Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Bargains at What Price?

Last week Borders announced they’d be liquidating the stock in their remaining 399 stores nationwide, yet another occasion to discuss the merits of analog versus digital books and games, this time from the perspective of brick-and-mortar purchases versus online sales (something I’ve discussed before). Overall this is disappointing news -- thousands of employees will lose their jobs, 399 storefronts will go vacant, and communities will lose another coffeehouse-type gathering place with free wi-fi access -- and it accelerates the trend away from brick-and-mortar stores toward online media shopping, a major factor that led to Borders’ demise.
Experience or Convenience
In the days before the internet people traveled to physical stores to search for and buy what they wanted; occasionally they ordered from catalogs by phone, but these were usually specialty items from particular retailers renown for certain products. At brick-and-mortar locations they could find what they wanted and browse other options, actually hold and inspect products firsthand, and interact with staff (with varying degrees of knowledge) for questions and advice about items. Today people can find many products online, often at greater discounts (without taking into account widely varying shipping charges) and without spending the time, effort, and gas driving around to different physical retail locations. Going to a brick-and-mortar store offers an experience, though one that doesn’t always result in a satisfying purchase or a larger discount. Online shopping offers greater convenience and often better prices, but the experience remains limited to searching products on a database, reading product details, and maybe perusing some reviews of dubious origin and quality.
Today every business worth its salt has an online presence, either to promote its brick-and-mortar locations, enhance them with online ordering, or serve as wholly online retail entities. But consumers turning to online venues to make book and other media purchases remains one of the major factors in Borders’ demise. It’s a vicious cycle affecting many businesses today. More people turn to the internet for online shopping, draining sales from brick-and-mortar stores which disappear, limiting people’s physical shopping choices and sending them to online venues for satisfaction.
Some kinds of stores by their very nature encourage gathering or interaction of like-minded customers in a community hub; book and game stores remain two prominent ones that offer a more varied experience that most retail outlets. While people certainly engage in social interactions in supermarkets and other stores when they inadvertently run into friends and acquaintances, they don’t specifically go there seeking a social gathering spot for those who share their interests. Granted, online forums and other websites can serve this function to a limited extend, but it’s little more than a shadow of the actual experience of shopping, hanging out, and interacting with others at a game or book store.
A recent visit to my Friendly Local Game Store demonstrates this. I don’t usually go there to hang out (at a 45-minute drive from home it’s a bit too far, and I don’t have lots of time to do much more there than shop), but the clientele and staff is extremely friendly and they have half the store dedicated to gaming space. I was browsing the shelves displaying new releases -- right near the open gaming area -- when I overheard someone setting up for a minis game lamenting that another game store I’d visited in the past had recently and quite suddenly closed (though it maintains another location in the area). This was surprising news, and we talked about it for a few minutes; then I took up the conversation with the friendly fellow behind the counter before continuing with my shopping. Had I not stopped by that day, I’d never know the other store had closed (as of this writing the store’s website still shows it’s open, not that folks are keen on advertising news that they’re out of business).
Although online shopping venues offer more convenience, physical stores can provide a more rewarding experience, a vital element when catering to customers engaged in games, literature, and general fandom pursuits.
A Trip to A Liquidating Borders
I visited a Borders in liquidation this past weekend, not so much to be a scavenging vulture looking for the carrion of good deals on books and other merchandise, but to look for a particular book I wanted to read (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which never captivated me before hearing about the upcoming Disney adaptation, though I loved his Pellucidar books…yes, I know it’s available free online through Project Gutenberg, but I like actual, physical books) and a few other titles for my wife and little one. I was also running errands nearby, including the aforementioned stop at my Friendly Local Game Store.
I really prefer Barnes & Noble stores over Borders, but where I live I have little choice. Although the nearest Borders (30 minutes away) is somewhat smaller than most other Borders, it filled my need to browse the stacks to check out new releases or other titles that spoke to what interested me at the moment. The second-closest Borders is 45 minutes away and slightly larger. The nearest non-Borders bookstores (both Barnes & Noble) are both about an hour away. I like browsing in bookstores because I never quite know what I’ll find, especially among the bargain shelves; I like to keep an open mind about the kinds of subjects I’ll read, both fiction and non-fiction.
When it comes to print or electronic books, I prefer print (though I’m guilty of publishing roleplaying game materials in electronic PDF files more out of financial and business practicality than anything else). I don’t order books or CDs online much, though I’m doing it more out of necessity these days; usually it’s a last resort when I’m seeking something specific that a physical search of brick-and-mortar stores turns up nothing.
My visit to a liquidating Borders was sad. I was disappointed that I didn’t find anything on my list, but that was secondary to the subtle yet pervasive feeling of “schadenfreude,” that wonderful-sounding German term for enjoyment gleaned from other people’s troubles. I arrived shortly after the store opened…within minutes it was swarming with customers, many of whom were simply there to feed like sharks on chum at the discount bins and shelves. Those bargain hunters who wandered into the stacks weren’t shy in voicing their disappointment that most subjects were discounted only 10 percent. Obviously the percentages will increase as time passes and the liquidators seek to move merchandise out of closing stores.
More disheartening was the look of many Borders employees, many of whom I vaguely recognized from previous visits. One struck me quite poignantly: this kind fellow just a few months before, near Easter, had enthusiastically hosted a story time in the children’s section; during the current visit he mechanically checked shelves and answered a customer’s question with weary fatigue in his voice. He’s among thousands of Borders employees soon to lose their jobs, one of life’s most stressful experiences (and one I’ve been forced to struggle through myself as the result of a company’s closing). This is the face of the recession in America and its troubling economic consequences for the average person.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Game Experience Variables

