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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Pound of Flesh

In the early days of Desert Sky Games, before it was "and Comics," Magic: the Gathering was responsible for the meaningful totality of all our revenue.  We had a meager array of board games and collectibles, and of course there was Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, but Magic and the product categories that depended on Magic, such as sleeves, playmats, and card storage, made up greater than 80% of every dollar earned.  Maybe greater than 90%; it depended how I counted a given month, and whether I counted revenue net of buys.

So it was no real surprise in the early going to see that our few negative online reviews dismissed us for being "Just a Magic store."  Nobody likes to get one or two stars out of five, but I could not legitimately argue that they were wrong.  DSG was absolutely, without any doubt, Just a Magic Store.

I look toward the horizon and plan for the long term.  From the outset, the partners knew Magic was the revenue center in the present, but a diversified store was the safest bet for the future.  Painstakingly, with fits and starts as we overcame business changes and partner changes, DSG diversified until non-Magic products finally became the majority revenue sources late last summer.  (Paradoxically, the volume of our Magic business at less than 50% of all sales today is much more in absolute dollars than when Magic was 90% of all sales early on.)

Diversification practically became a mantra.  In early 2013, we added video games, though we'd end up putting that category on the back burner a year later.  In late 2013, we added comics.  In mid-2014, we went wider on board games, bringing up the support level for publishers like Fantasy Flight.  Early 2015 saw us add Games Workshop and the megacategory of miniature wargames.  Late 2015 brought some things from the margins into healthy positions, such as HeroClix, Dice Masters, Pokemon, and apparel.  Early 2016's big splashes thus far have been Guild Ball, a big level up in Warhammer and Comics, and the return of video games.  We're running three Fantasy Flight Regionals this month.  We hosted the first Pro Circuit Championships for Dice Masters and Android: Netrunner.  We have prestige events on the calendar left and right, for Magic and then everything else too.

Naturally, the negative reviews lately still complain that we are "Just a Magic store."

How.  How can they still say that.  It's enough to make me want to slam my fingers in a door.  You could scarcely find a store within buckshot of us that supports a wider and more diverse roster of games and player communities.  Our calendar overflows with events, to the point where half the impetus behind finding a new location is just to be able to keep up with business as usual.  Whatever game you play that isn't Magic, the odds are really good that if you're in our twenty-mile halo, we're the place hosting.

But nope, we're Just a Magic Store.

/deep breath.

So what is it that these players are looking for.  What is it that qualifies a diverse store as finally being a diverse store, and not Just a Magic Store?

I tendered this question before my peers on one of the private Facebook retailer groups.  A great deal of insightful commentary came back, and I think we're forming a theorem here.

Some of the reason is simple Gamer Prejudice.  Cliquishness.  Compounded by the social awkwardness of us garden-variety gamer nerds, but still, that.  Most of my players don't do this.  But there is a significant cohort that wants the store to be MY clubhouse, not YOUR clubhouse.  The answer to this, of course, is that my store is not a clubhouse.  It is a business that welcomes players from all walks of life.  Publicly, players tend to make their peace with this.  Privately, some players still nurse misgivings.  No store can be as cozy as the best house living rooms anyway, so maybe there's a player demographic that's just going to be happier playing at home.

Some of the reason is because some gamers are the Contras.  They embrace whatever game system is Not Magic, and that's the hill they pick to die on.  It's a personality thing.  We all know the person in our group of friends who does this, whether it's with games, or music, or sports, or movies, or literature.  They stake their social identity on being the trend defier, the person swimming against the mainstream.  These will be the most vocal of those who condemn a diversified store as Just a Magic Store if it sells Magic at all.  Decipher players used to be notorious for this.

But some, and I suspect the most deeply affected group, hate Magic and stores that sell Magic for a reason stretching back two decades and more.  And this type of player, while the toughest to reach, can also be the happiest and most devoted customer afterward if you manage to do so.

It goes like this.  In 1992, the hobby game and comic industry was driven by printed content.  Books, graphic novels, role-playing games.  Miniature wargames were also a thing, albeit much less prevalent than today.  Everything from the way stores were set up to the economics of the product to where the games were played, all stemmed from the fundamental nature of the printed content.  Stores were small to keep costs low.  Turn rates were meager.  More people bought books because there were no such things as PDFs, and indeed no such things as websites.  (The Web started in 1993.)

