A Most Depressing Conversation

A few days ago, I spoke with John Waite, owner of  Merlyn’s, one of three active game stores in town. His business is everything you’d expect from a middle-of-the-road game store. The guy who owns it, John, is a decent guy, but shrewd as hell. He sits on at least a hundred grand worth of inventory (from walls of comic books to aisles of miniatures) and has a huge backstock of old, vintage games. John also runs a lot of events, and offers a huge area to play games in the back of the store. The whole place looks like what you’d expect from a largish nerd store: a swap meet full of nerd schtuff.

I can’t come down too hard on John; he obviously knows what the hell he is doing. For that reason, I found myself wondering: what does John thinks of the industry? What is he excited about? What does rubs him the wrong way?

Well, let’s start with the other nerd store in town. We both share a loathing for it. It only sells TCGs, doing the greatest of its trade in Magic. I won’t link you to their website, because it literally crashes my browser, but the name is T&M Cards. It is awful. It reeks. It is located in a small strip mall in an iffy part of town. The owner is a big, fat, obnoxious racist. You have to flag down his wife or kid to get any sort of customer service. Mostly, it’s just a place for him to hang out and play card games with a bunch of other nerds who have nowhere else to go.

I’ll invite you to postulate which one is struggling to make rent and expenses and might close soon.

John’s biggest beef, however, is really the industry itself. What John wants is products that sell, that move of the shelves. He’s in this for the same reasons everyone else should be; not for art, not for the hobby, but to make a god-damned living. This isn’t to say that John doesn’t play or love games; he does! But he has also been running a game store for thirty years, and he knows how it works.

John likes Magic, and he likes that the new set is selling well (so well that they can’t keep boxes in the store, which I’m sure annoys him a bit). John loved the WoW TCG until it got ruined and the player base in his store abandoned it. He wants more things to sell like that; products that fit into one of two categories.

The first category is the best: pre-sold products, like D&D, Pathfinder, Dark Heresy, Magic, Arkham Horror. Games that people come in wanting to buy. John has a real appreciation for people who continue to shop locally, so much that he offers ten percent off his entire store! No joke. The entire damned store is 10% off.

The second category is easily presented products. These are products that an employee can pick up off the shelf and sell based on their own merits as a product – not as a niche game, or a supplement, or a new universal system, but a fun experience in and of itself. Stick around in Merlyn’s for long enough, and you’ll watch an employee haltingly explain what an RPG is, or a TCG, and how to get into one. What a game store owner wants is a game that sells itself based on its own merits: fun, enjoyable, potentially challenging games.

I’ll let you guess how many of RPGs on John’s shelf fall into this category. How many truly introductory products are there in the store?

Wait for it.


Two RPG starters.

Now, I might seem to be contradicting myself here. I said in a most inflammatory post that there were over a hundred. Where’s the difference here? Well, allow me to illustrate by example.

The first is the Doctor Who Adventure Game, which comes in a box and lets you play as The Doctor and his Companions! Wait. What if I’m not into Doctor Who, because it’s British and what the hell, why is this show so goofy? Why are the aliens farting?

The second choice is the aforementioned Pathfinder Beginner Box. Let me tell you, John is excited about this. He has one box opened up for display behind the counter. I’ve seen his employees suggest it to people as Christmas gifts. It’s the Red Box for the twenty-first century; probably not in sales, but certainly in marketability.

It’s a simple pitch: Want to play a D&D? Get this.

It’s sad to watch someone like John feel abandoned by the industry. Everyone puts it on his shoulders. I’ve heard the refrain a dozen times in the last two weeks: “Game stores should take an active part! Offer our products! Explain how they work! That’s their job!” Oh wait, game stores are dying, in no small part to the way that John feels.

He feels abandoned by Wizards, who jerks him around with shipping, creates false shortages, and just plain refused to ship him the Red Box to sell (and when it arrived, it sucked). He feels abandoned by most of the other game companies, too, as they continue to push their niche products on a shrinking customer base who increasing buys directly from them, or from Amazon. He feels abandoned by customers, who no longer frequent his store, instead going to T&M or buying their books and boxes online.

