Twenty Years of Selling Fun
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
After 20 years, Avalanche Press still exists.
We sold our very first game on July 7th, 1994: a copy of MacArthur’s Return to Karen Kwiatkowski as a gift for her husband, Joe. That the company would be around, even in heavily modified form, two decades later is a little astounding, to me anyway.
Over those years, the company has survived hurricanes, tornadoes and personal tragedies. We’ve survived cybersmearing felons and lunatic landlords. We’ve lived through The Ego and The Id, Goths and Furries (and I could have very happily lived for a very long time without ever knowing what “pony play” means). There’s been depression, rage and sometimes even joy. On occasion it’s been fun. But it has always been an adventure.
As with any business, the ultimate goal and challenge is to sell your product. Avalanche Press began just as a wave of profound changes swept the game industry. Back then in 1994, like most people I didn’t have an internet connection. The first wave of collectible card games swept through the game industry that summer, wrecking the old sales/distribution infrastructure while proving that real money could indeed be made from tabletop games.
Fairly regularly I read claims that the number of wargamers or the market for wargames is on the decline. Having heard those for 20 years here at Avalanche Press, and for some time before the company’s initial founding, I’ve come to believe that if that were true, we’d be well into negative numbers by now.
What’s happened is a consequence of the internet that apparently few making the “dying market” argument have considered: it rationalized the marketplace. Though “rational” makes it sound like a good thing, pretty words don’t necessarily make it so. Back in 1994, distributors routinely bought wargames by the dozen: 72, 144, 218 units. If they sold those, they bought more, also by the dozen. If they did not, they ate the overage. Well, not literally ate them: they shoved them into a landfill somewhere and they were never, ever seen again. With half a dozen large and another dozen mid-sized distributors buying based on what they thought they might sell, with often three or four of them counting on sales through the same retail store, you had a lot of market inefficiency.
For the publishers, this was a wonderful thing. Distributor buying was an art, not a science. And if the art went wrong, well, you the publisher still collected a very nice subsidy for your efforts. It’s a lot easier to make these things break even when you have folks buying an extra 1,000 copies, paying for them, and turning them into pulp.
That doesn’t happen anymore, thanks to the internet’s flow of information coupled with sophisticated inventory management. In the rational marketplace, those distributors who still exist buy much smaller odd numbers (31, 52 etc.) and usually have every single one of those copies already sold to a retailer when they place the order with the publisher. Often that retailer already has the game sold, too. There’s little shelf stock purchased, making that landfill subsidy tiny to nonexistent.
And that’s not all. Another consequence of the internet’s arrival is online selling by individuals. As well as providing God’s gift to employee theft, eBay and smaller auction sites make sure that games never truly die. Back in the day, when Grandma bought a copy of Panzerblitz for little Peter, he tossed it in the attic and eventually Mom tossed it in the trash – another landfill subsidy! These days, he puts it on eBay. Games never go away until they physically are played to death. So as the publisher, your backlist games (the ones already published) have to compete with every copy of every game you’ve sold for the past 20 years. And even better, you get to deal with the customer service demands of those who “won” games missing key components that said “winners” now want you, the publisher, to replace. Gratis, of course. I really, really hate eBay.
So I think most of the actual market is still there. They just don’t necessarily feel the need to buy newly-produced games. It’s the landfill subsidy that’s disappeared, and it’s never coming back.
Only Change is Constant
I am a profoundly different person than I was in 1994, and very glad of it. Where once I would have raged about those changes described above and offered them up as excuses for failure I now realize they neither good nor bad. They simply are.
We’ve spent the last several years making changes that result in a New Avalanche Press, a company that can be solidly profitable someday and can operate within the new normality of game publishing. There’s still a lot to be done here, but at least we’re on a much better path.
You have to start with a high-quality product. But there are a few more keys:
• Small-batch production.
We make the games in small amounts now, no more than 200 at a time. Unit costs are much higher, but our financial risk and storage costs are held to a minimum.
That also means there’s never any need to hold fire sales to “clear warehouse space” or “fund some reprints” (insider code for “Oh $%@#! We can’t make payroll!”) nor for games to fall permanently out of print. They do come in and out of availability and that probably will remain true.
• The Gold Club.
Our hard-core fans stuck with us through the hard years and are the biggest reason that Avalanche Press reached that 20-year mark. We’ll continue to shower the Gold Club with all the special stuff we can think of.
• Daily Content.
At one point during the first few years of the company’s existence, I negotiated a deal to buy a well-known game review magazine for the price of $1 (and assumption of the subscription debt). The idea was we would then convert it to a magazine with a game in every issue. Thankfully, the deal fell through and it remains one of the greater bullet-dodging episodes in a company history littered with near-death experiences.
While I do think that physical, printed house magazines can still be effective marketing tools, they have to be timely – bring out an issue every nine months and you’ll actually lose ground. Magazines are hard to publish, much harder than outsiders realize. Even in these twilight days of print publishing, a new crop of happy idiots Columbuses that every day.
Instead of a physical magazine, we have a web-based one, with new content every weekday. It’s definitely not as effective as a well-run social media campaign, but probably more effective than a badly-run print magazine and most importantly, it’s something we can actually accomplish.
• Game Series.
Game designers want to show off their cleverness, but I’ve long doubted that game players really want to learn new game rules every time they try to play. New rulebooks, like the Panzer Grenadier Fourth Edition, need to be a rare and wonderful thing.
And that’s more or less how we’ll embark on selling games for the next 20 years of Avalanche Press.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.