Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Game Stops Here

In the tabletop retailer Facebook groups, there is extensive discussion of mass market outlets like Amazon and Target, but owing perhaps to the lack of a prominent category-killer chain, that's about as far as the discussion goes.  Toys R Us is dead now, or dying, or whatever.  Barnes & Noble whipsaws between going deep and blowout clearance; it seems obvious they're on the brink.  When Hastings was still in business, it wasn't a big topic of discussion despite the close product mix and the company having among its owners the publisher WizKids, once known for HeroClix and now known for D&D miniatures so white-hot popular that supply doesn't begin to meet demand.

In fact, the only small-store tabletop chain stores that ever get brought up are the Games Workshop company stores, the newer of which are simply branded as Warhammer stores.  Often a tabletop retailer will be concerned if a GW store arrives in their orbit, expecting their Warhammer sales to tank.  In reality, I'm deeply hoping they drop a store right there two miles off my starboard stern at the Chandler Fashion Mall.  GW stores are great for independents.  They sell the product in a superbly merchandised scheme, they sell it at MSRP, and they actively demo the game.  I couldn't ask for more from a publisher-owned outlet with products I carry.  I hear a lot about how the GW stores get the "cream" of customer spending, the initial burst of interest and money, and pass off those customers for "maintenance" to independents when the low-hanging fruit spending is over.  I think that's a short-sighted perspective.  A person who truly engages in the Warhammer hobby won't stop at 2000 points worth of Space Marines.  And what do you care how much money the other store makes.  You worry about how much money your store makes.

Having said all that, take the worst tabletop retailer discussion of the GW stores or whatever mass market outlet you like, and it's a candle before the raging bonfire of the video game retailer Facebook groups and how they discuss GameStop.  It's an absolute obsession.  Some of the video game business owners seem like they spend as much time worrying about what GameStop is doing as they do on their own stores.
Desert Sky Games is across the street from a GameStop and two miles away from another GameStop in the aforementioned Chandler Fashion Mall.  And yet, astonishingly, we are still capable of making money in the video game business, and we do it without paying all that much attention to what GameStop is doing on any given day.  How can this be?

I won't straw-man this, so I should give airtime to the legitimate worries of independent video game stores where GameStop is concerned.  Look here.

}- GameStop is so well known they get a high volume of buys from the public, especially of the newest and hottest titles and gear, despite the fact that virtually any independent store will pay more for those games and systems.  A lot of independents get the "leftovers" that the local GameStop wouldn't buy.  And a lot of it is crap.  People post memes about how their entire video game collection is only worth $7.50 when they trade it in to GameStop... and then they do it anyway, instead of selling it to us!

}- GameStop is able to deal in new video game systems and games due to their massive scale, where most independent stores pass on that because of ultra-tight margins, worse than anything in tabletop, and the high speed at which prices plummet when a new title's shine wears off, often making the store lose money outright if they can't shift that stuff within 30 days of release.  That means a lot of calls and walk-ins where people ask for that day's hot new games, and the independent store generally has to apologize and say no, to which the customer replies, "Oh.  I'll just get it at GameStop."

}- Due to their working capital and merchandising systematization, GameStop can drop a store just about anywhere they think they ought to, and have it look pretty decent, in a way that independents cannot really match, pound for pound.  And they have a prepared lease that gives them the plaza or mall exclusive on much of what they sell.

}- Publishers provide GameStop exclusive products.  Independents get those same goods later on the backswing for resale used, obviously, but that's later and the money is missed now.

}- GameStop's software integration and deployment allows them to have a relatively powerful rewards offering, seamlessly functional between their in-store and online sales, and everything else that comes with a huge data infrastructure, such as return-abuse flagging, data mining, load balancing, preemptive price movement, and so on.

}- Oh, and GameStop has been pushing their way into the tabletop and collectibles markets, and now apparently comic books, because they can.

There are surely more factors, but let's go with those.

And here is why they don't crush us.

{- Regardless of what buys we do and don't get on any given day, the longer an independent store stays established, the more people gradually learn that they are better off selling to us.  Our trade prices are regularly higher and our cash offers are virtually always higher.  GameStop overpays on a few things from time to time due to some nuance of their data analytics.  For example, they overpay on aging sports titles, until a threshold passes and then they won't even take them.  The same goes for MMO games like Destiny that are hot tickets one day, and the next day have a trade value of zero at the 'Stop.  Our practice has been to utilize our own buying policies and not worry that much about why GameStop changes an offer price.  For most titles we're going to be offering at least as much or more; for titles we really want, we make a point of being extra generous.

{- Because GameStop focuses so hard on new frontlist and practically disregards retro, there is a symbiotic relationship where we provide customer service by recommending GameStop when someone wants, say, a brand-new Nintendo Switch, and the GameStop gets us back by sending people across the street to our store when they have a pile of cartridges or are looking for titles for previous-generation systems.  And their staff proved friendly and accommodating when we approached them in the same fashion.