So, there’s John, alone, with his game store. John wants you to make new games. He wants new things to sell, so long as they will sell. He wants fewer entries in his Alliance catalog, and he wants to have greater confidence in those products. He wants companies to produce products that will make him money, because it’s good for everyone on down the line.

So, why aren’t we? Why aren’t we making better products? Well, most companies are full of excuses. They run their businesses poorly:

We got the first shipment of 2500-series miniatures, but still don’t have any rulebooks and got word that fleet boxes won’t happen until next year. (We have had to cancel dozens of orders for them as the credit card company will not hold orders that long.)

They complain about sales and that the industry is shrinking:

There is a school of thought that says that when a recession comes along, sales of RPGs go up. In the main, that is probably true, and we certainly saw an upsurge in 2009 (indeed, we had some of our best sales months for some time in that period). However, it could not last, and the RPG market overall…has been rather depressing. The word we would use is ‘challenging.’ Things always go in cycles in the hobby games market, and RPGs are on the low swing at the moment.

Or, you know, blame Wizards of the Coast:

 It would be nice to blame the market leader for this situation – as does the market leader, so goes the market after all but, in truth, RPGs would still be in a downturn right now, even if the latest edition of the favourite game was selling hand over fist. And it isn’t. Sorry, but it just plain isn’t.

That’s right, the Wizards of the Coast that is singlehandedly keeping the lights on in John’s store. The Wizards of the Coast that is exploring new publishing models in order to get out of the diminishing returns business. The Wizards of the Coast that wrote the entire game industry darling Paizo is selling.

All the while, they produce the same games that John doesn’t stock, the once that won’t sell in his store. More miniatures, because miniatures sell (online). More ridiculous sourcebooks that they’re confused about not selling any of. More reprinted games. More of the same.

John sits alone, just watching. waiting, pinching pennies and hoping that a big seller will find its way to his shelves soon. He’s optimistic; he thinks that things will turn around.

I sure hope so.

9 thoughts on “A Most Depressing Conversation

  1. Sexcomb says:

    I feel a paradox here. You have already stated that large companies should publish RPGs as their games have much more value, than the indie productions. Yet in this post you complain that there are no introductory games.

    In my humble opinion an introductory game is should be less than 120 pages, as noone will read through 500+ pages just to start a game. It should be rules-light, a newbie will read and understand at most 30 pages of rules, and long tables filled with numbers will surely frighten him.

    However a large gaming company has its own requirements for a game. It needs a large core rulebook, as the larger the book, the better the deal seems to be. (20 dollars for a 100 page rulebook seems expensive compared to 45 dollars for a 500 page rulebook) A large company will inevitably publish a lot of supporting books for the system just to keep the profits running. These will be new monsters, classes, weapons, magic items, spells, which are nearly useless for gaming, but cheap to produce (you don’t have to be a genious to write a lot of different classes or spells, most of them slightly modified versions of already published material).

    You can play an RPG for years without any supplements, these books are useless and a pile of rulebooks scares away any new recruits. But large companies can not afford to print starter packs, as they do not turn up profit, some guys buy one rulebook, and nothing else ever again. They all go for the players already hooked up, because they will buy many rulebooks. These games become fattened up with completely useless and boring rules just to create the rulebooks needed to turn up a profit, which limit their players as they have a lot of completely useless and boring rules, and they do not turn up profits because of this.

    The games suitable for beginners are like the indie games, but they will never gather enough capital to print a fancy rulebook, their products will be shitty home-made rulebooks. They can rarely hook up new players as their games are shitty to look at, and highly expensive compared to the large, illustrated rulebooks of the large companies. A newbie buyer feels like wasting his money on such low quality products.

    So the paradox is simple: Which one do you prefer? You don’t like indie games, because of their low quality and you don’t like large companies, because they print out a lot junk just to turn up profits. So what is the solution? A large company that produces a high quality product which is simple enough for a beginner? But why would they publish something like that? Becoming a sole supplier for a toy train industry is somewhat profitable and an easy position to maintain. Creating innovative new games to hook up new gamers is risky and hard work.

    • fugaros says:

      “Making better games that people actually want to buy is expensive and difficult, therefore we shouldn’t do it. Instead, let’s doom our hobby by sticking to the existing formula.”

      Is that really your point?

    • Ewen says:

      RPGs are by their very nature more difficult to monetize than some other products, but I’m not sure there’s so much of a dilemma between introductory products and ones that serve more dedicated gamers.

