We caught up with Asmodee USA General Manager Julien Sharp for a post-Toy Fair interview, and talked about the Hobby channel, market trends, plans for the Star Wars Unlimited TCG, and her picks from the Asmodee line for the holiday season and early 2024.  Sharp joined Asmodee from Spin Master early this year (see "Asmodee Appoints Julien Sharp").

ICv2:  The first question is asking if you could share with our readers Asmodee's view of the big picture: how is the overall games market performing in 2023?
Julien Sharp
:  Right now, Hobby seems to be doing quite well; it's very stable for us. We're pretty happy with how things are going there.  That is our really important channel for Asmodee historically and currently, so we're very happy there.  There might be a little bit slowdown just like we're seeing in the market, more in the mass channels.  Consumers are still being a little more careful, very responsive to pricing actions, things like that.  Overall, in most of our main channel, which is Hobby, it's pretty good.

Still finding our way post‑COVID, still finding in different ways where the market is, like we talked about with everyone coming out of COVID in this industry, where's it going to settle?  It's settling in here pretty good, I'd say.

If Hobby market's stable, that's great because Hobby was up a lot during COVID and those consumers seem to be sticking around.
Obviously, COVID numbers are COVID numbers (when people are at home, you have not much else to do), but it introduced a lot more people to the gaming industry.  I see a lot of chatter in the sites that I look at and at the various social media, "New to the Hobby."  New to the Hobby, to me, that means they found it in the last year or so, so that's exciting.

I love seeing people saying, "I'm new to the Hobby.  What about this?  What do you recommend for that?"  A lot of that going on.  For some people, that means they stay. They didn't just play games in desperation for COVID.  They realized this is really amazing, and they found the Hobby, which I just love.

Any trend in the number of stores in the Hobby channel?  Is there any change?
For us, we've stayed pretty steady.  I got into Hobby more full time with coming into Asmodee and our numbers have stayed pretty steady, grown a little bit, overall.  It seems like they were pretty much recession‑proof as far as I didn't see that it really went down. (I was much more mass market before last year; I'm here almost a year.)  It seems to be, again, holding pretty steady.

Good place to sell games, good place to put the Hobby games out there, still big on lifestyle games like the miniatures and the TCGs and things that people keep buying into where there's community.  For us, a Hobby game store is a store that makes a community and they're building and maintaining those communities.  It's the most important thing, and that seems to be alive and well.

You talked a little bit about Hobby and community.  How do you differentiate that Hobby role from your other channels, specifically mass or specialty retail?
Just to make sure we're all on the same page, we define Hobby as a store that is also building a community.  Some of the communities are smaller, some are very large.  The stores that seem to be quite successful, a lot of times, have that community element.  They get people playing and coming back and buying into the programs of miniatures and trading card games or the next expansion pack of a certain game.  They love a game and they stay with it and want more elements of that play.  Definitely very Hobby.

Toy and Gift is another channel that is also very small independents, but also very different from Hobby, in that those are more ephemeral sales, they want something new.  They have, obviously, the staples, but they want to see new a lot more.  Whereas, certainly, Hobby likes to see things new, but there's also the programs and the expansions and things like that that are much more different for Hobby.

Mass likes to see a more mass game, that is one that appeals to a broader, or a wider, audience.  Those are different types of games: more party games, those type of things. Family, kids games are more approachable there, but there's room in almost every channel for lots of different games.

Probably less since COVID.  There's not as many people playing the ones that didn't keep the Hobby or go into the Hobby.  Certainly, that's changed a little bit, but definitely opportunities across all those channels.

In terms of those post‑COVID trends, it seems there may be some rotation in terms of the types of games that are doing well.  Retailers this year have been saying that the simple, less expensive, more casual games are doing a little better than the bigger, crunchier stuff.  What are you seeing there?
This year, price point’s on everybody's mind.  If you're going to go into a bigger game, you need to have a really good idea of what it's about that is going to be good, so getting a chance to have people play it and review it is really important.

