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Cracked LCD- There will be Games HD part 3- I Built My Dreams Around You

death star

Here it is- the long-delayed third part of the There Will Be Games HD remaster project. Yes, it is in fact an indicator that I was lazy this week and didn’t feel like writing anything. But there have been a couple of requests to continue on with this rerun series, so somebody out there will be happy to see it.

Close up on a drawing of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The camera pulls back slowly, revealing it to be an illustration on a dusty, shrink-wrapped copy of Steve Jackson Games’ DINO HUNT. Zoom out to show the game lying in a pile of rubble—broken pieces of wooden slat wall and the detritus swept from under shelving units now long sold away. The zoom continues back to reveal the heap of debris against a field of blue-gray industrial carpet lining the floor of an interior space. Slow dolly as we back through an empty room, out a floor-to-ceiling glass windows and into the parking lot of a small strip shopping center. Slight tilt up to a back-lit blue sign, giant letters that spell out “Games” with a hex and gear motif. It’s a cold day in Atlanta as we stand at 551 10th Street, sometime in February 2008.

It’s now 2004. The storefront, which will be empty once again four years later, is then an abandoned Laundromat and three people in front of it are talking to a realtor about leasing the space that would become Atlanta Game Factory. The rent is maybe a little too high and the entire place will have to be gutted, but it seems like the perfect location- it is on the Georgia Tech campus and has easy access from the northern suburbs and I-75, the major highway running straight through Atlanta. A three year lease is signed and construction begins.

Remembering how we put together Atlanta Game Factory is definitely a bittersweet thing for me now- on the one hand there’s the apocalyptic finale I never could have foreseen that would be the culmination of the creative energy of that time but then there’s also the memory of a really great feeling that always comes with taking the first real steps in making something- whether it’s a painting, a piece of music, a written work, or a retail store- move from concept to execution. With a large scale project like a retail store, it can be a dizzying experience, and throughout that time when we were inching closer and closer to opening the store there were so many points at which I felt like I couldn’t believe it was all really happening. But like any undertaking, there was still a lot of work between those sparking, scintillating moments of wonderments and actually walking through the door and into an operational store. And of course, there are a million variables, speed bumps, pitfalls, and unexpected challenges that crop up along the way. Things you never considered suddenly become the most important thing in the world, if only until you work them out.

We worked out a rough division of labor. Much to my wife’s constant chagrin, I’m a terrible handyman so I was thankful that the Barrister largely managed the build out- not a small task considering that industrial washers and dryers had to be taken out and disposed of, flooring had to be replaced, every wall painted and repaired, and an infinity’s worth of muck and soap scum scraped off every exposed surface. Dollar Bill’s experience in setting up retail storefronts proved to be indispensable in terms of the acquisition, planning and logistics of getting Atlanta Game Factory off the ground and his business instinct was definitely an asset in making early critical decisions. I was charged with figuring out what we were going to carry, our retail strategies, organizing events and getting a community started, and doing a lot of the customer-end things. But at this point, we didn’t even have furniture.

We all agreed that we wanted the store to look nice, clean, and approachable. But as in any situation where three individuals come together, even with a unified idea or concept, what that really meant in terms of the store’s visual style was wildly different. My initial concept was to keep everything industrial- wire shelving, metal and glass, alternative building materials, and a general aesthetic that was very stylish and thematic.

When I went to go see the fixtures and furniture the Barrister had picked out it was the first of many disappointments Atlanta Game Factory would ultimately represent. The slat walls and free-standing shelving units were a light blonde wood that looked clean and durable but at the expense of any sense of style or creativity. What was worse was that the tables and chairs they had picked out for the open gaming area were not only extremely expensive but they were unremittingly ugly- imagine asking a couple of completely average men with little or no taste to go pick out nice table and chairs out and you’ll pretty much have a good idea of what these looked like. Black lacquer, glass table tops, and an unholy and morally wrong conjunction of wood and chrome. I didn’t even want to know how much they cost. Regardless of how much of the startup budget those hideous things cost, I still have one of them in my backyard that my wife uses as a painting table.

