Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Please Stand By For Departure

This stage was the worst last time around, and it's the worst this time as well.  We have our lease finalized, construction is underway, our opening is held up solely by however long it takes everything to get ready, and yet we can't start assembling the store in earnest until the contractors are done.  Fortunately, the external services are done.  Power is on, water is on, cable turns on in a few days so our internet pipe will go live, et cetera.

And the contractors are moving quickly, as far as contractors go!  Yet I'm here bouncing up and down, looking in on the store every morning and night, tracking every inch of progress and planning for how soon I can start the ball rolling on the next deliverables.

For example, I have a fairly significant amount of material stowed at Tempe, at Gilbert, and in my garage at home, that simply needs to be staged so we can get to using it later.  But that all can't be moved to Chandler until the floor is done, and the floor is pending completion of drywall, which is pending completion of other construction elements that are higher-priority.  We're basically getting a great deal on the buildout, and that means that as anxious as I am, I put a sock in it and let the builders do their thing and do my best to stay out from underfoot.

My commercial-grade disc resurfacer should arrive later this week, so I can finally dive into the several hundred game discs that could be in stock this very moment if they weren't scratched up.  The unit is even compatible with Gamecube minidiscs, blu-ray discs, and double-layered discs.  I'm reasonably excited to get it on deck.  Where will I set it up?  Lord, who knows.  There isn't any room in the store to put anything right now.  There will be, once I move some things to Chandler.  But that's pending the floor, which is pending the other construction, and so on...

We're overdue for some floor expansion for event seating, because Friday Night Magics and even some of the normal weeknights have seen every table full.  I can make that room once I dispatch furniture that isn't going to have a connected event on the calendar until after the move.  I can do that once the floor is ready, and you know where we go from here.

Card operations are the least changed.  They don't take a ton of room right now relative to the sales they generate, so I'm going to do the rest of the work "around" the staff's continued administration of that retail activity.  Miniatures is much more cumbersome but we have nothing happening on deck except product throughput until the move, so at least it will be as compressed as it can be.  Comics?  We have a lot of work to do with those at Chandler.

This is going to be the most cost-efficient move ever achieved.  From completion of base construction, after which we can work while the low-voltage guys and the HVAC guys do their thing, I am going to be smurfing van-loads of material from all of the existing business component locations to the Chandler suite. Day by day, a few times each day if needed, I'm just going lug what needs lugging.  Doesn't get any less expensive than that.  Maybe I'll even sweat off a few pounds.

Once the alarm has conveyed, we'll get the new safe bolted to the floor and start moving valuables over.  Around that time is when I actually get a moving truck and take the oversized gear from Gilbert at least; there will likely be a day of closure while we move "the head of the robot" without detaching it from its power supply.  The oversized stuff from Tempe that isn't staying in Tempe can come in the same truck rental.  It's fortunate that Gilbert has a whole pile of cash register terminals up and running, because I can just split them up and have them working in both locations at the same time.  That overlap is going to end up being one of the saving graces.  My own workstation will shift over right about then.

Without completely bombing out payroll, there's going to be at some point a mass conveyance of main work over to Chandler, including online shipping operations, while some hardy souls stand vigil at Gilbert over the remainder of our business there until we close the site.  The rest of the crew will then cease work at Gilbert and begin assembly of Chandler in situ, while we're already soft-opened for business.  The fortunate thing is that we have all the space in the world to work with, and that helps mitigate the labor load.  Stuff can just wait backstage while a crew member stages the public space elements fixture by fixture.  Worst case scenario, a customer wants a product that isn't merchandised yet, our point-of-sale software should tell us that we have it, and we fetch from whichever stack or rack of boxes it's sitting in.  I don't see that happening much, though.  Everything has a price tag on it and it will all ring up in the system, so even if we have to just have tables full of merch until they're situated on fixtures, people can still shop the goods.  Which I guess means it won't sit backstage.  You can see the quandaries I'm up against... I could start sorting this all out, but can't move just yet.

I'm relishing every opportunity to complete any prep that conveys over to Chandler.  I finished building some video game product gondolas that are going to be taken over exactly as they are.  That's time spent now and saved later.  I've made huge progress on the numeric-index video game stock that puts the games back out where they can be shopped, an overdue change from having them all behind the counter.  Couldn't do that until I worked on the racks.  Couldn't do the racks until I was able to clear a few things from Gilbert to my garage.  It's like Tetris being played on three screens at once.  But we're getting there.  The video game stock project is gonna take a lot longer and won't even be fully complete when we move, but once finished it will be an amazingly shoppable layout that we saw fully in action at Wii Play Games in Las Vegas and knew we had to mimic here.

Other prep that is going to stay with us includes updating the branding and graphics, a process I've been working on myself now that we have our logo fixed.  Still have the playmats, sleeves, and so forth to order; new employee uniform shirts, window vinyls, general signage, and this ties into advertising, which we're going to be doing a lot more of once the move is done.  I've stalwartly refused to spend more than a modicum to get people to visit DSG Gilbert, because I'm just going to have to redirect them.  But once the grill is all fired up, metaphorically, on Ray Road, I want everyone and their brother to know to come play games with us.

