GTS Press Conf. #2: Chaosmos, Ares Games, North Star Games, CMON

After Arcane Wonders and Crystal Commerce spoke at the press conference, we heard from four more exhibitors, Mirror Box Games, Ares Games, North Star Games, and Cool Mini or Not.

Mirror Box Games: Chaosmos

Joey Vigour from Mirror Box Games presented Chaosmos. While still in development, Chaosmos is a science fiction board game wherein the 2-4 players search for the mysterious singularity, the Ovoid, in a “cosmic treasure hunt.” The game is still so new that brothers Joey and Danny Vigour are still deciding on its final components, but have a rough estimate of a $40-50 price. What’s clear to the Brothers Vigour and their two co-designers is that Chaosmos’s play style is “emergent”, with no particular path to victory. Whoever holds the Ovoid at the end of the game will be the victor. Players who have good memories and deductive powers though will be rewarded because the game has a Clue-like element with an envelope on each of the game’s 10 planets. Players have a maximum 7-card hand, but can trade out cards on the planets. The Pheromonic Harpoon is a potent weapon card in Chaosmos, but a player with the Pheromonic Recoiler card can resist its devastating effects. Keeping track of where the two device cards are is part of the challenge of the game, but the focus of Chaosmos isn’t really battles, says Vigour. Instead, battles are just a further way of obtaining information.

Three players trying new board game Chaosmos

Brothers Joey and Danny Vigour (center and left) Demo Chaosmos at the Mirror Box Games Booth

In addition to the 10 planets, there are also 10 aliens, each with its own unique powerful racial ability. These racial abilities combined with players’ hands of cards makes “every player begin to start thinking they’re invincible,” according to elder brother Joey Vigour. For example, the alien Drusu the Scryer can look at other players’ hands and into the planetary envelopes with his Scrying ability. A powerful ability, but the Scryer can also tip off his opponents by his probable knowledge of the Ovoid’s location, so discretion is advised. Mirror Box Games’ efforts at demoing the game at Game Night and in the Exhibitors’ Hall elicited interest from attending distributors and game publishers, with at least one prominent company making the brothers a serious offer at the show. Mirror Box Games has not rushed to a decision about how Chaosmos will be produced and released, but their experience goes to show just how powerful the connections made at the GAMA Trade Show can be.

Diagonal view of board game Chaosmos with 10 planets and play pieces at GAMA Trade Show with three players

Danny Vigour Points to Alien Playing Piece on One of Chaosmos’s Ten Planets

Ares Games

Model miniature ships battle in Sails of Glory on blue mat representing ocean

Sails of Glory: Still Kickstarting

Roberto Di Maglio briefly touched upon Ares Games’ past releases, Wings of Glory, Lord of Middle-earth, Aztlán, and Micro Monsters. The Italian native explained that Ares Games released World War I and World War II lines of pre-assembled and prepainted miniature planes “realistic enough for simulationists” for Wings of Glory in 2012. The game’s mechanic of a maneuver deck of cards to move the planes around has been a hit and Ares Games adapted the mechanic for their Age of Sail game, Sails of Glory. The first Kickstarter attempt for Ares Games, Sails of Glory is currently funded, but still open for backers. The game is set in the Napoleonic era. Kickstarter has also doubled the hits to Ares Games’ website, Di Maglio revealed.

Shiny plastic sci-fi miniatures for board game The Galaxy Defenders on hexagonal playing surface

Plastic Sci-Fi Miniatures from The Galaxy Defenders from Ares Games

Two other games Ares Games will be launching later this year are The Galaxy Defenders and Inkognito. The Galaxy Defenders is a cooperative game using sci-fi miniatures with the players taking the part of the Terrans and battling against the AI aliens. Di Maglio expects an August or September release for the game. Inkognito will remain close to the spirit of the classic game released by Milton Bradley in 1988.

Large round playing pieces for board game Inkognito by Ares Games

The Stylized Playing Pieces of Inkognito Which Ares Games Will Release Later This Year

North Star Games: Clubs

Luke Warren from North Star Games kept his talk quite brief, focusing on the company’s newest release, Clubs. Clubs marks North Star Games’ entry into the light strategy market with the trick-taking game for 2-6 players, which takes 30 minutes to play. Retailing for only $14, it releases in April and may appear in Barnes & Noble stores. Expect a review of Clubs on Craven Games in the near future. Warren also noted that Wits and Wagers – Party will be replacing the regular version of Wits and Wagers in mass markets.

Light strategy card game Clubs marketing artwork with box cover from North Star Games

Cool Mini or Not

Dave Doust wearing Cool Mini or Not shirt gestures with left hand at press conference

CMON Director Dave Doust

David Doust introduced himself as a director at Cool Mini or Not, then provided a little overview of CMON’s 11-year history, describing the CMON of the past as a place where he used to sell boutique miniatures and users would upload their own miniatures for rating. Now CMON has many partners and Doust referenced Rivet Wars as an example of the company’s success with Kickstarter and multiple brands, with CMON releasing 6-8 titles a year. Rivet Wars is also exclusively distributed by ACD, Doust noted. He then turned to another huge release, Zombicide, and pointed out that alpha gamer Kickstarter backers who receive the game tend to become salesmen for the game for retailers.

Cool Mini or Not in the Exhibitors’ Hall

CMON had a much more modest booth compared to their 2012 GTS booth or their sprawling 2012 Gen Con complex. The two glass display cases they brought though were packed with miniatures and they had a recognizable face backing up Sedition Wars in the form of Mike McVey.

Thin British painter Mike McVey with crossed arms in front of Zombicide poster at Cool Mini booth

Miniature Gaming and Painting Legend Mike McVey at the CMON GTS Booth

Some of the Zombicide miniatures on display were brand new, a CMON booth worker pointed out. He also showed the new mechanic whereby the survivors turn into zombies themselves by flipping over Amy’s character card, as well as the new survivor Derek, before slowly thumbing through the Toxic City Mall rulebook.

GTS Press Conference Overview, Arcane Wonders, Crystal Commerce

At the 2012 GAMA Trade Show, all press pass holders were required to attend a press conference on Thursday of the show, taking time away from covering the Exhibitors’ Hall. Several members of the press at the show did not attend. They missed out on a number of smaller game designers and publishers. This year Press Coordinator Erica Gifford made a number of improvements, starting with dropping the mandatory press conference. There was a Media Center in the Exhibitors’ Hall, drastically reducing time exhibitors were away from their booths, as well as a Press Room in the opposite side of Bally’s near the seminar rooms.

Another improvement was the variety in those speaking at the Press Conference, ranging from nervous first-time game designers to Cool Mini or Not director Dave Doust, Wizkids staff, and Osprey Publishing. While it’s questionable that the larger companies will get much benefit from the 5-10 minutes they spent addressing the assembled press, for the smaller presenters, it may have been their only opportunity to receive any media coverage. Unfortunately there are only 10 hours to scope out the 110 plus exhibitors for the two days that the Exhibitors’ Hall is open. Every year LivingDice.com tries to cover as many of the exhibitors present as possible, but several probably slip through the cracks.

