Gen Con was a smash hit this year, with some 60,000+ attendees descending upon Indy for 4 days of passionate gaming. While there is a multitude of awesome things to do at the convention, the biggest draw (for me at least) has to be the new game releases. The shiny luster of new games, that fresh smell of cardboard when you open the box, it can almost be mesmerizing.
So let’s talk about the games for a minute. I don’t have a list of every new game released at Gen Con this year, but it was a lot. Eric Martin’s annual Gen Con Preview List had 415 game entries. Granted some were simply previews, but you get the idea.
But with the good, comes the bad. The sell outs. No, I’m not talking about when your favorite band starts creating jingles for pudding commercials. I’m taking about games that sell all of their supply at the convention. Sometimes it’s ridiculously quick. Some games even sold out before the hall doors officially opened on Thursday morning at 10 am. This was in no small part due to Gen Con’s VIG Program.
If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the past month, then you probably also know there some rumblings from dissatisfied convention goers that couldn’t buy their favorite new releases. Some even went so far as to say publishers arbitrarily limited the supply to try and drive up hype for their games. While I don’t exactly agree with that idea, if I put on my tinfoil hat, I suppose could see their point.
So why aren’t there more copies available of the hot new releases? I had my ideas, but I was curious to know the real reasons. So I went straight to the horse’s mouth.
I talked with a few publishers who had games that sold out at Gen Con and asked why the limited supply. You had a captive audience of 60,000 gamers who are there to spend big bucks. It’s time to take advantage, right?
Well here is what they said.
SeaFall – Plaid Hat Games
Plaid Hat Games brought 140 copies of SeaFall to Gen Con. They sold out instantly to VIG buyers. When I asked Colby at PHG why they didn’t bring more, this is what he said:
“We had to airship them in from China for the show so only brought a limited quantity.”
When I asked him why they didn’t ship more, there were two reasons. One was expense. It cost them about $22 a game ($3000+) to airship them to the convention! The other reason is that they had to hold a lot back for their customers who had placed pre-orders.
My guess is they brought the limited number that they could to make some early money and to also get some copies into the wild to help market the game. Word of mouth advertising can be great.
Cry Havoc – Portal Games
Cry Havoc was another game that sold out before the doors opened. This was actually due to two reasons. One is that Portal Games took pre-orders before gencon for their available lot. The rest were snatched up by VIGs.
When I asked Portal Games why they didn’t bring more, this was their response:
“We brought [a pallet] that we [airshipped].
Shipping airpalete is very expensive [and] shipping two pallets is very risky – if the game is not a hit, you will never sell that much games and you will be left with huge cost of shipping, big stock of games, and you will have to ship them back from convention. That is why most publishers prefer to bring not enough than too many copies.”
Ignacy from Portal Games told me it cost them around $1000 to air ship the 300 or so copies they brought to Gen Con.
Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle – USAopoly
USAopoly had a massive booth right near the entrance, where they were really highlighting their game Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. However they only had a limited number of games to sell each day. Interestingly, they actually didn’t allow anyone to buy, or even sign up for a demo, until 10am each day.
So why didn’t they have more?
“We limited our sales of Harry Potter Deck Building to 50 a day this year. The game comes out in late September, so the main shipment of the game is already on its way here. We had to airship copies over from the manufacturer to try to have some in time for Gen Con. We had limited copies at Gen Con, because that was all we could have available.”
Pressed further on why they couldn’t bring more:
“Overall, a majority of the first of this game was already spoken for in distribution and retailers. If we could have shipped more, we would have looked at that and considered it. But, this is what we went with and the Hogwarts Express brought some Wizards and Witches to Hogwarts…I mean Gen Con.”
Ice Cool – Brain Games Publishing
Even small and first time publishers had games sell out. Ice Cool sold out before Saturday. They had 360 copies available for sale. Why didn’t they bring more?
“Actually we were lucky to get at least those. Till the very last moment we didn’t know if they arrive at Gen Con from Europe or not. Other palettes were at customs. Just after the convention they arrived to our US warehouse.“
The Networks – Formal Ferret Games
Finally, let’s take a look at The Networks. Gil runs Formal Ferret Games and Gen Con wasn’t his first convention. He brought 200 copies of The Networks that sold out in about 6 hours on day one. As a small publisher, I’m sure Gil would have loved to have more sales. So why the shortage?
Gil provided me with an absolutely fantastic insight into running a small business. I wanted to cut the length of his reply as this article is already getting long, but the entire thing is just so fascinating! I encourage you to read the whole thing if you have even a passing interest in our hobby. If not, you can skip down to the final thoughts.
“A few reasons.
First: I had a 10’x10′ booth, so there’s the question of where to store all those copies. Gen Con has a policy where they don’t allow visible cases, so I stashed the cases behind my 8’x8′ sign; they barely fit.
