23 May 2019 | 289 Comments
Recently Stonemaier Games and myself (Jamey Stegmaier) came under criticism for some of my business practices. I welcome questions in search of the truth and fact-based criticism, though the manner in which it’s communicated impacts how, when, and where I respond to it.
With the help of my coworker and part-time employee, Morten, I’ve summarized some of the key points of recent criticism. I’m going to reply with the truth. I’m not trying to convince you of anything—I fully respect your freedom to judge me and Stonemaier Games based on facts.
As is always my intention on this blog, my hope is that what I share here will help other creators learn from the mistakes I’ve made and tell a cautionary tale of what can happen for a company that sells both to consumers (through Shopify) and to a variety of distributors (through our broker).
Criticism #1: No forecasting
You didn’t forecast properly for Wingspan: No use of partners in forecasting, no attempt to use previous experience, no inclusion of preorder numbers. It always is that way for Stonemaier and Jamey doesn’t care.
It’s absolutely true that I did not forecast properly for Wingspan. Last summer I told a few distributors that we had a bird-themed Euro game that I was excited about but also concerned how hobby gamers would respond to it. Based on that information, I asked them how many copies they thought I should make, and they all recommended around 10,000 units in the first print run. Ultimately, I made the decision to print 10,000 units—I take full responsibility for that. That quantity was informed by both my previous experience and by the distributors.
The way I asked those distributors wasn’t particularly helpful. It’s one thing to say “bird-themed Euro game”; it’s quite another to show them the art and components, talk about the mechanisms, and provide a rough price point. Also, I should have consulted a number of distributors and retailers, a method I’ve employed for our next release.
As for me not including preorder numbers in that decision, that’s also true. We didn’t accept orders for Wingspan from distributors until after the game was printed; that’s just not our method for marketing a game (rather, we make the game, share information about it, send it to reviewers, and then, when the game is ready to ship to distributors, we accept orders).
I truly care about improving demand forecasting, and not just in cases like Wingspan where I want to have enough copies to sell to any distributor or consumer who wants them—I also want to be able to better predict when a game isn’t going to sell as well as I’d hoped. That’s the case with Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig. I absolutely love the game and went in strong with a 20,000-unit first print run, and we still have several thousand copies in our warehouse.
Criticism #2: Intentional scarcity
You intentionally created a shortage of Wingspan to generate hype.
I genuinely wish I had made enough Wingspan in the first print run for everyone who wanted a copy. Everyone wins if I print the right quantity—Stonemaier, distributors, and retailers make money, consumers get the game they want in a timely manner, and I avoid pretty much every problem I’ve encountered with the game. There was absolutely no strategy based around scarcity.
Of course, it’s difficult to prove this unless you’re in my mind, so let me describe the Wingspan print run story.
Wingspan’s first print run was 10,000 units; it began in August 2018. The second print run was 5,000 units; it began in December 2018. That print run’s size was based on me having made 5,000 extra sets of non-printed components along with the international versions of the game, just in case I needed them earlier than expected. I began the third print run (15,000 units in early January during the preorder period, which was the time at which I became aware how surprisingly popular Wingspan turned out to be.
So that’s 30,000 copies of the game entering production before a single customer had received a copy. Should I have made even more? Absolutely (and we are—currently we have 4 print runs in various stages of production). But 30,000 is a lot of games and there’s a limit to how many tens of thousands of copies a factory can produce on short notice on top of the production they’ve already committed to for other publishers and it takes a few months from a print run is ordered to it arrives at retailers. There’s also a limit to how large print runs Stonemaier cash flow allows. Significant overproduction can have a severe impact on a company of our size.
I have an example that demonstrates how it simply isn’t a Stonemaier strategy to use scarcity as a strategic tool. The example is Gen Con. I don’t mean this as criticism, but some publishers ship in 200 copies of a hot game that everyone runs to buy when the doors open. This is both using scarcity as a tool and managing risk (no publisher wants to be stuck with 500 games they need to ship back to their warehouse).
But that’s not what Stonemaier does. We try to send the maximum number of games to the convention to sell. That was the case with Scythe at Gen Con in 2016 and 2017 (nearly 1000 units each year) and both My Little Scythe (500 units) and The Rise of Fenris (nearly 1000 units) in 2018. I don’t want to scare people into rushing in to buy. That’s also the case for every print run of our games—regardless of the actual outcome of whether we have too many or too few products, scarcity and intentional shortages truly are not part of Stonemaier strategy.[UPDATE: There’s now a detailed post on Mechanics and Meeples about some of the decision points that go into making a new print run.]
