Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Non-gamers and master chocolatiers

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We board gamers love our hobby, and there’s a natural inclination to try to share our passions with others. To me, this is a great thing, and not just because of potential new customers!

Sometimes this enthusiasm turns into frustration. Gamers will take their favorite games to people outside the hobby, and discover that these people do not share their enthusiasm. It turns out that not everyone enjoys playing board games.

I see some people on Twitter writing how the term “gamer” is needlessly exclusionary, and that all humans engage with games on some level. There’s an element of truth to both statements; the term “gamer” should mean more than just a white male ages 14-28 who plays Call of Duty or Magic: The Gathering obsessively. And almost all humans engage with play on some level, be it gambling, watching or playing sports, or even just the occasional good-natured sarcastic comment.

That said, the idea of using one’s brain actively to engage in recreational activity is one that not everyone enjoys. Some people spend a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional energy during the day, and prefer to spend their leisure time turning their brains off. That could mean watching mindless TV shows, or reading fluffy novels, or playing casual digital games.

In this context, “mindless” or “fluffy” is not pejorative; the fact that these activities require no mental work is a positive thing. It helps these people wind down from a stressful day and relax.

I work at an escape room as a game master, and I remember asking one group if they enjoyed puzzles. They all answered, “no.” And sure enough, they floundered in the room and did not enjoy the experience one bit. It turns out that actively using one’s mind to play – adopting what Bernard Suits calls “the lusory attitude” – is not one that comes naturally to everyone. And while I have no hard data behind this, I wonder if there’s an uncomfortable element of privilege here too; that the idea of recreational play for adults is not something people of all classes or backgrounds have access to. (For more on this subject, I recommend Nick Bentley’s outstanding essay.)

So let’s go back to this hypothetical enthusiastic gamer, trying unsuccessfully to get their friends to join our hobby. How come people who are exposed to our games, which to us are so much “better” than mass-market games, do not necessarily cross over?

I was in Paris a couple of months ago, and I had the pleasure of going on a food tour that stopped at a master chocolatier. He played a little “game” with us, in which he brought out some of his special handmade treats, but didn’t allow us to choose them directly. Instead, he told us we would get two pieces of chocolate. For the first piece, we would specify “dark” or “milk,” and where we were from. For the second, he would choose for us.

Now, I have a sweet tooth, and I love chocolate. At the same time, I’m hardly a chocolate expert; I prefer milk to bittersweet, and I don’t really like nuts or fruit in my treats (I’m not allergic, just picky). I generally stick with Lindt, Ritter, or Milka bars; just a couple of notches above ordinary Hershey bars.

The chocolatier sensed my pickiness, and I wound up with two pieces of chocolate ganache that were absolutely heavenly. I could tell the guy was immensely skilled at what he did, and I would likely never have more exquisitely-crafted chocolate in my life.

So this means I’m hooked on high-end chocolate for the rest of my life, right? Well, no.

First, there’s familiarity. I know what I’m getting in that Lindt bar. I know I love it. But adventuring into high-end chocolate, I know I’m going to hit a lot of barriers of personal taste. Like I mentioned before, I don’t want fruit or nuts in my chocolate. I find that everything over 55% tastes like solidified motor oil to me.

I’m also a bit intimidated. How do I know that any particular high-end chocolate is good or right for me? I mean, I could research it, but that would take a certain amount of work. Would I get a proportional amount of satisfaction corresponding to the work, as opposed to just getting a mass-market bar I like?

And maybe there’s a pride thing too. Jumping into high-end chocolate means admitting a lack of knowledge, on a certain level. Consciously, I love learning new things. But perhaps there’s a primal, unconscious part of me that would prefer to remain on terra firma?

It would be a bit pricey, wouldn’t it? And some of that money would be lost on chocolate that I wouldn’t enjoy.

And finally: maybe I just don’t care as much about chocolate as the true fans do.

Obviously, I’m bringing all this up because I think this maps fairly closely to why people tend to stick with “classic” mass-market games, and not cross over to our games, even after being exposed to them. There’s an intimidation factor when entering this rabbit hole of ours, and not everyone relishes the prospect of entering it.

