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NY Toy Fair 2012: Hobby Becomes Mainstream, and Vice Versa

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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On Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, I blazed through New York Toy Fair in seven hours and undoubtedly missed dozens of new games on display at the show. I plan to follow up with the contacts listed on the flyers and catalogs and postcards that I scooped up while whirlwinding through the aisles, and I'll scan Toy Fair's virtual press site again to look for publishers and games not already covered in the 2012 NY Toy Fair Preview that I compiled for BGG.

That said, I'm more interested in discussing two broad subjects related to the U.S. game market, both of which came up in multiple conversations with publishers during NY Toy Fair, than particular games, so let's talk about that first, then get to the games in later posts.

Us 1 :: Them 10,000

Subject #1 is the dichotomy at the heart of the U.S. game industry. No, I'm not talking about the tired Eurogame vs. Ameritrash debate. That topic is trite and meaningless, of interest only to those who bathe in minutiae that's irrelevant and invisible to those outside the hobby.

Instead I'm talking about the division of the market between hobby and mainstream game releases, and consequently the division of gamers into hobbyists and the public at large. Hobbyists follow game release schedules, study designers and publishers and the style of games they release, discuss game trends, and build a mental image of the game industry that includes them as an essential part of it. Joe Public, on the other hand, buys a game, plays it with friends or family, has a good time, then puts it away and doesn't obsess over it.

In case you didn't already know, the number of Joe Publics in the world is vastly more than you could ever imagine.

Hobby, Mainstream or Both?

In late 2011 at Toys R Us, after searching in vain for new Cars diecast figures with my son, I visited the store's game section and was surprised by this selection:

Progress?


To be clear, I was not surprised by either the Jersey Shore Trivia Game or yet another version of Jenga, but rather by the presence of the comparatively meaty Jungle Speed between those foamy pieces of game breading. Jungle Speed in Toys R Us? Neat, I thought. Hope that goes well for Asmodee.

Then shortly afterward I saw Jungle Speed on sale at the mainstream department store Target, then at a different Target, then at multiple Barnes & Noble bookstores, and finally at Walmart. How is this possible, I wondered? This little game – this decade-old design that's been kicking around hobby stores – is suddenly all over the place.

At NY Toy Fair, I asked Stefan Brunell from the U.S. branch of Asmodee about this, and he said that success came after finally realizing that the U.S. market is not like those in France and Germany. In those countries, he explained, games are sold in retail outlets of all sizes, and games percolate up from small stores and tiny print runs to medium-sized, then large retail outlets. Games prove themselves over time, then earn a spot in a larger retail arena, then move up again, and so on. (Many games, of course, never graduate to larger outlets, or they advance a bit but then stagnate.)

The U.S. market, by comparison, has no middle ground; every retailer is either big or tiny, so there's no middle ground by which games can become known over time. "Even something like Funagain," says Brunell, is tiny. Thus, publishers need to recognize this division and pitch their games to the large players directly. Asmodee finally did this with Jungle Speed, and the result is that game appearing in mainstream outlets across the country and more copies being sold in the U.S. in three months than in the previous ten years. (In March 2010 on Boardgame News, I had linked to an article in Air le Mag (via Filosofia) that mentioned annual Jungle Speed sales of 200,000 copies. That total was for worldwide sales; Brunell expects Jungle Speed sales in 2012 in the U.S. alone to far surpass that number.)

That success with Jungle Speed has been mirrored in other mainstream retail outlets with other games. The original Munchkin game was added to two dozen Target stores in April 2011 as a test sales program ten years after the game's original release (and domination of sales charts in hobby stores), and sales went so well that by January 2012 the game was available in nearly all 1,500 Target locations. So as with Jungle Speed, a game once thought of as hobby-specific has gone mainstream in terms of its availability – with nothing being changed in the game play itself.

Barnes & Noble has also become an influencer in the general game market. One publisher at NY Toy Fair mentioned that when B&N picks up a title, it orders a thousand copies in one shot – which is a huge number for publishers used to handling print runs that consist of only a few thousand copies in total. Another publisher explained that B&N requested changes in box size (but not the game play) so that the titles would have more shelf presence in their stores, the goal being to have offerings at multiple price points in each game category it carries.

B&N also carries a handful of different Munchkin standalone games. Matt Morgan at MTV Geek interviewed B&N reps in October 2011 about their approach to game selection, and one said, "I'm continued to be blown away by Munchkin." That same article explained that B&N reps rushed to get Fantasy Flight's Civilization board game on shelves in time for the 2011 holiday season, and the game sold out and was reordered. With "at least 3 copies in each of [the] 'A' stores" and 450 'A' stores in the B&N chain, at least 1,350 copies of a complicated hobby game were sold at MSRP to the public at large. B&N also carries (and presumably sells) Gears of War, Agricola, 7 Wonders, Arkham Horror, Days of Steam, Empire Builder, and other titles normally thought of as fairly involved and designed for hobby gamers.

All of which makes me think that the difference between hobby and mainstream game releases might be less than most gamers perceive it to be. I've long pushed for greater public awareness of designer games; in 2006, for example, I sold a write-up on Reef Encounter to Scuba Diving magazine, sold a review of Primordial Soup to the science magazine Discover, and wrote a regular column on games for the (short-lived) Coffee Magazine. I pitched many more game-related articles to magazines and newspapers in the mid-2000s and had some success, with many, many more rejections. Each success was all about getting the right game in front of the right readership, the right market – although I'd argue that many of the rejections also had the right game for the right market, especially Funny Friends for Rolling Stone. C'mon!

