[Musings of a Game Store Owner] The Way 40K Has Evolved -From a FLGS Perspective

Rob poked open a wound that’s been festering for a long time, and I can finally pull off the bandaid and let it air out. I finally have words to describe what caused it and why I couldn’t heal it before.

Time.

I know Rob was talking about a group of friends running a narrative forged miniatures campaign, where Brother Darius (aka Big Sword) gets into all kinds of compromising positions and Shadowsun comes to rescue him (hey, it could happen!). I know Rob was trying to help people find ways to set up the kinds of adventures Chaplain T had- so instead of reading about the awesome that happened there, we can make it our own.

But the funny thing is, he hit on something bigger. Something very few people think about or address, and if there’s one thing I have been willing to do, it’s deal with the hard stuff.

I am not afraid to use it.

As a store owner, it is part of my job to have scheduled events. Scheduled events have a long and proven track record of attracting paying customers to the store. Indeed, having a specific kind of event skews the attendance of a specific customer (a magic event draws magic players, for example). For me, the responsibility of having timely and interesting events goes far beyond getting “butts in seats”; it is integral to growing a sustainable customer base.

Important note: none of my comments are PERSONALLY about specific customers or their situations. They are about the generic and intangible idea of “customers” and are unintended to be criticisms or otherwise about “you”.  The comments are statements of facts and observations about my BUSINESS, and any complaints about my retelling them here are going to fall on deaf ears.

We run leagues, O.P., tournaments and all manner of events not just to get people in the door, but to encourage them to keep coming back. We want people to bring friends or tell their coworkers and spread the word about what happens at our store. We want something fun to be there for them to do so they will be our advertising. We want there to be fun at the store in order to grow our business.

This may work for the largest protected NFP around, but I won’t do it. 

It”s a little like gardening- you have to plant seeds for something to grow , and continually cull and pull out undesirable growth (weeds). Every now and then a plant doesn’t take and you have to dig it out, too. There’s nothing shameful about this- it’s the natural order of things.

It often falls to owners to do the “gardening”- the work of maintaining and growing particular games or systems, even if we don’t like those games. (I have 2 nights of D&D and 2 of Pathfinder, and those are not my favorite games.) Yes, it’s our job (didn’t I just say so?) but we’re often the only ones around to do it. So even if we LOVE a game, system or group; the WORK of coordinating all that goes with keeping it organized can be overwhelming.

With game stores, there IS shame more often than not. A good owner is often going to feel a sense of responsibility to a person, group or scene and can feel incredible shame and sadness when it doesn’t pan out. When a game “dies”, we’re sad. It’s almost never about the money; it’s usually a deep feeling that we could or should have done more to help foster whatever that game may have been. The fear that we didn’t do “enough” to keep something going is a terrible feeling, and it hits more often than a lot of people realize.  (Confrontation, AT-43, Monsterpocalypse, Dust Tactics, Warmachine/Malifaux 2nd Editions at least some, Infinity and more are among the games that have sprouted and then died in our store. I feel at least partly responsible for each one of these in some way.)

Seeing everyone but you having a good time and gaming is depressing and demoralizing after a while. It’s one of the things that leads to burn out, and few folks understand. When something goes bad, that guilt and sadness wears on you even further. Compound that with no outlet for your own creative needs or just relaxation, and the burnout grows even further- but very few see how it happens. I hear it all the time that “working at a game store must be so fun” but the reality is that it can suck. Even SinSynn, who hears me riff about the store via text message on a regular basis and who should potentially know better, made a comment the other day about how working at a game store is “fun”. It is also WORK- sometimes dreary and all encompassing and a fucking time suck.

Sometimes we cheat to cut the workload. It happens that we unilaterally decide that having a specific time for something is the best and easiest way to handle the work, and leave it at that.

I’m going to talk about a very specific game and what’s going on with it to illustrate several points that all tangle together into a flying spaghetti monster sort of way.

For as long as the store has been open, 40K league has been on Monday night. There really wasn’t a need for another night, because that’s when 40K happened. If you couldn’t make it, you either got together with your buddy on another day and played at his house for a make up game, or you DIDN’T PLAY. It was cut and dried and no one complained. Everyone knew the drill.

We had a very strong 40K crowd when we first opened. In fact, the store was built on the back of 40k, for the most part. Even though our store was tiny (less than 450sqft of total space), we managed to rotate several games through on league nights, with people lining up in order to play.

When we were new, we had plenty of people to run the league. There seemed more ideas than time, and people took turns creating great narratives and reasons for the many wars with plastic dudesmen that happened within our walls. People had the freedom that Beat Ronin talked about, doing things that were fun and accepted by the group, and it was a good time. It wasn’t a renaissance- it was a birth. A birth of lighthearted bullshitting pretzel and beer games for fun, with a narrative around them to help give them purpose and drive.

When we moved to a larger location, the league grew. 8-10 tables was a regular thing. We often had “shifts” of people coming in, with an early group and a late group to allow even more games than our table space allowed. Nothing else could happen on Mondays because space wouldn’t allow it. Customers couldn’t just “drop in” for a casual game of [whatever] on Monday nights. The space was dedicated to (and being used by) 40K.

And like all things, it started to change.

It started small-maybe someone moved, or got a girlfriend. Maybe someone got deployed or lost their job (or got a new one). Maybe someone had to sell their army to pay bills, or a new player came in and changed the “meta”. No matter what the cause, or when it happened; things changed. The group dynamic shifted, and the attitudes of the players started to reflect that shift.

A little while later, another change, and that impacted the group dynamic too. Each addition to or subtraction from the group altered the way it functioned with each other and as a whole. We started to see less people in on Monday nights. It was a slow trickle- instead of 12-15 games a night, we would see 10. It slowly dwindled down to a solid 6 a night.