{- The GameStop floor plan calls for microboutiques with a Pareto-portioned merchandise mix.  They can never go as deep as we can overall.  Even on newer systems where they make their hay, you'll mainly see the AAA titles, though thanks to scale their online store can go further.  But GameStop's online store is no different to us functionally than any other online competitor, whether Amazon, Cool Stuff, Star City, and so on.  Once you're talking about someone mail-ordering, even when it's as easy as phone taps, you've already changed the venue away from a local store.  So in terms of GameStop's ability to place their cookie-cutter deployment wherever they want, yes, they can do that.  It's a step up from a flea-market stall, but it is of the same species, an ever-migrating shop counter, and a functional one at that.  Your typical independent wants to cultivate a following by picking a location very carefully and staying there for the length of the owner's career, and that difference in objective changes the entire decision tree and makes the comparison apples and oranges.

{- Touching on the previous two points, with our own Elite Pro GameStop membership, we can take advantage of their periodic Buy-2-Get-1 offers on retro titles or accessories, bringing in tough gets like Link to the Past or Smash Bros or PS4 controllers at a margin that's acceptable given the extremely high turn rate.  We can just pay for it and it's worth it, or if we have the time to spare, we can root out overstock we have that they are overpaying on that hasn't gone to zero yet, like Madden [This Year minus 1], and get their store credit bonus to add to our bankroll for their next B2G1 sale.  And they don't care; their approach to this is systemic and disregards outliers like us cherry-picking stock we want against the high volume of inventory they have coming in every day.  I stress that stores like ours don't want to spend a lot of time dickering around with this, since we're better off just focusing on the customer(s) right in front of us.  But the tool is in the workshop for the odd times we might decide to apply it.

{- Any mass-market approach with master-planned processes is going to struggle to hit efficiencies with product lines that are especially fiddly.  That's why they don't ever offer card singles, and that's what makes their push into comics look like two sunset industries leaning on each other and taking a gamble.  While I think they've surely got a return-merch deal in place with Diamond and the publishers that hedges most of the risk, I don't expect them to lose money on the comics thing.  At the same time, they are not going to become a Friendly Local Comic Store.  They simply can't do it.  Not with their physical footprint and not with their process structure.

{- It's easy to forget while our gaze caresses the bumps and folds of our own navels that GameStop has other competitors: the rest of the mass market!  And that makes the exclusives something of a double-edged sword.  What makes someone buy God of War at GameStop when they can get it for the same price or less from Target?  Sometimes those two stores are in the same plaza!  Mass-market outlets use exclusives as lures to get people to come in, almost all of them do it, and what do you know, we do it too with store-exclusive comic covers, WPN-exclusive Magic products, organized play promos from Fantasy Flight and WizKids, and so on.  So while the strike time of a hot GameStop exclusive like the Secret of Mana remaster creates some feelbads for independents, the reality is it's nothing but the status quo, and it washes out in the larger numbers.

{- Finally, yes, GameStop has a software infrastructure advantage that independents can't match.  Independents also don't have to match it, because independents aren't operating a continent worth of stores.  Yes, it would be great for our more humble point-of-sale packages to provide the kind of robust analytics and functionality that GameStop's does.  And you know what?  We almost can.  Megapackages like Magento are within reach of larger independents.  Microsoft RMH, if they can ever fully migrate the world off RMS, is a powerful tool.  And in the world of small-shop cloud-based solutions, we have some narrowly tailored stuff that puts us in the ballpark and for which local expertise simply has to bridge the gap.

At the end of the day, it comes back to fundamentals.  Focus on one's own business.  Refine and iterate.  Find ways to delight customers.  Exhibit integrity.  Master processes.  Build up your employees.  Take care of business and you'll be fine.  Coveting thy neighbour's ox and ass is about as useful as spending your days reading Game Informer.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

What the Hell is Wrong With This Industry?

If we ever want publishers, manufacturers, distributors, and customers to take us seriously and do real business with us that's sustainable in the long term, we need more professionalism in the retailer tier of this industry and we need it badly.  I don't have the answer, but I absolutely admire the problem.

I'm not talking about the everyday things, store behaviors we hear about on the regular and have become depressingly accustomed to, such as the payroll fraud, the filthy facilities, buying from minors, mistreatment of women and others, and so on.  At this point it's so characteristic of the comic and hobby game industry that when you tell someone a store is doing it, they look at you like you just told them that used-car dealers tend to engage in pressure sales.  Sky blue, water wet.  And this reality is not gaining us many allies.

Unfortunately, there are times when some comic or game store takes the next step, and does something truly deplorable.  These, unfortunately, are the incidents that create deeper impressions in the minds of those involved or affected, and contribute an outsized portion to the general public's overall disdain for stores such as mine.

The following are things actual comic or hobby game stores have done in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Eighteen.  These actually happened.  I won't call out the stores by name, purely on the off chance that I've mischaracterized something, and not because I think any of these deserve charitable anonymity.

Here is the, by definition incomplete, list.

-> A comic store closed forever on zero days' notice and took all accrued customer store credit with it.  This is not a unique scenario, but it was one that has occurred less often with the rise of Magic-heavy clubhouse closures, since they tend to continue liquidating online afterward and many attempt to make good with store credit holders.  Not this time, and apparently with an unusually large escrow figure involved.

-> A game store took official Magic: the Gathering product art and added giant porn-style "chest augmentation" to the main female character image for their event advertising on Facebook.  Because if there's one message Wizards of the Coast wants to be sending, it's that they are the same as the companies that make all the anime lolicon TCGs.

