Monday, November 14, 2005
GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Fish In A Barrel
Driving into town Saturday from my soon to be sold ranch and mosquito breeding facility, I chanced upon Kim Komando’s radio program. She apparently is a leading authority on pc’s and software. Anyway, she related a statistic that shows that electronic gaming is enjoyed by something like 60% of the population of the planet, has sales nearing those of music and movies and that the average age of the pc and console gamer is thirty.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t 60% of the planet, but it was a bunch, a whole bunch.
All this got me to thinking, I'm not a huge fan of electronic games and though I will play them, it's only if forced to by a lack of opponents or by scheduling issues. Komando says the average age of the electronic gamer is high because her generation, I think it was X, grew up playing them. Being a Baby Boomer I grew up playing Chinese Checkers, Chess, Monopoly, Parcheesi and Sorry.
Chess was the hardest for me because my Grandpa, a former German military officer, used to make me play it with him at his ranch/farm/goat-herding-operation out in Cisco, Texas. Every night we’d play and every night I’d lose. Then he’d grab me around the neck with one big ruddy paw and with the other he’d give me a major Noogie on the head as punishment for losing. I never understood why thought physical pain would make me a better chess player. It must have been some sort of German military officer thing.
So my summers usually consisted of shoveling cow manure, beheading chickens, avoiding the sinister herd of goats, who were bent on drowning me in one of the big open wells that dot West Central Texas, and then getting my head rubbed raw by Grandpa Max after losing at chess in the evening. No TV, no radio, no DVD, no Playstation, no MP3's... just Grandpa and his mandolin and Grandma and her big German smile.
Any time I had a chance to play Monopoly or Chinese Checkers or The Game of Life I was thrilled. Roll & Move was my friend. I found myself hungering after board games. Sadly, in the late 50’s and early 60’s there really weren’t a lot of them around. But there were a few and it was getting a copy of an early and very simple wargame that really got me hooked.
I have related the story about my acquisition of the American Heritage Dogfight game at some point on www.boardgamegeek.com, but if you missed it, here it is again.
Long about 1963 I was with my Mom in Dallas for the end of summer. I saw a Milton-Bradley ad in a comic book that had both Dogfight and Broadside advertised. I was thrilled! The two youngsters playing Dogfight in the ad were having a whole lot more fun than I was used to having. Plus, there was no former German military officer lurking in the background ready to rub the loser’s scalp raw with his knuckles. I had to have that game!
Somehow I came up with the five bucks needed to buy it and then I set to work on my mother. She was a single mom working 9 to 5 so she looked at me like I was nuts when I asked her to get the game for me. There was no way she was going to start pounding the streets for a stupid board game. So I started calling stores while she was at work. One store, a hobby store and magic trick retailer downtown, said they had the game. After coaxing my mom for several days she gave in and said I could ride downtown with her, go get the game and then I had strict orders to go sit in her car until her work day was done.
For the many of you not familiar with Dallas weather… and those who recently attended BGG.Con don’t count because I mean Dallas weather in August... you may only have some minor understanding of what I had to go through to get this game. August in Dallas is like being inside a steaming pressure cooker surrounded by goat liver, onions and broccoli. It’s not just hot and it’s not just muggy, it’s freaking hot! It's "Satan would be uncomfortable in Dallas" hot. And so muggy that your sweat glands build their own muscles. Perspiration squirts out of them, arcing over 6 feet away leaving boiling pools of moisture that are rapidly sucked up by the parched soil. The sun beats down like a giant bank of sun lamps positioned 6 inches from your head and you can literally fry bacon on your buttocks... if you're so inclined.
I found the store, bought the game and dutifully returned to my mother’s aging Volvo. Like a good boy, I sat there all day, in the car, except when she came and got me and bought me a sandwich and coke at a variety store lunch counter. I set the board up between the two front seats, balancing it on the shifter and crouched on the floorboard and by 5:15 when she arrived I had played at least seven games. I had also lost about 8 pounds and stained the carpets from sweating as the interior temperature in the Volvo easily went over the 140 degree mark.
My brother played Dogfight with me twice. He hated the game. My buddies wouldn’t play because there were teenaged girls in the neighborhood and they were rumored to be friendly. My mother just laughed when I asked her to play. So the game went back with me to El Paso where I maybe got two or three plays in with my friends, handily winning each one, and then they refused to play as there were teenaged girls in the neighborhood who were known to be friendly.
I never did get anyone to play my copy of Gettysburg, which I had ordered directly from Avalon Hill, but I played it numerous times solitaire. When I went overseas in 1967 all I could find in the UK and Spain were card players. So I played cards. But then, in Boston in 1968, I met an MIT student who mentioned a board game I’d heard of called Blitzkrieg. Tom and I played many a game of that one in his dorm. And I never even played Risk until about 1971 out in Los Angeles. Six of us used to play for money, turning the simple game of world conquest into a barroom brawl and exercise in the "diplomacy of the fist" every Saturday for nearly 6 months.
And the point to this tale of the barren gaming landscape of the 60's?
