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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Eldritch Moon Release Post-Mortem

I've written articles like this for every Magic: the Gathering expansion released since this business blog began!  They are some of the most heavily read and linked articles on this blog, so evidently people enjoy these observations.  Good enough for me!  (Enough that I basically copy the template and write in the details afresh each time.)  Here, then, is DSG's experience with the release of Magic: the Gathering: Eldritch Moon!
No sooner had Magic returned to their best setting ever, the plane of Innistrad, a Germanic gothic horror realm, than they ruined it by mixing in the Lovecraftian eldritch tentacle horror of the Eldrazi, Wizards of the Coast's take on the Eldritch Abomination trope.  That's what Eldritch Moon is, and that's why the entire player base knew all along that the Eldrazi Emrakul was the culprit without having to hear anything beyond the title.

At first I thought my distaste at the mixture of the two horror subgenres was a pure function of my autism and that the player base at large would love it.  The set also included a broad focus on zombies, which are among my least favorite of horror creature types... all in all, I was looking square in the face at a set that I wanted no part of, from a player perspective.  I had to separate that out and decide what the customers would think.  In this business, it's not about what I personally like, it's about what my players want.

Turns out, at least some substantial cohort of my players agreed with me.  Box pre-orders were the lowest since Return to Ravnica, and I didn't exactly have a large allocation for that as it was the store's first Magic release back in 2012.  Competitive players don't buy super-heavily at the outset regardless, because they are waiting for the set's Pro Tour so that the pros can tell them what cards they have to play.  So in the early going, a new expansion tends to sell some modest stock to competitive players, and then mostly to the casual, Commander, and "kitchen table" player base.  This means the set's theme and setting take on an outsized importance.  And the response of many players to having zombies and tentacles jammed into their glorious Gothic hinterland has been: Nope.  It's two tastes that just don't mix.  It's like combining Pepsi and milk.

It didn't help that wallet fatigue hit hard in the wake of Eternal Masters, and with Eldritch Moon being the third of five booster releases in a six-month span.  We still have Conspiracy 2: Take The Crown in late August, followed by Kaladesh in late September.  Nobody doubts that Kaladesh will be gigantic.  Conspiracy is a big question mark.  With half the set comprising reprints, the excitement level will depend quite a bit on how saucy the first few spoilers are.  Nobody really thinks there will be fetchlands or anything really essential, but there is plenty of room for never-foiled Eternal staples such as Imperial Seal or Mana Vault, and crazy early foils like Crop Rotation and Goblin Matron.  Meanwhile, some number of dollars that might have gone to Eldritch Moon went instead to Eternal Masters a month earlier, and that's just life.

As I said last time around: Folks, this is a lot of product.  There is still a From the Vaults ("Lore") due in August, and Commander 2016 in November.  Even if they announce nothing else, how can most players possibly keep up with it all?  More on that later in this article.

Here is a quick bulleted list of what Eldritch Moon gave us:

  • A twist on the flip card mechanic: Meld.  Six cards in the set, paired, that each transform together into a single "big" card.  One of the Meld cards, Brisela, Voice of Nightmares, requires a mythic rare Gisela angel card and thus is the most difficult to assemble.  From among the tentacle-gorn gimmickry in the set, the Meld cards are at least the most visually striking.
  • Cards for Standard.  As I've said before, Standard players don't get to sit out any main-line expansion release.  This time is no exception.  There are cards very obviously "pushed" for Standard, such as the Spirits suite, Grim Flayer, Mirrorwing Dragon, and more.  Two new planeswalkers both appear promising: Liliana and Tamiyo.  Once the pros have announced what decks are good, a rush to purchase should follow.
  • Enough fat packs, threedux.  In fact, after the insanity of the special fat packs for the previous block, players appeared to have been conditioned to seek fat packs right away this time.  I ordered a lot of them and saw them disappear, while my supply of boxes, concededly big from the start, remains ample after release weekend.
  • The fourth ever foil TOKEN, after the Coldsnap Marit Lage token of a decade ago and the Helvault Angel and Demon tokens of 2012.  This time it was a double-sided Zombie and appeared only in prerelease packs.  Its value has been climbing steadily on the open market as Eternal format players gather the Zombies for their dredge and tribal builds.
  • Cards for Commander!  A werewolf legend!  And a spider legend!  And more big Eldrazi beatsticks!  Stuff for SuperFriends like Deploy the Gatewatch.  Stuff for generalized abuse like Mind's Dilation.  And,
  • PUMBAA.

Meanwhile, here is what Eldritch Moon did not deliver:

  • Heavy pre-order activity and significant release-weekend sales.
  • Rare lands of consequence.  As we've observed before, it's not that the players need to have it every single time, but rare lands tend to drive the value base of an expansion.
  • Marquee reprints from the previous Innistrad block or otherwise.  Nope, practically the entire set is new cards.  Seriously, they couldn't have dropped in Huntmaster of the Fells or something?  With all the Zombie tribal silliness it's absurd we didn't get a Cavern of Souls reprint.  Missed opportunities.
  • Modern- and Legacy-oriented cards.  The set is mostly about Standard, Limited, and Commander.

Attendance for the Pre-release tournament outperformed expectations, with a reduced allocation of 360 player slots sold very close to capacity.  It helped a lot that we had our new point-of-sale system working and fully capable of taking online pre-registration!  In fact, aside from a reasonable few hiccups, it worked very well and was a welcome relief from the chaos of the interim prereleases.