This new location has been in the works for literally over a year and I wish we could have moved over sooner, but that's water under the bridge now.  We had an ownership composition change last summer, and another at the top of the year, that both led the company to a better position than it had.  Given that and improving process and execution since then, it's just as well we are moving now, because we are doing a better job of it.  But let me tell you, the day it's over and we're up and going full blast with our long-term home, it's going to be celebration time for the DSG organization.  We're going to be relieved and recuperating and happy.  And then, with the 2017 holiday shopping season on deck, the next level of real work will begin!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Arizona Gamer Story, Part 4: Destiny

Resuming now The Arizona Gamer Story with Part 4, we arrive in May 1999 when business had picked up reasonably well, Pokemon petrodollars were flowing in acceptable quantities, and I was still for the time being a subtenant and not a shareholder in Arizona Gamer Inc.

Magic: the Gathering prerelease tournaments at the time were not held in every store, and there were few stores in any case.  Tournament organizers were subcontracted by WOTC to conduct the events at hotels, college gathering halls, convention centers, and like such.  There would be one prerelease for an entire region.

For Arizona, Ray Powers' Monastery Productions ran prereleases as far back as Exodus, which was at a hotel.  Urza's Saga was at a church auditorium, and Urza's Legacy, though memory fails me, I want to say was at Arizona State University's Memorial Union building.  Funny story about that, somehow several years later ASU still claimed that Ray had an outstanding room rental invoice with them, and Ray sent me on a mission to get the payment put in and confirmed.  "The lady in charge of the rooms can't be reasoned with," Ray warned me. "She is a destroyer of worlds.  Our pleas fall silent before her."  I went to meet this fearsome overlord... and it turned out she was the mom of one of my longest-time friends, and was perfectly delightful to deal with.

Some other reason prevented Ray from finding adequate bookings for the Urza's Destiny prerelease.  It was June 1999, nothing Google-riffic comes up as an event of consequence taking attention at the time in metro Phoenix, but in any case he needed a site.  And although Ray didn't typically give any one dealer exclusive access to the event... this time around, I had a site available for him, for free.  Chocolate, meet peanut butter.
Thus it was that Arizona Gamer hosted the Urza's Destiny prerelease for all of Phoenix, and it was my first experience on the facility side of large event management.

As I've mentioned before, Arizona Gamer at the time could seat maybe 60 players for cards, and had a dozen or so Warhammer tables.  This would not do for a Magic prerelease projected to attract 200 players to a single-flight all-day affair.  I went in search of table rental, and at last managed to scrounge some up.  They delivered a day or two in advance and the tables were just godawful, so we had to use tablecloths and hope nobody got themselves a death splinter.  Table setup left the room grossly beyond fire code limitations and crushed so tightly I knew the air conditioner was going to surrender and flee by noon on the day of.

In preparation for this watershed promotional opportunity, I ordered as much Magic product as I could get my hands on, some woefully small amount of boxes of the available expansions and some woefully small amount of sleeves.  There was no such thing (essentially) as a playmat at that time, nor as a deck box.  RRRRRRIP went the shuffle, at sealed events.  I posted on Usenet about the event, Ray did his own promotion, Wizards of the Coast's web locators of the time pointed people to us, and sure enough, just under 200 players turned out, the effective entire player base for Magic in Arizona at the time.

I have made my peace with the shortcomings of that prerelease from Arizona Gamer's side.  I sold out of every shred of Magic product we had, which was a good thing except there was far too little of it, which made us look like amateur hour compared to Jester's Court, Game Depot, and Arizona Collector's Paradise.  It was crowded.  The event in terms of organization and judging went fine -- Ray and his crew saw to that, and I served in the judge array as well.  We had multiple miniatures players show up and throw tantrums that there were no Warhammer tables available for the day.  They had been warned for at least a week in advance.  Most of them knew and planned around it, but there's always that guy.

A few weeks before this time, I applied for advancement as a DCI judge from level 2 to level 3.  I actually failed the test.  The reality was that although my rules knowledge was current, I needed more time running larger events.  Ray Powers and Dan Gray administered my test and broke the bad news to me, and at the time I was completely crushed.  But by the end of the year, I realized a bit more of the meta-work involved in judging, and they granted me a retry that I passed.  The experience of coordinating to host/stage the Urza's Destiny prerelease at a time when stores simply didn't do such things, surely helped bolster my skill set for that.

I maintain that today's experienced level 2 judges are actually better judges than I was as a level 3.  There is far superior communication now, the rules are better defined and better troubleshot, methods of cheating and misuse of rules are far better understood, and players know more what to expect.

Nevertheless, working as a level 3 judge was something of an epiphany for 25-year-old me at the time, because although I realized like everyone does that there are professions where you basically "get paid to know stuff or understand systems" -- from medicine to accounting to the sciences to law -- none of them seemed attainable to me.  I was inspired by judging to return to college and pursue a career in law.  I got half of that right.  I should have gone with accounting or the sciences.  But understanding how the law works has still served me well, such as in helping DSG navigate litigation and reach a beneficial result.

Destiny is a capricious thing, and experiences that may or may not loom large at the time have a way of informing significant decisions later.  I had cut my teeth in small retail at Radio Shack in 1994-1995, after spending much of my early employment years working in larger retail settings that sucked, or in office settings that sucked.  That led to operating Wizard's Tower and then Arizona Gamer, and a flurry of other related endeavors that in turn became my present-day career as the administrator of DSG LLC.  Meanwhile, becoming a professional tournament judge led to my completing college and literally earning a professional graduate degree.  I spent over seven years as an administrative legal analyst with the Arizona Department of Health Services, from 2007 to 2014.  I am disappointed at how that ended, but I am happy for having been able to work with extremely excellent people while I was there.  Two life threads that developed under the influence of one another, and ultimately formed a braid.

