17 January 2019 | 208 Comments
Distributors and retailers, we need to talk.
First, though, let’s bring everyone else up to speed, because most of my readers aren’t distributors or retailers. Here’s a quick summary of how the system works in the board game world: A publisher (like Stonemaier) creates a game and pays a manufacturer (like Panda) to produce it. The manufacturer typically ships it to one or more warehouses. From there, the game is sold and shipped to (a) consumers and (b) distributors, who then sell and ship the games to retailers (who sell to consumers).
A company like Stonemaier Games relies heavily on distributors and retailers to sell our games. 90% of the units we’ve sold over the last few years have gone through the distribution system (English and localization). The percentage may be different for a brand-new product, but in the long run over various reprints, retailers sell the vast majority of our games to consumers.
Publishers support retailers in different ways. Here are some of the ways Stonemaier Games does this:
- We authorize distributors to sell deeply discounted demo copies of our games to retailers (they pass on those costs to us).
- We prominently feature a retailer locator on our website, as well as a link to that locator at the top of every game page. Any retailer who carries our products can request to be added to that list and to our monthly retailer e-newsletter (retailers, you can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
- We sell games at full MSRP on our website so we’re not undercutting brick-and-mortar stores (even though that logic doesn’t completely make sense, as people still have to pay us for shipping). The exceptions to this are during our very brief preorder periods (4-7 days) for the first print run of new products and bundled versions of our products.
- We don’t use Kickstarter. I don’t actually think that Kickstarter is bad for long-tail games, but I think all too often Kickstarters result in a lot of buzz during the campaign and crickets when the game is released to retailers. There’s just too big of a gap (8-12 months) between the campaign and the release.
- We consistently reprint our games and support them with expansions, marketing, social media, etc. Our games may go out of stock temporarily, but they don’t go out of print.
- We send a detailed update to subscribing retailers and distributors every month.
- I frequently talk about a wide variety of tabletop games–most of which aren’t published by Stonemaier Games–on my game design YouTube channel and Instagram as a way of boosting the board game ecosystem as a whole, which hopefully has an indirectly positive impact on retailers.
Anyway, that’s the system…and something isn’t working.
The overall issue is demand forecasting. Publishers don’t know the demand for a new game until they announce it, reviewers discuss it, and people play it. And most importantly, demand is uncertain until people can actually buy it. Until then, the demand is purely hypothetical.
Yet, by the time you know what the demand is for a new game, it’s too late! The first printing of the game has been made, and it’ll be 3-4 months before the reprint arrives. So if demand is higher than supply, retailers and distributors aren’t happy. If supply is higher than demand, the publisher isn’t happy–especially if supply is WAY higher than demand and you have thousands of games gathering dust in your warehouse.
Let’s use a specific case in point: Wingspan.
Last summer, before we started manufacturing Wingspan, I reached out to a few distributors to ask how many copies they thought we should make of a bird-themed medium-weight Euro game. Even though these distributors had absolutely no incentive to go low–remember, all the risk is on us at this point–they all said that we should make 10,000 copies.
So we did. I printed 10,000 copies of Wingspan. But I was still a little worried, so just in case, I also made 5,000 sets of the non-printed components (the eggs, wooden tokens, plastic trays, etc). I figured if the game was a hit, having those components would speed up the reprint. And if the game was a flop, I hadn’t invested too much. As it turned out, when I saw the buzz around the game in early December, I immediately started the second print run.
The problem, as retailers learned this week, is the the demand for Wingspan is WAY higher than 10,000 units. I’ve been hearing from retailers that their distributors are only giving them 1 or 2 copies of the game even though they have 50 preorders.
Whose fault is this?
- It isn’t the distributors fault–they’re selling everything they can, and they gave me their best-guess estimate earlier this year.
- It isn’t the retailers fault, though accepting preorders before knowing your allocation may not be a great idea.
- It isn’t our fault either (though in hindsight, I absolutely should made more first-run units–that is 100% my fault). Even if Stonemaier Games hadn’t accepted a single direct preorder, the demand for Wingspan wouldn’t come close to giving retailers the quantities they want. Though perhaps I should have shared more information about our “bird-themed Euro game” (like photos of the pre-production copy) with a few trusted retailers and distributors so they had more context for their guesses.
That’s the main reason I’m writing this post today. We’re all frustrated when demand is much higher than supply. And as a result, people look for someone to blame. But is that actually going to help anyone? I don’t think so.
I’d much rather focus on solutions, even though I don’t have a solution for this particular problem. None of us know what the demand for a game will be until the complete information about the finished product is available.
And no, I don’t think Kickstarter is the answer. Kickstarter is great at gauging direct-to-consumer early adopter demand, but it still doesn’t help predict future demand after consumers/reviewers have received and played the final product. (Update: Some people have mentioned the P500 system, which is very clever and may work for some publishers, but I don’t think it works for us. Here’s why.)
Distributors and retailers, I feel for you. I wish I had more Wingspan too. But if possible, let’s take a deep breath and realize that April (the second print run) really isn’t that long after March 8 and that May (the third print run) really isn’t that far away either. Let’s celebrate that we have something people actually want!
That said, I’m sorry. I truly wish that I could have done a better job at forecasting demand. I wish I could say I have a foolproof method for the future, but I don’t have the luxury of printing 30,000 copies of a new game. I simply don’t have the resources, and even if I had the resources, it wouldn’t be worth the risk.
Thanks for considering my thoughts today, and I hope we can move forward in a positive, constructive way.