DSG opened big on cases this time because of the insane velocity of singles lately, and thus far it is proving a wise move.  With release weekend in the books we've still got 100% stock on non-foil Eldritch Moon cards and reasonable stock of foils.  The optimal labor scenario has us not doing case breaks on an ongoing basis unless we get a big buy opportunity at a great price, which meant attempting to get essentially the entire store seed stock in one shot.  It appears we did it.  There is no point in listing our yield as we basically opened plenty of everything.

One interesting wrinkle came up on release Saturday.  Some print runs of the set are having mythic rares appear only in packs with a certain wrapper, which varies from box to box.  The small sets, if memory serves, run with six counts of each rare and three of each mythic on the production sheets, so my suspicion is that this is just a coincidence of the math working out this way.  Hopefully if there is a more pervasive collation problem, Wizards of the Coast will address it.  I have not observed any difference in purchasing patterns resulting from the news.

Next week I have some more customer-facing topics to discuss, so hope you enjoyed this look at the second and concluding release of the Shadows Over Innistrad block, and we'll see you in August!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Save the Frames, Kill the Animals

The tabletop game industry is experiencing a surge of popularity.  We specialty retailers live on the forefront of it, for better and for worse: sold-out pre-releases contrast against endless Amazon dumping.  We work with vendors who sometimes still require paper checks, and then set up elaborate inventory cloud deployments so our customers can shop for Magic singles on their smartphones.

And then we look at where the video game world has advanced in the past ten years, and we learn that the cutting edge of tabletop is a delusional kiddie pool.  While we pout and splash in the shallows, the plugged-in generation revels in its collective scuba-dive into the open ocean.

Once the province of quirky Koreans and Wintel grognards insisting that watching people play StarCraft or League of Legends is somehow entertaining, the emergence of Twitch ubiquity and the skyrocketing of production values have combined to make video games something that even "real" sports struggle to be: as entertaining a spectator sport as they are a participation sport.  Hasbro, Asmodee, et al. have pegged this apex as their forward-facing grail, and I think it's safe to say almost everything being done on the branding and organizational side of Magic: the Gathering, among other games, is laying the groundwork for a big move in this direction.
This year's Evolution (EVO) video game championship tournament finals were broadcast live on ESPN from the arena at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where a who's-who of amazing worldwide players faced off in perhaps competitive video gaming's purest category: fighting games.  EVO culminated in Infiltration's highlight-studded championship victory over Fuudo in the first ever title year for the Cadillac of the genre, Capcom's Street Fighter V.  Much respect for Nash.

More than just the fights, which were brilliant, from Long Island Joe's exciting run to Yukadon's dominant semifinal against GO-1, the breathtaking scope of EVO 2016 utterly dwarfed what came before.  Every Street Fighter fan on the planet has seen Daigo's legendary parry in Street Fighter III: Third Strike at EVO 2004 by now, and that took place in a cramped hotel convention meeting room full of spectators on folding chairs.  Two guys sat at a banquet table facing a console and a CRT and incubated a fandom that has flourished to the point that players 12 years later paraded into a sporting arena, controllers clutched in one arm and fists pumping from the other, to throngs of cheering fans.  It was like a UFC pay-per-view, but with sponsorship by Razer instead of Reebok, and fewer back tattoos.

Fighting games not your style?  Perhaps you like something more "retro" and with a more worldly focus.  Speed Demos Archive's twice-annual Games Done Quick marathon finished its Summer 2016 installment the week before EVO, and it featured a seven-day roster of the finest video game speed-runners in the world raising well over a million dollars for charity playing games from throughout all of console history.  Tech demos, glitch showcases, challenge category runs, and thrilling "races" drew hundreds of thousands of viewers over the course of the event, from the Sunday morning opening Super Mario Sunshine completion run to the penultimate show-stopping four-way Super Metroid race on Saturday night.

If you didn't watch SGDQ 2016, you didn't miss anything, because in this new era of streaming video you can just watch the whole thing afterward on demand at gamesdonequick.com.  But here are the highlights you are going to want to check out:

  • All five Elder Scrolls run back-to-back;
  • JustinDM running sub-60 in game time on Metroid Prime despite missing every RNG;
  • Romscout speed-running Castlevania: Symphony of the Night blindfolded;
  • Zelda II raced by Simpol and JN with the best commentary I've heard for a Z2 run thus far;
  • A "Small Mario Only" speed run of Super Mario World by Rezephos;
  • The traditional Tetris Grand Master showdown that will melt your eyeballs;
  • Darkwing Duck losing a race, on NES Goonies II;
  • Darkwing Duck winning a race, on NES Rygar;
  • A sub-20-minute Aladdin race on the SNES, complete with group song for A Whole New World;
  • Delightful long-form runs of Super Mario RPG and Ocarina of Time by LackAttack and dannyb; and
  • A fantastic encore 70-star race of Super Mario 64, showing just how competitive the Nintendo 64 launch title has become for speedrunning.

And then there was the Super Metroid race, from whence comes the title of this article.  The biggest donation incentive of the marathon, raising at least a quarter-million dollars by itself every time, allows donors to choose whether the speedrunners must take the easter-egg detour at the end of the game into the Crateria Cave to rescue the "helpful animals" Dachora and Etecoons.  There is no real game effect from doing so, other than seeing a tiny animal-piloted spaceship zoom away from Zebes in the distance after Samus blasts off in her gunship.  Nevertheless, donors desperately sent money to Doctors Without Borders until the cutoff moment of Mother Brain's death, competing to impose their wills on the runners, and this year, Kill the Animals prevailed over Save the Animals, and Samus passed them by on her way off the doomed world.  But that wasn't nearly what made this race as exciting as it was.