The Press

As for the press, the following were at the Media Center on Thursday afternoon at 2 PM:

16 chairs at press conference with Tom Vasel, Eric Summerer, Milton Griepp, Scott Forster, and Larry Dunne in them

Meet the Press: ICv2, The Dice Tower, Pulp Gamer, and Tyro Magazine in the Flesh

That was it. While the quantity of press present might call for ironic quotations around “press conference”, the quality of those present perhaps made up for it. For the most part, there were no follow-up questions after the presenters talked about their game releases, which was another positive change from the previous year, when there seemed to be questions posed more out of politeness than any attempt to really gather information.

Arcane Wonders

Arcane Wonders employees speak to press with Mage Wars boxes in hand

Arcane Wonders: Byran Pope & Patrick Connor

Bryan Pope and Patrick Connor from Arcane Wonders provided an update on Mage Wars, which had its big release last August at Gen Con, selling over 15,000 copies to date. Pope had previously spoken at the 2012 GTS about the game when it was still in development, a five year process of figuring out and balancing the math for all the wizards and spells involved. The Force Master vs Warlord expansion came out in February and retails for $39.99. The Force Master’s spell book focuses on telekinesis and mind control while the Warlord excels at zone control. This summer Arcane Wonders will add a second expansion, releasing the Druid vs the Necromancer at Gen Con 2013 in August, also with a target price of $39.99.


The Mage Wars Organized Play kits are also doing very well with Arcane Wonders selling out of the first batch of them, despite printing twice as many as they thought they needed. Each kit comes with 36 gold foil promotional cards and costs retailers approximately $12 to order via their distributors. Players also impact the ongoing storyline set in the world of Etheria with their victories and losses, which are recorded and then compiled by Arcane Wonders. Arcane Wonders is also planning a spell book two-pack. This will allow aspiring mages to build multiple spell books. For example, a Beastmaster could have a hunter Beastmaster spell book, a shepherd Beastmaster spell book, or one built around the strategy of turtling. Another plan in the works is alternative artwork for mages, such as a Female Beastmaster, which will come in their next spell tome expansion. Each mage will also receive an alternative ability card, which may include one or two different abilities as well as possible stat changes.

Crystal Commerce

E-commerce Expert Anthony Gallela from Crystal Commerce in long-sleeved blue shirt

Crystal Commerce’s Anthony Gallela

Anthony Gallela from Crystal Commerce spoke next. Crystal Commerce’s ability to include singles, individual comic titles (including upcoming releases from Diamond Previews), and its integration with POS systems were some of the advantages he cited. Another service Crystal Commerce offers to gaming store clients is web hosting including a web storefront. Actual website design is also available for a fee, but the complimentary hosting includes a free template. Crystal Commerce will customize the template with a client’s logo for free. Crystal Commerce sites integrate with Amazon, eBay, and TCGPlayer. Retailers consequently only have one inventory to manage and the amount of work in inputting data is significantly reduced, down to just the item’s price to the end customer. Customers can also buy tickets or pay entry fees to events like Friday Night Magic using the Crystal Commerce software. They also have the option of in-store pickup for anything ordered online.

Crystal Commerce’s plans for the future include adding a purchase order system, exposing more sales data to retailers, and the launch of Point of Sale 3. Point of Sale 3 is currently in beta development, but will offer retailers a significantly more intuitive user interface, as well as the functionality for split payments, such as cash and credit cards, or cash and store credit. But what is Crystal Commerce and what does it actually do?

“Basically, we do all the heavy lifting and try to free up game store owners to do what they do best, build relationships with their customers and sell awesome games.”

– Jerad Ellison

To answer that, I contacted Crystal Commerce after the GTS via their online sales chat feature and chatted with salesman Jerad Ellison. He clarified that Crystal Commerce is an e-commerce solution with a core strength in inventory integration. Rather than a store owner tediously inputting and managing separate sales information and pictures on Amazon, eBay, TCGPlayer, and the store’s own website, merchants can simultaneously control their product inventory across multiple platforms, including in-store sales. As Ellison put its, “We want to make the lives of our clients easier. If you have ever tried to list something on eBay or Amazon and keep an accurate inventory of one item selling in multiple spots you may understand.” Ellison also pointed out that Crystal Commerce offers retailers suggested prices for Magic singles as well. Crystal Commerce’s main selling point? “Basically, we do all the heavy lifting and try to free up game store owners to do what they do best, build relationships with their customers and sell awesome games.”

Games Workshop at the 2013 GAMA Trade Show

Painted miniature terrain from Cities of Death in foreground before Games Workshop banner displayGames Workshop had a much stronger presence at the 2013 GAMA Trade Show than the previous year. Still represented at GTS by North American Director of Sales Andre Kieren, GW hosted two Premier Presentations for retailers on Tuesday, March 19, ran a table at Wednesday’s Game Night, as well as exhibited in the Bally’s Convention Center.

Games Workshop Premier Presentation

Andre Kieren began his presentation by remarking that Games Workshop is “having a great year”. He asked for a show of hands from attending crowd, revealing that an overwhelming number of retailers attending already carry GW products. Most of the hands remained in the air when he asked whether they also run GW tournaments. The company has recovered from a dip in retail stores carrying GW products, going from a low of 700 independent gaming stores in 2006 to over 1400 now (presumably in North America). Kieren attributed the mid-decade dip to “poor customer service in the past”. One area that Andre Kieren touched on is Games Workshop’s new focus on running events for newcomers and he pointed to Wizards of the Coast’s consistent success in that specific arena. Even Escalation Leagues can be too much for newer players who may not have the resources or time to paint even a squad of Space Marines, so hosting events like Space Marine Paintball or a Kill Team activity could involve them further in the hobby, Kieren suggested.

GW Employee Andre Kieren addresses seated audience during Power Point presentation

Andrew Kieren Addresses Retailers at the Games Workshop Premier Presentation

The Modules and Retailers’ Unused Product Support

According to Andre Kieren, over 450 independent stockists have yet to use their product support which will expire in May, and which will not roll over.

The meat of GW’s presentation was a slideshow detailing the costs and benefits of each of the first three module racks that GW encourages retailers to carry. Module 1 consists of their best-selling products such as Space Marine Tactical Squads, Warhammer 40,000 Dark Vengeance boxes, Lord of the Rings starter boxes, and so on. The modules make it easy for stores whose specialty is perhaps board games or card games to diversify out into tabletop wargaming. Each module also comes with product support from Games Workshop, with Module 1 offering $300 of unrestricted product support. A store can use the unrestricted product support to claim more merchandise from GW for whatever product they would like during the course of the year. This support can replace older product such as obsolete codexes, be used for prize support, or to create store terrain. Rather than being a regular calendar year and ending in December, the product support year ends in May, since GW’s fiscal year begins in June. According to Andre Kieren, over 450 independent stockists have yet to use their product support which will expire in May, and which will not roll over. Additional product support is offered for each increasing tier of module ordered with Module 2 offering $300 in restricted product support and $300 in unrestricted product support. The essential difference is that restricted product support should only be used for events.

