Awareness and availability

Photo by Karthik Balakrishnan on Unsplash

In this series of posts I examine how the Internet transformed the boardgame industry and hobby in the past 20 years. If you haven’t already, you might want to go and read the first part before plunging into this one.

When bringing a product to market, two of the first issues to solve are awareness and availability. How will potential customers find out about your product and how will they be able to acquire it? A key reason why boardgames have surged the past 20 years is that the Internet changed the ways we learn about and distribute products.

Awareness

Remember life before the Internet? When information wasn’t always readily available? Where finding a plumber took a phonebook and relied on the plumber ensuring their listing was in there? Back when retailers and catalogues were primary avenues of discovering new products.

The boardgame industry was a pretty marginal business back then, with classic hits (“Monopoly”, “Candyland” etc.) stocked with major retailers and in family homes completely isolated from the tiny dedicated underground following of hardcore fans playing complex wargames. “Real” boardgamers looked down on the simplistic roll & move games that had little actual strategy to them and certainly did not consider them to be part of the same hobby or industry.

Bringing out a new game, there were basically two avenues. Mainstream distribution through toy stores, super markets and traditional publishers, relying on getting big retailers to pick up the game. This was hard with anything outside surefire hits and classics and often required aggresive marketing and visits to individual stores. So the cost and risk of pushing for main stream distribution was massive and hard to justify for most new games coming out.

The alternative was going after the hardcore market, publishing complex and very meaty games. This much smaller market was much deeper, with determined consumers. Their willingness to spend was higher, they were willing to invest in research and happy to jump through hoops to acquire their dream game. Through esoteric fanzines, conventions and speciality stores, these customers could be reached, but they were very dispersed and a tiny demographic.

With literally no way to actively attract new people into the hobby, instead relying on people actively seeking it out, publishers could only really build awareness inside the established community. People who might have been interested were shut out by virtue of living outside major cities (where conventions and specialty stores were found) or even in foreign countries unserved by fanzines.

With the advent of the Internet information has become available. Suddenly anyone interested can find any information about a boardgame, no matter where they live. Online communities for adjacent hobbies (computer games, role playing games etc.) feed of each other as people spread one hobby inside another.

People can now learn about boardgames without ever meeting a boardgamer and no matter where they live. Gone are the days where you’d be stuck looking at the box cover and asking the store keeper whether this game was any good. Now you can read, watch and listen to reviews, analysis, strategic discussions, ratings, comparisons, unboxing videos, tutorials and tons of other supporting material. Before buying a game, you can easily read the rulebook, check out the components or even watch a play by play video of a full on playthrough.

Once you’ve taken a liking to a game, you can also easily find similar games and discover other games by the same designer or publisher.

So awareness and information has exploded, with barriers disappearing between consumers and publishers and the market becoming more transparent. This also helped retailers, as they could now gauge a games quality and popularity much better, helping them take educated guesses and reducing the risks of stocking new items.

Availability

Before the Internet, someone might read about a game, but be unable to purchase it. If you were lucky and lived close to a nerdy game store (that were few and far between), they might carry it or be willing to order it for you. But for most people the choice and availability of games was narrow and limited. Mailorder existed, but shipping was risky, expensive and slow. Even clearing a payment internationally was not simple.

So for someone growing up in the rural countryside somewhere in Europe, there was no way to hear about games, much less follow the news on recently published games. But they’d also be unable to get their hands on anything they might hear about.

With a sizable portion of the already marginal target market completely shut out, complex boardgames remained extremely niche and had very little scale. Meanwhile the mainstream market wasn’t really open til new entries and anything but old school roll & move games.

As e-commerce and online distribution removed the geographical barriers, games were available. Suddenly rural Europe could order a specific game, even though the only specialised boardgame store was 500 kilometers away in the capital. Online payments could suddenly be processed across borders, packages tracked and shipping a large box of cardboard across the world became standard fare. Finding places that had a popular game in stock became a Google search instead of a long week of long distance phone calls.

Not only did this suddenly make games directly available for purchase over the Internet, but the Internet had a similar impact on retailers, who could source from a wider range of suppliers and follow online trends and demand. So retailers were stocked more efficiently and could supply what was in demand much better, again making games more available to consumers.

The secondary market also boomed, with online market places, social media and other websites allowing game owners to sell off or swap unwanted games or request sought after, hard to find games. Sure, some rare or out print games might be prohibitively expensive, but if you’re willing to spend the money, they are now available.

Next time we’ll look at how the Internet has helped connect the community and refine rules.

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