Of course, from our perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Why would anyone decline it? But from a person comfortable with what they’re familiar with, it’s not so much a slam dunk.

Let’s look at Cards Against Humanity as an example (and of course, CAH has all sorts of baggage to it that I’ve written about previously, but let’s assume here it’s being played with full consent and buy-in from its participants). I see new party games try to position themselves as “CAH-killers,” because they require more thought and effort. Like, a game that requires you to build a pitch, or tell a story.

But that misses a vital truth about Cards Against Humanity and its fans. CAH’s whole appeal is that it takes no thought to play. You can play randomly, and the game will still work; it might even be funnier than if you had chosen a specific card. And of course, if you choose something morally horrible, you can always blame it on the game.

Again, whether this is a good or bad thing is an excellent question and a valuable discussion, but outside the scope of this blog post. The important thing is that you don’t need to think when you play CAH, and while game fans think this is a disadvantage, the game’s fans find it an advantage. Once again, “mindless” is not always pejorative when studying entertainment.

That is why it’s so hard to lure “non-gamers” into our hobby. They don’t necessarily share our way of thinking. The idea of working for our fun, and working specifically by expending mental energy, is something that they don’t enjoy.

So the next time you bring a game to your place of work, or to your family for the holidays, remember that it’s not enough to just expose them to our games. In order for our games to stick, the people we show them to must be predisposed to adopting the lusory attitude for tabletop games. They must enjoy using their noggins for fun. That’s not something we can take for granted, and it’s why tabletop games are never going to be for everyone.

“Naked Baby Photos,” Game Designer Edition

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I spent 10 days at the Gathering of Friends, an invitational convention in Niagara Falls. I wish everyone could have joined me!

It’s a show where a bunch of industry veterans and notables hang out and play games in a relaxed environment. So I got the idea to run an informal event that I wouldn’t be able to run anywhere else. I called it “Naked Baby Photos, Game Designer Edition.”

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The idea was for any participating designer to bring one of their oldest game designs. Not their oldest published design, but something from very early in their career, before they really knew what they were doing.

I thought it might be interesting, instructive, and maybe even inspirational to look at these old games to see how far we have come. At the same time, part of me was expecting each game to be a real stinker, and for the event to have an MST3K-like quality to it.

But that turned out to not be the case! Each game, for all its flaws, had some shining quality to it.

 

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Christian Lemay brought a game he designed a few years ago inspired by the Dr. Mario video game. It turned out to be fun and engaging, with a few mechanisms that were tricky to remember and enforce. It honestly didn’t play any worse than a typical prototype brought to one of one of my local game design groups. It seemed like it just needed a bit of development to become a pitchable prototype, although it’s not something in most publishers’ wheelhouse.

Heist

Jonathan Gilmour brought a game where the players are a band of criminals running a heist, and then screwing each other over to keep it. This is probably the setting I’ve seen with the most lopsided attempt/success ratio; few designers succeed at it! And while this game’s numbers were a bit off and there was some excessive fiddliness, there were fun moments of surprise as we tried to make off with the loot. Again, some development would probably turn this into a pitchable prototype.

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Ed Bryan brought a game he’d designed as a teenager. It was a massive, epic civilization-style game where players were colonizing a vast magical land. In practice, there were a lot of dice rolls, and we called it after a few rounds. But it was cool to see a game of this scope, especially with his pages and pages of handwritten notes!

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I brought an old one of mine: Wag the Wolf, one of my first designs, which did well at a Hippodice competition, but I hadn’t played in years. We actually made it halfway through the game, and only had to call it because of time. I was expecting a cringeworthy experience, and sure enough, the game’s theme and “ingenious” information-reveal mechanism didn’t really work too well.

But the players loved the musical-chairs auction at the center of the game, which is a little frustrating, because that auction was originally at the center of the games that became Battle Merchants and The Networks. I had to pull it out of both games because the auction turned out to not fit in either game.

And sure enough, a few days afterwards, I figured out a way to possibly frame the auction in a game that might work! I tried it on the Saturday of the Gathering, and the results are promising.

So that’s four games this auction has made it into. We’ll see if anything comes of it…

EdNotes

Overall, I was amazed at how strong the games were. None of them were outright turkeys; everyone genuinely enjoyed playing these early prototypes. It was a ton of fun seeing how far we’d come with our designs. Each game had a gem of an idea within, and with some polishing, would end up with something interesting.