I did not meet with any success in my attempt to become a millionaire rock star, but if you want to have a chuckle and enjoy some sweet tunes, here is a link to my final performance of 2004 at Alice Cooperstown in Phoenix.  Ah, what might have been.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

DSG Chandler FAQ

So how was your week?  Ours was pretty awesome.

We reached our fifth anniversary on Thursday, August 10th.  Hard to believe.  Back in 2012 when we first opened the doors, that date seemed like the impossibly distant future.  But it's here and now we have a new lease in Chandler that doesn't come up for renewal until 2022 and we'll all be Eloi and Morlocks by then.

It happened that our lease finalization occurred just in time for me to make the big announcement revealing the exact location right on the store's anniversary.  I broadcasted a Facebook live video showing the new suite prior to construction, and we had a flood of happy responses and a handful of questions there and in the store afterward.  Thus, this article to respond.
First things first: the new address is 3875 W Ray Rd Ste 7, Chandler, AZ 85226.  It is in the McRay Plaza at the southeast corner of McClintock Drive and Ray Road.

From the north, east, or south, or anywhere north of the US-60, by far the easiest approach is to take the Ray Road exit from the Loop 101 Price freeway, proceed almost one mile west, and turn left into the McRay Plaza.  If you see the bowling alley, you're in right place.

From the west, it depends precisely where you are.  Ahwatukee and all southwesterly approaches are best served to use the McClintock Drive exit off the Loop 202 San Tan freeway.  Proceed two miles north and turn right into the plaza at Ray.  The remainder of approaches from south of the US-60 freeway but northwest of the store, well, you're going to be so close it hardly matters; just take the surface streets.

The new location will open sometime in late September.  The Gilbert location will close in late September as its lease is expiring.  The MTG Ixalan Prerelease will either be the first big event in Chandler or the last big event in Gilbert.  The PPTQ on September 30th will be in Chandler.
Now that the housekeeping is out of the way, here are some Frequently Asked Questions!

Q: Why Chandler?
A: Because Chandler is great!  But seriously, it's already the community we serve to some extent, because our Gilbert location was literally across the street from Chandler's city limits.  I first moved to Chandler in 1995 so I am deeply familiar with the city.  We don't choose a business location based on where we live, which is why DSG started in Gilbert, but this time around the circumstances aligned.

Q: But what I mean is why not stay in Gilbert?
A: We really did explore many options that would have kept us closer, but this is the one that worked out the best.  And Gilbert has not seen the last of DSG.  We have already been approached by developers in the San Tan Village Mall Center plazas about property becoming available late next year.  Branch location, anyone?  Meanwhile, the Chandler location is so easy to reach from the freeway, and so many of our customers already lived west of us along the San Tan 202 corridor, that this represented no real change in distance for most folks.  Even those living to our south or southeast have easy freeway access to the new store.  But we know there are some players in our community who live northeast of the Gilbert store and the new location is basically directly worse for them.  We're really sorry about that.
Q: Why didn't you renew in the current plaza?
A: We tried!  That would have been by far the least expensive option in the short term.  Our landlord was accommodating and gracious and we worked with them for quite a while starting early in 2016 to try to reach a renewal.  The reality was, there was not a suite in our plaza that had the right combination of size, accessibility, shape, and price that we needed, and we could not expand in place because we were blocked on both sides.  So unfortunately we had to look elsewhere.

Q: What other sites did you look at?
A: Commercial real estate is a limited market.  There just isn't that much inventory of available space at any given time, and a lot of what is available is empty for a reason.  We got as far as lease negotiations with seven different locations over the course of more than a year.  The McRay location was the fifth one we contacted, and since they worked with us in earnest the entire time and made it clear they wanted us there, the sixth and seventh options were dismissed fairly quickly when they didn't show that same level of engagement with us.  Among those locations investigated were two great spots that were excluded out by Gamestop, including a great space on Gilbert Road and Germann Road two miles south of the store that I actually showed a photo in an earlier article here.  We also worked on a group of suites on McQueen and Pecos (two plazas) where we couldn't reach a deal.  Other plazas didn't return our calls or once it was clear we were not a Starbucks or a Verizon, they weren't interested.  The retailpocalypse is partly the fault of unrealistic landlords who still think they can rent space like it's 2004.  Fortunately, not all landlords are like that.

Q: Is the new location what you wanted then, or just the last space standing?
A: We really do think McRay is the home run we were after.  Let's go down the list:

  • It's enormous, triple the size of Gilbert and double the size of Tempe.
  • And it's going to get bigger because we have first dibs on adjacencies.
  • The price is right.
  • Great area demographics, family homes and schools in every direction.
  • Abundant parking, which had been a problem at both existing locations.
  • Close to the freeway, one of my key criteria.
  • Close to the Chandler Fashion Center Mall, a strong shopping attraction.
  • A reasonable cost to build it to our specifications, e.g. no kitchen to dismantle.
  • Configuration highly compatible with being our shipping and warehousing hub.  And,
  • With this lease, we have the exclusive plaza rights for basically every product category we sell.

Q: What about DSG Tempe?
A: I may as well address the elephant in the room.  You probably noticed DSG Chandler is conveniently situated more or less right between DSG Tempe and DSG Gilbert.  That was a lucky happenstance.  DSG Tempe's lease is almost over.  We are not going to be leaving the ASU area of Tempe, but the current DSG Tempe site (Tempe Comics) will likely close in a few months.  Our new Chandler landlord owns another plaza near ASU.  He is working out another lease for us as a branch location.  So in all likelihood that will be the new location for DSG Tempe, and we're tracking early 2018 for that to resolve out.  We'll reveal that location when it's finalized.  This does not impact the Superstition Springs plan one way or the other.

