If you have lived your life as a geek for the past 15 years, then you should already be familiar with Neutral Grounds. For our uninitiated gaming brothers and sisters, Neutral Grounds is the largest chain of dedicated hobby gaming stores in the Philippines. 30lives recently interviewed Neutral Ground’s owner, Mr. Freddie Tan and he has graciously shared the history of the brand, the current state of analog gaming locally as well as other interesting tidbits about the community.
30lives: Good afternoon Freddie! We’d like to start firing the questions right away if you don’t mind. How did you start Neutral Grounds?
FT: When we started, I think I was married a year that time. My wife has a sort of hobby shop already and at that time I really wanted to play a certain game called Blood Bowl. It’s a football simulation in medieval setting and it’s made by Games Workshop. I told my wife, “Hey, [you should] bring the game here”. She told me, “Why don’t we just call the company and present ourselves as a distributor and tell them that we want to carry their game?”. So, that’s how it started. We got the game for distribution in the Philippines and we set up a new store called Neutral Grounds. We called the shop “Neutral Grounds” because Games Workshop makes fantasy war games and we wanted to say that the store is where all these [different] armies can meet, like on neutral territory. We set up Neutral Grounds as a separate store because the old one we had [sold] a mishmash of goods. It’s not just gaming but also had anime and other stuff, but it really wasn’t specifically branded for gaming. When we initially set up Neutral Grounds, it was just carrying Games Workshop products. After a year or so, we got approached by Wizards of the Coast (publisher) and asked if we wanted to carry Magic: The Gathering. It all followed from there: we got more product lines, signed up with more companies, so that’s basically how the company grew. It was just one small store, like 15 or 18 square meters in size…
30lives: Where was this?
FT: In Virra Mall, just one small store. The staff was only me and one more guy, Luigi. He just actually came back from Canada and he’s back with us in Neutral Grounds as our overall manager for retail. He started May this year. I told him, it’s like we went full circle because when the store started it was just us two in there.
30lives: What year did you start Neutral Grounds?
FT: The store first opened September 1998. We recently celebrated our 15th anniversary.
3olives: Do you have any promotions to celebrate your 15th year?
FT: We actually had a “Buy 3, Get the 3rd Item at 50% off” promo last September 2. In previous years, like last year, it was 14% off on all items, like to follow a theme. But this year, we just decided to do a 50% off promo.
30lives: During the past few years, TCGs and boardgames boomed locally and other hobby stores started popping up. How did you manage to stay relevant and ahead of everyone?
FT: I think what distinguishes us from other stores, first, is the variety of the items that we carry. I think compared to other stores, we carry more products than anybody else especially with the core games. I also like to believe that we’re very competent when we’re running events and that we set the standard. The standard we set is not something other stores can’t copy, in fact what happens usually is we do something and other stores follow suit. But it’s not something that makes us begrudge them, in fact we want them to copy what we’re doing. What we usually do is we experiment with stuff, like for example we were the first to run a Midnight Magic Pre-release. Before, we were just hearing stuff about midnight releases of computer games in the States and it’s something that’s not being done here in the Philippines. I guess the Midnight Pre-release is something that we did first. I’d have to credit DJ Paculio for the idea and now it’s not just us who are doing that particular event. There are other stores also doing these events now. We’re also setting the standards in running bigger events, and stores usually follow suit. I think we’re at the forefront for the new things that are being done for the hobby, even for promotional activities and other stuff. I think that’s what’s important.
We also try to make our stores the “third place”. Like the first place is the home, the second place is where you work, and the third place is like Cheers (TV series), like a place where everybody knows your name. I try to make it a point that we are the third place for the people that we serve. I think that’s what’s important, that’s why people keep coming back to our stores — to play, to buy, to talk with our staff. Before I used to be the one in the store but now I can’t, so whatever practices I had before I teach that to my staff. A lot of our customers, when they come in, my staff knows them on a first name basis. That’s the kind of environment that we want to have in the store.
30lives: Also, the community is also what makes them stay in the store. Since you get to meet a lot of new people to play with…
FT: Yeah, and they all become friends. We’ve seen people form lifelong friendships from just hanging around and playing in the store. Even in their weddings, the guests are mostly the people from the stores. It’s really interesting.
30lives: I think I saw you in Paul Mendoza’s baby Darcy’s baptism.
