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A Stop at Vul-Con Arena II – Some Thoughts, Part One

I had the opportunity to spend much of my Saturday morning and afternoon visiting Imperial Outpost Games in Glendale, Arizona. You see the store was the site for Vul-Con Arena II, a game day with quite a few events comprised of different genres, which was scheduled as a lead up to next year’s Vul-Con. As those of you who have listened to the show already know, my experiences at the local game stores haven’t been memorable – or I should say positively memorable – so I was interested in not only checking out the game day but the store itself. More on the store in a bit…

I’m sure it’s obvious that these Vul-Con Arenas (a third is scheduled for December at Samurai Comics in Phoenix) are mainly being held to market 2012’s convention and help spread the word. Just because I’m mentioning the Arenas are mainly marketing tools, don’t take that that as a negative. I think that Vul-Con organizers, Jay Mann and Rick Ivansek, really have the right idea! How many times have those of you taking a peek at this been excited about a game day, small convention, or new con that looks like it’s going to be a smash hit? You clear your schedule, make your plans, and head on off for a day (or multiple days) of what you’re expecting to be a lot of fun and excitement while hanging out with lots of people who share your same hobbies and interests. Then you get to the event and find there are twenty people there, they all know each other, have absolutely no interest in bringing you into the fold, and you leave soon after – feeling cheated and lied to by that damn stupid posting you saw over at The Gaming Gang… Doh!

Sure, the folks out there that only hit the big cons don’t know this feeling but the rest of us can think of quite a few of these incidents and, as much as I hate to say it, that might dampen our enthusiasm for attending a new show. Ask Elliott about the time he attended Fox Con (I think that was the name) in which Larry Roznai from Mayfair Games was scheduled to appear and how that turned out.

All in all, I think Rick and Jay are approaching the lead up to Vul-Con in the right way; get the word out, get the juices flowing, and get people interested in different genres pulling together in one direction. This is smart business – if a con loses their shirt you can bet you won’t see that show again the following year – and it’s also good for the hobby scene. I get the feeling that everyone involved in Vul-Con is taking nothing for granted and not sitting back thinking that just because they’re having a convention people will come.

So enough of my pontificating and I’ll move along to my Saturday.

As I mentioned, I’d never been to Imperial Outpost Games and I’ll be honest by saying I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. I’m not implying the stores in the Valley I’ve visited haven’t had a halfway decent selection of games, although there was one that was essentially a Games Workshop store without being a Games Workshop store so there wasn’t much for me to check out there, but I hadn’t found a place that I would consider being a base of operations. *** Note: I hope I don’t get sued by GW because I typed the name of the company without prior approval and paying them a nickel. ***

Registration for Vul-Con Arena II started at 9:30am and I arrived right around 9:45. I live in Mesa and I was heading to Glendale, which is on the other side of the Valley, so I knew I had about an hour drive ahead of me. Imperial Outpost is located in a strip mall and I noticed there were quite a few cars in the lot already. I thought that was a good sign because I had my fingers crossed that this wouldn’t turn out to be simply ten people sitting around playing D&D 4th Edition – especially after driving for an hour with my energy on empty after recording the latest podcast at 5am. I walked in and waited my turn to talk to the young woman who was handling the registration for the game day. I mentioned who I was and she knew that I was coming so she gave me a badge right away. Very shortly after I snagged my badge, I introduced myself to Jay Mann and he pointed out Darren Thompson, the owner of Imperial Outpost. I made sure to say hello and Darren was very friendly and gracious. I want to point out that Darren had a lot on his plate, with the game day going on and all, but still made it a point to talk with me on several occasions throughout the day.

First off I scoped out the layout of the store and was very impressed by what I found. Of course, these days any game store that wants to not only stay in business but possibly even turn a profit is going to need to carry Warhammer and Flames of War; they are high demand products and woe to those owners who don’t carry these lines. Keep in mind that I’m not implying anything negative with Flames of War as I’m just saying that it’s a product line that has a big following! Yet, along with these heavy hitters, I saw lots of goodness from our friends at Privateer Press, Reaper Miniatures, AEG, and what might have been the best selection of GMT titles I’ve seen in these parts, just to name a few companies I was very happy to see represented. I would have to say from my limited experience with Arizona game stores that Imperial Outpost is the best, and most diversely, stocked store I’ve seen.

