Thursday, January 6, 2011

But where will we loiter?

When you think SMOGging, you think long diatribes about the state of the industries, the well-being of individual companies, the ways in which specific games play... in other words, you tend to think length, as in these people tend to have a lot to say.

For that reason, you tend NOT to think of Twitter.

But interestingly, there's been some talk going on there, generally centered on #philipjreed which has import on the future of gaming. Like for instance, where people have been buying their games and whether print or PDF is preferred. And a little bit on what effect this will have on the production of future games. And the hobby in general.

140 Characters should be enough ...oh hell, no it isn't.

Because it's happening on Twitter, though, it's happening very, very slowly. There have been a few interesting take-away points, though.

Take for instance his print vs. PDF straw poll. Given that he took it on Twitter, which is bleating-edge [sic] technology, you'd expect a strong bias, wouldn't you? I have no doubt we're seeing it, too, but it's nowhere near as pronounced as you'd think. The latest results look like this:

  • 32: Print
  • 15: Both Print & PDF
  • 26: PDF

(Note: Since starting to write this, he has posted about it over on the Steve Jackson Games blog. This is also where I got the revised numbers for the chart above.)

Yes, despite the fact that we're talking about a sample group here that is responding through an electronic social network and would seem to prefer the instant gratification of download delivery, more people still like the tangible dead-tree edition. Taking this poll through a more neutral medium would, I expect, drive the print number even higher.

Other suggestions tossed out on Twitter suggest that the RPG book (in general, I mean, not some specific publication) might go to Print On Demand, or diminish in popularity until it gets reimagined as an art product. Given what I've seen of the POD marketplace so far (which I'll mention in a review I have lodged in the backchannel), it's not quite there yet. In any case, Mr. Reed points out rightly that interesting times are coming, and there will be changes.

All that is well and good, and what we expect of proper SMOGgery. But there's another aspect to the whole "______ is DYING!!!1!" discussion, whether _____ is print or gaming: what happens to the Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS). And that very much does concern me.

The Places Where We Gather

Before Lloyd's of London was an eminently famous insurance market, it was (of all things) a coffeehouse. The story goes that, in the 17th century, Edward Lloyd ran a coffee house in London. It was a popular gathering place for sailors, merchants, owners, and others involved in shipping. Lloyd's coffeehouse became a hub of information about shipping, and soon the shipping folk themselves started congregating there to get news and discuss insurance deals on ships.

There are details in the middle, of course, but here I only wanted to relate how it all began. I might as well mention that the original Starbucks Coffee in Seattle, WA merely roasted and traded in whole beans before they got first into selling coffee in beverage form, and long before they started selling coffee-flavored milkshakes.

The point is, sometimes industries depend on the places where people gather, either to start up from a purely social gathering of like-minded people, or to thrive by giving a lot of like-minded people a place to gather.

And thinking back, I'm having trouble remembering any FLGS that didn't have a space set aside for that Friendly Local Gaming.

On a recent trip to West Virginia with the family, we visited a big-box bookstore which shall remain nameless. (But it wasn't That One. It wasn't That Other One Either.) There, in the coffee shop I saw a group of guys playing D&D. They played there because the FLGS where they used to play had closed. And it should be noted that the bookstore in question had a crap gaming section. Most of those big box stores do, unfortunately.

What happens to the hobby when the hubs for that hobby, those FLGSs, shut down? What happens when there's no longer a place for the fans of that hobby to collect, trade news and gossip, and SMOG?

Things Are Tough And/Or Rosy All Over

The economy is a weird bird these days. A year or two back, the local Wal-Mart got promoted to "superstore" status and moved into a much larger retail space, suggesting that they're doing very, very well. The merely large space that the Wal-Mart occupied? Vacant. The smaller space that the local (J)iffy Lube vacated when it moved into its larger garage? Still vacant. Big businesses are getting bigger. Meanwhile, small and/or niche businesses are staying small or getting smaller. Smaller retail spaces in strip malls and the spaces in between are either treading water or closing.

RPGs are, almost by definition, a niche business. Games are discretionary spending, and in an economy where small businesses are having greater trouble getting by, greater pressures can force them under. Pressures like, for instance, buying PDFs or getting books through online retail rather than the FLGS.

Pressure #1: PDF vs. Print

Right off, I don't care how sophisticated your FLGS is, they don't sell PDFs. They're in the trade of physical books, which means that when you go to a FLGS, what you buy there is a tangible, hold-in-your-hand, dead-tree-edition book.

