Last week I attended the Game Manufacturers Association Expo (GAMA Expo) for the first time! As a first time attendee with a new game publishing company, it was an enlightening experience to say the least!
What is GAMA?
GAMA is a professional organization for publishers, retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and other tabletop industry professionals geared towards strengthening and supporting the industry write large through education, networking, and opportunities. The organization holds two major events a year: Origins Game Fair, a more consumer-facing convention similar to other events like Gen Con or Pax Unplugged, and GAMA Expo, a business to business (b2b) gathering of professionals to interact and learn from each other.
What did you do?
In short, a whole lot! I attended seminars, announcements, exhibited, wandered the show floor, and, most of all, connected with others in the tabletop game industry! The event runs from Tuesday to Thursday, with programming scheduled from 9 am - 1 pm, a one hour break for lunch, and then resuming from 2-6 pm, followed by a two hour break for dinner, and usually some sort of hosted happy hour followed by a game night.
Everything took place under one rooftop, the labyrinthian Peppermill Resort in Reno, Nevada. The entire hotel turned into one big mingling open almost all hours, with very little separation between official and unofficial events. People were taking meetings at all hours at the hotel bar - the Circle Bar - lovingly nicknamed ‘The Office’ by many; playing pickup games outside the show hall; chatting in groups or as pairs; walking into and out of seminars; and, when there was a lull, going back up to the hotel rooms for a cheeky nap.
It felt like very close to a typical convention, but somehow different? A bit more buttoned up, a bit more professional.
What did you learn?
A whole lot! That was probably the best part of the show. Everyone attending has some knowledge about the industry and made themselves incredibly accessible to other attendees. You could go up to and talk to anyone, strike up a conversation, propose a meeting, and absorb a ton of information that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. It was quite the crash course in the tabletop industry… hard to put into words everything, but here’s the quick bulletpoint takeaways:
It’s a very small industry. Everyone knows everyone, and almost everyone attends GAMA. Over four days it’s pretty common to meet what it feels like the entire industry, and I’m sure that multiplies year-in and out at these things.
Distribution in Tabletop is constantly changing. Before the advent of the internet and crowdfunding, it seemed like regional distributors were the name of the game. Nowadays, the distinction between a distributor, consolidator, direct to retail, direct to consumer - they’re all blurring and many newer companies are engaging in all of the above, simultaneously.
Licensing is King. Almost 70% of the publishers / distributors on the show floor had licensed properties of some sort. Licensing seems to be one of the main avenues companies consistently sustain themselves and rapidly accelerate their growth.
Success means different things. One company talked about selling 5 million units to date in five years. Another, 75,000. 25,000. 10,000 - so on and so forth. Different spaces - one is a publisher distributed to the mass market ala Target, Barnes and Noble, etc. while others are more focused on hobby retailers, or maybe even their direct to consumer (webstore) sales. It seems, though, that success is tabletop is defined largely by leaps and bounds, rather than steady growth. One hit can catapult the success of a publisher upwards to a new level which then must be maintained.
RPGs are a small (growing) market with a long tail. According to ICv2, half of the total tabletop market is made up of Collectible Card Games (CCGs), while tabletop RPGs make up just 3% of the total market. The silver lining though is that RPGs are currently booming: since 2019, the market has more than doubled, with about three consecutive years of ~20% growth. Anecdotally, I heard so many retailers just learning about games 5, 6 years old, speaking about them as if they were brand new. That’s promising for games like ours, where the biggest challenge is letting gamers know about them. Speaking of which…
Retail growth follows overall buzz. It’s a data driven industry. While many found The Wildsea and CBR+PNK impressive, my conversations often dived into numbers of units moved per week, lifetime, etc. Distributors want to have games that are going to sell, and the only way they know which games will sell is when they receive orders from retailers. Retailers purchase games based off of what their gamers are telling them, so to get to the retailers, you have to get to the gamers first. Bit of gordian knot. Not sure if I’m using that phrase correctly.
My overall takeaway from the conference is that we have a long way to go. That said, after attending, I feel like we’re on the right track, making the right moves, and meeting the people with the knowledge to help us accelerate our growth. I know I’m couching things in a lot of business-y terms, but what it means for me ultimately is getting more people experiencing our worlds, playing our games.
Onwards and upwards!