Home for New Year

I woke up yesterday on the East Coast, knowing I had a full day of travel ahead of me. Nicole had commented several times on how she was not looking forward to 20 hours of traveling but I thought that was a bit of hyperbole. We left at 9 am, so we could have plenty of time to get checked in. The first flight left on time and took us to Chicago, where we had an hour and a half layover. The next leg was an hour-long flight to Minneapolis. Since we were changing not just planes but airlines there, we had to collect our baggage, then re-check it on Northwest and go through security again. Our Minnesota layover was supposed to be five hours but ended up an hour longer due to delays cleaning the plane and loading the passengers, plus a need to de-ice the wings before take off. Finally we left for Seattle about 11 pm. Nearly four hours later at SeaTac, we got our luggage and grabbed a cab. When we at last dragged our stuff through the front door, we had been traveling for nineteen and a half hours. So much for hyperbole.

The trip was good though. We got to see many old friends, spend some quality family time, and above all get away from work and the internet. I think we were gone just long enough. Now it’s nice to be home and enjoying a bit of peace and quiet, though ironically we’ll be spending the night over at Ray and Christine’s place. We’ll be ringing in the New Year with our Seattle friends with food, booze, and game playing. Then Monday it’ll be back to work and that’s just fine.

All Gone Dead

This is a public service announcement…with guitar.

Ex-Teenage Rebel is going dead for the rest of the year. I’m going to be off e-mail and off the internet until the end of the month. So let the flame wars continue, let the debates about the health of the game industry rage, let the justifications for pirating other people’s hard work spill forth—I won’t be around to notice.

When next I post, I hope to have recharged the old batteries. I’ve got a lot of work to get done in 2006 and I need to hit the ground running. I hope you all have a happy holiday season. Until next time, me hearties.

Coming Soon

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the future and what it will bring. Will such and such book sell well, will I die in a horrible accident, what will it be like when Kate has a rabbit running around the house, will our country ever be free of the gang of crooks and liars currently ensconced in the White House, and will internet poster omega EVER stop whining? I’ll grant you that some of these concerns are great and some are small, but what can I tell you, it’s how my brain works. I suppose then that I should take some small comfort in knowing something about the future. I can tell you right now what my life will be about in 2006. It’s starting now with a bit of flint and steel, but soon it will blossom into a firestorm that will consume the next year of my life. Unlike an all-cleansing fire, however, this should leave something very substantial behind. 2006: the Year of Wouldn’t-You-Like-to-Know.

In media news, I saw today that Studio Ghibli’s next movie is an adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. This is great news, as the Scifi channel mini-series from last year was godawful. Le Guin’s story plus Ghibli’s animation magic should be a winning combination. At least I hope so. There also seems to be a chance that Showtime will pick up the recently cancelled Arrested Development, a very funny but not very popular show. I’d like to see the writers get a chance to push beyond the boundaries of network TV. If the most recent episode, in which a warden played by James Lipton gets children to put on his prison drama screenplay as their school play (imagine 8 year olds reading dialogue from Oz), is any indication, the freedom of cable TV could take the show to the next level.

Nobel Prize…in Ass Kicking

Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. You can find the text of his Nobel lecture, Art, Truth, and Politics, in the link below. It starts out talking about writing and the relationship of art and truth, then dives into an amazingly poignant political rant of the sort so utterly lacking in American media. If you are lefty, angry, and disenfranchised, I encourage you to check it out:


What I Think I Know

As those of you who know me can surely attest, I am not shy with my opinions, though I am careful about what I say in public. Experience has proven that it’s not worth the trouble to comment on certain topics or engage with certain people. I am, however, often solicited for my opinion on goings-on at WotC because I worked there for four years and have some insights into what the place is like. As time marches on though, my experience becomes more remote. Next March it’ll be four years since I left WotC and I know the company as it stands today isn’t the same one I worked at. So what do I think I still know about WotC?

First, I think I general corporate environment is quite similar. Last week’s Christmas layoffs were certainly nothing new. I’ve also heard that many of those laid off were blindsided by the loss of their jobs. Sounds like all too familiar corporate politics to me. Second, I know some key folks still working there and know the sorts of decisions they are likely to make. Third, I know the R&D; culture and how that affects everything from design decisions to release plans.

