We caught up with Game Manufacturers Association Executive Director John Stacy at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Baltimore recently, and had a brief chat after his first year in the job, discussing his reflections on his first year, tariffs, and opportunities and challenges for 2020. (We also talked to him shortly after he started last year, see "ICv2 Interview:  New GAMA Executive Director John Stacy").

ICv2: John, this is around the one‑year anniversary of the beginning of your tenure.  What are your reflections on your first year with the organization?
John Stacy: It's been a really amazing year.  I've been on the road for a good part of that, about a third of the year, basically out meeting members, talking to them, learning about the industry.  My background is association management (I've been doing this for 20 years), so learning the specifics of the hobby game industry has been the most interesting part of this.

We have a ways to go to become a full‑fledged trade association.  We've been going from an event management company, and a hybrid [organization], and we're getting more and more towards association work.

This year, we implemented a lot of education programs, the healthcare initiative (which we rolled out in December for our members, which is really great), our activities around advocacy on tariffs.  We're doing things that traditional trade associations should do to help support their members and grow the industry rather than just running a couple events a year.

It's been a really great year.  I've enjoyed working with our members.  It's a really creative and interesting industry. Everyone's been really welcoming and wants to move forward and actually have a going‑strong hobby games industry.  I'm excited about being part of this and look forward to 2020.

You mentioned the tariff side of things.  What does the Phase 1 deal mean for the games business, if anything?
It's still murky.  Things are trickling out from the Trump administration.  We're still saying it's a tax.  We don't like any of the tariffs.  I understand what their goal is.  I don't know if it's helpful for our members.

We've been fighting against them with The Toy Association and a couple other groups.  We're going to keep fighting in 2020.  The battle's not over yet.

The goal is basically zero tariffs, right?
Ideally.  I understand there will always be some tariffs or some kind of those sort of things, but the goal is for them to be as minimal as possible.  The way it was set up, certain parts of the industry are getting hit, others aren't.  They're trying to hurt China, but they're actually hurting American production.

That affects retail prices ultimately, correct?
Absolutely, which affects the consumers.  It's a trickle‑down.  We call it a tax because it is.  It's a tax on consumers and the products.  It's not on China.  It's just misguided.

Here at the beginning of your second year, what do you regard as the biggest opportunities and the biggest challenges for the organization?
Our biggest opportunity is just increasing our engagement with our members.  We just had a vacancy on the board.  We had 15 applicants for it.  We were just amazed.  We weren't sure when we put it out.  We had people who applied, didn't receive it, actually asked to be part of a committee or engage in other ways.

We're seeing a lot of excitement from our members, really being more engaged with the association in 2020.  That's a really big opportunity to make sure that we maximize that this year and keep them engaged and give them opportunities to double‑down, as it were, on our association.

The challenge is we don't know what's going to happen with the economy.  We're hearing that a recession might be coming either later this year or early next year.  We're trying to help our members be prepared for that.  We've added a couple seminars at the trade show this year to say this is how you weather that kind of storm.  We're trying to help prepare them for that upcoming storm, if it happens.

If it doesn't happen, great, but it's going to happen.  We're on these 10‑year cycles with the recession.  We're getting close to another one.

One observation would be that the current boom in gaming actually started as an outcome of the Great Recession as people were looking for higher‑value ways for entertainment.  It did drive interest in price points down.  People were looking for cheaper games.  So the question becomes, "Are you sure that a recession would be bad?"
It's a mixed bag.  If you're prepared for it, you can weather that storm and be successful in it.  If you're not, it will hit you blindsided.  It's the type that can knock your ship over.

I was in the travel industry when the recession occurred (I was at a travel agency for a number of years).  It really hurt our industry at that time really bad.

I actually closed my shop and then went back into nonprofit work.  Here we are 10 years later.  The travel industry is just starting to recover from that.  Our goal is to help them not be in that state 10 years from now if something happens.  It is an opportunity, but it's also a challenge as well.

Our initial read on 2019 was that retailers seemed to have done well.  It was kind of challenging for publishers because there were so many products coming out that retailers and consumers were having trouble choosing.  In some cases, that meant lower per title sales.  What's your reflection on that phenomenon?  How do you see that changing this year?
It seems to me that the games are still coming out full tilt.  I was at Essen in October.  There were 2,000 games released just at that show.  I've heard that it was close to 7,000 games total released last year alone.  Especially with your legacy games, how do you compete with the buzz and noise of that?

That's just going to keep going with Kickstarter and social media.  That's something publishers have to figure out what's the right mix for them.

A lot of them, I hear they're offering less titles but better titles, in their mind.  They're doubling‑down on some of their older titles that they think were good legacy games.  They're going to have to retool for 2020. We're trying to support that as best we can.

What do you see happening to the audience for games, demographically or in terms of numbers?
It's going to go up.  I've been talking to a couple of our publishers who have been doing the PAX shows.  That's a whole new audience that they say they're getting, not the traditional gamers, the hardcore.

GAMA actually created a committee this year, the Market Expansion Committee.  Alan Hochman is the chair of that, one of our board members.  The goal of that is to look at ways, how we grow people who come and play games, whether first‑time gamers or entering new markets or how we explain games to people to help them grow the pie, as it were.

We've probably reached our market penetration with the hardcore gamers.  We've got those, great.  How do we expand that pie and get new people to come to the table and play game?  GAMA is going to focus on that in 2020.

We might have thought that we had reached the max on hardcore gamers, but then we see something like Dungeons & Dragons, which is not necessarily a really accessible game in terms of how you learn how to play it, that's just exploding.  All of our assumptions are being challenged. [laughs]
I agree.  The question is, "Are those really hardcore gamers, or are they people who are riding a fad?"  I don't know.  I hope it’s not a fad.  I mentioned in the presentation earlier today I played D&D back in the 80s and 90s.  That was in high school and college and all.  At that time, I'm in my parent's basement playing it, literally.  Now people are actually out playing it.  You've got TV stars and movie stars playing it.  It's popular media now, which is great, which has really helped put a lot of spotlight on our industry.  That helps everybody.  A rising tide lifts all boats.

Anything else you want to get out to our readership in terms of what's going on at GAMA?
Obviously, we're going through a big rebranding now.  We've changed the name of the trade show to Expo.  We've put a lot of effort and resources into education this year.  We're going to be recording like 35 presentations at the Expo.  We're going to make those available for free to all our members.

Our goal is to create GAMA as the central point for information in our industry.  We're putting time and money into making that happen.  We're going to continue that this year.

We're going to ramp up our efforts with our partners, with the American Booksellers, with the Library Association, The Toy Association, and continue those things we started last year, build upon that for 2020, and just figure out the ways we can serve our members.  Things are going really well I think.