This is a problem if certain game companies start trading more in PDFs than physical books. I commented in my review of GURPS Low-Tech that GURPS 4th Edition has been cranking out fewer hardcopy books and more PDFs supporting their main line roleplaying game. It's a problem... no, wait. It's two problems.

It's a problem for the retailer at the FLGS because it means that there are fewer products that they can line their shelves with, if they choose to. (See below on why they might not.) Fewer products = fewer reasons to go into the FLGS to do shopping (when you can), and fewer sales = fewer reasons for the FLGS to stay in business, unless they get sales by other means.

It's also a problem for the game company, because fewer hardcopy products = less visibility, and less visibility = fewer people who know the line exists. Fewer players = less reason to continue supporting the line. I cited Steve Jackson Games above where I talk about how most of their GURPS line is PDFs these days. Meanwhile, I hang out at the FLGS and hear people talking up all the latest variations of D&D. Any mention of GURPS is a rare and special treat. All I see from them these days is Munchkin, unless I special-order. (Which is what I did for my GURPS Low-Tech, so there's that.)

Pressure #2: Brick & Mortar Retail vs. Online Retail

Another dimension the discussion has taken is how people buy their books. Do they get them from an online retailer, be they big-box (and I'm looking at you, Amazon) or industry-specific (like Indie Press Revolution or Drive-Thru RPG) online stores?

The FLGS has one advantage: the L for Local. Stop in, and you can browse their selection. Find something you like, leaf through it, and buy if you're happy with it. If you order online, your ability to preview what you buy is sorely limited, unless you read a review first, and even then you're at the mercy of the reviewer.

The online store tends to have competitive pricing; if you can't get a discount on a book through Amazon, you're doing something wrong. And those other specific retailers I mentioned seem to have a lot of sales and specials too.

Pressure #3: Mainstream vs. Long Tail

This could be interpreted as "D&D vs. Everybody Else," although that doesn't take into account the board game trade, which is still fairly brisk. (Interestingly, it's also fairly German, but that's a rant for another time.)

This is another area of challenge where the online retailer commonly eats the FLGS's lunch: selection. No brick-and-mortar store can afford to showcase every game; they typically don't have the resources to keep every game in stock, and they don't have the shelf space to display every possible game. The online retailer can showcase and even sell games when they don't currently have one in stock; as long as they can get it in stock, they can complete the sale.

The Long Tail is a construct of market analysis: the most popular products occupy the "head" of the, uh... I don't know what the analogy of the retail space is properly called, but I hear talk of the big, fat, juicy head at one end and the long thinning tail at the other end, and imagine it's shaped like a tadpole. So, yeah. The most popular products occupy the "head" of the Market Space Tadpole, and the lesser known products, which will still have their followings, occupy spots along the thinner, lesser-known, and not-as-visible "tail".

Both can represent the head well; they're the safest investment for the FLGS because they're the most popular. But as you trail off toward the tail, the advantage swings toward the online retailer, who merely needs to stick a reference on a webpage rather than keep the thing in stock.

This is a dilemma for the FLGS. I can argue that in order for the hobby to thrive, they have to show off more of the tadpole, so to speak, to find things that other people like if they're not necessarily attracted to the head. But at the same time, I acknowledge that it's a riskier investment and could backfire, result in stock that won't move, etc. and if the FLGS chokes on dead inventory, the hobby is also threatened.

I come to you only out of concern! (Not trolling. Really.)

Over the last several paragraphs, I've fretted quite a bit about the FLGS. I still stand by the claim that anyone who publishes an "OMG! _____ IS DYING!!!1!" article should be smacked. I'm not saying the FLGS is necessarily dying, but I am outlining a number of things which could cause it to stumble and/or cough up blood. And if the FLGS goes away, the public places where we play could dwindle and that would be bad for the rest of the hobby.

What can the FLGS do? That would be Armchair Marketing on my part, which makes speculating on that a really good idea for a future IPTD post.


  1. Great article! I'd love to discuss this with you further, as one of the proprietors and champion of Friendly Local Game Stores. Please email me at Myriad[at]MyriadGames[dot]com


    - Dan Yarrington
    Managing Partner
    Myriad Games

  2. This is why I like to read your stuff -- you actually think about what you write. At blogging and posting become easier and more accessible, that quality becomes increasingly rare.