It was clear then, early on, that the high-minded aesthetic concepts that we had talked about were going by the wayside as function began to win out over form and the realities of budget began to reduce some of our grander concepts down to more realistic things. It wasn’t necessarily a total loss- the store was, even at that early stage, looking clean, fresh, professional, and well-appointed. Of my original industrial concept, at least my logo remained and we even had a huge backlit sign made with it- an offset gear inside a hex, an image that I thought captured a fundamental metaphor for what a game is while providing us with a very graphic branding tool. It looked modern, hip, and simple- completely at odds with the various dragons, goblins, wizards, and so forth that other stores recklessly slap on their advertisements and T-shirts. That sign is still over the abandoned storefront to this day.

So with the foundations laid, an actual storefront established, and various other groundwork-level tasks completed we started to talk about some of the finer points and fortunately I had a much larger hand at this stage than I did in picking out furniture. We went about setting up accounts with distributors and lining up contacts so we could start investing in product; the Barrister continued to handle infrastructure chores including getting a PoS (point of sale) system set up, and I was going through catalogs and product lists to identify what we were going to be carrying and how much we were going to have to spend to have a decently appointed store. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to spend thousands of dollars on games.

The impulse, when you’re stocking a store, is to get one of everything. Of course, that just isn’t possible at the end of the day so you have to start weeding out what you think will sell and what will sit on the shelf. We had decided that we would specialize in board games but we would also carry a comprehensive inventory of collectible card games, role-playing games, miniatures, and accessories. Most gamers probably feel confident that they could go through and pick out a good inventory, but there is so much out there that I think anybody would be surprised. It’s easy enough to go through and pick out the SETTLERS OF CATAN titles, the entire DUNGEONS & DRAGONS line, or whatever the current MAGIC: THE GATHERING set happens to be. It’s another to be confronted with a bewildering array of second-tier RPG titles you’ve never heard of, Games Workshop’s seemingly infinite catalog of individual miniatures, or any number of CCGs that are desperately, deceptively marketed to retailers by distributors and publishers alike as “the next MAGIC”. Every dollar you spend is an investment, and if what you buy doesn’t sell, then you’ve either tied up capital in a shelf-warming product or you’ve lost it altogether when you sell a dud item for pennies on the dollar on a clearance table. I actually did a lot of research at this time, trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff. It’s tough to figure out which niche products you’re going to try to sell to a niche audience within a niche business.

With the obvious inventory choices made along with a lot of calculated risks, we three collectively started accruing what was likely the largest game collection in Atlanta, barring a couple of local super collectors. I thought I had done an exceptional job of avoiding all the third-rate crap you typically see gathering dust literally for years in many shops. But even with thousands of dollars pumped into inventory, our new shelves still looked really bare. Our first real disagreement came when I suggested to Dollar Bill that we at least double the investment we had made in product. He agreed, but the Barrister just wouldn’t have it. Not having real hobby experience, he just didn’t get that the store wasn’t really at the comprehensive, deep-inventory level we really needed. We wanted to be a “gamer’s store”- not somewhere someone came to pick up a few YUGIOH cards or a copy of SETTLERS. So Dollar Bill put up some more money and eventually The Barrister acquiesced. Looking back, I wish that he hadn’t.

The problem is that Dollar Bill and the Barrister decided to spend this cash injection at a local distributor- without my guidance. Dollar Bill knew the hobby well enough, but he was also operating under a lot of odd assumptions and prejudices- like the belief that we should have five copies of MUNCHKIN on the shelf at all times. It didn’t help that he was also really susceptible to marketing-speak. The Barrister simply bought anything the sales rep showed him.

