Tuesday, October 16, 2018


A lot of people already have the things I sell.  But they like those things and are looking for more things like that.  But, no, not really.  They aren't looking for things like that.  They're looking for more things that are that that.

Obviously that's not literally possible, but it's the shape of the inquiry.  They're hoping perhaps something new has arrived that's more of that that, and perhaps we've got it ready to sell.  And honestly, I want visitors to have exactly this mindset.  It's wonderful for us.  I myself have been that visitor many times.  I have been the guy who has walked into the store knowing what they have, and what I like, and knowing what they have that I like, and either I already have it, or already decided it's not for me, but wait -- what if maybe they have something else that is also that specific thing I like?

They probably already know about products that are parallel to what they know they like.  Sometimes parallel products work fine.  Everyone knows what's going on when they buy guild-themed sleeves and deck boxes for Magic's Guilds of Ravnica expansion.  I'm not even talking about licensed merch as such, but parallel merch implies that it has a direct tie to the reference product and is a natural extension of what you might buy if you bought or own the reference product.  The elusive D&D Spell Cards are another good example.  Technically not required for play, but many players want them.  It's also not a stretch to stock them, from a business perspective.

There's a marketing truism that you have a greater chance of success by making something a few people love, rather than making something everyone meh kinda likes.  The thing everyone likes may seem like a safer thing to make or sell.  But they won't feel the same level of excitement when they discover it, and that means they may not feel the same urgency to buy.  By contrast, make something that a few people utterly love, and they'll buy it the moment they find it.  And what's more, you've probably earned a happy customer.  People absolutely love the feeling that you had something just for them.  (Or for their tiny niche of fans, anyway.)

Of course, the challenge is finding such merch.  Merch that is not parallel, but perpendicular.
OK, that's a pretty extreme example... but wow, that PS2 aquarium is full commitment to the concept.

Loot Crate is an example of a company that uses perpendicular pop culture goods as the primary attraction.  If you've ever gotten their subscription box, it's not exactly filled with durables.  The pop-culture "exclusives" you get were manufactured specifically for the offering.  It's very much a Franklin Mint scenario, and an awful lot of it amounts to shelf junk.  But I tell you what, I got a loot crate secondhand and it had an Assassin's Creed scarf in it.  I don't live in a place where we need scarves very often.  And I'm only casually familiar with the Assassin's Creed series.  But I got it.  It wasn't even aimed at me and I saw why someone would be delighted to get this thing.  Some Assassin's Creed devotee got that month's Loot Crate collection and opened it up and saw this scarf and it blew their system right out.

I've made a few attempts in this space and will continue to.  More often, I am encountering the stuff as a consumer, because the possibilities are so vast.  One of my employees knew I was a fan of Metroid and Iron Maiden, and what do you figure he found?  Its licensing legitimacy is questionable, but hot damn, is that ever a cool thing.  I've bought Ori and the Blind Forest socks.  And who hasn't seen comic convention attendees sporting homemade riffs on Jayne Cobb's cunning hat?

Probably the coolest perpendicular merch I've sold has been solid-silver Jace coins and giant plush Triforces.  (In fact, I have the Triforces in stock now and my DSG price is lower than what you'd pay on Amazon, a phrase you might as well get used to because it's going to get more and more common as the ease of frictionless "press the buy button" continues to override price resistance.)  Also the WizKids D&D Trophy Plaques.  Who doesn't want a big wicked-looking dragon head on their game room wall?  Or a mind flayer head.  Or a floating beholder.  Even at a price tag of a few hundred bucks per unit, we've gone through several of each.

My biggest shot at this was one where I chickened out.  I had a black and hunter-green Acura Integra that I had bought just as a silly tuner car to commute with.  It had sweet rims, a turbocharger on the engine, and a tactile thrill to drive.  I was going to set it up as grand prize at the biggest tournament we could muster in late 2012, as "the Golgari car."  I would have had some graphics applied and gotten it cleaned on up.  I think it would have been a marketing home run.  I couldn't quite make the economics work; I had to clear $2k on the car to make it worth selling it, and my best tournament math had our likely direct take barely clearing that figure ($25 entry and 80 players to par).  And that would only have covered first prize, not the rest of the prize slate.  And when Wizards tried to award a Magic-themed Toyota FJ truck at the Pro Tour World Championship, they were hit with a raft of complaints.  I decided discretion was the better part of glory, and ended up selling the car the ordinary way instead.

Perpendicular merch is, by definition, tough to find.  Its very nature is that it's not the first thing you think of when you're thinking of the reference product it ties to.  But I want to keep my eyes and ears open and take better advantage of these opportunities, because even at the risk that I'm going to be sitting on it for a while, this kind of merch is going to be something somebody out there loves.  Possibly only one person.  But someone.  And that person is going to love DSG forever, and on top of that I end up getting dollars of money out of the deal.  This ain't rocket surgery.  Oh, it's difficult to pull off, but the decision to try it shouldn't be difficult in the slightest.

I'm keeping this scarf.  I'm going to wear it this week on a business trip to Prescott.  This is one seriously cool scarf.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Shoes Dropping Nonstop These Days

So, earlier this summer, Wizards of the coast ended direct distribution to stores.  I discussed it in an article at the time.  This was a significant shoe drop to independent stores, who would find themselves forced to develop professional relationships with distributors, rather than being ascended consumers who can treat Wizards Direct sort of like a gated Amazon Prime for clubhouse stores.

My rationale for Wizards' move was that they are finally positioned so that they can leverage the mass market and don't need to depend on flighty, unreliable independents to grow and nurture the Magic: the Gathering brand.

Then, the other shoe dropped. Wizards announced that the premium version of Guilds of Ravnica booster boxes, the Mythic Edition, would be exclusive to the Hasbro online store, and independents were shut out.  I discussed this in an article as well.

I didn't see this as the apocalyptic end of our sector like some did, and we still had early release booster boxes to benefit from, but make no mistake, this was a big miss for us.  The optics of the exclusivity, given the easily foreseeable demand for masterpiece planeswalkers that were included only in the Mythic Edition boxes, were significant.

Right after that, yet another shoe dropped.  Wizards decided to tell us they were selling direct to the public on Amazon's, Walmart's, and Target's e-commerce channels, and moreover, that they would not honor their own MSRP.  I discussed this in, yep, an article here on The Backstage Pass.

Wizards did some spin control, particularly via Mark Rosewater's weblog, insisting that the direct sales via Amazon were to help Magic reach audiences that were not served by independent stores.  That wasn't the part that was troublesome, and they know better.  Nobody minds direct sales to consumers by publishers, when the publisher honors its own MSRP.  Games Workshop, Fantasy Flight, Nintendo, Microsoft, and others already figured this out.  The problem was that booster boxes straight from the source opened at ~$94 on Amazon, a crushing discount from the putative MSRP of $143.64.  We've seen some regression to the mean since then, with boxes approaching $98 as of this writing, but it still leaves Magic as now being the worst-margin product in the comic and hobby game trade.

[Dukes of Hazzard narrator voice] By now you probably think them Coast Boys had gotten into just about as much trouble as they could manage.  But nope, you'd be wrong about that.  Turns out they was just gittin' started. [/narrator]

Sure enough, another shoe was in the queue.  The end of the most common form of WPN store participation in the Magic Pro Tour qualification system, announced during garbage time last Friday.
I'm not going to address the moniker "MagicFest" beyond observing that it's comically bad.  I'm also not going to address the ongoing issues with having the entire Grand Prix circuit operated by a single exclusive vendor, Channel Fireball.  CFB, love them or hate them, paid their money for that exclusivity and they have every right to exploit it to the hilt.  If we don't like it, our option is to stop playing at those events.  But when a GP is available within driving distance, most pro-tour hopefuls have all the willpower and impulse control of a homeless crackhead, so that's not going to happen.

The big blowout is that Preliminary Pro-Tour Qualifiers are going to cease.  You might think I am writing this article to complain about that.  I am not.  PPTQs are, in my view, a failed experiment.  In regions with competitive store counts like this one, they basically eliminated Saturdays from the event calendar to a degree.  Before PPTQs, back in the halcyon days of 2013, DSG used to attract fifty players to its Saturday nooner Standard event.  Now, when it's not our turn at the PPTQ wheel, we push our weekly double-stakes Standard to 6pm so that people who don't make top 8 at the PPTQ ten miles away can still make it, and we usually fire.  Usually.  It will be nice to come back to a landscape where Saturdays do as well as Fridays in terms of event traction and associated sales activity.

It also became something of a feelbad for players to win a PPTQ, sometimes against a reasonable player count -- stores like DSG as well as Phoenix-area mainstays like Play or Draw and Manawerx routinely drew 70 to 80 players or more -- only to find out that all they won was a chance to drive to the Regional PTQ in San Diego and hope not to get a bad draw in a single-round playoff where the top four finally, at last, qualified for the Pro Tour.  I still see it as ridiculous that Phoenix never got a single Regional PTQ.  I contacted Wizards and offered to host one for free, just for the prestige.  For whatever reason, we didn't meet their needs or plans.

That is where I worry the most about reducing qualification opportunities to single giant open qualifiers once per season or so in major cities.  I have no fear that my store is up to snuff -- we literally have the largest store in Arizona and can seat the most players, and one of our owners is already a level 2 judge.  What I fear is that for reasons arbitrary or unknown, we simply won't be selected for it, and won't know why we weren't selected.  That's how it was before PPTQs.  We had, at the time, the newest, nicest, cleanest, most comfortable store in town, and we got to sit there like chumps and watch PTQs take place in rented rooms with no air conditioning, hosted by competitors.  Not even making that up.  It happened.  And I can't fault that store for taking the event, it would have been foolish of them not to.  Because money.

