Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Melodies of 1983 (I Said I'm Full)

It's difficult to get a true sense of the glut of product we're seeing in the hobby tabletop space right now, because even a diversified store only sees a sliver of it at any one time.  There is simply so much of it that attempting to sell any new title is like pushing plates of steak and lobster at diners who are already long since finished and have pushed back their chairs from the table.
Last year, 3,600 new board game titles were released.  Almost ten per day, though a third or so of that figure was clumped around the Essen convention in October.  And that's just boxed standalone games, as it were, and doesn't take into account other tabletop categories: Games Workshop releases new Warhammer product weekly; other miniatures product systems range anywhere from monthly to quarterly for the most part; and oh yeah, ever heard of trading card games?  On top of all that, accessories.  Sleeves, dice, playmats, and so on.  The sheer magnitude of product is far more than even the busiest and highest-throughput chain of store could ever possibly ingest.

So, there has been a glut like this in games before, and the result wasn't pretty.  The 1983 video game crash brought down once-mammoth companies Atari and Coleco, sent Mattel packing out of the category, and obliterated everyone smaller from publisher to retailer.  For a few years, home computers like the Commodore 64 were the only bastion of video games until Nintendo brought the Famicom westward and launched the Nintendo Entertainment System, with careful control of title counts authorized to market.

The bad news is that some key indicia from the 1983 crash are evident in 2017 for tabletop games.  The good news is that the biggest problem in 1983 isn't a problem today.

Video games were big business in 1982, breaking records upon records, and everybody wanted in on the action.  By 1983, companies like Quaker Oats and Purina that had no business publishing video games took any code they could come up with and blasted it into a ROM cartridge headed for store shelves.  The quality of titles fell off a cliff and the public was quickly turned off to console video games.  As garbageware titles failed to sell, toy stores and other retailers sought to return the merchandise, only to find that smaller publishers like Games By Apollo and U.S. Games didn't have any cash to pay back.  They and other publishers folded, and retailers had no choice but to dump that product, which in the pre-Amazon pre-eBay era of the early 1980s meant bargain bins so aggressive you'd think the prices had to be a mistake.  Forty-dollar titles were marked down to five bucks.  It was a bloodbath.  I was there.  This wasn't just a history article research discovery for me.  I remember being in grade school and buying up $5 carts by the bucketload, willing to take my chances on game quality.  Anyway, once much of the product base was discounted into oblivion, it became essentially impossible to release new product at full price onto those same store shelves, so the flow of product trickled to a halt.

Does any of that ring familiar?  The dumping cycle today is augmented six ways from Sunday by vastly improved retail infrastructure, both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce.  But it's fundamentally the same process that we're seeing happening.  Seventy-plus new titles every week, and if any from among that onslaught isn't a lightning hit right out of the gate on release, cash-pinched stores need to turn that merch now now now and the online dumping begins with fervor.  Once the pricebots have caught up to the dumpers, it becomes trivially easy for a player to find the game for cost or less.  It then becomes a difficult prospect for a more responsible retailer to charge MSRP for the game, so the retailer curtails ordering.  This becomes more and more true at higher price points where the discount delta is greater.  And as has been discussed here and elsewhere at length, even at MSRP, margins are not great.  Nobody is getting rich off tabletop COGS ratios.  As retailers curtail ordering, distributors have floor to clear and have to dump product through backchannels or in bulk deals to "Loot Crate" style reprocessors.  This further obliterates the market value of the brands being liquidated, and slams the door on any realistic chance of a title's recovery.

The good news is that the most crucial problem of 1983, low game quality, is only a fringe issue in 2017, and mostly only for the underbelly portion of crowdfunding.  For the most part, right now, tabletop games are the best they've ever been.  Gatekeepers are doing a splendid job of keeping their particular gates.  Game design is wonderful at the big publishing houses, and the dreamers can still publish with crowdfunding and catch lightning in a bottle if they don't botch the execution too badly.  Anecdata corroborates: I've learned to play half a dozen new games this month alone and every single one of them was fun, well designed, had good production value, and would probably have been a hit title if it had released into the doldrums of 2007.  But today?  They will be lucky to get noticed, and fortunate to turn a profit for publisher and retailer alike.  At least they don't suck, so if they do get noticed, it is quite possible for them to become healthy evergreens, or at least deciduous enough to turn for a while.

Product quality is mostly up, and yet we're still seeing some worrisome behavior that threatens to take our industry down a road whose destination we've seen all too clearly, and it ain't pretty.  By the time this article sees print, we should be two days into Wizards of the Coast's Announcement Week for the 25th Anniversary of Magic: the Gathering, the industry's flagship product.  Without having any inside information I am sure the new products are going to look great and I'm sure I am going to relish getting my hands on every one of them.  WOTC has been on a tremendous roll putting out awesome products one by two by three, some of the finest content they've ever made in this past quarter-century of business.  And yet we see Magic get dumped because an ocean of morons don't know how to run a retail business and a bunch of speculators are doing their best on the side to defecate all over the industry so they can buy in short.

So, what's the answer?  I can't realistically tell a publisher to take half their best ideas and just put them on ice until after the industry crashes.  That presupposes both an industry crash and the likelihood that it will be worth putting out class-A product in the wake of such a crash, feeding into a recovery where the best titles might not earn as much as the bottom chum does now.  Still, there has to be a cognizable threshold at which even a good game doesn't get added to the 3,599 already ledgered up this year simply due to the sheer odds that even if the game is utterly delightful, its passage might go unnoticed, drowned out in the static of so much other signal.

Other retailers have suggested that publishers might be better advised right now to narrow their offerings and go deeper with each big title.  There's some nuance there versus my suggestion in the above paragraph.  To wit, rather than putting new titles on ice indefinitely, maybe put them on ice definitely -- line things up so you know what your release schedule contingencies will be, so you know what's in the on-deck circle in case a major release tanks, and you know what can simmer a little longer if you want to give breathing room to a title that's punching above its weight class.  I'm not going to expound on this suggestion too much because I give credit where credit is due that most publishers, and especially most major ones, have talented staff working for them who already understand this situation better than me.  I am confident they have thought about these things.

All these signs, these shades of 1983, point to a contraction cycle at the very least, and with product quality where it is, hopefully a "crash" as such can be avoided.  But that correction should help thin the herd and raise the quality of everything that's left, from product to publishers to distributors to retailers, and ultimately improve the gameplay experience on the tabletop.  Pound-for-pound, everyone should get to enjoy games more after the tremors die down.

There will still be problems.  Good titles will continue to arrive and sometimes they will be dumped.  But as we've seen in recent weeks and months, industry stalwarts are starting to take steps to remove bad actors from the equation to the extent possible.  I am encouraged by these developments.  In the longer run, my plan is to hunker down, survive the storm winds, and be ready to stock my shelves with the lean beef that I know my hungry player base wants.

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