Q: Okay, I suppose Chandler's going to be pretty good.  What's in it for me?
A: Glad you asked.  I'm going to take a few paragraphs here just to give you a taste of what's to come and what we have in the works for the near future:

- Magic.  Every major format on the calendar, multiple formats each night and for FNM, gigantic PPTQs with big prizes, the return of major TCGPlayer and Star City events, and Chandler will be the central hub for the combined Magic singles inventory of both Gilbert and Tempe.  In other words, it will be paradise.  Additional great offers from time to time will be announced first to our Facebook MTG group, "DSG Magic: the Gathering Lounge."  Join today!

- Pokemon, Destiny, Final Fantasy, Dragon Ball Super, other TCGs.  Chandler is going to support essentially every major TCG.  We still have no plans to run Yugioh events but the product will be stocked.  Singles are going to be supported for most or all TCGs.  In-store pickup for TCGPlayer orders and DSG website orders will be supported.  We will be buying singles at the best rates in town, just as we do now.

- Video games.  This will be the single biggest growth area at Chandler.  Not only have we been pumping non-stop resources into growing our video game inventory, including very generous buy pricing across the board on top titles, but our DSG Vintage Arcade will be returning!  Pinball and classic arcade games and fighting games and much more!

- Warhammer / Tabletop miniature wargames.  This will be one of the most visible upgrades.  The "Megatables" plan we discussed in our "DSG Wargames" Facebook group (Join today!) is going to happen!  We will also have enough room to stock deep into all of Games Workshop, lots of Battlefoam, all of X-Wing, and much more.  We will also start buying used minis again shortly after we're underway.

- Board games.  Our used board game buy-sell-trade program has been a great success and will continue at Chandler.  With room to grow, the board game stock will get much bigger.  We will continue to run and will be adding organized play from the likes of Fantasy Flight, CMON, AEG, Renegade, and more.  And best of all, we are going to have room for open play for tabletop games in general on Friday nights, rather than players being crowded out by Friday Night Magic!

- Role-playing games.  Much like with board games, Friday night D&D at DSG will finally be a reality, and we know a lot of you have been asking for this.  Bear with us as we find a way to situate tables so that there is some separation between the multiple player groups.  Early on this will likely be achieved with grid dividers or rope-and-stanchion.  Down the line, especially once we add an adjacent suite, actual separate rooms.

- Comics.  It will be nice to have room at last to feature our entire stock of comics.  There are some awesome comic stores in Arizona and we don't have quite their level of deep stock stored away, but we have a lot, and we know many of you have been waiting for this.

- Coffee.  OK, this is for the future, not the present.  We deliberately took a location where there would be an option down the road for us to add a coffee bar.  If this happens we will open early in the morning.

- New categories!  In the months to come you will see us break some new ground.  We're going to go deeper into modeling, deeper into collectible toys and memorabilia, and much more.  We can't wait to show you firsthand what the future of DSG Chandler will be like!

Any other questions, hit us up.  Thank you for celebrating our anniversary and expansion.  Thank you for being a part of our past, present and future.  Desert Sky Games.  New Worlds Await.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Arizona Gamer Story, Part 3: Pokemon

I've been telling the story of the years I spent with Arizona Gamer in Tempe, from 1999 to 2001 in the wake of the collapse of my 1998 game store, Wizard's Tower.

Over the course of 1997 (as a judge and player) and 1998, I ordered product from the likes of non-mainline suppliers like West Coast Cards and Potomac Distribution.  The latter is still around today, ruining every anime TCG by selling boxes at a nickel over wholesale to the public and making sure it's not worth it for stores to carry the game.  Anyway, in their fliers I was seeing solicitations for Japanese trading card games as well as English.  How little I realized what the future held for three titles, only one of which I recognized from importing Super Famicom games: Dragonball Z, something called Yu-Gi-Oh, and a game the sales reps kept telling me I should bring in, and I wish I had: Pocket Monsters.

Pocket Monsters had been a runaway hit game series on the Nintendo Gameboy in Japan.  Nintendo had already localized it with the shortened name Pok√©mon, with the accent aigu presumably telling us to pronounce it "Poh-kay-mawn."  The Gameboy games were just as successful in North America, and soon spread all over the world.  Wizards of the Coast licensed the Pokemon IP to release English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian versions of the Pocket Monsters trading card game.

The English-language Pokemon TCG debuted in the hobby channel and limited mass market outlets in January 1999, and you aren't going to believe this, but nobody cared!  The 1st Edition Base Set was printed in small numbers and sold through those, but the market clamor did not heat up until a month or two after the Unlimited printing landed.  This is why true 1st Edition Base Set cards are so hard to come by, and why the Charizard from that set is among the most valuable Pokemon cards circulating.  Paradoxically, Charizard was a popular card because he is powerful in the video game, but his Base Set card is garbage.  The Haymaker deck or mono-Blastoise deck would make quick work of it in virtually all cases, despite his "fighting" resistance.
In the early going, I was offered a few boxes of Pokemon by West Coast and Potomac and actually turned them down!  I had not yet heard any demand.  It didn't take long for me to regret that decision.  The phone calls, oh Lord, the phone calls.  Imagine the Playstation 2, the NES Classic, and Cabbage Patch Kids all put together, and then forget about it because the demand for Pokemon eclipsed all three combined.  The fad turned white-hot so quickly I was scouring Target stores and buying up every starter deck and booster pack I could find, which were not many.