“A game for me is nothing absolute. A game lives through the people who play it.”
-- Reiner Knizia, German Board Game Designer

We had a small gathering of friends at our house this weekend for burgers and gaming…and it reminded me that, no matter what merits a game’s components and rules bring to the table, the quality of everyone’s game experience depends on a good mix of engaging players. Every player around the table is a potentially exciting variable contributing to the game experience.

Players each have their own style, often a different one depending on the game. They bring to the table an individual sense of sportsmanship, strategy, and personality that emerges through gameplay. Over the course of the afternoon we pulled out Pirateer (one of our favorites) as well as Carcassonne and Kill Doctor Lucky. Most folks were new to the games, but they asked rules and strategy questions, helped each other along, and quickly started scheming for victory. Everyone exhibited different player characteristics. We had the quiet planner simply waiting for an excellent opportunity for a clinching move. The exuberant player voiced good-natured frustration with other moves and triumphant cheering when she achieved her own victories. Some openly or privately scrutinized each move for opportunities to maximize their chances to win and hinder other players; and some even aided them in their analysis and understanding of the rules. The openly antagonist player made no attempt to hide her strategy, warning some of her intentions and provoking others to purposefully foil her. Even when gameplay dragged on a little too long in Kill Doctor Lucky, most players rolled with the punches, laughed with the silly descriptions of murder attempt failures (or read them with cheesy faux British murder mystery actor accents), and enjoyed (or contributed to) other players’ antics. All fostered an entertaining and friendly dynamic at the gaming table that encouraged everyone to enjoy themselves whether winning or losing. The afternoon would have been completely different with another combination of players.

I personally employ a variety of approaches as a board game player, depending on my mood, the company, and the game. With most new games I play primarily to learn the rules, testing out basic strategies and harboring no expectations that I’ll win. When teaching games to newcomers I sometimes make moves to better demonstrate key rules or subtle nuances. When everyone’s on the same level with the rules I like to dive completely into the game, not worrying whether I’ll win but playing a particular strategy: recklessly making whatever move seems best at the time, inconsistently trying different tactics, or mischievously setting out to hinder other players rather than strive for my own victory. I try not to win when I’m hosting a gaming event, but sometimes my approach to having fun blinds my sense of good form and etiquette.