And the Horus Heresy of Disgruntled Retailers: Terms & Conditions

Before Andre Kieren and company could even get to the matter of unused store credit and top-selling modules though, they endured a hail of verbal bolt pistol fire concerning changes to their Terms and Conditions, as well as other retailer complaints. Kieren first reassured retailers that if they qualify as stockists, that the updated terms and conditions would not change the free shipping that already exists on certain orders.

When asked though whether GW was trying to eliminate online sales by other businesses, Kieren smiled and pointed out “We’ve been trying to do this for 10 years.” With the changes, GW has made “a renewed attempt to effectively enforce” the pre-existing terms and conditions that have been in place before, Kieren added. He then put it in management-speak and said that Games Workshop wants to “reserve the online channel to ourselves.”

Part of this is due to the practice of shelling, in which other companies or individuals shuck GW’s packaging and sell the plastic sprues directly or part them out, thereby “erroding” GW’s brand. Another assault on GW’s intellectual property Kieren cited was the drop-casting and selling of Space Marine shoulder pads. Unfortunately for consumers, GW does not like the practice of people clipping plasma guns and selling them separately. Will GW be going back into the bits business itself? Kieren’s answer: no. When a retailer asked for clarification on shelling, pointing to online website Battlewagon Bits, Kieren responded, “Yes, the way you are describing what Battlewagon Bits is, we would not want that.” GW has subsequently followed through on that.

At this point, one retailer complimented Games Workshop’s response, saying that “We’ve been getting screwed for so long by these guys [Battle Wagon Bits and other shellers]” He was met with a smattering of applause. When another member of the audience joked “So there’s an Errata coming, right?” it broke some of the tension in the room.

Someone in the back of the room pointed out that he had liked the Games Workshop Outriders program that was active over a decade ago, as a useful tool in helping him to run events and sell GW games. He went on to add that his store is now selling more Privateer Press products and that Flames of War is about to overtake his GW sales. Are there any plans of reviving the Outriders program, he asked. Kieren’s response was a firm no, because GW had done a cost-benefit-analysis which included a huge tax fine incurred in the early 2000s because the corporation had not paid its Outrider volunteers for what amounted to actual work. Consequently it discontinued the program.

Another question posed concerned the new requirement for retailers to actively separate GW merchandise from obscene and pornographic materials. Kieren didn’t think that a store carrying the Walking Dead would be an issue. As for consequences for violators of the terms and conditions and whether GW would “blacklist” distributors or retailers in a retailer’s words, Kieren answered in the negative. GW will “not blacklist. I wouldn’t use that term… yes, [there would be] consequences.”

Space Marine Paintball and Paint and Take

When he reached the end of his slideshow presentation, Kieren asked the attendees whether they were familiar with Space Marine Paintball. When only three raised their hands, Kieren invited volunteers to come forward to learn the mini-game, while another GW employee ran a Paint and Take on another small table at the front of the room. This effectively ended any further GW-bashing or debate from the audience, but also left the rest of the retailers who could not possibly participate at the front tables to disperse or talk to one another.

Retailers cluster around Games Workshop realm of battle board to learn Space Marine Paintball

Retailers at the Games Workshop Premier Presentation Learn Space Marine Paintball

GW in the Exhibitors’ Hall and at Game Night

Beautiful painted Warhammer 40k miniatures in GW display caseIf there was anything new and shiny in GW’s spacious booth in the Exhibitors’ Hall, it was carefully hidden away. Instead there was the usual amount of brilliantly painted miniatures in glass display cases that any GW retail store should boast. Andre Kieren and his staff were on hand to answer any retailer’s or distributor’s questions and to possibly enroll any new retailer in Games Workshop’s program.

In a like manner, Games Workshop ran a table at Wednesday night’s Game Night with some of the same activities from the Premier Presentation on offer including what looked like another round of Space Marine Paintball and some Hobbit-related gaming at a well-attended table.

GW Employee Andre Kieren speaking with GTS Attendee at GW booth in Bally's Convention Center

Andre Kieren Speaks to a GTS Attendee in the GTS Exhibitors’ Hall

2013 GAMA Trade Show Exhibitors’ Hall: Impact Miniatures

Impact! Miniatures was exhibiting again at the 2013 GAMA Trade Show. Since speaking with company owner Tom Anders at the 2012 GTS, the Impact City Roller Derby game successfully Kickstarted and was on its 16th backer update while at the 2013 show. Anders confirmed that the roller derby girls were off the docks at Boston and on the jam, heading towards Impact Miniatures’ warehouse. Game Salute will be offering the game in April with Impact! itself following in May.

Chibi Dungeon Adventurers: Chibi Crawl

The first of the new products that Impact Miniatures was highlighting is its line of chibi dungeon figures for the upcoming Chibi Crawl game being designed by Glenn McClune. The Chibi Dungeon Adventurers range has 103 spin-cast plastic figures ranging in price from $5 for adventurers up to $12-15 for larger monsters and tops out at the $25 five-headed Hydra. While the Hydra is already available for purchase online at the Impact! website, the rest of the lineup will be available in May.

Five-headed plastic chibi Hydra with wings on display stand at GAMA Trade Show

The Flagship Chibi Dungeon Figure: The Five-Headed Hydra for $25

Among the $12-$15 monster crowd, fans of chibi cuteness can expect to find a Djinn, a Troll, a Chimera, a Basilisk, Cthulu, and an adorable Balrog. More startlingly though, fans of the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon may recognize the one-horned, winged form of Venger and the distinctive fat head of Dungeon Master. A club-wielding Barbarian and a female Acrobat are also among Impact!’s offerings.

Three plastic Impact Miniatures, Dungeon Master, Barbarian with Club, and Unicorn in display case

Chibi Dungeon Cuteness: Smug Dungeon Master, Barbarian, and Unicorn Pegasus

As Krosmaster Arena continues to exceed funding on Kickstarter and with successful expansions of Super Dungeon Explore from Soda Pop Miniatures, the sub-genre of chibi fantasy is beginning to swell. Anders has capitalized on the market perfectly. In looking over the figures on display, Impact has also offered at least three sculpts sure to delight any brony, including a feisty Unicorn Pegasus and a larger more fiendish Nitemare.

Miniature display case in foreground with tentacled Cthulu and pony while Tom Anders is in background smiling

Anders Smiles Behind Just a Fraction of His Chibi Range Including Unicorns and Cthulu

New Dice

Tom Anders also had new dice to show, including the rarer breeds of d5s, d7s, d14s, d18s, and d22s. Anders has an “if you build it, they will come” approach with these new dice, pointing to Freeblades’ use of the d14 as a potential application. A major selling point for the opaque dice is that Impact! Miniatures has arranged for them to be color matched to a variety of Chessex opaque dice sets for color purists.