And if I can't be sure of an opportunity to participate, with DSG's huge structural advantages, how can any large-scale store be confident that they will have a shot?  Will it be an old-boys club like the PTQs of old?  That's not how Wizards typically operates anymore -- as a progressive company in a progressive community, Wizards has been on the forefront of pushing greater inclusion in all things, and it's encouraging that they've been in the business of opening doors, not closing them.  But with the Shoevalanche cited above, it's easy to envision Hasbro not giving a damn and Wizards being forced to do things the cheapest and easiest possible way... and you know what's cheap and easy?  Relegating things to the old-boys club.

The alternative route being offered are invitational events that will be smaller and easier to qualify through for those who meet some threshold.  And for those events, our size and scale don't make any difference.  There are cozy ultraboutiques in town that look fantastic but really don't run deep into competitive Magic, and they may end up getting the call for this stuff because of the optics.  Do I spend a bunch of resources making my store prettier, in an attempt to cover our bases on this?  I try to make the store look a little better every day, but it's a hell of a lot more expensive to renovate 6400 square feet than 2400 square feet.  With an unknown and unknowable ROI, it's hard to make a business case that I should spend deeply into this sooner rather than later.

I've hinted before here, and discussed at length with other retailers in our private groups, that events and organized play have become something of a liability anyway, and maybe it's just as well that we're rendering all this to chance.  I firmly believe that some amount of organized play is essential to a store in our industry, because it adds significant value to games that have constructible-deck and constructible-army mechanics.  Even before you get past Magic and Warhammer, there's real traction there.  As an industry we're still groping and grasping at the reality that we have to find ways to monetize organized play sustainably, while not handing a blank check to the clubhouse down the street that uses cut corners to subsidize grinder play.  That is an entire unsolved equation inextricably tied to the economics of the products involved.

But with all these shoes dropping every which way from Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, publisher of the biggest product in our industry and my biggest single revenue line, it's clear that the safe haven is going to be a shelter constructed of other, less turbulent revenue lines.

How many stores will even have the option to make such a lateral shift?

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Guilds of Revenue

Notwithstanding my bearish forecast for the Magic: Guilds of Ravnica prerelease weekend, we somehow broke records.  Proportionately, Dominaria did better, but our Ravnica allocation was higher and ultimately led to a higher-grossing weekend on slightly narrower margins.

I was bearish going in because I imagined that there would be a mindspace shift away from independent local game stores in the wake of the last two weeks of Wizards announcements.  The saving grace, I imagined, would be strong content and players finally being ready to focus on the new set and the new Standard to follow it, despite all the market upheaval.  That saving grace, as it turns out, saved its... grace?  Headwinds or none, GRN launched well.
I understand the use of faction packs (the five guild choices) to drive engagement and immersion.  I don't think the original Ravnica: City of Guilds, Guildpact, and Dissension events suffered in any way from using the older, more traditional sealed deck product configuration, but then again I was already a deeply invested player by then, and not a newbie experiencing Magic fresh.  Two years before that, I had been an active level 3 judge, and retired to focus my attention on law school.  The 4-3-3 guild layout for that block was a delicious challenge to me, and would probably be extremely unintuitive and frustrating to someone just getting their sea legs.

Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash featured faction packs that were relatively balanced by virtue of the seeded guild packs having nothing extremely warping in them.  Dragon's Maze simply mashed the two together to provide ten different cross-set combinations, and if it weren't for that set's small size for its complexity level, I think it could have been one of Magic's peak experiences.  Great on the drawing board, not so great as-shipped.  For DSG's fifth anniversary, I tracked down a case of Dragon's Maze prerelease packs and held a Return to Ravnica block sealed deck tournament that by all accounts was nostalgic enough to overcome the set's drawbacks.

For last weekend's prerelease, two guilds were in far, far higher demand than the rest out of the gate.  Golgari, because of a jackpot card 1-in-8 shot, and Dimir, because surveil is great in limited and there were non-negligible lesser jackpot opportunities.  Boros was good for wins as it always is, as it plays every game with the opponent on the back heel, but red-white traditionally offers lesser expected value on anything rare or mythic.  Selesnya was a sleeper; by the end of the event people realized it had good play and good expected value.  By then it was too late to impact the weekend-long balance of picks.  Izzet was for people who like flipping coins, as always.

Unfortunately with that dynamic, many players didn't get full guild choice.  Our store guaranteed guild choice or your money back, and over the course of the weekend, four players took us up on the refund offer rather than playing with another guild.  We didn't start running into serious guild shortages until Saturday night, but once they started, they got bad fast.  We didn't even run a Sunday afternoon event.  We were effectively out of stock after Sunday morning, with too few packs left to run a start and prize it.  Pre-registered players had a refreshed guild pool to pick from, which just meant that the last two events were only open to Dimir or Golgari if you paid in advance.  Unnecessary feelbads.

Wizards is going to be challenged to perfectly balance factions for faction packs, and what we have now is more like Tarkir block and surely far superior to the days of Journey into Nyx when the white pack came with a giant bestow flyer and ran out almost immediately in every event.  At least now the promo card has some variation, and the factions are closer to one another in power.  But honestly, was it that bad having, what was it, 12 straight prereleases with generic packs and high efficiency?  We hit it out of the park with Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad with generic packs and only after that saw the Magic market start its deteriorative slide with the only-appreciated-after-it-was-gone Kaladesh block and subsequents.  I imagine the faction decision was made around the time the Ixalan sets were posting poor numbers, and before Dominaria and Core 2019 did well.

Ravnica Allegiance in January will feature factions again, and in theory they should be tighter in power variation, with Gruul and Rakdos being aggro but not quite as all-in as Boros, and with Azorius, Simic, and Orzhov occupying different spots on the control-to-midrange side of the spectrum.  If we can avoid only one guild of the five getting an Assassin's Trophy jackpot card, even better.  I like the second set of guilds in particular, even though I am personally very Golgari: black for capitalism and green for sustainability in all things.

I do think it was wise of Wizards not to include the shocklands as stamped foils in the faction packs. The amount of variation in cards is getting kind of extreme these days, and by the time you get to stuff like Masterpieces, each shockland will finish this block with at least seven printed versions.  Contrast that to cards like Volrath's Stronghold or City of Shadows, which will only ever have one version each.  I'm as anti-Reserved-List as you like, but there's something to be said for introducing a little prominence economy into Magic's long-term production outlook.

Heading into release weekend, we may see a lot of questions answered.  Will Mythic Edition Boxes, exclusive to Hasbro's online store and Channel Fireball's Grand Prix events, depress demand for regular booster boxes?  With Wizards selling direct through Amazon, Target, and Walmart, making a mockery of their own MSRP as they go, how will supply and pricing behave downstream?  Will this be like Dominaria where every independent store that doesn't go with the flow gets healthy as their competitors' supply of product dries up too quickly at bottom dollar?  And for that matter, will people wait for the Guild Decks or whatever the hell they are in early November, rather than buying now?  I've made my preparations, and now we will see how things unfold.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Another Shoe Drops for Magic

I hope you like links, because it seems like the events of the past few days in the business of Magic: the Gathering draw upon a cavalcade of concepts I've already addressed here on The Backstage Pass.

Friday, Wizards of the Coast announced that they would be selling Magic: the Gathering factory direct on Amazon and in other channels.  The result was predictable:

This is an upheaval for sure.  It's substantial enough that I'm still assessing it, now, days later.  There is much to unpack.

First things first.  The second listing in that screenshot is Amazon's direct-from-publisher inventory, for $94.85 per unit, shipped free with Prime.  In other words, Wizards is undercutting their own MSRP, which I've mentioned before in this space is a serious problem.

When you parse that image please understand that at $3.99 per pack and 36 packs to the display box, the MSRP of a box of Magic is $143.64.  Boxes haven't sold for that much in the general market for some time now, but the MSRP is how wholesale pricing is determined.  Wholesale, which used to be right around $76 in most cases per box (or 52% cost-of-goods), increased to $79-$92 depending on distributor and account status when Wizards ceased selling directly to stores on August 31st.

Thus, Wizards themselves is selling the product at a price as low as $2.85 above wholesale.  That's not counting Amazon's cut, shipping, or any of that.  Amazon takes 15% off the top from marketplace sellers like us, more for Prime fulfillment; even if we assume Hasbro gets a better deal, I doubt it's zero percent.  And now that becomes the price to beat for online sales.  Effectively Magic: the Gathering now has the worst margin in the entire entertainment industry.  I get better cost-of-goods on brand-new video game consoles, the previous reigning champions of the short margin, where mass-market stores make up the difference with rebates and merchandising programs and small independents get the shaft.

I hope I don't have to explain that a publisher selling directly to end consumers is not necessarily a bad thing.  For example, Nintendo, Microsoft, Games Workshop, and Fantasy Flight all sell direct and do it brilliantly.  They hold to full MSRP, offer superb service that sets a sterling example for independent stores, and aggressively police the marketplace for bad actors.  Microsoft and Games Workshop even have physical retail stores that hold to the same policy and are excellent neighbors for independents, promoting the brand while not undercutting us.  In the end the result is that these companies do sell direct, and the consumer gets what they want in a no-compromises manner, while possibly not paying the absolute lowest price.  That's part of what makes the Wizards dumping price on Amazon so puzzling; we know they know better.  Hasbro themselves sells Magic booster boxes from their online store at the full $143.64 MSRP!  I doubt they move many of them at that price, but it reinforces the brand.