-> A game store closed but didn't tell Wizards of the Coast, so as to preserve the temporary ability to get Magic booster boxes at wholesale to sell out of the trunk of their car, which they did, at a nickel over cost.  After a few weeks of seeing dwindling player engagement -- possibly, and I know I'm reaching here, because they no longer had a real store -- they finally threw in the towel, posted a ferocious Take That message on Facebook blaming their former customers for their store's failure, and sold off their remaining inventory at a nearby Grand Prix to one of the visiting dealers.

-> An antique store side-dealing in video games in the southeast decided, what the hell, we're going to sell the Chinese counterfeit NES Classic Mini, and posted to their Facebook wall a photo with a huge stack of them for sale at $40 apiece.

-> A game store cut to top 8 of its Store Championship when only five players were left in the event.  (Not a clue how they got the event software to perform this; it was reported by players who lost in the quarterfinals.)  The bracket of four players played a quarterfinal and a semifinal, while the 5th seed was given a bye all the way to the final.  Oh, and the fifth seed was an employee of the store.  And he won.

-> The new owner of a fully diversified and established game store exited the video game category not by holding a liquidation sale, but by trading in the entire store's inventory to GameStop.

-> A game store attempting to crowdfund its opening budget fell woefully short and launched a diatribe at its community promising them they would never "have a store that cares about them" if they were unwilling to pony up cash in advance for an unproven dreamer.

-> Craigslist spam appeared repeatedly offering "OG XBOX Softmoded w/30,000+ GAMES" (sic) -- normally the work of garage dealers and hobbyists who apparently don't fear a C&D, this time it was discovered to be the work of an area video game store that has built itself a shady reputation.

-> Multiple stores of each kind closed for the day at various times due to light rain, light snow, didn't want to miss the big game, or because the owner and sole employee wasn't feeling up to it, and/or a plethora of other excuses that aren't really malice on anyone's part, but amount to simple unprofessionalism and beg for the worst possible customer reaction when one approaches the door and sees only an engaged lock and a dark room beyond.

-> A game store asked for community help in starting the construction buildout of their new facility, heedless apparently of the scorching level of liability at risk and the strong likelihood that their insurance, if any, would not cover such a volunteer deployment.  (For that matter, the tax code is also relevant to this situation.)  When only one volunteer appeared, the store posted a video to Facebook sneering and shaming the community for not turning out in greater numbers.

-> A game store known as a loose fence for stolen collections offered to sell a prominent judge's stolen collection back to him, at "cost."  Fortunately, in a happy ending, the store was persuaded (once an attorney got involved) to return the collection to its rightful owner, rather than seeing the matter get referred to the state Attorney General.  This same store, during the publicity morass that followed, decided to double down by engaging in misogynistic social media activity.  They are still open and doing business and area grinders defend them passionately.

-> The CEO of a small game store chain took to social media to call out and harass an executive with a publisher that had cut off that chain's access to tier-exclusive upcoming products and promotions.  The CEO in question, possibly drunk or high or both at the time, tagged into the meandering trainwreck of a post virtually anyone he could think of that knew that publisher or who he himself had verbally sparred with in the past, including at least one tasteless tag of a deceased store owner who was well regarded and truly missed by his peers and community.  The CEO's diatribe degenerated from empty but obnoxious blandishments to outright threats, before mysteriously disappearing from Facebook.  Fortunately, there exist these things called "screenshots."

-> A comic store employed Ken Whitman.  On purpose.

The reality is this.  The comic and hobby game industry is niche of niche -- about $2 billion, half of it comics and media, as of figures published in 2017.  The video game industry is somewhat larger at $100 billion, give or take cab fare, but the independent stores' share of that scene is utterly minuscule, a fraction of a fragment.  There is frighteningly little money to be made in this space because everyone wants in (presumably to work with fun things all day, de-emphasis on "work") and that has given us a landscape in which landlords don't take us seriously, the media doesn't take us seriously, publishers don't take us seriously, distributors hedge from every angle with us, and ultimately the customers don't take us seriously.  My family has been mostly supportive, but many of my peers have found that their own family and friends think of their business and profession as a joke.  And every time a retailer in this industry does something like the incidents recounted in the list above, that reinforces the belief that all those parties are right.  They disregard us and for all they know, they should disregard us.

Some of us are trying to do this better.  We don't have the deepest pockets to do it with, and much of what we're doing amounts to "run our store, but exhibit integrity wherever possible," but it's something at least.  Will we ascend to the "established" cred that the nicer local or regional microchains in other industries have achieved, in time to avoid being crushed by one mass-market entity or another who decides to lean on us with a chip stack we could never match?  If we don't, will anyone but us care?

We're broadcasting now and the clock is running.  This show will be however good we can make it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bring On That Seasonal Business

We are now ramping into our first summer at the Chandler location, and it's a little unsettling to realize that we have no idea what kind of business we're going to see.  Hot summer nights and our Pandora Radio are going to result in... what?  A mobbed game room and all the concessions business we can handle, on top of regular sales?  Or crickets and tumbleweeds?