Every Super Metroid race at GDQ has been a show-stopper, but 2016 was primed to be the best ever. The four speedrunners were Zoast, Sweetnumb, Behemoth87, and Oatsngoats.  Zoast and Oatsngoats are, in some order, the best two Any Percent players in the world (no item requirements beyond "enough to complete the game"); Sweetnumb is the best 100% run player (must collect everything) not named Zoast; and Behemoth87 is the best European player and erstwhile record-holder in assorted categories.  The only top player not in the race, Straevaras, provided commentary from the couch, after flying solo on an intense Reverse Boss Order run at January's AGDQ marathon this year.

All four runners were screen-for-screen in the early going and weren't missing a move.  All four survived Phantoon, usually one of the first murder scenes on a race because of the fight's difficulty that early on.  The runners made it to Ridley, and Sweetnumb suddenly died, having successfully killed Ridley, because Ridley dragged his tail into Samus's hitbox during his grab death sequence.  Ten minutes later, Zoast, of all people, was a frame or two slow on a shinespark and ran into Draygon's nose for the loss.  A shocked crowd then watched Oats run red-hot and approach world-record pace, an ambitious performance for an exhibition like SGDQ, while Behemoth missed on a few strats and trailed behind.  When Oats nailed the baby metroid skip, the crowd erupted.  Then, less than two minutes from delivering the best Any% run in GDQ history, Oats got hit by a random Mother Brain shot and fell under the minimum health to complete the game.  Just like that, we were down to one runner.  Did Behemoth take it easy and finish safely?  Nope, he ran like his life depended on it, coming within a whisker of death and ultimately prevailing.  Nobody knows what would have happened to the animals if all four runners had died.

It has ever been so.  In 2015, Oats and David Clemens died and left Zoast to beat Straevaras for a 44:00 time complete with saved animals.  In 2014, Ivan beat Zoast by frames to win in less than one second's difference.  Virtually every AGDQ and SGDQ Super Metroid run is memorable in some way, and they mix up the categories from one event to the next.  And the commentary is, especially on the better games, typically intelligent enough to help you follow what is going on even if what the runners are doing seems entirely foreign to your memories of playing the game in your youth.

For many readers of this business blog, the foregoing represents largely new material.  It may appear foreign and opaque at first glance.  Certainly I do not expect anyone to "get it" solely from having read all that.  The marvel of video games as a spectator attraction right now is that it is so much more accessible after only a modicum of immersion, by comparison against the extremely dense and esoteric streaming seen for tabletop games.  After acclimatizing to a few GDQ videos, even a championship Magic match stream seems all but unwatchable.  Slow, stilted, with poor visibility and even the best commentators struggling to illustrate the subtext of the game in progress in many cases.  Some of the cleanest uncommented streaming I've seen, from Corp Draw's broadcasts of Android Netrunner championships, are uncharted territory to anyone not heavily familiar with the game and metagame.  My Facebook feed regularly includes photo progress updates from X-Wing tournaments, and I can decipher only a fraction of what's going on in the match depicted.  By contrast, I watched SGDQ's run of Demon Souls, and I could follow all of it easily, though I've never played any game in the Dark Souls series.

I watched the Super Metroid race on July 9th from the couch at my friend Matt's house during his UFC 200 viewing party.  My friend Steve followed the action with me as we did our best to split attention between the great fight card and the exciting race unfolding on Twitch on my iPhone.  It was engrossing, it was enjoyable, and it was easy.  This is the way the trade winds are blowing.

Games, in whatever form you like, have integrated their way into technology and communication and melded participatory interest with spectator interest.  But the games that were born electronic have an immutable advantage in this.  They are naturally predisposed to the transition.  It was an obvious progression.  I don't know whether tabletop will catch up to that, or simply evolve to become more and more electronic and thus bring the mountain to Mohammed.  What I suspect is that the games that cannot be adapted are the ones that will fade to the margins, along with their respective economic footprint in the entertainment business.  Maybe they will become pristinely retro, tabletop in its purest tactile form.  'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd.

In the meanwhile, if you aren't on record pace, go ahead and save those animals.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Gotta Catch 'Em Everywhere

This is an article about Pokemon GO.  If you're a player reading this, you probably play this game already, and if you don't, you probably aren't interested.  If you are a store owner in the hobby game trade reading this, you need to recognize what is happening here and where you fit in.  You will either capture or miss out on what already appears to be substantial earning potential.

Pokemon GO is a mobile cellular "augmented reality" game published by Niantic Labs under license from Nintendo subsidiary The Pokemon Company.  Niantic Labs, formerly a subdivision of Google, cut its teeth publishing the game Ingress, which is essentially the same game with a different skin.  Ingress is among the most successful mobile platform software ever published, and like Slurm, is refreshingly addictive.

What is an "augmented reality" game?  It's a combination of geocaching and Capture the Flag.  The game takes place on a Google Maps overlay in which the player is located... where the player is actually located, in real life.  The very spot on the globe that player sits, stands, or otherwise exists upon.  To move the player's avatar in the game, the player has to travel, physically, through the world.   Even in the heady days of Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution, no software has ever had such success in getting players to exercise.

Why move?  To capture objectives and fulfill missions, of course!  The game Ingress allowed crowdsourcing to establish an entire planetary war between the noble blue Resistance team and the misguided green Enlightened team, against the backdrop of fictitious alien invasion.  Prominent landmarks and community gathering spots became "Portals" between the alien and human worlds.  Players had the ability to attack, defend, and link portals together in an ongoing resource aggregation conflict.  Basically, the damned frogs spent an inordinate amount of time spamming their way across town, state, and planet turning everything the wrong color, and it fell upon the valiant Smurfs to set things right and ensure that blue skies reigned overhead.  All the key addictive elements were present: the "nurturing" mechanic (level advancement), the "collecting" mechanic, achievements, capture-tag bragging rights, social media integration, and on and on.