By around March or April, we had standing orders with every source for any boxes to ship right away and go ahead and charge my debit card.  (Unwise, but it's what I had.  My credit was shot.)  Around this time I actually got an account with Wizards of the Coast Direct and was able to get somewhat more Pokemon product allocated that way as well.  This supply was more than I was bringing in of Magic in a very short time -- believe it or not, Urza's Legacy was not popular on release -- and it all sold right away.

And I left so much money on the table I want to be sick.

So let me set the scene for you.  Every single day there would be calls several times an hour.
CALLER: Do you have any Pokemon cards?
ME: We have singles...
CALLER: No, I mean brand new.
ME: We have starter decks (sometimes)...
CALLER: No, I mean booster packs.
ME: No, sorry.  Sold out.
CALLER: When will you have any Pokemon packs?
ME: I have them on standing order but the trucks come when the trucks come.
CALLER: Is there a truck tomorrow?
ME: It's always possible.
CALLER: Thank you!  (or something less polite.)

Thus it was that there was a line of people at the store every single weekday morning from March Nth until around the end of June, by which time the Jungle expansion had arrived and supply was getting a bit more reasonable.  If we did get a truck that day, and there was any Pokemon order on it, I counted who was in line, ratio'd the packs out evenly, sold it all, and well, made the money.  God bless capitalism.

In the early going, I tried to be the good guy and abide by the $3.29 MSRP on packs.  This was stupid.  I did not win any loyalty.  None of those soccer moms were ever coming back for anything else, and to the extent that their kids did come back, that would have happened regardless of our pack pricing.  The going rate for a booster was truly around five or six dollars, and that's what I should have charged.  All told, given my burn rate on product and how long it took before supply normalized around the end of the year, I calculate my total forfeit at just under $30k in gross revenue, and because we're talking about a margin increment above and beyond most of the part that pays for overhead, I forfeited probably around $11k or $12k take-home.  Much of that would have come back if I had simply sold the boosters for the price the market would bear from the beginning.  Fortunately, the impetus to make that correct move fell into my lap and I couldn't help but do it.

See, In late April, Wizards of the Coast took over the Game Keeper store at Fiesta Mall in Mesa.  I was temporarily without a car, so I had to have a discussion with Jason Barnes that I ended up winning, to our mutual benefit and my great relief.  Our plan was this.  Drive to Game Keeper every day.  Get in line, a line that was always there.  Buy the daily limit of Pokemon per person, usually a box per human.  Take it back to the store.  My cost after tax, around $3.50 per pack.  Mark it to $4.99 plus tax per pack, and still sell out.  If anyone is available, like Anthony or the other part-timer Jason Farmer, or even my ex-wife, we'd get into a car and head back to the Game Keeper and do it again.  We did this every day for as long as packs kept selling out, which, again, was until late June.

The crush flared up again later that fall for the Fossil expansion.  We knew the bubble had popped when the spring of 2000 brought us Base Set 2 and the Team Rocket expansion, and supply was abundant and the lines were gone.  We even had a choking-on-stock experience then, which was unpleasant, and the avoidance of which is one of the most difficult aspects of this industry to master.

Other interesting product consequences from this insane Pokemon crush:

  • The entire industry ran out of Ultra-Pro 9-pocket pages.  Distributors were importing the lowest quality pages they could find from anywhere, which is why every millennial's identical Ash binder has about a 50/50 chance of containing utter garbage page inserts.  
  • Wizards of the Coast also released special deck boxes with key art from the Base, Jungle, Fossil, and Team Rocket sets.  These boxes sucked, but they were what was available and thus to this very day I buy collections still stored in those exact boxes.
  • As you know if you run a store and buy Pokemon cards, most Pokemon players did not use sleeves.  Therefore, only Magic and Decipher players bought sleeves, and Decipher players wouldn't buy Ultra-Pro because the foil brandmark in the corner was in the way of card text on both of the Star games, so they needed those weird off-brand sleeves with the triangle foil brandmark in the middle.  Ultra-Pro moved the blister years later to the "safe" spot on the sleeve face.  And Pokemon cards the world over got shuffle-worn, stored with rubber bands around them, and so forth.
  • Wizards quietly did a Last Call on the MTG Urza's sets late in 1999, and for the first time in memory we had boosters legal in Standard unavailable in distribution.  Boxes were already approaching $200 by mid-2000 and were getting downright silly by 2003-2004, the way boxes of the 2005-2008 expansions are today.  I bought a case of each MTG set as it went to last call, and I really wish I had thought to buy more, but I didn't want to dip into the Pokemon buying budget.

I had to monetize organized play for Pokemon as well, so every Saturday at noon it was Pokemon Constructed time.  This was not my shining moment as a tournament administrator, but from what I understand, I was less bad at it than a lot of other venues that had never staged a tournament before the Pokemon fad appeared.  Despite all that went wrong, it was quite profitable and we all survived.

Five dollars was the entry, and the top finishers got a few boosters if I had any, and store credit if I didn't.  It was not even nearly a 50% value payout.  We would routinely have 25 to 35 kids playing, so my gross margin would be over $100 for the event itself.  The room was dominated by the teenaged players like Chad Mills, David O'Connor, Harry Shipley, and Shawn O'Rourke, who finished in the top few every time.  They weren't the problem, though.  They played to win but played fair and forced their opponents to play by the rules.  These are guys who were within the top 100 nationally ranked.