That last bit has me wondering.  There may be yet another shoe still to drop.  Fantasy Flight, Games Workshop, Nintendo, Microsoft... those examples I gave above, their product began selling even through Amazon and eBay and everywhere else at prices much closer to MSRP, or to an applicable MAP (Minimum Advertised Price), once the company began channel management and enforced vertical distribution agreements.  Retailers were already informed privately that at least two (and possibly more) of the national Magic distributors are being dropped after Guilds of Ravnica; I won't post which just yet because I want to honor confidentiality commitments and wait for their official public announcements.  Amazon wants to make as much money as possible on every sale, but they won't be undersold, and their pricing bots always undercut the lowest congruent offer, often by as little as a penny.  Is Wizards or Hasbro about to impose channel management and pricing?  The idea of Magic behaving like Star Wars Destiny, where we get a little bit of room to discount but mostly we all make reasonable margins, is very appealing.

Or else it's not that at all, it's the simpler explanation that Hasbro knows now that it does not need independent game stores, and is shouldering us out of the action.  Or more to the point, they have recognized that any time an independent game store fails, two new ones replace it, so why should they disburse resources toward us at all?  I should caveat that I know people working at Wizards of the Coast, past and present, who care about independent game stores very much, and at the same time I know Hasbro's top executives are answerable to the shareholders and it is their fiduciary duty to care about independent game stores as little as possible.

Others are already weighing in on this.  I think the best take I've heard so far has been from The Mana Source, whose evaluation cuts right to the chase and asks what stores will do if there's no money to be made carrying Magic.  I like that question because it keeps the focus on the issue that game store owners should care about the most: What do we do from here?  What are the implications on us?  I've said before as recently as earlier this month that the positive outcomes we want will not fall out of the sky.  We have to work toward them deliberately and with our eyes open.

So what am I going to do about it?

In the immediate term, no changes.  Excitement is peaking for Guilds of Ravnica.  I am about to host hundreds of players this coming weekend at Arizona's largest game store, and they're going to have an absolute blast.  We have about 500 player packs, and based on our attendance forecast, we expect to be able to give everyone the guild of their choice whether they pre-register or simply walk in for the event.  Other area stores are promising this and that on such-and-such a condition, but we find that our everyday promise of the best experience is sufficient to fill the room.

How long will we be Arizona's, or even the Valley's, biggest game store, though?

Let me unpack that, because it's a question that you would not have heard me ask, even rhetorically, before last week's Wizards announcements.  And setting aside that someone else is bound to come along and open bigger eventually.  Capitalism, after all.

I am paying rent for thousands of square feet of play space, seating for well over a hundred players at the same time as miniatures and RPG tables host dozens more.  City code will let us host far more players still, a number beyond what we'd ever actually attempt to seat.  That enormous play space has to be monetized by a robust business in Magic card sales.  Singles are spectacular for us, but sealed product remains essential and our price is not ninety-five bucks a box all-in.  However, it seems likely that being competitive in the sealed product space will, before too much longer, require a store to price boxes in that range. (Unless yet another shoe drops, as I posit several paragraphs above this one.)

I should also state outright that I don't expect players to pay more for no reason.  I respect the appeal of a low price.  Typically what we've seen up until now has been that players like instant gratification, and are willing to pay slightly more on the spot for packs and boxes, but obviously not full MSRP, as that's just unrealistic.  DSG has focused on selling packs and using a 3-for-$10-tax-included-every-day model.  Players love it because they get a reasonable price even if they only have ten or twenty bucks to spend.  It's a question of degree.  If the box price gets too low straight from the source, it starts to crowd out other purchasing, including three-for-tens.  It could also crowd out purchasing of singles, which would be a serious problem.  Especially if we tried to "juice" singles sales by means of deeper pack and box discounting, as other stores in various markets (including ours) have done.  I'd hate to pay the incentive and then not recoup the benefit.

Crucially, it's a comparative thing.  Opportunity cost.  I can make most of the money I make now on things that aren't Magic without having a very large store, or paying the overhead for one.  Heck, I could do tremendous business in video games with nothing more than a 1000-square-foot shoebox.  That's all that's needed, and those cost next to nothing to occupy, even if I kept my current staff roster.  Most of tabletop is played at peoples' homes, not at an FLGS, so boxed games can serve the audience wonderfully from a cozy ultraboutique.  There are variables involved there of course.  Volume scales with size, and so do expenses.  Thus far we're still new enough to the Chandler location that it's earning more than the Gilbert store did, but not as much more proportionally as the size increase and the overhead increase.  There is a much higher ceiling for growth, and our clientele continues to grow... but now we've been told a primary growth factor has been Nerfed, if you'll allow me to disparage another Hasbro brand with the metaphor.

For that matter, the comparative math wasn't that great in the first place.  Being in the comic and hobby game trade was already less lucrative than many other businesses, from carpeting to mattresses to pool supplies to automotive to HVAC and so on and so forth.  So there wasn't a lot of slack in this line left to give.  The net earnings potential of the entire business threatens to drop below the range of durable financial instruments.  In other words, it becomes a better idea not to invest in a game store at all, and instead to just throw the money on an (interest-bearing) pile and go do something else to earn my daily bread.

It comes down to this.  If I had known about Wizards' policy change of September 2018 at the time when I signed the lease for DSG Chandler in early summer 2017, would I have signed it?  No, I don't think so.  I believe I would have explored other options.

A commercial lease is a gargantuan financial commitment, and it's secured by a personal guaranty, meaning my credit and savings are on the line, as are those of the other LLC partners.  Before signing a commercial lease, we engaged in extensive research and business planning to make sure we could keep up with that unceasing calendar ratchet.  Based on the best information we had at the time, an underlying assumption for leasing 3875 West Ray Road Suite 7 was that the Magic: the Gathering card market would continue to operate mostly the same as it has been.  I bought space specifically to dominate the local event scene, leveraging that into sustained growth in product turn.  And we do dominate the local event scene, and we have seen growth in sales.  As a secondary factor, extra space made it easier to scale up online operations, which has also occurred.

Had I not found this lease, I don't think I would have shut down as Gilbert's lease ended, just as I'm not considering shutting down now.  But running small(er) and focusing on other product lines?  Oh yeah.  I would have done that.  I will always love Magic, but I play board games as my primary tabletop outlet (when I play games at all, which is rare) and video games will always be my first and foremost, as they have been since I was a child, years before Magic was even a happy accident of Garfield's and Adkison's collaboration.

Singles are a huge question mark.  I have been pouring resources into singles, working to build them up to the competitive standard set by other major stores in the region.  By and large this effort has borne fruit.  Do I keep at it, not knowing what's ahead for Magic?  I think I do.  Even if Magic goes topsy-turvy for a while, any loss of value from singles holdings will be temporary.  Think of the early Modern years before the 2009 Zendikar boom.  Wouldn't you love to have laid hands on some of that cheddar at the prices of the time?  And this is why in the article I already linked once, and will link again before the end, I mention that I'm planning on hedging against uncertain box sales with a huge singles opening for Guilds.  I'm going to have a room full of people who want them, every day for the next several weeks.  I would kind of like to earn their money.

So.  Like I said, I'm not going to do anything immediately.  What about further ahead than that?  What about 2019 and beyond?

I always want to be crystallizing.  I act toward the positive outcome I want.  Most of what I am going to do at this point is behind the scenes.  I'll meet with the landlord, with whom we have a good relationship.  I need another store move like I need a hole in my head, but if a serious change is warranted, I will need to know what kind of options exist and how far in the future they would become available.  I'll be in regular touch with distribution.  I'll look for other merch that might fill my floor if Magic takes a sudden nosedive.  Our local Hobbytown USA just closed, maybe I can branch from wargame miniatures into models and hobbycrafts.  I'll watch the Guilds of Ravnica prerelease and release very closely and decide whether any pricing adjustments make sense, and then I'll test that against the Ravnica Allegiance release cycle this winter.  I already adjusted store hours based on analytics and that is shaping up to be a very correct decision; we're seeing virtually no lost sales at all.  And in the meantime I'll iterate in the store itself and seek to improve the customer experience every way I can devise.

Honestly, I would be delighted beyond measure to be completely wrong about all this and see Magic launch into an immediate and sustained boom cycle.  It's not impossible.  I have to give some benefit of the doubt that people whose job is literally to think this stuff through before moving ahead with it, have in fact thought this stuff through before moving ahead with it.  I just hope those thoughts weren't the likes of, "Let's see what we can do to remove independent game stores from the equation."  Provided they are interested in everybody making more money, and that's a dicier assumption today than it was years ago, we may hope that they are following a roadmap that takes us all a little closer to the promised land.

The ride is about to get quite a bit bumpier.  Hope everyone is buckled in.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Clone Consoles Are Somehow Stuck In 2011

The largest two generations in American history, as I referenced last week, are the baby boomers and the Millennials.  Millennials, those born roughly from 1985 to 1999 depending whose punditry you prefer, are starting to come into their own right now in the consumer marketplace.  The youngest among them is now of adult age.  They're all getting obliterated by student loans (and I assure you, your Generation X predecessors are in the same boat) but they are nevertheless finishing school, getting married, buying or renting homes, and starting families.

And with that process comes the entry of a generation into the nostalgia/memorabilia market.  We have felt this effect already with Pokemon cards, of course.  I had to stop buying them entirely because even though I can easily resell current-cycle GX cards, 99 out of 100 inquiries we get even now about whether we buy Pokemon cards are for the obsolete 1999 sets, which were printed in the umpteens of millions.  Every Millennial who was a child at the time is cleaning out the ol' closet and finding that same ratty Ash binder full of Base Jungle Fossil missing the Charizard.  (And even when they have it, it is inevitably thrashed and worth very little, but they've seen the clickbait and think it's enough to trade straight across for a Lamborghini.)