Magic: the Gathering was released in the summer of 1993, and it just blasted everything else right off the table.  The "CCG Boom" followed (back when Trading Card Games, or TCGs, were still known as Collectible Card Games) and quickly became the "CCG Bubble."  An unsustainable share of industry dollars flowed to the TCG product lines and away from comics, minis, and RPGs, with the pie still mostly finite due to the shift outpacing market growth.

As Shannon Appelcline's RPG industry history book series Designers & Dragons recounts, a great many publishers were starved out and folded during the CCG boom and bubble.  The bubble ended up bursting, of course, but that actually hurt the remaining RPG publishers even more, because so many stores failed and even distributors fell on hard times.  What hurt the industry as a whole, hurt RPGs.  Things were so bad that the granddaddy of them all, TSR, publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, sold out at scrap value in 1997 to Magic's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, which was in turn bought for megamillions by Hasbro.  And what little RPG lifeblood survived the TCG onslaught, the MMORPG (online computer game) market drained even more mercilessly at the turn of the decade.  Everquest and World of Warcraft.

For that matter, the rest of the industry may as well have gone on a sabbatical in 1999 with the enormity of the Pokemon TCG fad's explosion drowning out the rest of the trade's airwaves.  I was operating Arizona Gamer during this time.  There were literally lines of humans at the door each morning at the peak of the fervor, waiting to see if we got a truck with a Pokemon delivery.  Nothing else mattered.

Ever after, even when Magic was at its nadir around 2007-2008, the TCG category has driven the comic and hobby game industry.  It has determined prerogatives and shaped economics.  Stores are built and configured to accommodate TCG organized play.  Online sales are bent around the flow of TCG product.  Point-of-sale systems are narrowly tailored to the requirements of that single category.  The money never fully went back the other way.  Even the board game boom of 2010-2013 was eclipsed by a new modern Magic boom from late 2009 through the present day.

Each time the RPG, miniatures, and tabletop glory of old seems on the verge of resurging, something happens that either suppresses it again or steers even further power into the nexus of TCGs.  Production values get really good?  Too bad, PDFs crush sales of lavish, vivid-color hardbacks.  Content gets really sweet?  Sorry, Kickstarter floods the market with crap.  Great content at a great price?  Sorry, license expired, game is discontinued.  Great content at a great price and it's homegrown IP?  Sorry, the price of tin just tripled, we have to convert our entire miniatures line to resin and plastic and charge a king's ransom for it.  Meanwhile, the Magic: the Gathering juggernaut just keeps on jugging.

So when you get a player who has spent the last twenty years not just nursing a misgiving about Magic, but outright hating it, harboring a deep resentment about everything that has happened to take away what made the hobby great in their halcyon years, and seeing Magic as the figurehead for the entire debacle, now you start to understand.  That player doesn't even want to see any Magic in your store.  That player won't be happy if you have Magic at all, never mind whether you're focused on it.  There are only a few stores in my metro, for example, where Magic is an afterthought.  Those are the stores these players praise in glowing tones.

It's not enough for the store to elevate that player's preferred game.  That player needs to see Magic diminished.  Punished, in fact.  They need payback.  Comeuppance.  Marginalization.  Reparations.  From their vantage point, Magic ruined tabletop games.  Magic ruined their hobby, which means it ruined their memories and their youth and their treasured nostalgia, just like Star Wars: Episode I ruined George Lucas's legacy.  And these players want Magic ruined to restore the balance.
They want a pound of flesh, like the literary Shylock did in The Merchant of Venice.  They know it will go hard, but they will better the instruction.

And yet they know this is an economic impossibility.  There is just too much money in Magic.  Many stores these days let Magic pay the bills so they can support other games out of love of the community.  The player knows this and resents Magic even more for it, like forced wardship to an unwanted benefactor.  So this player shakes his fist and curses the sky and condemns any store that yields to the reality of Magic's place atop the industry as "Just a Magic store," never mind that the same store might be a Nerdvana of other products as well.

How can anyone possibly try to bridge that chasm?

This is how.

For the rest of this article, I am speaking to that player.

You, who saw the tabletop hobby you love overridden by the monolith of Mana, poisoned by the Black Lotus of circumstance.

You, who cherished every night around the table watching Jerry attack the gazebo while Dennis prayed for just one saving throw against the hail of poisoned arrows.

You, who pushed a tray of Bretonnian Knights into a snap-perfect engagement with a foul pod of Lizardmen and trampled past them to the Slann Mage Priest behind.

You, whose Brujah neonate made her own way and earned the respect of Tremere and Nosferatu alike, until that gorgeous Toreador crossed her path that night and changed everything.