The younger players were absolute Lord of the Flies despots.  They cheated rampantly, that much was more than any single judge could prevent, but that wasn't the biggest issue either.  See, because the video game has Pokemon trainers winning creatures from their opponent when they "battle," the younger kids naturally assumed the same was true of the card game, and any time a larger tween-ish kid won a game against a smaller or younger kid or a girl, the larger kid would snatch up the loser's deck, flip through it until he found a Charizard, and keep it for himself, and the smaller kid thought they had to allow it.  Like Magic's old ante rule, but much worse.  It took a while and several crying children and angry parents for me to get to the bottom of this and very loudly and publicly ban the culprits, a process that took weeks.  What's more, these larger kids knew that wasn't the rule, because every time the much-older-and-much-larger Chad or David ape-smashed them with a deck full of Hitmonchans and Pluspowers and Bills, they did not lose a card.  It was naked opportunism at its purest, invoking the video game as a pretext to steal cards from other kids in the broad light of day, and it was disgusting to see.  I'm glad I caught it as soon as I did, but it was too late to avoid a lot of bad feelings and lost business.

The tournaments tapered off in the spring of 2000, as the red-hot Pokemon fad diminished and it returned to being merely a solid-selling TCG.  During that time period, Magic was terrible, in the middle of the Mercadian Masques block, and the Star Wars CCG was at its apex, hitting the Death Star II, Enhanced Jabba's Palace, and Reflections releases.  Ever so briefly, Magic was the third-place TCG in the market.  This never happened again, in the hobby trade at least.  In the mass market, Magic has frequently been third behind Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh.

Pokemon was what got me into the company at Arizona Gamer, though this didn't happen until later in the summer of 1999.  After getting back from Games Workshop's Game Day, Jason had found us another investor: Golden-Demon-winning miniatures painting master Bryan Shaw.  Bryan and Jason had aims to reopen a mall kiosk at Arizona Mills and expand into a small branch location in north Gilbert at Greenfield and Baseline roads.  That led to a rather gut-checking discussion:

JASON: So we're going to move ahead with these other locations.  If you want to handle Magic at them under our current deal, we can do that.
ME: What about Pokemon?
JASON: ...We're not going to give up any other revenue lines.
ME: So you want to take over Pokemon.
JASON: It doesn't make sense for us not to.

I considered the scenario.  Immediately I could envision a future in which I got shouldered out entirely.  Jason was my friend, but he had a CEO's fiduciary duty to his investors and I knew it.  He could not be expected to relinquish wildly popular Pokemon to a subtenant.  In time, he would be expected to take over Magic and cut ties with the subtenant altogether.  It was inevitable.

Moreover, I had just spent about six months largely erasing the day-to-day life effects of my Chapter 7 bankruptcy from Wizard's Tower.  I had money now, real walking-around money, enough that I wasn't sweating the bills every month.  I had a Capital One card with a massive $500 limit.  My ex Melissa and I had bought a modest car, I had purchased my first two arcade games (Gauntlet and Street Fighter II), and maybe it was time I cashed out my chips ahead and moved on to video-game related pursuits and perhaps found some way to return to ASU.

But even then... business possibilities... There were a bunch of variables bouncing around in my head.  It was one of those moments where you get really dizzy and your field of vision narrows.  There was nausea.  I knew I could land on my feet but there was risk in either direction and a really decent gig was potentially being brought to a premature end.

I tapped out and gave up, and Jason brought me back.

ME: You know, I've had a good run here.  I'm just going to pack it in, "resign," whatever you want to call it.  It's probably time I went back to school anyway.
JASON: Well, wait, though.  We didn't say we wanted you out.  If you still want a piece of all the action, you're going to need real skin in the game.
ME: Well, I'm still rebuilding my cash bankroll.  I don't see how I can buy in.  You know my asset base, all my inventory.  It amounts to maybe twenty grand if we're counting supplies and cash in the till.
JASON: How would you like to own a quarter of the company with your inventory and your sweat equity up until now as your buy-in?

Tough to refuse such a great offer.  I had to hammer out some terms by which I would actually work and get paid, but the end of the conversation was, you've got yourself a deal.  And I became the fifth stockholder-at-large of the Arizona Gamer, Incorporated, after Jason and Jennifer Barnes and Bryan Shaw, and the exited original business partner from Part 1 of this story.  A few other partners came in much later.  To my knowledge, I am one of only two who exited while the company remained active, the first being Jason's original business partner.  That was part luck as my departure was arguably a poor move at the time, and that will be for a later article.

Being a partner in the overall business meant some strong efficiencies would come into play.  Arizona Gamer immediately went to an inventory asset hold of 140% to 150% of what it was.  I was responsible for card procurement and left the Games Workshop to Jason.  The entire business's success was my success and vice versa.  I could coordinate into the part-timers and have meaningful time off, not that I ever really wanted to use it, since there was always another project worth doing.  I got to know everyone on the minis side much better, from the customers on down.  Tenancy has its benefits and sometimes it can be a good arrangement, but when you're vested into the central business, now you're committed.  Duties also attach, and I believe a failure to understand the nature of those duties is at the core of every hobby industry partner split or partnership failure that has ever come about by means other than family or other life emergency.

My entry also came with an immediate requirement: Arizona Gamer needed to get into the video game trade, because that was money we were passing up.  That will be for another article.  It would be the first of my four sojourns in the video game business, and the least successful.  I am still in the fourth today.