Yet we all know that a lot of product does not a FLGS make…

I was also struck by the welcoming nature by everyone affiliated with Imperial Outpost. Long time listeners to the podcast know that I’ve been less than enthusiastic about the stores I’ve been to here in the Valley and the reason behind that is the treatment I’ve received when I’ve walked through the door. It isn’t like I run around spouting off that I run a gaming website, or as Elliott and I kid around, “Don’t you know who I am?!?!?!” I stroll through the door like any other customer although, unlike most people visiting a shop, I’m also taking a lot of mental notes. My biggest beef with stores in Arizona has been the complete lack of acknowledgment that I’ve even walked in the door and, what do you know, maybe I’d like to buy something. I even tried to give one place the benefit of three doubts, since people I know crowed about what a great shop it was, but the treatment I received was lackluster to say the least. Borderline go “F” yourself at the worst.

Honestly, if all you’ve ever known is a steaming pile then I suppose you’ll be willing to swallow a steaming pile.

The first time in the door, no one said boo. Even after I hovered around the front case right next to the register for a few minutes, I may have had to spontaneously combust before I got a glance. The second time, the part timer who was minding the store seemed pissed off that I had dared to interrupt his conversation about Star Fleet Battles, with someone who was no doubt a regular, to say hello. I was tempted to toss out the name of Task Force Games but was afraid I’d just get a blank look. The third time around I actually spoke with one of the owners, introduced myself and explained what Elliott and I do, and even made an offer to maybe come in with some of the titles we receive (prior to publication) in order to share them with their customers; a win/win scenario because their clientele could have a chance to check out games and the retailer would have an opportunity to gauge if a title would sell well or not. I kid you not when I point out The Gaming Gang gets copies of games months before retailers have to place their orders. I thought maybe this would be a nice way to give back to the community, and the store itself, because they would have a lot more to go on instead of just a sell sheet and some marketing hype. The owner who was there was more concerned with talking to a couple of regulars who came through the door, during the midst of our short conversation, about the condiments that the other owner enjoyed on his sandwiches than anything I had to say. No joke, the conversation about mustard went on for about a minute and a half. I don’t think, in the waking hours of my entire life, I’ve devoted anywhere near ninety seconds to the thought of mustard.

This isn’t sour grapes either; the approach Elliott and I have taken with our website has been extremely low key. I’m sure I speak for both of us when I say that we’re very proud that we’re taken TGG as far as we have in the last ten months (with an assist from our previous correspondent James) because we never envisioned where we would be today. Yet, regardless if I’m associated with a gaming site or I’m just a guy looking to find a game that’s fun for myself and the people I game with, I expect to have a shop owner respect my greenbacks. Or, better yet, I expect a shop owner to perk up their ears if I can provide them with a way to increase their greenbacks.

The reaction I got right off the bat – to sharing games not yet on the market – was how could a lowly mortal entity, such as I, be receiving games before they did and that was followed up by being told that the store used to have an open board gaming night but it was bringing in more than 100 people so it was “too much work” and they needed to do away with it. That sent my head spinning and the old noggin almost exploded when I was told the run down of the requirements of how I could bring some exclusive gaming goodness to their store.

It began with being informed that I needed to give notice weeks in advance. Sorry, but it would be “too much trouble” to designate a specific calendar date for me to introduce new titles or companies – to the people they don’t want to sell games – on an ongoing basis. Then I was told that I shouldn’t email the other owner, who actually makes all of the decisions for the shop, because he would just delete anything I sent because he doesn’t know me. I betcha he’d fall all over himself if I sent an email with the subject titled, “I Want to Buy Your Game Store,” and he wouldn’t be hitting delete on that any time soon. Obviously the people who own this shop are burned out on the industry so he’d be saving that email. Dreaming about getting that email in fact…

All of these things would have flown under the radar, not to be mentioned, if I hadn’t been told that having people come into the store for “open board gaming” was frowned upon. If you don’t want a hundred people in your store, at one time, then you have a serious issue with one of two things: A) You inherently dislike and distrust people because those people coming through the door are going to rob you blind or, B) You haven’t a clue as to how business has operated in the last twenty years and you’re more than happy to pay for the store operating costs and, obviously, a few Banquet microwave meals a week must be a sure sign of success.

You want to turn customers away?