While the number of games happening changed, so did the desires of the group. Now it wasn’t enough just to show up and have fun; there was a desire for better terrain and prizes, or better competition or any number of other interests came pouring out from the group. Then one day, it all got to be too much for the league organizer and he decided to walk away.

Suddenly, the good natured bullshitting beer and pretzels crowd became splintered. Like a hand full of pickup sticks strewn across a table, the many voices came rattling around the store without a single direction or purpose. They were simply noise. It was up to us (the store owners) to direct and control the noise, while trying to find something (anything) that worked for US.

It took a while to settle the noise into something like a controlled din, but we did manage to do that while not knowing much about 40K in the form it presented at the time. Despite owning a Black Templar army and trying pretty valiantly to learn to play, my ability is non existent and my interest diminished greatly when my BT were relinquished to naught but a fond memory in the back of the Space Marine codex. Managing a demanding crowd wasn’t something I could (or wanted to) handle. We (the store owners) didn’t change along with the crowd.

GW was making changes too, and I think that its important to note the correlation/convergence of the their changes and the changes in our local group. GW, after literally decades of releasing products on an average of once every 4 years; suddenly switched over to a rolling release date schedule that had a new release on the shelf every few weeks for 18 months straight.

TheDude and I were never very good at following the rumor mill for 40k- I was better at it than he was, simply by virtue of being involved in the House. I’d hear or see something in a comment or on someone’s blog or be told something by my very loud alien friend, and I’d absorb it or not depending on how important it was to me at the time. Once GW went into their high gear, cranking out data slates and models and codexes and whatever else at an amazingly fast  rate, we gave up.

So now, there’s no real direction for the 40K crowd; and no interest from the FLGS owners (us) in keeping up; and an infuriatingly fast release schedule. There’s not any real attempt to mold or shape the community from anyone IN it (or outside of it, either) and the already fractious nature of this group just splintered further in response to all of this “nothing”.

40k is no longer on Mondays as a standalone. 40K happens whenever, wherever and however the people in the crowd want it to. The calendar still says Monday, but I’ve seen games running on FRIDAY NIGHTS- another formerly untouchable night- and we don’t see a solid 6 tables all on one night anymore. We see one or two on Monday (if we’re lucky) and single games scattered in throughout the week whenever there’s space and the guys in question have time.

Our crowd has evolved.

It’s not just 40K. We see this “catch as catch can” attitude in Warmahordes to some extent as well. We see it with roleplaying, casual Magic and even boardgames (but to a MUCH lesser degree). People come in and play what they want, when they want and don’t give a g-d damn about what’s on the calendar.

Some get more than vaguely pissy looks on their faces when we have the audacity to be BUSY and not have room. This is especially true when it is POSTED on the website that we have an event going on. For some reason the idea that we planned for something and got good results seems to fire up the entitlement factor of some people to the 20,000th degree. These are often the weeds we need to pull, but actually doing so is tricky when the weeds are large, entangled with good plants or will hurt our wallet. (Some weeds are valuable and take careful management, like volunteer rose bushes.)

If I am being cranky and curmudgeonly (which are traits I learned from TheDude), then I see this change as a shift in respect for us and our business. I see this evolution as a deterioration of the community I have worked so hard to build and a direct affront to my person. In short, it makes me mad.

If I am being more positive, I see this as a good thing- our customers have freedom. They can play the games they want to play, in the narrative they want to create, when they are available and without any pressure. They can come in and know they are welcome even if something else is on the calendar and they can be part of the larger community. The miniatures players can hang with the magic guys and the RPG crowd can enjoy the laughter and cheers of the wargamers. This evolution is what I wanted (at least intellectually) when I was trying to grow my community.

For quite a while, the single biggest barrier to us (the store owners) evolving was TIME. We simply didn’t have any/enough to invest in determining what our customers wanted and how to respond to it. We either couldn’t or wouldn’t work through new ways of engagement, the product lines and the interest in them.  A large number of our groups but very specifically our 40K crowd suffered from this. There have been more than a few times when TheDude or I have wondered whether the investment we’ve dumped into GW products (I could pay for a year of college at a fairly moderate state school) was worth it. We can’t (or won’t) give 40K the attention we used to; mostly due to changes in sales but also due to the dynamic of our store. We have multiple other lines of business and those are far more profitable, so they get our attention.

(I will keep hammering on this point whenever someone asks about opening a business and having multiple lines. In theory it is a great idea. In practice, stuff like this happens and something inevitably suffers. People need to know.)

Time; right this moment (as in, today) is something I have more than I really want; and I don’t know how to effectively manage that. I am currently unemployed, and the ability to do more at the store is finally present. The ability to learn WordPress or manage the social media or grow my business as an agent (I represent artists looking for commissioned work) or open a webstore (which I have wanted to do for 5 years) has finally presented itself.

I was miserable for the past six months at the former job (due to a combination of bad fit and an actively insane environment) and so in many ways this unemployment is a relief. I can find (or forge) something that suits me more fully. This opportunity seems fortuitous on the surface. The concept of “working for myself” (or the store) seems oh, so, INCREDIBLY easy.

But it’s not that easy, at least not right now. I had a “day job”” in order to afford health insurance- something that’s ridiculously expensive in the States. (also, with someone in the family having a serious medical condition; necessary.)  So I am job hunting at the moment because I don’t know that I have another option. Things may change, and I may have a whole host of options I didn’t have two weeks ago (or even longer).

I’m being forced to at least consider change and how to apply it. Evolution is happening. To me. Can I apply that to my business? Can I direct, grow or shift any of my customer bases? Can I evolve with what my customers want as well as with my own life? This is yet to be seen.

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