In the world of video games, things are somewhat healthier, but with an astonishing hole in the product line-up.  The single biggest demand unmet.

See, thanks to modern televisions being perfectly awful to play the oldest consoles on, enterprising manufacturers with brands like Hyperkin and Old Skool have crafted clone consoles with HDMI outputs natively present.  These systems-on-a-chip play the original cartridges and are compatible with the original controllers.  We do tremendous business in the likes of the Supa Retron HD, the Retron 5, and the Classiq II HD, the latter of which is an outstanding dual-system box that plays NES and SNES games with modern video output.  Chinese factories can produce and export these clone consoles fully legally, because the original console patents are more than 20 years old, and thus have expired.  They just released an HDMI clone of the Atari 2600, no less.  The Retron 77 is a tad on the expensive side but it's very good at what it does.

That brings us to today.  Somehow, 1991's Super Nintendo Entertainment System is still the newest console to be cloned.  We've seen some tentative attempts at the earliest optical disc systems cloned, with the closest thing so far probably being Retroblox's Polymega.  The Polymega is slated to open with support for Sony Playstation 1, Sega CD, Saturn, Neo Geo CD, and Turbo/PCE CD disc software.  Development is happening in the light of day, so this isn't a bootleg pirate project, though their promise of "backup" compatibility is a bit puerile.  That aside, the applicable patents are either expired or will be by the time the hardware releases.  The remaining hurdles are technical and financial, as the system is now being promised for 2019 release.  If they take much longer, they'll simply get beaten to market.  The concept is proven.

What we haven't seen is a legit clone of the Nintendo 64.  And that system is, by a country mile, the one millennials demand the most.
The Nintendo 64 is among the last of the CRT standard definition systems.  Unless you modify your system for RGB or HDMI output, neither of which is a cheap endeavor as it stands currently, you're stuck with at best an S-video connector that modern TVs cannot even accommodate, or a composite (not component) video connector that provides pixel soup on a typical flat-panel display.  It's actually better to find a nice Sony, JVC, or Toshiba CRT TV on a street corner and scoop it up, and millennials looking to get their sixty-four on are doing precisely that.

Out of the most demanded titles day in and day out at DSG, the Nintendo 64's lineup dominates the charts.  Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Bros, Super Mario 64, Zelda Ocarina of Time, Zelda Majora's Mask, Goldeneye 007, Pokemon Stadium 1 and 2, Paper Mario, the first three Mario Party games, Perfect Dark, Wave Race, Starfox 64, Donkey Kong 64, even Conker's Bad Fur Day for those who heard it was edgy.  (At least you can get Conker on Xbox Live for ten bucks now instead of chasing down a $60 cartridge and an N64 to play it on.)  And that's before you get to the tier-2 gems like Blast Corps, Ogre Battle, Goemon, and so on.  Moreover, the system is a hardware seller's dream, with optimal house party loadouts requiring four controllers, four rumble packs, the 4MB memory expansion, and in some cases controller extension cords.

Hyperkin sent out a survey to its dealer base asking if there was any interest in an HD N64 clone.  Does a bear defecate in the woods?  I'm amazed they thought they had to ask.  To give some idea of the magnitude of what an HD N64 clone would do for my business, if I had to pick between that and the next D&D campaign book, Warhammer new edition, basically anything short of the next Magic: the Gathering standard expansion... I'll take the video game system.

I'm willing to grant that the primary obstacles might be technical.  The Nintendo 64's internal architecture might charitably be described as grotesque.  Over 20 years after its release, emulation of the N64 is still pretty bad.  Bluetooth controller manufacturer 8BitDo has shied away from an N64 replacement offering because it can't get the rumble pack and memory card to work properly, though they offer a look-and-feel-alike version for use with the PC.

Moreover, Nintendo already as much as said we'll see an N64 Classic Mini sooner rather than later, so I imagine the other manufacturers want to stay out of the way for now and see what happens with it.  An N64 Mini will be a compromised product no matter what.  It won't include any games published by Rare, because Microsoft owns Rare.  That eliminates Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, Diddy Kong Racing, Donkey Kong 64, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini, the two Mickey Mouse games, and the two Banjo-Kazooie games.  The saving grace of the N64 Mini will be its controllers; they don't even really need to give us the tri-a-rangs, because the existing GameCube-shaped Wii/U Classic and Pro controllers are already compatible, so we know gameplay will be excellent on the limited menu of games we're ultimately offered on it.  But if you want to play some of the all-time greats for the system, you need to be using the original cartridges.

There's a profit to be had and a giant pile of money being left on the table, and somebody is going to take it.  I am thoroughly willing to operate downstream of that occurrence.  Just, you know, get it done already.  This is kind of your last chance, or nearly so.  The post-millennial generation grew up on iPads.  There won't be any such thing as retro for them.  I am, of course, talking about my kids.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Experience Slips Away

Every September 11th, because of the historic significance of the date, I try to withdraw from my work enough to take in a broader perspective.  Sometimes there's just nothing for it.  Last year we were fully immersed in a breakneck race against the calendar to get the store moved.  This year things have calmed down and I realized I had observed something interesting recently.

It's easy to forget when we're head-down in the finances and the product that running a small business can often reach deep into the community.  And it's easy to forget when you're used to serving the insular, niche market of tabletop gamers that there is a much bigger population out there pursuing mainstream interests.

I've noticed as my business bends further and further toward the mainstream that I capture an ever-broadening arrival population, and suddenly during these last few months, that population has started to include people I already knew, but lost track of long ago.

In some cases, it's old school friends.  And they run the gamut.  Guys and ladies alike, many are married and have families, while others are bachelors or spinsters, and not always the ones we might have guessed would be.  Some of those who have kids had them way before I did, proportionately speaking.  Others are just getting started, though that's the rarer outcome given that I am 44 years old and so are virtually all my old classmates, or near enough.

(By the way, I'm not too tough to spot in that photo.  See if you can do it without cheating.)

I didn't lose track of all of them, of course.

One of my friends in that photo has been hanging out with me on the regular after more than 30 years.  In fact, he's my secret weapon in business.  Anything he tells me I should be paying attention to, I treat as a top priority dispatch.

Another of them moved out of state but I've been in touch, and in fact his father does our taxes.  He and I ran years in scouting and enjoyed some of my best memories from high school, a time period I otherwise don't look back on all that fondly.

A third friend of mine from that photo, well, we were friends all through grade school and high school, but then I went to ASU and he went to UofA.  I lost touch with him, but years later reunited in an unexpected way.  My girlfriend, then fianceé, and now wife Stephanie... is his cousin.  His parents are great aunt and great uncle to my kids.  So we get to see each other at all the family events and once a year I get to remind him how much the Wildcats suck, or if my Sun Devils failed to get the job done, I get to take my lumps as he extols that fact.  It's all in fun though and he's a good sport about it.  His kids and my kids, second cousins all, are thick as thieves.

Those were three of the ones I never lost track of.  And some of my friends from the years just before or after that time are still in touch with me on the regular anyhow, and always have been.  Then there were those who I found again after all these years.

Not in that photo, but another friend from after this time period, from when I was just out of high school and working retail and scratching the surface of college.  He found my Gilbert location last year and we got to reminisce about all the good times.  He's still into the best video games and the best music, and he's still married to his sweetheart from way back then.  They have a couple of daughters.  Outstanding.

Another not from that photo because she went to one of the previous schools I attended, has been in touch on social media for a couple of years now and has a family.  I'm happy for her because I've gotten to see some of their milestones in my feed, photos of her and the kids enjoying some school or sports activity, smiling for the camera.  I love seeing people I care about enjoying their lives.

One of the girls in that photo popped up on one DSG social media link or another just last week, and I was like, oh wow.  She was one of those who was so quiet and withdrawn back in 1988 that introverts were like, "wow, her?  Yeah she keeps to herself."  I don't do the Facebook stalking thing, but just from her name and profile photo I could tell she got married and had a couple of kids.  I'm really happy for her.

There were a couple more across the gamut and I don't have a ton of detail to add; I limit how much I'll even look because like I said I don't want to be the creep, and it's already difficult for me to avoid seeming like that due to my autism.  When in doubt, I keep my distance.  But between hearing from them and sometimes having them walk right into the store, it has been a tremendous nostalgia trip.  I guess it's a neat thing that I've got video games and Magic cards on display that, in some cases, hearken back decades to the last time they and I had heard from one another.

I'm really glad for how many of them are doing well.  Generation X is outnumbered on both sides, by the boomers and the millennials, and combined they overwhelm us.  We have fewer opportunities to get ahead because our predecessors are so many and aren't leaving their posts, and when we finally do, there are a horde snapping at our heels who want to take their turns sooner.  We're a weary, cynical, disillusioned cohort, and yet we live freer than they do of the burdens of entitlement and social admonition.  I don't know what history will say about us, but I sleep happy knowing how many of my friends and classmates represented us well.

There are the sad stories of course.  A few of my old compadres are dead.  One due to suicide.  That was a sorrowful thing to learn.  My heart went out to his family.  Statistically speaking, every year more of my contemporaries will depart this mortal coil.  After all, in 2024 most of us will be turning fifty.  There are actuarial tables that deal with this.  I'm certainly not going to be the last one standing, my health is making sure of that, but I'm going to hold on as long as I may.