Five-sided dice, seven-sided dice, and a D12 and D14 on red background

Selection of New Dice from Impact! Miniatures: d5s, d7s, and a d14 next to a d12

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.

2012 GAMA Trade Show – Online Retail Debate

On Thursday, March 15th of the 2012 GAMA Trade Show there was a panel on Online Retail in the Pacific Ballroom, which is where the lunches and dinners are held. Based on the size of the event’s room, I figured it would be important and made my way to a table in the front of the room. As I began to write down notes, I turned on my voice recorder, in case I missed anything. The following is my transcript of the fascinating, 50-minute debate that ensued. I have made very minor edits for the sake of clarity.

Introduction to the Online Retailing Panel

Michael Stackpole: Our esteemed panelists here represent both online retailing and brick and mortar retailing. What we wanted to do – instead of having a knife fight, which would have been entertaining, but the room is too big and we didn’t have it in the round, so we just sort of scrapped that plan – we want to have a dialogue about this, the whole idea being that we want to take a look at what strategies, what solutions people have been using, how we deal with this both as an industry and as manufacturers and as retailers. Hopefully, the intention is that by the end of this particular seminar you’ll have some ideas, you’ll have some information, you’ll have some perspective so that you’re not worrying about this overmuch, and you’ll have some strategies then that you could work with both by yourself and in consultation with manufacturers and with other retailers to find a way to make the internet and everything work for you.

So I’ve got a series of questions and our panelists have been prepped with these questions. We’re going to go with somewhat of a presidential debate debate style. We will have the question being asked, we will have a commentary and a rebuttal, and we will switch back and forth. We will probably at some point go off-script just because, as this discussion goes on, we’ll want to emphasize certain things. I don’t know if we will have time for questions. If we do, I’ll attempt to facilitate those. For right now, we just want to sort of have a discussion and get information out.

The Advantages to the Game Industry From Online Discount Vendors

Michael Stackpole: So the very first question I’ve got for you guys is this, what are the advantages for the industry – not just being individual merchants – of online discount vendors? What do online discounters bring to our overall community to keep it vibrant and going? John, you’ll go first.

Orange and blue checkerboard floor at Titan's Entertainment Cafe with over 200 board games

2011 GAMA Best Designed Store: Titan’s Entertainment Cafe

Jon Huston: This would depend on which kind of online discount retailer. But I would say that the number one thing that an online discount retailer brings to the industry is not the discounted price, it’s the selection of goods. In almost every case, a good solid online discounter retailer is able to provide far more selection of goods in their storefront than would either make sense or be suitable for sale in a brick and mortar store. Our impression from the customers that we get is that the majority of customers that buy from us, buy from us because the particular good that they want to buy is not available to them locally. They’re not buying from us because they’re trying to get a better price. Now, in that particular regard, this is where I got to admit that we are not the cheapest online discount retailer. In fact, we’re probably not even the top twenty percent on most of the stuff we sell. So for those who are focused entirely on price, we should probably not be their first choice, but those who are looking for selection that’s where we emphasize our product line. By being able to offer such a wide selection of stuff, it’s allowed manufacturers who are more into the long tail of goods to be able to have a platform to sell those goods from. I don’t think we would have five or six thousand different board games in print right now, if there was not an online retailer presence, because such a small number of those board games would be able to be carried by any one store. I was just at the Store Design seminar earlier today, which was a store [Titan’s Entertainment Cafe] that won an award last year for Best Designed Store and the store is very proud that they actually carry 200 different board games and I know from going to stores that 200 different board games is an incredible selection, but that also represents about three percent of all the board games currently in print today.

Michael Stackpole: (Jon, just give yourself a brief introduction just so…)

Jon Huston: Alright. I’m Jon Huston. I’m the CEO of Troll and Toad. Troll and Toad started off as a mail order game retailer in 1994 and as the internet came into being we switched from being mail order magazine advertiser over to an online website and currently we’re one of the larger presences on the web for the hobby game industry itself.

David Wallace: Good afternoon. I’m Dave Wallace. I’m a brick and mortar retailer. I opened our first store back in 1981. I’ve got 4 stores in St. Louis right now. I’m going to surprise, I think, a lot of people at this, by telling you that I agree with a lot of what Jon has to say. I don’t see the internet seller as an extreme danger to us. I think it’s important to keep a few key facts in mind. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, brick and mortar stores. There are three stores in your town and everybody is doing 300,000 in sales, and one of the stores goes under, does that mean that the other 2 stores are now going to pick up that 300,000? No. It doesn’t. No, usually it’d be tough and a stress to pick up 5 to 10 percent of it. Most of those customers simply leave the market. If we have two stores doing 300,000, somebody else opens up a shop and they go up to 400,000 in sales, does that mean the first two are now out of business or struggling? No. The point is that each business builds its own customer base. We only tend to poach about 5 to 10 percent of our customers off of each other. It seems like a much higher number, but the reality is each business generates its own customer base. Online sellers generate on the most part, their own customer base.

Remember too that most of the stuff they sell is stuff we don’t sell, secondary market, out of print material. Jon carries more product than you could fit into most of our stores. If we don’t sell the product, then we’re not very well in competition with him. If they sell to people who aren’t interested in buying from us, then we’re not much in competition to him. I would argue that this industry as a whole is seeing more money coming into it because of internet sellers. However, I think it’s key to note, that the internet sellers primarily sell only to existing customers. They don’t create new customers. What they’ve done is they’ve captured, they’ve retained some of those customers that would have left the industry earlier, but now with the option of buying online, we have more of them sticking around, especially because they can also sell products to people and Jon. So do I believe that the industry is larger? Yes, because I think that we’ve retained people that we would have lost otherwise.

However, most of the money that’s being made by the online people, I don’t think [remains] in the industry. Selling secondary market and out of product materials, doesn’t put money into the new manufacturers’ pockets, it doesn’t help the new retailer, it doesn’t help the industry as a whole. It’s certainly great for the online discounter, but it’s not necessarily helping the industry, so yes, I think we’re a larger industry, I think we have more money, I think we’re retaining more people, and I think that the online people are benefiting from that tremendously, and I don’t see them as as much competition as most people fear them. But I also don’t see that extra money as benefiting the industry as a whole, so much as benefiting just the online retailer. Thank you.

Controlling Online Discounting: Realistic or Not?

Michael Stackpole: These guys are being a lot more reasonable than they would’ve been if we’d just given them sharpened spoons and tossed them into a locked room. [Laughter.] Really annoying. Alright so given what you guys have said, given that online retailers seem to be selling a lot of product that’s not available in store and Dave’s contention that the customer base that they’re selling to may not be a customer base which is attached to a store, the next question that I have to ask is is it then realistic then to suggest or suppose that online discounting, or discounting in any sort can be curtailed? Is there a way to control this?