If the game is great, there will be a steady stream of people to spend their money on it.  They're not as likely to rush into that without knowing in advance that the game is good or recommended because of the slowdown and people being a little bit more careful and price‑conscious.

It's more about price point than the game style?  It's just people are looking for less expensive options?
Some people are.  There's still a market and it’s still growing; as I mentioned, Hobby is doing really well.  The higher the price point in a new game, the more important it is that there's advanced information about it.  We have an entire team devoted to making sure that all that information gets out, not just to our retailers, but also to our consumers.

We're looking at that process all the time.  In fact, I've been here a year and we're still fine‑tuning how to make sure people read about the games, to learn about the games, to recommend those games to others.  There's nothing like a recommendation of someone who's actually played it.

Live selling is growing as a channel.  Whatnot is out there, TikTok has started live selling.  Any new channel tends to be a little bit of a wild west period initially.  Are you seeing any new problems with counterfeits?  We’ve been hearing in other categories that there are some issues of that in live selling.  Are you seeing any of that?
Counterfeits have been a problem across almost every single area I've worked.  As far as the game industry, it's easy to do that.  The protections are much more stringent.  If you put the effort in, and staff the team right to be able to look in that compliance and counterfeit, it does help.

We have a pretty good team in part of our department here in the U.S., that is looking into that and certainly working with our global suppliers and everything like that.  It's always going to be somewhat of a problem, but if you have the setup to control it, it really is helpful to mitigate it.

We also want to get an update on the current status of your minimum advertised price policy.  Can you update our readers where Asmodee is on that, and what the status is?  What is the current policy?  Have you seen any changes?  You do holidays for the holiday season.  Are you going to do that again this year?
Yes, we are.  We are fine‑tuning that process.  Overall, our MAP (minimum advertised price) policy is 20 percent.  You can't go below 20 percent off our SRP.  As far as right now, we're looking to continue that.  We do give holidays that are well received by our different channels.

Managing that always is a challenge.  There's just no way around it.  The same team that does our counterfeit [monitoring] has also got the members that are looking into making sure MAP compliance is there.  So far, so good.  It seems to be helping us.  It's nice to give the consumers a break to allow the prices to go down during certain times.  Certainly Prime Day and other major sales events, we try to be there with that and adjust our holidays accordingly.

Hobby retailers complain about that: what's your response to their concerns about having to compete with online retail?
Online retail is the endless shelf.  It's a great catalog, where people go to search for things, where you can pretty much find everything.  We've been very careful with all of our policies that put a Hobby‑first approach to make sure that they get same access to those discounts and opportunities.

Also, the biggest job is making sure after that holiday is over, to make sure everybody's back to normal.  We do spend a lot of time and again staffing devoted specifically to monitoring that.

That is what our devotion is to the Hobby community to make sure with the inevitable things in the market that we have to do to compete in a multi‑channel sales environment, also then are protected so that our very important Hobby retailers are protected as well.

We want to talk a little bit about TCGs.  Asmodee wholesaled the My Hero Academia TCG for a while.  Now you've got your own Star Wars TCG product coming out.  That's been a new type of product for Asmodee in the States (in Europe, Asmodee does a lot of TCG business).  What new skills or techniques Asmodee had to develop for the launch of your own TCGs here?
It's a very big initiative, and I'm so excited about it because we have not had a lot of trading card opportunities of this magnitude in the States.  As you say, yes, very famous brands are being distributed by Asmodee worldwide.

Our team is very fortunate.  Because that's the case and that we're very close with all different distribution units around the world, our centralized route‑to‑market team has made sure that our team was able to benchmark off of the best practices, successes, and put together a program.  We may be newer to it, but we've got all of that experience and that's what we're putting into play.  We're really fortunate that we have that support.

So far, the plans around a concerted sales and marketing effort (I see them every week, there’s lots of meetings and prep) are looking real good, so it’s looking great.

What's the Star Wars Unlimited TCG rollout going to look like by channel?  Are you going to mass with it?
It is Hobby first. Hobby is where we want to build the community.  There will be some online because we want to maintain the brand out there.  The big focus and everything is around Hobby and building that community of players.  That's the most important thing, and our launch will reflect that.