Rush said it beautifully thirty years ago, and it's a perfect fit for today's article looking at life in the business that renews connections from beyond the business, in happiness and sadness (but mostly happiness).  "Summer's going fast, nights growing colder.  Children growing up, old friends growing older.  Freeze this moment a little bit longer.  Make each sensation a little bit stronger.  Experience slips away.  The innocence slips away."

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Always Be Crystallizing

During my week off from The Backstage Pass, I took my daughters, ages eight and ten, to their first rock concert at the pavilion west of town, to see their two favorite musical acts, Lindsey Stirling and Evanescence.  The girls enjoyed themselves mightily, and it was a peak dad experience.
During the show, Stirling had a video prologue to her 2012 hit, the gorgeous Dm-F-C-G anthem "Crystallize," in which a voiceover explains the concept behind the song:
"In the 1990s, Dr. Masaru Emoto undertook his classic study of water and its response to stimuli such as words, music, and expressed emotions.  Positive and negative words and expressions written on, or spoken to, individual water vials.  The droplets of water were then frozen, and the ice crystals were examined under a microscope.  The crystallized results were revealing and dramatic.  The water that had been exposed to positive statements made beautiful, symmetrical crystals, while those that were surrounded by negative expressions created meaningless jagged shapes.  If thoughts and words can have such an effect on crystallized water, imagine the influence they can have upon us!  Chemically, we are all made up of 70 to 90 percent water, so, by our own positive thoughts, and by our own kind words, we physically change our molecular structure to create symmetrical patterns of strength and power within ourselves and within those around us.  We each have the power to create literal inner beauty, and to become the change we want in ourselves."
Now, with all due respect, I find the scientific validity of Dr. Emoto's research... questionable.  There's just so much wrong with the conclusion that words and expressions can change a chemical reaction due to an interpretive context.  Does this only work in the King's English or perhaps Nihongō?  Are deaf people accommodated somehow or are they just out of luck?  What if someone is inebriated and their utterances aren't fully voluntary?  And how were the "positive thoughts" fixed in media... those new brain-based flash drives we've all been installing in our skulls?

I've never been a fan of the positive-thinking-will-shape-reality stuff like "The Secret" and so on.  It's just not rooted in sound science, and it's not even rooted in sound philosophy.  It's as compatible as it needs to be with religion, I suppose.  But seriously, "hope" is not a strategy.  I'm more a believer that you get results by doing, not by wishing for it.

Setting that aside, there is a lesson at the core of the Crystallize theme that does apply to business, and to the hobby game business in particular because of our various peculiarities: Third Place organized play space and the social equation it demands of us, small scale making publishers challenged to accommodate us, rampant unprofessionalism scaring away many who try, and the reality of secondhand dealing in which the roles reverse between buyer and seller at a moment's notice.

And that lesson is this:

We have interactions in a multitude of contexts every day in which we can get drawn into a spiral of frustration, negativity, and futility -- and with perfectly valid bases to do so -- or we can choose to act toward the positive outcome we want.  And though there are times when it's difficult beyond all reason to stifle a pithy response of one kind or another, in virtually all cases the net result in the long term is best under the acting-toward-the-positive-outcome plan.

It's not difficult to find a bunch of recent events to analyze, so let's apply this directly to three of them.

(1) Mythic Edition Guilds of Ravnica booster boxes

Magic: the Gathering retailers were given the bad news over the weekend from PAX 2018 that these special boxes with Masterpiece planeswalkers in them would be exclusive to the Hasbro online store.  As in, not available through hobby retail at all.  Now I've said before that not every promotion is targeted at our sector specifically, and we have to accept that.  We did get the store-exclusive buy-a-box promos, for which I am not ungrateful.  But Masterpieces are a particularly loaded item with massive customer attachment and Hasbro and Wizards surely know this.  I'm disappointed and I know we're going to have a lot of demand for this that we cannot fulfill, and that some amount of money that would have bought two or three booster boxes from me, will instead buy one $250 Mythic Edition box from Hasbro.

So, how do I crystallize a situation that's almost entirely negative for me?  I'm always at liberty to, you know, just not carry Magic.  I could deeply short Guilds of Ravnica and sit there with empty shelves and a spiteful story to share with whoever does show up wanting to buy cards.  While some of that would surely deprive Wizards and Hasbro of some passthrough revenue, none of it really accrues to my benefit.  It's like protesting Trump by committing suicide.  "Hey, Jerk!  I'm not gonna contribute to GDP anymore!"  Well, you sure showed him.

What I do know are a few things.  People will want to sell me the masterpieces for cash.  Players will still want singles for the newly rotated Standard.  Box purchases will likely be down.  Wizards will continue its emphasis on butts in seats, which is not necessarily the best thing for retailers to focus on.  My players do have an expectation of a positive, comfortable experience.  I have a lot of space to leverage, a component of my advantage over competitors.  And the Ravnica Guild Kits releasing shortly after the main set will have additional demanded material in them, for which I want to make sure I don't undershoot the mark.

Based on what I know, the approach I have in mind at this point is to buy the same few hundred booster boxes at release that I was already going to buy, but open roughly ten cases more for singles than I would have otherwise, keeping ten cases fewer in stock for box purchases.  My TCGPlayer business can hardly keep up with the demand for Standard key cards, despite a surcharge versus the lower price that local players pay in-store or on my website for the same stuff.  I will allocate what money might have been used to deepen my stock on the set toward ready cash instead for the likely influx of people who spun the wheel on a Hasbro Store purchase and want to cash out whichever planeswalker is going to be the top hit (probably Elspeth).  I will continue hosting the gamut of formats and let player demand dictate where we put our attention.  I will focus on maximizing my clientele's access to the merch I've got.  That ultimately serves the bottom line better.

(2) Upheaval at GAMA

The Game Manufacturer's Association, of which I am a retail member, recently declined to renew the contract of the association's Executive Director, John Ward.  Any time there is an effectively involuntary turnover of leadership for a large organization, there is going to be an outcry from members who oppose the move, joined by an entrenchment by those who support the move.

For those of you who are not part of the industry professionally, it's a reasonably big deal.  It's not quite up there with Apple firing Steve Jobs back in 1985, as the scale is quite a bit smaller, but John Ward took GAMA from the brink of insolvency to a much healthier position in the space of a decade. He got the organization out of an unfavorable convention contract with Bally's in Las Vegas and into a substantially better accommodation with the Peppermill in Reno.  There was more to his tenure than that and I don't want to overwhelm this article with it, so take my word for it that the importance of Ward's contributions cannot be overstated.  To learn that the current GAMA Board of Directors voted, narrowly no less, to bring Ward's tenure to an end means that they needed to have a pretty solid rationale and purpose for such a decision to be defensible on its merits.

So, here's a situation that affects my business tangentially but materially.  Where our industry sits in the grand scheme of things is important, because it affects in broad swaths the shape and form of our costs, our products, our reach, and ultimately our ability to operate the way we do.  And yet from a Friendly Local Game Store position, my ability to affect the GAMA Directorship situation is narrow. I am not on the Board.  I am not even on the GAMA Retail Division (GRD) Board, a sub-committee whose Chair, currently Dawn Studebaker of The Game Annex in Indiana, is a member of the greater Board.  I'm friends with all seven members of the GRD Board, while the greater Board of Directors includes both familiar faces and strangers to me.  Obviously I'm a voting member of the association, which will next matter in a chilly Nevada town sometime in March 2019.  But right now I've got only my proxies, who are meeting again late this month to further evaluate the Ward contract situation.

So, like I said, the entire GRD board has my confidence and I believe they will act prudently on my behalf in ongoing affairs, whether or not I agree with every specific decision they make.  I come from the Tom Clancy school of thought where the integrity of the person matters more than whether they believe the same thing I believe.  I can get along with someone who disagrees with me but is an honest and forthright human being.

That leaves the greater GAMA Board of Directors.  In addition to Dawn, the Board includes Andrew Chesney, Mike Webb (Alliance), Marie Poole (Fire Opal), Jeff Tidball (Atlas), Bob Maher (ACD), Aaron Witten, Brian Dalrymple, VP Anne-Marie De Witt (Fireside), and President Stephan Brissaud (IELLO).  I am well acquainted with Webb, Poole, Tidball, De Witt, and Brissaud from business, and I remember Maher well from the early 2000s on the MTG Pro Tour when I was a DCI Level 3 judge.  The others I don't know.

Crystallizing this situation means recognizing the outcome that I want (the continued health and growth of GAMA and its ability to advocate on behalf of stakeholders in my industry), and recognizing who I have acting on my behalf until such time as I can cast votes myself for that representation next March.  Jeff Tidball published his vote, but none of the rest have.  I have to ask myself, do the people I know on the greater Board have my confidence the way the GRD Board members do?  I'm not quite as close with them as they are not my direct peers; they are from the publishing and distribution sectors, so I either carry their goods or outright buy from them.  But I've gotten to know them well enough that they get the benefit of my doubt.  I don't have the full information they have, but based on what I do have, I know what my vote would be.  I hope that whichever way they go on this is based on even better information, regardless of whether that aligns with my hypothetical vote or not.

And then I turn around and try to run my business as professionally as I can, so that whatever advantage or benefit GAMA is able to wrangle next on my behalf, I am both in position to receive it and doing so in a manner that does the organization credit in its public-facing facets.  I've explained before in this space that the underbelly of my industry is an awful place right now.  If we ever expect to get to sit at the adult table, we need to do better, and doing better gives GAMA more leverage to employ.