Just to steal something that John and I in an earlier conversation had, you know, one of the largest discount retailers in the world on the internet is not a game retailer, it’s Amazon. And we’ve seen what Amazon has done elsewhere, so do you think that it’s possible that there are going to be efforts to curtail this stuff and control this stuff that would be effective? And if not, what are the strategies that we have to use as an industry to promote what goes on? Do we run a risk, if everybody looks at the internet and says “Because there were discounters, internet is bad, therefore I will keep my store firmly in the 18th century.” Or is there a way to sort of say, “Let’s decouple the ecommerce the e-commerce side and the negativity there and look at the other good thing the internet is good for, which is delivering information.” Are there things that our stores can do to use that half of the internet to both grow the industry and to increase what goes on? And I’ll start with you, Dave.

David Wallace: Alright, I think to address the subject, the first thing we all have to recognize: discounting did not come into play with the internet. I mean, come on, 30 years, how many stores out there discount? How many of you retailers [are] listening to “The guy down the street will sell it for 20, if you’re not going to match his price, I’m going to buy it elsewhere.”? It’s nothing new. However I do think the internet has changed discounting from the way it used to be. The two key elements that come into play here is that first off the threshold to enter business has dropped to nothing. If you want to open up a brick and mortar store, even if you’re doing it on a shoestring, you need to have enough resources to get a good shot at it. If you want to open up an online discounting store, 12 year old kids working out of their bedrooms are doing it. 60 year old grandmothers are doing it to supplement their business. You don’t have to have any resources. You can simply go into business. You don’t have to have an infrastructure. You don’t have to have a warehouse. You don’t have to have inventory. You don’t have to have employees. So that has certainly changed from what discounting used to be. That lack of infrastructure is what leads to customers saying to you “Well, you bought it for 10, why don’t you sell it to me for 11? You’re still making a profit.” I’m still making a profit? You’re right, it’s 1 dollar. The problem is is that inventory is only one of the things that I have to pay for, my infrastructure, my fixed costs, my labor costs, exceed that 10 percent that the dollar represents. I cannot run my business in that fashion. The business model will not allow for it. But for that 12 year old, inventory cost is the only expense he faces. Now John ironically here has larger fixed costs and labor costs than any of the retailers in this room. Trust me, if you look at his bills, you’d appreciate how well you have it. He knows that he can’t get away with that on the internet, but that 12 year old can. That’s why we see this incredible push towards, you know, I have to sell it for a 1 percent profit margin. Do I think that the manufacturers can change this?

Manufacturers, please don’t misunderstand me, thank you. I appreciate your gestures. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but the reality is, it’s all symbolic, you can’t stop discounting from taking place. Nobody can stop discounting from taking place. John is not buying direct from the manufacturers. He’s not signing contracts with them agreeing not to discount. They can’t control it. I do appreciate their efforts, mainly because I appreciate their support. It says that we believe in you and we want to see you successful and I’m going to argue a little bit later that they need us to be successful. But in the end I don’t really see manufacturers curtailing discounting and stopping it from affecting us. Like it or not, it’s what we live in. In an ideal world, if discounters didn’t exist, would we be better off? Come on, we don’t live in an ideal world. Realistically let’s get on with what we need to. John?

Jon Huston: What I’d like to focus on is talking about what some manufacturers have done so far in their desire to control or reduce online discounting. Dave was actually wrong in one of his facts, that we did not sign agreements with manufacturers about price. We’ve actually signed agreements with two manufactuers about price and stuck to that agreement. One is Mayfair Games, one is USAopoly. And before I came here, oh! And actually a third one about location. We’ve actually signed an agreement with Games Workshop. Each of those three companies have a different set of rules. The Games Workshop rule is if you sign a deal with them, you cannot sell online, at least using a cart. Since we use a cart we don’t list their stuff on our website. We signed the deal with Games Workshop because we sell Games Workshop in both of our retail stores. USAopoly, that was something that only happened in the last 3 to 6 months. USAopoly had us sign an agreement that we would sell things only at Suggested Retail Price, I think that’s what it was. And Mayfair’s had an agreement for several years, 4 or 5 years, something like that, that we have to sell everything at a maximum discount of 20 percent. That is, we have to sell everything at 80 percent or more. That puts Settlers of Catan, by the way, [at] $33.60. So I had one of my staff study the internet just before I came here to look for the effect on those three manufacturers. He found that Games Workshop, which is not supposed to have anything for sale on the internet, actually found vast quantities of their stuff for sale on both Amazon and eBay. USAopoly which is supposed to have everything Suggested Retail and hopefully USAopoly won’t be mad at me saying this about them, is they don’t seem to be enforcing it, or they don’t seem to be successful in enforcing it, because he [John’s researcher] was hard pressed to find the stuff at suggested retail from anyone. But the third company, Mayfair, which has been enforcing their policy for a number of years, it was very difficult for him to find Settlers of Catan for less than $33.60.

There’s actually a website out there, if you want to study Amazon pricing on any item for the last two, three years, the website’s called camelcamelcamel.com. See you don’t even have to write it down, a brilliant name, you go to camelcamelcamel.com, you can pick Amazon off the list, type the name of the item or its UPC code, you can look at Settlers of Catan and see that other than two or three ocurrences over the last year that Settlers of Catan has been on Amazon, it’s stuck at $33.60. That’s what their price has been. What my staff member said to me, and I agreed with him, is that if a manufacturer wants to set a reasonable online price and is willing to enforce it and spend the time to enforce it, I believe that that manufacturer could probably be able to maintain that price as they have for Settlers of Catan. I’m not sure whether or not that enforcement of that price really ends up having any effect overall on the success of that item among gamers or for the manufacturer themselves, but as far as it goes, manufacturers do have some ability to control online pricing, if they want to do so.

Do Game Stores Need to Shift to Serving as Community Hubs?

Michael Stackpole: Yeah, I think that one point I would just add to that as we saw in the book trade when Borders went out of business last year, that immediately affected Barnes & Noble, in terms of the fact that they were selling off all this stock, there’s no chance to enforce things at Manufacturers’ Suggested Retail Price and that did damage to Barnes & Noble, did damage to some independent bookstores. And if you have a retail outlet and the store on the other side of your town goes out of business and starts selling everything off, there’s going to be no enforcement, you’re going to take that hit regardless. So the enforcement of those discounts becomes a really tricky thing if that’s all you’re going to trust your future to. You need to be looking at certain other strategies, which brings me to my next question, and again, everybody who’s here probably already knows this. I know that we do have some brand new retailers and so I hope that your answers can address some of this for them.