So Ingress is addictive.  I almost typed "was" addictive, since I managed to force myself to stop playing in order that I might return to things like running a successful business, spending time with my family, and not dying in a traffic accident while trying to drop a level 8 resonator on that unclaimed portal perched atop a roadside fountain.  I'd place the addictiveness of this game somewhere north of World of Warcraft (anecdotally) and somewhere south of cocaine powder.

Ingress does have drawbacks.  Since portals are not supposed to be located on private residential land or in places otherwise not accessible from a public thoroughfare, a lot of the time when a player is just at home or visiting a friend or whatever, the player has nothing to do in the game.  There are no portals within range, it's economically inefficient to sit around collecting game dimes recharging remote keyed portals, and the only housekeeping you can do with your inventory is mostly stuff not worth wasting the time to do.  If only the game had... you know, random encounters.

Enter the Pokemon license.  You can catch them Whirlydudes without even leaving your sofa at home, though you'll need to get up and move elsewhere in order to seek out the rarest and most powerful Pocket Monsters.  You can spend downtime cultivating your thinly veiled cockfighting kennels.  And this multiplies what you can do when you go out and congregate, because there are now PokeStops where you can get items, and PokeGyms where you can challenge other players to battle.

Niantic appears to have copied and pasted the Ingress map to Pokemon GO, such that busy portals became PokeGyms, and other portals became PokeStops.  This includes a fair to decent number of comic and hobby game stores.  Desert Sky Games and Comics is a PokeGym.  The Chinese restaurant a few doors down is a PokeStop.  I fully expect a giant groove to wear into the sidewalk with the amount of back-and-forth pedestrian traffic running the route every day already, noses in phones.

This game has been huge from day one and is only going to get bigger, in the short term at least.  Niantic has yet to maintain server load for a single day under the crushing demand for this product.  It's free to play (with microtransactions) and it works on the most common video game platform in human history, the smartphone.  And while we cannot sell the game, Pokemon GO presents opportunities for us.  I believe the core opportunity can be summarized as "A-B-C."

Advertising.  The purpose of advertising in our trade, as I have discussed here on this business blog in the past, is to generate arrivals.  Once they are in the store, your merchandising, customer service, and messaging takes over.  Advertising is for getting people to show up to begin with.  If your store was a portal, and is now a PokeThing, congratulations, you just accidentally won all the foot traffic you can handle.  Post a Facebook boosted advert with your store's Gym/Stop face photo from the game, and the players will beat a path to your door.  After that you've got to convert them somehow, but that's a separate question.  If your store was not an Ingress portal, I don't know what to tell you.  Keep your eyes open for Niantic to open registration for that at some point.

Bridging.  Does your store sell video games?  If so, I barely have to finish this paragraph.  If not, does it sell trading card games?  Virtually all hobby game stores do.  I don't think I have to tell you that the Pokemon TCG is worth your time to bring in, if you haven't already.  This is the 20th Anniversary of the license, so every month Nintendo has been releasing new Mythical Collection limited print run box sets, and every two months a Mythical Red & Blue box set, and these products are selling beautifully because they are the only two retail means to acquire Generations XY booster packs, a set reprising popular Pokemon from the game's earliest days in brand new threads.  If you have a respectable looking Pokemon TCG display when the Pokemon GO players come to your storefront, believe me, you will make some sales by pure osmosis.
Cross-pollination.  More than a few retailers have reported that they are getting some sales of snacks and sodas from visiting Pokemon trainers, but that's it.  While I agree this is certainly revenue we don't want to pass up, I think it's setting the bar pretty low in terms of the real potential here.  Comics and tabletop games are entire hobbies unto themselves.  By pure math it is unavoidable that your store will be visited some number of times by humans who have never set foot in a comic or hobby game store before.  If they see a clubhouse that is esoteric and unwelcoming, that's as far as they will ever explore.  We need to be on the (Poke)ball, with our mainstream-welcoming customer service chops and our smiling faces.  Everything they look at needs to be presented, merchandised, and if possible demonstrated in its best light.  Rather than seeking to make a sale today, my goal with each blue ocean arrival is to cross-pollinate psychologically: I want them to like the store.  That's all.  Just that.  I just want you to like DSG.  Come trap your Eevee in my playmat display, fight off those heathens from team That Other Color, and walk out of my store having fun.  If you did have fun, at some point, you'll be back.

Advertising, Bridging, Cross-pollination.  A, B, C.  A - Always, B - Be, C - Closing,  Always Be Closing, Always Be Closing!  Okay, perhaps a lighter touch than that might be most appropriate.  But you get the idea.  You need to be ready.  Your store needs to be ready.  Everything needs to be in place and as inclusive and welcoming as it can be.  Thanks to the efforts of Nintendo and Niantic Labs, a substantial number of people are going to be beating a path to your door in an attempt to have fun.  Think about how much blood and treasure we expend in an effort to get people to do that, and now it has just fallen into our laps and we didn't even do anything.  Please, for the love of all that is good within us in this business, do not impede the fun.  Instead, devise a means of amplifying that visitor's Sense of Wonder, so that he or she might return not as a visitor, but as a potential customer, a curious gamer or collector seeking adventure and excitement in your domain.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Recruiting: Brand Ambassador (Part Time)!

Are you looking for an opportunity to join the DSG team?  This may be your chance!  Please read  this entire post below for instructions on how to apply!

DSG is recruiting an outgoing, personable individual to join us as a Brand Ambassador on a part-time basis!  Magic: the Gathering knowledge essential and knowledge of video games and/or comics a major plus!