FT: Yeah. I’ve known Paul for a very long time. I got to know him when I was still spending a lot of time in the stores. Now of course, I don’t get to spend a lot of my personal time in one specific store since I go around. I don’t get to have a lot of personal connections with the customers but I hope that at least my staff and the other gamers in the store do. Like I said, it’s like Cheers: they go there and they just don’t know the bartender but everybody else in the bar. It’s just like the environment in Neutral Grounds, you go in [and] people greet you and ask if you want to play. “What deck do you have there? Hey, look I have a new board game, do you guys want to try it out?”. That’s the kind of environment that we try to develop. Not like an impersonal store where you just go in, make your purchase and go out. It’s not like that. Of course the first encounter might feel like that, but the more you come in, the more you get integrated into the community. We’re not just trying to sell you stuff and I always make it a point with my staff that we’re not just selling merchandise, we’re selling an experience. It’s the whole thing. The cards don’t really mean anything if you don’t do anything with it, just like a board game is just cardboard and plastic pieces, until you interact with somebody else and play the game. That’s the most important thing and that’s what I drill to the minds of my staff. You just don’t want to sell things, but the experience.
30lives: What is the most memorable experience you’ve had while running Neutral Grounds?
FT: Well, on the top of my mind is the fire in Virra Mall (laughs).
30lives: That’s memorable to everybody there (laughs).
FT: That really set me back by a lot. During that time, we were just starting and that was our original store. We only had one other store outside of Virra Mall, which is the one in Robinson’s. Virra Mall caught fire and we were just really down. Thankfully, we had help from our family and the community was really supportive so we were able to bounce back. If you really think about it, we’re actually a lot stronger now and I have to thank the community for where we are right now. Aside from that, I remember the first pre-release that we had for Magic: The Gathering because we were really worried about the number of people that would be coming in. We had about over 60 people join on the first pre-release. Now, when we count all the pre-release events in the Philippines, we have about close to 2,000 people playing so it really has gotten far. But you know what, the first pre-release — the 60 people who played, I know all of them by name and some of them I still see from time to time. Also during that time I was still allowed to play (laughs). Right now, I can’t play competitively and before I used to draft (a type of sanctioned play) a lot. Now if I play draft, I have to convince people not to sanction the game first (laughs). I guess what sticks to my mind are our struggles from the early days.
30lives: What is the current state of TCGs or CCGs? I actually don’t know the correct term, or if there are differences.
FT: Well, they’re actually both correct. I guess the term depends on what part of the hobby you’re looking at. Trading Card Games (TCG) involve trading while Collectible Card Games (CCG) involve collecting, so it’s both correct. Right now, it’s never been stronger. Year on year, it’s getting stronger. Ever since we’ve started carrying the products, we’ve never really seen a down trend. There were some years that were flat (no growth) but it has never dipped. Analog (unplugged) gaming as a hobby, even with all the electronic games out there or the online games, I guess people are still looking for games that connect them with another person right across the table. It’s still different. The interaction that you get from that, like for example in Magic, there’s Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO). But some people still prefer to play the paper game and I think there’s something that people look for in that type of game, like face to face interaction and stuff like that. I guess people are really social, they want to have contact with like-minded people who share the same interests and I think games like these give them an outlet for that. It’s not only TCGs that they have the same passion for, sometimes they like the same TV shows or anime. The games become an avenue to get together and once they play, they talk about all kinds of geekery. That’s what happens and I think that’s why it’s still strong and growing. I also have to thank the Philippine economy (laughs).
30lives: The call centers and BPOs.
FT: Yes. Students who are customers before have limited budgets. Right now, a lot of them have a bigger spending power. I see kids learning the games right now and playing, and eventually they will also grow up. So I think that’s also how it grows. Some of the older brothers give their old cards to their younger siblings, and they also teach them how to play. I think that’s also a reason. As long as we’re providing a positive experience for them to come back to the stores, I think there’s really no reason [for the community to die down].
30lives: So now, what are the most popular games or products that you carry?
FT: Number one is still Magic: The Gathering. When it comes to TCGs, it’s still the king of the hill, nothing even comes close. In miniatures, it’s Warhammer 40k. There’s also Cardfight!! Vanguard, also L5R (Legend of the Five Rings) which has also been there since MTG and it’s still very strong since it still has a big community. There’s also a growing Dust Tactics community in miniatures. Board games are also becoming really popular. It’s not something that’s going to be a big profit center for Neutral Grounds but it’s still something that we think is worthwhile. It’s a bit less hardcore as a game as gaming goes so it’s more mass market. It’s never going to be the same as a TCG where you have hardcore fans. The culture is a bit different even for TCG players, it’s a nice diversion. Sometimes TCGs can get really intense and a board game is a nice break from that. I also play a lot of board games, like at home I play with my kids. I think it’s a great introduction for people who aren’t into analog gaming, especially the lighter kinds of board games. I’m not talking about board games that take like 8 hours to play but the ones that you can play in 15 to 30 minutes.