The Gilbert location loved summer.  Deep in the suburbs, when school let out for the year, all the kids and teens had a bunch of allowance money and nothing to do.  All the college kids drove or flew back home to stay with their parents, and typically had part-time work money and nothing to do.  It was a perfect storm of making June consistently one of our best months of the year, and July near the bottom of Tier 1.

But the clarion call that School was Out For Summer that DSG Gilbert thrived upon, had precisely the opposite effect on DSG Tempe.  Arizona State University's main campus stood two miles northwest of the store, and once finals were over, it was "Hey thanks for all the Magic tournaments, we'll see you at the end of August!"  And lo, there were months of most visitors being bums Transient-Americans taking a break from riding the light rail back and forth all day every day.

What will happen in Chandler?  The store isn't deep in the suburbs like Gilbert was.  It's shallow in the suburbs.  The ASU factor should/might? function roughly the same inasmuch as the modal building in our halo, near to far, is the single-family detached residence.  But it might not.  We already saw a number of regulars bounce out of town to head back wherever and spend the summer living rent-free with their folks.  So let's call the college audience a To Be Determined on that.  The younger set is where we have other interposing factors...

The Chandler Unified School District, which envelops our store and extends far to the east and south, is on a modified year-round school schedule.  Autumn, Winter, and Spring Breaks all run two weeks apiece so we had a bit of a traffic bump during those times.  The semester finally ends on May 30th, and for a little while it's going to be just like in any other area... but then school starts back up on July 18th or something like that.  So whatever summer break business bump we enjoy from that point on will have to come from the smaller Kyrene District to our west and the smaller Tempe District to our north.  Fortunately, the Kyrene District, which encompasses all of Ahwatukee, is basically our turf now.  The younger players won't realistically enjoy bike access, especially with 117-degree highs.  But mostly people can get to us, and we're right on the main bus route through the east half of Tempe.

Our new next-door neighbors, the Swingin' Safari Mini Golf LLC, appear to be betting big on a summer of heavy business, because they pulled out all the stops to get open last week after a compressed buildout.  The East Valley Crossfit that had formerly occupied the suite was delayed in departing for their new home at a bigger facility.  The golf folks got their contractors into high gear in a hurry, an art I wish I had mastered around this time last year, and they're open for business now and drawing families to the plaza.  Their arrival basically just doubled the advertising potency of both of our marketing efforts.  Our arrivals radiate to them, and vice versa.  I'm tremendously happy about the way this played out.  During prime time, we've already seen substantial foot traffic from people who had just been mini-golfing.  And it's mainstream foot traffic, making it safer for me to bring in an even more diverse inventory offering and worry less about the fiddliest 1% of the merch we're dealing with now.

We have some senior staff members moving onward to greater things in the month ahead, and our part-timers who have waited patiently to be handed tons of hours are about to get them.  This changes the dynamic a bit as we'll be spread thinner on management.  Couple that with the increased traffic both seasonally and due to our new neighbor, and the staffing dynamic might just lurch to a configuration that's uncannily similar to what we wanted to build toward anyway.  A straighter chain of command, with the shift managers having more direct oversight over mainline staff.  More process-based workdays and fewer "night watchman" shift postures.

There is still plenty that can go wrong this summer that has nothing to do with business tempo.  Air conditioning is not optional and we haven't yet gotten a great mix of performance out of our facility's equipment on that mark.  For all we know the Magic Core Set 2019 could suck.  (But I doubt it.)  Vagaries of weather might send everyone outside for activities, or conversely, keep them at home and uninterested in making the drive over.  I don't think any of these are extremely likely scenarios.  But when you're running your own business, it's easy to imagine reasons things won't go the way we want.  As always, planning for the worst but hoping for the best is our answer.

We're a retro video game store, so obviously I have to wrap this article with The Ataris performing their cover of Don Henley's "Boys of Summer."  Because they called their band The Ataris.

Keep cool out there!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Five-Percent Solution

If Sherlock Holmes were to examine Business Insider, he would surely wonder why that website so rarely publishes content about the insides of businesses.  What might impress Sherlock more would be a great article in which they recently charted how high-income and low-income Americans spend their money.

The lede of the article is that poor people get taken to the cleaners on housing and transportation costs, while rich people tend to spend an inordinate amount of money protecting their assets and personal position.  And within that context there's a little nugget that's relevant to the comic and hobby game industry, that rich and poor alike spend about 5% of their money on entertainment.

Further in the article we get breakdowns of household and individual spending on entertainment in raw dollars.  Household:

And individual:

The discrepancy by income level shouldn't be a surprise.  Five percent of a big number is a lot, while five percent of a smaller number is less.

But do you see the far more relevant thing, in terms of this industry?

Take a look again and see if you can get it.  I'll wait.  In fact here's a nice photo of a customized SNES console to give you some spoiler space.

See it yet?

More context.  Five percent of the total spending is on entertainment.  Of that, only some portion is going to be on tabletop games or even video games.  Some will be on movies, some on concerts, sporting events, outdoor recreation, bowling nights or beach vacations, even people visiting the glow-in-the-dark mini golf place next door to us.

Let's go out on a limb and say that our average customer is someone who spends half their entertainment dollars on our merch categories.  Then we have to remember that there are Amazon, TCGPlayer, and other comic and hobby game stores!  Let's be extremely generous and say that our specific store gets a fifth of that figure.  So a tenth of their total entertainment expenditure.