Job Summary:
Brand Ambassadors perform the complete range of customer service functions within the Desert Sky Games and Comics retail store (DSG).  Brand Ambassadors are expected to greet customers in a friendly and inclusive manner, assist customers in finding items to purchase, perform cashiering activities, stock and maintain inventory, direct customers to organized play experiences that reflect the customers' gameplay preferences, monitor customers to minimize theft and wrongdoing, maintain and protect the assets and reputation of DSG, keep clean and sanitary the DSG facility, and other duties as assigned.

Qualifications:
- Candidates must have prior experience in face-to-face customer service and cash handling in a banking, retail, or similar work environment.
- Candidates must be available for the following shifts on a weekly basis: Fridays beginning as early as 3:00 p.m. and ending as late as 11:59 p.m.; and Saturdays beginning as early as 8:00 a.m. and ending as late as 10:59 p.m.  (Other shifts and additional hours may be available in addition to the shifts cited.)  Shifts are no more than 9 (nine) contiguous hours and include a 30-minute meal break for shifts more than seven hours in length, and a 15-minute general break for every four hours or portion thereof contained within a shift.
- Preference will be given to candidates who demonstrate knowledge of and aptitude for Magic: the Gathering and either comics or video games within the industry.

Benefits:
- Compensation starts at $8.25 per hour, subject to applicable taxes, and may be adjusted depending on a candidate's degree of experience or other factors.  DSG Brand Ambassadors are eligible for periodic compensation increases contingent upon performance.  A brief probationary period may occur at the beginning of the employee's tenure with DSG.
- As this is a part-time position, there are no retirement, medical, dental, life, savings, holiday, vacation, sick, union, meal, or deferred compensation benefits offered.  At the discretion of management, Brand Ambassadors may be given priority access to limited-edition new product releases and other special items for purchase or on a compensatory basis.  In your cover letter, please indicate and explain in no more than one sentence your preference between found cake and wall chicken.  At the discretion of management, Brand Ambassadors are granted a 15% Employee Discount for all purchases at DSG.

Pre-Employment Requirements:
- The selected candidate will be required to undergo a criminal history investigation.
- Candidates must be able to maintain physical readiness and capability for work in a public retail environment, including standing for long periods of time; the ability to bend, squat, maneuver, climb a ladder, and utilize janitorial equipment; the ability to lift up to 50 pounds safely and securely; the ability to work in an environment with loud noises, bright and/or flashing lights, and variable olfactory stimuli; and the ability to complete other activities typical in a public retail environment.  Employment is contingent upon DSG's ability reasonably to accommodate any restrictions within the scope of these requirements.
- Candidates must possess a valid Arizona bank account to receive paychecks by direct deposit.

Desert Sky Games and Comics is an EOE/ADA Reasonable Accommodation Employer.  
All newly hired employees will be subject to compliance with the E-Verify Employment Eligibility Verification System.

Sound good?  If you have read all of the instructions above, please send us your Curriculum Vitae and a cover letter describing why you believe you would be a good fit for the Brand Ambassador position to the e-mail address indicated on our About Us page at http://desertskygames.com.

This recruitment offer will be held open until 12:01 a.m., Sunday, July 10th, 2016.  Candidates selected for interviews will be so informed shortly thereafter.  The expected start date for this position is Thursday, July 14th, 2016, but may be adjusted earlier or later at the discretion of management.

Good luck!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Year In Point-of-Sale Purgatory

Slightly more than a year after the process began, DSG is running a new point-of-sale system at more or less full strength.  There are some items and categories still being sold by manual line item, such as BattleFoam, because they don't appear in the new system's integrated catalog and we haven't gotten to them on the list of product cards to create/import.  But most things are working properly.

In the year this took, I spent over ten thousand dollars, much of it non-recoupable, and lost an incalculable amount of business due to infrastructure inefficiency.  Words alone do not fully express how frustrating, wasteful, slow, expensive, and damaging this process was to my business.  In the end, one of the devils I knew showed up with a nice new car and promised things would be better this time, so I went ahead and got in bed with him.

DSG opened in 2012 running Light Speed Retail's Pro (client) software.  LSR legitimately served the company well for a couple of years before entropy set in.
LSR Pro is client software that uses a FileMaker Pro database on a server Mac running OS X to provide point-of-sale access at terminals on the same local network.  Each terminal "lane" requires a license, but the licenses are not device-locked.  Thus, if a computer failed, I could whip out the iPad and log into LSR and continue doing business in that lane.  We started with two lanes (front and back of house), and expanded to three a year later.

One thing to make clear about Light Speed was that it lived up to its name.  The client application, especially following a lookup engine revision, was extremely fast even on slow hardware.  (Presuming my server was fast, I imagine, which an i7 quad-core CPU with a pile of RAM and an SSD generally is.)  It was also reasonably easy to use in most respects.  The database interface tools and utilities were generally robust, intuitive, and refined.  In particular, I think LSR Pro has the best purchase-order automation of any software I have run or considered running.

So I ran LSR Pro, and for a while, it was good.  And then XSilva, the publisher of Light Speed, acquired MerchantOS and decided to develop it into a cloud version of LSR.  The cloud deployment was not directly compatible with LSR Pro, and there was no migration tool.  (And there still is not one to this day.)  For the kind of insane bank they charge for service, starting at $80 per month per lane per login, one would expect fully turn-key everything.  LSR Cloud, while promising in many respects, is just not cost-comparable to its competitors in this space.

