Tuesday, September 22, 2015

True Publisher Support for Local Game Stores

Most publishers give lip service at least to the idea that they want people to buy their games or products at a (Friendly) Local Game Store, or (F)LGS.  Though this is an age of Amazon Prime and Same Day Delivery, even the densest publishers have a notion that if the LGS scene disappears, the aggregate demand for their wares will plummet, and fewer overall copies will be sold, even if those copies do sell at a direct margin via Amazon or other means.

Wizards of the Coast was the first major publisher to walk the talk of supporting LGS sales by deliberately limiting the reach and access of online resellers to parts of the product line.  As one can see, there are still box flippers content to grind up a few dollars a throw on eBay and Amazon, but it's nowhere near the utter wasteland of the late 1990s where bottom-dollar resellers threatened the very existence of the LGS.  And products like prerelease tournaments, Friday Night Magic, and From the Vaults are allocated based on tracked in-store player activity.  Wizards' WPN Retailer rules and requirements aren't onerous, but they are enforced diligently, reining in the worst excesses that a box-flipping clubhouse store might indulge.

An excellent example of a publisher implementing new and active policies today to drive traffic directly to the LGS is WizKids, manufacturers of Dice Masters, HeroClix, and Attack Wing, among others.  WizKids provides promotional product exclusively to brick-and-mortar LGS that are not permitted for resale, and actively polices the community to maintain that.  Retailers generally dislike distributor exclusives, but in this case WizKids's exclusivity with Alliance gives their enforcement real teeth: a store selling the promo product can be cut off from further access to it.

Importantly, the WizKids promotional cards and figures are very good and highly demanded by players.  Here is an article discussing one of the promotional releases for Dice Masters, the upcoming Rainbow Draft Weekend.  DSG is participating in this in October.

The addressable audience for the WizKids game lines is not as great as Magic or D&D or the Fantasy Flight titles, but it is still substantial.  It is also worth a retailer's time to nurture those games because this structure is already in place.  I know this article might be starting to read like an advert for WizKids, which is not my intention, but isn't this exactly what LGS owners ask for?  Products that players want, that players have to visit the store and participate in order to get?  When we demand support and are given it, the ball is kind of in our court now.

Direct-selling publishers run the gamut, but Games Workshop is good in that their web sales are at full MSRP, and they actively police their direct accounts from reselling online at all.  (It's part of the direct sales agreement.)  LGS can still get Warhammer products from Alliance or ACD Distribution et al, but at a discount level so minimal that online sales aren't very sustainable.  Games Workshop does plenty of things that frustrate retailers, but to their credit, they do their utmost to avoid devaluing their product.  They do not facilitate dumping.

The above are the positive examples.  Contrast this with the seemingly endless cavalcade of mostly board game publishers who talk about supporting the LGS but then push their product out the back door to Amazon at virtually no margin, and sometimes below retailer cost.  It is very difficult to put a lot of labor and attention behind a $50 board game SKU that might cost the retailer $28 and is available online for ~$31.99 with free shipping.  When I speak of "lip service" and not much more than that, these are the publishers to which I refer.  Even the "good guys" at Wizards of the Coast have fallen into temptation: Walmart.com briefly offered the D&D board games (Lords of Waterdeep, Castle Ravenloft, etc) earlier this summer for less than the WPN Retailer Direct price.  The public could literally buy the game for less than my lowest distributor cost.  I actually used Walmart.com to restock some titles.  If you can't beat 'em...

In such instances of ultra-deep online discounting, news of the low price propagates across social media like a nasty rash.  Many loyal customers will clamor for shoppers to support the LGS anyway, and that's awfully nice of them to go to bat for us like that.  However, I am very accepting and libertarian about the reality of the situation: I know people will often seek a good price and I don't blame them for wanting to do so.  What I hope is that there's at least some parity so I can offer a value proposition.  I know online product will be discounted somewhat.  Everyone knows that.  But if the publisher isn't backdooring it, and most online sources are just stores fulfilling, it's more likely that $49.99 game is ~$37.99 plus shipping online.  I'm offering to put it into the customer's hands now for maybe only a few dollars more than their final internet price would be.  A lot of times I'll get that sale.  When I'm the customer, I enjoy the immediacy, so I buy local too rather than saving a pittance going online.

Fantasy Flight Publishing is a little of both good and bad.  Their direct web sales to the public are at MSRP and their addressable audience is large.  But, they push a portion of their print runs directly to Barnes & Noble and Amazon, they gave Target the X-Wing Episode VII timed exclusive to appease the House of Mouse, and online discounting has become the norm with their games.  They offer in-store only Game Night Kits that players love and that aren't supposed to be resold, but there's no enforcement.  This is probably the one company that could benefit the most from adopting the methods of Wizards of the Coast, WizKids, or Games Workshop and finding some way to impose consequences on the vendors who break the rules.  Beyond that it's up to them whether they want to keep their mass-market dreams alive but devalue their products in so doing.

Then there's the dumpster fire known as Kickstarter.  When product is actually delivered, Kickstarter has a tendency to saturate the market for the alpha gamers who will actually try big new games and systems.  Companies that keep going back to the Kickstarter well are inhibiting their own reach in the hobby game trade at retail.  I don't even bother carrying otherwise good games from companies like Cool Mini Or Not and Tasty Minstrel Games because they don't sell; everyone who really wanted that SKU already got it by backing the Kickstarter.  By the time I have it, nobody is looking for it anymore.  The absolute biggest hits from Kickstarters that are oriented toward our trade and not the mainstream, such as the Zombicide core game, Arcadia Quest, and Dungeon Fighter, turn at a rate of around two for me.  Four is where a game or line has to be to hold its own.  Many people cite Cards Against Humanity as an example that Kickstarter works, but it's by far the exception.  Exploding Kittens was a huge Kickstarter success and has sputtered out after being hot off the grill at first.

Publishers want to make money.  I don't think any of us harbor illusions about that.  Local Game Stores are part of the equation, but are not the entire equation and shouldn't expect to be.  I don't think any of us are misled on that point either.  I think we're seeing a trend where some publishers have found ways to reinforce the value of the products using the LGS deployment channel.  I hope that trend continues, because the late 1990s were a bad time to be in the game trade, with online commerce as wild-west as you can possibly imagine, and I don't think any publisher or retailer wants to go back to that sorry state of affairs.  I hope that when we see publishers talk about supporting the hobby game trade as a market conduit, that talk increasingly turns into action and results, not just aspirational promises.

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