Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Competing Game Sources: FLGS vs. Online Retailers

Where do you buy your games? That’s one of the contentious questions that can easily fragment the broad gamer community. Do you buy exclusively from your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) or from online retailers; and do you back Kickstarter game products? In discussions we often veer toward extremes to make our point. Some folks loyally shop only at their FLGS while others assert online vendors offer better deals and a greater range of available product. Although Kickstarter provides some unique opportunities for new games across genres and styles, it certainly can’t cover all of a gamer’s needs, though it might siphon off money otherwise destined for the other two sources. What’s best for gamers and what’s best for the game sources?

We Want YouIt’s a challenging balancing act between three sources and the diverse interests of gamers. On one hand you have retailers (and creators/publishers in the case of Kickstarter) trying to survive and succeed financially. On the other you have consumers trying to satisfy their gaming needs for the best price…or at any price to loyally support their sources. All considerations have their merits.

FLGS: Local establishments offer great incentives for gamers, including in-store gaming space, a face-to-face gamer community, a chance to physically examine games (sometimes even offering demo copies to try), the opportunity to purchase and possess an item without delay, and discounts for frequent customers. While they might not stock every item gamers want, most seem willing to make an effort to special order particular items for customers. They can’t always offer the deep discounts some online retailers provide, but they make the most of their physical location as a community hub for gamers -- game space, copies for review, special events, friendly staff and customers -- all of which contribute to the overall play experience of the games customers buy.

Online Retailers: Ordering merchandise online offers more convenience and discounts to many modern shoppers, and gamers are no exception. The internet helps expedite finding products, comparing prices, and ordering, though this alternative often includes additional shipping charges and a wait time for delivery. But not everyone has a FLGS within reasonable travel distance, nor is the local game store always the supportive, friendly place gamers expect. Some material -- particularly PDF gaming product -- is only available through online venues like DriveThruRPG.com. Online retailers are part of the free market competition inherent in our economy, though some claim a sale online takes money away from the FLGS.

Kickstarter: This model throws an odd wrench into the debate between online and FLGS sales. Individuals pledge to back projects in development, paying only after the campaign has raised the requisite funds (and not paying if it doesn’t reach its goal). Stretch goals and add-ons offer more goodies should a project exceed its funding expectations. While management claims customers are backing projects and not “purchasing” items, per se, project developers are essentially marketing product directly to consumers. In some cases Kickstarter-funded games remain exclusive and unavailable through the general retail stream (online or FLGS); but most use Kickstarter to fund an initial run of a game (including set-up costs), offering backers an early copy of the game before general distribution to the public. Kickstarter projects cater to a very narrow spectrum of gamers; matching gamer interest with affordable backer levels keeps these games from breaking too far into the mainstream…but they still siphon off money gamers might otherwise spend on either online or FLGS purchases.

I sometimes see some pretty intense animosity between advocates of one particular game source. Understandably the FLGS, being a brick-and-mortar entity, might see online retailers and Kickstarter games as taking money from customers who might otherwise support their store with those dollars. Gamers buying through online vendors might argue such websites offer deeper discounts than they might find at the FLGS. Proponents of Kickstarter projects enjoy many benefits from backing projects they like, including purchasing the newest and shiniest games before they’re available elsewhere (if at all) and supporting creators and publishers directly, with all the interactive experience Kickstarter offers.

As a gamer I spread my dollars primarily between my FLGS (two stores, since one just opened within 10 minutes of my home) and interesting Kickstarter game projects. I sometimes save up to purchase from vendors at conventions I attend, though I consider this an extension of the FLGS model. I rarely use online retailers; although I maintain a wish list on Amazon.com, I do so more for the benefit of friends and family members looking for gifts and to remind myself of games I’d like to acquire. I back game-related Kickstarter projects that combine interesting subjects, engaging gameplay suitable to my style, and an affordable price point to acquire a physical copy of the game. This isn’t a detailed financial analysis of my game spending habits, but I’d ballpark my game spending at about 80% FLGS and 20% Kickstarter.

Where do you stand? Head over to Google+ and start a discussion: share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment, or look for my post promoting this blog entry.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Season of Thankfulness

 “We count our miseries carefully and accept our blessings without much thought.”
-- Chinese Proverb

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches I find myself reflecting on the numerous things in my life for which I’m thankful…and many of those revolve around gaming, both as a player and a creator. Some come thanks to the communication wonders of our Internet Age, but many still rely on good old face-to-face interaction.