So what? you might ask.  Aren't you on LSR Pro?  Well, yes.  But the emergence of LSR Cloud and its subscription economy meant that XSilva effectively abandoned the client-based Pro, which they rechristened LSR Onsite in order to remind us Luddites still running it that we were tethered to the corporeal computers in our businesses like a telephone switchboard operator of old.
Gradually, things started breaking.  The Amazon integration started failing more often than before, I expect because of deprioritization of the software team's work on maintaining connectivity with LSR Onsite.  The LSR Onsite e-commerce module, something of an artifact now that LSR Cloud came built with such utility from the outset, broke entirely for me when they moved to a new version, and no reversion was available.  I found myself unable to take payments without an Error 500 occurring about half the time.  When people can't, you know, buy things on your retail website, that tends to constitute a problem.  Especially when I had already abandoned an existing web sales infrastructure running Crystal Commerce to sell via TCGPlayer Direct, eBay, and Amazon in favor of doing it all in a single, unified LSR deployment that was, briefly, far more efficient.

Worse than the breaking items was the lack of progress on known issues from before.  It became pretty obvious that XSilva just didn't care anymore.  Owing invoices still generated far too easily and were non-intuitive to hunt down and eliminate.  The kernel crashed about 50% of the time that I ran sales metric reports from the "Intelligence" panel.  Any loss of connectivity between the server and its clients would take a given login lane key out of service until the server was manually "stopped" and restarted in its system settings pane.  A number of glitches when adding and subtracting discounted items and changing prices on invoices from the browser meant an unacceptable amount of "just make a new invoice" workarounds.  Taking and counting inventory through the existing interface was a huge chore.  And, perhaps worst of all, there have been problems since day zero with the EMV integration through LSR's exclusive in-house processor, Cayan, and some of them remain unsolved to this day, almost a year later.

By early summer 2015, it was clear I needed to leave Light Speed, but I didn't have a solid place to go.  I began extensive research into options.  First of all, to keep online operations running profitably, I went monochannel eBay.  For all its faults, eBay has served me dependably for sixteen years.  My account, now the store's account, has thousands upon thousands of feedback and is in absolute God mode with everything unlocked.  I could post a pre-order listing for an aircraft carrier, take payment, and withdraw the cash immediately.  I can list in any category with no restrictions.  I can list one of everything in my store and not run out of allowable items.  Anyone who has tried to develop an eBay account from scratch since 2014 or so knows the power of which I speak.  It's heady stuff.
The problem with eBay, of course, aside from the fact that you're chasing what is often a pretty narrow margin, is that there is limited efficiency without an integration platform to the rest of the POS system.  Even an expert who lists quickly and knowledgeably and uses Turbo Lister and every other tool at the monochannel eBay vendor's disposal is going to be left in the dust by software that does the work by itself.  This was a band-aid, a tide-me-over, not a real solution.

I approached my POS system decision with a list of priorities.  They went, roughly:

  • The system needed to have better inventory processing options for comics than LSR did.
  • Customization was a dirty word; I wanted off-the-shelf standard modules to the extent possible.
  • Device-agnostic operation was preferred.
  • Online integration was no longer optional, but mandatory.
  • The system had to work at scale; my three LSR lanes were already proving too few.
  • If at all possible the system had to work remotely for convention sales.
  • Cloud deployment was acceptable if I gained real ease-of-use out of my trade-off of giving up the lightning speed and tight security of a client-and-server local network deployment.

I journeyed a surprisingly short distance with so specific a filter set in place.
I looked into Bitter End Systems' MOBY POS because of its deep comics integration on the OS X platform.  As a retailer already comfortable administering a network of Macs, this option appealed tremendously.  The disqualifier came not from MOBY itself, but because it requires a licensed copy of FileMaker Pro on the terminals, and beyond the first it starts getting hideously expensive.  My FileMaker Pro running internal to Light Speed wouldn't be valid.  MOBY us also earthbound, being a client-and-server install.  I didn't write MOBY off completely but it jumped over to the "if I don't find a better option" column.
It only made sense for me to explore Intuit's QuickBooks POS, given how many of my fellow retailers are running it.  I knew it would work in a multi-store deployment because Josh Fohrman of Game On and Pat Fuge of Gnome Games are using it to do exactly that.  Even better, with my business back-end already on QuickBooks Online, using the online version of their POS had some very direct appeal.  I'm already deep into the QBO app library with things like AMEX syncing and Intuit payroll.  I smiled at the thought of how much accounting work might be automated away.  And it was a cloud system, so I would be untethered.

I was ready to make some serious inroads to QBPOS, but it disqualified itself.  Intuit was unable to deploy EMV compliance on time, and delayed their liability shift until when-the-hell-ever.  I discovered their inventory system was nowhere near at the level I needed, and their store credit handling left a lot to be desired, and worked best when appended to a gift card plug-in or like such.  I never like running something that depends on a bunch of plug-ins, extenders, bootloaders, or what have you.  Maybe it's part of my Apple workflow preference, I don't know.  But the inventory thing was the clincher, it looked like it was going to be a nightmare to try to handle comics on that system, let alone TCG singles.  Across the board I started seeing QBPOS look inadequate on my healthiest categories: TCGs, comics, and the soon-to-return video games, which had been healthy in their original tour of duty at DSG.  I slotted QBPOS below MOBY in the "if all else fails" column.
Microsoft Dynamics Retail Management System (RMS) is the gold standard in small retail and has been for a decade or more, and Diamond Comic Distributors sells RMS paired with its own companion app ComicSuite.  This was where things went expensively wrong.

See, ComicSuite RMS ostensibly hit most of my criteria.  Its inventory depth is staggering; the kind of power and control users have over inventory in the system already is without peer, making even Light Speed look weak by comparison, and making QuickBooks POS look like an absolute joke.  Its purchase order automation wasn't at LSR's level of ease, but was similarly versatile and powerful. ComicSuite downloaded my weekly Diamond order line item by item into RMS and set it up automagically, including reporting of damages and discrepancies.  The RMS back-end is similarly robust in terms of reporting, user access control, general security, record keeping, and compatibility with a vast array of plug-ins, well beyond what I'd ever want to use.  Best of all, people whose opinions I trusted ran RMS.