(OK, perhaps Ed’s game would need a good amount of streamlining. But the scope was really fun to tangle with!)

I’m not sure if I’m going to do this event next year, but I had a good time with it. It’s good to connect with old designs, as embarrassing as it can feel at first. You never know what nuggets you’ll come up with!

Another way to measure convention attendance

Anyone who follows the board game convention scene knows that there’s two ways to measure the attendance at a convention. But they’re often used interchangeably by accident, which results in a lot of confusion and head-scratching.

One way is “unique attendance.” This is the number of different people a convention has sold tickets to. So if I buy a ticket to your convention, I count as one unique attendee. Simple enough.

But the more common way conventions report attendance is by “turnstile attendance.” This counts how many people attended the convention each day. So if I attend your convention on three different days, I count as three different attendees.

Conventions love to report their attendance as turnstile, because the number is significantly bigger. For example, if I wanted to misrepresent the difference between Origins and Gen Con, I could report that Origins drew 52,561 people in 2016, while Gen Con narrowly beat them with 60,819. But that statistic is a distortion; the figure for Origins is turnstiles, while the figure for origins is uniques. An apples-to-apples comparison would either report both unique figures (Origins drawing 15,479 to Gen Con’s 60,819) or both turnstile figures (Origins drawing 25,149 to Gen Con’s 201,852).

So let’s take a second and disclaim: none of this is to measure the relative worth of these conventions. I’m not arguing for a moment that Gen Con is almost 10 times better than Origins, since their turnstile attendance is almost 10x greater. Far from it! I’ve had amazing times at smaller conventions, and not-so-great times at larger conventions. Size will change the feel of a convention, but it should never, ever be a sole determining factor in judging one show’s worth versus another’s.

Also, I’ve helped run the board game track at a 300-person convention years ago, and even that is a backbreaking amount of work. All of these conventions require an amount of labor that would make anyone’s hair fall out. Smaller shows usually get by with smaller crews, so I tip my cap to people who run conventions of any size.

That said, it would be useful to have a single metric to measure attendance at these shows. So why not just use unique attendees and ignore turnstiles?

There’s a couple of issues there. It’s rare that a statistic is always useful or never useful. Statistics provide a window into our understanding of an event, but they will usually miss a bit of the picture.

For example, it’s tough to compare conventions using turnstile attendance because not all conventions run the same length. Two conventions may draw about the same crowd per day, but if one convention is 5 days long and the other 3 days, comparing turnstiles will be extremely misleading; the first show will seem significantly larger.

Uniques would seem to be better-suited to compare conventions with, but they can be problematic too. First off, lots of European shows (especially Essen SPIEL) do not release unique attendance figures. Second off, not all shows count uniques the same way. I’ve noticed some shows only count event-long badges as uniques, ignoring day badges.

Third off, if one show has different attendees each day versus another show where the same people return each day, the first show’s unique figures will be much higher, even if both shows draw in roughly the same number of people per day. That’s not to say that uniques are a useless statistic in that situation, but they will not help you judge the relative scale of each event.

So how about another way to calculate attendance? Let’s take a look at convention attendance using this simple formula: turnstile attendance ➗ days.

This gives us a unique window into the scale of a show. It lets us compare conventions that don’t provide unique attendance against shows that do, regardless of the number of days it runs. We don’t have to worry how the show calculates uniques, as turnstile will include all kinds of badges, not just full-event badges.

And as an exhibitor, it gives me a valuable data point: it tells me what the scale of the show is, and how big the crowd should be on an average day. Sure, it’s not going to tell me how large the attendance swings are; if the last day of a show is particularly slow, that will be represented as a dip in the overall statistic. But that’s the risk of summing everything up in a single number (and anyway, most shows do not release daily turnstile figures).

So with that, let’s look at some TPD (turnstile per day) figures! I’ve taken 9 of the largest international conventions with at least some significant board game attendance, with the largest turnstile figures for each individual show. Some shows are board game or tabletop-only (Gen Con, SPIEL), while others are comic book or video game conventions with a fairly good board game board game/tabletop presence (Lucca, PAX, Emerald City). I’ll also opine, when I can, on whether I expect each show to grow significantly or not.

