Tuesday, May 24, 2016

RPGs at Retail: Their Final Saving Throws

It seems like only three months ago that I wrote a piece on the RPG (Role-Playing Game) category, past and present.  In that article, I offered a pessimistic outlook for RPGs as a category overall, and it has turned out to be more prescient than I would have liked.  I said:

"Tabletop RPGs are a remnant of the market now, and market realities probably prevent any meaningful resurgence from here on out."

I wish I had been less correct.  RPGs have never been a cash cow for DSG, but they've always been there, steady as she goes, quietly earning and quietly supporting a player community.  Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of them all, a game literally as old as I am, has always led the pack and seemed impossible to kill.

Yeah, well, it's dead now.
...Okay, maybe not quite dead, but dying at retail, sputtering out its last gasp in every meaningful measure of what makes a healthy product line for a hobby game store.  It has been poisoned, stabbed, and spelled, and it missed two saving throws and is about to attempt its last with an unfriendly modifier.

Let's go down the list:

  1. It is trivially easy to get the content for free, a.k.a. "the Manga problem."
  2. Publishers are offering it directly to the consumer at deep discounts.
  3. Accessories represent the primary drivers of sales at the register.
  4. If one participant acquires the content, nobody else needs to.
  5. There is little to no resilient or collectible value.

A grim outlook.

RPGs are still selling, as of this writing, but their fate is pretty clearly sealed, and what we are seeing right now are the canaries in the coal mines dropping stone mortis.

Paizo's Pathfinder series is the first big fatality.  Paizo has been deep-discounting bundles of product and utterly eroding the value base of the component items.  They have further sold the content directly and via mass-market e-commerce channels at barely over our cost.  There's just no meat left on the bone for retailers.  People talk about retail being an endangered species in terms of the inevitability of online commerce, and I've accepted that thesis for a while now.  The McKinsey study that is oft cited states that only 9% of retail is online, but new examination suggests that the 9% figure may be distorted by sales of fuel and cars, which are virtually never online transactions.  It appears the real number may be more like 40%.  And I believe it.  I bet it's like 60% or more for books.  The reality is: Simple passive consumable content is easily delivered digitally.

What firsthand evidence have I observed to support my claim Pathfinder is dunzo?  It's on clearance in my store right now at 75% off and we have few takers.  I am literally willing to accept less than half what I paid for the stuff just to get it out the door, and that's not good enough.  It's not just the dregs that are left, either.  There are plenty of hardcovers remaining, and a treasure trove of flip-mats.  No, there aren't any core rulebooks, but in a clearance sale you aren't going to see those.  I look at the stuff still on this rack and I realize a sizable percentage of it is going to end up donated.  Anyone who wants to play Pathfinder has no need of me anymore, not even at 75% off.

D&D itself sells better than the rest of the category, but has been heavily discounted in our price-match offering, so much so that we've had to exclude it from the full match and cap the discount percentage, because the Amazon price on sourcebooks is, again, approximately the same as the wholesale price we pay.  That's just what happens to books on Amazon, for the most part.

The Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs are among the few bright spots, frequently selling through and maintaining value reasonably in light of Asmodee North America's value protection.  It has worked mostly as they planned, so far.  From appearances, anyway.  However, I cannot vouchsafe that the line is fully healthy when there have been severe supply constraints contaminating the data.  The same goes for the rest of FFG's RPG catalog: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Dark Heresy, End of the World, et al.  If there is going to be one last line of RPGs on the racks, I can honestly say it might be these and not the stalwart, eternal D&D, because Fantasy Flight is protecting the value of its products more than Wizards of the Coast is these days.

Other RPGs on our shelves are mostly stillborn.  I'll keep at least one copy of Vampire: the Masquerade's kickstarted deluxe reprint on the rack for as long as I'm able to source it, because VtM is one of my all-time formative RPG life experiences, as I have written about here before.  I really wish Catalyst's Battletech reboot would take off, but thus far this has not occurred.  DSG is a suburban game store in the Pacific Southwest; it's like a second-tier point guard, it can't create its own shot.  A game has to be a hit already and we can bring it in and master it and deliver it better than most.  We're not tastemakers; we're infection vectors.

We do sell a lot of RPG dice, table mats, and miniatures, both pre-painted and unpainted.  Those, as I allude above, are the primary drivers of sales in the category.  The actual content is scarcely wanted.

RPGs won't disappear from the entire marketplace overnight.  I am not so vain as to believe that DSG is so dominant a bellwether.  What may occur is that, much as we're seeing in tabletop games right now, only a few stores (or one store) in any given area will have enough critical mass to be the real players in the category.  Even as I allow RPGs to shed from my inventory in a very systematic, metrics-driven process, I fully expect them to remain in stock until the miserable end at such stores as Imperial Outpost Games in Glendale and Game Depot in Tempe, the other two major retailers in the board game and miniatures sides of the equation in metro Phoenix.  Meanwhile, the rest of the area stores will continue making hay while the sun shines and then shift resources away from RPGs and into their particular categories of emphasis.

As for DSG, we will still be carrying RPGs long after Pathfinder and the fringe players are gone, Dungeons & Dragons finally loses all its hit points, and Fantasy Flight glides its way to more resilient categories.  It's just that the RPGs I will be selling have titles like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Warrior, the Elder Scrolls, Fable, and Ancient Ys.  And they will play with console controllers on a television monitor, not pen and paper and dice and the imagination in the mind's eye. There are benefits and drawbacks to that sea change, and we may as well make our peace with them, because there is no going back.

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