Friday, March 20, 2015

Thoughts After My First GAMA Trade Show

Nobody in this industry has any idea how to do this.

This isn't the condemnation it might seem at first. Yes, there appears to be way too much “amateur hour” at nearly every level of the industry, but if you think that's unique to hobby games, then you didn't work in the internet during the '90s. (And I'd be shocked to learn it's much better than it was; today it appears more people have credentials to hide behind, but...)

Rather, I'm talking about how hard it is to even define what the professionals try to talk about. On the obvious end, questions bedevil attempts to quantify the industry. Is Cool Mini or Not's Zombicide a boardgame or a miniatures game? Should Monopoly be counted as a “hobby game?” What about Star Wars reskins of Monopoly?

And then there's the dance of trying to figure out just what's happening. Did D&D steal some wind from Pathfinder? Scuttlebutt in the halls was that Pathfinder's appeal appears to be weakening. However, the folks who make their money attempting to guesstimate actual market activity say that D&D's 5e mostly grew the market with Pathfinder staying fundamentally strong.

(And keep in mind, please, as I talk here, that the GAMA trade show is heavily tilted towards the interests and concerns of your FLGS. How many people play a particular game isn't nearly as important as what people actually buy. Unless they're lining up to buy A Red and Pleasant Land, people playing 1e D&D or the like are completely invisible to most of GAMA's members. And they're only a shadowy mass in the mists if they're buying online.)

What everyone agrees on is that things are good now. The best guesstimates I saw (again, by the pros who get paid to guesstimate, largely based on interviews since everyone plays their cards close to their vests), is 15% to 20% growth across the hobby games market in North America every year for the last four years. Things are good and 2015 looks to continue the trend.

China rules in manufacturing. If your game is all paper, there are North American sources that have become competitive, but if your game includes plastic or wooden pieces, nobody right now can compete with the Chinese. However, Chinese manufacturing, while cheap, may not be as big as you think. When WizKids needed a big order of dice for their Marvel's Dice Masters game, they pretty much took up all of China's dice-making capacity. There's also a six-month delay between placing an order in China and delivery to stores in the US. Delays, quality issues, and inventory headaches were all big topics. Those of you who are fans of Fantasy Flight's x-wing game probably know all about this.

Want to start an argument at GAMA? Ask people about Kickstarter. While the manufacturers and publishers are almost universally fans, retailers tend to blow hot or cold on it. Retailers can also be very thin-skinned when it comes to the topic of online shopping. Many feel like they're being taken advantage of by shoppers who will try a game out in a store and ask the store staff for advice, but then buy the game online.

Fate is a serious contender in RPGs, frequently showing up in the top 5 in terms of sales, but usually at number 5. That may not seem impressive, but keep in mind that it beats GURPS, Savage Worlds, Cubicle 7's Tolkien-based The One Ring, and Mutants & Masterminds. And sometimes Shadowrun. FF is also a serious contender, especially if you combine all their Warhammer 40k and Star Wars lines.

Collectable card games make up more than 60% of sales in terms of dollars spent by gamers. Blind packaging leads to more sales; make it collectable and you'll see an easily measurable jump in sales. Miniature games (mostly Games Workshop) make up roughly 20%. Board games, non-collectible dice and card games, and RPGs combined make up something just less than 20%. While everyone recognizes that RPGs gave birth to the modern hobby gamer market, it's now a sliver of a niche.

Again, do keep in mind that all of these are at best guesstimates, only apply to North America, and are measured in terms of sales in dollars; who's buying what rather than who's playing what. Raggi's almost completely invisible to this crowd and Mearls stated he thinks the numbers given for RPGs are too low.

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