Like so many positive messages holidays promote, we really should remain thankful throughout the year. It’s easy to succumb to the overwhelming negative issues in our lives, even as gamers and creators: a general uncertainty and lack of self esteem; producing work in a hobby with such a vast scope and seemingly innumerable others promoting (to various and often more successful degrees) their own product; the challenges of channeling creativity into workable products, through the stages of design, text, layout, playtesting, and publication; and above all (for some of us, anyway) the urge to compare ourselves and our accomplishments to those in our field who seem more popular and successful.

So for at least this month -- and with a mindfulness to reflect on these boons more often throughout the year -- I consider the many game-related aspects of my life for which I’m thankful:

Positive Community of Gamers: The internet has enabled me as a gamer and creator to reach out to gamers across the world: the many customers who’ve purchased Griffon Publishing Studio game titles from my e-storefront at DriveThruRPG.com; intelligent playtesters who provide constructive criticism, new ideas, and some encouragement for my efforts; gaming friends and colleagues, many new, some lifelong, who continue our engaging correspondence; clients like the folks at Wicked North Games who gave me the opportunity to contribute creatures and adventure ideas to their sci-fi steampunk Westward roleplaying game and to D6 Magazine; friends and fans who offer positive comments on my blog and social networking posts. I try very hard (and don’t always succeed) at keeping these interactions positive, but overall my involvement with an encouraging gamer community online has lifted my spirits this past year.

Internet Opportunities: The internet has also exposed me to some opportunities beyond the ability to publish my games in PDF and reach out to gamers, fans, and customers. Kickstarter has brought to my attention several fantastic game-related projects I’ve backed, games that inspire me and encourage me to pursue my own game design work. I’ve also learned of fellow gamers and friends in need and -- through crowdfunding websites -- donated to their charitable causes to do my very small part in helping others.

Family Gaming: I’m thankful to game regularly with my family. As my toddler son -- the almost four year-old “Little Guy” -- learns more about his parents’ geeky obsessions, he’s wanted to take part in such games as the X-Wing Miniatures Game and King of Tokyo(albeit modified for simpler play). It’s only a matter of time before we expand to more involved games, including some basic roleplaying game experiences. (I recently discussed my family gaming experiences over at Hobby Games Recce.) Our weekly game nights offer us a chance to turn off the television and computers and spend some quality time face-to-face enjoying games and learning some lessons along the way. I’m also very thankful that my family allows me the time, focus, and energy to pursue my game design projects.

Local Gaming: This past year I’ve had the opportunity for some local, face-to-face gaming, both with a group trying out new, primarily indie roleplaying games and with some friends who gather occasionally for good food and board games (including the Little Guy when we can). Both have occurred sporadically, but hold the promise of more gaming in the coming months.

FLGS: A new gaming store (with comics) recently opened within a 10-minute drive of my house…it’s already posted a schedule with some interesting events (notably X-Wing Miniatures Friday nights and board games all day Saturdays). It holds some promise for more face-to-face gaming and the chance to expand my gaming horizons. I’m also thankful for the FLGS I’ve frequented over the past few years at a slightly inconvenient 45-minute drive from home; it offers a different selection of gaming product and events as well as staff that remains friendly to a stay-at-home dad who often brings his inquisitive and talkative toddler son into the store.

In reflecting on all these factors that have enriched my life I’m reminded to remember and appreciate them throughout the year. I’m inspired to help others discover gaming as a worthwhile and enjoyable pastime in their lives; indeed to use games as a platform for positive interactions among us all.

“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
--  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Holiday Gaming with the Kids

As we rapidly descend into the Vortex of Chaos caused by the American holidays (typically including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanza, and New Year’s), thoughts turn to gatherings with family and friends…and games. I’ve reminisced about games at the holidays before: the sense of fantasy inherent in the season, the gaming-related gifts, the time to play around with one’s hobby, new toys, and friends. As my son nears the four year-old point and the coming holiday season, I started thinking about gaming with kids. HistSWGame

By “kids,” I mean preschoolers in the three- to four-year-old range, possibly as old as five or six. Some of these insights might help parents introduce older “kids” to the adventure gaming hobby, but by those ages they’re reasonably bright enough to know what engages them and thus dive into anything (like gaming) with the possibility of challenging fun (and opportunities to best their parents). I’m limiting my own discussion to board games, since, at this young age, the only roleplaying activities I expect them to show any interest for remain creative play options with toys, even if those toys are PlaySkool Star Wars figures, Disney’s Cars toys, and other normal-play fare.