What I’ve seen in the Phoenix area in the book market is that two very successful independent book stores have shifted from what they used to be to now being, in essence, event venues with a rather large gift shop attached to them. That’s how they’ve shifted what they do, it’s not just you’re going for the books, you’re going there because an author is going to be there or they are holding a class or they are having a workshop. And then you purchase those ancillary things. And again, you guys, what is that you see-, what are the resources that retailers have got, in this business, to do those sorts of things? Is that sort of shift neccessary? Is providing essentially that community hub, going to be the thing that successfully allows stores to flourish regardless of the availability of product on the net? What are your thoughts on that and what do you see, especially with your retail areas, that you do to make sure that your store flourishes regardless? So, we’ll start with you, John.

Jon Huston: This is where I have a good perspective, because we just opened a second retail store a little over three weeks ago. And we opened it in a small town of 7,000 people, only 7 miles away from a major online discount retailer. And we put everything in our store at Suggested Retail Price and keep in mind that that meant anyone coming into our store can, they can just drive 7 miles away and get it for a cheaper price from those Troll and Toad.com folks down the road and what’s even more embarassing is in our store we have a sign that says that the store is a Troll and Toad store, so some of our customers coming in want to know why we don’t match the prices online and we just let them know, that if they would like to buy from online, we recommend that they do. But in our store we don’t match online discounts. [Some laughter].

“For centuries, we’ve had places called taverns, and what a tavern is, it’s a place you can go in, and pay for alcohol 3 or 4 more times than a local store. So why the hell do people go into a tavern to buy a drink when they could just go across the road and get it cheaper? It’s because of the environment.”

– Jon Huston

Our store is doing very well. But the reason that our store is doing well is because we’re not trying to match the online discounter’s price, we realize that trying to discount is not going to be a successful way to do profit. I’m very sold on Dave’s talks that he’s done in earlier years that I’ve listened to, and he continues to preach that discounting in your store is ultimately just a way for you to get less money into your store. Instead, you should be focusing your store on what the online discounter cannot provide, which is the immediate experience of being able to provide them with a product in hand, to give them that community, to give ’em a store where they feel it’s worth paying more money. For centuries, we’ve had places called taverns, and what a tavern is, it’s a place you can go in, and pay for alcohol 3 or 4 more times than a local store. So why the hell do people go into a tavern to buy a drink when they could just go across the road and get it cheaper? It’s because of the environment. If you can put together an environement that makes people appreciate the environment they are in, most people are going to be willing to spend the money to help maintain that environment because they appreciate it.

David Wallace: I certainly want to address what they’re talking about, but before I do, I want to make what I think is a key point. Mike talked about brick and mortar stores being a portal into the industry, a way of creating customers. This is where I think that the industry in general has to wake up. I said earlier that the online discounter, the online retailer, basically services the existing gamer. They’re not creating new gamers. That’s what we need the brick and mortar stores for. 2-3,000 stores filled with goobers who love what they do so much that they can’t wait to share it with anybody that’ll stand there long enough to listen to them. This is how to create new people. Every industry suffers from attrition. You’re always losing people. If you don’t have a greater influx of new people than you have people going out the door, you’re going to eventually suffer and go out of business. This industry needs the brick and mortar store to create new customers. We are the missionaries who convert the heathen into gamers. [Laughter] As good as the online store can be, it will never succeed in doing that. The industry requires it. Now, how do we go about doing that?

Yes, values. Price is a value. There are people who like getting more for less money. That’s pretty much everyone. There is a percentage of our market share that price is the single most important value there is and they will shop online at those discounters no matter what. They’re not your customers. Stop thinking of them as your customers; they don’t belong to you. You will never get their business. If everybody else goes under and you’re the last store on the face of the earth, they still don’t want to give you any money. Alright? Price is all important to them. Fortunately price is not the only value that’s out there. I’ve listened for 10 to 12 years, people preaching to me, that I’m dead. You are a dinosaur. You’re extinct, you’re just too stupid to know it, lay down and die like you’re supposed to. You cannot compete on product, because they can get cheaper online. The fallacy behind this is that everybody that preaches this sees the buying public as one homogenous mass, that all value the same thing. I don’t know about you, but my sales are going up. And it’s not because my customers are too stupid to know that they have options out there. They have other values. John’s right; don’t compete on price, because that’s not what they were coming to you for in the first place. If you want to give away the money, they’ll take it. But they’re there for other reasons, they like your location, they like the time they spend in your store. It’s like walking into a garden, all the stress goes out of it, you’re just happy to be there. They love talking to people that share what they like. They like finding out about new stuff. They want to pick it up and hold it in their hands. They like the people that they meet in your store, the community that you have.

The key here is to recognize that not only can you not compete on price, but you don’t have to compete just on community. I’ve been told for 12 years, that the only way I’ll stay in business is by having an organized play and selling chips and soda. That’s crap. I can sell product from here to the next 50 years, because I provide other values, not price, and not just community service. There’s 50 ways you can go back and improve your store right now and improve the fact that people love shopping with you. Every one of those is bringing new people in and that’s where this industry’s getting its new customers.

What Should Game Manufacturers Do to Help Retailers?

Michael Stackpole: Again, no blood? This is really surprising me. I did for, just so you know, I did for a while manage a Flying Buffalo game store, so I have got a certain amount of experience and I’ve always felt that community is a core part of what we actually do. But I also notice that one of the problems that we have, and I’ll label it as a problem, is because we’re all gamers, we look for the rules, we try and figure out what the Victory Conditions are, and we invariably attempt to hack the rules. And we think of it as just this game and we tend to miss the idea that selling to people, retailing, is actually a much bigger game. And there are other places that do it very successfully and play very successfully. I think one of the things which is incumbent upon it, and I did this when I was managing the Flying Buffalo store, it’s incumbent upon all of us as retailers to go out to some of those other retail outlets whether it’s a Target or it’s a Wal-Mart, or it’s a Nordstrom’s. You know, I think if every retailer here went to a Nordstrom’s or a Neiman Marcus and just see how that they treat customers and we looked at how we can apply that to our audience and what we do, we would benefit greatly as a community.

So my next question, I’m going to start with Dave, is in this idea of we want the brick and mortar stores, because as you say, they are apostles, I’ve always seen games as being more shared as a disease vector, so this would be a virus hot spot. But we’ll go with missionaries and chapels and that sort of things, because it’s much more pleasant, and we are in Vegas where people are praying all the time [laughter], so what do you see, what are the things that you want to encourage manufacturers to do that they’re not doing enough of, or that have been really really successful that helps you spread the word, that helps you be that missionary to go ahead and grow. And you can talk about successful programs that you’ve seen or things that you would like to see, or things that you remember companies having done in the past that were very useful, and you know, have just fallen by the wayside, because unfortunately some of those companies have been culled down through the years. And that’s a question totally off script, so if they look like they’re deer in the headlights, now you know why.