What I don’t know is anything specific about WotC’s plans or long-term goals, or what the state of the WotC/Hasbro relationship is currently. Since I have ties with Games Workshop, it’s not like anyone is going to let me in on that info. So I can comment based on my experience, but much of what I say boils down to simple observation and what I hear from other sources. It’s obvious, for example, that miniatures are taken much more seriously now than when I was there. When we were trying to launch Chainmail, none of the other departments wanted anything to do with miniatures. Now minis have clearly become a central part of the overall D&D; strategy. There are also some clear implications to the yearly increase in the number of D&D; products released.

If you ask me when 4th edition is coming out and whether or not the new rules will be released under the OGL though, I can’t tell you. If you ask me if d20 Spectaculars is a deliberate assault on what Green Ronin has built with Mutants & Masterminds, I can only speculate (and for the record, my speculation is that no, M&M; had nothing to do with their decision to do that book). If you ask me why people of proven incompetence still have jobs and decent, hard working folks do not, I can only wonder.

For the record.

The Retail Perspective

Remember last week when I mentioned how a lot of game stores have closed over the past couple of years? Well, I heard about another one today, the Game Keep in TN (www.thegamekeep.com). The owner, A. Karl Myers, posted an explanation on his website and I thought it was a cogent summation of the issues faced by retailers today. While I don’t necessarily agree with all the points of his analysis, I think it provides a useful perspective on game retailing today so I’m reposting it here. I’m sorry to see yet another game retailer go out of business, though I can’t blame him either. Here’s the announcement:

Game Keep Announcement

The gaming industry is changing. A few years ago our game room was filled with gamers of all sorts. Card games were popular, as were miniature battle games. People were collecting clicky-based miniature games, and anxiously waiting for the next release of their favorite role-play game. The next new game was just on the horizon.

Then… nothing! Nothing new hit the market. Card games sputtered with a number of weak releases that added to the already-waning interest in the hobby. The card companies countered by releasing a whole new wave of card games based on every cartoon show having more than one fan. Most card players were not interested in taking up a new collectible game, after having felt that they wasted so much money in earlier games.

The miniature game manufacturers took a different approach. While holding off on releasing anything unique or ground breaking, most of them sought to increase their revenues from their existing customers merely by raising their prices. Fantasy gaming stagnated to near zero level while Sci-fi gaming carried the load until price increases drove players to seek different, less expensive, games. Some manufacturers rose to fill this void but had difficulty gearing up production to supply demand.

The role playing book market was flooded with a plethora of new material after Wizards announced their open gaming license. This required stores to double the amount of books they stocked, and as time wore on, left many shelves full of unsellable merchandise, especially as version 3.5 replaced version 3.0. Eventually, it was the consumer who decided that enough was enough and rpg books began to lose steam. The increasing prices of book publishing accelerated this dwindling trend.

The advent of the internet also brought its own level of challenge to this industry. With internet sales came a new breed of retailer, the internet discounter. These small companies kept overhead low by not needing prime retail space to sell their wares. Cost-conscious customers were drawn to these sites from advertisements in the very magazines and games sold in brick and mortar stores.

The internet also gave some game manufacturers a route to sell direct to the public, bypassing the old three tier manufacturer/distributor/retailer system. Soon they were distributing web-sales addresses on all of their product. Retailers were selling the seeds of their own demise with every product they sold. Some manufacturers went so far as to send out free give-away products designed to lure consumers to their websites.

The third strike from the internet was the advent of on-line role playing games. A large portion of our customer base was absorbed into block buster games like World of Warcraft and Everquest. The need to trek down to the friendly neighborhood game store to play was replaced with a stay-at-home mentality. This reached its peak during this late summer as gas prices soared following the Katrina-Rita punch.

The solution for these changes was a simple one. Diversify or close. Retailers moved into carrying game related merchandise such as tee shirts and bumper-stickers. Some even went so far as to carrying lines of non-game products such as statues and action figures.

Comic books also moved in to fill the gap. Others began dealing in used video games and supplies.

Of course, the events of recent history have also played a major role in defining the nature of the gaming industry. From the war on terror, to our recent rash of devastating storms, each event has changed the dynamic of business in America.

All through these changes The Game Keep has continued. Since we opened in October of 1996, we have managed to gain a reputation of being a complete game store, with a product selection second to none. We have been known as the place to get the hot new releases as soon as they come out. We have prided ourselves in being a hub of Nashville’s gaming community, offering, not only games, but a place to play them.

But things change.

All through 2004, revenues dropped, as certain games fell from popularity. As time went on, staffing was cut back to cut overhead expense. By the time of the Jeremy debacle last fall, I was practically running the store without help. Shortly after that, my last employee moved on, needing to find work that paid a living wage. By December I was considered closing the store, but the holiday revenues seemed adequate to continue and I opted to stay open.

