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Interviews by an Optimist # 12 - D.W. Tripp
D.W. gives this biography of himself...
“I am originally from the great state of Texas. I got started with board games back in the early 60's with the American Heritage series, Broadsides, Dogfight, etc. I also had an early copy of Gettysburg and Tactics II. I moved to England and Spain in the late 60's, leaving me nothing to play but card games. In ‘69 I discovered Blitzkrieg while in Boston and Risk when I moved to California. From there it was SPI, Avalon Hill and a constant diet of conflict simulations peppered with the occasional lighter boardgame fare of the era.
In 1978 I disovered D&D while reading a magazine on a commercial flight. The article was about the financial success of TSR. I later found a DM, and myself and some friends began playing. While I enjoyed role-playing somewhat, it really wasn't all that appealing to me. But the miniatures were of real interest. One friend, a hippie jeweler, and I got together and formed a miniature company in 1979 called Dark Horse Miniatures. We moved to Idaho in 1981 and established Dark Horse Miniatures as a productive and somewhat profitable venture. In 1982 I decided to open a game store under the same name, Dark Horse.
The retail store thrived and in 1984 we obtained a license with the miniature company to manufacture 25mm Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Our license was the first ever granted by the TMNT creators. Sales soared, and we took on a couple of other comic book related licenses including Groo The Wanderer and the Robotech license from Harmony Gold. TMNT, Robotech and Groo were all successful for a couple of years. TMNT in particular sold over a million units before the license expired.
In 1987 I sold my portion of Dark Horse Miniatures to my partner and kept Dark Horse Games. I maintained a "real job" throughout the years 1981 through 1996, training stockbrokers, selling Mercedes-Benz and selling corporate mainframe email software. In 1996, with the success of MTG I went full time in the retail game store and threw out my
suits and ties. I currently own a small horse ranch about 30 miles from Boise; and when I'm not shoveling horse manure, chasing kids or mending fences, I ride my motorcycle and lament about never having enough time to play all the games I've collected over the years. Sometime later in 2005 I plan to ease completely out of running my retail store and pursue other interests, one of which is finishing up some game designs and possibly self-publishing or looking for a publisher. I also plan to play games four or five times a week rather than once or twice.
Tom: Well, the most important thing I wanted to talk to you about was your running a local board game store. Let's start with the debate raging across the internet. Are internet online stores causing the death of good board game shops across America?
D.W.: Online discounting is a primary cause of the financial difficulties many B&M stores are experiencing. Rather than just make that a blanket statement, allow me to explain why I think the way I do.
* In order to grow a board game market there must be face-to-face contact between fans and potential fans. There is no better venue for this type of contact than a store with demo copies, table space and knowledgeable gamers staffing it.
* If you look at the entire process of making, marketing and selling games, it's easy to see that unless new blood is constantly added to the pool of prospective buyers, the potential market will eventually shrink.
* Online discounters do not add new gamers, instead they sell to current gamers. So instead of a situation where there would be two major avenues of new blood, gamers and game stores, internet sellers tend to lessen the survival potential of the most potent source of new prospects: game stores.
* Since most stores that sell board games also sell RPG's, miniature systems, CCG's and even comics and anime, it's easy to see how many thousands of people can easily be exposed to a whole world of gaming they had previously never noticed or had been wary of. This is not going to happen with an online discounter.
* Online discounters also have a negative effect in that they lessen the perceived value of a game and condition many current gamers to react in an antagonistic manner to anyone selling at or near retail. To be fair, the primary culprit here is not so much the discounter as it is the publishers who are somehow blind to the end-user's perception of their products and sell to anyone with a resale permit and a credit card.
On a personal level I would say that 80% of my regular customers sometimes buy online because of price. To suggest that this hasn't had a huge impact on day-to-day sales figures would be silly. Winning those customers back is also costly; and frankly, we can only win back the ones who openly acknowledge that they have been buying online to save money.