One more thing: convention attendance figures are notoriously unreliable. All of these figures must be taken with quite a few grains of salt, if not the entire shaker!

Convention Year Turnstile Attendence Length (days) TPD
Lucca Comics & Games 2016 271,208 5 54,242
Gen Con 2016 201,852 4 50,463
Festival des Jeux 2014 150,000 3 50,000
SPIEL 2016 174,000 4 43,500
Emerald City Comic Con 2015 80,000 3 26,667
PAX East 2017 80,000 3 26,667
PAX West 2015 70,000 4 17,500
Origins 2016 52,561 5 10,512
UKGE 2016 25,149 3 8,383

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Lucca turns out to be the largest show by this metric, even larger than SPIEL in Essen. That’s a bit surprising, but not hugely so; everything I’ve read about Lucca tells me that it’s a madhouse. Keep in mind that it is not exclusively a game convention, so there will be a significant percentage of attendees attending only for comics and/or cosplay.

Gen Con comes in second, and that’s not a massive surprise. Gen Con is not purely board gaming; it has a significant RPG and CCG presence. But board games seem to have grown lately, and I’d imagine that most exhibitors and floor space is dedicated to board games at this point.

Regarding the future, I can’t imagine Gen Con growing significantly larger. Both floor space and hotel room stock are maxed out, and yet they’re locked into their current location for the next few years. (Of course, bigger is not necessarily better, and a show can easily get worse if it doesn’t manage growth well.)

You may not have heard of the Festival des Jeux. It’s the largest board game convention in France, held in Cannes (yes, the same city as the well-known film festival). In fact, some people will call it “Cannes” the same way SPIEL is referred to as “Essen.” What makes the FdJ notable here is that, according to TPD, it is the largest board game-only convention in the world.

How come so many geeks haven’t heard of it? Probably because it’s very heavily French-speaking. Most attendees and publishers at SPIEL speak English, but FdJ is meant to be a show for France, not so much an international show, at least as it stands right now. Still, if you’re a publisher with a French game, or if your game is language-independent, you have a French rulebook, and you parlez-vous français, it seems a must-attend.

Note that I was only able to find attendance figures for 2014, and that nice round number tells me it’s an estimate, so who knows what the real attendance was? I hear that this year’s show had a turnstile attendance of 200,000, but I couldn’t find any articles to substantiate that. If anyone can point me to a more reliable attendance number for FdJ, I’d hugely appreciate it.

Speaking of SPIEL… who’d have thought it’d place fourth? It’s one of the most highly-regarded shows in the world, after all. But keep in mind: SPIEL is still the second-largest board game-only show in the world (well, mostly board games, but board games make up such an overwhelming percentage of the show that we’ll go ahead and grant it). Also, the fact that it’s very friendly to English speakers means that it has much more of an international flavor, and is much more appealing to people from English-speaking countries. (But I wouldn’t suggest planning to make a ton of money selling a game at SPIEL that’s exclusively English-dependent. This might be experience talking here.)

It’s a shame SPIEL doesn’t present unique attendance figures. I think they’d be fascinating. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that Essen would have a surprisingly high unique attendance figure; there are many attendees that attend just for a single day. I would love to compare uniques to TPD, to figure out how much turnover there is from day to day.

As for growth, it’s not unreasonable to imagine SPIEL growing even larger. There’s still about 1-2 empty halls in the Messe, and Essen has a good amount of hotel stock. Assuming the hobby continues to grow, I would expect it to overtake Gen Con soon.

Then we return US soil, with both Emerald City Comic Con and PAX East. Be warned that both these attendance figures are fraught with peril. First off, neither show is exclusively for board games. I’ve never been to ECCC, and while I hear its board game scene is pretty healthy (rare for most comic conventions!), I don’t have any firsthand evidence to back it up.

PAX East, meanwhile, is a video game convention that happens to have a decently-sized board game convention neatly nested within. But PAX is notoriously tight-lipped about its attendance figures, and normally doesn’t even release turnstile statistics. I found these attendance figures on Wikipedia, without citations. Caveat emptor!

