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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Trading Card Game Landscape Suddenly Shifts

If there has been one thing retailers in the comic and hobby game trade have been able to bank on since the demise of Decipher a decade ago, it is that there are no viable players in the trading card game category beyond Magic: the Gathering (designed for a broad tabletop audience), the Pokemon TCG (designed for youth and families), and Yu-Gi-Oh (designed for juvenile delinquents).

Come what may, nothing new has gotten into that category and stayed there, at least not healthily, and not sustainably.  Year in and year out, stores could make their hay entirely on those three games; indeed, entirely on Magic if they so chose, given a narrow enough focus and sufficient expense control to ride out market variance.

Check out the rogues' gallery of also-rans that have made wide-release attempts to try to break into the TCG realm (and some are still trying):

Cardfight!! Vanguard - Nearly inscrutable to mainstream audiences, gutted by deep online discounting, has the anime "questionable content" problem in spades.

Dragonball Z - Godawful rarity system, eviscerated by deep online discounting.

The Eye of Judgment - This Playstation hybrid TCG was undone by the fact that you could play the game just fine with photocopies of the cards.

Force of Will - High production value marred by horrible product availability during the critical growth period.  Oh, and by deep online discounting and speculation.  Among all the failed anime TCGs, this one seemed like it might have had the best chance to do something.

Future Card Buddyfight - Nearly inscrutable to mainstream audiences, gutted by deep online discounting.

Kaijudo - Nobody knows why this reboot of Duel Masters failed, only that it did.  It had great support and was no worse than anything else Wizards of the Coast makes in terms of price and brand integrity.

Legend of the Five Rings - In print for decades somehow until AEG finally pulled the plug, deep online discounting made this product utterly horrible for retailers for its entire lifespan.  I am conflicted knowing Fantasy Flight is rebooting it as a Living Card Game.  This is a product I swore I would never carry again.  Or even take special orders for.  Or even accept for free.  I planned to light it on fire if I ever got any.

My Little Pony - A string of missteps by first-time TCG publisher Enterplay basically killed this game in utero, and the fading out of the Brony fad took over from there.  Deep, deep online discounting.

Weiss Schwarz - High list prices, but nobody ever paid them.  A shame for a game that was designed to be a shell for every premium anime license they could find for it.

There's a trend there, if you want to accept it: Anime is basically commercial poison.  Its strongest appeal is to a demographic that perpetually has little money: teenaged boys.  A shame for an old otaku like me who used to enjoy anime considerably.  This was when I was a deadbeat, sure, but the point still carries.

The autumn of 2016 brought the first real potential shake-up to trading card games that I can remember since Pokemon itself burst onto the scene in 1999.  Releasing practically on top of one another earlier this month and a few days from now, Square Enix has brought a legendary video game franchise to the tabletop with the Final Fantasy TCG, while Asmodee Fantasy Flight has dipped into the Star Wars well and added silkscreened dice to the equation with the Star Wars Destiny TCG.
Several of the also-ran TCGs above had some demand in the early going before reaching a cliff-like drop-off largely borne of online dumpers bogarting the supply.  Force of Will took the longest to do this because early supply was so inadequate, but YY Card World apparently prefers to bend over dollars to pick up dimes because there they were selling direct to the public for a pittance of margin before the game had even shifted into highway gear.  What would be different about these two new products?

The latter presents a more obvious case: Asmodee North America's sales channel restrictions and online ban have been proven reasonably effective thus far at reinforcing brand value.  Star Wars Destiny is subject to the same resale terms.  Fantasy Flight threw retailers a semi-expected bone by permitting secondary market sales of singles from the game (and all FFG games, a fact that DSG is hard at work turning into a viable X-Wing and Android Netrunner resale framework).  Will it be enough?  The proof will be in the results, but I think market malfunctions in the mechanical sense won't be the undoing of Destiny, if it is in fact undone and not a sustained success.

Square Enix has taken an interesting approach, mirroring that of the video game industry as a whole and tabletop entities such as Upper Deck: a short margin.  If I sold Final Fantasy booster boxes for the price I offer Magic pre-order boxes, I would end up losing money after sales tax was accounted for.  That is how short this margin is.  It didn't stop the armpit of the hobby trade, the Gaming Goat "chain," from offering presales at virtually no margin at all.  Fortunately, they were only able to ruin this release for themselves.  Any other store that got any product (it was exclusive to one distributor that not all stores maintain volume with) was easily able to make MSRP and then some, even on pre-orders.

The results are informative, though they will not be dispositive for some time.  Both games have gone completely nuclear in terms of consumer demand.  Both appear set to deliver safe and healthy sell-through for at least the rest of 2016 (to the extent we can get product!) and into the early new year.  Both have sky-high production value; the Final Fantasy TCG is, in fact, the finest trading card product ever made from a physical standpoint, and it is not close.

Once we finally had a release date for Final Fantasy, October 28th (which was missed and then missed again before finally releasing on November 11th), I opened up in-store and web pre-orders for starter decks and booster boxes.  I had gotten in early because my store carries video games, and this seemed like a safe carry, but I did not want to go too crazy, so I asked for several dozen booster boxes and starter boxes, and largely received it.  I saw that pre-sales at less than MSRP were long gone and boxes were floating a few dollars over that point, so I launched at $150/box or $210 for a bundle of the box with all three starter decks, with about a quarter of my expected inventory.  It was gone within hours.  I put another quarter up, this time just boxes at $170.  Gone in hours.  More, at $180.  Gone.  I kept the rest for in-store only pre-sales, and it all sold.  This game was a 100% sellout before I had ever received a single card of it.  Even Star Wars Destiny hasn't achieved that, though it's not far behind.  Now, distribution reports that starters will be restocked in a few weeks, but the Opus I booster box will not reappear until February, a mere month or two before the Opus II boosters arrive. Wow.  I sincerely hope Square Enix can do better than that, because their moment is now.

Star Wars Destiny was previewed at Gen Con and at some autumn distributor shows, and the early buzz was positive on the retail side, but I had yet to hear a single give-a-damn from the customer side throughout the summer and fall.  Then, a few weeks ago, someone turned on the light switch.  Sky-high demand materialized seemingly out of nowhere.  Fantasy Flight offered us a "pre-release" of sorts, more of a learn-to-play day, and it also sold out in advance at $15 admission.  I ordered my way into quite a few boxes of the debut set, "Awakenings," and about half of them are spoken for on pre-order as of this writing.  A few displays will be broken for singles, and the rest will become day-one shelf stock next Thursday.  We've already got people asking how soon they can buy more boosters.  The Force is strong with Star Wars, what can we say.

Nobody can know for sure what will happen with these two new TCGs, but we can surely speculate.  I have been dealing trading cards in some form since 1998.  I have seen a lot of games come and go.  The leading indicators for both games are Army Strong, but this is also a different market landscape than any of us have lived in before.  One thing I am confident saying is that this landscape suddenly has shifted.  May it shift us to a healthy and sustainable business scenario.

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