Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, November

Well, we're coming right down to it.  Over the past month I've chewed on the bit of my first ever game store, Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in 1998.  No, it didn't last the year.  And now you're about to find out why.  In November, I attempted to be worldly and wise, I made some durability discoveries, and I fiddled whilst my Tower burned.

For those of you wanting me to get back to topical things, don't worry, next week will be the finale of this series and after that I'll have a post-mortem for Magic: the Gathering Dragons of Tarkir and I'll cover a few other subjects for a while before diving into the adventure that was Arizona Gamer, 1999-2001.

Right around early November, some of my regular visitors started showing up with foreign Magic cards in their decks.  Not just Spanish or French cards either, but Japanese and Korean cards.  They looked amazing!  Remember, there were no premium foil cards yet.  This was the only way to "bling" out a deck, and I caught the fever in an instant.  I sent off to my distributors for some foreign Tempest, Stronghold, Exodus, and Urza's Saga, confident that my store would be THE source in town for all the coolest goodies.

I probably should have set some cash aside to restock my English boosters.

Moving on then.  One of the things I did in the store was rent time on video game consoles.  The legality of this is tricky even today; it can be done, if treated as an outright software rental, except where EULAs forbid it, except where EULAs can't forbid it, due to applicable laws, as long as the store has the customer pay on the basis of using the... and oh my God now I'm cross-eyed.  It's safe to say that whatever I was doing wouldn't meet the criteria that count today, but back then there was no online play, no account registration, just put the disc in your PlayStation or the cart in your Nintendo 64 and roll with it.  I had a projection TV with a fractured fresnel lens, so I even had a really terrible display to charge people $3 per hour to play!

Things I discovered in the course of offering video game play in-store:

  • Play privilege enforcement is a bear, which is why coin-operated equipment is better in a commercial environment;
  • Controllers and other peripherals were designed for home use and cannot stand up to the punishment of public use; and
  • It is all but impossible to keep up with new software sufficiently for an audience of Everybody.  Or, at least, Everybody who might walk through the door.

My arcade collecting hobby picked up a bit of steam during this time; friends of mine already had Neo Geo systems and JAMMA SuperGuns, and by mid-1999 at Arizona Gamer I would buy my first two arcade games ever, a Gauntlet and a Street Fighter II.  As for Wizard's Tower, I essentially set myself back a generation with my console collection.  The public obliterated all three of my 32-bit systems.  Yes, even my Sega Saturn.  A man has to play his Street Fighter Alpha 2, after all.

I understood the Tolarian Academy Blue deck on a deep competitive level, as I mentioned in last week's article.  I had failed at the Pro Tour Qualifier, but at long last I was routinely wiping the floor with visitors to our Standard tournaments, ringering nicely for my business and saving untold tens of dollars in prize payouts for the store's bottom line.  The December 1st bannings that would crush the deck as I knew it were still an unknown future event.  The problem, of course, with beating your customers at Magic, is that it creates a negative experience in-store if you do it too much or too consistently.  Everyone wants to play against the store owner, but if they get frustrated or don't have fun doing it, it's toxic.

Constantly playing games is also not a very efficient use of a store owner's time.  Far better would I have been to spend my Friday nights and Saturday afternoons hustling for sales.  But I knew no better; I had not yet separated Bahr the Hobby Gamer from Bahr the Businessman.  The need for me to do so was an expensive lesson.

To this day, I seldom play games in my store, and I am careful when I do.  I am a far better sport and I am busy enough that I'm rarely on the same competitive level as my customers who are devoted to their particular game, so the outcome is generally far more positive for both of us.  They either win or almost win, and I stay sharp and learn better play techniques and deck styles.

Most of all, my in-store play is infrequent enough that I'm generally delighted when I get a chance to do it.  I play a reasonable amount of Commander and booster drafts for Magic, as well as Android Netrunner and a handful of board games.  I will almost certainly play some Warhammer now that my store is carrying the Games Workshop product line.  I've always enjoyed the Eldar and the Wood Elves.  And of course my wife and her college friends are frequent visitors for board game nights back at the Casa de Bahr.

I had an auspicious visit from Jason Barnes right around this time.  Jason had just opened a mall kiosk at Arizona Mills selling those very same Games Workshop products, and he found a small strip in Tempe with a reasonable room and a crushingly expensive lease -- more expensive than what I pay today, even, sixteen years later -- for a permanent store.  He set up "dicechucker heaven" and featured as amazing a spread of miniatures offerings as I'd ever seen, and as you may have guessed from my references earlier in this series and this article, he called the store Arizona Gamer.  Jason was interested to know if I was doing minis at all, and he saw that I only had Magic and Star Wars cards and a handful of RPGs and board games, and he wrote me off as a non-factor.  He confided in me later that he had found Wizard's Tower pretty underwhelming and wondered how I ever made any money; the power of Magic: the Gathering as a marketable commodity was ever in evidence, but he was right, my store was amateur hour.  The next time I would speak with him, both our troubles by then had deepened and an alliance would be forged.

I took Thanksgiving off and set up some absurity of a blowout sale for Black Friday, only to learn that Black Friday is meaningless to the hobby trade, as nobody I didn't already know and recognize came anywhere near Wizard's Tower that entire weekend.  Accordingly, I made a lot less money making the same exact sales I was going to make anyway.  I played some more Magic, and didn't do much in the way of restocking.

On December 1st, rent came due, and I didn't have the money.

Next week, the grand finale and epilogue from this sordid tale will take you with me as I enter into grace and jump back out again, the mayhem of a liquidation in situ, and what happens when the future recedes from view and the present becomes immediate and excruciatingly small.

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