With all that said, I was surprised that PAX East’s number was so low. I was expecting it to be on the same scale as Gen Con, but its TPD is about half the size. Once again, that’s not to say that PAX East is an objectively worse show than Gen Con, but I expected its numbers to be a bit larger.

I wish we could have numbers for how many people attend the PAX East tabletop area, which is larger than a lot of entire regional conventions. Just from my experience, I’d peg its TPD at about 5,000, give or take 2,000 people. As Father Guido Sarducci once said, “That’s nothing to sneeze your nose at.”

Immediately after PAX East is PAX West (formerly PAX Prime). The fact that it’s a little smaller isn’t a huge surprise, although it’s tough to get a sense of PAX West’s size just by being there. The Washington State Convention Center is split into several floors, instead of being one or two giant rooms, so you can never get a sense of how large the overall show is.

After that comes the venerable Origins Game Fair. It’s not a massive show, but it’s large enough to boast a 5-figure TPD, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Its size relative to Gen Con is not a surprise either, as both shows are very good about releasing both turnstile and unique attendance.

Origins’ unique attendance dropped a bit in 2016 relative to 2015, but that was mostly because of a CCG tournament that’s no longer held at the show. The TPD shows significant growth, up from 7,843 in 2014 and 8,758 in 2015. I’d expect the show to grow for the next year or two, possibly hitting a floor space limit within the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

The last entry, and one of the most intriguing shows for me, is UK Games Expo. I’d suspected that its size put it on par with Origins, and these numbers seem to back that observation up. One thing to keep in mind is that UKGE is growing like crazy. I expect it to easily shatter the 10,000 TPD barrier this year, and it’s not unrealistic to expect the show to get to 15,000 or even 20,000 in the next few years, if the growth of the hobby keeps up. That’s because the convention is only taking up a couple of halls of an enormous convention center. In terms of floor size, they could get much larger without having to move locations. Their biggest gating factor is hotel stock; rooms sell out faster each year.

And that’s about it! I don’t pretend that this metric is a be-all end-all statistic that replaces both turnstiles and uniques. As a vendor, I do want to know how many total unique attendees there are, and therefore how many potential customers I have. But I think TPD gives the best idea of the scale of a convention, and roughly how many people you can expect at the show on an average day.

Incidentally, I’d love to see turnstile figures for BGG.CON, Dice Tower Con, UnPub, and Geekway to the West. As those shows grow (and all those shows are growing – even BGG.CON is moving to a larger location in a couple of years), I’d be interested to see how close they get to Origins and UKGE in terms of scale.

I’m joining Ludology!

 

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I’m so thrilled and excited to announce the latest news: I am joining the acclaimed game design podcast Ludology as a co-host! I will be stepping in for co-host Mike Fitzgerald, who provided marvelous insights from his long game design career over his two-year tenure as host. (Mike explains his reasons for leaving the show in the most recent episode as of this writing, Episode 147, but the short reason is: “It’s time.”)

I know I can’t replace Mike’s experience – not many people can! – but I’m excited to offer my perspective. I have no small amount of experience myself, having been designing games since 2000, and self-publishing my games since 2014. I also bring a deeply analytical approach to game design. Like Geoff Engelstein, Ludology’s founding co-host, I believe games are worthy of study. I’m also an experienced sound editor, so I’ll be taking over the post-production of the show.

I’ve known Geoff for a long time and I’ve done panels with him at conventions, so I’m excited to take this next chapter. We’ve had a couple of discussions about new episode ideas, and I’m very eager to bring my energy and perspective to the show.

For those of you who listen to my other podcast, Breaking Into Board Games, rest assured that nothing is going to change! My plan is to continue to co-host both shows. We’ve had some really great episodes lately, and the next few planned episodes are no exception. I’m also still editing the fun and informative show Board Games Insider, so that’s three podcasts I have my hands in.

My Ludology tenure will begin on Episode 150, which should air in late April. Come join me!

Gamer fatigue and the growth of the hobby

In a recent episode of Breaking Into Board Games, we discussed our predictions about 2017. One of my predictions was that we would start seeing a cap on attendance at larger conventions. I wanted to continue on that subject with a wider lens, looking at a possible scenario we may be facing in the coming years.