So when they came back, we had $2000 worth of MECHWARRIOR booster boxes- purchased in such bulk to get these exclusive Dropships which would eventually wind up broken in our backroom and given away. We had everything Steve Jackson games had ever published, including the copy of DINO HUNT that is still resting on top of a pile of rubble in the abandoned storefront to this day. We had a stuffed Cthulhu in an Elvis costume. We had Monty Python bunny slippers, a giant plush D20, and booster boxes of pretty much every CCG being published at that time. Perhaps the strangest thing the Barrister picked up was thirty of these MAGIC life counters- they were pewter discs with these numbered cardboard wheels sandwiched between them. A sticker was sloppily applied to each of them with a goofy looking monster or other fantasy illustration likely scratched out by some pony-tailed “artist” who used to draw medieval warriors on their folders in school and assumed that was their calling in life. Each one of these life counters was $5 wholesale…which meant that ideally they were supposed to be sold at $10 retail. Later on, we’ll learn their fate.

I could go on literally for several columns about the bad purchasing decisions made by the Barrister, and to some extent Dollar Bill, at this early point. Looking back at it and thinking about the game stores I’ve been in, I can see that this kind of buying is a complete deathtrap- and sadly, too few people in the industry know how to say “no” to junk products and focus on saleable product. Even fewer pay enough attention to trends and interests in the hobby to make good judgment calls on where to spend their money. It’s why every game vendor you see at any convention usually has piles and piles of clearance items being sold at a loss.

It also didn’t help that the Barrister went on eBay and spent hundreds of dollars on some of those auctions for lots of old games. So we wound up with pretty much all of the bad Avalon Hill games (but not, thankfully, OUTDOOR SURVIAL) and a bunch of also-ran wargames. But we actually wound up with a really nice selection of vintage and used games, mostly because Dollar Bill decided to put his entire collection up for sale. So we also had a complete TALISMAN 2nd edition set, the DAWN OF THE DEAD board game, and some other “collectible” items that added some prestige to the piles of junk we were now going to be hawking. I was also really proud that we managed to score what I think was probably the last copy of the French edition of CIVILIZATION available in the US. It really made me feel like we were a serious game store that knew its business. I was pretty sure it would never sell, but it was admittedly a vanity item.

All things considered and despite the havoc caused by my partners buying things without my supervision, I thought that we had a really awesome selection that literally had something for every gamer and substantial depth in each product category that demonstrated our knowledge and commitment to bringing Atlanta the best of the hobby- even in our weakest areas, the RPGs and miniatures departments. Fortunately, those sectors are almost completely dominated by DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and Games Workshop respectively so that made things a little easier. I do have to say that our ill-advised “classic games” section was terrible- I was almost completely against carrying Chess, Backgammon, Go, and the like since most people interested in those games either have them, can get them at a mass-market store, or want a very specialized top-of-the-line set and that was not something that a hobby game store should do. The Barrister, however, thought that nice chess sets would sell so we had a couple of $100+ sets that indeed looked very nice sitting in the display cases until the day the doors closed on the store forever.

And then, there was Poker. This was all right after the peak of the Texas Hold ‘Em fad. So of course, the Barrister decided that we needed to have Poker supplies. Thanks to another of the Barrister’s un-chaperoned shopping sprees, we wound up with all these sets of chips (some of which were very, very expensive), decks of cards, casino dice, metal attaché cases, and so forth. I think his belief was that a mainstream, non-geek product line like that would leverage the more risky hobby products and provide a steadier profit margin. What he didn’t think about is that at that point you could buy Poker supplies at Wal-Mart or even the gas station. Aside from that, it was a fleeting fad and one that was certainly not something into which a hobby store should invest hundreds of dollars. And I also think that he never realized that college kids- our prime demographic- had no interest in buying a $100 set of clay chips. So all of that money was completely wasted. They did make handy life counters for the Magic players, however.

