Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, September

We're continuing my series of yarns from 1998 when I opened -- and then closed -- my first ever physical retail store, Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in Mesa, Arizona.  In the wake of a terrible debut month, I found myself facechecking the Wall of Exclusivity, learning about good money and bad, and scrambling to salvage my way to survival by Day 30.
"The calendar in the sky beyond the window of her office said: September 2. Dagny leaned wearily across her desk. The first light to snap on at the approach of dusk was always the ray that hit the calendar; when the white-glowing page appeared above the roofs, it blurred the city, hastening the darkness.  She had looked at that distant page every evening of the months behind her. Your days are numbered, it had seemed to say--as if it were marking a progression toward something it knew, but she didn't. Once, it had clocked her race to build the John Galt Line; now it was clocking her race against an unknown destroyer." 
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 
Wow.  It's not often I get to use an Atlas Shrugged quote where it lines up so precisely with what was going on with me at the time, but this certainly was the time.  

September 2, 1998 dawned with me completely exhausted already less than a month in, and taking a breather after somehow engineering an eleventh-hour rent payment.  There was so much more work to do if I hoped to have any chance at sustainability.  The unknown destroyer, of course, was made up of the consequences of my poor planning and decisions, and would eventually claim Wizard's Tower just as the entropy of collectivism claimed the first John Galt Line in the novel.  And as with Dagny Taggart, I did not know the destroyer's inexorable hunger, but the destroyer most certainly knew my weaknesses.

For a few weeks, there was some modicum of "business as usual" at the Tower.  We drafted Tempest block, people bought Unglued packs -- a few, anyway -- and Standard Type II attendance grew respectably.  For lack of sanctioned events in most parts of town, I was free to give a prize payout of only around 40%-50% of admissions.  This is unthinkable anymore, of course, except in regions where stores are far and few between.  In the Phoenix metro, if a store pays out less than 100% of admissions into the prize pool, that store struggles to fire events.  Anyway, I generated some modest revenue, my Zocchi Distributing orders placed each Monday got to me on Thursday, or Friday if our atypically terrible UPS driver was feeling indifferent, and pretty soon I had reconstituted something of an inventory and bankroll.

Mid-month, of course, came the prime event of the year for Magic: the Gathering, the prerelease tournament for the autumn stand-alone expansion.  This year, it was "Urza's Saga."  The event would be held at the El-Zaribah Shrine Auditorium, whatever that was, for some reason.  I knew I would be judging the event, as I was a DCI Level 2 judge at the time and enjoyed being a part of Ray Powers' nascent Monastery Productions tournament organization, succeeding Dan Gray's AZTLAN of the venerable Costa Mesa Women's Club that had previously held loose domain over Arizona.

What I hoped was that I would also be able to vend at the event.  Wizard's Tower needed all the promotion it could get, and even an exorbitant table fee would not daunt me (though I would then have had to raise that money, obviously).  My ex-wife would had made a questionable table staff, but I could have gotten some friends into the mix for beer and favors.  I contacted Ray and saw about getting set up.

Ray shook his head.  Yes, even over the phone, I could tell he was doing this.  I have such powers of discernment.

"Sorry, Bahr, but George (Velez, owner of Arizona Collector's Paradise) wrapped up the exclusive on vending the prerelease months ago."

Well, damn.  Guess I am just going to judge, then.

I got the last laugh, kind of.  In that era, when massive prereleases were always held in hotels and convention rooms and never in stores, there was no venue available for the Urza's Destiny prerelease and I managed by the graciousness of Ray to have the event take place at Arizona Gamer, the store I partnered with in early 1999 in the Wizard's Tower's aftermath.  The event was cramped, sweaty, uncomfortable, logistically difficult, and it was mine, all mine.  That provided the most revenue we ever cleared in a day at Arizona Gamer, three grand or so.  Amazing how perspectives change. Nowadays if Desert Sky Games and Comics grosses less than three grand on a Friday or a Saturday, it is an outlier and worse than usual.