I took the plunge.  I spent just under $3k on a Windows 2012 blade server.  (It was supposed to be over $4k but I toned down its beef at the last minute, and I'm glad now that I did.)  I bought three new terminal PCs, because RMS is Windows-only.  I bought assorted monitors and peripherals for all, Symantec for all because Windows is still a filthy virus and malware haven, and a rack mount and power conditioner for the server rig.  For three lane licenses I ponied up just over a grand each.  All told, the RMS aspect of my POS migration by itself cost in excess of eight grand.

And then it didn't freaking work.

So, ComicSuite likes to misbehave under Windows 10, so I kept the terminal PCs on Windows 7 Professional.  Regardless, the periodic ComicSuite updates kept breaking the install and forcing me to set it up again.  I had a good friend help me set up the SQL database on the server, and in the end the stuff he worked on was about the only part that stood up.  The POS interface offered a paucity of functionality compared to other packages.  The import tools were, well, calling them "rudimentary" suggests that they worked to some modicum of decency, which would be overstatement.  From ComicSuite itself to the various database utilities, the glitch-ridden opacity abounded.  Any remote access depended on a combination of Remote Desktop and (for my own workstation) Back to My Mac, and those are each fussy in their own ways.  But the clincher, the thing that killed it for me, was learning that I was still nowhere near the integrative functionality that I needed, at a time when my TCG singles and video game businesses were exploding with forward momentum.  I was going to need months of work installing, learning, and deploying plug-ins just to get to where the cloud software started you off on day one.

And all of this was besides the misery of losing a bunch of non-POS functionality that we had become used to using in the business, as a result of migrating from OS X to Windows, and being hidebound to a client-and-server physical IT deployment in the store of significant extent and creating significant failure vectors.  Worse still, lane licenses were locked to their respective computers, at least requiring a transfer process in the event of failure, rather than "log out of the PC and log in on the other computer or tablet" flexibility.  It seemed like the people who had the best results from RMS were those who had already been running it for a long time, and whose hardware base was already cultivated to the task.  I set out to mimic the best deployment I had encountered for RMS, only to learn that it does not cooperate on that level fresh from the box.

Much of the problem was ComicSuite, and I could probably have made RMS work for me in its core form, but the other POS options overtook RMS in that comparison.  Furthermore, the software was already end-of-lifed by then, and is set to migrate... eventually... to Retail Essentials Hero.  RMS is deeply powerful internally.  I think its Essentials Hero evolution will probably be appropriate for comic stores not dealing seriously in games.

I had bought the hardware for RMS in November and December 2015, and then bought the software in late January and started the setup.  In the meanwhile I had been following the progress of a new entrant into fray: the Inventory Management Program POS, or "IMP."
IMP became a reality in December 2015 when Backstage Hobbies owner Nate Petersen developed a point-of-sale front-end and a set of API pricing tools for TCGs and video games and bolted them onto the robust OpenCart application core.  When it became clear in roughly April that ComicSuite RMS wasn't going to get it done, I bought in on IMP with the expectation to run all operations on it.  The setup price was reasonable given the risk, so even though it's part of the unrecoupable portion of that ten grand, I don't consider it to have been bad judgment to try.

Like RMS, IMP was built on the SQL database platform, and this time the inventory management tools stood up well, while the system's overall durability and scalability weren't in the range I needed yet.  At this stage IMP is the only POS system I know of that has live pricing from Video Game Price Charting for that product category.  For software seven months old and still very much in beta, IMP shows promise, and is already a feasible option for deployments in owner-operated stores with few or one register lane, or as a web-facing store for singles.  Unfortunately, I did not have the luxury of time to let the software catch up to business.

My several weeks attempting to deploy IMP were beneficial in more ways.  I realized I would want to keep the PCs I had bought to use as RMS registers under whatever I ended up deploying, and counting monitors, scanners, printers, and cash drawers, that ended up making about $2400 of my ten grand an effective recoup.  My old iMacs served DSG well for years, but they stagger forward now under the weight of seven years of heavy usage each.   When I sell the RMS server and bring in (for presumably an aggressive sale) the gratis back-catalog trade paperback package that Diamond affords its ComicSuite subscribers, I'll be in a position where the direct costs, at least, have been recouped down to a bottom-line loss of only around $5k.  And if I can get any kind of value out of the "working copy of RMS" aspect of that server, never mind that it's not nominally transferable, then the recoupment becomes better still.  This does not take into account the money lost to business infrastructure deficiency, but as I've said, in business you don't have what you can't count.  That figure will remain forever speculative.  It stings all the same, despite being rooted in the sunk-cost fallacy.

I also learned during this time period that TCG singles, as a segment of my market and sales, had become utterly dominant.  The increase curve on singles defied all logic and expectation.  If I had floated my April sales past you gratuitously and told you to look at how much of our ~$100k month came from Magic singles, you wouldn't believe it, you would think I was making the figures up.  And this, in a store where I focused on diversity and giving other games the attention that most card-focused stores give singles!  But no.  Despite my comparative indifference, singles refused to bow to impediment.  They would not relinquish attention.  They dominated sales, then the buy budget, then labor time.  And when singles are the soup of the day, there is one POS software package that stands above the rest.
And now here we are.  Dan McCarty's Crystal Commerce, the much-hated cloud SQL tool suite that integrates coarsely but functionally with TCGPlayer, eBay, and Amazon, that has outstanding function problems going back years that its development staff seem to be in no hurry to correct.  Crystal Commerce, that had become a Spongebob meme among retailers as a result of that same developmental inertia.  Crystal Commerce, that I had discarded in late 2014 in favor of going all-LSR for lack of any divination that XSilva would lose interest in the Light Speed client version within a matter of mere months.  Here I was, crawling back.