Regardless of what was on the shelves, we had a storefront. And it looked great, even if almost completely uncreative and without any sense of style or concept whatsoever. There were still some particulars to handle before we could move toward opening our doors to Atlanta’s gaming public. The Barrister hired a company to build a website for us, which was unfortunately tied directly to our point-of-sale system and therefore extraordinarily ugly and almost completely unusable and we put some ads in local papers to let everyone know where we were, what we were doing, and when we would be opening. Of course, the Barrister again failed to communicate with me or Dollar Bill for any creative input so the first ad was a hospital green affair with plain typesetting and no graphics- a crude line-drawn map was supposed to show customers where we were. So I complained enough about it and he had a friend design a new ad, which I’ve always referred to as the “Atlanta Death Factory” one. It showed a horrible-looking industrial landscape of environment-destroying smokestacks and machinery. The photo had to have either been taken in New Jersey or Sheffield., I’m sure. I was actually embarrassed to show my friends and family the ads.

By now, the roots of the end should be readily apparent. The Barrister, being the majority shareholder and also the person with the least vested interest or functional knowledge of the hobby, had way too much control over things. Our pricing strategy was one such point- Dollar Bill and I both fought him tooth and nail over selling everything at full retail price because he and I- being involved with the hobby- knew that the Internet deep-discounters would bury us if we didn’t price competitively. But he won out, at least temporarily, and everything was stickered at full retail price with our shiny new pricing guns. But this part of the tale isn’t about the fruit that those diseased roots would bear, it’s about building a dream and being there when that first customer walks through the door and everything you’ve been working toward is suddenly…reality.

Before the debris of nearly six months worth of construction and planning had settled, Atlanta Game Factory opened its doors for business October 20, 2004.

GAME Saved

GAME shop front - bought out from administration and will now continue trading

If you’re in the UK you’ll be aware that the high street’s only specialist video games chain GAME hit the buffers recently. If you’re not then you might have caught my post about it a few weeks back. Either way, some limited rejoicing is probably in order because on the brink of liquidation, it’s been bought out and will resume trading. Well, I say “bought”, but given that the company is £85 million in debt, the actual price was probably pretty nominal.

The reason why rejoicing is to be officially limited is because it seems to me there are still some pretty big questions that have been raised by the failure of the chain which have yet to be answered. GAME was certainly insanely profligate, buying up rivals and retaining their stores even if it meant outlets only a few yards apart on the high street, but is that the only reason for their failure? You’d have a hard job arguing, I think, that the advent of bigger downloadable content, online retailers and deep discounting by supermarkets hasn’t had anything to do with it. Indeed right after GAME collapsed, the UK’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, tried to aggressively position itself in the marketplace as its heir apparent.

But some smart retail brains clearly think the chain has a future, otherwise they wouldn’t have been willing to take on those millions of pounds of debt. I’m guessing this is partly down to the release of a new console generation somewhere in 2013 or thereabouts – there will certainly be significant high street demand for that. Beyond that things look rather more difficult, especially if the rumours about Sony demanding consumers pay a mark-up to play used games turn out to be true and Microsoft and Nintendo follow suit. That would probably virtually destroy the trade-in market, and then you’ve got the spectre of full games being available as downloadable content eating into physical disc sales. I guess someone thinks they can make £85 million profit before DLC takes over the market.

I hope this isn’t true, and I think there’s a glimmer of hope of the horizon. It seems to me that alongside its acceptance into the mainstream, increasingly video gaming is becoming like most other mass-market media split along a line between dedicated hobbyists and the general public. You see the same thing in art-house cinema versus the multiplex, in massed ranks of airport paperbacks versus deliciously dusty specialist booksellers. I can see a future where the casual market still wants to buy new games in a physical store and is interested enough to want advice from keen hobby gamers. In my personal experience the staff of GAME, who’ve been the ones to suffer most through this whole saga, and many of whom will now hopefully keep their jobs, fit that bill, being enthusiastic and knowledgeable without being scary or overbearing. It seems they’re well placed to send GAME into the one market niche where it might survive, and prove into the bargain yet again that a firms’ greatest asset are it’s people.

I wanted to take this opportunity to apologise publicly for the atrocious puns I employed in the titles of both my articles about GAME stores. Sorry. I know it was wrong, but I just couldn’t help myself.