Monday, June 20, 2016

Do miniatures gamers need game stores? Vice versa?

I thought I would share a topic that my gaming colleagues and I have discussed recently on the weekly Hobby Hangout and amongst the local gaming group.

The question arose from recognizing that the miniatures gaming scene in Huntsville resides in homes, as opposed to game-stores.  This state-of-affairs may very well be the case the world over, and it may actually have been the dominant case throughout the history of the hobby.  But Huntsville had a period (before my time here) where there was a relatively thriving scene at game-stores.  And the consensus of the discussion on the Hobby Hangout is that we reached "peak game-store" several years back, and it's been in decline since.  So what gives?

If there is indeed a decline, I think it has been a natural evolution, based on a couple of factors:
  1. Internet sales
    This is perhaps the obvious factor, one that affects all bricks-and-mortar operations.  I have more selection and more convenience to order gaming goodies on-line.  I and many of my gaming colleagues do what we can to support a game store, but the typical game store does not maintain the extent of both old and new inventory that would incite me to visit there.  I've seen stores that are the exception to the rule, but I live nowhere close to those stores.  I imagine that most gamers live too far away from a deeply-stocked game store.
  2. The passing of the Games Workshop monopoly
    When GW was the only game in town (literally), players could go to the game store (even a non-GW game store) for a pick-up game.  But with the variety of games in the marketplace now, it is unpredictable to know what is being played at the game store on any given day.

So, given the lack of incentive to frequent a game store, we knocked around ideas to determine what benefits, if any, would attract players out of the comfort of their own homes and the comfort of their own gaming-groups to play at a game store.  The ideas needed to serve the business interests of the game store as well, in order to generate enough revenue to justify the miniatures portion of the business.  So, for example, I leave out 'maintain extensive inventory'.  I just don't think maintaining deep inventory is a viable value proposition for a game store.   Here's what we came up with:
  1. Game-specific organized events
    This idea helps solve the uncertainty of pick-up games.  If I know that a given game system is scheduled for a specific event, then I know with certainty that the trip to the store will bear fruit.  Furthermore, I have the opportunity to expand my player-base for a given game-system, combined with the "safety" of encountering potential new players in a public space, as opposed to inviting near-strangers to my home.  Players have an opportunity to scope out compatible play-styles before committing to spending time together.  That sounds suspiciously like dating, but, ironically, this hobby requires almost as much social interaction!  Complete with awkward introductions, hasty judgments, disagreements, break-ups -- as well as long-lasting friendships.
  2. High-quality terrain tables
    One of the joys of this hobby is creating a tactile, cinematic spectacle on a tabletop.  To fully achieve that experience requires painted models, and it requires a compelling terrain board as well.  One of the sights at GW Games Day that made the biggest impression on me was seeing the terrain tables that the local clubs had produced.  Beautiful, integrated, thematic tables.  An Ork submarine breaking through an arctic icecap.  A rocky hillside and valley stream for Lord of the Rings.  A Skaven warren with tunnels opening onto an unsuspecting village.  I absolutely itched to play on these tables! 
    Terrain tables are major projects in and of themselves.  And they require some amount of skill to achieve a high-end aesthetic.  And they consume a lot of space.  I would gladly pay a game store to assume all of the time and logistics necessary to provide high-quality terrain tables.
  3. Beer!
    I say that half-jokingly, actually.  Not everyone desires alcohol to accompany their game.  But it's a nice option to have, when you're spending a weekend-afternoon with a bunch of your buddies. 
    That said, this idea forces a different business model upon a game store.  My gaming colleagues and I have a recurring conversation about the emergence and potential future of the "gaming tavern".  But that's really a whole other topic.  It would be nice for a game store to accommodate beer-drinking, but this factor has much lower priority than the others listed, since it's asking for an entirely different business model.  But it's important for a game store owner to be aware that they are competing with the advantages that a gamer enjoys, if he or she hosts games at home. 
    Music falls in this category as well.  Not everyone wants to listen to death metal at a volume that overwhelms your game.  As a funny aside, one of my gamer buddies actually did like death metal.  And he wasn't crazy about the occasional song by Yes or ELO that would slip into my random-play.  The only music that he and I agreed on was jazz.  So it was a little surreal to play Warhammer 40K with Chet Baker playing in the background, but it's what worked for us.
  4. The Basics
    This should go without saying, but, unfortunately, the stereotypical game store demands that the following be explicitly stated.  A game store should be clean, spacious, well-ventilated, well-lit, and clean-smelling -- with friendly, professional staff and clean restrooms.   I have witnessed both ends of the spectrum.  I know that a pleasant, inviting environment is attainable.  And I've certainly encountered the bad stereotype. 
    Layout makes a difference, too.  A curious shopper is not inclined to wade through a gauntlet of gamers just to see what is on the shelves at the back of the store.  If
    Often, the difference comes down to whether the shop-owner wants to be a serious retailer -- or wants to be a hobbyist who dreams of running a game store.

So, to answer the question from the title.  I think 'No' in both directions.