30lives: What is the typical Neutral Grounds customer? What is the core demographic, or is there even something like that? Or is it really diverse?
FT: As far as the group is concerned, I think most are in high school until early 30s. That’s probably the main demographic age-wise. Of course, most of the players we get where TCGs are concerned are really men. Different games have different demographics, but I can safely say in TCGs about 95% are men. When it comes to board games, it becomes evenly distributed among men and women, but it’s still the men who are mostly in this kind of hobby. I’m seeing more girls getting into the hobby, unlike before during our first Magic: The Gathering Pre-release there wasn’t a female player.
30lives (Alex): Some are girlfriends who tagged along…
FT: Yeah, some are the girlfriends who were just waiting, or sometimes their boyfriends say, “You should go shopping [while waiting for me]”. But now I’m seeing more and more girls in this hobby where it’s now their boyfriends who are the ones that are not playing.
30lives: So it’s become reversed now.
FT: Yeah. It’s still a minority but it’s a growing segment of our market. It’s not something that we ignore. Of course, we’d like to see more of that. They just have to show up and they shouldn’t be intimidated. Even if they see like, “Wow, there are hundreds of guys here, I’m going to feel out-of-place”. No, these guys won’t make you feel out-of-place. In fact, we have a lot of regular girl gamers who hang out in the store, and the running joke is that they’re actually the ones bullying the guys.
30lives: I see Jewel in here sometimes.
FT: Yes. Jewel bullies a lot of the guys who play in the store (laughs). When Jewel gets mad, there should be no more talk. Nobody should say anything anymore.
30lives: I have a follow-up question to that. What do you think can entice girls to play the popular CCGs or games?
FT: What we’ve tried to do is we’ve had some articles before that highlight girl gamers who play TCGs. We’ve tried programs like giving free entrance fees to girls.
30lives: Wow. I didn’t know that (laughs).
FT: That was a long time ago and we found out that it didn’t work. We realized that if they were not willing to pay the entrance fee to begin with, they wouldn’t join anyway. That’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s not an economic issue. Giving them free entrance fees doesn’t really solve the problem. We’ve tried different programs but it’s really about getting people and letting them know, try it out, and it’s not really threatening. Making them feel safe. It’s a hobby that they can actually excel in. The usual statistic that I give, like in Magic: The Gathering, there’s maybe 3-5% who are girls who play it competitively or actively. However, in our judge pool, these are people who are very knowledgeable in the rules of MTG and actually took an exam to be certified, has 10% female judges and it’s in this area that they are overrepresented. It’s not something that girls cannot do. If they put their minds into it, they can excel and the judge pool actually shows that. We even have a girl who won a PTQ (Pro-Tour Qualifier), so she’s going to represent us in a Pro-Tour. There are girls who do really well in the hobby. And they are not, and don’t take it as politically incorrect, but they’re girly girls. They don’t act like guys. They’re very feminine [and] they don’t try to act like boys just because they’re in the same crowd. They act like girls, they like the hobby, and they excel at it. There’s really no barrier [and] if there’s one it’s probably psychological. If anything, if a guy loses to a girl, the guy is the one getting heckled. It’s just a jest, in good nature. It’s the same thing like if you lose to a kid. If I lose to a 12-year-old, I will get heckled but not because the kid does not have a right to win a game. In fact, there are also a lot of kids who also excel in CCGs, especially with Cardfight!! Vanguard which is targeted to the younger crowd. Adults actually get their asses handed to them by the kids. I also play with my kids but half the time I’m losing.
30lives (Alex): Maybe you just give them better cards (laughs).
FT: Maybe? Or maybe they played first? I don’t know (laughs). It’s not about age or gender, games are all mental. It’s strategic and doesn’t have a lot of physical elements. It’s really how you look at it and how you approach it. There’s no physical barriers for people to not get into it. We have one customer, a grandfather, he has his grandson playing with him. There are senior citizens who play the games we carry, at the same time 5 year olds who also play our card games. There’s really no age or gender restriction in this hobby and we’d really like to see more diversity.
Join us tomorrow for the second (and last) part of the interview.