Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Retail: Who Needs It?

Sean Fannon is shining a thousand-watt smile over at the Forge talking about his great new idea of indie press games getting to consumers via the all-important step of retail outlets. And I'm thinking to myself, "When is the last time I went to a local game store?" and I seriously can't remember. The second question, "When was the last time I actually bought something from the local game store?" is even deeper back in my murky memory. Blue Rose, I think? Like, over a year ago?

(I occasionally go to Borders and flip through the new World of Darkness stuff, because it amuses my curiousity to see how exactly they're butchering their own games and selling them again as new product, but as I've no interest in buying or playing any of it, I don't count this as the same activity as really going to the game store. It's more like watching the monkeys at the zoo.)

Admittedly, I'm not playing as much as I'd like, but that's due to factors other than the proximity of a game store (I think -- maybe I'm deficient in my exposure to FLGS rays). I've only rarely met gamers at a store that I later played with (although for a year or so in Santa Barbara there was a disturbing trend of finding people I already knew at the game store). So maybe I'm not the best person to be saying this, but I'm wondering whether the retail outlet is really that important to the larger gamer culture any more.

Used to be (they tell me) that the local game store served as a sort of nexus of gamers. They ran demos, they had a corkboard with current games, you met people browsing the racks, right? Gamers met gamers at game stores. Game stores were also the primary distribution point of new games for the gamer market. They had the catalog from Alliance, they knew what was coming out, and most importantly, they had the books to sell. They had the whole line (sometimes) so you could see how much 'support' the game had. (Tangent -- we defined support for a game by the number of books we could buy to tell us how to play the game. Funny in retrospect, huh?) Now, I worked at and ran a game store for about a year, back in the day, and I took my role as Guy Who Tells Customers About Games very seriously. That was the whole raison d'etre of the game store, right? Except now the local game store is being superceded at all those functions.

If I want to know about upcoming games from publishers I'm aware of, I go to their website. If I want to know about upcoming games from publishers I'm not aware of, the Forge and RPGnet (and a dozen other sites) will tell me about them, too, after which I can follow up with my own research. I can see how much real support a game has, not in terms of products, but in terms of forum communities and the accessibility of the game's designer. Not only is the internet taking over those informative functions, but it does it with far more utility -- the web is right here (at home and work), not across town, the web is not dirty and smells funny, there are no crazy gamers that I have to deal with (we still have our crazies, they're just easier to ignore online), and there is a blessed plurality of voices instead of the game store worker's single biased viewpoint.

If I want to buy a new title, I do the same thing -- I buy from the website (or Con). I am not subjected to the proclivities of orders, shipments, or a game store's inability to maintain credit with distributors. If the title I want is PoD, there isn't even the possibility of 'out of stock' issues hampering my will. Maybe I don't get to hold the product in my hand, but I don't really need to, given the glut of information available online. Chances are I can find two or three physical descriptions of the product from relatively neutral sources, so production values do not need to be seen to be known.

Not that I ever found pick-up groups at game stores, but if I wanted to get a pick up group going, I wouldn't do it there, these days. Clinton's FindPlay is not the first project of its kind, but it is the best I've seen so far. There are also various Meet Up groups and the like, and here's the thing: they're getting better and better, more sophisticated and more accurate. I know a fully detailed, precision-based service that can attract a pool of registered users is still a bit out of our grasp right now (the effort necessary would require commercial support, in terms of subscriptions or advertising), but how long until something that cool can be created, like FindPlay, in an afternoon?

Just me, or are our hallowed Favorite Local Game Stores of increasing insignificance?

Now, this is just the tip of the iceberg for a lot of other stuff in my head right now, the first step down a path regarding thinking about our entire gamer culture differently. If game stores aren't our foundation anymore, aren't the central node for how we interact with the hobby, how does that shake out the shape of the hobby as a whole? Combine that with shifting social structures in games (especially in the player-GM relationship), and I'm increasingly wondering how much the shape of roleplaying is changing.

Quickie dirty poll: when was the last time you visited your FLGS? Did you buy your last game product from a retail outlet, or direct?


At 10:59 AM, Blogger Elliot Wilen said...

Last time visited: some time in the last four weeks, depending on whether I was browsing at Games of Berkeley or (mirabile dictu) gaming at It's Your Move. (Boardgame, not RPG.)

Last time I bought somethng at a game store: probably in August, when I picked up Kill Doctor Lucky at Gamescape.

All of my recent RPG purchases have either been direct from the publisher (one indie game), via the online secondary market (eBay and used book dealers), or at local used book stores.

At 3:41 PM, Blogger Bankuei said...

Exactly. The 3 gamestores in my area are beginning to realize their position. I go in, look around, and if it's a "semi-mainstream" game, maybe I'll ask to see if they have it ("Iron Heroes?"), and if they don't, then I just order direct.

They ask me if I want to special order it, and I ask, "Why? It'll take just as long if not longer than if I order direct, costs the same or more, and instead of having it show up at my doorstep, I need to come to your store..."

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Ron Edwards said...

Hi five.

I visit the local game store about once a year. I try to buy something independent every time.

But those racks are looking just about the same, time after time.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

To make some vague effort at being fair, game stores trying to introduce new players to new games is a great idea, and would be great if it happened, but I don't see it happening.