Some folks had played a few of the games before, especially Pirateer, our “go-to” game for newcomers since the rules seem simple enough but the strategies can become complex during play. Though these experienced players might have an advantage over newcomers, familiarity with the game can’t always take into account the unpredictability of players learning the rules and testing out different tactics. Since the game experience varies depending on the players, every game’s replay value increases given the greater range of potential players and thus combinations of players for a particular game.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An Online Galaxy Goes Far, Far Away

Recently LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment announced they’re terminating the Star Wars Galaxies MMORPG in December 2011, as they prepare to release a new MMORPG based not in the “classic” era of Star Wars many older fans love, but in the more recently released “Old Republic” settings of the prequels currently popular among a younger crowd (and either loved or despised among older Star Wars fans, myself included).

I usually don’t talk about digital gaming here, especially “massive, mulit-player online roleplaying game” (henceforth referenced as MMORPG); but given some past missives on “dead” games, I thought this appropriate. This post isn’t meant as an “I told you so!” rant (thought at times I’m sure it might seem that way), but more as an example of how analog roleplaying games differ from their digital counterparts that use the internet as the common playing venue.

Full Disclosure: I worked for five years in the 1990s on West End Games’ classic Star Wars roleplaying game using the D6 System mechanics. I’m a huge fan of the original films, but saw and really don’t care much for the prequels (for insightful if crude and humorous analysis of the prequels’ infinite failings, please see Red Letter Media’s NSFW reviews). I also don’t play MMORPGs; a friend let me try World of Warcraft once, and I regained my senses several hours later experiencing missing time. I don’t have that kind of time, no matter how much I enjoy the gaming universe (and I’ll admit to being sorely tempted to try the Lord of the Rings and Battlestar Galactica online games except that I can’t justify the time suck). I don’t have time to play computer games anymore, though when I did, I enjoyed ancient yet classic LucasArts titles like the original X-Wing and Dark Forces titles. I don’t have much of a working knowledge of MMORPGs, especially the basic technical aspects (such as “Can one play the game without the online interface?”).

Unlike paper and pencil roleplaying games, once an online game like an MMORPG goes away, it’s gone; players can no longer enjoy the gaming experience without all the online components (and arguably the other players in the community) being restored. Granted, a MMORPG gives players access to a vast scope of fellow players, computer-tracked stats and advancement, and numerous locations to explore, all portrayed in stunning computer-generated graphics -- that’s a great deal of the allure and enjoyment -- but it’s a shared platform, and once the online interface disappears, the gaming experience disappears. It’s like when the neighborhood Dungeon Master, who owns all the books necessary for play, and files away everyone’s character sheets and notes, moves away and takes all the gaming materials with him. Since the game elements and interface are shared on the internet by the game’s owner, when the owner decides to discontinue it, for whatever reason (contracts are up, releasing a newer game, whatever), it disappears; players who loved the game must give it up and look elsewhere for their gaming experience.

When I worked for West End Games we often referred to the Star Wars intellectual property as George Lucas’ sandbox or playground, filled with wonderful toys we could play with using our imagination; but we always understood it was Lucas’ sandbox, we’d have to abide by his rules when playing there, and at any time we might be asked to leave because he decided to let new kids play there or shut it down entirely. That’s the price one pays for playing with someone else’s intellectual property. At West End we understood it from the publisher’s perspective, knowing the players would always have the physical books as springboards for their imaginations and their roleplaying game campaigns. Lucas asked the game publishers, not the gaming fans, to step out of the sandbox. Now LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment are asking all their players to leave the sandbox after having paid for the gaming experience and invested their time playing it and enhancing other’s gaming experiences.