Customers had to catch 'em all, and that forced Arizona Gamer to grow up fast and abandon our subsistence farming for a higher-ceiling outlook at greater scale.  This was a tremendous challenge and there was a lot of feeling our way forward.  I wish I had remembered this years later, when we had part of the Desert Sky Games partnership disintegrate largely because there were partners who could not reconcile emotionally with the need to scale up, and the warning signs were there and I missed them.  Had I recognized the source of the apprehension among the partners, I could have addressed it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Arizona Gamer Story, Part 2: Cash

Last week I told the tale of how my path crossed with that of Jason Barnes and I became a part of the Arizona Gamer business equation.  I eventually "bought in" as a partner to the corporation -- it was actually an Inc. and not an LLC -- and there's a story involved there too, that I will reach in a later article.  But for the first few months I was basically operating a glorified vendor booth within the Arizona Gamer storefront.  There it was that I began scratching my way back to operability.

If one thing becomes clear from the totality of the Arizona Gamer story, it should be that I was not especially good at anything I was doing at that point.  I lacked education; I was a college dropout.  I lacked self-esteem; rather than acknowledging faults, I evaded.  I lacked self-awareness; my own actions often detracted from the business in ways I did not recognize.  I lacked money, of course, having just filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy for the Wizard's Tower.  My home life was a shambles, with on-again and off-again separation from my now-long-since-ex-wife.  I was seriously overweight, I was generally unhealthy, and worst of all, I was causing friction with my family, who had only ever been loving and loyal to me.  It took a while for me to mend that particular fence.

In short, my business was inert, because I was inept.  Fortunately, my business soon became more ert as I became more ept, because I was on my way up from that rock-bottom place of reflection where an individual finally sees himself or herself as the source of the problem and realizes that only a change of behavior to a disciplined and responsible lifestyle will solve those problems at their roots.  It was a little like a twelve-step program, except that I was six years past my brief cringe away from the edge of alcoholism as an undergrad circa 1993.  I am lucky to have learned so early in life that addictive substances were an unacceptable risk for me.

I knew how to do one fundamental business thing to enable sales of product, and that was how to run a tournament properly.  Nobody thinks about this now because between software and a widespread judge program, any WPN-qualified store can run tournaments.  But in 1999, the fact that I was a level 2 judge (and soon level 3) running local sanctioned tournaments was a pretty big deal.  A store couldn't even do it without a certified judge present every time.  Thus, there was no real market resistance to having me monetize it.
Friday Night Magic, which existed even back then, was in the Standard (then called Type II) constructed deck format.  The Standard environment had just gone to hell with the release of Urza's Legacy and the emergency ban on Memory Jar.  Soon things normalized with a metagame of Accelerated Blue (Morphling, Grim Monolith), Stompy Green (Rancor, Gaea's Cradle), and rogue decks.  It was hilarious in hindsight; nobody was even playing cards like Tinker or Yawgmoth's Will yet.  Nobody even cared about them.  The environment contained two Urza's sets, Tempest, Stronghold, Exodus, and Fifth Edition.  Good mana was hard to come by so explosive monocolor decks held sway and Wasteland was a junk uncommon.

And I made the attraction to play FNM at AZG a simple one.  The winner gets $100 cash.  The end.  Second place earns a feeling of profound and bitter disappointment.  In other words, a prize payout precisely the opposite of what any sensible store offers today.  And to think there are people in my own Magic player community right now who claim that I don't understand what competitive players want.

Now, you may be asking yourself, wasn't such a cash tournament illegal then as now?  The answer was something something mumble mumble.  I didn't even check because I didn't care to know.  I assumed, wrongly, that I would be able to stop without any meaningful penalty upon the first warning.  And the fervor and demand for cash tournaments was so substantial that nobody was tattling -- not even my competitors, among whom both other stores holding regular local sanctioned events were also paying out cash.  These were Jester's Court in Phoenix and Arizona Collector's Paradise in Scottsdale.

But yes, it was illegal in Arizona then, and still is today.  Nevertheless, that's what I ran.  Friday Night Magic Standard for a hunnit-dolla-bill, prize guaranteed, no fuss, no muss, so simple.

Jason wouldn't ever be at the store late into the evening, so it was often his part-timer Anthony Turner running the minis side of the register and me running the card side and the tournament event.  I got to know Anthony better and we were fast friends.  He taught me that Wood Elves and Eldar were the armies I wanted if my goal was to prevent the other player from having any fun.  This was back during that time period's editions of Warhammer Fantasy and 40K, of course.  I taught him that Stompy Green or Sligh Red were the decks he wanted to play if he wanted his Magic opponent's first missed land drop to result in a victory practically by default.

Anyway, it worked.  For five bucks a throw, I averaged just over thirty players every week.  That's an obvious fifty-plus bucks gross margin for six or seven hours of work, definitely multiple nickels higher than minimum wage considering I basically pocketed the remainder after paying Jason's commission.  A long run for a short slide?  You haven't seen the half of it.  Booster drafts were ten bucks, profitable but in the order of small change.  Repack booster drafts at five dollars were profitable, again in the order of small change.  Sealed deck for $20 with a Tournament Pack and two boosters was an occasional thing, and lucrative, but tough to get players to join due to the higher cost of entry than everything else on the calendar.