Criticism #3: Incompetently reprinting too few products
There are always too few copies of Stonemaier products. This is particularly true for Wingspan reprints which you should have done sooner and in larger quantities. Scythe and expansions are almost always almost impossible to get in stock; you know that retailers don’t have stock of these products, yet you don’t help them.
My main source of data is a monthly report I get from our broker telling me how many copies of our products we have in stock at the warehouse. That’s it. Just because my broker will sell 5000 copies of Viticulture to distributors over the next few months doesn’t mean that individual stores do or don’t have it.
For our biggest sellers, Scythe, its expansions and Viticulture, it is true that our broker sells them very quickly to distributors whenever they arrive at our warehouse. It’s for that reason that we consistently reprint them. However, there is no centralized, worldwide inventory system that lets us see data for each store.
I could look at individual online retailers to see what they have or check online price comparison sites, which generally shows our products to be in stock. On a store level I would literally have to call each store.
Sometimes retailers will contact me to say that they’re having a hard time stocking a specific game, but that form of contact is incredibly rare for Scythe and other products. If anything, it’s a retailer asking when a product will be back in stock, and I point them to my monthly retailer update, which indicates very specifically which products are in stock and when out-of-stock products will be back in stock.
Criticism #4: Too short window for retailers
You gave retailers too little time (10 days) to order Wingspan compared to industry standard of weeks or months.
I announced the existence of Wingspan on November 28, 2018 to 35,000 e-newsletter subscribers, then a few days later to 600+ retailers and distributors worldwide. My broker issued allocations to distributors in the US and Canada the second week of January, with March 8 as the release date. So retailers had over 3 months between the announcement and the retail release date. I’m not sure what the distributor deadlines for retailer orders were; that’s something that distributors coordinate, not publishers.
Criticism #5: Prioritizing Amazon over retailers
You dumped games on Amazon, leaving 0 for FLGS in America for the first print run. Also, during holidays, Stonemaier only sells games to Amazon and not retailers.
One of my goals at Stonemaier Games is to reach customers as they wish. Some consumers want to buy from their local stores; others from online hobby retailers; others directly from the publisher; others from Barnes & Noble; and others through non-hobby online stores like Amazon. I see it as my responsibility to cater to all of those different customers to the best of my ability.
We sell our games to dozens of hobby game distributors worldwide, along with a distributor in the US (Flat River Group) that sells to big online non-hobby stores like Amazon.com, Target.com, and Walmart.com. I highly value all of our distributor relationships, and this one is particularly important because I’ve found that if we don’t control the supply chain to Amazon through someone we trust, Amazon will find a way to buy our games from other sources that aren’t nearly as open and transparent with us.
Our distributor allocations are based on their ordering history over the last year. It’s a formula that my broker uses. I typically just let them handle allocations, as that’s what a broker does, but I think I should have posed this question for Wingspan in early January: Should we use that formula for a heavily allocated new release or should we make temporary adjustments towards our goal of serving all consumers to the best of our ability? It’s my fault for not having that conversation.
For the first print run of Wingspan, every distributor received some copies of Wingspan. The second print run was allocated only among US and Canadian distributors, and the third print run was again sent to all distributors. Out of all copies of Wingspan sent to distributors over those print runs, hobby game distributors received 85% of the games.
We sell to a variety of distributors year-round. There is no separate holiday policy. Looking at my distributor purchase document for the 2018 holidays, we sold games to 28 different distributors worldwide, including every hobby distributor in the US. That’s a fact that any distributors can confirm if they choose to disclose their purchases.
Criticism #6: Falsely claiming to be FLGS-friendly
You falsely claim to be FLGS-friendly. This is evidenced by (a) you never provide demo copies for stores (via distributors), (b) make games available at store openings, (c) the price of Scythe was raised by $10, (d) selling to Amazon, and (e) your unwillingness to communicate with retailers.
Is Stonemaier Games the most retailer-friendly publisher? Definitely not. Are there things that we do specifically for retailers? Absolutely. I have a whole list here; a quick summary is that we prominently feature a retailer locator on our website and on our e-newsletter (the retailer locator has been viewed over 31,000 times over the last 3 months–some people are discovering local stores because of Wingspan), we no longer use Kickstarter, we have a monthly retailer e-newsletter, and we support our games with expansions, accessories (our own and third-party) marketing, game-specific Facebook groups, ongoing review copies, and ongoing play-and-win copies for conventions.