You said Hobby first.  How long a window will it get?
That I don't know exactly.  It definitely is going to be a while.  We were just chatting about that the other day, but it's not confirmed yet.  There will be enough time to build that community of players is the most important part.  That's not always set in stone.  The most important thing is to build the community and grow the community at Hobby.

The biggest thing with a collectible game is how many you make and how does that match the demand?  How do you see that problem, and how are you going to approach it for Star Wars Unlimited?  There was just a big launch from another company and there was a lot of kvetching about insufficient product supply relative to demand.  If you go too much product, then the demand declines because people feel it's not collectible, so it's a very difficult process.  How do you feel the supply is going to match the demand initially?  Are you trying to under fulfill?  Are you going to do it in waves?  How do you plan to deal with the demand versus supply issue?
There's two parts to Asmodee.  There's the studio side and then there's the distribution side.  I know that there's been careful planning about that on the studio side.  I wouldn't be able to speak specifically to their plans, but I know they're there.

I will tell you from a distribution side, one of the most important things we have built is the mechanism to make sure that the replenishments ones that are there, that the stock is out on time, that the replenishments are quick to be able to react to the demand very quickly, and that's our job.  We're putting in all of that and that's what we do on the distribution side.

It's been more than a year in working on that, and I think it will work.  Again, using best practices from other distribution units.  We're not just starting from no knowledge at all, even though it hasn't been in this territory.  That's a big focus for us to make sure we have it as the need and the demand requires based on the demand plan of our studio and how they're working with that.

Let's talk about the upcoming holiday season, which we're already heavily into.  What are your expectations generally for the holiday season in terms of your different game categories and how you think the market is going to respond?
So far, we're probably going to be running pretty even with what the market as a whole is seeing.  There are games that are a little bit softer this year for sure, but we're holding our own within that expected softness.  That's what we're looking at right now.  There's still robust action going on, and we're pretty excited about the titles that we're bringing out.

Because we're Hobby‑first and Hobby‑focused, we get a lot of new releases all the way through, later than if we were just maybe a single channel.  There are still more things to come this fall, and I'm excited to see the reception to that.

What are you excited about in terms of the Asmodee products for Q4?
I'm really excited about SpellBook (it's out now), that's been doing really well.

That was a buzz game at Gen Con.
Yeah, it was a big buzz, and I thought it was great when I saw it.  I saw it here several months ago and I'm like, "Wow, this has got something going on."  It appeals to that sorcery, and the design and the components are so nice.  It packs a lot in for the box.  I'm really happy about that.

Really happy about our Dixit Disney, which is the Disney version of our famous Dixit game.  That reception at Gen Con went really well, and at Toy Fair it was quite well received as well.  The art is just incredible.

I’m excited about our new Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game launch to Target and all, which is one of our crossover games.  It's going to go to the whole chain, which is exciting.  That's been doing quite well.

Then there are lots of third‑party games as well.  We have our GENSMAK! game, which is coming out, and that's a generational trivia game, which is really cool.  That's from a third party that pitched us to be their exclusive distributor.  That's a neat one to keep an eye on as well.

What about next year?  Any big things we should be looking forward to from Asmodee in 2024?
Obviously, there's this trading card game that we're pretty excited about.  That's our global big focus.  That is really important to us, the prep in going into making sure that that launches right.

Pretty excited about this game called 13 Beavers from Format Games.  I honestly saw it when it was pen on torn paper bits. I saw that, and I loved it and had to imagine the art of what it could be.  It's got great reception at Toy Fair.  That's coming out next year, so I'm pretty excited about that.

Is there anything else you want to communicate to our Hobby game retailer audience?
One of the things that I was so excited about when I joined here, not quite a year ago, was the idea that I work at the company that brings to market Ticket to Ride, Catan, and Spot It.

Those pillar brands are the ones that you hear people talking about, we see them in mentions in TV.  They're big.  They're becoming part of pop culture and part of the pillar brands or evergreen games and to have that is really exciting, and we'll continue to put a lot behind all of those.