My dear friend Dawn posited a question in a retailer Facebook group this past week that has had me thinking.
What leads to the decline of a gaming group in our brick and mortar locations?
I had no idea, and hadn't spent a ton of time thinking about it before she asked that question, but today I'm going to examine some of the gaming groups that have died off at Total Escape Games over the nearly seven years I've been here and see if we can't get to the bottom of the issues.
To start this project off I asked my employees to name some games that have lost their game groups, and also their sales steam, within the four walls we call home so much of the week. They were able to put together a pretty solid list for me, and I could immediately see the variety of reasons they died without doing a ton more research.
It appears they fall into a couple of different categories.
Rules Changes Hurt the Game
This can be a big one for us. If players no longer like the game it becomes nigh impossible for us to support said game.
There are three important examples here of publishers putting the proverbial gun to my bottom line. The seventh edition of Warhammer 40K was an unmitigated disaster for us. The Core Rulebook is among the best selling products ever in our four walls, and my can you watch the drop come quickly after that. Players hated the rules set, and my Games Workshop numbers plummeted nearly 80% from 6th to 7th Edition.
8th Edition has been good, and my players are returning with some excitement these days.
The best example of poor rules ruining a play experience, and not being the fault of Games Workshop, is the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D wasn't the top RPG game during the era of 4th Edition, as players, clearly unhappy with the changes between 3.5 and 4 moved over the upstart Paizo and played the game I still jokingly refer to as D&D 3.75.
These two games were killed by the manufacturer by making too drastic changes that alienated their player base.
There is a lesson to be learned in this category as well, as it would be remiss to not mention the Mark III release of Warmachine and Hordes from Privateer Press. We sold a ton of the new battle boxes at launch, and then watched an unhappy player base go running away screaming as if someone had set their britches on fire.
After watching existing players flail at the game and express their unhappiness, we started a Journeyman League, and sold it to people as "It's a new game, no one knows anything!" That sales pitch worked, and we've built a community for these games again. As of my Nov 30th blog Privateer Press was only down about $400 on the 12 months to 11 month comparison I made at that time. It was rescued from the garbage heap by a passionate employee who has done a darn fantastic job of rebuilding that community.
We now schedule Journeyman Leagues twice a year, once right after Christmas to gather up that sweet sweet grandma money from people looking for a new game, and once over the summer.
Talking about the work that an employee has done in reviving Mark III brings me to the next category in our list.
Loss of A Product Champion
Product Champions are a darn big deal. In some cases we have manufacturers who designate those champions (and don't get me started on Men in Black...) and sometimes as stores we find those people, develop those people, and empower them to build their communities.
The loss of my product champion for Guild Ball to the rigors of real life meant fewer Guild Ball demos, and the player base that grew up around him also scattered to the four winds, because he was the glue that brought them together. I'm a notoriously difficult person to sell a new minis game to, and that's what I saw when Guild Ball was released. He talked me into, I did some research, and we were an early adopter of the game. This allowed the Guild Ball community to sort of begin here, but when my product champion moved due to real life the community fractured. Now I'm confident in saying that every store in this town has a Guild Ball player or two, and not much more, and I doubt that any of us are stocking it deeply or moving it particularly well.
Community champions, or the loss their of, also played a role in our Pauper tournaments becoming more and more difficult to fire. I actually have a lot of faith that Pauper returns over the summer, as one of the driving players in that segment of Magic community is a public school teacher, so we don't see him as much as we'd really like to. It was sad to see it slowly trickle off, because it's one of my favorite ways to play Magic.
The loss of product champions in Bolt Action and Flames of War led to those games being played less and less, and eventually led to the discontinuation of them in my stores. Both of these games were also hurt my theme, younger games are far less likely to play WWII games (at least that is my non-researched opinion from interacting with members of our historical gaming community).
There's a group of games in this category that have suffered from cannibalization as a result of their similarities.
Netrunner was a huge hit for us at release, and those players moved into Warhammer Conquest and played the two games side by side, the same play group alternating Wednesday nights between which game they would play.
Warhammer Conquest (which we'll discuss further later on) was replaced by Game of Thrones, and the group played both of those games together.
Game of Thrones has since been replaced by Legend of the Five Rings.
Maybe I'm crazy, and as always around here, your mileage may vary, but I believe that players are unwilling or unable to support more than two living card games with competitive models at a time. Arkham Horror LCG and Lord of the Rings LCG both have little niche following, and some of those people are also playing one or two competitive living card games, but no one in my store is buying the product for three competitive living card games every month.
My DiceMasters crowd falls into this category as well, at least according to the couple of former players I was able to speak to about it. The release schedule made the game untenable for them to keep up with, and it also became difficult to justify shelf space and dollars for.
This product glut is something we can deal with, just by being aware of the trends and making sure we're staying on top of them. The writing was on the wall as each of these changeovers in the LCG market took place, so we've been able to keep our player base engaged with the game they want to be playing.
(Side Note: Netrunner is seriously down right, but not dead. I expect an uptick with the release of the new Core Box, which will make the game accessible to new players again. If anyone at Fantasy Flight is reading this, I'd love to talk about how to keep it healthy with a proper constructed format. #CallMeMaybe?)
Stale Gameplay Experience
Frequently players disappear over a period of time because they're tired of playing the same game over and over, the meta in the game they're playing is stale and boring. For Magic we've seen this from time to time when a Standard format becomes too well defined too quickly, and rather than playing against the same top decks over and over, Standard players stay home or draft.