The board game industry is growing at an explosive rate (revenue from hobby board games grew 56% from 2014 to 2015; I’d expect similar numbers when the numbers come in for 2016), and I’ve heard a few pundits indicate that there’s no end in sight. As an independent board game designer/publisher, I certainly hope that’s the case.

But I always try to plan for contingencies, and part of that is planning for the possibility that this explosive growth slows, stops, or even reverses.

To be honest, I would expect the hobby to continue to grow in 2017, and perhaps in 2018. But I think we’re going to see signs of strain and constraint. And I think gamer fatigue is going to play into that significantly.

Gamer fatigue

Every so often, a thread like this appears on BGG. Or this. Both are examples of “gamer fatigue,” a phenomenon that seems to set in after a few years in the hobby.

When people first enter the hobby, they buy games aggressively. If they like something, they’ll purchase it right away.

This “honeymoon” period lasts for about 1-3 years. But at some point, a gamer realizes that they can’t sustain that pace. They run out of space to store their collection. They realize, via a life event or other need for frugality, that they can’t spend so much money on games. They realize that half their collection is still unplayed. Many times, they even start to find new games bland. They pine for a time when games were “better,” which tends to align with the exact moment they entered the hobby.

W. Eric Martin of BGG has written eloquently about this topic. While new games may seem uninspiring after a few years in the hobby, it’s important to remember that new games are for new gamers, and what seemed fresh and exciting to you when you were entering the hobby was not all that innovative to someone who had already been in the hobby for 10 years.

Back to the new gamers: it’s a lot like meeting in front of a restaurant. Most people will linger for some time there, deciding whether to go in or continue down the street. But at some point, you either go in or not.

Same with this position of “I like it, I buy it.” It’s unsustainable. At some point, gamers slow their purchasing. Some of them drop out of the hobby altogether. Most others remain in, but acquire their games through trades or secondhand sales, making sure they sell games they don’t fit.

New gamers and the growth of the industry

The business has been booming lately because we’ve had so many new gamers rush in and buy games. As they “age,” even more new gamers enter the hobby, and the industry appears to grow.

I should mention at this point that this process of aging is necessary; I’ve been through it myself! And I should emphasize that veteran gamers are no less valuable citizens of the community. Indeed, gamers who have been around for a long time should be celebrated and appreciated. And many veteran gamers who slow their buying habits down contribute to the community in other ways, like through podcasting or running events.

But in terms of pure buying power, it’s the people new to the hobby who are driving the industry’s growth. As long as we have more people entering this “honeymoon” period than leaving it, we will see industry revenue grow.

If, for some reason, the flow of new gamers slows, we’ll see it in the bottom line. We’ll see convention attendance level out and revenue flatten out. It could be for a number of reasons, like the global economy suddenly tanking. Or the hobby hitting a point where board games get so mainstream that the only people discovering it are teenagers who are getting their first disposable income. Or the number of new games per year growing so huge that discovery becomes impossible for all but the biggest game companies and brands.

Look at the current market and ask yourself: is this sustainable? I can think of four companies that manufacture gaming tables. I can think of at least three companies that make custom inserts for board game boxes. Right now, they seem to be doing well, but will all those companies be able to survive a contraction? (I have friends at most of those companies, and I want them all to succeed, so I certainly hope so! But sometimes we have to look at things from a cold, clinical perspective.)

A lot of people talk about a bubble bursting, but it needn’t be so dramatic. If this happens, it’s just as likely that we see a flattening and a contraction. And the first place we’d see it is with new gamers failing to enter the business just as the honeymoon is ending for more seasoned gamers.

A market correction isn’t inherently a bad thing in the long run, although it would certainly make a lot of dreamers and small businessmen miserable. If our current growth is not sustainable, a correction may be what it takes to make our industry realistic and survivable over the course of decades.

Of course, as a small publisher, I’m rooting for the business to grow. But to me, the influx of new gamers is the canary in the coal mine. If we see a flattening, that’s going to be the first place it happens.

In the meantime, keep playing games, keep buying them, and keep telling your friends about them! That’s the best way to keep our hobby growing.