troll and Toad contributed that for him the updates are really important. Every Kickstarter that Huston has signed up for has fully funded, he said, including Wasteland 2. As a project moves along its developers can post updates to let fans know how far along from the goal they are, to encourage further advertising, and to keep fans abreast of any changes. The update posts to the Kickstarter project page, but also generates an email to backers. So far on the Hellas RPG reprint Kickstarter there have been 16 updates, with 11 of those before the project met its goal and 5 since then.

The Retail-Friendly Kickstarter Email List

David Wheeler of Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy with stores in Austin, San Antonio, and a franchised store in Bellevue, WA attended the impromptu discussion. He has put together an email list of Kickstarter-friendly retailers, so if you are either developing a game project or are a retailer interested in this list, you can join it by emailing info at dlair.net. As of May 1, there were 47 interested retailers on the list.

Crowdfunding: Not for Everyone

Larry Roznai pointed out one perceived flaw with crowdfunding at the Domestic Manufacturing GTS seminar. Roznai argued that by offering games as rewards on Kickstarter, the manufacturer is bypassing retailers and in his experience, retailers are where manufacturers should be focusing their efforts. He’s not alone in urging caution when it comes to Kickstarter and Indiegogo. One attendee at the impromptu roundtable pointed out that it is deceptively easy to fail on Kickstarter. Failed Kickstarters aren’t advertised or promoted by Kickstarter and a project developer is unlikely to point out past failures. Since no money gets charged from contributors to failed projects, there are seldom any hard feelings, so a contributor is less likely to recall failed projects as well. However, in the exhibit hall later, a manufacturer mentioned that a friend intentionally launched a project, knowing it would fail, as a means of advertising a new product from his company. This is not what Kickstarter is all about and could have hurt the company’s reputation.

Kickstarter Veteran: Impact Miniatures

Tom Anders from Impact Miniatures has successfully funded 4 projects using Kickstarter, with the largest being a $5000 fund for a miniature ape football team. Anders had been approached about making a football team of great apes by a customer, but doubted that it would sell. Rather than dismiss the ape fan outright, Anders offered to put it on Kickstarter. The fan of football playing-primates rallied his friends and kicked in $2,000 of the project himself. The finished figures should be coming out in June. His minor inducements to contribute included a variety of figures, but Anders had two top tier stretch rewards. As Anders explains “stretch rewards are incentives that you offer the people after you’ve hit your goal.” In the case of the Ape Team, these included a customer getting an ape tattoo as one reward, with the other being a sixth sculpt for the primate team. The Apes of Wrath was selected by Kickstarter as a featured project, but only for a day. Anders did see a small spike in contributions while featured in the Top 3, but pointed out that he watches another game designer’s campaigns. When she would advertise being at a convention in her updates, there were much larger spikes in her funding on those convention days than what she got when her project was also featured in the Top 3. Anders agreed that “personal contact drives” Kickstarter.

As for the importance of updates, Anders says they are, “Vital. I have found that the Kickstarters that communicate on at least a bi-weekly basis seem to do much much better than the ones that just throw it out and don’t really let anyone know what’s going on. One of the things that Order of the Stick did so well was that every 2 days he sent out an update to thank everyone, to let them know what he was working on, to let them know what the next stretch reward would be.”

Impact Miniatures will be releasing their next project, Impact City Roller Derby, on Kickstarter with a projected date of May 15. When we talked at the GAMA Trade Show in March, Anders and his team had already come up with 5 different stretch rewards for the roller derby game. He also has already planned ahead to his promotion schedule for the future Kickstarter campaign, planning at least two convention events to help him sell it to potential backers. As for his track record with receiving the pledged funds, in Anders’s experience with the 4 projects, he has received 100% of the pledged funds which are charged through Amazon.com.

Further Kickstarter Advice: Collins Epic Wargames

Bunker Tile for Spearpoint 1943 from Collins Epic Wargames showing a bunker complex

A Kickstarted Tile Found in the Spearpoint ’43 Map Expansion

While at the GAMA Trade Show, besides interviewing Byron Collins about Collins Epic Wargaming’s upcoming 6mm sci-fi rules set Polyversal, I also asked him about Kickstarter and his experience with it. He pointed out that “it’s a great tool, but that’s what it is, a tool. It’s not the end all solution for you as a designer.” C.E.W. first used Kickstarter to fund the Spearpoint 1943 Map Expansion and he plans on crowdfunding again. The Spearpoint ’43 Map Expansion was a 60 day campaign and was a success, receiving over $10,000 for its goal of $7,500, or 135% funding. A key aspect of a successful Kickstarter plan according to Collins is taking the time to come up with excellent rewards for your backers. One prestige level of reward Collins offered was the chance to appear as a character in the game’s stories authored by Mark Walker that will accompany the map expansion. Another tier of rewards was unlocked when the Spearpoint expansion reached $10,000, allowing Collins to include more bonus map tiles, as a stretch reward. Despite the success, Collins has noted areas where he could improve in future campaigns and is willing to share his experience with others designers. As for general advice to game developers on doing their first Kickstarter, Collins suggests:

“If you’re about to launch a Kickstarter campaign and nobody knows who you are, you’re on the wrong path. You need to already be out there, on BoardGameGeek maybe, or at a show doing a demo, not necessarily doing a booth, but go play at open gaming at a convention, get a lot of good feedback on that game, test it really well, make sure it’s done, because a lot of games up there, it’s obvious that they’re not fully developed, they’re not fully hashed out.”