Gaming with kids presents a wonderful opportunity for family time together, not simply sitting around basking in the feel-good glow of the holidays, but interacting in positive ways that can have lasting effects on behavior. We’ve established a weekly “family game night” with our Little Guy, trying some of the fare listed below; he looks forward to it every week and seems open to trying new, appropriate games. Whether he’s really understanding the games at this age, we’re still making important gains:

* We’re spending family time together without the constant distraction of electronic devices.

* He’s reinforcing lessons from preschool: following instructions, identifying numbers, letters, and abstract gaming symbols (okay, he’s not learning that last one at preschool…), realizing his actions have results and influence other people’s actions.

* He’s learning some basic gamer etiquette, such as being careful with food or drink around games, following game instructions, taking turns, re-rolling dice that tumble off the table, respecting game components, and generally learning to take advances and setbacks, victories and defeats in stride (or at least without tantrums).

My general tips for gaming with youngsters usually fall back on gentle, encouraging parenting. Some games require simplification of rules. Some require an adult to offer a good deal of assistance simply to get through a turn, though our experience has shown kids quickly learn for themselves and eventually refuse offers of help. Use games as “teaching moments” to learn numbers and letters, right and left, turn-taking, and good behavior. As adults we join games as regular players; while we sometimes give the Little Guy an advantage (playing the Millennium Falcon in the X-Wing Miniatures Game, for instance), we don’t usually hold back during games to let him win outright…he has to work for it.

Games We’ve Tried

While I have visions of my son several years from now sitting down to face his father over such games as Memoir ’44, Ticket to Ride, Smallworld, Sirocco, Axis & Allies, Carcassonne, and Ra -- not to mention the possibilities roleplaying games offer -- I realize he’s capable of only limited game challenges right now, as are most kids in the three and four year-old ranges. We’ve tried a number of games with the Little One over the course of many family game nights and a few games on weekends or with friends…and most have proved successful:

Dino Hunt Dice: This affordable, fun little game from Steve Jackson Games lets kids enjoy rolling dice and then identifying the three kinds of dinosaurs, the leaf result (dinos hiding), and the stomp result (dino hunters stomped!). Kids love dinosaurs and the game theme of hunting them tricks them into learning to identify the symbols, count their captures or stomps, and decide whether to continue and press their luck. It’s a much more thematically acceptable alternative to the game’s cousin, Zombie Dice (I’ve discussed our experience with Dino Hunt Dice in greater depth before).

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game: After seeing it played at a convention, the Little Guy wanted to play it himself. He’s seen enough Star Wars toys around the house -- and finally saw Episode IV A New Hope (it’s just good parenting) -- so he knows most of the major characters, locations, and plot points. We bought the starter set and a few (okay, more than a few) extra ships, including the Millennium Falcon, which is “his” (it also helps that it has a 360-degree field of fire, unlike other fighters that have to maneuver to line up shots). The extremely basic quick-start rules included in the game provide a practical set of rules he can follow while still keeping the adults interested. We’re hoping we’ll eventually graduate to the regular rules to enjoy more of the game’s complexities, but we occasionally work in some advanced rules, particularly those related to asteroids (though we’ve played with a basic, programmed Imperial shuttle intercept scenario, too).

King of Tokyo: The Little Guy inherited his mother’s love of kaiju movies, so this game -- with its push-your-luck dice mechanic, monster stand-ups, and power cards -- seemed a good one to test the bounds. Initially he needed some guidance in determining what he wanted to do with his dice and getting through the turn sequence, but he quickly caught on and rejected all assistance. Heck, he won the first two games we ever played! Although it’s not always apparent he’s actually using a strategy, he enjoys rolling gobs of oversized dice and collecting enough energy cubes to buy monster power cards with cool illustrations (again, without really exhibiting any strategy beyond the exciting appearance of the pictures). His favorite monster? Cyber Bunny.

Pizza Party: I found this in a local teacher store and thought the Little Guy might find it interesting, especially considering I make homemade pizza once a week, a ritual with which he often helps. It’s less a game and more an exercise in matching dice-rolled toppings to pizza cards; but it still keeps the Little Guy engaged and hones his skills at matching symbols (and rolling dice). I’ve modified it to focus solely on him rolling dice, identifying the symbols, and matching them to slices. I have some doubts about the game -- shrimp and sardines figure prominently as toppings, while olives and onions were not included -- but, using a similar competitive mechanic as Roll for It (see below), it might have more promise.