My limited understanding of the MMORPG workings leads me to believe that players of Star Wars Galaxies will lose their game altogether. This seems to mirror the developing paradigm of digital games in our increasingly common internet-based society. In a world where everyone seems more connected through their internet service, cell phones, and tablet devices, we’re more removed from physical existence and more immersed in a virtual reality. Physical game components (“analog” games) are becoming as obsolete as physically gathering around a table with friends to play a game. Instead people enter the virtual online world to play with virtual pieces and boards, things that don’t take up space on shelves in their living rooms, though they still cost money. But when these disappear from the shared internet spaces, players can no longer create the satisfying game experience they’ve enjoyed…they give up their old game and move on to pay for the next new thing, a model corporations use to create new demand, increase sales, and boost profits. When a publisher decides to discontinue the online gaming venue and components, it kills the game for everyone. Sure, the numbers of subscribing players might be too low to profitably continue developing new materials, but the players who enjoy that gaming experience still exist. Companies pander to the majority willing to pay subscriptions for new games and abandon loyal users who still want to play the “old” games.

Nobody’s going to force all the Star Wars roleplaying, card, or miniatures gamers to return all their gaming materials to Lucasfilm because it decided to pull a particular license from a publisher or discontinue a game. They’re ours to enjoy in our own way, with our own imaginations around our own kitchen tables or in our favorite local gaming stores. That’s the difference between analog and digital games in our communal internet age; physical has a greater degree of permanence, virtual does not.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gamers Will, uh, Find A Way

“Life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It spreads to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is.”
-- Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park

Fantasy Flight Games recently announced it will no longer distribute future releases for the popular aerial combat game Wings of War (read the entire announcement here). Although at first glance some initially viewed this as the end of game support and new releases, it’s clear the game’s creator and manufacturer, the Italian company NG International (a.k.a. Nexus), is taking on the role of selling directly to American game distributors. While Fantasy Flight Games will continue to sell off its existing stock to gaming stores and direct orders, NG International will release future new product (and sell stock no longer available through Fantasy Flight) using the three tier distribution chain of manufacturers/publishers, distributors, and retail stores the gaming  hobby has mostly followed throughout its short lifespan. From all the online scuttlebutt it seems like NG International has already established relationships with major American game distributors for some of its other games, so the availability of Wings of War and its new releases shouldn’t be adversely affected by this distribution change.

There’s a good deal of talk on the internet among the game’s many fans. After clearing the initial confusion over what exactly the change meant to the future of the game, most discussion has focused on how effectively NG International can work with American game distributors to move product into the retail market (the “friendly local gaming store,” or FLGS) and into the hands of the game’s enthusiastic players…and most people have adopted a “wait and see” attitude rather than getting too upset. NG International’s already been proactive with the Wings of War fan community by posting an FAQ about the change on its website.

I’m a fan of the game, specifically Wings of War: The Dawn of World War II, and tempered my initial impressions of the announcement with some reflection on the resilience of gamers and their imaginations. I’ve written about this topic before, but it bears mentioning again: in an imagination-based hobby like gaming that attracts intelligent and creative participants, gamers will find a way to continue playing, modifying, and enjoying games even after a publisher discontinues them.

The Wings of War hobby has already proven this. Gamers have an ability and a hobby that allows them to create their own material to play a game indefinitely, whether they’re creating their own scenarios and campaigns for a favorite roleplaying game or designing new cards and miniatures for a game like Wings of War. The Wings of War Aerodrome provides a common online forum where fans of the game can share new materials, including new airplane cards, maneuver decks, target cards, gameplay aids, and campaign resources. Even seeing the game played at conventions demonstrates fan innovation. The first time I attended Guns of August, a gaming convention in Williamsburg, VA, several tables hosted Wings of War games, from basic demonstrations to more involved games featuring original bomber models and maneuver decks to interpret the abilities of newly created aircraft.

At this point fans are waiting to see how NG International’s distribution will differ from Fantasy Flight Games’ -- whether new releases will flow on a more regular basis, whether they’ll make it into players’ usual local gaming stores, and how much additional online and convention support the company will provide for the game. I’m not aware of Fantasy Flight Games’ degree of convention support for Wings of War events, and its free online support offerings remained limited to PDF copies of the game rulebooks (unless one wanted to register with them, a threshold some aren’t always willing to cross); here’s hoping NG International offers a bit more on both counts…certainly the game’s fans already have.