Decipher, erstwhile publishers of licensed trading card games such as the Star Trek and Star Wars Customizable Card Games, had landmark releases right around then: Deep Space Nine and Special Edition, respectively.  These might have landed in October and not September; whatever, I have a bunch of stuff for October so I'm going to tell this story now.  Anyway, two observations:

First, this was my first hint, but one that took years for me to comprehend fully, that Decipher's designers were "idea" people and not "execution" people.  The Star Wars CCG game engine is still regarded by people who have played it as one of the most complex and intricate mechanic systems ever, and it rewarded a downright freakish level of skill and memorization.  However, in execution, this made a lot of games become miserable slugfests with gargantuan numbers of effects and abilities on the table and a recurring order of countable cards in both decks, rewarding the player best able to keep track of it all, and making gameplay disappointingly akin to "work."  This failure in execution led to a deeper peril: That elaborate rules framework allowed, for lack of playtesting, new mechanics to be terribly, horribly broken and reduce the game to utter degeneracy.  I speak, of course, of Operatives.

Supposedly Decipher had designed, developed, and playtested a gorgeous assortment of Expanded Universe cards for the Special Edition sets, many of which found their way into the Reflections II premium subset two years later.  However, at the eleventh hour, Lucasfilm revoked permission for Decipher to print cards outside the canon of the Special Edition film trilogy.  The designers were forced to introduce groups of cards to fill the holes with little or no time to test them, and so they created Operatives, characters referencing some lesser-known planets from the Star Wars Universe that came paired to an enabling Objective card for each side.  As it turns out, the Operatives were far too strong compared to the baseline card power in the game.  They were so grossly overpowered that the World Championship shortly afterward featured little else in the metagame, and the winner ran Operatives on both sides of the Force to the victory.  

The Star Wars CCG player base rebelled against Operatives quickly and mercilessly, and sales of the game ground to a halt for six months while Decipher painstakingly prepared the Endor expansion and made sure it would be reasonably balanced.  Wizard's Tower's entire stock of the Star Wars CCG was a write-off, for lack of market interest, as the store didn't last until the game made a late-1999, early-2000 resurgence.  Even after I reemerged into the industry as a business partner in Arizona Gamer in 1999, I stayed once-bitten, twice-shy wary of the Star Wars CCG and carried but a pittance on the shelves until Endor was widely praised early in its release.

Second, I learned that you just never accept personal checks, ever.  This may seem obvious now in the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen, but back in the halcyon days of 1998, payment was still rendered from time to time by virtue of a specially pre-printed IOU.  A couple of Star Trek players wrote checks to me for a box each of Deep Space Nine boosters, and wouldn't you know it, both checks came back.  Attempts to contact each by telephone were fruitless; neither ever entered the store again.  A harsh but simple lesson and one I only had to learn that one time.  DSG gets chargebacks sometimes, but nowhere near a significant percentage of our sales volume.  What stands out about this was that both players kept going on about how they were high-roller poker players while they opened their boxes in the store.  That should have clued me in to the possibility that they were deadbeats.

Approaching month's end, I had thrown a bunch of money away on Decipher products and I knew my landlord would be waiting with the clock running if I was up against the rent payment again.  Of course, these days, even if my store were to have some catastrophe, I would know to speak with my landlord well ahead of time and ask for some leeway, and would probably get it.  However, the Paradise Palms Plaza where Wizard's Tower was located was considerably downmarket, and my neighbor businesses had warned me that the landlord was pretty unforgiving where timely rent payments were concerned.  I suppose he had to be, with the kind of fly-by-night establishments that probably sought out that rent level.  As you'll read in a future installment, the landlord was not quite that hardcore, but neither would any sane person consider him exactly "lenient."

I hunkered down, focused on Magic: the Gathering, and allocated virtually no funding otherwise.  With a few days to spare, I did enough to pay my October rent and even had cash left in the bank!  I felt amazing.  Immortal.  Unbeatable.  World-conquering, I'm not kidding.  Like right when you finish a grueling workout and the endorphins are blasting strong.  My grosses were a rounding error on what DSG brings in these days, but I had achieved business in retail and for the first time in my life was seeing a road open before me to sustainable self-employment, tantalizingly close, despite everything I was doing wrong.  If you ever run your own business, even if it doesn't last, I hope you get to feel that thrill at least once.  It is exquisite.

Join me next week when I reflect on October, when Wizard's Tower stood tall at its peak, and we saw smashes, crashes, Strokes, and Chokes.

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