Sigh.  This is business.  All that matters is what is necessary now.  My friend Scott Church, who had continued to run Crystal Commerce for his Category One Games webstore, let me tool around town in his system and stress-test it based on where I had run IMP's wheels off the axles.  How did it fare?  It basically stood up to all the bottom-line daily functionality I needed.  Moreover, it looked like it would meet my migration criteria more closely than the other options.  Let's look at the list.

Comics.  Does it handle comics better than Light Speed?  Yes.  It does.  Better than ComicSuite RMS?  Well, if you can't get RMS to work, I suppose so, but its comics handling is nowhere near what a working ComicSuite or MOBY can do for subscription management.  Be that as it may, my Media Manager is adept at subscription upkeep using standard tools like Excel and a telephone.  Crystal Commerce had the one-up in the comics category by having a respectable depth of master catalog support for integrated sales of issues.  We'll be delving into that soon.

Is it off-the-shelf, requiring little customization?  Yes and no.  A SQL database is about as standard as they come these days, and Crystal Commerce's SQL tools seem better tailored to this industry than what RMS offers.  Compared to IMP, it's Playstation and XBox, you could make an argument either way, but the bottom line is it works.  The extent of customization is handled by the vendor, and there's a certain amount of caution to the wind that if your POS is down, so are many of your competitors.

Is it device-agnostic?  Yes, moreso than anything else available right now.  Unlimited lanes, runs on any browser, runs on a computer, tablet, phone, whatever.  Technically it should be possible to run this on a Nintendo Wii using the Opera Channel.

Online integration?  That's the core application of Crystal Commerce.  I won't be returning to Amazon SellerCentral, but I'll plug in our eBay account once most regular systems are working as planned, and I'll take another look at TCGPlayer when the coast looks clear.

Does it work at scale?  Yes -- so far any number of lanes operating simultaneously has presented no significant problems, working at home has not been a problem, and I have been able to deploy an entire side wall full of registers to serve customer traffic.  It even supports kiosk mode.  Moreover, CC is currently best-in-breed at managing a gigantic TCG singles inventory effectively, quickly, and with delegation to proficient employees.  The one scale logjam I found is that only one terminal can be importing products from the hive catalog at a time.

Convention sales are going to depend on what kind of data connection we can get, as it is typically not cheap to have an ethernet link, and wireless tends to be saturated out.  Assuming we can surmount those hardware issues, it appears trivial to run this software on a notebook while at remote events.

And finally, cloud deployment brought with it the revival of my store website, which I wrote about a few months back.  It looks considerably better now, and actually works.  (For over nine hundred dollars in "design fees" it had better.)  Event registration is a thing again, right from my customers' phones, as they demand it.  All pages beyond the front landing page feature feeds from our Google event calendar and Facebook page.  It passes the key killer app test: Are my customers able to buy Magic cards from their phones, pay in store credit, and pick up their cards before the tournament?  Yes, to every part of that equation.

There are certainly things wrong with Crystal Commerce even still.  The import tool and reporting tools are still extremely sparse and non-intuitive.  They promise new versions are on the way, and I'll believe that on arrival.  Actually creating a restock report workflow is needlessly convoluted and is one aspect in which CC is a mile behind LSR and a continent behind RMS.  There are a non-trivial number of instances of what we call the red-and-white "screw you" screen (the term is harsher than that) where the browser blanks and offers an opaque error message in vivid crimson and nothing more to go on.  Mostly, the Chris O'Dowd solution works, though: Turn it off and then on again.  A refresh might do it, a browser quit and reload might do it.  And the integration with TCGPlayer, eBay, and Amazon, is far from seamless and results in regular oversells even for careful retailers.  I'll enjoy having that stuff turned off for just a while longer.

The bottom line, however, is that Crystal Commerce works now, and works the way my consumers are demanding that my point-of-sale solution work.  It also works for the way I need my employees to be able to work, and they really like the fact that so much of singles transactions (in both directions) are cleanly systematic in the software.  The CC hive catalog, or integrated cloud product database if you like, reaches better than 95% of the products I carry, and I can create product cards for the rest, suboptimal as that is.

The greatest relief is finally being out of the purgatory position.  Since closing the store for one day on June 14th to change over the system and physically reconfigure our retailing infrastructure as well, I have spent three weeks making nonstop progress, each week better than the last in inventory coverage, system refinement, and ultimately sales.  Action items are finally disappearing from my desk again.  My staff knows what we're doing, they know why, and they have been able to focus on a vast, weeks-encompassing task without getting lost.  This is going to end up being a huge benefit to their later careers, having had this perspective from working on such a project.  It's one of those things you can't fully learn without doing it.

Crystal Commerce does get a cut of my online sales action on top of a subscription price that is not cheap.  But you know what?  I tried brewing my own.  It set me back thousands of dollars.  You just finished reading the sordid tale.  For a long-term moonshot where I had my own vast server infrastructure and the space and budget to maintain it, sure, I'd have stuck with ComicSuite RMS or Essentials Hero and moved forward from there.  But in a business that consists largely of making hay while the sun shines, I found a vendor offering a turn-key hay baling system.  It will have to do.  Dan McCarty, the progenitor of Crystal Commerce, is going to pocket a bunch of my money in the years ahead.  He will have earned it.