This last year has been a struggle. Spring was the time when things began to become difficult. I cut back on expenses and managed with a bit of clever, “pay my Visa with my Mastercard” style, financial tricks, to survive until the summer, which is usually strong for game sales. Summer began slowly as it usually does and then went crunch as the economy faltered and parked when gas prices hit the stratosphere. Then fall hit and sales dropped further, to levels half of the previous (weak) year. The back to school September doldrums marched on through October and November. Even the last week in November that included the infamous “retailer Black-Friday”, was lackluster.

Put a fork in it.

After long and arduous soul-searching, I have decided to close the store following the Christmas Holidays.

Commencing Monday December 5th, a liquidation sale will commence here at the Game Keep offering modest discounts on our remaining inventory. As the sale progresses through the month, the discounts will increase. Customers are encouraged to purchase early, as these items will NOT BE RESTOCKED. All merchandise, including gaming terrain and the store equipment will be sold.

Letters to the Aethyr

Dear Electronic Arts:
I enjoy your Medal of Honor games, but I would enjoy them a LOT more if you would put some goddamn checkpoints in the missions. Greasing Nazis with PPsH? Fun. Getting to the final part of a mission, dying, and having to restart all the way the beginning? Not fun.

Dear ACLU:
Nicole and I support civil liberties and have in the past given money to causes we believe in. That does not mean we want to receive three phone calls a day that try to guilt-trip us into donating money. And if we ignore the calls IDed as coming from the ACLU, don’t then call us as “Hilary” to get through because we are ignoring you for a reason. The same goes for anyone who wants to bug me at home.

Dear Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon:
Walk the Line was a great movie and you both nailed your roles. If you had told me that you were both going to do all your own vocals, I would have said that you’re crazy. Then I would have eaten my words, because damn the singing is spot on. Johnny and June would be proud.

Dear PDF Publisher:
Don’t use the OGL to create a “new” product based on a rules set Green Ronin designed and then promote yours as being one of kind. It’s obviously not, since you took the rules from one of our books. Also, do not get the title of our book wrong in your Section 15. That’s just adding insult to injury.

Dear Cult Master:
You and your minions really need to stop comparing what you do to punk rock. Autocracy and conformity are not punk.

Blood on the Snow

It’s snowing in Seattle, which is weird. It happens maybe once a year and usually melts by the next day. In the spirit of the winter holiday, WotC is doing one of its traditional layoffs today. Looks like the news just broke:


My condolences to those that lost their jobs. I now have even fewer friends that still work there. The game industry, the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

End of an Era

When I worked at WotC, I usually went to the nearest game store, Wonderworld in scenic Burien, every Wednesday. It was right down the street from an Australian Meat Pie shop, so it was easy to check out the latest game releases and grab a meat pie or two. I bought something almost every week, as did many of my cohorts. I usually went with a posse of graphic designers, which was quite entertaining. They were the snarkiest bitches imaginable and I say that with love. Watching them stand around the new release section picking apart the graphic design gaffes of the competition was a spectacle to behold. Since leaving WotC, I don’t get down to Wonderworld very often, as it’s not exactly close to where I live. Yesterday afternoon, Rick and I drove down there to see what was new.

Now Wonderworld is what you’d call a “destination store”. It has huge amounts of product going back two decades. If you like games or comics, there’s a lot to delve into. And I do mean delve, because there is so much backstock that it’s literally piled up throughout the store, with action figures sitting atop boxes of comic back issues stacked three high, game backstock boxes nearly obscuring the miniatures cases, and anime DVD sets riding on TCG displays behind the counter. I must admit I have never understood the hows and whys of their ordering system. They obviously like to stock in depth, but it always looked like this philosophy went out of control. I think they must have two full bookcases of d20 products from a single publisher. You see row upon row of $35 hardbacks, with 6 of each title sealed in plastic bags. You’d think it would have been clear at a certain point that the stuff wasn’t selling, but it seems the ordering continued.

It was thus not a huge surprise to hear that the store is closing. They may open a smaller storefront or they may just start selling through their stock on Ebay or some other type of e-store. It sounded like the latter is more likely. The current location is open all this month and then closing in January. As Rick and I were sitting in the meat pie shop, I realized this was likely the last time we’d do the game store/meat pie twofer. It’s the end of an era and another in the long line of game store closings that have been plaguing the industry the last couple of years. I hope Wonderworld can reinvent itself in the new retail environment.