It’s that social board gaming up until the mini-explosion of Avalon Hill, TSR and SPI in the 70’s was a trial by fire. You really had to want to play a game other than Chess, Backgammon or Go to suffer through what many of us did. It’s my opinion that Viet Nam was partially responsible for the sudden growth of board and role-playing games. Lots of young men traveled overseas and became familiar with military stuff. Lots came back and they were used to having small, close-knit groups of buddies and if they weren’t too weirded out by their experiences or too high on ganja, games became a natural for enough of them to create a growth spurt in the tiny board game market.
Fast forward to the early 80’s and the sudden boom of electronic gaming and it’s easy to see that kids, like mine, who grew up with a Nintendo controller in one hand and a pacifier in the other, were predisposed to a more visually stimulating solitary gaming style. The latest Halo version by Microsoft has sold $600 million worth of units. That’s one game. It’s a multi-multi-billion dollar industry.
While I’m certain board games (other than the Monopoly genre) have sold more than a billion bucks worth, it’s taken several decades to do it and it’s just a fraction of what is sold yearly to console and pc gamers.
Yet despite our hobby being a niche within a niche within a niche, it’s obvious to me that the current Golden Age of Board Games is rooted in the success of the electronic gaming phenomena. In fact, my gut feeling is that were it not for Pong, the Atari and Mattel’s Intellivision there would very likely be as few board gamers today as there were back in the late 70’s.
Board games become pc games, pc games become board games, movies become pc games and board games and books become movies, pc games and board games. The cross-pollination is staggering. And along with that there is a similar cross-pollination amongst designers, marketing people and publishers. It’s as if the electronic revolution has opened up a multitude of vectors to get games of all sorts to the eager public. And the genre that appeals to me, and to most who read this blog, is one of the primary beneficiaries of this entertainment revolution.
I'd estimate that 97% of the customers I have sold games to in the last decade also play console or PC games. In fact, probably 90% of them played electronic games first. They played D&D on a pc, or Command & Conquer, or Doom or even Sesame Street. They grew up within a culture that does not frown upon game players. In fact, our culture now worships gamers. True, electronic gamers are the big fish, but they are gamers at heart and anyone who games one way can easily find similar entertainment in another genre.
With that in mind, is it any real surprise that Days of Wonder has sold half a million copies of the two Ticket to Ride titles? Or that Apples to Apples sold over 1 million copies before they were picked up by a major chain?
Here’s an anecdote that illustrates why I firmly believe that electronic games are the main source of our hobby’s recent success. I had this guy Kevin working for me a few years back. He had my cell number on his speed dial. Kevin also left his phone in his pocket and one night, when he sat down, it called me on it's on. When I answered I could hear Kevin and his wife playing D&D with four or five others. I eavesdropped for 15 minutes and the conversation was eye-opening. They were playing D&D, but there was a side conversation between all of them about pc gaming. So they would take a swing at the Orc, discuss a pc game, hack at a dragon, relate a pc gaming experience, brutally beat the kindly old gatekeeper to death, then argue the finer points of an online game, etc., etc.
Talk about multi-tasking!
As I stated earlier, I'm not a real fan of pc games. I only have a few and I also own an X-Box, but I haven’t played any of them for months and months. Too many board gaming opportunities keep cropping up. But Kevin and his generation play them all. I think there are very few gamers out there like me, ones who eschew electronic gaming unless there is a dire need for gaming relief and nobody available to pound on. It seems that the large majority of the potential markets for board games are people like Kevin and his D&D group.
What does this all mean? Well, it’s just my opinion, but I think it means that board games are not just experiencing some sort of temporary spike in sales. I think the surge in sales and new titles in the last several years is just the beginning. I am starting to view the board game market now and in the future like a salmon run during spawning season. Tens of thousands start the trek back up the river with romance on their tiny little brains. But only the strongest make it. The others die of exhaustion; get caught by sportsmen, snagged by bears or drift back downstream in hopeless futility, too weak to flap a fin.
And the source of all these salmon are the mega-corps who produce the multi-million selling titles… Sony, Microsoft, Blizzard and the rest.
Of course the best salmon are, in this analogy anyway, board gamers. The weaker, less adaptable salmon are the weirdo’s who spend their monthly stipend from the government on Ho-Ho’s and Mountain Dew and stay live on World of Warcraft 24/7, or sit silently in their dark, dank rooms with a headset and a 27” monitor playing Halo. Or they get sucked into the black hole of collectible gaming, never to return, wandering aimlessly for years calling stores in a vain attempt to sell off their old Pokemon cards. Or perhaps they become RPG-freaks, living their lives as an extension of their 127th level Wizard and trying to pick up chicks by showing them the size of their dice bag.
As a seasoned board gamer that fought the good war, I am much more tolerant of pc and console games than I was 15 years ago. Now I see them as fertilizer for the renewable resource of new fish…errr… salmon… uhhh… board gamers, that’s what I mean, new board gamers… who will start their struggle upstream early in life and when the cream of the crop emerges at the top to spew their precious cargo into the roiling waters….
Sorry, it’s graphic I know, but bear with me
… into the roiling waters, what will emerge is... a shiny new Board Gamer!
Wow. I like that simile a lot.
Hmmm... looking this week’s blog entry over I think perhaps my next career ought to be in marketing games. I wonder, if I gave Erich at Days of Wonder a call, or perhaps Glenn over at Eagle Games, and ran the salmon-spewing thing past them if they’d offer me a job?
I’d probably accept a VP position to start with.