(3) Warranty abuse for used video game sales

I recently shared an incident in which my return policy on used video games was abused by a customer who took home some Playstation 3 discs, played them, and changed his mind about keeping them.  Since you can't readily scratch blu-rays due to their excellent laminate coating, this customer took some kind of sharp implement and actually cut big divots in the disc surfaces.  He then returned claiming that the scratches had always been there and the discs wouldn't play.

So, obviously we knew from the first moment that it was a filthy lie.  We look at every disc when we get it and we reject anything with damage to the data substrate, and we accept at a lower rate anything that can be resurfaced to ~99% likely playability with our commercial-grade disc surfacing machine, an RTI Eco Auto Smart.  Before any scratched software is entered into inventory, we will have resurfaced it, cleaned it, and fully prepped it.  There was zero chance that the discs were scratched up when taken by the customer, especially in a haphazard way not suggestive of normal handling or mechanical device failure.  Moreover, due to the extensive error correction built into the blu-ray media format encoding, these discs did in fact still play just fine.  Even chopping them up for warranty fraud wasn't enough to prevent that.  Yeah.

It was all I could do not to call them on it.  They knew.  Their furtive manner said it all.  I kept it simple.  "Here's your refund.  We won't sell you any more games from now on."  The response was "OK" and one of the two guys actually went and bought some comics at that point.  There's some audacity.  I guess if he charges back the purchase I'll have to take further steps but other than that, it amounted to a finish of the situation.

The way I crystallize that encounter is by knowingly changing nothing at all in my return policy, and counting on most people to be decent folk and not lying dirtbags, and allowing the instances of fraudulent returns to wash out in the law of large numbers of overall sales.  Indeed, virtually every day we have new customers buying video game gear and asking what the return policy is.  It's a question that sets my teeth on edge for various reasons, but with a clear warranty offered (30 days against defect, three Rs process, and a one-time satisfaction swap within 3 days on software) they end up sufficiently confident to buy.  And if there were a lot of abuse happening, more stuff would come back to us.  In practice, almost nothing comes back.  This also encourages us to be on our game when it comes to testing and prepping the goods.

Doing the right thing by thinking the best of our clients and playing it straight up has significant positive side-effects as well.  Recently we had a genuine situation where a console had a defect we missed in our prep.  I apologized and offered the customer a full refund, but he wanted to keep the item and asked only for us to cover the difference between that and a cheaper system that would have been comparably functional to the one he has after accounting for the defect.  More than reasonable.  He was well within his rights to bring back and expect full compensation.  I was more than happy to provide an outcome that didn't cost as much, and resulted in a satisfied keep.

The positive outcome I want is for people to buy lots of video games and gear from me and be happy doing it.  Acting toward that positive outcome, I crafted a warranty structure that should safety-net the buyer from authentic problems pretty well.  It errs on the side of safety-netting some inauthentic problems, and in the end that's OK.  I'd rather be wrong in that direction than wrong where a buyer is stuck with something that doesn't work because of our negligence.  And even when a corner case arises out of real abuse, I know in the long run the system is producing the right results in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Thus and so

If you are an industry peer reading this article, your homework assignment from now until forever is to think of this when you have an incident or event at your business that created some difficulty.  Think about how you responded to it.  Think about what outcome you most wanted, that was realistic in terms of how this industry is known to work.  (To borrow a phrase from Gary Ray, don't want it one way, when it's the other.)  Then determine what range of responses to that problem or issue or crisis might have given you the best likelihood of an outcome in line with what you wanted.

Drill yourself on this.  Figure out positive things to say that move the interaction toward your preferred resolution.  Invent and practice your lines for the next such situation.  I work from a (mental) script very often, virtually every day.  Not out of any desire to interact in a non-genuine way, but because as an autistic person I am a social disaster and I believe my customer clients deserve a more polished interaction than I would provide if I were just doing it off the cuff all the time.  So once I develop a good script component, I use it over and over.  My staff hears me use the same turns of phrase regularly.  Some of them adopt those same lines.  Others, the more socially adept extroverts, prefer to work on the fly, but they're riffing on my melodies and the practice and repetition helps them as well.

Go and do likewise.  A, Always.  B, Be.  C, Crystallizing.  And while you're at it, listen to the song, because it's really, really good.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Smith: Discounting As a Game Retail Strategy

I'm taking a quick break from The Backstage Pass to wrap up some overdue projects and prepare the business for its first full, unimpeded holiday season at the new massive Chandler location.

Fortunately, my readers, you'll not lack for excellent guidance this week!  I have a guest article to present to you from my friend Stephen Smith, who along with his wife Tracey Smith owns and operates Big Easy Comics, a magnificent store down in the bayou of Covington, Louisiana, located a quick dash north on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway from N'Awlins herself.  With a massive facility and devoted player base, Big Easy is the nexus of tabletop in the SoLa region.  The store even prepares hot pizza on site for players, along with a growing menu of other lunch, dinner, and snack options.   Big Easy is a substantial enough player on the comic side of the biz that Stephen was asked to deliver the 2018 Hybrid Theory GAMA Trade Show seminar on comics in Reno, as I mentioned back in March.
Anyway, I've already learned a great deal from Stephen both in person and online, and I'm delighted to bring his observations to you here on The Backstage Pass.  Without further ado, I yield the floor.

by Stephen Smith
Originally posted January 23, 2017 to the Big Easy Comics Blog

I started writing this as a post for a Facebook group full of great retailers I’ve become acquainted with over the past few months and realized I had so much to say that I should blog about it instead. It was brought on by some reactions to some comments I made about running events at a loss and some general comments I (and others) made about discounting being a poor business strategy. It snowballed into a few deep discounters stating that retailers selling boxes of Magic Cards for more than they do are wrong to do so. They said some other things about buying business, incentivizing customers with discounts, and that “some profit is better than none” while simultaneously not understanding that gross profit doesn’t actually mean that you made any money.

In beginning to write the post I found myself stating unilaterally that undercutting your competition doesn’t work in the game trade. Of course that’s a bit presumptuous so I’ve decided to discuss the experience Tracey and I have had the past 6+ years. That said, it’s not going to work pretty much ever. If it works for you, you’re the exception and you may have still done irreparable damage to your business. If you’re reading this and saying “but all my online sales!”, you're a retailer that has a B&M because you can’t get the access to product you need otherwise and would make more net profit if you could dump your retail location and switch to selling exclusively online. Or maybe you just love it. Because let’s face it, you’re not getting rich owning a comic or game store and filling TCGPlayer orders in a warehouse is a whole lot less effort than hand selling.

I’m getting to a point, I promise.  In 2017, game retailers generally agree that most markets are saturated with game (CCG) stores. Opening up a new store in one of these markets and dropping your prices to undercut all the existing businesses doesn’t work. Your competitors have customers and you don’t. They’ve built communities and you haven’t. In building communities they’ve cultivated meaningful relationships that you don’t have. If you’re the one doing the undercutting, your best case scenario is it causes a price war and starves all the businesses of cash until someone closes. This opens space in the market to pick up those existing, most likely disgruntled, customers. For your sake, hopefully they don’t blame you (they probably will).  Unfortunately, in this best case, the newer store without the established base is the one that closes most often. Savvy competitors will essentially ignore you and let you starve yourself out. They also know that once you start to fail you’ll do any number of financially irresponsible or ethically questionable things in an effort to right your ship. You’re not operating in a vacuum, your competitors will react to the things you do. You’re probably not smarter than the last guy and they can probably tell you what you’re going to do next before you do it.

We deal with on average 1 new store per year opening up in our market. They always go with beating our prices as their primary strategy. I don’t know why this is the tactic that everyone thinks is best, but it’s what they all do. They don’t do enough investigation about their competition and why they’re successful, they just look at the prices and say, “I can beat that!”

There have been clubhouses, chains, and well funded start-ups and they’ve all gone belly up. The first time it happened to us we weren’t sure what to do about it. We’d been in business less than a year and were genuinely afraid. This store opened up half a mile down the street and most of our customers had to drive past it to get to us. We ended up doing 2 things after gaining as much information we could about our soon to be competitor; one was a great idea and the other was terrible. First, we worked really hard to make our store better by expanding and adding additional dedicated play space. We weren’t certain we could afford it yet but we felt we had to accelerate our plans and add it a year before we originally intended to. Second, we matched their $2.99 price on Magic boosters. Adding the space was a huge success, price matching probably cost us $10,000 in gross profit. What of this new competitor? No one played there. No one cared about it. Half or more of our players didn’t know it existed. The ones that did disliked the manager and the less than ethical way he ran the store. To our surprise, we’d successfully built a loyal following because of how we ran our business and treated our customers. They didn’t care what we charged for a pack of cards. We gradually increased our price back to $3.99 and we haven’t looked back. I will caveat that by saying that we do offer special pricing by the box or by the case, not crazy lowest common denominator pricing, but fair pricing that allows us to continue supporting our community and stay healthy as a business.

There have been several others to open since our first experience. All of them nice people following their dream of owning a game store. The common thread between them seems to have been a lack of understanding of the market they entered. It’s a well served market and there’s not a lot of room. There are stores 30 minutes to the east, west, and south and sparse population to the north. The best option (and still not great) to open a store in the area is to find an under-served area of Greater New Orleans. What those might be I’m not sure. Logistically it would be a nightmare for us to open on the South Shore so I’ve never looked into it (plus we’ve made some great friends with stores of their own). I highly recommend not marrying yourself to a particular geography. If you want to own a game or comic store then find an under-served market and open there or buy a store that’s already open. You’ll be much happier with the path of least resistance. You might also find that long time retailers you considered making your competition can become your biggest cheerleaders.  We all want a strong healthy game trade after all.

