When I worked for Games Workshop, the bosses used to say that the toy and game industry was especially robust when it came to surviving recessions; last in, first out. So what about pandemics?
With most bricks and mortar game stores only now reopening after weeks of closure, and even online stores having issues with absent staff, needing to reorganise for safe working, and supply chain hold ups, it’s not been easy.
Many publishers are suffering from a wholesale cancellation of conventions. The sales they would make are often critical to the cashflows of smaller companies. This loss of face time with their audience has also meant a lack of exposure for many new titles, and the consequent loss of sales even online. After all, people can’t buy what they don’t know about. Expanding your marketing spend elsewhere is fine in principle, but is much less of a known benefit, and that’s assuming you have the cash to do so.
Happily, so far I’ve heard of many troubles, plenty of job losses, much tightening of belts, but few closures within the industry. Most companies have adapted rather than simply choosing to bunker up, and they’ve used their ingenuity to work round the problem. We’re seeing online versions of official conventions as well as many impromptu gatherings. Gamers are finding ways to game even if they cannot meet their usual groups in person. And that’s a very good thing both for the sanity of the individual gamers, and the publishers who need folk to have a reason to buy the new shiny.
Then there’s Kickstarter.
Before the pandemic, their tabletop games section usually had about 310 projects running at any one time. This number is slightly seasonal, and wanders about a bit natively, but 310 is a good rule of thumb. As the pandemic hit, and uncertainty among creators rose, so the number of new projects dropped precipitously. Within a couple of weeks it had dropped by a third (the lowest I saw it was 203). Kickstarter reported a similar % drop in revenue.
As Kickstarter apparently had little or no cash reserves to fall back on, they were forced to let about 40% of their staff go. That was pretty grim, and happened very quickly. Luckily, having just unionised, the staff got what look on paper to be reasonable deals (considering the circumstances), and I suspect that many of them will be hired back when the good times come again.
They are coming back, right?
Since that low of 203, the numbers have steadily picked up, and last week they briefly topped 300 again. It’s not back to where it was, but I’d say it’s running about 90%, which ain’t bad, and is within the noise of the normal variability. Of course, we know that it’s not normal, but on pure numbers it’s not alarming in the way it was.
Of course, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Not by some distance.
According to the medical professionals, we are almost certain to have a second wave of this virus. We know what’s coming, and we know what to do, but like the first time, politicians are unlikely to actually do that, and many more people will die.
It also means that any nascent recovery in any sector is likely to get punched in the face.
So, what to do?
Well, if you’re a gamer, it all depends on your financial security. Over 40 million Americans have been made unemployed as a direct result of the pandemic. There are similar problems in other countries. If this is you, then buying new games is the least of your worries. You’ll want to play what you can from what you already have (or try some of the many excellent free PnP offerings online). Play is good for your emotional wellbeing, and I’ve been unemployed enough times to know that you’ll want the boost.
If you’re in a stable job and are weathering the storm fine, then there’s nothing to stop you carrying on as before. Certainly, your FLGS and the smaller publishers could definitely do with your support. I say smaller companies as I’m assuming that the biggies have deeper pockets and can survive better anyway. But all of them are likely to be hurting.
If you’re a publisher, and were thinking of using the traditional route to market to sell in bricks and mortar stores, maybe hold that thought for a while. It’s going to be months before distribution and sales are back to normal. You’ll have to spend way more time in communication with your usual channels to find out what the reality is on the ground. Maybe you can make it work. However, it’s likely to be an even steeper uphill climb than usual. Maybe you need to push online more.
If you’re a creator looking to run a Kickstarter, then my advice is to do so now. Don’t wait. Logic suggests that we are getting a second wave of this soon, and there are bound to be more disruptions. Maybe another lockdown, definitely more people sick, more people isolating, more people unemployed. Also, more people in real need of some joy, and that’s what games bring, right? So, we keep on keeping on.
However, it’s worth noting that during this virus, during this lockdown, right in the middle of this sudden loss of trade, Kickstarter also saw its biggest ever campaign. Mythic Games ran their most successful campaign too. Several other companies ran campaigns that raised over a million dollars. Clearly, there is still an audience out there.
So again, my advice to you is move now if you can. If you don’t want to go live during the uncertainties of a second wave, then it’s now, or next year.
And Kickstarter itself? It seems pretty robust. They were caught with no cash reserves, which was careless of them. Maybe they’ll learn. Even so, they reacted quickly and grasped the nettle rather than pretending they’d be OK without a rapid response. I think that shows solid leadership and a robust company. The next wave is likely to have less effect on the numbers as people have seen it before. Less fear of the unknown.
All of which means that it’s been a grim time, but us humans are resilient. Gamers want to game, and a mere pandemic won’t stop that. It has changed our landscape, and maybe it’s taken away some of our cash. What it hasn’t done is dim our desire to do what we do. And gaming is part of that.
It may be bad now.
This too shall pass.