I think the main thing that miniatures gamers miss from game stores is the opportunity to grow the community.  But I think Facebook groups and other social media now fill that void.

Nor do game stores need miniatures gamers.  We're too expensive a proposition, compared to the revenue-per-square-foot that is ensured by selling cards or comics instead.  Boardgames and RPGs, too, probably have a better value proposition, even if you add table-space to accompany those products.  The only cross-over into the miniatures market comes with the hybrid-style skirmish games, like Guild Ball, which require no more table-space than a board game, and which require no significant extended space to store terrain.

I don't think there is a sufficient supply/demand equation that needs to be solved for our hobby by the presence of a game-store.  That said, I would sure like it if a game store provided all those things I listed above, and I would support that game store, and I would promote it to others.  Add a deep inventory and a bar with good food, and they wouldn't be able to get rid of me.

By the way, a couple of game stores come to mind that I can recommend for miniatures gamers:  Games & Stuff in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and The Game Vault in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  At least, they were the shizzle the last time I visited those places a couple of years ago.

So what do you think?  Are game stores relevant to our hobby, or has the industry evolved away from them?


5 comments:

  1. I think the demise of the game store is directly related to the rise of the internet, not in terms of video games, but in relation to community access. The internet makes niche markets and communities possible. It is very difficult for a game store, which is already serving a niche market, to support further subdivisions/specializations of that market. If a store stocked everything needed to support the market as a whole, it would have huge areas of slow moving stock. If stock does not turn, then it is a burden. While I still visit gaming stores, and dream of finding a wonderful one, I've not found a compelling store for years. If a store had amazing terrain enough to make me want to visit and play games there, then it would still have the stock problem. Breadth and Depth in a brick and mortar versus what can be found online is a loosing battle for the store. I think the only model that works is for a gaming store to not really be a gaming store, but instead be a destination that makes money other ways. In this kind of scenario any space that could work as a gaming+cafe store, would better be monetized as something else. I'd love to see a business plan for a hybrid gaming store. It would be interesting to see what people can come up with.

    There is an interesting set of posts on running gaming stores at the RPGNET forums. I found many of these good reads.

    https://www.rpg.net/columns/businessofgamingretail/businessofgamingretail69.phtml

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    1. Yup, I glossed over the 'deep inventory' factor. Like you, I just write that off, out of hand, as a "losing battle", as you say. A game store can't compete with the Internet on inventory alone.

      Kinda funny, if you look at just the first two items in my list as the only services that a game store needs to offer, then you end up with a location that is just filled with terrain tables, which hosts organized play. That's all it does. Kinda like the old slot-car race-tracks of old. My Dad took me to one of those places in New Jersey, when I was wee lad. My memory is fuzzy, but I imagine that slot-car track was probably attached to a bar...

      So, the slot-car venue is an example of a business that accommodates a super-niche market by building infrastructure and dedicating space solely for that hobby. Did it survive? No. But was it because the location didn't make enough money, or was it because slot-cars were a short-lived fad? I dunno.

      Anyway, this conversation is pointing towards the related follow-on topic of the gaming tavern. Maybe I'll write a post to focus on that slant of the discussion. After all, the gaming tavern concept has been a source of recurring debate for our group!

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    2. I'd like to hear from you and Aaron about gaming taverns. I can't come up with any model where a gaming store works inside the beltway, but yet there are stores. Somehow Eagle and Empire survives.

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    3. Managing a discussion between you and Aaron, two of my lead chatterboxes on the Hobby Hangout (Derek being our third), may be beyond the reach of my facilitation skills... ;-)

      I think one thing to consider in the business model is the difference between "within the Beltway" and within D.C. proper. I imagine real estate options are very different between those two zones. But that still brings to question, how does Labyrinth (located in D.C.) stay in business?

      As we discussed in last week's Hobby Hangout, Labyrinth caters to Hill staffers who seek unique gifts (e.g. wooden puzzles) and that Labyrinth really isn't a game store. But that acknowledgement supports your statement that to succeed as a game-store, a game-store needs to be more than a game-store.

      Which brings us full circle to the gaming tavern. So the question is, how does a themed restaurant/bar ensure that it covers the expense of the "dead revenue space" represented by gaming tables?

      Maybe a pool hall is a fair comparison. Pay-by-the-hour pool halls have *a lot* of 'dead revenue space'. But that model has worked for ages. How? The dead space is subsidized by food and alcohol sales.

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    4. Labyrinth is not a proper war-games store. It is a gift store for people on the hill, and stocks interesting puzzles and board games. I think they were very wise to go in that direction. I am interested in hearing you guys discuss the game tavern idea in terms of ROI.

      Pool halls are not terribly common, but they do offer some insights into the problem. First off, they offer a game that most people can not play at home. Second they charge for tables by the hour. Lastly, pool is a game that many people can casually play. I think all three points demonstrate weaknesses in applying the pool hall model to the wargaming community. Players don't want to pay for gaming space when they can play games at home. Couple that with a smaller community with a huge barrier to entry and it looks grim for that business model. I think it would be interesting to listen to you and Aaron discuss this.

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