David Wallace: Yeah, I’m going to start off by “Where did that come from?” Again, we add value, but we add value in different ways. A brick and mortar retailer that panics and sees the online business as competition, that thinks that the only way that they can match that competition is by matching price is cutting their own throat. First, let’s recognize the fact that they’re not competition, not seriously. We tend to deal with this as an emotional thing. Every one of us has had customers come into our store and say “You’re a crook. How dare you charge retail price. What the hell kind of a fool are you?” I love this story I heard from a guy that worked for Dream Pod 9. He had a guy come to their website, order a bunch of stuff, and when he gave him the price, the kid said “Well, why aren’t you giving it to me at cost?” And he said “Well, what would we pay our bills with and make a living?” And the kid told him, “Go out and get a job like the rest of us.” [Laughter]

Competition would suggest that we share something in common. If John sells two million dollars worth of Magic singles and Yu-Gi-Oh singles over the course of the year and you don’t sell singles, are you in competition? If he sells to customers who would never come into your store, is he really competing with you? The fact of the matter is that we don’t actually share a lot of competition. It’s the emotion. I don’t like being accused of being a crook because I charge full price. It hurts when somebody comes into my store and says “Even though I got into it because of you, and I love you, and you know, you came to my wedding. I’m going to buy online, I can’t support you anymore.” Emotionally it’s very difficult for us and mostly it’s fear. If I’m not successful, can I find a scapegoat? Can I blame it on someone else? But the reality is we don’t have that much competition. So if you turn around and give in and say that I have to compete with them and that I’ll do it on price, you’re not going to get anywhere. You can compete, but there’s not much competition to begin with. Don’t focus on the online store, you’re a brick and mortar store: they’re not your customers.

Most of them want to be in a place that they like going to. That’s what it comes down to. I enjoy being in your store. If coming into your store means you’ve got product on the shelves, somebody sitting behind a counter painting a fig, and they finally look up and say “Did you want fries with that?”, you’re not adding much value to their time in your shop. On the other hand, if you have some kickass displays, if being in your store is fun, if you’ve got hands-on, interactive, if you’re employees aren’t sitting behind a counter, if they’re out working with customers, if you’ve got demos, if you’ve got events, if you’ve got just wonderful product mix with unique and interesting things, and something new showing up every week, now you’re bringing value in in a lot of different ways. The only way that I’ll disagree with Mike: communtiy absolutely, positively, it’s an absolute value and you should take advantage of it. But to suggest that it’s the only one is ridiculous. You can run a store without any gaming space whatsoever and be tremendously successful by providing other values. You will never be able to please all the people all the time. It’s a guaranteed way to bankruptcy. This casino certainly doesn’t please all the people all the time. You don’t have to. Please the ones that you’re trying to take advantage of. Oh, that came out bad. [Laughter.] Please the ones that you’re there for, your targeted audience. Make your competitive edges line up and reinforce the people that you want to please. That person that wants you to sell at 35 percent off isn’t your customer. Stop trying to please them. Go back to the ones that you’re making money on. Those customers belong to John. Let him have them. They’re not yours.

Michael Stackpole: (…manufacturers?… Any one dream thing that you’d like to see from manufacturers?)

My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it.

– Dave Wallace

David Wallace: You know the only thing I can really say about manufacturers is not what I want them to do for me, it’s what I want them not to do. I don’t want them to panic. I don’t want to believe that we’re dinosaurs, that we don’t have a future. I don’t like it when a manufacturer starts trying to cut into my customers and cut me out of the loop… Paizo. [Applause.] I want my manufacturers to stand behind me. We are the sales force to them. What sense does it make to fire your sales force? If you go back to your stores and fire everybody that works behind the counter, what do you think’s going to happen? I don’t need them to give me any special deals and I don’t need them to break his back [Jon Huston and other online retailers] and tell him he can’t sell at a discount. I just need them to recognize that I’m not dead. My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it. Don’t give up on me. They don’t have to help me. They just don’t have to abandon me. [Applause.]

Jon Huston: I believe the essence of your question was “What could manufacturers do to help brick and mortar stores more, correct?” First, I’ll start by two things that I dont think actually help them. One is making limited edition items where you only get a few for each store. From my perspective, I see this as a way of just antagonizing people in that store, who want to know why they weren’t the ones who got it, the person behind the counter got it, or his best friend got it. It seems that that just kind of does a negative thing. And generally what will happen is this is going to drive up the price between those few lucky people that got into your store, [they] buy it, and then they send it to us or put it on Amazon or eBay themselves and make the extra money so that they can get the full price. The other thing that I’ve seen manufacturers do is do only a certain amount of product for each store location and I think that is a self-limiting factor because, again kind of like the limited edition thing, it means that you’re capping the success of any of the brick and mortar stores that you sell to. A brick and mortar store, say, in Chicago is probably going to be able to sell a lot more than a brick and mortar store in, say, Anchorage, Alaska, though the one in Anchorage, Alaska actually kicks pretty good butt; I’ve been to it. I probably should have picked Idaho instead. [Laughter] But those limitations aren’t good.

Fantasy Flight Games Media Center displaying FF logo on its iPad

The Fantasy Flight Media Center

Clear plastic dome of a Skylanders demo unit in a Kmart

Activision’s Skylanders Display in a Kmart

Where I could see manufacturers really helping out brick and mortar stores over online is first putting together really effective demo units for stores that would promote the merchandise, for when people see the promotional unit, they’re driven to buy the items right there. There’s a local K-Mart that has this beautiful display of all the Skylander figures in little rows. Now mind you that Skylander is so hot there’s no need for them to promote it anymore, but I was looking at that, thinking “Wow, if those kinds of things were made for retail stores, where they could buy them and put them in…” And then I realized that some retail stores do that; they have people paint the figures and bring them in and set them up in a glass showcase and they look so cool, people want to buy the figures so they can paint them themselves or often want to buy the painted figures and want to know why you won’t sell them to them. [Laughter] But the point is demonstration. Demo stuff like that, especially three dimensional demo stuff would, I think, be very strong for brick and mortar stores. This is what I’d like to ask, one question of the audience: for those of you who carry the Fantasy Flight Games iPad demo device in your store, if you feel that it’s increased the sales of Fantasy Flight Games in your store, could you raise your hand? Alright, so that’s an example, I think, of a rather low cost, you know, doesn’t take up a lot of space, and yet a manufacturer can use that and other things to promote sales in brick and mortar stores.

Is the Game Industry’s Current 3 Tier Distribution System Sustainable?

Michael Stackpole: To take from what both of you said, something that I always felt was very important again when I was managing the store, was something that I looked at, was that it is possible to manufacture demand for a particular product line in your store, provided you find a way to push it. I remember this was back in the Dark Ages, there was a game called Arduin Grimoire, which some of you may remember, and this again, back in the Dark Ages, saddle-stapled book, very hard to read, small type, horrible illustrations, but we stocked it just because we wanted to stock one of everything and back in those days you actually could. And I suddenly noticed that the game started to sell. And so we’d replace it and it would sell and replace it and it would sell. In the course of six weeks, we moved six copies and then it stopped selling and I was totally baffled as to why that had actually been [the case]. Then I found out that one of our regulars had started running a campaign and so all of his players came in and they bought that product and they got it out.