      As far as production values go, indie games are all over the place. They’re not going to be packed with lavish, full-color professional art like D&D and Pathfinder, but that doesn’t mean they all look as bad as a Starfleet Battles book. There are games like Fiasco (which uses simple “cutout” art) and Blowback (which makes good use of photographs) that are excellent aesthetically without shelling out thousands of dollars on artwork, and solid graphic design can do wonders.

      Having an accessible introductory product and a full game line don’t strike me as being anywhere near mutually exclusive. It’s definitely a challenge to make an introductory product that’s both complete in itself and naturally leads to trying out a more ambitious game experience with other products, but it’d certainly be worth it.

      Also, core gamers tend to operate on an assumption that an RPG should be something highly detailed and arcane that you can play for multiple years. I like that there are such games, but I also think that there should be room for RPGs whose social footprint is more in line with a card game instead of a mega-campaign, and anywhere in between, especially if we’re talking in terms of drawing in new people. Jake Richmond’s GxB is a game that takes less than a minute to explain (it’s a silly dating game about a girl who wants to fall in love going on embarrassing dates) and maybe a couple hours to play. And if someone really likes it and wants more he can point them to his free Jedi x Sith thing, his new BxB game, or the rest of the Atarashi Games line.

  2. I wonder how well Chaosium has done with its Basic Roleplaying Quick-Start Edition. The already straightforward BRP system was stripped down to 48 pages and (at least on Amazon) sells for $12.

    Sexcomb, I think your appraisal of the options available for larger game publishers is heavily influenced by the WotC approach. Much of the WotC approach stems, I think, from rule systems that are built around character classes. Take that away and you have to find better way to make money, rather than cranking out more and more books full of new classes and spells (“Look, he’s like a Fighter, but he can throw flaming darts as he tumbles!”).

    Look at what Chaosium has done with Call of Cthulhu. They’ve been making money by producing high-quality scenario packs and other items that flesh out the game world. With Basic Roleplaying they’re following the GURPS route and attempting to build out what might be called broad and shallow, as opposed to the WotC narrow and deep approach. Obviously Chaosium isn’t printing money the way WotC is, but it is worth noting as an approach that lies somewhere between the two poles you present.

    I’m in complete agreement that the way to turn curious folks into gamers is to provide them with high-quality introductory games. In the early days of tabletop RPG, it was all word of mouth. You were literally physically introduced to D&D by a friend. These days I’m not sure we can count on this approach, at least if we want to create more than an incremental increase in gamers.

    • Sexcomb says:

      Chaosium is a very good positive example. Call of Cthulhu has a simple system, 30-40 pages at most, half of it is not immediately necessary for a beginner. The gaming world is nearly the same as ours. Most of its supplements are adventures, or like Delta Green or End Times playgrounds for players, all highly useful.

      Maybe we will read some about their business too.

  3. Mark says:

    I’ve just thought of another Introductory Box: The One Ring, the new Lord of the Rings RPG. I haven’t gotten it, but it includes everything you need, including dice. Seems like the kind of thing to introduce people to RPGs who like the films or books.

    • michael says:

      I can tell you that The One Ring is not very good as an introductory game. The game itself is good, the artwork is fantastic, but the rules are a bit muddled, even if the mechanics are elegant in practice. There is a lot of book flipping to figure out how post combat recovery works, or how to smoothly handle journeys (which is a major narrative mechanic). It could really benefit from handout style pregenerated characters and a quick summary sheet, or quickstart rules pamphlet for the key mechanics.

  4. […] of Views :1 I just read an article over at How Not To Run A Game Business in which the author, Fugaros talks with John from Merlyn’s, the game store in my hometown. In a few months, I’ll be returning to my hometown, and will […]

  5. Maxine says:

    Maybe the game store owner should try emulating what some stores do with consoles. If I go to Costco to buy an Xbox, it’ll come shrink-wrapped with an extra controller (charged), cables and a few games. It’s repackaged so that you don’t need to buy anything else to start playing. Why not try something similar and make his own ‘starter’ sets to drive sales? He could try packaging select RPGs with a pack of pencils, dice, a rules cheatsheet and some prefilled character sheets.

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