The big question, then, is how gaming functions without the FLGS. Not 'how will we ever cope?!?' but 'what have we been doing this entire time, and how can we do it better?

At 8:15 PM, Blogger Bankuei said...

Joshua Newman (glyphmonkey) and I had an interesting PM discussion considering the viability of local game clubs- not unlike many other hobby groups (Go, board games, martial arts, even...wargames!), where the focus is local, grassroots, and self-sustaining.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Last week. I bought product there. Before that it was a week before that, and I both bought product there and sold a copy of one of my products there. Before that it was a month, I didn't buy anything, but I did talk about Game of Thrones with some kids who seemed hyped when I told them there was an RPG coming out for the setting.

I'm in the middle of a major urban center with at least four different FLGS in the region. They're all pretty sharp and competative, but all carry only the mainstream stuff. No copies of Sorcerer on shelves here, consarn it.

But even with all that, I do not go to stores to find out about product nor to meet new players. Of course, I "work" in the "industry" so one would expect that I'd know more than the FLGS guys. But even most of the casual gamers I know these days knows more about games they care about than FLGS guys -- because of the interwebs, of course.

As for finding new gamers, I mostlty do that through gamers I already know or the interwebs. I think most folks do. The only hookups I've ever seen at the FLGS in the area are CCGers hooking up and talking about tournament play. I have not seen RPGers hook up with new groups at a FLGS since... jebus... Firebase in Lancaster. For reference, they went out of bussiness 9 years ago.

The biggest thing I don't see anymore is people running open, short, and focused games at FLGS anymore. Remember the newb I talked about a few months back? How cool would it have been to be able to link him up with a game at one of the FLGSes in the area?

But no. There is CCG play at the 401, and Game of Thrones tournies at the Game Keeper -- but there aren't a lot of RPGs run at any of them. And the one I saw like 2 years ago was a long standing game with all seats filled full of D&D diehards.

I do think there could be a place for FLGSs, an important one. They still could be something: if they had open, encouraged, friendly table games that were well advertised and designed to help people learn to play. Things like the old D&D games Mo used to play when she was 8. (How often do you see 8 year olds in FLGS style games anymore? And we wonder why kids aren't getting into the hobby. Here's a hint... only a small part of it is because of computer games.)

But that said, I don't know of any that are doing it.

At 2:28 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

I do think there could be a place for FLGSs, an important one. They still could be something: if they had open, encouraged, friendly table games that were well advertised and designed to help people learn to play.

Yeah, but I don't see a profit in it, so I don't find it likely that any business is going to do it. Used to be that sort of thing increased foot traffic into the store, but there are easier and cheaper ways to do that. My last FLGS in Santa Barbara gave up on games when they figured out they could do signings of genre teevee pseudo-celebrities every weekend. However, that same sort of function can be fulfilled by the game clubs that Chris mentions, which have an incentive to proselytize -- more players.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Martin Ralya said...

For your poll:

I last visited my FLGS 2 or 3 months ago, and didn't buy anything. The last time I bought something there was...maybe 5 months ago, and I don't remember what I bought.

The last gaming book I bought was Trinity, and in fairness I called my FLGS first since it's OOP and they carry used books, but they didn't have it. So I went the Amazon route.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Frank said...

Ok, so I'm the odd apple in the bunch... I go to my FLGS on average more than once a week. Of course it's only slightly out of the way between work and home, and I can make a quick stop and be home in less than an hour.

My purchasing habits there depend on what I'm currently running. When I've been running D20 Arcana Evolved, I've purchased more. When I'm running something homebrew or off the wall, I purchase less (though I have been regularly purchasing D&D miniatures since I like using miniatures and don't have time to paint).

There are two other stores, plus the game section in the independent book store that I check on a once a month or so basis. One of those game stores plus the indie book store (which has two locations I frequent) are really good for buying used games.

I wish more of the indie games were available in the stores. I like to look something over before buying. Also, the possibilities of having the store owner let you know about other potential games would be nice (not that that happens).

Since my early gaming mostly happened at games clubs, I'll definitely vouch for the advantages of them. Unfortunatley, from what I can tell, the internet, combined with the increased acceptance of gaming, has all but killed the games club.

In high school, I gamed at MITs club which was open to non-students and welcomed kids. This was a great opportunity to find players and have opportunities to try out different games (not that there were that many games back in the 70s). In college (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), the games club was an extended social group, with gamers meeting in the student union almost every day (both at lunch time and in the evening).

The trend in indie games for shorter games lasting less than 10 sessions would be ideal for a club environment.


At 4:15 PM, Blogger John Kim said...

For what it's worth, I visit my local game store about once a month. Mine has got a pretty good selection and I can order pretty much anything through them. Few indie games on the shelves, and essentially none of the Forge indie games.

I've never successfully connected up with other gamers via games in a game store or postings there. I have seen people playing in it, though, and I'm thinking of trying such for some kids who are interested.

At 6:48 AM, Blogger andrew said...

I've actually found a new FLGS recently, and impulse bought two Forge games off the shelf in the last month (DitV and Sorcerer). Bt even for a store that has an entire seperate wing (easily 800sqft) dedicated to open play, the only RPGs that I've seen run are long-term D&D or tournament style SW d20.

But, honestly, I don't think they really knew what to do with those games.


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