There are certainly also ways that Stonemaier could be much less friendly to retailers, yet I’ve actively chosen not to do those things. For example, when the 7-day Wingspan preorder greatly exceeded my expectations, I could have simply left the preorder open and sold every copy of the first print run, leaving none for distributors. My profits would have been significantly higher. Instead, I cut off the preorder.
As a result, I’ve since decreased our preorder period for new products to only 4 days, after which I end direct orders and designate the remaining products to distributors (if they want them). I did that for the Euphoria expansion, and I’m doing that for the Scythe modular board.
Our method for providing demo copies is that we authorize distributors to purchase games from us at a steep discount to provide to stores at an almost equally steep discount as demo copies. In fact, I have an ongoing reminder of this option in our monthly retailer/distributor e-newsletter:
It is true that I raised the MSRP for Scythe to $90 on January 1, 2019. We were selling Scythe at an unsustainable price, and I had to fix it. At an $80 MSRP, distributors were purchasing Scythe from us for $32 (a 60% discount). Scythe costs us over $18 to manufacturer and around $2 to freight ship from China to the US. So for every copy of Scythe we sell to a distributor, we were making $12 in profit…and then spending that to make more Scythe (even though another copy of Scythe costs us $20 to make and ship). It’s that gap between profit and reprint cost that is unsustainable (and why it’s important for us to be able to sell some games directly to consumers).
Last is the idea that I’m unwilling to communicate with some retailers. I communicate mostly over e-mail, and I’m happy to e-mail with 99.99% of retailers. However, it’s absolutely true that there are a few retailers who have aggressively and persistently harassed me both publicly and privately. I’m human, and I don’t respond well to harassment. So, I stopped responding to those retailers.
Criticism #7: MAPP
MAPP was used to drive sales to Amazon. Using “hide price” on Amazon was the only way for retailers to compete and it wasn’t against the policy. Then you changed the policy so that retailers came to be in violation. Only retailers were held to MAPP, not Amazon. This meant that it was impossible for retailers to sell anything. You didn’t let retailers know when the policy was taken down and they only learned about this from distributors by chance.
I have a big writeup about “Our 6-Month MAPP Experiment and Why It Failed,” so I won’t rehash all of that here. However, I can provide some facts about some of these criticisms.
MAPP was not used to drive sales to Amazon. I’m not quite sure I even understand the logic behind that, as our MAPP was Amazon-specific—it was actually motivated by repeated requests from FLGS owners to serve them better by addressing price-tanking by third-party vendors on Amazon.
The MAPP experiment was a work in progress that evolved over time. For example, early on in the process, if I said a vendor violating MAPP, I would instantly blacklist them (i.e., ask distributors to no longer sell to them). However, I quickly realized that many Amazon vendors didn’t know the MAPP existed (i.e., they hadn’t read their distributor’s communication about the MAPP), so I started contacting vendors first to let them know they were violating MAPP. If I heard back from them and they adjusted their prices, I didn’t report them to distributors.
Similarly, I learned along the way that some retailers were using a method I wasn’t aware of when the MAPP began that involved a discounted price appearing in the customer’s cart. It wasn’t in the spirit of the MAP policy. So, I adjusted the policy, and any vendors who followed the adjusted terms were able to continue buying our products from distributors.
The way I hoped the Amazon MAPP would work was that Amazon’s price would not dip any lower than the lowest vendor price. That worked to a certain extent, but over time I realized that Amazon’s algorithm was much more far-reaching than I previously thought, and it simply wasn’t fair to retailers. I detailed this on my blog post about MAPP:
It was a well-intentioned, but failed attempt to help retailers and I’m sorry about the effects it had. Therefore I ended our Amazon MAPP on October 30, 2018. I announced it on our November 6 retailer/distributor e-newsletter:
I hope this information is useful for you, whether you’re a curious onlooker, a subscriber, or a fellow creator looking to avoid the many mistakes I’ve made (if you like reading about my mistakes, I have an entire series of blog posts about them).
I genuinely welcome respectful discussion in the comments below, whether or not you agree with my business practices. I do moderate the comments for those who choose to attack anyone (me or other participants), so if I see that, you will be removed from the conversation. But really, truly—comments that constructively disagree with my methods are welcome here. In fact, I hope there are such comments so I can learn from your perspective.
Also, questions are welcome, but I’m not looking to name names or point fingers at specific companies–those are private matters.