Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cat Pee Stores

Why do we, the designer, care about the retail experience? Well, where do you think the gamer is going to buy your game? Moreover, the retail store is your point of contact with the consumer, your audience. Do they like crunchy games? Story games? Do they prefer the falling damage rules in Terminus V vs. Vampire? Hanging out in game stores is a good idea, to learn about your audience. But, to me, the most important aspect of the game store is as retail establishment.

Right now, you're thinking "hunh?!" 

Let's wind back a bit with a bit of background. If you talk to any game manufacturer, the subject turns pretty quickly to retailers. Despite my glowing praise of Zombie Planet, I'm sorry to say the majority of game stores are the exact opposite. Peter Adkinson (Hi, Peter!) calls these "cat pee stores." This is because the store smells like cat pee from the store cat. These retail establishments are run like gamer clubhouses, typically for the owner and his friends. They just want the discount they get from Alliance. So, they're not operated like real businesses. Some of the experiences I had:

The game store owner who opened up his shipment from the distributor and then left it on a floor by the door. If you were looking for a new release, you picked through the box. "Hi, I'm looking for the new GURPS supplement." "It's in the box..."

The owner who wouldn't walk away from his computer to ring up a sale, because he was playing an MMO.

I went into a store one time looking for a GURPS supplement (Black Ops, if you must know), because I was out of town and needed a copy. No GURPS to be found. "Where do you keep the GURPS?" I asked. Oh, we hate that game, so we don't carry it. Uh, what?!

There was a store in Scranton that claimed to be a game store, but it only really carried Games Workshop and some Magic. But they made sure to have three couches, two warboards, and a soda machine. It was really a clubhouse where they could wargame, and the Magic sales paid the bills.

This one is my favorite story. I went into a retailer, looking for my own stuff. I needed to buy a present for someone on the run, and wanted to give them some of my own work. Again, no Star Trek RPG on the shelves, so I asked. Stupid me. "Oh, LUG is out of business." Uh, what?! "LUG went out of business, so we can't get their stuff anymore." Dude, I work for LUG. I assure you we're not out of business. "Well, they haven't come out with supplement X (I forget what it was), and we heard they were out of business." Buddy, I work for LUG. Here's my card. "Well, then where's supplement X?!" What do you care, you don't even stock the goddamned game...?!

I haven't even gotten into what collectibility has done to the business. See, game stores are actually book stores selling very specialized books. For decades, they were run on the book store sales model; you buy some books and put them on the shelves. If a book sells in a week, great. If it sells in a month, great. If it sells in a year, great. You still make your profit. And you never know when someone will walk in looking for a particular book. Obviously, if the book sells faster, it's easier to make rent. But if you have enough books, the chances are you'll sell something on any given day. Magic: the Gathering destroyed this model.

Now, game stores work on a collectibles model. You buy ten cases of Magic, you sell ten cases of Magic (often in two days), instant profit. Then, you can go back to playing the Knights of the Old Republic MMO. Minimum input, maximum output. You don't have to do anything that smacks of work. The kids come in looking for the latest Magic expansion, and your money isn't tied up in inventory.

But since he can't credibly call himself a "game store" with just a computer, cat, and piles of Magic cards in his store, he orders some RPGs. Typically, this is a huge amount of D&D (though nowadays, it more likely Pathfinder), some White Wolf books, and a bunch of "little games" he's heard about. Of those "little games," the average order is the core book, and the three most recent supplements. That's it. Want something older? You're S.O.L. And once those sell, there's a good chance you'll never see the game again in your local cat piss store ("Uh, it's out of print, and I heard the company was out of business."). Unless you're Pathfinder, D&D, and Vampire. That is, if they bother using their Magic profits to support RPGs....

Thus, manufacturers have had to move to .pdfs and print-on-demand (POD) and make their games available direct to gamers. This has not only pissed off the retailers (then do your jobs, guys), it has affected quality of product. This is what we're concerned about as designers. This is why games are poorly laid out, have crappy art, and have no editing. You have to pay these people. I know, it's a cruel world. But if you're only charging $5 for a .pdf, you don't have the money to pay a graphic designer, artists, and editors. Your game suffers. Not only because you can't get the game into the customer's hands through retail, but because it affects your bottom line.

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