Monetization of organized play was a fortunate thing even at that pittance, because it was difficult to profit on product due to absolutely nothing stopping non-retailers from buying Magic boxes at or near wholesale if they knew who to call.  I did have non-zero sales of singles, some packs, and even the nascent Ultra Pro Deck Protector sleeves in 100-count packs, available in clear, black, red, or dark green!  And that's almost it!  I did not sell board games because Catan was six years in the future and there weren't board games yet as we know them today.  I did not sell miniatures because Jason had that locked down.  I did dabble in other card games; Decipher's Star Trek and Star Wars CCGs saw my shelves, as well as a few also-rans like the original Netrunner, Rage, and Jyhad/Vampire.  Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade both sucked in 1999, so neither Jason nor I bothered to stock RPGs or dice yet.  Another trading card game soon crashed the party in a big way, but that's for another article.

Players began arriving in pairs and small groups.  There was a group of local younger players whose names I only barely recall, but I think they were Justin, Paul, and Ben.  Then of course Jon Rapisarda, Tony "T-Pup" Pagliocco, Brock Burr, and Brandon Helding.  Drew Durbin, Eric Judd, and I know there was another guy but his name escapes me.  Mitch Ledford and Greg Smith.  Steve Rice, Ed Kenney, Wayne Paden, and Gary Armes.  Justin Poulter and Brandon Beach.  Josh Martin, Sean Fitzgerald, and Ben Robinson.  One day, Harry Shipley, along with Alex and Mitchell Tamblyn -- and those three have probably the most active continuity of any of the Arizona Gamer Magic players from the earliest days.  Dan Voigt, Tim Daldrup, Steve Ward, and Scott Dove arrived around this time.  Scott died about ten years later.  Carol Heady, who also passed on about ten years later.  Matt Mortensen dropped in once in a while when he wasn't playing poker.  Holdovers from the Wizard's Tower days like Matt Stenger, Ray Powers, Jay Webb, and Jim Spiker occasionally joined in, plus Scott Dalton whenever he was on shore leave from the Navy.  Singleton regulars like John Lind, Chris Sadler, David Ong and Chris Piekarski.  As well, there was a Decipher contingent made up of Mike Girard, Brian Garrison, Mike Sinclair, Andrew and Aaron McCormack, Steve Marshall, and Brandon Allen, some of whom played Magic as well.  I'm sure I am forgetting people.  As an anecdote comes to mind during this article series involving specific peeps, I'll try to remember to update this paragraph.  (I'll reach the Warhammer players in a future article, at this point in AZG I didn't really know those guys yet.)

So every Friday night, in practice, the top four always chopped to $25 each and quintupled up their buy-in, unless Jon Rapisarda was involved, because he didn't split with nobody; he expected to win the entire hundred.  If we finished by 11:40 or so somehow, Anthony and a couple of whomever was interested would pile into my parents' borrowed Saturn and we'd head to the Arizona Mills Harkins Theater for a midnight movie.  This was great fun in an era when I had no children and slept late every day.  We all saw The Matrix on opening weekend "blind," with no idea what it was about, and it blew our f**king minds.  It was all we could talk about for a week.  If we didn't finish on time to catch a movie, we'd head over to Mike Sinclair's apartment and play poker, smoke cigars, and drink beer.  I would stagger home around three in the morning and my ex would already be asleep.  Repeat for many months.

Important things I didn't do during the first few months I spent subletting at Arizona Gamer:

  • Consider finishing my education, including learning that being over 23 years of age made me a "financially independent student," and with the low tuition of the time, I could have attended ASU purely on Pell grants and finished my degree for free.
  • Seek out better sourcing for my products, including discovering Talkin' Sports (now GTS Distribution) a mere six miles away from my store, until they discovered me.
  • Model my business financial structure beyond "every Monday I pay my personal bills and spend however much I have left on product, COD cashier's check due in Wednesday or Thursday."
  • Advertise beyond some basic Usenet posts and coat-tailing off Jason's yellow pages advert.
  • Develop my in-store merchandising deployment (though this is partially excusable; if Jason had tired of my presence and decided to make a go of it without me, I would have to disembark quickly).
  • Explore other revenue lines and categories I could bring in.
  • Iterate the infrastructure to add reliability and business continuity.
  • Take seriously and learn the Warhammer side of the business that was moving respectable volume for Jason as the spring progressed.
  • Learn the skill sets underlying commerce in secondhand goods.
  • Understand the supreme importance of Net Income.
  • Much of anything else aside from slow-building capital.

Important things I did do during that time:

  • Remained debt-free, which of course following the bankruptcy was to be expected.  Still, this was an important part of my rebuilding from scratch.
  • Kept up with the Magic rules and rulings at a sufficiently expert level that I passed my second attempt at testing for Level 3 a few months later.
  • Devoted myself to being "reliable" for Jason Barnes, as a part of my personal rebuilding process and something that was within my power to do every day to earn genuine trust.  I had spent years shedding away trust freely offered to me through my own irresponsibility.  It was time for that way of life to be over.
  • Got in roughly hours #2,000 through #3,000 of the ten thousand hours I would need to master the comic and hobby game industry retail trade from a Gladwellian point of view.  Repetitions.  Buying, selling, working my audience, building rapport with my regulars, scratching out my most rudimentary understanding of cash flow economics, and so on.  A lot of things I'm seeing my employees do today.  Some of them have better chops at this point than I had at any time during the Arizona Gamer era.

It is often said that youth is wasted on the young.  Writing this article series, I see that clear as day.  If I had known then what I know now... ah, but that is a parallel history that will never be.