Now do you see it?

Look at how those absolute dollars correlate to the prices of the stuff we sell.

Oh my goodness, right?

Look here.  At one tenth, a rich household spending $5,919 per year on entertainment probably spends $600 in our store.  A poor household spending $1,270 per year brings us all of $120.

On the individual scale, $1,909 for the rich is just under $200 per person to us, while the poor, at $747, are going to end up spending about $75 per year as individuals.

And if there was ever a hard lesson that a store can't count on serving the same group of grinders day in and day out, that should be it.

There isn't enough money coming from any one customer segment or cohort to support the business.

Now let's be more fair.  I cater to some devoted gamers, for Magic and other games, competitive or casual but undoubtedly focused, who spend a hell of a lot more than $600 every year and aren't even rich people.  In some cases there are guys who drop most of that in a month and aren't rich, though a few of them are professionals dragging in decent coin and so they're well enough off to afford it for sure.  And hey, some people just obsess on a narrow range of hobbies.  Nothin' wrong with that.  Lord knows that's what I do.

But the reality is any given face that comes in the door, we're going to be lucky if they bring us, on average, more than $75 to $200 worth of annual sales.  While that's a number I am perfectly happy to cater to, it also is a number that tells us some crucial things:

1. We must always be acquiring new customers, because the existing regulars cannot be expected to float the entire store on their own.  It's not fair to them and not realistic to expect this.  Many, many clubhouse stores expect essentially this to occur.  We must be welcoming to the visitor who is not already deeply geek-literate.  The curious, the dabbler, the person interested enough to poke their nose in the door and see what they find.

2. We should be highly skeptical of products that sell for more than $75, and doubly so for products that sell for more than $200.  Because those products are effectively non-starters for a significant part of our audience, or would constitute nearly the entirety of their annual spending with us.  When Wizards of the Coast says that booster boxes are not a meaningful purchase configuration for the majority of Magic players, maybe they aren't as obviously wrong as Magic-focused stores and competitive players assume.  And yet we've had over a year now of product overload.  Knoweth the left hand what the right hand is doing?

3. Positive experience cultivation with each transaction is far more important than we already rated it.  And we already considered it pretty damned important!  This unfortunately empowers negative review culture, which as we all know is the clap.

4. Many aspects of the comic and hobby game industry are too fiddly to withstand the implications of these numbers.  Which, again, are skewed generously in our favor for the purpose of this exercise, so you have to imagine they're worse in application.  Comics look better proportionately when you consider this; a pull-box customer who gets four titles a month is well within the parameters.  Wide categories like video games and board games are a bit safer here.  For something like Warhammer, it seems like they're utterly dependent on deeply committed hobbyists way on one end of the scale.  I can't imagine how other wargame miniatures ever gain traction.

5. A gasoline price spike basically wipes out the entertainment fund for poorer people, if we're taking into consideration the initial graph showing that they incur an outsized burden from housing and transportation expenses.  Did it happen that way in the past?  It's tough to isolate this effect from the general economic meltdown of 2008-2009, but we already know a ton of game stores went under during that time-frame; was this another piece of the equation?  I bet if we had sufficient data collection to see the expenditures by income level, we'd see the poor player spending dropped off right around the time we were at $4/gallon.

It seems like every time I learn more about business, I wonder why I'm in this particular industry that seems to swim against every economic and social tide with such reckless abandon.  That might just be our value proposition, the fact that we're here to delight the people whom the rest of the recreation industries have disregarded.  But it sure does suggest that we've voluntarily made it more difficult for ourselves to make a living.

Anyway, time for me to go enjoy some of that food that I spent somewhere between 11% and 15% of my household income on.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

I Was an Oblivious Customer

This is a story about when I was an oblivious game store customer.  But so you understand the significance of what I was doing and the bad assumptions I was making, I first must teach a lesson about the product that was central to my behavior.

Once I graduated from law school and didn't yet have a multitude of children occupying my time and attention, I re-indulged myself in the video game collecting hobby.  One of the rare items then, and one that was visibly getting rarer as we went, was the Nintendo Gamecube Official Component Cable, shown in this photo.

The GCN OCC was only marketed in Japan and thus only available via import distributors or stores that did business though them.  The OCC used an ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, or in other words, "a custom chip with secret innards") to process video for output.  Nintendo never published the specs of the ASIC, so third-party cable manufacturers could not create substitute cables.  For 16 years, if you wanted to get 480p video out of your Gamecube, it was the OCC or nothing, and there weren't enough OCCs to go around.

(Aside: As of 2006 we could play most Gamecube games in 480p on the Wii, which had a cheap and abundant component cable.  However, the Wii did not work with all Gamecube games, it did not work with all third-party Gamecube accessories, and it did not work with the Game Boy Player, a non-trivial drawback at a time when the Game Boy Advance was getting hot titles like Metroid Zero Mission that played great on a television.  And if you wanted to speedrun or play competitively, you had to use the original hardware for your time or score to count.)