Star Wars: Escape from Death Star: The Little Guy saw Kenner’s classic board game high on a shelf in my office -- a relic of my earliest days of board gaming and sci-fi fandom -- and insisted we try it. The cardboard stand-up pieces have seen better days, the spinner often landed on a line between numbers, and the cards seemed quite arbitrary, but we all had fun bumbling around the Death Star trying to get the plans and shut off the tractor beam before escaping to the Rebel Base. I recall frequently playing it with family and friends in my youth, the first manifestation of my love for Star Wars. The Little Guy took to it easily, though he had some trouble navigating the board.

Games I’d Like To Try

Several games wait in the wings to try with the Little Guy. Some we’re just waiting for an opportunity to introduce, others we hope can push his bounds a bit further when he’s ready:

Wings of Glory: The forerunner of the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game engages my interest in World War I and II and has miniatures that capture the Little Guy’s eye. The one item he insisted I buy for him at a convention was a “cow bomber,” the Heinkel 111 plane for Wings of Glory WWII in arctic camouflage, white with dark green blotches, looking somewhat like a holstein cow’s coloration. The game’s use of cards for movement and maneuvers seems more intuitive and less complex than the full X-Wing Miniatures Game. Should we try this I’ll streamline the rules and simply have each participant reveal a maneuver card simultaneously (using only the slow maneuvers in the WWII version) before resolving shots and damage instead of plotting out two or three cards at a time. The Little Guy has requested we play “Daddy’s airplane game” sometime, so this remains high on our list.

Dungeon!: Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro re-released this classic fantasy board game with new artwork and components, and my parents -- who’ve nurtured my interest in sci-fi/fantasy and adventure gaming from the start -- got it for my birthday. It seems fairly straightforward as heroes explore the dungeon, defeat monsters, and take their treasure. The rules offer a very basic gameplay, though I’d expect adults might have to guide youngsters through the more involved procedures like traps and spells. While the board artwork seems impressive, I’m not sure it clearly indicates corridors and spaces well enough for a three year-old to navigate during gameplay. Many of the numerous components are quite small, including the illustrations, which normally remain key in captivating a kid’s interest. We’ll see if the box, board, and card artwork tempt him enough to at least start a game.

Roll for It: A copy of this recently arrived in the post as a backer reward from the game’s Kickstarter campaign. Players roll dice and match them to cards showing different combinations of results. Match all the die faces and take the card to score. The basic gameplay allows multiple players -- each with six dice of the same color -- and offers a nice balance of random die results, resource management, and press-your-luck. The Little Guy likes his dice and makes a great show of rolling them, so this one’s high on my list of new games to try.

Whatever the age of your kids, we encourage you to shut off the television, turn off the tablets and phones, and sit around the table this holiday season to enjoy some face-to-face gaming and make some fond family memories.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

To Attend or Not To Attend

I enjoy attending gaming conventions; but the past few years I’ve altered my con-going habits thanks to changes in my own life and the ever-fluid convention scene itself. A great deal has to do with transferring my promotional activities from live conventions to online venues, leaving me free to enjoy conventions as an adventure gaming enthusiast without the additional obligations required of a gaming guest.

The Way It Was

Years ago, even after West End Games’ bankruptcy pushed me out into the world of non-corporate-affiliated freelancing, I maintained a regular convention attendance schedule at local conventions -- with occasional appearances at a few not-so-local cons -- as a gaming guest. I ran roleplaying game sessions to showcase my own materials (as well as the obligatory nostalgia D6 Star Wars game) and promoted my activities on panel discussions and at a dealers room table when possible. Granted, this was in the early days of the Internet Age (the late 1990s and the early 2000s), with such social networking sites like Facebook and Google+  yet to come into their prime.

As a freelance game designer and publisher of my own material, attending conventions had their benefits and drawbacks. Creators derive a great deal of satisfaction and encouragement from positive interaction from fans, particularly face-to-face. Conventions offered an opportunity to run games first-hand, giving games an in-person taste of my own gamemastering style featuring my original material. Panel discussions challenged me as a guest to speak meaningfully on a relevant gaming-related topic, often one not directly related to my own work but one that pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Downtime allowed me to simply hang out with fans talking about topics ranging from upcoming releases, stories from behind-the-scenes at West End Games, and the inevitable talk of how to break into publishing or produce their own game. Not every interaction generated a sale, but the face-to-face contact helped make the convention memorable for many con-goers who subsequently became longtime fans of my work.