Yes, what a pain in the ass! I hate having prospective customers come into my store, one that stays in business when people actually buy something, because it’s “too much work” to deal with those prospective customers. I must have heard how the store had been around for thirty years at least four or five times in the ten minute conversation we had. As if “we’ve been around thirty years” would mean anything in the business world, or even in the gaming world. Nice…

Go ask Texas Instruments or Xerox how sitting on their laurels worked out for them. Or, better yet, ask Flying Buffalo Games (located in Scottsdale, AZ) how well doing things the same way today as they did back in 1981 has turned out; Elliott and I saw the Flying Buffalo booth at Origins and the two guys working the booth were sleeping – with their heads down on the very products they came there to sell. This is the same company that put together Nuclear War and the RPG Tunnels and Trolls. When I was in high school, FBG had loads of great stuff on the shelves and they should have been out there printing money. Swing on over to their website and tell me that your eyes don’t bleed… If I ever put together a website that looks anything like that, and I’m not selling a damn thing, you have my permission to put a pistol to my head and pull the trigger.

I’m not asking you, I’m begging you.

I don’t name store names because I’m not here to rip on places in the Valley. I’m not the kind of guy looking to take a penny out of any game store owner’s pocket; as much as gamers think that owning a store would simply be Nirvana, the reality is it’s a supremely tough gig to stay in business let alone make enough dough to keep the doors open with a FLGS in the age of Amazon drop shippers who are happy to make ten cents more than the actual purchase price of the game. And we’re not talking about the MSRP here but the real price that stores pay for a game…

Yikes! I’m editorializing again! I understand people look at me as the “opinionated guy” here at TGG and I’m not letting them down tonight… I started off by writing about Vul-Con Arena II and went on a tangent about the state of gaming stores in Arizona.

I think this is enough for one post, so I’ll end right here and pick up tomorrow night with part two.

Jeff McAleer

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7 Comments

  1. Your perception of game shops in AZ is very interesting. I just returned from a trip to Chicago and got the same response from the storekeepers there as you suggest you received here. Unfriendly….

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  2. I’ve spent time at several excellent game stores in the Chicagoland Area. The sad thing is that they are few and far between now.

    Fair Game in Downers Grove is a fairly new store. The first time I stopped in was to get a preview of Redakai, and The Hunt For Gollum. I talked with Josh the proprietor for a good half hour while he and his staff were running the various events going on. He invited me to come to their Saturday night open gaming, and was very nice and knowledgeable. I picked up a copy of Animal upon Animal while I was there, it was the first FLGS I had actually seen it at. They have events planned most nights, and stay open late many times to accomodate the gamers.

    Cat and Mouse Game Store is in the Bucktown neighborhood in Chicago. They are smaller, so can’t hold big events, but they host up to 20 people, hold D&D and open gaming nights, and will even let you plan your own events there (for a price). They knew games well and were happy to help with recommendations, and demos of popular games. They even had Scott Nicholson out one day to meet and talk with some Chicago gamers when he was in town.

    Gamer’s World is in the Woodfield Mall. It’s the last remains of what used to be the much missed Gamer’s Paradise chain. It is a good sized store with a LOT of games, puzzles, RPG’s, all kinds of stuff. The staff was nice and helpful, and I think most of the staff has played almost every game in the store. I preordered a game there and they called me the day it came in. They also hold events and have a back room that is always filled with gamers. Sure, there is a lot of MTG going on back there, but I guess many people like that.

    That’s all the stores I’ve visited in Chicagoland, which represents all of the ones I’ve found, and they’ve all been great.

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  3. Lest I forget, Marbles the Brain Store has six shops located around Chicago. They sell mostly educational games and toys, and are great for kids and adults. They have demo tables laid out where they are happy to teach you how to play different games, and host events regularly. Again, more examples of stores that want to bring people in, and treat their customers right.

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  4. I can say the same thing about the game shops in the greater Phoenix area that you say about the stores in the Chicagoland area. All of the shops that I am familiar with, which includes every store listed above, are good game stores. They all provide quality products, friendly service, and a place to play. I’ve frequented all of the stores listed above, played at all the stores listed above, and purchased items from all of the stores listed above. No one has ever refused to help me or take my money. I do not really think that the rant above of the various stores are fair at all. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I have a hard time believing that the experiences listed above are accurate descriptions of what happened. With the poor economy and cheaper prices online, these stores would not be in business if they treated customers the way the author claims he was treated.