If you do plan to open in a place with competition then you’d better be able to identify an opening in your market or understand from day one that it’s going to be you or them and plan accordingly (shitty, I know). Then you win by operating ethically and being a better store that adds more value to the customer experience (deeper pockets don’t hurt either). Customers aren’t stupid. They’ve seen it all before. Most stores don’t make it 2 years and they know it. They’re not going to make an investment in a new one just because you can save them a couple bucks.

Winning on price does not create customers that will be loyal to you. It drives consumers that are loyal to price to you. If your competitor is doing it right then you’re not going to pry very many customers away from them with a low price strategy. As always – thanks for reading! -Steve

Stephen Smith co-owns Big Easy Comics in Covington, LA with his wife Tracey. A retailer for the past 8 years, he also has a BS in Computer Science and an MBA. While not working on his comic & game store he works as an Enterprise Cloud Architect for a large IT firm.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Thoughts, Part 10

It's the August Slog, same as it ever was in this industry, but a welcome relief from the way I spent last August, working in an empty suite with no air conditioning, finishing primary construction.  My kids are all on cruise control in terms of school drop-offs and pickups, and I'm gradually getting around to all sorts of peripheral work around the shop, such as hanging signage and repairing equipment.

Since I am working on infrastructure (or lugging things from fetch quests around town) and may get dirty, I tend not to dress in staff uniform.  This has the additional benefit of drawing customer and visitor focus away from me.  I'm just the maintenance man, nobody of importance.  My staff is becoming more and more proficient at handling daily activity without needing intervention from me, except on those exasperating days when everything is an exception.  Eliminating those exceptions is central to my process crafting right now.  Until the exceptions are within the range of what managers on site can virtually always handle, I can never truly step away.

A side result of this is that I pay a lot of visits to vendors and like such, and this time of year I'm in shorts and a dry-weave tee shirt.  You could be forgiven for thinking I am an unemployed slacker.  I definitely look the part.  When I worked in state government, it was business casual every day unless I had to appear at a hearing or council meeting of whatever kind, in which case it was full business dress.  I hate monkey suits, but that's probably because I have always lived in Arizona.  If we were in a cold climate, a suit wouldn't bother me nearly as much because it at least is compatible with white-collar work in an environment where cotton/linen dress keeps the wearer warm without unduly impeding activity.  Here in the Land of Scorching Heat, especially if you have to do anything outdoors, any formal wear is just an itchy, irritating sweat collector and self-baking oven, and ties quickly constrict.

My staff, however, has embraced the challenge.  Once a week it's Fancy Friday, and they dress to the nines.  A couple of them go full three-piece with vests and chains.  It makes FNM take on something of an upscale nightclub aesthetic.  Jake puts smooth jazz on the A/V system and we're a decorative lighting deployment away from people asking us to send a server over with a rum and Coke.  It seems like it shouldn't be that effective, but it absolutely is.  One time I had some obligation for Friday dinner and returned to the store at like 9pm, and just walking in was an eye-opener.  It's like, this place is electric.  The glow of the arcade games and pinball tables, the murmur of gamers in their matches, the eclectic instrumental music, it works.  This makes me remind myself when I'm out shopping or running errands to be alert for opportunities to buy up fixtures, decor, and other assets that can amplify and augment the effect.

I don't get how Gale Force Nine can keep buying licenses when they can't keep demanded product in stock.  They just got the license to bring Frank Herbert's Dune to the tabletop, and Dune is only the greatest science fiction novel of all time so that's IP with some juice behind it.  But here we are perpetually unable to get D&D spell cards, which GF9 is the licensee to produce for rightsholder Wizards of the Coast.  How much money would I be making with those spell cards as always-in-stock items?  If only Wizards themselves had the capability to print cards.  I guess we'll never know.

The current generation of video game systems finally arrived at DSG.  Until last week we had never had a Nintendo Switch traded in, and we had gone months without any Playstation 4 or Xbox One consoles.  All three arrived within days of one another, and the Switch lasted mere hours on the shelf.  I'm especially happy about the X-Bone because it's the "X" model, which if it's not sold by the time I actually get a 4K television, is going to become my own.  The kids can have my X-Bone S.  I haven't been deep in the video game side of the trade for long enough to know by the scent on the wind whether it's trade-in time or buy-out time, but with the vast increases in current-gen software walking in the door, I'm happy regardless of the reason.  Even though GameStop pays so low on buys, the one across the street vacuums up a lot of the area trade fodder simply by mass-market prominence.  People know it's there.  I need them to learn that we're here too.

Dungeons & Dragons is beyond red-hot and white-hot at this point.  It's incendiary hot.  Every week now I order so much product for it, between dice and sourcebooks and minis and table mats and everything else, that I swear I've finally done too much and I'm going to be sweating sales the whole way, and every week it turns out it's still not enough and we need more.  We are now in perpetual shortage of dungeon masters and there is demand for paid games seven days a week, of which we've managed to arrange six days (so far) of coverage.  This amazing development has made it easier to bid farewell to organized play for a handful of games where players had largely stopped participating, and we're able to allocate that table space and staff focus to RPGers instead.  X-Wing, Dragon Ball Super, Cardfight, Weiss, Force of Will, and the FFG LCGs all hit the chopping block this month.  There's still some product on the shelf, but we don't see supporting events as a sound business move at this point for those games.  Not when D&D is on fire, Warhammer is up, Magic is up, and Pokemon is up.  It's the ebb and flow of the business, it happens.  Some players took the news better than others, but we accept that there was going to be some disappointment and we're sorry about that.

Speaking of topics that upset people.  Politics are banned at DSG; the store is an escape from the grind, not another venue for it.  But as a business we are still affected by politics on a macro level.  The acrimony surrounding the hotly contested presidential election of 2016 depressed retail overall and hurt us significantly.  Regardless of whose side someone was on, it was such a bitter experience that it put a lot of people in no mood to spend money on entertainment.  Our 2017 had an underwhelming holiday season, but I chalk that up more to our having newly moved the store, online retailers dumping more than ever before, and an underwhelming slate of seasonal new releases industrywide, with too few hits and too many SKUs overall.  There wasn't as much happening last winter in politics.

Now in 2018, we have a midterm election year, and the President's party usually takes it on the chin in midterms, and that's more or less expected this year as well.  Should the Democrats in fact gain ground, the Republicans will be bummed out but they knew it was coming and they'll manage to make it through another day.  Should the Republicans somehow outperform projections, the Democrats will be upset but will settle down as it becomes clear their situation remains largely no worse than it has been for two years now.  As long as there isn't particularly nasty news throughout October that pisses everyone off, the outcome shouldn't affect holiday spending that much the way it did in 2016.

Elections aside, whoever's in the White House has a figurehead effect on business, even if they don't do much in terms of policy.  Right now, firearms dealers are two years into the "Trump Slump;" people are buying fewer guns because they aren't afraid of having their existing guns taken away.  Gun shop owners may skew Republican, but for business purposes they vastly preferred President Obama.  They couldn't have asked for a better pitchman to drive purchase urgency.  Conversely, Old Media is enjoying what it calls the "Trump Bump;" the daily antics of the President's administration give them virtually endless fresh content, and thus subscriptions are up and advertising revenue is up.  By comparison, when Obama was in office, the Republican Congress wasn't as appealing a villain and didn't drive subs, ratings, or clicks as strongly.

Is the hobby game industry Bumped or Slumped by Trump?  As it happens, in the United States it's probably a push, but in Canada, a set of retaliatory tariffs on a wide variety of goods has sharply increased the price of Magic: the Gathering cards starting this month, and you'd better believe Canadian store owners of every political inclination would like to give the President a maple-hockey-donut punch right in his face.  The sudden, arbitrary, and capricious tariff program that went into effect this year has been one of those rare times when there is broad agreement across political parties that it's a bad idea and is going to hurt business.  We may hope that whatever happens in the midterms provides an open window for Congress to reverse course, whether a Democratic majority's prerogative or a Republican majority that feels free to defy Trump after beating electoral expectations.

Either way, I hope they can sort something out before what may prove to be a gigantic release slate this fall, with the latest installment of the Ravnica saga taking place simultaneously for Magic and D&D, a crossover of such magnitude as has not been seen since DC and Marvel did those mash-up magazines back in the day.  I can't wait.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Time Enough at Last

In a Facebook group the other day, there was a discussion about how ROM piracy enforcement is starting to get harsher and harsher, ranging from outright litigation from publishers to prosecution by authorities to getting cut off by local ISPs for excessive downloading.  There are ways around a lot of this, of course.  You can Tor Browser your way into a limited range of anonymity.  The various repositories migrate and re-open, fueled by malware dollars and porn banner ads.  If you're bound and determined to acquire content without paying for it, it can still be done, for a while longer at least.

It struck me as I read through the discussion that I no longer bother pirating... well, anything really, but in particular, I no longer bother pirating ROMs, and I really had to think about it to realize when that transition occurred and what prompted the decision.  And this is saying something, because let me tell you, I basically spent decades pirating everything.  I was the very definition of a digital hoarder.  BBSing on the HST in the '90s, Napster and Limewire and Morpheus at the turn, Bittorrent thereafter, and no CTO box ever seemed to have storage options enough.

Thinking back, it was easy to remember when I stopped pirating other things.  Law school in 2004 was the end of computer software piracy for me.  My entire future depended on me being able to use tools like Microsoft Office with no compromises and no excuses.  I was still a PC fellow at the time so there were only a handful of apps I needed, but they were expensive and crucial.  I made a decision that I had enjoyed my fun as a computer hobbyist, downloading "LeEt WaReZ" when there was nothing at stake, but my professional career demanded legitimacy, and if I was going to make a living using these tools, I owed their creators, fair and square.