At the time I was seeking it, the OCC ran anywhere from $80 to $140 on Amazon and eBay, depending whether it had the original packaging or was used, and if so, its condition.  I tried to hunt one down in the wild, naturally assuming that any video game store that had one would be unaware of its value and would surely sell it to me for the MSRP of $29.99 or so.  After all, knowing the value of video game merchandise was only how they literally made their living, so surely they'd punt that and I could roll them.

Every time I visited a video game shop of any stripe, I would browse what they had, and naturally I wanted to be left alone because autism.  But I knew I'd eventually be greeted and asked if I needed help.  The question I had locked and loaded for that was "Do you have any Gamecube Official Component Cables?"

They never had the cable and only rarely did they offer to "special order" it, which I imagine meant getting it at a haircut less than full market value from an import distributor and marking it up, because they would throw back numbers like $200 and $250, to which I would reply "never mind." I wanted it, but not enough to really pay for it.  I wanted it to be essentially given to me for way less than it was really worth.  This was not a realistic expectation.

I would then judge that store to be "not a serious video game store" or "worthless" or "incompetent," depending what mood I was in at the time or whether I thought the owner had sufficiently kissed my ring and acknowledged my clear and impressive expertise in knowing to ask for such a rare and sought-after niche product.  It was self-centeredness to the point of narcissism, the kind of oblivious "whatevs, I got mine" attitude that is becoming more common every day, especially among the youth.

I eventually got an OCC in a Gamecube collection buy.  The other guy knew the value of it, and thanks to combining up the games and system into a lump sum, I ended up paying $150 or so for the cable at a time when the average eBay sold listing was around $175.  Not too bad and we both got what we wanted.  I made a joke post to Facebook with a photo of the cable complaining, "I bought a Gamecube and the stupid TV cable has the wrong colors!  What the hell!"

Today, the GCN OCC market price is down to around $250, after a couple years in $500 territory for complete-in-box and $350 bought loose.  The reason the price actually started coming back down to earth is that players finally got another option.  In late 2017, sixteen years after the Gamecube hit the market, someone finally reverse-engineered the OCC ASIC and produced direct-to-HDMI output adapters for the Gamecube.  We carry them in the store, the EON GCHD, and it's $149.  Not cheap, but far cheaper than the alternative, and it works beautifully and is well-suited to modern televisions which don't even always have component input jacks anymore.

So, anyway, the point was that I was an absolutely oblivious customer and my behaviors were way out of line with reality, both in terms of the market overall and in terms of how I interacted with store personnel.  And at the time I had no awareness or insight into that.  I was just another blowhard who had no idea how stupid I looked to the pros behind the counter, and I was a tire-kicker to boot.

Most of my customers today don't behave the way I behaved.  Most have realistic expectations, or more to the point, they want a thing and it's within the core of what we offer, and that's why they showed up, and all is right in the world.  Most understand intuitively that the store makes its hay selling the stuff that's new and/or broadly in demand, and that we won't necessarily be sitting on a secret stash of GCN OCCs or graded Summer Magic or an unopened case of NBA Elite 11.  It's not that we don't want to sell such things, obviously we do.  It's just that rare things are, well, rare, and the economics don't reward us for seeking out such goods and then deep-sixing them into the vault for who knows how long, rather than reselling them now.  Most people understand that, and those who do seek holy-grail-level collectibles aren't offended when the object of their desire isn't in stock all that often.  Most people don't obsess over having us kiss the ring.  But sometimes we get people who exhibit exactly one or more or my regrettable former traits.  And that's just how it goes, it's part of the trade.

Our solution to this from the staffing side is to be attentive toward new arrivals and to put a bit of extra care into how we service the more friendly and sociable of our regulars.  By starting people off on the right track and then providing a social payoff for exemplary behavior from the people we already know, we send a message that an inclusive and fun experience is what we're about, everyone who's on board with that are going to get our "A" game, and the scrappers are welcome to go be somebody else's problem.

My solution to this from the ownership side is to understand the psychology of the behavior I am seeing out of the one guy who's acting as I once did.  If possible, there may be common ground from which a positive experience can result.  There may be good in him yet.  If not, I accept that we're not going to please everyone, and reorient my focus toward the next visitor who arrives.

These solutions are imperfect, but a general goes to battle with the army we've got, not the army we wish we had.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty

I wonder just how far into the world of electronic restoration this business might profitably go.  It is admittedly a pretty far cry from the selling of boxed analog tabletop game products, which we do on the regular.  But I'm having to face the possibility that if I don't to something in that space, I'm failing to monetize skill assets the company holds ready, and could train and develop further.

Sunday, our cash register iMac decided its hard drive had served long enough.  Beachballing so hard it could no longer load Safari or Mail, the terminal became useless, and I knew I had to replace or repair it.

Unfortunately, repairing iMacs isn't as easy as dusting crops, boy.

The 2012 and newer models are particularly difficult to service because the shell is held together by adhesive.  That's aside from the RAM drawer, which is the easiest ever to get into and requires no tools and even has instructions printed on the casing nearby.

Fortunately, this was a 2011 iMac, so I could get into it without cutting through destructible matter.  All it required was a heavy suction cup to unfasten the front glass, which is attached via a combination of fittings and magnets.  Then a Torx screwdriver keyed me the rest of the way in.  Had I only a RAM replacement to perform on this model, that can be done with nothing more than a Phillips and a few spare minutes.