In 1996 I wrote an article for Comics & Game Retailer (a trade magazine) predicting exactly this current situation and asking publishers to consider the route companies like Games Workshop took - restricting who could access their products at wholesale and eventually restricting online sales to their own operation only. While this hasn't made Games Workshop products less expensive, it has allowed them and retailers such as Dark Horse to make a fair profit and if anything, the market for Warhammer and Warhammer 40K has grown over the years. There is also a thriving secondary market on sites such as eBay for players to sell off their GW items, often at terrific discounts, which doesn't directly impact the sales of GW or the retailers.
I had to cut this one off here, Tom.... I could probably put you to sleep with endless commentary on this debate.
Tom: No, no - it's good to hear the opinions of an actual brick and mortar store. I would contend that many people, me included, have come to near hatred for Games Workshop because of their policies regarding online buying. Yes, it's kept their profit high because many people who play the game are addicted to it. Also, eBay has become a virtual store for many people. But all that aside, I don't think your optimal scenario is going to happen. In Korea, board game stores are all but obsolete, mainly due to online board game stores - of which there are many. Do you think that this same thing will happen in America? Korea has board game cafes, which keep board gaming alive. Will conventions and game groups do the same in America?
D.W.: The reality of making and selling anything and then slashing the profit along the way will eventually catch up to all of us. The one constant is that nobody is going to continue making and selling board games unless they can produce enough personal income to live well doing it. That's certainly true for me as a retailer. I don't owe anyone a discount just because they are "jonseing" for the products I sell, and neither does a giant like Games Workshop.
I sometimes comment about this issue on BGG, and it's amusing to me that many of the most negative responses come from the very segment of humanity that is affluent enough to amass large game collections, pay for new pc's and high speed internet and quite often are posting their commentary from the workplace that probably pays them $30, $40, $50K a year or more.
Yet a retailer wanting to make the same $40 or $50K is an unscrupulous shark.
Games Workshop's model works. That alone is enough to lend credence to my suggestion that online discounters could eventually shrink the market for board games rather than increase it. Miniature games demand in-store selling. Columbia Games is another example of an approach that works. They sell at retail. And except for sales when they have slow-moving games, people pay retail when they buy from Columbia. So why did Grant and Tom take that approach? I think they took it to do two things: keep the company alive and make a good living doing it.
Unless enough publishers follow in Games Workshop's wake and prohibit deep-discounting, the whole process can only end up in one general state of affairs. Since operating costs are too high for B&M stores to compete without relief, publishers will have to rely more and more heavily on online discounters. The moment critical mass switches to more sales being done on the net, physical stores will start closing down at an alarming rate. The genres of games favored by Geeks just don't have enough appeal to keep the attention of mass-market retailers; and except for using a popular game as a loss leader, we aren't going to see a 10 foot shelf of Euro and Wargames at Target or
Walmart anytime soon. Nor will we see a trained gaming staff and open play tables.
When that momentum happens, I suspect online discounters will start eating each other. This happened with publishers (primarily CCG publishers) and distributors in the USA when CCG's collapsed in the 90's. And I could give you a few pages of why they collapsed if you want them.
When several online merchants dominate the sales of board games you will see a rise in prices. Any outlet that manages to control a publisher because of the volume of that publisher's games it sells can (and certainly will) exert that control over the publisher and whom it sells its games to. Columbia and Games Workshop will be outside this area of effect and so will any other publishers that move in that direction in the next year or two.
So what will we have then? Several stratas of game publishing and selling. The big online guys will raise prices because they can. They are there for the same reason I am, to make money and to make money with something they enjoy. I sense no altruism there. Do you? Above that, you will have Games Workshop and possibly Wizards of the Coast and WizKids, because I see them moving in that direction. They can and do mass market because their appeal is high. And since their products have a 'shelf-life', they will move millions of units at retail or close to it and then dump the rest via online discounters
and eBay people.
Below that (and I mean 'below' only in terms of volume) will be small press. Columbia, GMT, MMP, Avalanche and the like. They will survive and possibly flourish because they can sell at retail, and they can afford to do P500 type marketing in order to bring a game to the market.
I believe that what this all means to the enablers of online discounting (essentially, board game geeks) is that they'll end up paying close to and maybe even more for games in a few years than they would have if we had a successful brick & mortar environment.