So finding those people in your stores, who are opinion-makers, finding those people who look to new product, using them to perhaps teach classes on how to GM this particular game or using them to run demos of the game becomes a way that you can begin to drive demand for what goes on. I’m going to get to our last question and I think in many ways you guys have answered it, but I want to sort of gather your thoughts together, and this is the dreaded question #6, which I hoped I would never get to on our list. Do you think that the industry’s current 3-tiered system is sustainable? And if it’s not, what’s the impetus to stop manufacturers from going direct? We’ve already talked about what stores bring to the industry. If manufacturers went direct, what do you see as – for both online retailers and brick and mortar retailers – what do you see the future of the industry to be?

Jon Huston: I think the 3 tier distribution system is critically important to keep brick and mortar retailers to be able to continue to get their product. From my perspective, a small retail store, if they had to buy all their product directly only from manufacturers to carry in their store, they would severely cut the number of different manufacturers’ products that they would be carrying. They simply wouldn’t be able to and the industry in the far past has had this experience in a similar manner in the comic book industry when Marvel, they got to be at a point where they were somewhere around 60 percent of all comic book sales, changed to a system where they would sell direct to all the comic book stores. And the comic book industry took many years to recover from the disaster that ensued and Marvel themselves, the drop in sales that occurred by trying to go direct to all the stores. After a few years they ended up giving up and that’s where Diamond Comic Distributors ended up becoming pretty much the only distributor of comic books out there. And I lived through that experience, because that was long before I had a mail order catalogue, I had a comic and game store. So I don’t think that that would be good for the industry at all and I think it’d especially be bad for smaller manufacturers and the smaller manufacturers are often those who bring in innovative new products. So in that regard, I could see a major presence like there is, in fact, one manufacturer who’s gone direct: Games Workshop. But as a result of going direct, has that really benefitted Games Workshop that much? From my perspective I don’t think so. I think it would have been better if they’d continued to distribute through the 3 tier system and not go direct. I think they’ve struggled for a number of years with their growth, that they couldn’t have experienced if they stayed in the 3 tier system.

David Wallace: I’ve already suggested that my fear is that manufacturers will lose faith in us, that they will think that we are no longer a viable alternative and I don’t think that’s the case. Why is that happening? We have to look at a basic assumption here. Has more money entered into this industry as a result of online retailers? Yes. There’s no question about it. There is more money in the industry. Unfortunately most of that money, as I said, is tied up in secondary product, out of print material, it’s not coming into our industry, it’s staying in the online retailers’ pockets. And the natural assumption is, that if they’re doing well, we must be doing badly. Otherwise where’d their money come from? And this overlooks the idea that they are helping us retain gamers and that’s where the money is coming from. Just because they are doing well, doesn’t mean that we are doing badly. But because, again, we get emotional about it and because there are always stores looking for a scapegoat because they don’t want to accept responsibility for themselves, we point the finger and say that they are stealing our customers away. It’s a misunderstanding. It’s a bad assumption.

Our industry is not hurting. We’re not in trouble. We picked up additional monies. That’s not a bad thing. The only way it really hurts us is that the online discounter has got so much money coming in from customers that we no longer deal with. As John told you, he’s carrying product that you don’t have in your store. Not because you can’t get it, because you can’t sell it to your small local market. He’s got the world to deal with, he can sell to a larger market. It’s still valuable material for him, it’s still generating money for him. You’re not in competition with him, it’s just generating money that wasn’t there before. Because he can make money doing that – this is obviously not addressed at John, I’m talking about the online retailer – it allows them to also sell new product at a lower price. They are subsidizing their ability to sell products that you do carry at a reduced price because of the money they are making on the secondary market, the out of print, the long tail. It’s not fair – that’s an emotional term – but the only real harm from it, is that it effectively devalues that product. “How can you possibly justify selling Settlers of Catan for X number of dollars when I can buy it online for 30 percent less than that?” So do we have competition? Absolutely. But it’s not that much, it’s only in limited areas, and it’s not going to drive you out of business. Most of their success did not come at our cost.

There’s nothing wrong with the 3 tier system. We should embrace it, we should run with it, we should do everything we can to make all parts of the industry as healthy as we possibly can. We need to remember that we’re the incubators; we generate the new customers. If we do away with the 3 tier system, we do away with our ability to generate new customers, although ironically, you finally hit upon a solution that will do away with most of the online discounters: if the manufacturers are selling it direct to the customers, why would they sell it to anybody else at a cheaper price? Unfortunately doing away with the online discounters that way is also committing suicide as a hobby. It’s not going to help our industry. So it’s not a solution to our problem. Manufacturers that don’t support us are going to do better in the short run, but in the long run, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you suffer attrition, retailers can’t sell your product, therefore they’re not going to push your product, you’re not going to pick up new customers, you’re dealing with a smaller clientele. It’s happened before. Columbia Games cut us out of the loop. How well are they doing right now? Hero Systems sent out an email saying we’re in trouble, stop buying from your store, come and buy from us. How well did that work for them?

“Talk to the retailers here at the show that are really working their stores. None of them are telling you that they are having problems, they’re going out of business. They’re all telling you that my business is going up. We’re not in trouble.”

– Dave Wallace

We are the sales force. We are a neccessary part of this. The wonderful thing about all of this is if you get past the emotion, if you just look at this from an objective viewpoint. We’re not doomed. This is not out of your control. Every last bit of this is strictly up to you. Go run a successful store, push the values that are available to you, and you will do just fine. Talk to the retailers here at the show that are really working their stores. None of them are telling you that they are having problems, they’re going out of business. They’re all telling you that my business is going up. We’re not in trouble. Don’t give into the fear, don’t give into the emotions. Deal with this as an intelligent businessperson and go back and take care of your own business. The danger here is that we tend to see this like an episode of “Survivor”: there’s only one winner. But you don’t get paid because your comptetition does badly; you get paid because you did it right. Nobody’s going to come to you at the end of the year and say “Everybody else went out of business, you’re the winner, here’s your million dollars.” Stop looking at it that way! Competition has nothing to do with it. Forget the stores in your city, forget the online, just run the best damn store you can. You’ll be fine. [Applause.]

Michael Stackpole: I’d like to thank both of our panelists and you for being very solemn and listening and having interest in what was a very important discussion. I think ultimately if you listen to everything that was said, it comes down to this: know your customer base, figure out what it is that they need, and then figure out how you’re going to deliver that to them. And that is, if you are a manufacturer, your customer base are the distributors and/or the retailers; figure out what they need delivered. If you’re a retailer, look at your customers, figure out what they need and deliver it. That’s the way we run. As Dave succinctly said “Run a successful business and you’ll be ok.” And that’s the way to do it. Thank you very much.

Fantasy Flight Media Center image copyright Fantasy Flight Games, used with permission. Titan’s Entertainment Cafe store picture copyright Titan’s Entertainment Cafe, used with permission.