Attending a convention as a gaming guest takes a lot of time, effort, and money which sometimes interferes with other priorities (family, day job, household, and freelance work). My typical outlay of effort for a convention included printing out scenarios, tent cards, pre-generated characters, and promotional signs for games (sometimes even creating a new adventure wholesale instead of pulling material from my gaming repertoire). Travel, hotel, and food expenses require a significant outlay, especially for someone “working” the convention instead of a con-goer with the freedom to enjoy the entire con. Only a few conventions cover their gaming guest of honor’s hotel expenses (a practice rapidly becoming extinct in the struggling economy); even well-known gamemasters with publishing credits simply get a free convention admission badge as compensation for running games. Game designers can sometimes offset expenses with revenue from a dealers room table, but many conventions have limited such venues to “author alley” tables shared with others over reduced hours.

I still post my criteria for attending a convention as a gaming guest on the Griffon Publishing Studio website -- a complimentary hotel room being the main requirement (since it’s the greatest expense) -- along with the various benefits my attendance could bring to a con. Nobody’s taken me up on it in a number of years; I don’t worry much about it, as attending conventions as a guest has passed beyond an essential strategy in promoting my game design activities and become more of a tertiary luxury.

Interacting with the Gaming Community

For years I’d occasionally debate a longtime gamer friend who questioned why I placed so much emphasis on attending conventions to meet fans and showcase my roleplaying game materials six players per game session; he argued my time was better spent using the internet to reach out and cultivate new customers. Interaction with the gaming community has transformed so much since the mid-1990s and even the early 2000s, when I was still regularly attending conventions. Thanks to the glorious advances of the Internet Age game designers can still remain involved with the gaming community and assertively market their products without attending a single physical convention. Press releases go out to numerous adventure gaming news sites. Many of those offer forums for announcements and other dialogue with interested gamers. Podcasts and other interviews offer opportunities to promote one’s work. Electronic storefronts like DriveThruRPG.com provide publishers with tools to directly market materials to past customers, those with related items in their “wish lists,” and those following favored publishers. Blogs and websites allow creators to directly speak to their audience, offering behind-the-scenes insights, word of new developments right from the source, and free promotional materials. Playtesters review and comment on material online. Designers can even run playtest sessions of their own, or just run games for fun, via online tools like Google+ Hangouts. They can even run events at an increasing number of online virtual conventions.

I’m not saying face-to-face interaction at actual events has no value. I still believe it’s worthwhile in building an audience and promoting new product; but the internet has made the daily accomplishment of this objective much easier and more effective than promoting one’s games among a handful of gamers from one con to the next. Certainly game designers should attend conventions when possible; but it’s no longer an essential strategy in marketing one’s creations.

Changes in My Life

Certainly changes in my life have limited my involvement with gaming conventions. Juggling a family, household responsibilities, and some spare time for game writing and development doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy to do conventions properly. Schedules and finances remain subject to other, more important forces, with conventions rating rather low among numerous priorities. As a full-time stay at home dad, I’m also charged with raising our three year-old; as he shows some interest in his parents’ geeky pursuits we’re gradually introducing him to our activities, including gaming.

Most of my interactions with gamers takes place on the internet, posting about my game design activities on Google+ and Facebook, writing weekly about adventure gaming developments on two blogs (Hobby Games Recce and Schweig’s Game Design Journal), posting press releases about product on various websites and forums, discussing new ideas and game materials with trusted playtesters, maintaining the Griffon Publishing electronic storefront and offering occasional deals at DriveThruRPG.com, and occasionally holding conversations through Google+ Hangouts or in forum exchanges. Conventions as the means of interacting with gamers and potential customers have become less a necessity and more a luxury, a marketing opportunity above and beyond what I’m able to accomplish over the internet.

Enjoying the Hobby

After a short respite from attending my regional gaming conventions, I’m returning to look at the con scene with as a means of celebrating the adventure gaming hobby. Conventions offer an opportunity for me to attend as a game enthusiast without the scheduling and time obligations required of a gaming guest. I certainly enjoy running games occasionally, but I’m not beholden to them as a guest who feels a duty to entertain con-goers constantly. I can attend panels and play in games, hang out with gamer fans and friends, and enjoy a far more relaxed experience.

I’m looking forward to attending some local conventions with roleplaying game programming, in part to run a session promoting some of my own game work, but primarily to play in other games I enjoy. And if I happen to run into old friends and fans, all the better; I’m always happy to talk about my game-industry past, promote my current projects, or just reconnect with old friends.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.