One of my favorite podcasts is Board Games Insider. I love it. New episodes of that show leap to the front of my (very long) podcast queue whenever they drop. If you don’t know it, Ignacy Trzewiczek of Portal Games and Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games talk shop about insider stuff – publishing, distributing, pricing, etc.
Stephen said something in the last episode, though, that made my ears perk up. They were talking about CMON and Iello adopting the Minimum Advertised Pricing Policy (MAPP) that Asmodee adopted over a year ago. Basically, those companies are telling stores and other game sellers that they could only sell their products at a certain percentage of the suggested MSRP. I think CMON set their number at 80%. So, if a seller had a $100 CMON game (which applies to many, many of their games), they could only offer a maximum discount to $80.
Of course, it’s the online sellers that are in the crosshairs. This is a push against deep discounting of games in online shops. It hits CoolStuff Inc., Miniature Market, Funagain, and a few of the big online sellers, but it also really hits individual sellers who sell on the Amazon marketplace.
This is NOT a popular move. Gamers everywhere are complaining about this. Who wants to pay even more for their Zombicide minis when they are already paying through the nose for X-Wing minis?
Getting back to Board Games Insider, though, Stephen spoke in favor of the idea. Going along with the original justification for this idea put forward by Asmodee when they first announced their own MAPP, Stephen said that deep online discounting continued to be a problem for publishers. MAPPs help local stores by leveling the pricing playing field. Ignacy mumbled some dissent, but he didn’t elaborate (I hope he gets back to his dissent at some point).
I like to think of myself as a reasonable guy. As such, I always try to wait and get more information about a topic before I blow up on some forum. I do have to say, though, that my BS detector is pinging loudly and clearly at this whole idea that MAPP is primarily a tool to help the local game store. It feels like more like an empty justification of a pure business decision, dressed in populist garb. It happens in American politics all of the time, and now we have to deal with this kind of spin in our beloved hobby.
I have a theory. Part of why the community continues to be mad is because, on some unconscious level, we smell the spin and B.S. and we don’t like it. In a way, it represents a loss of innocence as a community. The community has historically been so small, many of us have met and gamed with the heads of bigger companies at conventions, events, and the like. If you’ve been in the hobby a while, you’ve met Zev, (formerly) from Z-Man. Stuff like that. It’s like living in a small town and hanging out with the mayor. Genuine community is built on those kind of relationships, as well as transparent exchange of information and perspectives.
However, the board game community is growing exponentially. That’s great! We want to grow and expand the hobby, don’t we? However, things like MAPP represent the dark side of that growth. I’m not even talking about the pricing changes themselves (I’ll leave that to people who know more about that economic stuff). Rather, I’m focused on the new state of discourse within the community. Corporate speak is becoming a more mainstream part of how we discuss games. We now have to get used to spin, misdirection, and questionable justification from the people selling us games. This harms the community by eroding trust and creating barriers between consumer and producer. Where that barrier may have existed in the past, it was thin and permeable. Now, not so much.
Why do I think the “help local stores” justification of MAPP is BS? Doesn’t Buonocore have a point? Haven’t small game store owners complained about running X-Wing tournaments for people who didn’t buy a single ship from that store? Two points. First, there’s a lot you can do to help a local game store besides level the pricing playing field, most of which involves supporting the social capacity of stores. Give stores more tools to hold events, demo products, etc. Do more to help companies liquidate stock that isn’t moving. There’s lots of stuff that could be part of a broader initiative to help stores. It sticks out that the main thing they are doing to “help local stores” (unclear if that’s even happening) is the thing that helps their bottom line.
Also, I have to wonder what Asmodee, CMON, et. al. really mean by “local store” – real store owners, or some mental concoction that isn’t connected to what’s really happening on the ground. I recently heard a story on the Perfect Information podcast about a game store owner who needed to supplement his business with online sales. I know lots of stores that do this, not as a way to compete against themselves but because it dovetails nicely with their core physical business. You can hear for yourself how that turned out (spoiler: it isn’t great). Hemming a store in to only being a physical retailer is supposed to help them?
If anyone could point me to some data showing how physical stores have benefitted from these pricing changes, I’d love to read it. I know there are some anecdotals of people buying more FFG stuff in their local stores, but some hard numbers would be great to look at. Without that, though, I mourn the fact that corporate speak and spin continues to permeate our community, which only serves to make us less trusting of the companies that sell us the games we love to play.