Now I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, but I do want to mention the one thing that tells me I may be right.
Online discounters erode the perceived value of board games. And once that value is eroded, I'm not sure how to recover it. Look at new console or pc games. Retailers don't deep-discount those, because they don't have to. Literally hundreds of thousands of people will pre-order and even pre-pay for a new console game at or near retail just to get it the day it's released. Now that... is a highly perceived value. But, is that game, say Halo 2, any less fun if purchased 2 months or 6 months later at half the price? Or 9 months later at Costco for $12.99?
Highly anticipated movies are perceived as having value. You can't pre-pay for a discount ticket. You have to pay retail for a month or maybe more. Sometimes less. Then you can see it at the Dollar Theater or wait a bit longer and rent it for $2.99 and enjoy it at home. The only reason several million people line up for a new movie is that
the marketing and selling of that product, be it a movie or a console game, has been done in such a fashion as to transmit a high value if you get it now.
There's your shelf life. And there are the sharks.
I'll mention Mayfair Game's recent reprint of Modern Art. There were numerous threads bitching endlessly about the cards, the rules, even the box. A number of journal entries carried on to a ridiculous extent about the plastic insert not being sized properly. And this for a game that each of them probably bought online at about $16-19 apiece. That's less money than most BGG members spend going to a movie, or getting a haircut. But Mayfair took a shelling. Can you imagine the moaning that would have occurred, if Mayfair spent real money on that reprint and tried to sell the game at a higher price? If this isn't a classic case of getting what you paid for, I don't know what is.
Online discounters and the game geeks themselves sometimes generate an untenable situation where a publisher is expected to deliver a superb product at Walmart prices.
As for conventions and groups supplanting retail stores, I don't see it happening. The internet may keep Conventions alive and prospering; but since the lion's share of attendees are there for RPG's and CCG's, I can't see boardgames as a major player in US conventions.
Game groups? Yes and no. Yes, when they hold together. No, when they dissolve. There really is no compelling reason to keep going to a game night when real problems interject into one's personal life. But if you own a store, you show up. Rain or shine, sick or well, no matter the situation at home; if it's not life threatening, a store owner is there.
Tom: As a B&M store owner, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced? On a positive note, what are some of the greatest blessings?
- Cash flow
- Good staff
- Fill rate on orders (dismal at times)
- Getting known. Realize I opened in 1982. I would guess my store was one of maybe 150 games-only stores in existence at that time.
- Unsold inventory (Thank you eBay! Thank you, thank you, thank you!)
- Recognizing that 80% of the games that people want are not the ones you want.
Beyond that, it's a business like any other, you have to be there, and you have to understand your customers are your employers. Succeeding at your pastime is very difficult, which is why I think so many good people have failed at owning game stores.
- Games everywhere!
- Gamers everywhere!
- I have made great friends locally and internationally through retailing.
- My store is 23 years old. If I closed it tomorrow, it would stand as an accomplishment that few people who love games will ever have. Other than my children, starting, growing and building a game store has been the best part of my life. I am blessed in that I am the person who initiated and built a true community of gamers in my area.
- Did I mention games and gamers? Truly a great group and a fantastic thing to be involved with.
Tom: You mentioned that, "80% of the games that people want are not the ones you want." What games, over the years, have sold tremendously well at your store?
D.W.: Well, D&D has just flat been the king. After that would be Games Workshop and then after that Magic: The Gathering. Since most retail stores in the USA opened because of Magic, they'd probably have slightly different answers.
But I'll get to the best part...board games:
Axis & Allies
Settlers of Catan
These two have just sold endless copies over the years. For at least 15 years we sold 50 to 100 Axis & Allies per year. For the last 10 years we have sold hundreds of the Settlers series every year.
North American Rails, etc.
Sort of a secondary group that had significant enough sales to be memorable or span the years.
Ticket to Ride
MechWarrior Dark Age
D&D Miniature Game
Star Wars Miniature Game
The current crop of hot games. You'll notice that only one of these appears high on the BGG ratings. As for wargames, of the hex & chit sort, we had a fair run with them in the mid to late 80's, and then they just withered. 99% of the wargames I currently sell are special orders.