The 3.5" SATA hard drive was easy enough to remove, though it has a custom thermal sensor rather than a SMART system so the iMac's fan will run too much unless or until I find a more effective solution than resetting the System Management Controller, which only temporarily convinced it to stand down.  Heat may not be as much of an issue because I replaced the bad hard disk with a solid-state drive I rescued from our old shipping desk PC that suffered motherboard failure a few months ago.  In fact, lacking a reinstall disc for macOS, I simply powered the system back up and it booted Windows 10 without incident.  It doesn't like to cooperate with the printers, likely due to driver mismatches, but I'm going to put High Sierra back on it anyway so that will be solved soon enough.  Bottom line, we have our cash register terminal back and it should run fine for a few years before being put out to pasture.

Most of you probably don't know or care what any of the foregoing means so I will tell you that the TL;DR of it is that I was able to perform a non-trivial repair on a computer that's not designed to be user-serviceable, saving the company $700 to $1200 depending on what a replacement would have ended up setting us back, or some several hundred dollars in repair labor and/or parts from a professional outfit somewhere in town.  And if someone had walked in the door with a similar need, provided that I had researched a bulletproof solution to the thermal sensor issue and practiced the repair in general, I could have had them out the door in under an hour with money in the bank on an economically sustainable deliverable.

And though it blew my Sunday itinerary out of the water because I was learning as I went, repairing that iMac was still high-value work.  If there's one thing owners in the greater comic and hobby game industry too often fail to do, it's to systematize basic or core work and spend more time doing higher-value work.

Core work is still important, because it runs the business.  But the people we hire are there to do the core work.  Moreover, it's what they expect to be doing.  Giving them good training and clear processes and turning them loose to impress you with their initiative is often the best way to have that core work be performed well.  Core work is going to succeed when you've cultivated competency and judgment through training.

Then the expert-mode play is to start training our standout staff members on how to do higher-value work.

What's the difference?  It's more than just how much money the work produces or saves for the company, though that's surely an important element.  With higher-value work, competency is upgraded to knowledge and skill, while judgment increases in responsibility.

Every time I teach a staff member how to do higher-value work, and they internalize and perform that work successfully, they get better and the business gets better.  And everyone's job actually gets easier, including their own.  I have given them greater agency.  And with effective conveyance of agency, an owner can start to achieve true duplication.  That achieves the dual purpose of making it possible for the jobs you hire to become careers, and freeing the owner from being chained to the dashboard.

So, does this mean I should start soliciting Mac repairs, as yet another step toward building this amazing business with high-value work and robust investiture of agency in my people and a bold future promising power strips on every countertop?  Well, maybe.  Probably not yet.  But looking forward, combined with some other things I'm keeping under wraps for now that I was intending to develop, this is looking like a sensible direction.

DSG already does a limited assortment of video game hardware repairs, a menu limited primarily by my ability to systematize it and train others to do it when neither me nor our silent partner who is an electrical engineer are available.  But it's an area that has already done well for us and where we are learning the problems now so we can set it up better as we go.  I already discovered we charged too little for a common NES repair.  Our success rate has been 100% on units serviced, and the process is close to mastered.  We can build in some gross margin and it's still a competitive price for the consumer.  That's solving a process.

Sadly, this suggests to me that my internal reservation that the store should have gone small, not big, and cut its focus down to Magic and video games, may have been the smarter course.  I still like the other things DSG does, and in fact as a gamer I am a board game player first and most often.  But mastery of a value proposition has more power, pound for pound, than diversity of value propositions.

The converse, however, is that diversity of value propositions makes the business far more resistant to failure, with revenue coming in from a nondependent array of sources.  That, coupled with our industry's headlong rush toward Third Place mechanisms, suggests that the gigantic space with a favorable lease was the correct long play after all.  We had better hope so, because we have 53 months left on that favorable lease.

I don't want to overthink the business implications of having swapped out the storage device in a broken computer.  But big things are made up of little things, and sometimes little things pack an outsized punch.  I wonder if this is one of those times.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Always Gets a Replay, Never Seen Him Fall

It's the First of May, so in addition to the Jonathan Coulton agenda (NSFW), we're seeing ASU move into final exams for the semester, and a few weeks later the rest of the schools will wrap up, assuming the teacher's strike doesn't add too many make-up days.  And that means the summer season is upon us, and customer footfall for suburban stores like ours should skyrocket.

And that means it's high time to get the DSG Vintage Arcade back bigger than ever!

I chronicled the Arcade's demise at our Gilbert location years ago right here on the Backstage Pass.  In that article, I wrote:
"The new location is being scouted and will be selected knowing that we intend to bring back all the glory of our vintage arcade many times over and we will need room to facilitate that.  I know I am setting a high expectation, but I also know how much amazing gear we have squirreled away right now, so I am confident of our ability to deliver on that promise."
And lo, it hath cometh to pass.

We have even more pinball and video awesomeness still yet to arrive, but the DSG Vintage Arcade right now is already the largest it has ever been, and is already earning better than it ever did.  It is, as observed in that article years ago, a draw all by itself.

So, without further ado, here is the arcade!