Besides Kickstarters going well, Collins pointed out that they can also fail miserably. It is this binary finite nature of Kickstarter, success or failure, that Collins also seems to enjoy. Either fans want it or they do not. He did have this advice to offer though:

One of the things that I see happening is people who have never dealt with game production before, get into Kickstarter, they raise a ton of money, and all of a sudden, you’re on the hook. You’re on the hook with people’s money and that’s a big deal. If you’re not a business, and you launch a Kickstarter, you’ve got some tax implications. Really, either way. You’ve got to think about a lot of those things. You got to think about how you’re going to use that funding. Do you already have production sources? Do you have a good idea of what your goal really should be? Are you spending money on advertising? What’s going to come out of that funded Kickstarter? Is it going to be depleted immediately by ad money that you’ve spent on BoardGameGeek. I mean, that may be well spent to help it work, but if you’ve spent all your production money from Kickstarter, you’re going to be in debt, really, because you’re on the hook. So when you get on the hook like that, make sure you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t have any sources, there’s people in the industry, including myself, that are willing to help because we don’t want to see people making mistakes that take a great idea and end up not making it happen, because I’m a gamer myself. I like to see new great games, I’ve backed a bunch on Kickstarter myself and the good games out there, you can tell the ones that are done well, and you can tell the ones that aren’t quite ready for Kickstarter, so there’s a lot of prep, and there’s a lot of engagement you have to maintain with people who are watching your project.

First Kickstarter from GTS Attendee: Disaster Looms

Text "Disaster Looms!" over a space and planetary background for board gameI attended several panels and ate with Eric Salyers at the GAMA Trade Show. Also new to the GTS and game manufacturing, he brought his space exploration game Disaster Looms! with him. The game is a boardless board game, using hexagonal playing tiles instead, which I thumbed through at the show. His company Break From Reality games has just launched its Disaster Looms! Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $25,000. His team at Break From Reality Games is getting the word out via Facebook ads and updates, BoardGameGeek ads and updates, in-store demos, and Kickstarter itself.

Disaster Looms! is offering at least two tiers of retailer-only awards, because, in Salyers’s words, “game stores are the back-bone of our industry” as well as being “the nexus of our community.” Several of Disaster Looms! rewards include in-store game promotion from the Break From Reality team. As he sees it, “I am in this for the long-haul, and plan to release other game titles, and expansions – I need to have an alliance with the game store owner as early as possible.”

Salyers is no stranger to Kickstarter having funded 18 projects so far. He points to The Present as both the first Kickstarter he helped fund and as an inspiration for him as a creator. Salyers actually created Disaster Looms! the night he watched The Present. He also has funded several TMG titles due to his love of “great game play and creatives themes.”

As for stretch rewards, Salyers and his team at Break From Reality have given it a lot of thought:

Our team had rewards chosen all the way to $125,000 funding level. We have released the $32,500 level, and the $40,000 level. We have hinted that there is a $55k+ level as well. We are sitting at 23% funded after 3 days … and we know of a couple thousand in commitments to come. So we are feeling happy, though still stressed about whether we will make our goal. And in particular – we really want to hit the $40,000 level of funding so we can release the game as a 2-6 player game. We really wanted to do this from the outset, but it too high of a goal to start off with for an unknown company with an unknown IP [Intellectual Property]. Stretch goals to us are all about rewarding backers, and creating rewards that will be really appreciated by our backers. We spent literally weeks on the design, testing, and validation of what we wanted as stretch goals. It would not be good enough to throw in branded items that would be of no value or real relation to the game play experience. We think the first player token will enhance the play value of the game, and make the bidding process for the token a little more worthwhile each turn. A heavy sculpted coin is fun to fiddle with. Everyone knows it. The 5-6 player expansion, a true expansion mind you, will add not just 2 more players – but more game content. It will add additional replay-ability to the 2-4 player game as well!

The Disaster Looms! Kickstarter will end its run on June 18. According to Salyers, the Kickstarter process is “a very straight forward system” and he’s had no problems or confusion along the way. Like Byron Collins, Salyers also enjoys the finality of the Kickstarter approach: “you have created something, and now you are sending it out to the world to be accepted or denied.”

This “do or die” feature of crowdfunding is also one of its great strengths and one of the reasons the game industry has begun shifting. Instead of conducting market research or trusting a gut instinct or experience when it comes to whether a game will sell or not, even established companies can vet new products and projects on Kickstarter or Indiegogo and actually know whether they might have a winner on their hands. While there are a few complications and problems to this approach of game marketing, overall the effect on the industry should be a great one.

Disaster Looms! box art is copyright Break From Reality, Hellas cover is copyright Khepera Publishing, and the Spearpoint 1943 Bunker Tile is copyright Collins Epic Wargaming, all used with permission.