Music and movies lasted slightly longer.  Bottom line, I wanted to listen to all the music a few times, and I only wanted to pay for "keepers" among my favorite bands or movies, in the form of my CD and DVD collection.  This is a quibble.  It wasn't right.  In 2008, when Alexandra was born, I decided I wanted to be setting the right example for the kids.  By this time I was also a student of Objectivism and I believe in the value of compensating people for the enjoyment they provide me.  It didn't hurt that technology was offering a hassle-free content library that worked seamlessly across an ecosystem; 2007 had marked my migration from Windows to OS X, and I celebrated by spending absurd amounts in iTunes.  I own proper copies of most of what I consume, I subscribe to services that provide the rest, and if you see a song in my library that I haven't bought one way or the other, odds are it's simply not available at any price, and I stand willing to purchase it if that should change.

My console ROM collecting went on somewhat longer.  There haven't been above-board options for most such consumption, as a lot of it is rare or in some cases fully unobtainable legitimately.  But ultimately, I turned away from that as well, around the beginning of this decade, and now I remember how that went down.

Essentially, it became pointless to pirate ROMs when the ultimate payoff, entertainment through gameplay, became more readily attainable legitimately than illicitly.

ROM piracy wasn't always emulation, of course.  Back in the 1990s, when the Super Nintendo reigned supreme, those who knew where to ask were able to get devices called console copiers.  The Super Wild Card and Super UFO were the most popular models at the time.  They sat in the cartridge port of a SNES and allowed games to be played from ROM images saved to 1.44MB floppy disks.  If you borrowed or rented a game, you could copy the ROM from the cartridge to disk right there on the spot.  The largest carts back then took up two or three disks.  Later versions had ZIP disk support and ultimately just USB connections so you could leave everything on your PC's hard drive.  Years later it got even easier: flash memory cards were big enough to hold everything, and the console copier was superseded by the "flash cart," playing ROMs on the original hardware via a passthrough cartridge as though the original media was being used.

If the above sounds suspiciously like the emulation you already know about, that's not an accident.  Emulation grew out of what had begun as simple storage spoofing.  Computers at the time couldn't effectively emulate consoles, because you needed a computer of far greater power to run a virtual machine as a subprocess and produce a decent result.  But by the end of the decade, reasonably functional software like NESticle and SNES9x and MAME existed that allowed the games to be run on a computer directly.  Typically you'd be stuck using keyboard controls or the subpar PC joysticks of the time, but the bottom line was that you could play games without paying for them.  Lots of games.

Like typical ROM collectors, at one point I had enough video games stored and ready for play via emulation that I could spend multiple lifetimes doing it and still not reach the end.  It was an orgy of plenty that could scarcely have been approximated in human history.  The internet is endless content, of course, but this was endless gated content, endless admission to an endless festival.  It was easy to see why so many people, including me, found software piracy so appealing.  And within a few years, computers could emulate much newer systems with ease.

So I basically had free entertainment forever.

And then, somehow, just like I do with all kinds of things, I let it turn into work.

I don't mean DSG; the store has nothing to do with emulation and won't even carry products that are tailored toward it.  I mean that in order to maintain these vast, always-ready catalogs of video games for every system and every variant and every piece of hardware on which they might run, and dodging The Man the entire time doing it, I was using up inordinate amounts of time and attention collecting new release ROM dumps, installing new versions of emulator executables, testing and making sure things still worked, updating and testing firewall software, torrent software, Tor, and everything else, and on and on.

So before long, I realized I was spending more time and effort preparing to play video games for all eternity than I would actually spend just paying for games I wanted to play, and then playing them.  Then, later, I could pay for the next game I wanted to play, and so on, lather rinse repeat.  And by doing this I could let it be the publisher's problem about making it work properly on my hardware or it needed a new patch or whatever.  And that I could do this for the rest of my natural life here on this earth and still not come close to running out of ready and available content.  They'll keep making more.  And I could do it in the light of day without having to hide behind a grip of IP proxies before navigating over to The Pirate Bay.

And what's more, used retro video games are amazingly affordable.  I can pick up systems from the 32-bit era and play some of the best titles around for a pittance.  It's such a friendly consumer landscape that I literally make part of my living providing it.  I bought a used PS2 just so I could revisit titles like Vandal Hearts and Gran Turismo 4 and Katamari Damashii.  I finally had a Sega Master System come in and I'm going to re-enable the hidden FM sound channel and fire up some Phantasy Star for old time's sake.  I'm going to savor it.

So at the core of my realization was that: beyond being morally right, consuming video games via legitimate means instead of through ROM piracy was actually the superior experience.  So much so that I quickly found my cache of available legitimate content outpacing my ability to consume it, which had been the original attraction of ROMs and emulation.

The above theory is proving out: Right this moment I have more things sitting on my Xbox Live account that I have not played, or haven't touched for more than a few starting levels, than I have games I've played exhaustively, by a ratio of many times over.  My Gamerscore has a pile of points from the likes of the Rock Band series and Ori and the Blind Forest, and then a whole bunch of 50/1400 and 0/750 scores from the scads of games I swore I'd get back to when I got around to it.  This includes a bunch of retro games that I bought for the convenience of having them on my X-Bone (or the Xbox 360 before it) despite being perfectly capable of playing them in an emulator for the past ten to fifteen years or longer.  Same with the Nintendo Virtual Console.  I think I've actually purchased Super Metroid and Super Mario 64 at least a dozen times across different media and systems, including Japanese originals, preferred for speed running.  We own around 50 physical games at any one time across the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS in disc or card form, and I barely play a fraction of them.  (The kids do somewhat better.)

The irony has to be making Nintendo and Microsoft smile.  Before, I played games without paying for them.  Now I pay for games and I barely (or never) end up playing them.

Oh, and I can't really speed run anymore.  In the classic Twilight Zone episode referenced by the article title, Henry Bemis has a post-apocalypse library all to himself, but breaks his glasses and can no longer read.  Much the same way, I now have legit access to all the games I care to play, but I am getting older and my nerves are shot.  I can't perform the cleanest and most precise moves necessary.  I know what to do and when to do it, I can master the run routing, but my hands refuse to obey my brain's commands in real time, so getting onto today's leaderboards is an unrealistic expectation.  I enjoy watching the speed runs now, enjoying the achievements of those who are pushing the envelope and playing mistake-free football and entertaining me while they do it.  YouTube is changing passive viewing entertainment and this is just one minuscule facet of it.

I still have some flash carts that get used to test hardware more than anything else.  My kids mostly want to play Minecraft and that's cloudware like everything else on the leading edge.  Ah, the kids.  That's the other piece of this equation.  My family.  My wife who I never have enough free time to spend with, and my kids who I never have the energy to keep up with.

I think about all the time I spent making sure I had the latest bullsh*t JRPG ROMs translation-patched, which I'll grant was back when I was a single idler, and I resent that I don't have that time back now to spend sitting on a tropical beach with Stephanie, listening to the surf and drinking sweet beverages and enjoying the bliss.  I think about all the money I spent on adapters and drives and storage and specs and so on to keep this digital library that nobody cared whether I was keeping, and I resent that I don't have that time now to spend hiking through beautiful mountain wilderness with Greg, Evey, and Allie.  And it's not just the notion of vast, exotic vacations, either.  I'd be delighted just to be able to spend the time teaching my kids to play musical instruments, or watching mystery shows with Steph, or taking the entire crew for a great dinner out, or what have you.  It's not too late, but so much time has already elapsed.

And now as my collection of purchased iTunes Media has grown truly massive and the XBL and VC purchased game collections are sufficient to meet the greater share of the our family consumption, let alone the physical media we still own, I find myself in this gradual toboggan ride down where I get onto my computer, poke through the old directories, find a bunch of MKV files of movies I just don't care if I ever find time to watch, and I delete them unseen.  Or a bunch of downloaded ISOs for one system or another that I'm just never going to bother trying to burn and modchip and screw with, so let's get those gigabytes back.  Or I'll raid the bookshelf for games with a layer of dust on them and just trade them in to the store for resale.  I'll probably upset a lot of people from my old #ytsejam days by admitting that I deleted most of the bootleg concert recordings I had collected.  I just don't listen to them, and I got tired of curating the library around them.  I'm still holding onto my collection of rare music videos and concert videos, since even with the reality of modern YouTube, a lot of it is still not circulating publicly, and if I tried to upload it to YouTube it would get me shut down on copyright strikes.  I'll surely find some way to bequeath and offload it all to "the world" eventually and then I can watch on demand the same as everyone else.  And sure enough, the amount of time I spend having anything to do with emulation is now essentially zero.

I will never stop loving video games, of course.  Unlike tabletop, which I take no joy in right now because of burnout from work, I still find myself able to steal a spare hour and savor Ori or Street Fighter or Metroid or Castlevania.  But mostly?  I find that there aren't enough hours in the day, or days in the week, or years left in my life, to endlessly tinker with the mechanisms of hoarding illicit content, never mind its appeal to the autism endorphins.  Life is just so much better than that.  I can have all the fun for a fraction of the effort if I'm willing to fork over some dollars of money to parties that, bottom line, are entitled to that compensation in the first place.  It makes piracy as such seem even pettier in hindsight, a pursuit undertaken by the oblivious and entitled gamer/viewer/listener.  The Spanish Proverb proves true again: "Take what you want, and pay for it."

I wish I had achieved that epiphany back when I had the time, youth, and health to spare.