From this you can see why I suggested that a store owner needs to understand other people may not want to buy and play what he or she thinks they should buy and play.
Tom: Do you think a local game store must sell collectable games / miniatures to survive? Can a store survive on board games alone?
D.W.: Well, that's two different questions. But they end up at the same place.
Yes, I really do think most game stores have to sell the WotC and Wizkids collectible games in order to survive. We don't do a lot of CCG's in our store; and perhaps if we did, we'd be banking more cash. I think if you have the room and the support from within your customer base, you really have to sell and promote collectible games. Unless you
own that special store in a densely populated area where board game fans reject online discounters and flock to your store to buy all their board games.
So the answer to question #2 is: No.
Tom: You've been in business a long time. Do you have any interesting or humorous stories about life in a game shop?
D.W.: Of course I do, Tom. I've spent the better part of the last 23 years being around gamers on an almost daily basis. How could I not have humorous stories?
I really don't want to perpetuate the myth that gamers are nerds, geeks and womanless losers, so I'd best keep those stories to myself. If you ever run into me at a Con though, one or two scotches will bring the good ones out. How's that for dodging the question?
Tom: The image of gamers certainly is one of nerds, etc. When it comes to those you had frequent your shop, what would say was the average person like who played games? Did you have many female shoppers? Were the miniature gamers different from the CCG gamers from the board gamers from the RPG gamers?
D.W.: Yes, gamers definitely have the nerd/geek image. But as in anything that a large group of people has an interest in, it's only a small minority that will define a non-geek's idea of that group. Since geek and nerd have a definition in common...
"single-minded or accomplished in technical/scientific pursuits and also socially inept"
... I would personally apply that to any pursuit. Like sports-geeks, or money-geeks, or comic-geeks, or car-geeks. And there is plenty of social ineptness going on in those other realms of geekiness. But since cars, money and sports tend to not exclude the image of being able to attract a female, gamers often get stuck with the true Geek label. That's a pity too, because the very nature of gaming requires social skills.
Since my store is in Idaho, it's possible we don't have as many physically challenged gamers as perhaps more sedentary locales would have. I don't know for sure though. Our customers are what I would call average people. Just like the gamers in New York, Germany, Texas or Australia. There are a few that embarrass me, and some I've had to
chat privately with about their language or hygiene or when not to interrupt. But I have seen behavior exactly like that or worse in other businesses and at non-gaming gatherings. We have plenty of female shoppers. Not 50% but I'd bet it 30%, maybe even more. And yes, it has grown steadily over the years. And while we're on the subject, I want to clarify something that bugs me. Male gamers, as a group, do not lack the requisite social skills to get women. The gamers I know, as a group, probably have a higher rate of success with dating, marriage and other parts of ...ahem.... co-mingling with females than the average hockey-geek or movie-geek. Just look at the amount of Geek Lists and Journal entries on BGG that lament about non-gaming wives and girlfriends. Geeks do get it.
The only difference I have ever been able to discern between the four major Game Geek categories is that the extremes of CCG's and RPG's tend to be a whole lot more unpleasant than the extreme board gamers or miniature gamers. CCG and RPG people are certainly more likely to be involved to a much more "submerged" level, and often they tend to view their gaming in a macho sense. It becomes their passion and what defines them as males... rules bickering, power-gaming, arguing, opining and constantly correcting others and asserting their "rightness". You'll notice I addressed this to the '"extremes" of each group. Warhammer and Warhammer 40K tend to invite this sort of behavior, whereas almost no other miniature games do and board games tend to not have it. What board games do attract though is a full share of sore losers.
But I'll tell you why I think CCG's, RPG's and the Warhammer variants attract bad behavior...
The rules are fuzzy, open-ended and open to widely varying interpretations. The permutations of card effects, RPG situations and range/gear/armor/morale combinations in the various games just invites opinion and dissent. And I think these conditions attract people looking for a venue to assert their personality disorders into. No doubt there will be many that disagree with me but not many who have dealt with game geeks as regularly as a store owner.