Right up front we have Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, the pinnacle of fighting games on Capcom's CPS3 platform and to this day one of the core tournament versions of Street Fighter.  The 3KOAM cabinet features a lag-free CRT and Sanwa JLF-1 joysticks.

Moving inward from SF3, we have Marvel vs Capcom 2, a perennial favorite in the smash-up fighter genre.  This Sega NAOMI mainstay is run deliberately on an American Dynamo cabinet with Spanish IL joysticks, whose springs are preferred for combos that require a quick release to center.

Immediately after that we have the post-golden classic 720 Degrees by Atari.  If you ever heard the term "Skate or Die!" in any context having to do with skateboarding, know that it originated in this video game, in which you must perform tricks and stunts to earn and redeem tickets to the skateparks before a swarm of angry bees kills you.  Not even making that up.

Four pinball machines reside at DSG for now, with literally over a dozen more still in the process of restoration (though I doubt we'll get them all on the floor at once).  You've seen High Speed and Lethal Weapon 3, they arrived during the winter.  They are joined now by Data East Star Wars and the Pinball 2000 Star Wars Episode 1.  Star Wars is classic 1990s pinball and has a fairly basic rule set but some very satisfying shots, one ramp in particular that you'll repeat ad nauseam.  Episode 1, unlike the movie, is actually really good as a pinball game!  But the public displeasure at the movie bled over into the world of pinball, where the Episode 1 table, despite using the groundbreaking Pin2K platform that debuted with Revenge from Mars, was a commercial failure.  Williams actually folded their pinball operations in its wake, and it was a few years before Stern rose up to serve the collector market.  So, in an oblique way, Star Wars Episode 1 was so bad it killed the pinball industry.

Right past the pins we have a Neo Geo MVS-2 expanded to an MVS-4, with even newer, even sharper Spanish IL joysticks.  It's probably more correct to get square-gated JLFs for this unit, and if this were the Candy Neo 6 cabinet we had back in the original DSG, we'd surely do so.  But the control panel on the American MVS cabinets isn't a good fit for them.  Instead we use oversized square grommets under the fittings to ensure proper cornering, so that fighting game "fireball" movements go off without a hitch.  The unit runs Bust-a-Move/Puzzle Bobble, Metal Slug, Blazing Star, and a random cartridge we switch up from time to time.

I'm really happy we had one of these to bring in, because it's one of those classics that everyone remembers only when they encounter it, and then they just have to play, especially if you're with a friend, and the original arcade controls and screen are the only way it "feels" right.  Williams's Joust is an all-timer and we've got non-volatile memory on board so it will save your high scores.

We have a Dynamo cabinet with a Capcom CPS2 system installed, and that gives us access to the Street Fighter Alpha and Super series, the Vampire/Darkstalkers games, and a pile of great shooters and beat-em-ups.  But for a store like DSG where Dungeons & Dragons reigns, it was an easy decision to alternate this back and forth between Tower of Doom and Shadows Over Mystara.  There's a different wiring system we need to track down and we have a four-player control panel under construction, so that will also happen.

No MAME here, Billy Mitchell!  We play Donkey Kong on its original hardware -- almost.  With a customized ROM chip we have internet high score saving and leaderboards!  Play your best at DSG and become immortal!

Nintendo had some truly underrated arcade hardware.  This is our Playchoice, which thanks to some technical trickery has been enabled for NES cartridge play, with the following titles: Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Metroid, Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros, Mega Man 2, Gauntlet, Tetris, Super Mario Bros 3, and Contra!

Next to the Playchoice is a Nintendo Vs Double featuring Super Mario Bros and Castlevania.  What's the difference?  These are harder versions meant to challenge expert players!  The Vs Super Mario Bros eliminates some duplicate levels and includes Lost Levels stages instead.  Here's the list of differences.  Meanwhile, Vs Castlevania adds enemies and takes away most of the wall chicken.

Many of you have played our Ms. Pac-Man multi, which runs the ArcadeSD motherboard for faithful renditions of such classics as the Pac-Man and Donkey Kong series, Frogger, Dig Dug, Qix, Tutankham, Galaga, Sinistar, and Zaxxon.  Here's the full list of supported games.

Finally, we have a Konami 4-player JAMMA system, which runs the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, The Simpsons, and Sunset Riders, the latter of which is not found in abundance in the wild, so we'll see if we end up finding one that's affordable.  (You don't really get to bargain hunt in the arcade world unless you're willing to buy non-working gear and repair it, which we usually are.)  We're going to continue alternating between and among whichever of those titles we have the hardware for, to ensure the four-player beat-em-up lineup remains fresh.  The restoration on this cabinet was especially well done, with authentic leaf-switch controls throughout and correct colors and graphics, though we haven't vinyled up the sides yet as they're not essential.

And that's it... for now!  I know the business partners are eager to bring even more pins and vids to the floor, and with the Swingin' Safari Mini Golf set to open next door on the 19th of this month, and the word "ARCADE" beautifully emblazoned on their front window, we're delighted to anticipate even more foot traffic for these great retro throwbacks.

It's great to be doing this again.  It's great to be doing something different in our sector of the industry, and something that we know the mainstream "gets."  Who knows, before long we might even figure out how to run a game store.