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.