I could have unpacked them like Patrick Leder did with his 500 units of Vast, but Patrick had a van he could carry any unsold copies back with. I have a Toyota Prius that’s already jammed full with my tables, chairs, and signage. I have no room for product, and I’d have to pay expensive drayage and warehousing fees to get the games back to the warehouse, not to mention having to find empty cases to repack the games into (if I’d thrown them out, I’d be in trouble!).
Second: I am not psychic, and cannot tell the future. I can only go off of past performance and estimations. My logic was that I sold 60 units at UKGE before selling out halfway through (the limiting factor there was air-shipping from the factory, which is ridiculously expensive), and having 50 units unsold from Origins after selling 90 (and giving out 60 to Kickstarter backers). I actually lost money at Origins this year, because I brought too many games.
And don’t forget that last year at Gen Con, I sold only 30 units of my game Battle Merchants. 200 units was a crazy number I’ve barely approached over the course of an entire show, let alone a single day!
Also, this year, I was at Entrepreneur’s Avenue, which is in the back corner, so I didn’t think I’d get much traffic. And, I was getting some buzz, but wasn’t on a whole lot of GeekLists a month before the show, which is when I needed to make the order to my warehouse to send the games over. (Doing a rush order is EXPENSIVE.)
That may sound overly conservative, but remember: bringing a large quantity of games to a convention is far from free. It cost me over $1000 to ship the games over to Gen Con and have them deliver it to my booth. Half of that is the cost to ship the games to the Gen Con warehouse (actually Fern, the convention contractor), and half of the cost is to store the games at the Fern warehouse and have them deliver to my booth (this is called drayage).
And again, this is a bet with REAL MONEY. Bringing too many copies is something that would have a real-world effect on me, as it did at Origins. So I settled on 200 units as a reasonable number; not too many, but would still be quite profitable if I sold out.
Third: I only have so many total units of the game, and the next print run won’t be around until early next year. It’s not an inexhaustible supply. In fact, I am almost sold out of this print run.
So even after only bringing 200 units to Gen Con, I have barely enough units to bring to Essen! So any extra copies I would have brought to Gen Con, I will NOT be able to sell at Essen. (That said, I’m learning my lesson and aiming for about 400 units at Essen. Which brings us to the next point…)
Fourth: In hindsight, even if I brought 400, I still would have sold out before Saturday!
Fifth: I had about 70 units at Funagain, and I figured I could direct people there after we sold out. Not the same as walking out of the show with a copy, but at least the game wasn’t impossible to get after the show. And sure enough, we sold out at Funagain on Tuesday.
Now, it’s very easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback and say, “Oh, they should have brought more copies, they should have known,” but that’s betting someone else’s money on something that may not happen. Remember, this is REAL MONEY that I will lose if I bring too many games, which is exactly what happened to me at Origins.
As it turns out, I appeared on a bunch of GeekLists the week before Gen Con, too late to get my games shipped to the convention at a reasonable rate. And my booth turned out to be in an excellent location, in the first row from the Event Hall entrance, so I had constant traffic.
Still, I asked my warehouse the day before the show ended if they could send extra units (despite possibly being low at Essen)… and it turns out they couldn’t rush any extras to the show, since they were all at Gen Con too! So I was unable to make a last-second adjustment. (I hear Jamey Stegmaier was able to rush in about 1000 copies of Scythe; wish I could have done the same!)
So I hope this gives you insight into my decision. Do I wish I could have brought 1000 units? Of course! But I didn’t have 1000 units, and if I brought all I had, I wouldn’t have anything for Essen. Still, it would have been nice to have had at least 400 to sell there (and in retrospect, we didn’t have to worry about repacking cases with unsold stock), because it would have really helped the game gain buzz. The extra money would have been nice too, but I really missed the extra buzz.
Someday, I’ll have enough capital to buy enough copies to meet demand. But this is a business of physical goods, and managing logistics is not trivial, regardless what people say on Monday morning!”
In my talks with publishers, it didn’t seem like anyone had a nefarious plans to short games. They want to make great games and sell them to you. We are a small, niche market so it’s hard to imagine that most publishers would want to turn away sales. The unfortunate reality with our hobby is that we deal in physical goods, some of which can be quite expensive to transport. To me, it seems like it comes down to numbers and risk tolerance.
Air-shipping is really, really expensive. If the games don’t sell through, then the publishers are left eating the bill. So it’s not surprising that most will play it safe.
I think the best thing a publisher can do, for both them and us, is to do pre-orders. A few companies did that and everyone loved it. It lets people avoid making a mad rush at 10am to a booth, allowing them to pick up the game at their leisure. And publishers can lower their risk buy knowing how many games are guaranteed sales. It’s win-win. I’m honestly surprised more publishers haven’t started doing this.