Tom: What is your vision of the future of boardgaming in the world, and the United States in particular?
DW: An excellent question. Where is board gaming headed? Well, I think it's headed to wider acceptance, better designs, innovative mechanics, enhanced production quality and a much higher level of attractiveness as a social and fun activity.
Just look at the games and the quality of them. Days of Wonder just amazes me. Such nice games and so easy to teach. The Hasbro/Avalon Hill offerings are a real value in the mind of the average consumer, and they are based on popular themes for the most part. Eagle Games also just loads their games with content, and from my experience they
get better with every release.
I have the utmost confidence in almost every publisher out there right now. From Rio Grande to Mayfair to Fantasy Flight, they are all dedicated to improving their products with every new release. I have long believed that board games fill a real human need for socialization. One that PC and console games don't provide. Witness the resurgence in hex and chit wargames spearheaded by companies like GMT. Human beings enjoy each other’s company. They need to be face-to-face. They want to chat and laugh and experience the nuance that can really only be obtained around a table with all the sights sounds (and sometimes smells - ugh) that comprise a total experience.
It's my view that the future of board gaming is probably better right at this time than it's ever been and the internet, with sites like BGG and with search engines like Google, can only drive it to wider acceptance and more desire to own and play games.
As for the United States, we are, beyond a doubt, the largest market for board games and the rapid translation of successful European titles to English is testimony to that. As I mentioned earlier, I think we're going to go through a couple of years where how games are marketed is sorted out. There will be a lot of upheaval in the distribution channels and plenty of stores closing. But I also see online discounters having an increased failure rate and distributors as well. Publishers that can see beyond today's sales and into the future will be the ones who will have to eventually sort out the best way of getting their games to the consumer.
I suspect it will return to a streamlined version of what worked well in the 80's and through most of the 90's. Publisher to distributor to retailer. I also think there will be conditions in the future on who can sell a publisher's games and under what restrictions. The internet has created a whole new situation, and nobody is going to want to take on the challenge of selling games as a business, unless there is a reasonable chance that they can make a profit for doing a good job. When publishers understand this, as they do in much larger retail segments like clothing and automobiles, then we'll be able to develop a truly professional environment for game stores.
I'm sure some will shudder when I bring Games Workshop back up, but their growth and success in demanding retailers stock, order and present their products in the fashion they do is modeled on what works in the big time world of retailing. Without retail outlets game publishers run the risk of returning to the hobbyist and niche days of old. Who wants that? I'd like to think that publishers, designers and retailers can ascend to a better, more profitable place, not descend back to an elitist cubbyhole of a few fans hanging out in a dingy store and arguing over rules.
Wow! I think I just described my own store about 20 years ago.
Tom: What is your opinion of game stores that diversify beyond games? For example, in Memphis I visited a game store that was half scrapbooking supplies, and I've been to others that also include railroad hobby equipment, etc.
D.W.: Funny you should mention scrapbooking. A fair number of my male customers cut deals with their wives, where their gaming money is equal to her scrapbooking money.
I say more power to them. We've discussed moving to a larger location here in Idaho and taking on a partner who wants to sell anime and possibly even comics. The retail environment is almost nothing like it was in 2000. So anything a game retailer does to stay profitable is a good idea.
Even if the owner of the store isn't knowledgeable on games, local gamers and enthusiasts can educate him or her and offer to run demos and events.
Tom: DW, I've really enjoyed your insights as an owner of a board game store. Do you have any final thoughts to share with our readers?
DW: Actually, I want to acknowledge you and the service I think you're doing on BGG and other sites. Not just these interviews, but your reviews and your general enthusiasm and love of board gaming. How the heck can you remain so, so... level-headed?
As for final thoughts. Not really. I just want to remain a part of games and gaming and I am content in having found something I love so early in my life and thankful I've been able to have it as part of my life this long. And for the BGG'ers, when I get some more time, I'll be back posting more inflammatory and irritating comments for them to get all wound up over.
“Real men play board games.”