The X-Wing community has suffered through some periods of gross stagnation in the game. The 'Tier 1' lists were so well-tuned and so dominant that even morons with no ability to properly maneuver a ship were able to have success with them. If you're an X-Wing player you've surely flown against the Quad TLT list. You've surely seen the same three Imperial Aces flying around the table over and over. God knows we'll never forget the summer of the Toilet Bowls, where Jumpmasters were everywhere.
Stale gameplay experiences frequently come down to one thing, poor game design. Sorry, I said it. X-Wing at its release was one of my favorite games ever. The Wave 1 X-Wing ships required skill, didn't have anything so grossly overpowered that I had to plan on beating a certain list, and was a game that rewarded player skill despite the dice component.
Let's not talk about it.
The Community Eats Its Own
I don't want to use the word toxic here, but for some retailers that is the reality. Toxic communities can kill a game, whether or not they mean to. I don't believe that many of these people intend to be toxic, but they become that way accidentally when not checked properly.
I've discussed X-Wing and the stale metagame, but part of the downturn of X-Wing in my own store has also been the perception that a small group of players were always preparing for the next major tournament. Those players were only willing to play whatever the hot, powerful, list was, and were only willing to play against people playing 'real' lists. That caused a segmentation in the community that made it difficult for new players to feel welcome.
The same held true for our Dual Commander nights. Commander is fun format. Commander is the place I get to play big splashy, stupid, cards, that aren't legal in any other format. At least, there was a segment of the Commander community that felt that way.
There was also a segment of the Commander community that felt like the only goal of playing Magic is to win at Magic, and whether or not their opponent was enjoying the game didn't matter to them. Those players and their desire to win a little more store credit chased away the players who felt like they were doing nothing more than donating their entry fee as prizes for other people.
The real problem I had with this as a gamer, and a former competitive Magic player, was that the better players could have brought fun, interactive, decks to Dual Commander and still won, because it's pretty rare in Dual Commander that a lucky card draw wins a lesser player a game. The better players could have made sure the lesser players had fun, and maybe helped to grow that community. Instead their $5 entry fee would get them $12 or $15 in store credit, and they killed the goose.
This is something we can't do anything about. We've lost two major play groups to the discontinuation of product, and we can trace both those losses to Games Workshop. The larger of the two groups that I lost was my Warhammer Fantasy group, a large, thriving, group of gentleman who enjoyed pushing giant-sized blocks of infantry around the table.
We tried very hard to make Age of Sigmar work, spending a substantial amount of our product support on prizes for two or three AoS events, but the community just didn't care. We've never been able to make a recovery with AoS despite the continued development of the product line. We've completely stopped carrying it, and desperately wish that they'd announce a new version of Warhammer Fantasy that stays true to the roots of that game.
The other large player group we've lost was a licensed 40K product, Warhammer Conquest, as that game was cancelled when the FFG/GW relationship abruptly ended. I'm not sure if that game would have held on even if it was still in print, or if would have lost players to GoT and L5R.
Accidentally Pushed Out
We have to create this group and take the blame for some losses, because sometimes even with our best efforts to mitigate things, we can't make everyone happy, and that's clearly the case with the loss of my Pathfinder Society community.
Back in ye olden days, which means something over six years ago, Pathfinder Society and Adventurer's League occupied the same evening, Wednesday. Pathfinder Society was two or three tables every week, and Adventurer's League during 4E was one inconsistent table.
Then the release of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons changed the game. We started off with three tables of Adventurer's League, and our two or three Pathfinder Society tables started to feel squeezed. They expressed displeasure with the increased noise levels in the store brought about by a large number of new D&D players spending time with us every Wednesday. We made an effort to keep them in the semi-private room at the back of the store, and offered them other calendar spaces where they could have a more quiet atmosphere, but neither of those efforts were enough to keep them in the store.
In that first year of 5th Edition D&D we sold more Player's Handbooks than we had Pathfinder Core Books over the course of five years, so everything works out okay, but I still sometimes wonder if I could have done more to make them happy. The only option that I would never put on the table was moving Adventurer's League, because Wednesday was the night that Wizards had their advertising on, and I like that consistency from city to city, where a player who is in Broomfield on a business trip knows they can play some D&D on Wednesday.
As I looked at six years and about a dozen gaming groups, these are the seven reasons I could find that the groups are no longer playing in the store. In most cases there may be ways to mitigate the issue if you discover it soon enough, and in some cases there is nothing we can't do.
In some cases I've put a game above in one category that truly could fit into many categories, and it can be very difficult to mitigate all of those different factors if they end up piled on a game. I had a great conversation while writing this with my friend Joe, who is a gamer through and through, a guy who enjoys board games, card games, some role-playing games, a lot of stuff in a lot of different genres. He and I talked at length about X-Wing after I had written everything but this wrap section, and he mentioned the combination of factors that have made the game a challenge lately. There's been extreme power creep that has made the game less fun, and has resulted in stagnant metas because large groups of players are pretty good at finding the best lists. Fantasy Flight is burying players in a lot of new products, and packaging it in such a way that it can be very expensive to keep up with. The combination of negative factors make it easy for players to just find something else to do with their time and money.
This topic may be worth further investigation. In each of the above cases I now wonder if there isn't a lesson to learn here. Can we be doing something to mitigate these factors? Let's talk about that next time, because this is 2,600 words now.