And yes, the early releases also help with market their games. As players start bringing the game to their tabletop, hopefully others will fall in love and buy it later. So while some may be angered that they can’t buy a game at the convention, time heals all wounds. I’d wager that most gamers will get over the sting and buy it online later (and probably for cheaper anyway).
I hope you enjoyed this little behind the scenes look into our hobby. Special thanks to Plaid Hat Games, Portal Games, USAopoly, Brain Games, and Formal Ferret Games for providing insight into their process.
Thank you for this article! I get frustrated when people speculate wildly that publisher motives are suspect.
Preorder your games for the con! 🙂
Pre-order culture is bad for consumers though. I want to try a game first or at least hear the feedback from trusted sources/friends before plunking down big bucks.
I agree, Pre-Order culture is killing the Video Games industry right now. Also, a lot of brick and mortar places greatly dislike Pre-sales at cons because it ends up killing their orders. Ninja shoppers are a thing, and just one person going up there with a big check book and a list can kill a small game store. People dont want to wait a month or so for their game when it can be tossed in a mate’s trunk and brought down in a week.
While I agree with your points on video games, there are some substantial differences between the two markets.
First, there is pretty much no reason to pre-order a video game. Their cheap cost to produce (and digital distribution) means they can be printed in almost unlimited quantities. Board games can very much bet limited and even out of print. It’s not unheard of for a new game to go 6 months between printings. So if you want a copy of a new game, a pre-order can guarantee you get it without having to wait another half of a year.
Second, between having the rules available online ahead of time, and sometimes even PnP versions, there is a lot less risk with a board game than a video game. While reading the rulebook won’t tell you everything, it can definitely give you a good idea if the game will be for you.
Third, pre-ordering at conventions is very different than in stores. If you know you want a game for a convention, a pre-order can guarantee you a copy. Sometimes, as noted above, the copies are limited to 100 or less. Usually for standard game store releases, you have plenty of time to go buy a copy of a game for all but the most hyped or limited releases.
Finally, Kickstarter is basically a giant pre-order system. If it wasn’t for Kickstarter, we wouldn’t have a ton of fantastic titles, such as everything from Stonemaier games, CMoN and Xia. Kickstarter has been great for our hobby, at least so far.
Actually. VIGs are a very small portion of the folks that get early entry to the dealers hall. Retailers, press, educators, and booth staff out number them like 10 to 1.
While you may be technically right, that’s only because exhibitors make up a large portion of people with early access. However, as someone who’s been in early the past few years, I know that VIG are the majority of the early buyers. There are about 600 of them when you include their companions.
Press badges with early access were limited to only 90 and many of them don’t buy early (as they are not supposed to). I don’t know the trade day #s, but it was limited to qualified people.
The majority of exhibitors are not running around buying on day 1. They are prepping their booth and at 9am, selling to VIGs. In fact, many booths wouldn’t even sell to exhibitors before 9am on thursday.
So I stand by my statement that VIGs are where many of the early sell outs go to.
I stood in the line for SeaFall, as a VIG. They did make an effort to *not* hand out copies to Trade and Press until the VIGs were given their copies. (Trade and Press aren’t supposed to buy until the hall opens)
But…I watched them go down the line and hand out a token to, roughly, every 3 or 4th person, then go back down and hand them out to Trade and Press badges.
I realize the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data”, but don’t underestimate the number of Trade and Press badges lining up early.
I’m sure there were some press in line, but the VIGs probably outnumber them 10 to 1. At least if you assume some followed the rules and didn’t use the whole time for early buying.
The article is very interesting. I guess I would question why people would airship games? It not like GenCon comes out of no where. Why not ship by ground?
The games are being airshipped from China or Germany to their US warehouses and then ground shipped to GenCon. Even with the best of planning you can run into delays and ocean freight will take 4-5 weeks so you make the decision to airfreight some so that you can have something at GenCon.
I loved all these games! Waiting for Cry Havoc to ship. Hi Chevee!
publishers have no right to complain about air shipping from china. employ an american huh? they get a check from the chinese govt for 17% of their total sales shipped.
Very interesting read Tony. Thanks!
I liked the read, but am still wondering what The Networks guy is talking about. He was on a lot of buzzes for a month or more before GenCon and was making top 10 lists and lots of “what to look out for at GenCon” lists.
I suspect these people don’t actually care about getting their games out, and just do a strict numbers game on what will make them the most money for the least amount of stress. Bringing 200 copies of a game to a convention with 60,000 people? Bringing 140 copies of a game to a convention with 60,000 people when you were making number 1 on top 10 lists for months? I don’t know what to think, but a property like Harry Potter selling 50 copies a day is just ludicrous.
Scythe is now selling at $180 at Oz Comic Con by exhibitors that bought them out at GenCon. Total profiteering thank god I got my copy at gencon
Scythe will be out in retail stores in a month (Oct 20). I don’t have a ton of sympathy for people who pay double for a game because they can’t wait 30 days to play it.