In the end, perhaps the only difference between the majority of hobby and mainstream game releases is where they are sold – and with more outlets carrying more designer games, the line between what's hobby and what's mainstream may continue to blur until the dichotomy has even less meaning than it already does. Whether this will happen or not won't be clear for a couple of years, as those buying Civilization and other "hobby" games via mainstream outlets might have been scared away from buying unfamiliar games – or they might be ready to try something new this holiday season. Time will tell...

Kicking Game Sales into the Mainstream

The other subject under discussion at NY Toy Fair was the emergence – or rather, the growing presence – of Kickstarter as a vehicle for game sales for publishers both large and small. While I've backed a number of Kickstarter projects, I've always held reservations about the Kickstarter process itself for three reasons:

• The risk-shifting involved in the publication process, with a publisher not fronting the money to produce a game but rather using funds from customers to do so. At some level, I want to know that a publisher has invested itself in the success of a game and is putting itself financially at risk so that it is, in a sense, saying, "This is how much trust we have in this game. If it weren't as good as we think it is, we would never have brought it to market?" Yes, I know publishers that use their own funds can deliver terrible games as easily as those using Kickstarter – and however you buy a game, you're at risk of not getting something you like – but still that mental discomfort persists.

• The ease with which awful projects rub shoulders with good ones. I know this shouldn't bother me since a project's awfulness says more about the sponsor than about anyone involved in the gaming community, but I still hate to have others furthering the notion that a slapped-together roll-and-move activity – one intended more for delivering eyeballs to sponsors than for delivering game play to buyers – is what I'm talking about when I talk about games. I'm interested in games as a creative pursuit, as an artistic medium, and while I agree that the primary purpose of a game is to play it, I still enjoy seeing what others create and present as objects unto themselves.

• The knowledge that some day a publisher will take the money and run, delivering nothing to buyers and tainting future possibilities for those who want backing for projects of their own.

All that said, talks with a number of publishers at NY Toy Fair had me thinking about Kickstarter from three new angles, one being from the hobby/mainstream angle that I discussed above. I knew from previous discussions with game industry personnel that game publication projects on Kickstarter attract buyers far beyond the BGG audience – but what I didn't know was how large that mainstream audience is. One publisher estimated that the percentage of supporters not coming to a project through BGG, Tric Trac or other hobby-specific media was 60-80%. One way or another, those outside the normal confines of what we think of as the game hobby are finding out about these projects and backing them – and as I stated above every such purchase blurs the difference between hobby and mainstream games.

Another angle to Kickstarter relates to the risk-shifting I mentioned above. Yes, a publisher using Kickstarter benefits by raising funds to cover the cost of game production – but a related and possibly even more important factor is that the publisher has some way to estimate sales for the game in the marketplace at large and can adjust the print run accordingly. If a game barely clears its funding goal, the publisher can cut publication numbers to cover what's needed for the project and basically wash its hands of the game, forgetting about long-term profit to satisfy its immediate obligations, then move on. If a game has more support than anticipated – or support from unexpected locations – the publisher can figure that it underestimated the game's potential and boost the print run accordingly.

Why is this practice important? Because game retailers – both brick-and-mortar stores and online sellers – have traditionally been terrible at placing preorders, leaving publishers in the dark as to how many games to produce.

Asmodee's Stefan Brunell mentioned this during our talk. In late 2011 Asmodee brought it roughly two thousand copies of Eclipse, despite not having preorders to justify that amount, and blew through all the copies immediately. Now Asmodee has an Eclipse reprint of 5,000 copies scheduled for release in the U.S. in May 2012. Brunell says that his bosses balked initially because retailers and distributors still weren't placing reserve orders to justify a print run that large, but he convinced them to do it anyway. What's changed in the intervening weeks between the time that reprint order was placed and today? Eclipse has hit large, everyone wants it, retailers and distributors have finally placed preorders – and now those 5,000 copies are already sold out at the publisher level, with another reprint in the works. If retailers and distributors had done their homework when the game debuted at Spiel 2011 in October and placed orders accordingly, both the initial shipment and the reprint would be larger, and everyone would have a better chance of getting the game. (That said, gamers also tend to be negligent when it comes to placing preorders, and their preorders drive those of retailers and others down the line.)

The third angle relevant to Kickstarter taking on a bigger role for publishers relates to the Kickstarter projects being relatively inexpensive marketing for the games themselves. An active project gets people talking about a game, reading the rules, asking questions, looking for artwork, and so on – all of which brings games to the attention of retailers and distributors, in addition to those who would buy the game directly. One publisher at NY Toy Fair said that while you might think that distributors would be upset by sales lost directly to Kickstarter buyers, they are instead happy that Kickstarter advertises the game more effectively than a sell sheet or a description in their catalog, thereby getting gamers excited about the game and retailers eager to support something that already has a presence in the market. Kickstarter does the work that a distributor might otherwise need to do – or might not do at all, which would leave the game gasping for air among a crowd of indifferent retailers.

Like it or not, more publishers will be using Kickstarter for more games in the years to come, both for off-the-wall projects that might have a seemingly small audience and for otherwise "normal" games that you'd expect to see available through all the regular outlets anyway. As for what those titles will be, watch this space for details!
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