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    • You can believe what you’d like Mike; I simply called it as I saw it. If I had experienced a bad visit to Imperial Outpost I would have just assumed all the game stores I had been to (and I have not been to them all) in the Valley operated the same way. Since that wasn’t the case, and I really was impressed by the folks at Imperial Outpost, I did a bit of editorializing. I also understand that everyone can have a bad day and that’s why I made three trips in particular to that one store. Keep in mind at no time have I mentioned the names, or locations, of the stores I was unimpressed with.

      There were some shops, over the years, in Chicago that didn’t project a welcoming attitude either and I’m sure this can be the case wherever you go. It is a bit naive to think that stores can’t continue to operate if they don’t treat their customers right. In this age of instant gratification, people will want what they want and they’ll simply go get it. Just think of how many people you might know who rail about WalMart being the evil empire yet those people drive right over to WalMart when they need something in a hurry.

      Game stores fall into the same category even though they carry niche products. The average gamer just wants the newest XYZ release so they’ll head into the nearest place that carries it – if they want it bad enough and don’t want to wait for something to be shipped – regardless if the store has a good reputation for service or not.

      I never said that anyone “refused” to help me or take my money either. Nor did I say people shouldn’t visit these shops. I wrote of my experiences straight up and have to mention it’s highly doubtful you were present during any of these visits to refute these facts.

      As I side note, I received two emails from folks who are involved on the business side of the gaming scene here in the Valley and they believed I hit the nail on the head in this post. But you are right, everyone is entitled to their opinion, even those people who post comments insinuating that I’m a liar…

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      • Well Jeff, it’s unfortunate that you took my post as a personal attack. I suppose I can see how you might take it that way but only if you are being defensive about your original position. I just gave a different opinion of what I have personally experienced in the Valley. I never insinuated that you were a liar. Frankly, I am not that shy and if I thought you were a liar I would tell you that. I can’t see how a game shop, most of which are Mom and Pop shops, would stay in business with customer service you describe. I think it naive to think that people are stupid enough to give money to people who treat them poorly.

        I am amused that you made the comment in your post that you “don’t name store names because I’m not here to rip on places in the Valley. I’m not the kind of guy looking to take a penny out of any game store owner’s pocket.” Have you read your post? You rip every game store in the Valley that you have been to other than IO. You don’t want to take money out of other game store’s pockets? Well, if your blog and podcast is nearly as important as you seem to think it is, what do you think you are doing? The gaming scene in Phoenix is pretty small and I guarantee you that anyone in the area knows every store in your post whether you mentioned the stores by name or not. Do you really think Joe Gamer is going to run to the local game shop to buy the latest and greatest from a store filled with people as you describe above? The next time a game comes out that you want, why don’t you run down to one of the two stores you chose to trash and buy it? You won’t. Customer relations are important. If they weren’t, you would not mention your experience in your post. Most gamers are not loyal. Most gamers I know, the same ones who frequent these stores to play their games, buy their games online because they are cheaper. Attitudes like these gamers and posts like yours do nothing to help the local gaming community.

        I have frequented all of these stores on a regular basis. As a whole, I have found the gamers to be friendly and the employees to be friendly. After all, every store owner in the Valley was or is still a gamer…..

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        • I’m not defensive at all about my original assessment. Yet I don’t think most people would take “I have a hard time believing that the experiences listed above are accurate descriptions of what happened” as something other than saying I was not truthful. You indicate you’re not personally attacking me and then a paragraph later you take a shot at me by implying I have an overinflated sense of the worth of a website and show that my best friend and I invest a lot of time, work, and money into.

          I wrote an opinion piece and left it at that. If a few hundred people in Arizona end up reading it at some point, so be it; the other 40,000+ visitors who come by each month probably wouldn’t think twice about it outside of wondering about their own game store experiences.

          Yet, I’m not going to take this in the direction that some people would.

          You sir, have the floor. Feel free to talk about the game stores you frequent and why you enjoy going to them. I have no issue with someone disagreeing with me – I would honestly hope that my experiences were an aberration – so fire away! Seriously, I don’t mean this is a snarky way. Please share your opinions of the stores here in Arizona.

          In fact, if you’d like to compose an article talking about gaming and game stores in the Valley (or Arizona in general) I’d be happy to post it with a full byline and any photos you’d like to include.

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