And you, determined to adapt and enjoy whatever else of value came your way, from the Star Trek CCG to Catan to Pathfinder to Dominion to X-Wing to Dead of Winter, only to see the hated MTG overshadowing it all.

To you, I say this.

I get it.

I absolutely understand and respect it.  Seriously.  I recognize completely.

Because I was there too.

I know, I know.  I play Magic now so I'm an apostate, I can never fully understand.  But I do.  Because by the time I first played Magic, I was already 20 years old.  Those formative experiences of gaming youth that seared into our brains were already there for me by then.

I had already spent those nights at summer camp playing AD&D, trekking across Greyhawk and Krynn.  I had already drowned in the angst of rainy weekends playing VtM, indulging Ventrue intrigue and Gangrel savagery while hoping in the daytime world to land a proper date (and mostly failing).  I even painted up a bunch of Wood Elves and Eldar because I like to play the army that sees the rules from a 90-degree angle.  Those memories defined friendships, defined places, mixed with music and stress and school and travel and far too little sex.  As it was for you, so it was for me.

In 1994, with Revised Edition and The Dark still on store shelves, I was introduced to Magic: the Gathering.  I immersed in it, and then sold out and quit.  Too frustrating, too expensive.

Years progressed.  I strove to enjoy the other games, despite the burning corona of Magic ever present.  I was a DCI judge for a while, stripes on deck at the Pro Tour.  But it wasn't where I started, so it was always transitory.  I sold out of Magic multiple times, bought back in again, and sold out again.  I played the board games, the deckbuilding games, and what TCGs remained.  I even competed in the Star Wars CCG World Championships in 2006, when the Players' Committee staged it at Pastimes in Niles, Illinois.

But I think back to that youth spent gaming, and even though I know it isn't fully so, it's difficult for me to escape that same impression you have, that Magic is what took it all away.  Even though there were more proximate causes in reality, from MMORPGs to industry entropy to we as people growing up and changing the focus of our lives.  But Magic collided with the first domino, so our brains commit the anchoring fallacy and assign Magic disproportionate blame.  We associate Magic with our anger at the outcome.  I recognize the vintage of that bitter aftertaste.  I know that flavor.  And it's pretty damned salty.

And here is what I understand that makes that bitterness dissipate.

It will happen to Magic too.

Something else will come along that will blow TCGs out of the water, and the entire generation of people who dominate Friendly Local Game Stores with their Magic tournaments and prereleases and glass cases full of foils and rares and everything else, will see it all dry up and crumble away, and they will blame that new thing for the shredding of their cherished memories and experiences.

As it was with us, other proximate causes will factor in.  Video games are a titanic market compared to hobby games, even Magic, and it won't take much of a console boomlet to shoulder TCGs aside and pinch their prevalence.  E-sports are running away with fan attention and Magic is hopelessly without a cogent plan to keep up, so much so that Hasbro deposed Wizards CEO Greg Leeds and replaced him with Microsoft sales guru Chris Cocks to solve exactly that problem.  Something completely out of left field, like a fitness boom, could push players outdoors and away from card tables.  Wizards might actually solve everything and make a perfect Magic v2.0 subscription smartphone app, relegating the Tree Corpse Edition to the dustbin and cutting the game stores out of the equation.  Or, as it also was with us, entropy and the changing focus of peoples' lives and the churn of audience may see the game sputter out at long last.

But it will feel like the big disruptive thing was what killed Magic.  So today's devoted Magic players and fans will blame and hate that thing with the fire of a burning Chandra Nalaar.

And they'll go into game stores looking for a binder full of Magic cards that they might browse, and everyone will be at the visor-pod chairs playing Virtual Space Combat instead.  And the Magic player will lament that kids don't even look each other in the eyes when they play games anymore.  And there isn't even a tabletop!  Why, in their day, there were Magic tournaments seven days a week, and every corner Magic store had an inventory of hundreds of thousands of cards, and new product came out every month or two, rather than yearly or worse or whatever it has become.  And they will leave a Yapp! review for that store, saying "The staff were friendly and place was clean, but it was just another Virtual Space Combat store."

Revel in that moment, when it comes.  We will have earned it.  You will have been delivered the balance you sought all those years.  I will miss Magic, but it was just a great game, not the game of my formative life.  Our kids will no doubt buy visor-pod chairs on Amazon Prime.

The Magic players will curse Virtual Space Combat, and demand their pound of flesh.

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