The Incompetence Trap

How do I say this in a way that is not legally actionable?

I think that Crystal Commerce is awful.

We attempted a migration to Crystal Commerce in 2012. Promised features were not present, and promised development did not take place. We cancelled our service, and it did not go over well. Someone called during dinner to ask me to apologize to their CEO, because apparently he was really upset and it was hard to get anything done in the office. I avoid them at trade shows.

After that disaster, I was able to finally put my Computer Science degree to use, creating a point of sale system that isn’t very good but which my employees adore. It should be a foretaste of what I’m going to say about the state of game retail technology that it made more sense for me to spend hundreds of hours developing software for my one 1,700-square-foot store than to make someone else’s solution work.

Of course, almost nobody was in the fortunate situation I was in.

See, it’s my considered opinion that the entire tabletop game retail scene is propped up by Magic: The Gathering. That isn’t the impression you’d get from looking at pictures of game stores, or from talking to the owners at trade shows. They’re not talking about Magic. They’re talking about Third Place theory and board game nights and hand-selling the new hotness in the short space of time between it getting popular and it getting sold dollars over wholesale on Amazon. Some of these guys are seriously good at running game stores, but if you poke them in the chest long enough and listen to the little bits of information that slip through the cracks, you’ll learn or infer that the biggest category for most of them is Magic. It’s been Magic for years. Hundreds of people who call themselves board game store owners walk the halls of GAMA, hoping that nobody finds out that a pie chart of their sales categories look like a Pac-Man named Magic is about to devour the rest of their business model.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I want to make sure you understand that most of these people have to make Magic move through their cabinets, or they will have to go get real jobs.

If you want to make money in Magic, you probably have to deal in singles, which is a kind way of saying that you sling used cardboard for a living. If you want to deal in singles beyond the four walls of your store, you are almost required to deal with If you want to sell on TCGPlayer at any kind of scale, you have to have a way of making mass updates to your inventory. You can either manually enter this data on a regular basis (and give up on having unified cabinet/online inventory), or you need a point of sale system that integrates with TCGPlayer.

Do you want a point of sale system that integrates with TCGPlayer? You have to use Crystal Commerce.

TCGPlayer used to advertise that they offered integration with outside software, but now they tell you to just get a Crystal Commerce account. Nobody in retail is quite sure why this is. I figure that either they are under some sort of contractual agreement giving their existing partners exclusivity, there’s some deep-seated underlying dysfunction over at TCGPlayer, or they’re unwilling to go any further down the rabbit hole of crushingly-bad game store technology than they’ve already been dragged.

There’s at least one upstart competitor. He’s a friend of mine, and though he’s developed something that seems like it should do the job, TCGPlayer doesn’t return his calls. I don’t know his work well enough to know if it scales, but I know that he’s mentioned in threads daily on retailer discussion boards, and the repeated refrain from frustrated Crystal Commerce customers is, “I hate this, but until someone else integrates with TCGPlayer, I am stuck with Crystal Commerce.”

I believe that it speaks to the larger state of the industry:


Most retailers are stuck with a dumpster fire solution that has literally had days of downtime for even basic point-of-sale in the last six weeks. They despise it, but they can’t leave. The most promising alternative is from one guy coding in the back of his game store. He’s got pluck, and he’s doing good work, but he’s a small operation. There is no big software company looking to pick up the challenge and run with it, because there is not much money to be made there. I fear for my friend for the same reason that I refuse to sell my own POS solution to other stores: Precious few in our industry are making enough money to pay what a good solution is worth. An enterprise-level solution to this problem would cost six figures, but retailers will balk at a $199-a-month service package. Have a look at the support board for the existing solution, and ask yourself how much of that you’d be willing to put up with for the paltry amount that most retailers would be willing to spend.

Game retail is small because it’s mostly bad. It’s mostly bad in part because it’s got a shortage of well-developed process and technology. It’s got a shortage of well-developed process and technology because there’s no money. There’s no money because game retail is mostly bad.

Welcome to the Incompetence Trap. I don’t have a solution, but I admire the perfection of the problem.

Will somebody deliver us from this body of death? Will we escape the Incompetence Trap before the eventual end of Magic makes it a moot point? I don’t know, but while we wait to find out, there’s lots of great TV.